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A kingdom divided

How Sept. 11 led a preeminent scholar to challenge the House of Saud's teachings on Islam.

Mecca's Grand Mosque
A Muslim pilgrim prays outside Mecca's Grand Mosque, Nov. 15, 2009. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — On Sept. 11, 2001, Ahmed Bin Baz was on vacation in Paris, and as he watched the horrors in New York and Washington unfold on television, he felt “a huge shock” that resonated on a deeply spiritual level.

As details emerged of how 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi and that the plot was authored by another Saudi, Osama bin Laden, a host of religious assumptions that long had gone uncontested in the House of Saud were suddenly thrown into question for this Islamic intellectual.

“It created some sort of jolt in me,” said Bin Baz, leading him to conclude that “we had to rethink our ways ... rethink the roots of Islam and whether all what we read in books was true Islam.”

Not an easy thing to say when you are the son of Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, biggest star in the kingdom’s clerical firmament for a quarter century. As Grand Mufti, the late Bin Baz was the most prominent proponent of Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative strain of Salafi Islam, sometimes known as Wahhabism.

This is the second part of a GlobalPost series of reports that goes inside the House of Saud and its internal struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda. Read part 1.
Ahmed Bin Baz.
(Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

His son, 40, only recently began to emerge from his father’s shadow, becoming a controversial figure in the process — derided by many Saudis as far too liberal; admired by others for his unusual candor.

During a rare, extended interview with GlobalPost at his palatial home in this seaside city, Bin Baz pulled back the curtain on the fascinating and fateful struggle by the House of Saud and its moderate allies to regain control of Islam from extremists who have twisted the ancient faith into an anarchist creed to justify terror attacks on the United States in 2001 and in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

It is a struggle with repercussions far beyond Saudi Arabia because, as Islam’s birthplace, millions around the world seek its spiritual guidance.

Bin Baz is a player in this struggle, even though he holds no official position and does not claim the mantle of alim, or religious scholar. A former university lecturer in Islamic jurisprudence, which he first studied at his father’s feet, Bin Baz said he prefers to be known as an “independent thinker.”

In the interview, he faulted Saudi religious officials for resisting U.S. pressure in the wake of Sept. 11 to revise Saudi school curricula, even though, as he puts it, it “has always needed revision.”

While “some serious steps ... have been taken” to eliminate “‘seeds of terrorism” from the curricula, he added, “not enough” has been done.

He has called for nothing short of an ”academic intifida,” as he puts it, to renew Saudi Arabia’s approach to Islamic scholarship.

“We cannot agree to just be bound by Shariah principles set … hundreds of years ago and try to apply them nowadays,” he said, referring to Islamic law. “We must ... try to introduce new concepts that fit today's time and reality.”

The kingdom also needs to accept more diversity in Islamic thought, he said.

“Many new emerging voices from the Salafi school ... are calmly discussing and introducing new ideas,” he noted.

Though not yet widely accepted by Saudi society, these scholars have been “greatly influenced by globalization,” he said, and understand that “the idea of the rest of the world being all atheist and out to get us does not exist anymore.”

Bin Baz’s remarks — and their implicit criticism of the kingdom’s religious establishment — have been heard before from other Saudis, who often paid a high price, including imprisonment, for their frankness.

But given his pedigree, Bin Baz’s intellectual journey from the religious outlook of his father to his current perspective underscores the new fluidity and diversity in Saudi religious discourse, according to Riyadh sociologist Khalid Al Dakhil.

“He is part of this phenomenon ... which is that many people who started as being very religious, very conservative ... shifted because they started reading different materials than what they were fed during youth, when you’re supposed to read only