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.