Mohammed bin Salman’s recent statements suggest that Saudi Arabia could move towards a post-Wahhabi era characterised by limited application of Sharia law and reform of the Saudi judicial system

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:25

At the end of April, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) gave an interview to the state-owned Rotana TV with the goal of assessing the situation five years after the launch of  “Vision2030”—a socio-economic development plan designed to diversify the economy of the country. Unexpectedly, after discussing the Kingdom’s economy, the projects that were already implemented, and those planned for the coming years, the crown prince dwelt on some religious aspects, in particular the role of Sharia law in the Saudi state.


After reiterating that the Constitution of the Kingdom is the Qur’an, as stipulated by Article 1 of the Basic Law promulgated in 1992 by King Fahd, MBS made some important clarifications about the Sunnah, which is the collection of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and deeds, to which Islam gives normative value. If in theory the Sunnah is the second source of law after the Qur’an, de facto it is the most important, because it is a guide to the interpretation of the Islamic Holy Book and above all because the Qur’an contains only a few legal provisions, contrary to what is commonly believed. By contrast, there are more than one million hadīths, most of which have legal implications. Jurists have always concentrated on distinguishing true traditions from false traditions, in order to derive the norms exclusively from the authentic Sunnah, a programme on which almost all Muslims agree in principle.


While in most Muslim countries Sharia law is no longer applied directly, even though it inspires the law in some states, MBS’s claims could have direct repercussions in the Saudi context, a kingdom which does not have any penal and civil code and where judges rule on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence with a high level of discretion in some contexts. In this regard, MBS specified that in the Kingdom “a punishment must be applied only in the presence of a clear Qur’anic stipulation or a mutawātir hadīth,” i.e., a saying of the Prophet of Islam, transmitted over the centuries through an uninterrupted and numerically significant chain of transmitters. As the prince explains, these hadīths are binding, unlike ahādī hadīths (i.e., transmitted by single narrators), which become binding only when they are corroborated by Qur’anic verse, and khabar hadīths (stories whose core is identical across different versions but that vary in their details and formulation), whose authenticity is doubtful and which therefore cannot be invoked as sources of law, even if they can be useful for personal edification.


What MBS refers to in this context is an ancient classification system in which the criterion for evaluating the authenticity of a hadīth is not the reliability of a single narrator, as in the compilation of the six Sunni canonical collections, but the number of people or groups who have handed it down. It is a kind of probabilistic criterion, one that was developed by the Hanafi School: the more a hadīth is widespread, the more it is based on truth, especially if the difficulties of communication among the different geographical regions in the premodern world are considered.


Juristic nuances? Not really. The effect of this epistemological change is remarkable: with the “probabilistic” criterion the number of traditions considered authentic and therefore normative is drastically reduced from several tens of thousands—the two most authoritative collections of hadīths (the Sahīh Muslim and Sahīh al-Bukhārī) include more than 7,500 sayings each—to a few tens or hundreds, depending on whether one considers only the hadīths transmitted verbatim or also those handed down using different words that have the same meaning. In general, most of the traditions considered to be mutawātir fall within the sphere of ritual practices, since they are sayings regulating prayer, purification, pilgrimage, jihad, burial, marriage and so on.


A Legal Reform?


Several types of punishment that are currently applied in Saudi Arabia lack any Qur’anic source and are not mentioned in any mutawātir hadīth. Let us take the case of adultery. The Qur’anic punishment for the unmarried adulterer and adulteress is one hundred lashes (Cor. 24:2), while married adulterers are stoned on the basis of a saying attributed to the Prophet and an alleged Qur’anic verse that jurists consider abrogated in the letter (and therefore absent from the Qur’an in the form in which it is read today by all Muslims), but still effective from a legal standpoint.


The principle mentioned by MBS would permit the abolition of stoning, since in the Sunnah this punishment is technically based on a saying ahādī and is therefore not binding. At this point, the problem of flogging remains. In the interview, the prince tries to solve it in a somewhat improbable way. He claims that Qur’anic norms must always be applied following the example of the Prophet. Concretely, this means that if the Qur’an clearly orders a punishment, but the Prophet did not apply it, the Qur’anic sanction falls. Starting from this assumption, according to the crown prince, the adulterous woman should not receive the punishment stipulated in the Qur’an by virtue of a saying of the Prophet according to which Muhammad spared an adulteress from punishment. But the hadīth mentioned by MBS is not among those that are mutawātir and therefore, according to the logic he himself introduced, it should not be considered. And above all, the ending of the saying (which the prince does not mention) tells us that the woman is stoned eventually after giving birth to the child she was carrying in her womb.


The crown prince therefore ends up contradicting himself. Actually, the ground on which he moves is very rough and slippery, and the situation is complicated by the fact that the classification of the hadīths claims to be an exact science but in fact it isn’t so. Indeed, Muslim jurists, exegetes, and theologians diverge widely on the classification of traditions, and this generates very different interpretations. There is no unanimous consensus among experts on the very issue of how many the mutawātir hadīths are. For Muhammad ‘Abduh, one of the fathers of Islamic reformism of the early twentieth century, the sayings mutawātir can be counted on the fingers of the hands, for the theologian and exegete al-Suyūtī (d. 1505) there were 113, while the Moroccan traditionalist and jurist al-Kattānī (d. 1927) counted 310 mutawātir hadīths.


