NOTE: Common Ground News Service ran a version of this article on Feb. 15 titled Does the Pulpit Speak for Saudi Arabia?.
As American politician debate whether violent rhetoric contributed to the attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the slayings of six people, a similar debate is underway in Saudi Arabia.
There is a rising chorus among religious scholars demanding that imams put an end to supplications against non-Muslims. Supplications are petitions offered by a religious leader seeking Allah’s aid in a time of need.
It used to be that supplications were offered as an invective against specific individuals or groups that had wronged Islam or were perceived as an enemy of Islam. Supplications against non-Muslim faiths were off-limits and contrary to Islam.
However, following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Saudi imams during Friday jumah increasingly directed their anger to non-Muslims and singled out Jews and Christians for destruction. It wasn’t a conscious effort to demonize other faiths, but like in the United States, passions run high when the Muslim community is in danger. Things have gotten out of hand.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Fouzan Al Fouzan is the latest religious scholar to add his voice by asking imams to take a time-out. “These supplications are an aggression against non-Muslims,” Al-Fouzan, recently told the Jeddah-based English language newspaper Arab News. “This is against the spirit of Islam. The imams should instead pray to Allah to guide them toward the path of righteousness.”
There should be little argument that supplications against non-Muslims is haram and that all people should be treated equitably and with charity. But Saudi Arabia’s leading scholars also recognize that violent rhetoric is no longer contained in the local mosque. The image of the Kingdom is tarnished when exhortations of violence against entire groups of people is broadcast worldwide with today’s instant access to information.
King Abdullah is sensitive to Saudi Arabia’s image, but instead of simply hushing imams for their intemperate sermons, he has taken steps to reach out to other faiths. He met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, and in 2008 held a conference in Makkah to urge Muslim leaders to join Jews and Christians to speak with one voice. Also in 2008, he held an interfaith conference in Madrid. In a groundbreaking move for Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah reached out to Hindus and Buddhists.
In the same spirit, King Abdullah spearheaded the creation of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) that permitted men and women to work together in the classroom. Although the source of much debate in Saudi Arabia, KAUST served as an experiment in tolerance that after more than a year has proved a success.
The king secured the support of most Saudi imams and those imams who resisted were marginalized. In fact, the supplications against non-Muslims by a small minority of Saudi imams do not track with the Saudi government’s policy, and the teachings of Islam, of religious and cultural tolerance.
The inconsistency between the rhetoric of some imams and King Abdullah’s goals is perhaps best exemplified by the large numbers of Saudi university students attending Catholic, Methodist and Baptist universities in the United States. Even secular British universities with Christian principles ingrained on campus attract thousands of Saudi students. Saudis are attracted to these universities because of their superior academic programs, of course, but also because of the universities’ religious values that are not that different from Islam. Saudis are attracted to institutions in which God is the priority.
So how do I, as a Saudi, reconcile the King’s vision of tolerance and the Ministry of High Education’s willingness to send students to non-Muslim, but religious-based universities and the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sermons in neighborhood mosques?
To my ear, there is little difference between the intolerant sermons of a conservative, if not ignorant Muslim imam, and that of a Christian preacher in rural America. What is said from the pulpit, whether in Saudi Arabia or the United States, bears little relation to the goals of governments and what is in the hearts of common people. I no more look at the United States government as anti-Muslim as I do Saudi Arabia as anti-Christian.
American Christian and Jewish leaders are protected by the First Amendment. Imams in Saudi Arabia have no such protections. Saudi society usually governs Saudi behavior. Imams who refuse to follow Islam’s path of tolerance and fairness are feeling the pressure from Saudis to quit the trash talk. Those imams who point to Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of Christian transgressions, and therefore are right to issue invectives against an entire faith, have lost their way. Muslims leaders who complain the entire Muslim community is being held responsible for the murderous actions of a minority of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists should look inward as to whether it’s appropriate to apply the same standard to other faiths.
Al-Fouzan perhaps put it best: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to say he was not sent to people (with the message of Islam) as a preacher of curse but as a man of mercy.”