James M. Dorsey

A battle for the soul of Islam plays out in a Bahrain courtroom.

A battle for the soul of Islam

This week, there was more at stake in a Bahrain courtroom than the fate of three free speech advocates.

At stake was a fundamental question that divides believers across the Muslim world and challenges autocratic rulers’ religious legitimization: Does Islamic jurisprudence need to be reformed to ensure it is more pluralistic, inclusive, and aligned with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The three Shiite Muslim defendants in the Bahrain court case were members of Al Tajdeed or Renewal, a controversial group that favors unfettered debate about tenets of Islamic law.

Redha Rajab, his son Mohamed Rajab, and researcher Jalal al-Qassab were sentenced to a year in prison and a fine for allegedly ridiculing recognized religious texts such as the Qur’an. The sentence was suspended pending an appeal.

In a series of YouTube postings and blogs, Al-Tajdeed challenged Islamic legal theory and opinions issued by religious scholars.

The prosecution positioned the case as a “defense of our righteous religion” and an effort to “prevent sedition within society.”

Implicitly rejecting criticism by Human Rights Watch, prosecutor Zahra Murad said she recognized the right to freedom of expression and belief.

However, she asserted that the defendants had engaged in “disinformation and disrespect” and “infringed upon the freedom of belief guaranteed by the constitution.”

Ali Yahya, a co-plaintiff, charged that “the videos included connotations that were considered offensive to the prophets.”

He alleged that a Tajdeed member had “directed hurtful and offensive rhetoric towards Muslim sentiments (by describing) the miracles of the prophets” as mere “quackery, superstition, and witchcraft” and as “malice that has invaded people’s minds.”

In response, the defendants asserted that “thoughts are to be challenged with thoughts, and words are not to be suppressed by the authority of the law.”

The defendants argued further that they do not question the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad’s teachings but debate opinions of religious scholars and clerics.

The case was remarkable for what was said in the judicial proceedings as well as for the unmentioned backdrop that framed it on a global scale.

The case was part of pushback by state-backed supporters of an autocratic version of ‘moderate’ Islam that opposes reform of religious jurisprudence but favors greater social freedom grounded in civil law or decrees rather than Sharia or Islamic law.

Autocrats’ definition of moderate Islam also legitimizes repression and curtailing of political rights and demands absolute obedience to the ruler.

Increasingly, proponents of the autocrats’ definition, such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed and their religious surrogates, have been challenged by Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate Muslim civil society movement.

With 90 million followers, tens of thousands of religious scholars, educational institutions, a five million-strong militia, and an aligned political party with ministers in President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet, Nahdlatul Ulama advocates what it calls Humanitarian Islam.

The concept embraces the need for reform of what the group terms “obsolete” tenets of Islamic law and pluralism. It endorses unambiguously the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In an unrelated but no less relevant development, prominent security analyst and columnist Muhammad Amir Rana noted that Pakistan, the world’s second largest Muslim-majority country with one of the most extensive networks of Muslim educational and other religious institutes, was not a player in debates about the reform of state and society.

Proponents of an autocratic version of moderate Islam have tried but failed to co-opt the movement.

As a result, they are forced to compete with the Indonesian group for influence in some of the world’s most important political and religious arenas. This includes corridors of power in world capitals, and influential faith groups such as the Vatican and powerful Hindu associations.

India, which this year chairs the Group of 20 or G20 which brings together the leaders of the world’s largest economies, is the current focus of Nahdlatul Ulama and its autocratic rivals.

At stake is which Muslim group will help shape a likely gathering of religious leaders associated with this year’s G20 summit in New Delhi in September.

The summit would follow last year’s Religion 20 or R20 in Bali linked to Indonesia’s 2022 G20 chairmanship. Indonesia established the R20 as an official G20 engagement group. Nahdlatul Ulama manages the R20’s permanent secretariat.

India has yet to endorse the Indonesian move.

However, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, the Hindu nationalist ideological cradle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), participated in the Bali R20.

RSS has for several years sought close ties to Nahdlatul Ulama.

Competing with Nahdlatul Ulama for influence is the Muslim World League, the vehicle Mr. Bin Salman uses to propagate his autocratic religious vision. In addition, there is the UAE-backed Interfaith 20 or IF 20.

IF 20 has long sought to be the G20’s religion platform but last year was upstaged by Nahdlatul Ulama. It has since forged a partnership with the UAE.

The Bahrain court case was also remarkable because it was primarily a Shiite rather than a Sunni Muslim controversy. Bahrain is majority Shia but ruled by a minority Sunni family.

Nahdlatul Ulama and its rivals are all Sunni Muslims.

Prominent Shia clerics criticize Al Tajdeed the most. They accuse it of blasphemy and demand excommunication of its members.

Al Tajdeed, more vulnerable because it lacks the kind of religious and political muscle Nahdlatul Ulama can marshal, said its members and their families were subject to “hate speech and incitement” at mosques and on social media.

Looking at Gulf states and Indonesia, prominent Pakistani security analyst and columnist Muhammad Amir Rana noted that “the various paths of reform in politics, society, and religion go together; they not only complement each other but also open up space for wider engagement.”

Referring to Pakistan, wracked by religious militancy and ultra=conservatism as well as populism, Mr. Rana argued “countries on the path of reform are diversifying their global engagement options. Countries that are inflexible are not only suffering, they are also gradually becoming parasite states.”

Unlike Pakistan, Bahrain, with its embrace of religious pluralism and three-year old establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, is not in danger of becoming a parasite state.

Nevertheless, the recent court case suggests that Bahrain, despite its more liberal social attitudes and efforts to restructure its economy, has embraced only one of Mr. Rana’s three avenues of reform, casting political change and reform of religious jurisprudence by the wayside.

To watch a video version of this story on YouTube please click here.

A podcast version is available on Soundcloud, ItunesSpotifySpreaker, and  Podbean.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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