The Collision of Islam & Modernization in Saudi Arabia

Skyline view of Makkah al-Mukarramah complex.

How western imperialism and influence gave rise to militant Islamic political ideology.

Saudi Arabia: The Cradle of Islam
The introduction of Islam to the family-structured society of Saudi Ara­bia in the early seventh century is the single most important event in the evolution of Saudi culture. It brought a highly interconnected set of moral and social values that saturate the culture to this day. More than just a religion, Islam is all-encompassing and vast in scope. It teaches that all things ani­mate and inanimate are God’s creation, and all are under God’s dominion. This belief is so central and so intensely ingrained in Saudi Arabia that it can­not be calculated by simply observing expressions of behavior, whether pious or irreverent.

It is almost impossible to overemphasize the impact of Islam on the culture and customs of the people. Saudi Ara­bia is the cradle of Islam, initially brought to the people of the Hijaz region by the Prophet Muhammad in the year 610 A.D. The Prophet was born in Makkah around 570 A.D., a member of the clan of Bani Hashim of the Quraysh tribe. Until he answered the call to be the Messenger of God, he was a successful businessman in the caravan trade. He died in 632 A.D.

Islam is all-embracing in its scope; there is no division between secular and sacred or between church and state. The word Islam is derived from the Arabic root word for submission or peace. Muslims believe that all who submit to the will of God are at peace with themselves and their neighbors. For those who grow up in the faith, accepting the all-embracing nature of Islam is second nature. For the outsider, particularly those of a different faith and cul­ture, it can be confusing. In an attempt to lessen that confusion, the following discussion will be broken down into different expressions of Islam. However, one should keep in mind that to the believer, the distinctions are personal in that Islam is a flawless revelation of God.

Islam as Religion
Although there is a considerable body of study relating to theological questions, the theology of Islam is actually quite simple. It can be summed up in the first of the Five Pillars of Faith, the Profession of Faith (Shahada) , which states, “There is no god but the one God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” The doctrine of the oneness of God, called Tawhid from the Arabic root meaning “one,” is the basic theological tenet of the Islamic religion. All one needs to do to become a Muslim is to recite the Shahada once in one’s life and believe in it. The other four pillars, or mandatory practices of Islam, are Salat, the ritual prayers five times a day facing the Ka’bah inside the Haram Mosque in Makkah, alms giving; Sawm, fasting from sunup to sundown during the Muslim lunar month of Ramadan; and the Hajj, or Great Pilgrimage to Makkah during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, required once in a lifetime for all believers who are physically and financially able to make the journey.


Non-Muslim Bypass: Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Makkah. Road blocks are stationed along roads leading to the city, with officials conducting occasional random checks to confirm that intending visitors are legitimate pilgrims and in possession of the required documentation.


At least once in his or her lifetime, each Muslim is expected to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred city of Islam. This holy journey is called the hajj in Arabic. While a visit to Mecca is beneficial any time of the year, it must take place during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.



The hajj is commanded in the Qur’an – “And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto God for mankind, for him who can find the way thither” (3:97). The Prophet Muhammad established its rites.

Islam as Divine Law

Islam is essentially a legal system, considered by all believers to be divine law revealed by God through the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic law is called the Shari’a (literally meaning the Pathway), and the sources of the law are the Qur’an (Koran), the Sunna (Traditions), consensus of the Muslim community (ijma’), and by reasoned analogy (qiyas) from the Qur’an and Sunna by recognized Islamic scholars.

The Qur’an, however, is not a law book per se, but a statement about God’s will for humanity. Although it contains some legal prescriptions, it basically “provides moral and ethical guidance and values that human beings are supposed to apply in their personal and public lives, individually and communally.” The Sunna consists of divinely inspired sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and the early converts to Islam. They were complied after his death. The citations are known singly and collectively as Hadith and are practical advice for submitting to God’s will. The inclusion of consensus is a reasoned deduction based on Hadith that states that God would not permit His people universally to be in error over the law.

In contrast to Western law that divides human acts into two categories, licit and illicit, Islamic law contains five categories: (1) fardh or wajib: acts that are obligatory; (2) mandub: acts that are commendable; (3) ja’iz or mubah: acts about which the law is indifferent (e.g., there is no specific reference) and may therefore be permissible; (4) makruh: acts that are objectionable; and (5) haram: acts that are forbidden. These categories are binding on all believers, whether or not they are enforced by the state, and are as important in Saudi Society as in Saudi Government & Politics.

Islam as Political Ideology
In the period before Islam Uahiliyyah), Arabia was rife with tribal warfare cities or towns against their rivals, tribe against tribe, Adnani tribal confedera­tions against Qahtani confederations, and so on. When Islam was introduced in seventh-century Arabia, it proclaimed a revolutionary kind of doctrine, the brotherhood of mankind under the sovereignty of God. The central theme of Islam is God’s universal dominion over all humankind, regardless of ethnic or tribal identity. This implicit equality of all people under God’s law harmonized with the egalitarian nature of Arabian tribal society and was reflected in the consensual style of government in Makkah and al-Madinah of that day.


