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Amid the Hubbub in Saudi, Something Potentially Transformative

 

So it’s been a busy few weeks in Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s consolidation of power has taken the traditional Middle Eastern form of arresting dissidents and rivals after checking in with the boss.

The dissidents presumably went to jail. The rivals are so far still alive, and being detained in a better class of accommodation at Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. Since their arrest was accompanied by a confiscation of assets valued at $33 billion (or even up to $1 trillion), one could argue that they’ve paid for it fair and square.

In other news in the kingdom, a missile fired from Yemen was intercepted over Riyadh, the possibility of listing Aramco stocks on the NY Stock Exchange was discussed (though that’s complicated), Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri displayed some virtuoso ironic sensibility by resigning in Riyadh because he felt Lebanon was being controlled by an(other)other country (Iran), and King Salman established a complex (named after himself) in Medina to sort out the Hadiths. (Or more properly, Ahadith.)

According to the Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Bin Saleh al-Awwad, a council of senior scholars will be established for the complex and will consist of prominent Hadith scholars in the world. They will, the UAE’s National tells us:

…look to “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders and terrorist acts”.

Why is this potentially such a big deal? Because the texts that they’re talking about potentially assessing as fake and eliminating are among the Ahadith. From wiki (emphasis added):

A hadith is one of various reports describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The term comes from the Arabic language and means a “report”, “account” or “narrative”. Unlike the Qur’an, which is the same literary work recognized by all Muslims, the ahadith are not one single same collection…

Among most hadithists, the importance of ahadith is secondary to Qur’an, since Islamic conflict of laws doctrine, in theory, holds Qur’anic supremacy above ahadith in developing Islamic jurisprudence. A minority of hadithists, however, have historically placed ahadith at a par with Qur’an, while others have even upheld ahadith that contradict the Qur’an, in practice thereby placing ahadith above Qur’an, and in some cases claiming contradicting ahadith abrogate those parts of the Qur’an with which those ahadith conflict.

The hadith literature is based on spoken reports that were in circulation in society after the death of Muhammad. Unlike the Qur’an the hadiths were not quickly and concisely compiled during and immediately after Muhammad’s life. Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections during the 8th and 9th centuries, generations after the death of Muhammad, after the end of the era of the “rightful” Rashidun Caliphate, over 1,000 km (620 mi) from where Muhammad lived.

Hadith are regarded by hadithists as important tools for understanding the Quran and commentaries (tafsir) written on it. Some important elements, which are today taken to be a long-held part of normative traditional Islamic practice and belief, for example, the detailed ritual practice of the five salat (obligatory Islamic prayers), are in fact not mentioned in the Qur’an at all, but are derived solely from the hadith.

Suffice it to say that the Hadith are a big deal, and have been pretty much frozen in content for centuries. There have been attempts or opinions to revise or refute them, but these have been either reactionary or unhappily fringe (Fatima Mernissi questioning the probity of Abu Bakr [flogged for lying] or Abu Hurayra [notorious blabbermouth] as sources).

This “revision” is nakedly political in motivation (which of them haven’t been?), but it sits at the heart of Muslim Orthodoxy, in Medina, under the auspices of the self-styled Guardians of the Holy Places.

The whole effort will without a doubt make Al Qaeda, etc. very cross. But its impact on the wider Muslim world, depending on the outcome of the effort (which I suspect is a little predetermined, given the mission statement) may be profound and salutary.

And while the Saudis aren’t going full Satanic Verses with this, if you start to think critically about one thing, it’s inevitable that you start thinking critically about a lot more. Which would be good.

Hopefully, most people will be too distracted by the vision of ladies driving to the mall to focus too much on this for a bit.

There are 57 comments.

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  1. Member

    Great post, Zafar. This could be a very big deal, not just for the Saudis, but for the world.

    • #1
    • November 7, 2017 at 9:53 pm
    • 13 likes
  2. Thatcher

    Wow, Zafar…Appreciate the context amid the headlines…Keep us up to speed, please and thanks?

    • #2
    • November 7, 2017 at 10:01 pm
    • 9 likes
  3. Member

    Wow, very interesting. And I’d heard of the Hadith, but never knew exactly what it meant. Interesting that you have the Hadith and we have the Apocrypha.

    • #3
    • November 7, 2017 at 10:15 pm
    • 10 likes
  4. Contributor

    Great post, Zafar! It will be fascinating to see how this moves forward.

    • #4
    • November 7, 2017 at 10:30 pm
    • 9 likes
  5. Member
    Zafar Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Wow, very interesting. And I’d heard of the Hadith, but never knew exactly what it meant. Interesting that you have the Hadith and we have the Apocrypha.

    I think the purpose of the exercise is to identify the apocrypha (or rather the pseudoepigrapha) and remove them from the generally accepted texts.

    Me, I think it’ll take some pretty creative detective work to disqualify people (the transmitters, who repeated what they heard) who lived so long ago, and about several of whom there’s a hagiographic tendency, but I wish the effort well.

