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In Saudi Arabia, moderate article on Islam draws death fatwa

The response to threats against Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi exposes a shifting balance between moderate and extremist versions of Islam in Saudi society.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2008

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In his youth, Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi was devoted to a doctrinaire version of Islam. He regarded those who disagreed with him as unworthy Muslims.

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But during a government crackdown on religious militants in the 1990s, Mr. Oteibi spent time in prison, then traveled outside Saudi Arabia. Today, he says he believes in a more open-minded, moderate Islam and is an outspoken critic of extremists. In a recent article in Ar Riyadh newspaper, for example, he wrote that some clerics, to advance their own interests, make Islam more complicated and uncompromising than it actually is.

Unlike his past articles, this one drew an unusually harsh response from the hard-line religious community. Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak declared that Oteibi's "heretical" ideas meant that he should be brought to court and asked to recant. If he refused, \Sheikh Barrak said, he should be put to death – an outcome, he added, that no Muslim would mourn.

While he counted on strong reaction to his piece, Oteibi says, "I never expected that it would get to ... the level of blasphemy and death fatwa. I thought that after [Al Qaeda's] crimes in our country, this should be a red line."

Barrak's so-called "death fatwa" against Oteibi and another Saudi writer, Yusuf Aba al-Kheil, shocked many Saudis. Despite the extreme conservatism of Islam in this country, it is rare for a religious scholar to publicly call for someone's execution because of his writings.

The controversial fatwa and the swift condemnation it drew from Saudi and other Arab intellectuals offer a look into the shifting balance between extremist and moderate versions of Islam in Saudi society today. It is a delicate balance that, for the time being, appears to be tipping ever so slightly towards the moderates.

Under King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Saudis have been allowed to write and speak more freely, which has given moderates greater opportunities to advance their views. Some Saudis say this has caused consternation among hard-liners, and may explain why Barrak and his supporters felt a need to dramatically express their opinions.

"They cannot pick a fight with the government anymore, so they resort to picking a fight with the liberals ... to show themselves and others that they ... can still be an opposition," says Saudi political analyst Adel al-Toraifi.

But others, such as Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, believe that Saudi religious hard-liners still have the upper hand in the kingdom. "This fatwa," Ansari wrote on the reformist website,, must be seen in the context of the intellectual conflict raging between the followers of Salafist – fundamentalist – inflexibility and the advocates of change and reform. It constitutes a most serious attack on the reformists."

Barrak's declaration comes at a time when the government is taking steps to demonstrate its commitment to a moderate, nonviolent form of Islam. Last month, King Abdullah called for an interfaith conference among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, saying that Saudi clerics support the idea. And university officials have announced plans for an international conference of scholars next year to discuss moderation as an Islamic value.

The Saudi government's tolerance of free expression still has limits, however. Popular blogger Fouad Farhan, who had been critical of officials, was released Saturday after almost five months in detention without charges.

"These kinds of fatwas are going out [of style]," Toraifi said of Barrak's declaration. "You don't see a rallying [around it]; it's not like in the '80s and '90s."