In September 2017, Saudi Arabian authorities arrested dissident Muslim scholar Sheikh Hassan Farhan al-Maliki. However, it would not be until October of the following year that authorities would bring formal charges against the imprisoned sheikh, with a recommendation that he receive the death penalty. Since that time, al-Maliki has been forced to await trial by the nation’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). While the Saudi government claims that the purpose of the SCC is to convict “terrorists,” the reality is that it exists nearly solely to ensure that any opposition to the oppressive rule of the House of Saud is neutralized.
One can see this fact quite clearly from the specific charges levelled against al-Maliki by the prosecution. According to Human Rights Watch, al-Maliki has been charged with 14 offenses. These include his well-researched questioning of the historicity of parts of the Ḥadīth, as well as for “insulting” revered historical Islamic caliphs, particularly Muʿāwiya (c. 602-680). Moreover, al-Maliki’s charge sheet also lists the possession of “unauthorized” books, speaking on TV about his religious views, and bypassing Saudi censorship laws by having his research published abroad.
In a rather Orwellian manner, al-Maliki is also accused of being a “terrorist” because of his criticism of the religious extremism promoted by the Saudi monarchy, as well as for comments he made against multiple Gulf states for their funding of ISIS. Further, he is accused of praising Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who is one of the greatest opponents of Wahhabi terrorism, and thus also of its source, the Saudi government.
It almost goes without saying that all of the charges, real or false, against al-Maliki boil down to one thing: the Saudi monarchy’s fear of losing control over its subjects. In fact, al-Maliki’s son, Abbas, was arrested shortly after that of his father for criticizing Saudi authorities via Twitter, and now faces up to 25 years in jail. Moreover, like many regimes of the past, Saudi Arabia uses a particularly extreme interpretation of Islam, specifically Salafism/Wahhabism, to keep its population under control. However, in order to make this system work, the population must, of course, remain docile, subservient, and unquestioning when it comes to the state’s official interpretation of Islam. Al-Maliki, like a few other Muslim scholars and clerics in the kingdom, has sought to liberate both his people and Islam from the oppressive control of the Saudi royal family. One of the main ways the sheikh has attempted to accomplish his goal has been through academic inquiry. Al-Maliki has laboured to expose what he believes to be the counterfeit nature of Saudi Arabia’s form of Islam through an open and historical examination of the Ḥadīth itself.
In Islam, the Ḥadīth has played a nearly immeasurable role in the development of its theology and practice, one that is second, at least officially, only to the Qurʼān itself. The term “ḥadīth” means “account” “speech,” or “report” in Arabic, and refers to a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. While there are certain disagreements about the authenticity of various collections of aḥādīth (plural of “ḥadīth”), especially between Sunnis and the Shi’a, there are some collections that are considered by many of a particular sect to be beyond reproach. For most Sunnis, the sect to which the majority of the population of Saudi Arabia adheres to—Wahhabism being a subset of the Salafi school of thought, which is itself a part of Sunnism—would count among such unquestionably authentic aḥādīth both Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, compiled by Muḥammad al-Bukhārī (810-870) and Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj (C. 815-875) respectively. While these two collections are considered perhaps the most important parts of the Ḥadīth by Sunnis, al-Maliki has called the reliability of portions of both of them, as well as other parts of the Ḥadīth, into question. In fact, one of the ways al-Maliki has personally avoided an obligatory devotion to any set of aḥādīth is by refusing to identify himself with any sect or school of thought. While his opponents have accused him of being a Shi’ite, and he himself in his younger years had been a Salafi, al-Maliki claims that the only fitting term for a follower of Allāh is “Muslim.” To him, identifying as a follower of a particular member of the Prophet’s family, or even as a Qurʼānist, would be to give credence to human created divisions.
Nevertheless, al-Maliki’s critical approach to the Ḥadīth has clearly deeply disturbed the Saudi government, since it has long relied upon an austere interpretation of Islam for its religiously inspired laws. To perhaps put it into perspective for a Westerner, questioning the validity of highly revered portions of the Ḥadīth in contemporary Saudi Arabia would be similar to a Christian questioning the very foundation of the papacy in sixteenth century Rome—it is simply not going to be received well by the authorities who rely upon such things for power.
But what specifically does al-Maliki say about the Ḥadīth that is so controversial? To begin with, he believes that Muslims have turned the religion of Islam upside down: placing the Ḥadīth above the Qurʼān itself, and glorifying the men who compiled various aḥādīth as if they were “angels.” According to him, many Muslims refuse to question the historical validity of certain aḥādīth for fear of insulting the sanctity of its compilers. But al-Maliki does not seem to believe that such a view was born organically, but instead feels that it stems from the propaganda efforts of early tyrannical Muslim rulers, one’s rather similar to his own in contemporary Saudi Arabia. The sheikh believes that early Islamic rulers, such as the Umayyads, were a major force behind the popular propagation of un-Qurʼānic teachings and stories attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, since they could use such tales to help solidify their control over the masses.
