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The Battle For The Soul Of Islam: Will The Real Reformer Of The Faith Stand Up?

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The Battle For The Soul Of Islam: Will The Real Reformer Of The Faith Stand Up?

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Written by James M. Dorsey

Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

A podcast version of this story is available on  Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.


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Adolf Hitler

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there are two mayor sects in islam so you cant point at only one sects failures and claim that islam has a problem of its soul or faith because despite our failures i being a shia doesnt see us as having such problems neither do we have problems to deal with such issues and if the other sects fails that isnt a failure for islam still because we can pick up where they failed and fix it all still

Last edited 1 month ago by farbat

Stop being foolish like stupid afghani. Nobody wants to be associated with Islam unless yous jahel. Get real or I’ll smack you in front of everyone! Tokhme sag……shut up already before I lose it.


Ahson the coconut. pretending to be an “enlightened” European


You need to be deported back to your shit-hole in Pakistan. We don’t want you in the west. Yous a dirty wahabbi cockroach. Get the fuck out of the UK and don’t forget to take your nigger family with you. Get out jihadi.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ahson
jens holm

Why is focus there at all.

Most muslisms not even live there and in most things in islam only are majorities in museums and the oldest mosques.

Its less and less a surprice those people in the Levant apart from Saudi and Israel did not liberate themself making better structures.

And louck was there too and still is. People suddenlyu would pay for oil, which before that hardly was used for lamps.

And You are many more then You ever was even so many are killed. You only use those money to try to feed even mpre children. Well many do.

This is not about wahabit women can drive cars or not. The main problem is the non devellopments in the rest of the mulim world, whrere You live and You wash hands by excuses telling those in Saudi and UAE are having a bad life.

I can compare. Even the poorest one there has better living conditions then You. Its abolut the same for the poor in USA. They are less poor then You and the dollar is still not collapsed – And You still deny to understand why and not even has a language for it.

Too many blindfolding outdated Harams, thats what it is.


This guy farbat lives in Germany as a refugee and talks up Islam here and on Sputnik. I’m seriously getting tired of his hypocrisy! People in Iran don’t want to spit on islam even and here him and a few other Iranians try to play the migrant Ayatollahs on refugee status.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ahson

you are useless and nothing but hypocrite. what do you know about islam history. First go and please your white supermist shit. or go to iran by yourself and learn something inside the country before spitting shit from your mouth.

jens holm

You dont have patents for what Islam is and not. Telling people has no knowledge about whats going on in iran makes no sense at all. we do..thats why we dont like parts of it at all.

Many things also are live by webcams and mobile phones as well. Even often censured, we know a lot if we care. mnay dont casre half a Bactriean Turkish tourist camel about it.


hey fuk you. Unlike you I’m Iranian. Yous a hendu-pak no?…….don’t fukkin lie to me or I’ll beat you to death here in front of everyone.


You a full on coconut. Brown on the outside , White on the inside ‘cos you speak better engliosh than 99% iranians. You still a persian fireworshipper. Happy Nowruz firepig


You need to be deported and forced to go live in your jihadi muzlim shit-hole of Pakistan. You ready motherfucker? Or you want me to come down there?

jens holm

Well my kind of message and hope is, that muslims look at themself and the world they live in. Some vital reforms are needed.

Even the most used Sharia is more then 100 years old.

Im no Christian and more like a non beliver, but the Christian world can devellop fort people living there, because more parts has become much more sekular.

We could go back in hard bad old days as well. The Bible and the scrips can be changed back to old days here as well. But we have chosen some kind of flexibility where hristianity is more a tool then handcuffings for all.

Well, we have Our problems too. We sometimes makes a Hitler or a Stalin instead but I as an example see most of the muslim world being unproductive compared to the population growth.

And I hardly ever see people reflect in people leaving for USA, Europe and Australia prefaring to live among Christians and infidels. It makes no sense. Most people kind of choose or prefare to live with people having the same kind of life´as themself.

Half of those people dont integrate at all. But they are having a life paid by the ones, which they dont respekt and dislike. I would prefere they reformed religion as well as the rest in their own context, where they come from.

The refugee convention is outdated. It was made to make some sense after WW2(and partly WW1). Thats 75 years ago and was some very good repair tool only. In now only want people into my country, which we ask for and some few refugees, which has no country at all living in refugee camps.

