Once upon a time, Shaikh Salman al-Awdah was Saudi Arabia’s most vociferous voice calling for sharia as state law. A country that stones adulterers, beheads murders, and amputates the limbs of thieves was not sufficiently sharia-compliant for him. The U.S. forces stationed in the Gulf riled him.
Yesterday, I highlighted Shaikh Salman’s appeal among young Arabs today. As a liberal Muslim, I cannot agree with Shaikh Salman’s conservative stance on many issues, including women’s rights, or his claim that potential Egyptian presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei also demands sharia as state law, or tatbiq al sharia. But placed within his Saudi and Salafi context he is a relative moderate.
Moreover, when Egypt’s Salafis were slamming the Tahrir Square revolution as secular, Westernized, and haram or religiously forbidden, Shaikh Salman’s sincere support for the besieged protestors struck a chord with millions. See some of his responses in Arabic here.
In a recent popular television program, he asked instructive questions directed at Egypt’s rising Islamist radicals. Coming from Shaikh Salman, these questions have credibility and their answers undermine the certainty and rigidity of Salafi radicalism. The same questions, if asked by an Egyptian secular politician, would be considered heresy.
“What does sharia even mean?’’ Shaikh Salman asked. Given there are several schools of thought within sharia, he rightly asks, “Are we talking about implementing one particular school…or the opinion of one man, or a group of people?”
He gives examples from the life of the Prophet Mohamed and early Muslim history to illustrate that what people think of as sharia was abandoned even by that very first generation of Muslims because of changing circumstances. What then of our times? He asks, “What are the masses able to accept?…What will the people tolerate?”
Such thinking and questioning flies in the face of Islamist and Salafi extremists who claim that God’s will is sovereign and the masses must bear God’s commands—as interpreted by extremists—in the hope of heavenly reward in the next world. This way, they claim, Islam remains supreme.
Shaikh Salman does not stop there. He goes further.
Extremists repeatedly advocate that sharia is about ubudiyyah, slavery or worship of God. Shaikh Salman argues that the essence—or jawhar—of the sharia is freedom. He explicitly mentions freedoms of expression, electing governments, and criticism in public. In most Arab countries where such basic freedoms are denied daily, Shaikh Salman’s words have a particular resonance. Shaikh Salman strikes another blow against Salafi extremism by arguing that sharia, essentially, means freedom.
Finally, the extremist impulse is to gather power at the center, focused as much as possible on their desire for an all-powerful caliph. Again, Shaikh Salman rebuts such notions and calls for power to be divided between the executive, legislature, and judiciary in Egypt and elsewhere. For a man who has lived under centralized power in the form of Saudi kings, he knows only too well to what he refers.
Will Egypt’s Islamists and Salafis take heed? Or will they uncritically demand sharia as state law?