As Saudi Arabia embarks on Vision 2030, its comprehensive plan to confront oil dependence and meet the challenges of economic diversification and social change, there are signs that the leadership is opening space for much-needed religious debate. During the recent holy month of Ramadan, when religious talk shows enjoy popular viewership, one program took the Muslim world by storm. Sahwa (Awakening) was aired on Rotana Khalijia, a satellite channel that has been tolerated by the Saudi leadership, which is owned by Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal, who is widely considered as liberal. The nightly talk show featured the up-and-coming Austria-based Islamic scholar Adnan Ibrahim, and addressed a number of very contentious religious and sociopolitical issues. Reactions to the show animated Saudi media and social media, and prompted sharp reactions from traditional religious scholars and among Muslims in the kingdom and beyond.
Ramadan and Religious Programming
The holy month of Ramadan is accompanied by special television programming produced for the 30 days of fasting when evening and late night shows get wide viewership. Soap operas, comedies, and Islamic-themed talk shows are all a mainstay of Ramadan television. Of the religious talk shows in the Arabic TV landscape this year, one program produced in Saudi Arabia took the broader Muslim world by storm. Sahwa ranked as the highest trending religious show in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world, beating out programs featuring popular televangelists such as the Egyptian Amr Khaled, and the Saudi cleric Mohamed al-Arefe.
In the show Ibrahim tackled contentious issues such as sectarianism, jihad, takfir (excommunication), and the use of religion to advance political aims. Additionally, he discussed congregational prayer in the modern age, asserting that since it is not an obligation, religious police should not force the closing of businesses during prayer time. He also touched on some salient issues of concern to Saudi women such as women’s rights, allowing women to work and mix with men, and the wearing of veils. He even broached the taboo topic of atheism, blaming Salafi scholars and Islamists for its rise in the Muslim world. The show’s appeal reached beyond Saudi Arabia by addressing broader concerns regarding corruption in Muslim countries, the perceived lack of ethics in Muslim societies, the permissibility of music, the eschewal of philosophy in the Muslim world, the impact of social media for Muslims, and whether loyalty to the state is compatible with the Islamic concept of Ummah (the Muslim community).
The show left viewers polarized. While some poured scorn on Ibrahim deeming him to be a deviant Muslim, a disguised Shia, or even a renegade, others praised him, describing him as a great reformer, or the Martin Luther of Islam. The debate surrounding the show gained urgency over the course of the month due to violent acts, including attacks that targeted three cities in the kingdom and the murder by Saudi twins pledged to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant of their mother.
Understanding the Controversy Around Adnan Ibrahim
Ibrahim, a Palestinian, was born in 1966 in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza. He completed his pre-college education in Gaza schools before enrolling in a medical school in Yugoslavia, which he left due to the civil war, moving to Austria. His religious education encompassed both traditional and modern studies: He holds a Bachelor of Sharia from the University of Al Imam Al Ouzai in Beirut, and an MA and PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Vienna, where he currently works as a professor of philosophy. This dual Middle Eastern and Western education allows him to draw upon philosophy, history, and psychology. Yet unlike other scholars who resort to Western ideas to effect change in the Muslim world, Ibrahim buttresses his arguments with the very same sources that the Salafi scholars use to substantiate their strident views. An erudite scholar who put his medical career on the back burner, he serves as the head of the Convergence of Civilizations Society and the imam of its al-Shura mosque.
A competent and charismatic public speaker, his appeal is especially strong among younger generations yearning for change. Ibrahim takes full advantage of the failures of political Islam and the inability of traditional scholars to attend to the needs of the tech-savvy generations. He has a robust online presence, including a website updated daily, a Facebook account with 475,000 followers, and a Twitter account with over 261,000 followers. His YouTube channel has more than 220,000 subscribers and his videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers. As a religious scholar, he pushes for reinterpreting the Islamic scriptural texts to address the challenges Muslims encounter today. He is forceful in critiquing the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia and Islamists for their overly theoretical discourses and traditionalism. That is why his shows, including Sahwa, offer a marked shift in tackling current polemical issues.
The Reactions of the Salafi Saudi Scholars
Sahwa drew the ire of mainstream religious officials and independent clerics, perceiving a threat to their authority and livelihood. On June 22, the official Saudi religious community represented by the Council of Senior Scholars, presided over by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, used Twitter to warn the masses of “the fallacies” promulgated by Ibrahim, including insults to the Prophet Muhammad’s companions. The council called upon specialized scholars to refute Ibrahim’s views. Four days later, Ibrahim voiced his willingness to hold a televised debate with only “senior” scholars from the council so long as the debate was moderated by a neutral, competent anchor and broadcast live on a widely viewed neutral channel like Rotana or MBC.
The council’s tweet was met with backlash from both opponents and supporters of Ibrahim, who noted that the council focused more on personal attacks than substantive arguments on the issues. Many of Ibrahim’s supporters noted that the council scholars, who are quick to pinpoint the moderate nature of Islam whenever a terror attack takes place, appeared unable to tolerate a different point of view. The infamous anonymous insider Twitter account Mujtahid censured the council for placing all the blame on the doorsteps of Ibrahim while turning a blind eye to Rotana TV, which provided him with a platform to disseminate his views. Saudi cleric Mohamed al-Arefe tweeted strong criticism of the show but without clearly naming it. According to Arefe, the show casts doubts on the uprightness of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, the issue of the veil, and congregational prayer. He stated that these misconceptions should only be discussed in academic conferences and by specialists, and that airing them on satellite channels risks misleading laymen, minors, and other naive viewers. He added that they should be focusing on topics related to atrocities committed by Jews or Shia militias. The academic and the Muslim Scholars Association member Mohamed al-Barak went as far as declaring Ibrahim an apostate.
The council strangely disengaged itself from the conversation by calling on “specialized” scholars to refute what they called “Adnan Ibrahim’s fallacies” as if there is no one on the council capable of putting Ibrahim’s arguments to rest. This created an opportunity for other scholars to emerge and recruit more Twitter followers. Al-Sherif Hatem bin Aref al-Awni, a former Shura Council member not affiliated with the Council of Senior Scholars, expressed his willingness to debate Ibrahim. There is no information thus far about whether the debate will take place.
Implications for the Saudi National Transformation Program
Many foreign and Saudi analysts view the religious establishment and the conservative religious orthodoxy in the kingdom as a major obstacle to meeting the goals of Vision 2030. As the kingdom is on the cusp of a new era, Ibrahim’s Sahwa may serve as a precursor to broader religious reform. The lively Ramadan debate around the show suggests that the political leadership may now believe that permitting more public discussion about religious reform may work in its favor. Outside scholars such as Ibrahim can counterbalance the Salafi orthodoxy, and may in turn promote some new thinking to ease the way for the basic social transformation suggested in, and implicitly needed to implement, Vision 2030.