Map illustrates the thirteen regional provinces of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and bordering countries.
Click map to enlarge.

The classical Islamic world view is bipolar-dividing it into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam), which consists of those who submit to God’s law (Muslims), and Daral-Harh (the Abode of War), which are those who live outside God’s law. In theory, the Dar aI-Islam would eventually swallow up the Dar al-Harh, by the sword if necessary, leaving a single community of believers living in peace. Although Western superiority in technology makes Western political-military domination a reality, there has been and continues to be a strong rejection of superiority or even parity of secular Western social and moral values. Thus, if any aspects of the secular humanistic values accepted almost universally in the West appear to be in direct conflict with Islamic values, they are almost certain to be rejected.

Although Western superiority in technology makes Western political-military domination a reality, there has been and continues to be a strong rejection of supe­riority or even parity of secular Western social and moral values.

Despite growing ties with the West that have evolved over time, a degree of Islamic cultural ambivalence remains in dealing with the non-Muslim world. Islam does acknowledge those who, while they do not submit to Islamic law, do believe in one, universal, divinely revealed God:

“Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee Muhammad), and those who are Jews, Christians, and Sabians [the term is associated with Zoroastrians]-whoever believeth in God and the Last Day and doeth right-surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall be no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve.

At the same time, the classical Islamic world view is closely associated with the Islamic doctrine of Jihad, sometimes called “the Sixth Pillar of Islam.” Often referred to as “holy war,” Jihad literally means “struggle” but actually has many shades of meaning in Islam. The broadest construction is the personal and corporate propagation of virtue and suppression of vice. In other words, only if efforts to spread Jihad by peaceful means have been exhausted should members of the Islamic community resort to Jihad by coercive force.

There are many references in the Qur’an to war against unbelievers, but there is ambivalence about whether it should be limited to defensive war or also include offensive operations. A chapter of the Qur’an (Sura 2:190) states: “And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors,” but Sura 9:5 states: “slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.”

Radical interpretations of Sura 9:5 have led to recent acts of aggression and retaliation towards the west by militant Islamic nation and non-nation state actors in the form of “Holy War” or Jihad.


Terrorists unleashed an astonishing air assault on America’s military and financial power centers by hijacking four commercial jets. Hijackers crashed 2 commercial jets into twin towers of World Trade Center; 2 more hijacked jets were crashed into the Pentagon and a field in rural Pa. Total dead and missing numbered 2,9921: 2,749 in New York City, 184 at the Pentagon, 40 in Pa., and 19 hijackers. The Islamic al-Qaeda terrorist group was blamed, and coalition military and intelligence agency operations commenced the “Global War on Terror”.


In a statement following the September 11th attacks on the United States, former Saudi Arabian developer and al-Qaeda terror organization leader Osama bin Laden proclaimed on October 21st 2001: “I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people and the West in general into an unbearable hell and a choking life.”

As the armies of Islam expanded political control east to the Indian subcontinent and west to Spain, Islamic governance took on an imperial aura not present in the time of the Prophet Muhammad or in the physically isolated expanses of Arabia. Political absolutism flourished in Damascus and Baghdad, the seats of government of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, ushering in innovations into Islam more harmonious with the new imperial realities.

Central Arabia, however, remained isolated from the political seats of power. Intertribal warfare was still rife in the mid-nineteenth century when Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab started his Islamic reform movement, based on the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, the most socially conservative of all the Islamic schools of law. Its founder, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (b. 780 A.D., d. 855 A.D.), advocated a return to the basic doctrines of the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the inspired Hadith of the ”Noble Ancestors” or Sala[, who with the Prophet, are considered among the founding fathers of Islam.

Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab was particularly influenced by the writings of Taqi aI-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya, a Hanbali scholar living at the end of the Abbasid Caliphate (d. 1328 A.D.). He preached against false practices and innovations (bid’a) that had been introduced into the religion since the time of Muhammad, particularly the Sufi cults and pilgrimages to the tombs of prominent saints to petition for blessings. Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab built on these teachings to formulate a call for purifying the Arabian Peninsula by reconstituting an Islamic state modeled after that founded by the Prophet Muhammad.

The centerpiece of the revival movement was the doctrine of Tawhid, empha­sizing the all-encompassing oneness of God as expressed in the Profession of Faith. Wahhabism teaches that communion with the one true God is accomplished neither through mysticism nor rationalism (a heated debate in the early years of Islam), but only through submission to God’s will as revealed in the Qur’an and the Sunna, and by submitting to God’s will through deeds, both personal and corporate, in upholding virtue and suppressing evil. The latter is Jihad in its broadest sense, submission to God’s will not simply through the use of force but principally by peaceful means and personal self-discipline.