    Edit: here’s a review of a book that talks about authenticating Hadiths, which goes over some of the approaches the author discusses and critiques. It’s an interesting introduction.

    • #5
    • November 7, 2017 at 10:38 pm
    • 11 likes
  6. Member

    Thanks for putting this up.

    • #6
    • November 7, 2017 at 10:54 pm
    • 5 likes
  7. Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Wow, very interesting. And I’d heard of the Hadith, but never knew exactly what it meant. Interesting that you have the Hadith and we have the Apocrypha.

    That was actually something that I was thinking. I was looking at it and comparing with the multitude of denominations and flavors of Christianity.

    Very interesting. Thank you, Zafar!

    • #7
    • November 7, 2017 at 11:01 pm
    • 6 likes
  8. Member

    Extremely interesting indeed — agreed with preceding comments, thank you for posting this.

    How might this play in the halls of Al Azhar?

    • #8
    • November 7, 2017 at 11:07 pm
    • 9 likes
  9. Member
    Zafar Post author

    Danny Alexander (View Comment):
    Extremely interesting indeed — agreed with preceding comments, thank you for posting this.

    How might this play in the halls of Al Azhar?

    I don’t know Danny. I think they’ll be on board, going by this, in fact I’d be surprised if scholars from Al Azhar weren’t employed as part of the process from the start. But everybody probably won’t be thrilled, especially the ones who aren’t invited.

    More broadly – right now oil prices are down and that diminishes Saudi cultural influence, but a few things to keep in mind:

    1. Saudi is still much richer than most other Muslim countries, and this matters wrt how they can spread their influence and officially approved ideology in places like India and Pakistan and Afghanistan;
    2. Oil prices will go up again (probably, if Indian demand keeps increasing), which will increase Saudi influence; and
    3. Saudi influence over the past few decades has been spent trying to get Muslim communities to behave in ways that at least 50% of the community (the women) are not too enthused about – all this (veiling, stopping ceremonies at the tombs of saints, no music! just blahness) has been like pushing water uphill. If this review of Hadiths works out well Saudi religious influence will finally (I hope) be working with human nature (and completely legitimate desires), not against them, and that’ll be a positive factor for their success.
    • #9
    • November 7, 2017 at 11:31 pm
    • 10 likes
  10. Thatcher

    The Saudis are looking to confiscate about $800 billion from the “corrupt” individuals that they have rounded up. That’s quite a war chest. In addition, if they successfully dial back support for the worst of the Wahhabist mosques, it could make a difference.

    • #10
    • November 8, 2017 at 5:27 am
    • 12 likes
  11. Member

    Thank you for these insights, Zafar!

    • #11
    • November 8, 2017 at 5:58 am
    • 6 likes
  12. Member

    Percival (View Comment):
    The Saudis are looking to confiscate about $800 billion from the “corrupt” individuals that they have rounded up. That’s quite a war chest. In addition, if they successfully dial back support for the worst of the Wahhabist mosques, it could make a difference.

    It will be interesting to see how this develops. I’m skeptical of the headline numbers. I can see little benefit to scaring ALL the elites into thinking their wealth is at risk.

    I expect there’s going to be a few select high profile scapegoats plus a lot of lesser folks who pay “restitution” or fines in return for public admissions of corrupt acts. There will also be some who are exonerated either because they are innocent or because they were duped.

    I think the extreme stuff we are hearing about confiscating tens of billions would require the government to execute and/or imprison those people.

    • #12
    • November 8, 2017 at 6:23 am
    • 4 likes
  13. Member

    How much influence will this have in the Shia branch of Islam?

    • #13
    • November 8, 2017 at 6:25 am
    • 5 likes
  14. Inactive

    This is a fascinating post, and a most interesting development. I wonder whether they will translate their findings into English, though?

    • #14
    • November 8, 2017 at 6:28 am
    • 2 likes
  15. Member

    Zafar (View Comment):
    If this review of Hadiths works out well Saudi religious influence will finally (I hope) be working with human nature (and completely legitimate desires), not against them, and that’ll be a positive factor for their success.

    You do realize that there are big disagreements over which human desires are legitimate and which are not, don’t you?

    • #15
    • November 8, 2017 at 6:30 am
    • 3 likes
  16. Member

    Viator (View Comment):
    How much influence will this have in the Shia branch of Islam?

    It will probably exacerbate the schism. If that’s possible.

    • #16
    • November 8, 2017 at 6:31 am
    • 4 likes
  17. Member

    This is a very big deal.

    While some have concerns about the legitimacy of the confiscation of a huge amount of wealth, and others have concerns about the detaining of two of the past king’s sons which is allegedly causing great turmoil in the Army, this reform of the Hadith could have a game changing monumental impact about how Islam deals with the rest of the world. This could be a very good thing.

    It should also be noted that this reform of the Hadith has happened as a backdrop where many of the most extreme Wahhabist clerics have also been detained lending credence that Prince Salman is very serious about bringing Islam into the modern world.

