Mansoor Jassem Alshamsi's brave assessment

An analysis of how the idea of reform is deeply rooted in Islamic tradition

Islam and Political Reform
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Islam and Political Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Quest for Political Change and Reform By Mansoor Jassem Alshamsi, Routledge, 296 pages, $150
Weekend Review

Even before the terrible September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia confronted a multipronged military, political and even religious assault on the monarchy. Waves of Islamist "terrorism" occurred on its soil that, more recently, led to complete reassessments of what these challenges represented.

Calls for reform abounded as Riyadh was strongly criticised for setting too narrow an agenda to address intrinsic grievances. Consequently, the Al Saud constantly reassessed their relationships with a variety of domestic, regional and international actors to better control the essence and the pace of any contemplated changes.

Mansoor Jassem Alshamsi, a political scientist working for the UAE government and who received his doctorate in politics from the University of Exeter in Britain, tackles this critical subject with gusto.

He elucidates the link that exists between Islamic jurisprudence and political action by focusing on the contributions of three leading Ulama, namely Safar Al Hawali, Salman Al Awdah and Nasser Al Umar. By emphasising the discourses and performances of what he terms the "Saudi Sunni Islamic Reformist Leadership", Alshamsi theorises and sets out to demonstrate that the very idea of reform is deeply rooted in Islamic tradition.

Even more courageously, he argues that Sunni scholars have become activists for change in Saudi Arabia, which raises a variety of critical questions worthy of evaluation.

Alshamsi highlights that this opposition leadership sought "political change and reform through accommodation and not through revolution" (page 16). Importantly, such adjustments, posits the author, are part and parcel of Islamic political jurisprudence, which "incorporates a balance between conflict with, and acceptance of, the official consensus".

After his introduction, the author raises a variety of concerns in a chapter titled Context, which identifies at least seven situations that could destabilise the ruling Al Saud family. Three of these situations involve the United States, one each focus on Iran, Iraq and the GCC while the last sees domestic actors relying on violence and propaganda to topple the regime.

Naturally, Alshamsi acknowledges that the Al Saud will rely on tested policies to defend themselves, by emphasising their Arab and Muslim identities, perhaps even "forming domestic alliances with the Saudi Sunni Islamic community and movement, including the reformist leadership" (page 19), even if such retrenchments are polarising.

Despite rhetorical declarations against Iran and Shias, both on the home front and regionally, there is little evidence to suggest that the Al Saud are itching to declare a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.

In the event, the author rejects conclusions reached by prominent social scientists such as Olivier Roy and Ebrahim Karawan, stressing that Islamist "movements are a societal reality and the concept of Islamic change and reform is comprehensive and complex with the political realm included together with other important non-political realms" (page 29).

To buttress his claims, he launches into thorough discussions of "The Sunni Fiqh" (chapters 3 and 4), as he links legal questions with several practitioners. In chapter 5 (Intellectual Interaction), he elaborates on interpretations offered by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah and, in a shrewd link, with the Najdi-Saudi Ulama, before launching into contributions made by Mohammad Qutb, Mohammad Al Albani, Mohammad Al Rashid and Mohammad Surour.

This is useful to what comes next, as Alshamsi wishes to place Al Hawali, Al Awdah and Al Umar in this legacy. The author digs further as he examines how Riyadh addressed challenges (chapter 6 is titled Political Struggle) and what it did in response (chapter 7, Countering Policy in the 1990s).

To his credit, Alshami's commendable analyses provide rare insights into what Al Hawali, Al Awdah and Al Umar declared on a slew of political questions. He then launches into a careful assessment of two petitions, the May 1991 Letter of the Ulama and the July 1992 Memorandum of Advice (chapter 8), which pitted the so-called reformists against the state.

It was after the publication of these forcefully argued petitions that the monarchy mobilised (chapter 9) by imprisoning a slew of clerics, including the three leading members identified above, before seeking to appease the opposition by releasing several leaders (chapter 10).

The book closes with the leadership's resumption of its policy of Al Mudafaah (dimension of countering) (chapter 11) and how they adjusted to a policy of realism (chapter 12). It concludes that such accommodations stem from the correct belief that "Sunni Islamic reformist change" will only come through a cumulative process rather than violent revolution (page 225).

This richly annotated book will delight the specialist but should not put off the lay reader. Given how little is actually recorded on what the three Saudi shaikhs uttered, this is a valuable addition to the growing literature on a critical topic.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (2011).

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