The principle of the validity of the mutawātir hadīths alone could also reduce the punishment for the consumption of alcohol, which is currently sanctioned through flogging (40 or 80 lashes depending on the schools of law). Indeed, this punishment is based on a saying, which is not mutawātir, according to which Muhammad inflicted 40 lashes with two whips upon a man who had drunk wine. For its part, the Qur’an explicitly prohibits the consumption of wine—an “abomination of Satan’s doing” (5:90)—but does not establish a corporal punishment and postpones the sinner’s judgment for the afterlife.


The same applies to apostasy (ridda) for which the Qur’an doesn’t mention any earthly punishment, deferring it to the afterlife, but which today is punished with the death penalty on the basis of two sayings. These hadīths, which are classified not mutawātir, read: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him,” and “it is not permissible to spill the blood of a Muslim except in three instances: the married person who commits adultery, a life for a life, and the one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community.”

The issue of apostasy in Saudi Arabia had been raised previously in December 2017 by the Intellectual War Center of the Saudi Ministry of Defense and aimed at “combating the roots of extremism and terrorism and illustrating correct Islamic values and principles.” Adopting the interpretation proposed by many contemporary jurists, which equates apostasy with the crime of high treason, the Center specified in about twenty tweets that apostasy, understood as a formal renunciation of Islam, was to be punished only if it was comparable to a public act of secession or rebellion against the Islamic community. According to the Center, this clarification was intended to refute the jihadist interpretation of apostasy, which stipulates the killing of anyone who abandons Islam, but it ended up legitimizing MBS’s arrest campaigns against internal dissidents, who were accused of undermining the public order and dividing the community.


The decision to make the sayings mutawātir alone binding could also have repercussions on the ban, still in force, on the building of non-Islamic places of worship in Saudi Arabia. The hadīth on which this prohibition is based (“Two religions cannot coexist in the Arabian Peninsula”) does not seem to fall into the category of mutawātir. In recent years, this problem has been raised several times: in 2018 a delegation of American evangelicals met the crown prince to discuss the issue. On that occasion MBS agreed to ask his ulema to define the “Arabian Peninsula,” which reopened an old debate about whether this expression indicates the entire Saudi Kingdom or only the cities of Mecca and Medina.


In addition to the practical implications in the legal field, MBS’s statements question the very tenets of Wahhabism—the official doctrine of the Kingdom, which is based on the centrality of the Sunnah and on the systematic study of traditions; i.e. the hundreds of thousands of hadīths that the prince now says he wants to relegate to the background. During the interview, MBS relativises the Wahhabi heritage of the Kingdom by using the classic idolatry argument, which is central to Islam, against it: when asked whether he follows the school of thought of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, founding father of Wahhabism, MBS responds that “following a certain school or scholar means we are deifying human beings,” and he cites the freedom of each person to independently practice the ijtihād, i.e. the interpretation of Islamic sources. From this point of view, MBS is much closer to early twentieth-century reformists, such as Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida, than to Wahhabism. With the difference being, however, that the reformists also asked for greater popular participation in public space, which the prince, on the other hand, does not seem willing to concede.


Towards a post-Wahhabi State?


The prince’s statements suggest that a post-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia could be possible. A kingdom no less authoritarian than it is now, a state that will continue to repress dissidents, deny participation in the public space, and control the press, but where the Wahhabi religious establishment, which has played a fundamental role in the 250 year-history of the Saudi Kingdom, will be more and more confined to a side role or otherwise involved only to the extent that its intervention will support the prince’s objectives. Actually, this process had already begun in April 2016, when the Commission for the Promotion of Virtues and the Prevention of Vice—commonly referred to as the “religious police” and responsible for monitoring compliance with Sharia law in public and private places—had been deprived of many of the prerogatives it had enjoyed for decades.


Limiting the impact of hadīths on Saudi legislation is a preliminary act in the legal reform proposed by MBS a few months ago. Indeed, before giving this interview, the prince announced his intention to create a personal statute, a penal and a civil code that would limit the discretion of the judges and create conditions to attract foreign investments, which now seems to be a major concern for MBS. The historical moment in which the prince announced these reforms is also significant: a few months after the election of Joe Biden, for whom respect for human rights is a priority issue, and a year after the serious economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the collapse of oil prices—the country’s main source of income. The solution to these problems necessarily involves the structural reform of the Saudi system, which cannot ignore the religious dimension. These reforms are clearly functional to the prince’s projects, but if they are taken to the extreme they could mean an overall revision of Islamic doctrine and jurisprudence that would considerably weaken the role of hadīths. For the moment it is just an interview, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Future developments will confirm or deny it.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation