Saudi Arabia’s Moderate Islam: A Restrained Contribution? – Analysis


One of the fundamental contentions towards the moderation discourse is the attempt to define its meaning. Many Muslim societies seek to define moderation in Islam to fit their own social context. In the case of Saudi, its current moderation effort is tied to its socioeconomic developments. As such, it is not holistic as it exists within the constraints of the country’s political structure. It is also not theologically grounded – even though it rests upon Islamic values. Moderation in Islam requires theological yardsticks seeing as it is essentially a concept within religion. Hence, the contribution that these contextualised efforts make become inefficacious to the moderation discourse without theological grounds.

Recent news and reports on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) effort to requite the country from hard-line to “moderate Islam” raises questions to the moderation discourse of Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince acknowledged the intolerance that is taking place in his own society and has vowed to moderate their community’s religious discourse1. In his argument, Saudi Arabia was not a hard-line country in the past but only came to be as such in the last few decades, blaming the instances following 19792. He explains that previous Saudi leaders were not able to tackle the geopolitical events of that time and saw his country as being reactionary to them.

He also recognised that the ultraconservative ideas have become an obstacle for the country’s socioeconomic developments, especially in meeting the needs of its young generation. They face a future of high unemployment despite holding high education qualifications3. To address this, there is a need for Saudi to move away from oil dependency and diversify their economies. This means relying on non-oil or non-energy-based economy that is to open its country further to foreign investments and their presence in the country4. This is also part of Saudi’s Vision 2030 campaign that includes rigorous plans for the reformation of Saudi’s governance and socio-economic conditions.

Changes in domestic and religious policies

In an attempt by MBS to moderate Saudi’s Islamic discourse, the country’s domestic and religious policies experienced a reform. He stripped off the arresting powers from the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ and had its policing functions curbed5; he appointed more moderate clerics into the Council of Senior Scholars6; he allowed public assemblies such as music concerts and movie screenings7.

Also, he overturned an issue that has marred the country’s human rights reputation by the lifting of the ban on women driving8. These were previously significant markers of how ultraconservative Saudi was.

Still, these efforts are for the objective of liberalising and modernising the Saudis. This is in the hopes of opening up the nation and transforming Saudi Arabia into an international investment powerhouse, thereby creating a much more business-friendly environment which will attract large volumes of global capital9. A striking demonstration of this is particularly in the reimagination of the role of women portrayed in the marketing videos of Vision 2030’s megacity project, Neom10, where affluence and socialising are emphasised. Reforming the Saudis’ lifestyles becomes vital in synchronising the changes to both the religious and socioeconomic dynamics of the Saudi society.

It is through modifying Saudi’s domestic and religious policies from the standpoint of the religion that can allow MBS to change the nation’s stand against the ultraconservative ideas that have long been rooted in his society. This therefore becomes the motivation behind MBS’s efforts for moderating Islam in the country.

Saudi Moderate Islam: How Far?

The Crown Prince justifies these moves as a return to the Saudi Arabia in pre-1979 where he claimed it was more open and moderate. However, the ultraconservative ideas – often associated with Ibn Wahhab – have been rooted in Saudi society since the Wahhab-Saud pact that cemented the arrangement for Saudi Arabia’s political-religious leadership. This arrangement has been further preserved by Ibn Wahhab’s direct descendants – the Al-Shaykh family. Despite current changes in the domestic and religious policies, Saudi’s ultra-conservative character still stands strong especially in relation to law and order relating to those of other faiths.

Ultra-conservative practices such as the principle of male guardianship, describing Shia and Sufi Islam using derogatory terms in books, laws that defines atheists as terrorists, and advising Muslims not to associate with the “kafirs” – Jews and Christians – still persist11. A Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for 2016-2017 concluded that students as young as first grade in Saudi schools are being taught hate speech towards those of a different faith12.

These ultra-conservative and exclusivist views have been built upon the doctrinal beliefs of Wahhabi Islam. While non-violent in its origin, the doctrines have been made as a basis for conceptualising the specified ‘religious other’ as adversaries – thereby informing the formation of violent imperatives of terror groups such as IS and AQ. These doctrines have taken on a life of its own as anti-Shiite, anti-Iran and anti-West rhetoric are further added into the mix. Consequently, these have manifested into pseudo-religious practices of excommunication, justifying violence and encouraging bloodshed. Inadvertently, it was exported out of Saudi Arabia into various other Muslim nations where it has brought about the same outcomes of religious violence, intolerance and exclusivism13. It is from these that Saudi’s association with Wahhabi Islam has been taken to have played a part in the development of global jihadism and terrorism.

MBS sees this, and his most recent effort at rectifying the situation was to send out a strong message of Saudi’s position as a Western ally in the global counter-terrorism effort14. His moderation efforts thence represent his intention to not only change the mindset of his people towards modernizing and liberalising Saudi Arabia, but also to convince its global coalitions that Saudi no longer stands for the ultraconservative ideals that have had its role in fuelling radicalisation and jihadism. His moderation efforts have centred around the Islamic values of moderation, tolerance, excellence, discipline, equity, transparency, compassion, mercy and other positive communal values15 – values that are promoted strongly in the Islamic religious traditions. This is explicitly manifested in his effort to build a progressive and modern society, especially with the younger generation with his Vision 2030 campaigns. Yet, the question remains; how far can he take his moderation efforts to serve these goals?

