Saudi driving U-turn shows how political religion really is

At the stroke of a royal pen, the Saudi clergy dropped the principles of a lifetime. All religion is equally subservient to politics.

In a fatwa, or legal opinion, issued in the 1990s by the then-highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, regarding the question of women driving automobiles, the learned cleric stated:

There is no doubt that such is not allowed. Women driving leads to many evils and negative consequences […] The Purifying Law forbids all of the causes that lead to depravity. Such depravity leads to the innocent and pure women being accused of indecencies. Allah has laid down one of the harshest punishments for such an act in order to protect society from the spreading of the causes of depravity. Women driving cars, however, is one of the causes that lead to that. This is something obvious.1

On Wednesday, the General Secretariat of Saudi Arabia’s Senior Scholars Council—a body led by the current Grand Mufti, Abd al-Aziz Al al-Sheikh—issued the following official statement (translation my own):

Verily, the fatwas of all the scholars relating to women driving automobiles were concerned with interests/benefits [maṣāliḥ] and causes of evil [mafāsid], and did not object to driving per se, which was not prohibited by anyone […] The [king]—God support him—has pointed to the negative consequences of not permitting women to drive automobiles, and opined after studying the views of the majority of the Senior Scholars Council’s members that the legitimate sharīꜤa judgment is that [women driving] is, in origin, permissible, and that [the Scholars] see no objection to permitting [women] to drive in light of the finding of sharīꜤa-based and systemic guarantees to safeguard the protection of and respect for women; thus we indeed laud this lofty and noble decree, by which the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud—God support him—strives for the interest of his country and his people in light of what the Islamic sharīꜤa determines.

Just like that, then, women driving went from an “obvious” cause of “many evils” that “no doubt” had to be forbidden, to a fully permissible act that, in fact, will bring great benefit to the nation and its people. If you’re struggling to follow the theological rationale behind this 180-degree U-turn, that’s because there isn’t really any. Instead, what is painfully clear is that the vaguely-worded second text was hastily cobbled together to retroactively rubber-stamp a decision already made by the king (the face-saving talk of the sovereign “studying the views” of the clerics notwithstanding). The comic absurdity of the spectacle has already been extensively ridiculed on Arabic social media.

Yet as well as being very funny, the episode tells us a great deal about the nature of religion and its relationship with political power. One is put in mind of the following exchange between the late atheist Christopher Hitchens and the prominent Christian apologist Frank Turek:

CH: Is it not the case that the spread of Christianity, about which you spoke so warmly and affectingly in your opening remarks, attributing it to the innate truth of the Bible story, was spread by that means, or because the Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire? Which, in your view, contributed more to the spread of the faith?

FT: Uh, the Holy Spirit.

CH: I rest my case.

Hitchens’ point, of course, is that at the end of the day it is crude, raw, secular power that shapes religion far more than the other way around (though it isn’t entirely a one-way street). This has been the case in Islam just as much as any other faith. What we now take for granted as Sunni orthodoxy has not been a rigid, fixed constant unchanged from the time of the Prophet to the present day. Very much to the contrary, Sunnism as we now know it didn’t take full shape until four or five centuries into Islamic history. While it existed in embryonic form prior to that—in that there were scholars who weren’t Shi’a, and who prioritized the Hadith as a source of religious law over other, more speculative alternatives—these proto-Sunnis were until the middle of the Abbasid period (750-1258 A.D.) merely one of numerous competing factions, and by no means the predominant or paramount among them. Indeed, in 827 the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun famously made an example of the proto-Sunnis, decreeing the anti-Sunni doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an to be official state dogma, forcing the proto-Sunni clergy to agree on pain of execution. (One of the few who resisted, Ibn Hanbal, who may well have been killed had al-Ma’mun not abruptly died in 833, would go on to become almost a patron saint of Sunni conservatism.) It was not until the Caliph al-Mutawakkil repudiated al-Ma’mun’s policy two decades later that the proto-Sunnis began to become the preferred group of the ruling elite, and it would be another two centuries after that before the Caliph al-Qadir formally condemned Shi’ism and the rival Mu’tazilism, making the ‘Sunnism’ of the state fully explicit for essentially the first time. As with the Saudi king’s stroke of a pen this week, and the edict of Emperor Constantine before him, it was the whims and fancies of individual politicians that decided the course of religion’s evolution.

Another, more contemporary, example is slavery. As the late Harvard scholar Shahab Ahmed noted in his 2016 book What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, the Qur’an unequivocally affirms the right to own slaves (even if it also extols the virtues of manumission). Yet, there isn’t a Muslim country on earth today that hasn’t outlawed slavery. Why? The story of abolition in Islamdom is fairly complex, but it is one that concerns 19th- and 20th-century political and commercial relations between European powers and their Ottoman and other Middle Eastern counterparts much more than it does any spontaneous developments or innovations in the sharīꜤa.

All of which is highly pertinent for Muslim reformists, or modernizers, who often attempt to challenge the clerics on their home ground of Qur’an and Hadith. While it may conceivably be true that jihad really just means inner spiritual struggle, or that the phrase waḍribūhunna in the particular context of Qur’an 4:34 means not “and beat [your wives]” but rather “and stay away from [them]”—as some creative apologists have argued—this is really to miss the larger point, which is that the destiny of Muslim women; in Saudi Arabia as elsewhere; will ultimately be decided not by rarefied armchair debates over Scripture but by the messy calculations, compromises, and capitulations of hard, worldly power. To change the situation in the Muslim world today, in other words, change politics before all else.

  • 1. 'Islamic Fatawa Regarding Women', compiled by Muhammad bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Musnad, Darussalam, Riyadh, 1996, pp. 309-11.