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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.

Referring to unconfirmed media reports that there had been discussions about making takfir declarations by unauthorized persons a criminal offense, Al Maiman said “there should be a firm stand on this issue, especially when seeing the mess people are creating when issuing takfir fatwas. “The danger in takfir ... is that they take it to a new level of confrontation,” he added. “This should be restricted to the [clerical] community.”

But even within the clerical community, takfir is sometimes misused to condemn behavior that most Muslims do not see as wrong or that is not clearly banned by Islamic law.

For example, Abdulrahman Al Barrak, an elderly, conservative sheikh, recently declared that anyone permitting men and women to mingle in public places was an apostate and should be executed unless he recanted. This is an awkward ruling because the king himself inaugurated a co-ed university last fall. Al Barrak’s takfir fatwa got a mixed reception from fellow clerics. Some supported it; some criticized it.

Al Maiman’s insistence on the role of courts underscores how the battle to control takfir is part of a much larger struggle throughout contemporary Islam: Who has authority to speak for this global faith? Unlike most Christian denominations, Islam has no hierarchy or official clergy to issue definitive religious rulings. The best that can be hoped for on many controversial issues is consensus.

The upcoming conference, observed Commins, is “trying to reinforce the concept that to declare somebody as an unbeliever resides in a certain kind of authority ... based on deep religious learning that the Saudi religious establishment lays claims to. And they say that the trigger-happy takfiris are not expert in religious texts. So it really comes down to who has the authority to interpret these texts.”

Adds Hegghammer: “What this really is about is not takfir, but the privatization of takfir ... [and] the power to say what is right in Islam. It's just the latest in a 50-year-old or longer struggle over power between [clerics] and laymen.”

The September colloquium, also co-sponsored by an institute called the Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Prize for Sunnah and Contemporary Islamic Studies, will be hosted by King Abdullah and Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who also is second deputy prime minister.

Al Maiman said it “is representing Islam as a whole, not one group or country,” and that a call for papers brought in 450 offers, which are being winnowed to about 80 for official presentation.

“Thanks to God,” he said, “we have received overwhelming response from many nations, not just Islamic, but also other countries” including the United States, Europe and Australia. Participating scholars will include non-Muslims, he added.

A key question, of course, is how much influence such a conference will have on young men who are susceptible to the lure of militancy. Al Maiman said they have thought about that, and don’t want it to be “just a bunch of papers presented within a certain period of time.” So they also will have “an exhibit [on] the dangers of takfir,” books and a website “to start dialogue with youth.”

Al Maiman hopes the conference will improve relations between Muslims and others. “The world is now a small village [with] a need for Muslims to communicate with other nations. Therefore we need to show the good spirit of Islam,” he said. “Having such negative views affects Islam in a harmful way, especially in cases where one is thought to be a representative of Muslims and in reality he is not.”

A House at War is a GlobalPost special report composed of a series of articles to run this summer. Correspondent Caryle Murphy will look inside the House of Saud's fight to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda, and in some cases re-educate militants.