For instance, al-Maliki claims that the Ḥadīth has taught Muslims to put aside the main teachings of the Qurʼān, such as justice, love, faith, use of one’s intellect, and so forth. In place of these key elements of Islam, the Ḥadīth has focused believers’ attention on either inconsequential practices, like the painstaking details given on how to perform wuḍūʼ or the proper sunnah manner to brush one’s teeth; or even worse, by teaching Muslims to directly disregard Qurʼānic ideals, such as through a belief found in some aḥādīth that an oppressed population must accept their predicament as the will of God.
A particularly strong example of the Ḥadīth serving the authorities can be seen in relation to the issue of apostasy. Al-Maliki argues that because of the Ḥadīth, Muslims are confused over what to do with a person who has decided to leave Islam. He points out that while the Qurʼān says that “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), parts of the Ḥadīth require an apostate to be executed. For instance, we read in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, a story in which Muhammad is purported to have told his Companion Ibn ʿAbbās, “Whoever changes their religion, kill them.” However, al-Maliki believes that since such a ḥādīth contradicts the Qurʼān, it cannot be authentically traced back to the Prophet. The reason for this is that the Qurʼān portrays Muhammad as fully in submission to the will of God (e.g. 10:15, 46:9), and thus it is impossible to accept that he should teach anything that contradicts what has been revealed to him in the holy book. Therefore, al-Maliki argues that the aḥādīth that made apostasy punishable by death were created by the Umayyads as a means to silence dissent. Such religious teachings, of course, gave the caliphate a license to execute anyone perceived to be a “rebel” under the pretense that they had left the faith. Moreover, the sheikh teaches that this is also why there are aḥādīth that portray the Prophet Muhammad brutally murdering his enemies, or ones in which violence against Jews and Christians are taught. It was all simply an attempt by the caliphate to weaponize Islam against its political enemies.
Of course, the sort of oppression that al-Maliki is speaking of is not something of the past, but a terrifying reality that he experiences each day. Despite some minor, and mostly superficial, reforms made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia remains as oppressive as ever. For instance, the practice of any religion but Islam is still proscribed, and apostasy is punishable by death. Moreover, non-Sunni Muslims face direct persecution, as can be seen by the kingdom’s mass executions of Shi’a Muslims, such as in April 2019, when 32 Shi’ites were beheaded under the charge of “terrorism.” In truth, however, few Saudi citizens, regardless of sect, are immune from the unjust wrath of the state. For instance, al-Maliki has spoken about the issues associated with Saudi Arabia’s religious police, known as the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.” The sheikh points to the fact that the religious police base their philosophy on non-Qurʼānic principles, and harass or arrest citizens for such things as gender mixing or possessing books deemed “sinful.” Al-Maliki says that he would support a religious police force, but one that based itself on Islamic principles, such as making sure that individuals were treated justly by society, or by working to prevent the spread of literature that directly promoted hatred or violence. However, such an approach is clearly not in the interest of a government that seeks not to uplift its citizenry, but to control and abuse the people for its own benefit.
Yet, despite the restrictive and draconian nature of the Saudi government, al-Maliki has never shied away from controversy. It seems that he simply cannot bring himself to be silent when he believes that his faith is being distorted nearly beyond recognition. In fact, he was once asked if he had considered performing missionary work in a foreign country, and how he would go about converting Brazilians or Japanese to Islam. To this the sheikh replied that he was not interested in missioning outside of the Muslim world, and that if were to try and convert people to Islam, he would start in Saudi Arabia, since he believes that much of his nation is far removed from the faith of Muhammad. This is perhaps the driving force behind his willingness to speak openly about his beliefs; something which has landed him in jail a number of times, and may now cost him his very life. Thus, despite the asylum offers he has received from other countries over the years, he has refused to abandon his homeland. Indeed, up until his latest arrest, he had remained writing, debating other scholars both within and outside of Saudi Arabia, and speaking for the liberation of his faith and fellow citizens any chance he got.
Of course, Sheikh Hassan al-Maliki’s life, or that of any other activist, does not have to end in a Saudi prison or by the hand of an executioner. Westerners in North America and Europe need to force their politicians to end their political support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal and tyrannical monarchy. This can mean making your voice heard at the voting booth, the streets, or through petitions, social media, conventional media, and so forth. Without the support of the West, Saudi Arabia would no longer have the ability to silence the brave voices that speak out against its crimes and oppression. Al-Maliki is a ground-breaking scholar, and a person of great faith, courage, and principle, and remaining silent while he suffers as a prisoner of conscience, facing potential execution, should not be an option for any of us.