Restraints in Saudi’s Moderate Islam

Saudi’s political structure stands as the first and most challenging factor for MBS’s moderation efforts. The kingdom was built upon the two pillars erected by the Wahhab-Saud pact: Al-Saud family taking charge of the political affairs, and Al-Shaykh family (of the Ibn Wahhab tradition) taking charge of religious affairs16. This system has been preserved for over 250 years, in which its own society has deeply internalized the politico-religious understanding that came out of the arrangement. Even when a Wahhabi cleric appeared on a Saudi television news programme to prohibit the killing of civilians and denounce Osama bin Laden’s legitimacy to call jihad in the 9/11 attacks, young men called the station and defied the Wahhabi cleric – arguing that the 9/11 attacks were part of a righteous jihad against the West17.

The Al-Shaykh has been regarded as the kingdom’s official religious guides, and they are known for keeping strictly within the boundaries of Ibn Wahhab’s ideas. Despite MBS efforts, the Al-Shaykh remains rigid on significant issues and continue to exercise their power in the kingdom’s religious policy-making. As an example, the most recent banning of pilgrims to visit the Cave of Hira’ reflected the continuation of an ultraconservative stance as it was determined that such activities are likely to amount to heresy18. This example shows how unlikely it is for MBS to go far in his moderation efforts as the Al-Shaykh – a strong second pillar of the nation – continue to act as a bulwark for the country’s domestic ultraconservative religious policies.

The kingdom’s nationalist identity also includes its religious character that has been rooted in the Wahhabi understanding of Islam. Their foreign policies have reflected this. The oil boom of the 1970s coupled with the political rivalries of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran led to the widespread of Saudi-funded building of mosques and religious engagements all around the world, which was seen as an attempt to spread the Wahhabi doctrine19. Doing so ensured that the Saudis maintained their position as the religious epicentre of the Middle East, and the main reference of global Islam. The effects of this are still felt today. For example, the Saudis had received a 99-year rent-free lease of the Grand Mosque in Brussels in exchange for cheaper oil prices to Belgium. This included allowing Saudi-backed imams to serve the Muslim community in Brussels. However, the mosque had its Saudi-backed imams retracted for preaching the Wahhabi branch of Islam which were leading to the spread of radical ideas. In line with his moderation efforts, MBS has reacted accommodatingly to the decision made by Brussels20. Still, Wahhabi schools and preachers have already been established across the world, which have similarly raised concerns of the spread of radical ideas through the preaching of Salafism in the guise of Wahhabi Islam.

Yet, even with a change in Saudi’s foreign policies, the geopolitical developments of the region will still push Saudi Arabia into a corner. Saudi Arabia’s ongoing involvement in the war in Yemen is highly indicative of the political motivations that Saudi holds in keeping itself as a religious superpower within the region. This has been demonstrated on multiple accounts – the Meccan siege, the rise of Ikhwanul Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood), the global spread of jihadism, the Syrian Civil War and most recently, the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen.

These instances have shown Saudi’s tendency to assert its identity as both a political and religious superpower, which involves them asserting their own character and brand of Islam to strengthen their assertion. It is therefore difficult to expect a radical change in Saudi’s foreign policies or the way in which Saudi sees itself on the global stage. It is undeniable that the ultraconservative ideas of Wahhabi Islam do hold value to the assertion of Saudi Arabia as a religious superpower on the global stage. While it is worthy to note that the Saudis are responding more liberally to the most recent geopolitical development – the Arab Spring – it is still focusing on changes in the domestic sphere rather than on the international level.

It is in facing these three main challenges that MBS’s efforts at promoting ‘moderate’ Islam will not be able to go far, at least for now. The limitations that Saudi was structurally built upon will hinder MBS’s attempt to ‘moderate’ the Saudi Islam. Saudi’s moderation of Islam is therefore not a holistic concept even though it was guided by Islamic principles. While MBS’s efforts are motivated by political and socioeconomic objectives, its contribution to the moderation discourse is lacking. Its shortcomings can be partly attributed to the lack of participation by moderate religious scholars in developing the idea, seeing as the religious sphere of the country is dominated by the ultraconservative scholars of the Al-Shaykh.

Moderating Islam: Other Efforts

Saudi Arabia is not the only country attempting to ‘moderate’ Islam. There have been efforts put forth by Muslim communities around the world to ‘moderate’ Islam, by refining the understanding of Islam to fit the current contextual living of Muslims today. Some efforts are regional, while some are community-specific.

