Connect to share and comment

House at war: Saudi's struggle to reclaim Islam

House of Saud's internal struggle to reclaim key tenets of Islamic faith from Al Qaeda.

The sun sets behind a minaret in the center of Riyadh March 1, 2008. (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ibrahim Al Maiman, a respected Muslim scholar, calls himself “a son” of Al Imam Muhammed bin Saud University, theological citadel of Saudi Arabia's ultraconservative version of Islam.

This makes Al Maiman singularly qualified for his new role in a crucial ideological struggle that is taking place in the kingdom and throughout the Muslim world. He is charged with organizing an international conference on the ancient Islamic practice of takfir. More than just another academic conference, it is part of a concerted effort by the House of Saud and top theologians here to reclaim core concepts of Islam that have been warped and misinterpreted by militants.

Simply put, takfir means declaring a fellow Muslim an apostate, or infidel, because of behavior deemed unIslamic.

In recent decades, extremist groups like Al Qaeda have used takfir — hijacked may be a better word — as the theological underpinning for their ideology and to justify murdering other Muslims.

Across the Middle East, they invoke takfir to kill and threaten women for not covering their hair, Iraqis for working with American occupiers, novelists for writing racy scenes, television executives for airing romantic soap operas and government officials for being part of what extremists call takfiri, or infidel, regimes.

“The danger of this ideology is greater now than it has ever been,” said Al Maiman on a recent rainy night in Riyadh. “It is the most dangerous because whoever adopts this ideology ... also believes that he has the duty of ... expressing it through acts. And they reach a stage where they pay [with] their own lives ... for this belief.”

Ibrahim Al Maiman, respected Muslim scholar. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

Seated in the royal reception hall of the university, where he is an assistant professor in Islamic law and jurisprudence, Al Maiman provided GlobalPost a rare interview. He wore a gold-trimmed formal vestment, and an uncut black beard to signify his devotion to emulating the Islamic prophet Muhammad. And he was passionate about what he sees as widespread abuse of takfir by extremists.

“Takfir in Islam is a principle that is governed by its own rules, and not open to the whims and judgments of people,” he said. “It is first and foremost a judicial sentence, and not just hearsay which people can talk about. ... Only Shariah courts can say and prove that one is an apostate.”

According to the "Encyclopaedia of the Quran," the entry on "Belief and Unbelief" suggested that the word “takfir” does not occur in the Muslim holy book. And takfir is condemned in the writings of the hadith, the narrations originating from the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. It appears the concept emerged through history and evolved in a cultural and political context to become an effective theological instrument for excluding someone from the Muslim community.

The conference that Al Maiman is organizing — to be held in September in Islam's holy city of Medina — is intended to reclaim the concept of takfir and restore it to its proper theological place, based on the best thinking of Islamic religious scholars from around the world.

Co-sponsored by the university, it will “find practical solutions” to the current “phenomenon” of takfir, which “hides under misleading masks, falsely attributing itself to Islam, emerging from religious extremism, and ending with bombing,” according to a conference brochure.

The forum is part of an ongoing, multi-faceted government campaign to discredit what its calls the “deviant” ideology of extremist groups.

Launched after a wave of terrorist bombings in the kingdom in 2003 and 2004, the effort also includes a prison rehabilitation program for detained Al Qaeda sympathizers and militants, some language revisions in religious textbooks, and a religious ruling, or fatwa, issued last month by the kingdom's top clerical body criminalizing financial support for terrorist groups. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's 2008 interfaith dialogue conference in Madrid was also part of this official reinforcement of Islam’s traditional moderation and tolerance.

The government’s decision to focus now on takfir is significant because — in a region where Islamically based concepts influence devout populations — takfir gives extremists a theologically sound way to justify attacks on governments and renounce the Sunni Islamic tradition that forbids rebellion against a ruler.