    • #17
    • November 8, 2017 at 8:08 am
    • 7 likes
  18. Member

    Unsk (View Comment):
    It should also be noted that this reform of the Hadith has happened while many of the most extreme Wahhabist clerics have also been detained leading credence that Prince Salman is very serious about bringing Islam into the modern world.

    He’s serious about bringing Islam under the influence of the state. Beyond that, who can guess.

    • #18
    • November 8, 2017 at 8:17 am
    • 6 likes
  19. Member

    Zafar: King Salman established a complex (named after himself) in Medina to sort out the Hadiths. (Or more properly, Ahadith.)

    I had not seen this news anywhere. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing it.

    • #19
    • November 8, 2017 at 9:38 am
    • 8 likes
  20. Member

    Can’t be written enough … great posting! Thanks.

    • #20
    • November 8, 2017 at 10:12 am
    • 3 likes
  21. Thatcher

    Zafar,

    Interesting post. Why don’t you do a regular update on Saudi Arabia for us. Now, before I put this video in my comment let me apologize to you in advance for this. I just couldn’t help myself. Sorry, Zaf.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #21
    • November 8, 2017 at 10:29 am
    • 3 likes
  22. Thatcher

    Zaf,

    I apologize for this one too. Sorry.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #22
    • November 8, 2017 at 10:35 am
    • 2 likes
  23. Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Interesting that you have the Hadith and we have the Apocrypha.

    This is not really an apt comparison. The apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books, are part of the canon of the Bible.

    • #23
    • November 8, 2017 at 11:35 am
    • 1 like
  24. Member

    Scott Wilmot (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Interesting that you have the Hadith and we have the Apocrypha.

    This is not really an apt comparison. The apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books, are part of the canon of the Bible.

    Well they are if you’re a Catholic. What you call deuterocanonical we call apocryphal. (I know you all think we’re going to hell haha)

    • #24
    • November 8, 2017 at 11:48 am
    • 5 likes
  25. Member

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Me, I think it’ll take some pretty creative detective work to disqualify people (the transmitters, who repeated what they heard) who lived so long ago, and about several of whom there’s a hagiographic tendency, but I wish the effort well.

    Wow. You mean there exists somewhere a community of scholars who will search solely for what can be authenticated as opposed to treating “truth” as a chimera to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency? I am indeed impressed. I worry that even with a solid, transparent scholarly process the results will simply be rejected and the old books still used. Still, it can’t hurt and may help along to the transformation which is devoutly to be wished.

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    Steve C.

    Unsk (View Comment):
    It should also be noted that this reform of the Hadith has happened while many of the most extreme Wahhabist clerics have also been detained leading credence that Prince Salman is very serious about bringing Islam into the modern world.

    He’s serious about bringing Islam under the influence of the state. Beyond that, who can guess.

    Seems likely. But then, maybe they are the same and “modern world” equals “nation states/corporations in charge of everything”?

    • #25
    • November 8, 2017 at 12:03 pm
    • 2 likes
  26. Member

    @rightangles, you need to learn why the antisemite Luther left those books out of his bespoke Bible.

    It’s not pretty.

    • #26
    • November 8, 2017 at 1:08 pm
    • 1 like
  27. Member

    Mark Wiesinger (View Comment):
    @rightangles, you need to learn why the antisemite Luther left those books out of his bespoke Bible.

    It’s not pretty.

    No thanks, I’ll pass. I’m getting enough of this sort of thing on Facebook lately.

    • #27
    • November 8, 2017 at 1:33 pm
    • 3 likes
  28. Member

    It should be pointed out here that any religion would be proud of having clergy like the anti-Hitler Lutherans Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller.

    • #28
    • November 8, 2017 at 1:39 pm
    • 7 likes
  29. Member
    Zafar Post author

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Viator (View Comment):
    How much influence will this have in the Shia branch of Islam?

    It will probably exacerbate the schism. If that’s possible.

    I doubt that it’ll be massive.

    Theologically speaking there is not that much difference, though in terms of religious organisation (ie how the temporal power of religion is allocated) there is. I could be wrong but I think there’s some overlap in the Hadith collections that some Sunni and Shi’a schools use.

    So I don’t think it’ll result in grand rapprochement between Saudi and Iran either.

    • #29
    • November 8, 2017 at 1:53 pm
    • 4 likes
  30. Member
    Zafar Post author

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Unsk (View Comment):
    It should also be noted that this reform of the Hadith has happened while many of the most extreme Wahhabist clerics have also been detained leading credence that Prince Salman is very serious about bringing Islam into the modern world.

    He’s serious about bringing Islam under the influence of the state. Beyond that, who can guess.

    It’s generally been entwined with the State, with State exigency determining the interpretation and practice of Islam.

    Right from the beginning.

    Islam (the clergy) determining the practice of the State (to the State’s detriment) is a modern anomaly.

    And MbS has some thing correct – in my grandmother’s generation it’s my understanding that women weren’t required to be fully veiled in Hejaz – that came later. (Though this just what I’ve heard. We have distant relatives who are settled in Jiddah, but no longer in touch.)

    • #30
    • November 8, 2017 at 2:00 pm
    • 4 likes
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