Only muslims can change their parts of the world. They should instead of blaming us incl. jews. Numbr one should be cleaning Your own house, if you have one.

Chris Gr

Yes you are right except for secularism.


Jensi, Mohammad’s teacher was a Persian man by the name of Salman Farsi. He was a Zoroastrian priest defrocked and sent into exile by the Persian Magi clerics of the Sassanian Magi high priesthood (Dastur Bozorg’s). It was he who created Islam out of sheer spite for Zoroastrian supremacy and priesthood’s rigidity. He was a deviant and was thrown out for dissent, lack of respect for Zoroastrianism, challenging/ combative character and cavalier attitude. It’s our bad luck we ended up with this problem because of one of our own! Fukkin imagine that man, he did this to us!…….Faaaaarrkkk! In the recorded 3000 years of fairly recent history, we never went down to mecca or medina to hang with those niggers. We left em alone……..but one of our own betrayed us. He laid the foundation of our downfall.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ahson

Spot ON! I knew you were a Fire Worshipper ! Thank you for at least being honest and “comin out” – see 80% Iranians identify with their Fire worshipping roots – just like “thinks he’s White” Ahson here – but hypocritically condemns religion. Fireworshipping zoroastrianism is a religion too, AhrseHole


I pulled down the pants of your made up religion no?…..lol…..how does it feel now?…..lol…..feel bad now motherfucker dalit? There is only one way out for yous hendu-pak…….and that is reversion back to your lower caste hendu roots. Nothing else! With both Russia/ China devilishly hateful of Islam……..and the wahabbi camel jockey niggers indifferent and under colonization of the west…….that leaves the door wide open for us to revert yous……Sit back and enjoy the ride…..lol

Last edited 1 month ago by Ahson

Majority of prophets were uncircumcised. The prophet Muhammad hated cicumcission even he had never liked to circumcise himself. The prophet Muhammad was kind with children, women, prisoners (slaves), birds and animals. He never interfered in people’s personal matters. That is why Islam spread rapidly due to his kindness. I love the prophet Muhammad.


Sharia law is a fake Islamic law which does not exist in the Quran. In the Quran it is also mentioned that many prophets lived with women without marriages, even some for one night stands.


Dont spit shit from your mouth without having proper knowledge. get educated. or go and leek those fake prophet of yours back. illetrette human

jens holm

Its a kind of not. Its made as an easy version of the scripts after some meeting by the most clever muslim Imams in Cairoi, Akexandria or sonething.

Seveal was made but mainy only one is used. But by that it also can be used as You prefare.

Sure. the voman thing is used today as well. You can be married but far df¨from home You might have sone well paid konkubine.

I allow me to add, thats discrimination of the worst kind. Women dont have the right to have more then one man.

But You are right. men are raised as wild animals. By that they are the the ones, which cant control themself and women cant be safe in the streets and among men.

Even so, the women are blamed for that wild attitude and many men in west are named as “FEMINIZED” because we men here rape less as well as incest seemes lower as well.

PROPHETS mainly are defined for how they were killed and their faith. The single version is meant as a try to make a more independent priest, mullah, imam.


Those regimes that impose fake Sharia law are terrorists.

jens holm

There are no fake Sharias. You can bend it and still keep the name. Naming it as terrorisme makes no sense.


I have studied the Quran. Sharia law is a conspiracy against Islam. It is a fake Islamic law which does not exist in the Quran. Allah and his prophets have given freedom to men and women both to work and enjoy your lives. This whole universe is yours.


BS , You don’t know what the sharia law even is .

” Sharia is a religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition . It is derived from the religious precepts of Islam , particularly the Quran and the hadith “

jens holm

i see no conspirasy at all. The sharia is a very good try to unite muslims.

You should recall how islam is organized. It decnetralized but also need structure.

the contrasts are made by the Ortodioxe ones in Islam, Christianity and also for some of the jews.

Here some people insist in having a top leadership and they organize and decide. Popes and Ayatollahs are like that.

Here we are protestants because we protested agains that top leadership 500 yars ago. danish in the churches and hardly no latin and greek. Christians here also are locval elected ones, but they decide less then popes.

Brother Ma

So where did Expatriate Christian “Westerners” pray in Saudi Arabia? Did they not have churches? Who gave them Last Rights or funerals?

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