The largest effort was the Amman Declaration that involved 552 signatures from 84 countries21. Though it was not labelled as an effort in ‘moderating Islam’, it offered three points that demonstrated its form of moderate Islam: 1) acceptance of various prominent jurisprudential and theological school of thoughts including from Shiite, Ibadi and Thahiri, rendering it impermissible to declare them as apostates or to endanger their blood, honour and property – by extension, it is also impermissible to declare any other group who declares themselves as Muslim and believes in God. 2) Showing acknowledgement that the commonality between the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence is strong, and the differences are only with regards to ancillary issues, to which the Amman Declaration sees it as a mercy; 3) Emphasising the need for an individual to meet the various personal qualifications required by each Islamic school of thought and adhere to the methodology of the schools before being able to issue a fatwa (religious edict)22.

The second prominent effort, “The Open Letter to Baghdadi” – albeit regarded as a counter-ideology effort – contributes to the moderation effort for its presentation of the religion’s moderate stance vis-à-vis the ultraconservative and violent readings by the terror group, ISIS, led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The Open Letter establishes 24 religious stances across various issues23 – slavery, women’s rights, Shari’ah matters, and more – which were aimed at representing the brand of Islam that is truer to its essence; unlike the manipulated pseudo-Islam concocted by the group. Thus, it was in this way that the effort also demonstrated another form that represents moderate Islam. Although different from the Amman Declaration, both efforts hold on to the same values of tolerance, inclusivism and an aversion to hate speech and religious bigotry.

A more recent effort to ‘moderate’ Islam is the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016, where it was focused on ensuring the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim-majority countries. This declaration resonated the values imbued within the Medinan Charter declared by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself. It called for a review of any materials or education curricula that instigates aggression and extremism. It also encouraged ground-up and top-down means of ensuring just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and recollecting the centuries-worth of joint living on the same land to restore mutual trust across different religious communities24.

Most importantly, the declaration affirms as unconscionable to employ religion for aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries25. These similarly represent the values held by the Amman Declaration and the Open Letter to Baghdadi, thereby demonstrating a strengthened form of the concept of moderate Islam.

In terms of country efforts, Malaysia’s moderation effort has been met with resistance from hardliners who hold political power. Malaysia’s challenge is in the growing conservatism within the population that is enabled by the authoritarian approach of the government on issues of religion26. The effort of the G25 – a group of high-ranking former civil servants and diplomats – to publish a book promoting moderate Islam was banned by the government. The book “Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy” was written to counter intolerance backed by religion. Yet, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi signed on the ban on the reason of it being “likely to be prejudicial to public order” and “likely to alarm public opinion”27. Hence, this ground-up moderation effort became restrained.

For the case of Singapore, moderation efforts have come in both top-down and ground-up approaches since 200528. The Muslim community within Singapore – particularly the religious scholars – have continued to develop academic literature on the development of the moderate Islam concept. Through book publications, public education, academic conferences and forums, the concept of moderate Islam being developed is particular to promoting inclusivist views that emphasise the nation’s history of community living that brought to the growth of the nation29. Additionally, the Singaporean government has had multiple crack downs on religious preachers deemed to spread exclusivist and intolerant messages30. Mr Ismail Menk of Zimbabwe, Mr Haslin Baharim of Malaysia and Mr Yusuf Estes have been banned from preaching in Singapore for holding views that threaten the multi-religious fabric of the Singaporean society. In this way, the moderation effort in Singapore parallels the effort of the Marrakesh Declaration, where there is a strong focus of the role of the Muslim community within a plural state.

It is hence worthy to note that coalition efforts stand a better chance at developing a holistic concept of moderation in Islam, whereas country efforts tend to be tied to its own society’s characteristics. The moderation concept produced by country efforts tend to exist within the country’s political and socioeconomic limitations instead. Despite the different forms of moderating Islam, all these efforts share similar values; reiterating Islam’s emphasis – not limited to – on peace, tolerance, compassion and mercy while rejecting bigotry, hate speech and violence be it towards other communities or towards Muslim themselves.


In all, the concept of ‘Moderation in Islam’ varies from one to another, depending on the constraints that the country has. In the case of Saudi, its efforts in defining moderate Islam is dependent on its political structure and socioeconomic demands. As much as Saudi strives to claim that it is promoting a global brand of ‘moderate Islam’, this concept is tied down by its socioeconomic motivations. Thus, it is not sufficient to comprehend Saudi’s definition of moderate Islam as the all-embracing depiction of the concept that the moderation discourse hopes for. However, it can be said that all the moderation efforts may hold similar values, although not in the same form.

While the concept of moderate Islam is being developed, the effort to ‘moderate’ Islam vis-à-vis ultraconservative ideas will continue to face the persisting challenge of hard-lined doctrines and laws. With all these constraints, MBS has to work within them and try to negotiate with the Al-Shaykh for the refining of their country’s religious edicts, rulings and doctrines. These include the doctrine of al-wala’ wal bara’, blasphemy laws, hudud laws and hate rhetoric. This will be a tall order as the task is further compounded by the ongoing issue of sectarianism and inter- and intra-religious conflict. While some of these challenges are unsettling due to geo-political reasons, some are not insurmountable and can be moderated through creative and contextual interpretations – as seen from the other efforts discussed in trying to develop moderate Islam.

*About the authors:
Syed Huzaifah Bin Othman Alkaff
and NurulHuda Binte Yussof are Analysts at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
*Syed Huzaifah Bin Othman Alkaff


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