When the Al Saud united the tribes under the banner of Tawhid as preached by Muhammad ibn al-Abd al-Wahhab, it refocused their traditional warlike way of life on Jihad rather than on internecine tribal conflicts. Their success in expanding Tawhid throughout most of the Arabian Peninsula was so rapid, so dramatic, and so stridently puritanical that it struck fear throughout the Muslim world. Wahhabism, as their enemies called the reform movement, was castigated as a deviant form of Islam, much as it has been by Saudi Arabia’s detractors to this day.

There is no doubt that tribal warriors were fanatical in their zeal to spread the reform of Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab by force. But a clear distinction must be made between the religious doctrine of Tawhid and the political movements that subsequently arose under the banner of Wahhabism. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was basically an intellectual and a religious reformer, not a warrior, and his movement was first and foremost a puritan program of religious reform in public and private life, not a justification for violence. He was particularly concerned with what he saw as heretical innovations that had crept into the religion, particularly the trend whereby the legal interpretations of early Islamic scholars were displacing the core belief of Tawhid as revealed in the Qur’an and the Sunna. He insisted that the independent reasoning used by the early juridical scholars was not divine revelation but was merely a means of addressing topical issues of the time in which they lived. But the sources of God’s law, he preached, were immutable. Moreover, Ibn Abd al- Wahhab was explicit in stating that warfare was always the method of last resort. In his book, Kitab ai-Jihad (The Book of Jihad), he severely limited, rather than broadened, the scope in which Jihad by holy war was appropriate.

During the Muslim conquests in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., the military aspects of Jihad were emphasized as a means of bringing all people under Islamic rule, based on the concept of Islamic moral ascendancy ingrained in God’s law. Following the fragmentation of Islamic political power in the thirteenth century, however, this classical Islamic world view of a universal Islamic community no longer conformed to reality. With time, the Islamic mainstream became reconciled to peaceful coexistence with the non-Muslim world.

During the Muslim conquests in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., the mili­tary aspects of Jihad were emphasized as a means of bringing all people under Islamic rule, based on the concept of Islamic moral ascendancy ingrained in God’s law.

King Abd al-Aziz understood that for Saudi Arabia to benefit from the modernization offered by the West, he and his people must do likewise. Realizing that the ancient way of life in Arabia was coming to an end, he chose to emphasize spiritual reform over military confrontation. The king disbanded his tribal Wah­habi warriors and introduced modernization policies in social, economic, and political development that would change the face of the Kingdom forever, while still insisting that no changes to the religious doctrines of Islam would be tolerated.


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently told Arab leaders that the American occupation of Iraq is “illegal,” and he warned that unless Arab governments settle their differences, foreign powers like the United States would continue to dictate the region’s politics.

It is important at this juncture to note that Islam as political ideology is neither a doctrine of hatred nor of bloodshed, as it has often been characterized. As noted above, Islam, and indeed all world religions, offers their believers a wide array of references on the virtue of maintaining peace as well as the necessity for using force. This is as true today as it was 250 years ago. One student of the psycho political sources of terrorism has written: “One cannot understand religious terrorism simply by analyzing the sources and structures of belief, since factors that influence believers to adopt this or that interpretation of sacred texts and traditions lie outside as well as inside of … religious world views.”

In all cases, he continues, complicity in a system that “alters one’s own culture can produce intense feelings of shame and guilt expiation.” The recent renaissance of militant Islamic political ideology can be explained far more accurately by looking at the anxiety resulting from the threat that Western technology and secular modern pop culture pose to traditional values rather than by examining in minute detail the sacred texts and political tracts used to justify political violence.


Below: Joint Statement by President Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Crawford, Texas

“Both nations pledge to continue their cooperation so that the oil supply from Saudi Arabia will be available and secure. The United States appreciates Saudi Arabia’s strong commitment to accelerating investment and expanding its production capacity to help provide stability and adequately supply the market…the United States and Saudi Arabia agree that our future relations must rest on a foundation of broad cooperation. We must work to expand dialogue, understanding, and interactions between our citizens. This will include programs designed to (1) increase the number of young Saudi students to travel and study in the United States; (2) increase our military exchange programs so that more Saudi officers visit the United States for military education and training; and (3) increase the number of Americans traveling to work and study in the Kingdom. The United States recognizes we must exert great efforts to overcome obstacles facing Saudi businessmen and students who wish to enter the United States and we pledge to our Saudi friends that we will take on this effort. A high-level joint committee has been established to be headed by the Saudi Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State that will deal with strategic issues of vital importance to the two countries.”

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1 Response to The Collision of Islam & Modernization in Saudi Arabia

  1. Muslims Against Sharia says:

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