Published on Huffington Post (February 24th, 2015)
Leaders worldwide have sent their condolences to Saudi Arabia and its royal family after the passing of King Abdullah. On Twitter, US Secretary of State John Kerry called him a man of “wisdom” and “vision,” while UK Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement praising him for “his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.” These messages suggest that Abdullah was a merciful and compassionate leader who acted on behalf of all Saudis, regardless of their backgrounds.
The Saudi royal family claims to be one of the leading entities safeguarding “true Islam” and spreading the message of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. What, then, would Muhammad think of King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia if he were alive today?
Under King Abdullah’s rule, Saudi Arabia had one of the worst human rights records in the world, primarily because of the government’s theocratic nature. The Saudi state declares the Quran and Sunna to be the country’s Constitution, meaning that Muslims are given preferential treatment over non-Muslims, who are not able to freely practice their religion.
In September 2014, Saudi “religious police” stormed a Christian prayer meeting and arrested its entire congregation, including women and children, and confiscated their Bibles, the Daily Mail reported. The anti-Christian raid “was the latest incident of a swinging crackdown on religious minorities in Saudi Arabia by the country’s hard-line Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”
Muslims, too, faced discrimination in King Abdullah’s country. A prominent example of non-Sunni discrimination occurred in October 2014, when Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shi’a dissident cleric, was sentenced to death for “disobeying the ruler,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and “encouraging, leading, and participating in demonstrations.” Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, called al-Nimr’s trial as “seriously flawed.” Shi’a Muslims, who make up only 15% of Saudi Arabia’s population, have longed claimed that they have faced discrimination because of Sunni authorities. As Newsweek states, Shi’as ‘are routinely denied basic employment rights and are not properly represented at the top of the Saudi government.”
Such a draconian social and legal system ignores Prophet Muhammad’s guarantee of religious freedom. Unlike King Abdullah, Muhammad championed human rights, particularly in light of freedom of worship and the right for minorities to have protection during times of strife. In a covenant he made with Christian monks at Mount Sinai in Egypt, Muhammad called on Muslims to respect Christian judges and churches, and for no Muslim to fight against his or her Christian brother or sister. This statement was one of many legal covenants that Muhammad made with the non-Muslims of Arabia, as I outlined in this article.
In addition to suppressing freedom of religion, King Abdullah’s authoritarian regime cracked down on freedom of speech by muzzling activist bloggers. Raif Badawi was recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for advocating free speech on his blog. Badawi’s prison term may include torture, as prisoners in Saudi Arabia are often humiliated and subjected to extreme suffering, as discussed by Gerald Staberock, secretary-general of the World Organisation Against Torture.
This type of cruel, inhumane, and degrading system is a form of torment which Muhammad would have strictly forbidden. According to author Qasim Rashid, the Prophet “categorically forbade torture for any reason … [p]re-Islam Arabia was known for its ongoing wars devoid of any ethics, [whereas] Muhammad enacted practical methods to successfully and peacefully unite Arabia.” Even during times of war, writer Faheem Younus points out, Muhammad rejected torture in all forms and “espoused equal treatment – both physically and emotionally – for prisoners of war in an era plagued with enslavement, limb severance, and mutilation of corpses.”
Muhammad’s egalitarianism towards non-Muslims and political prisoners was not a part of King Abdullah’s stance on gender equality. Despite being hailed as a reformer of women’s rights, King Abdullah’s rule maintained widespread gender inequality in Saudi Arabia. The World Economic Forum 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 127th out of 136 countries for gender parity. An example of the disparity between men and women’s rights under King Abdullah’s power was the so-called “male guardianship system.” Under the guardianship rule, “women must get permission from their husband, father or, less commonly, brother or so, to travel, work, or get medical treatment.” This mechanism effectively treats half the adult population of Saudi Arabia as “minors” and serves as a tool to institutionalize gender segregation.
The Prophet Muhammad would condemn Saudi Arabia’s unequal treatment of women. Muhammad had no problem with his wife Khadija running a thriving trade business in 7th century Arabia. Khadija was effectively an entrepreneur who had to mingle and bargain outside of her home without any male supervision. Ayesha, Muhammad’s second wife, was a leading Islamic scholar and jurist. The lives of these leaders suggest that Muhammad would never have supported legislation which denied women free access to obtaining a business career or education without the approval or help of a male companion.
Prophet Muhammad was a humanitarian and noble ruler who ensured equality for all those living in his community. In his last sermon at Mount Arafat in 632 AD, Muhammad declared, “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab … a white person has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” The Prophet’s message was one of tolerance and diversity. It is hard to argue that the Saudi royal family has ever followed in his path or walked in his footsteps.