Sheikh Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz Bin Baz is the son of the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, one of the most notable muftis in the Kingdom’s history.
Sheikh Ahmad has been accused of many things since airing his views on a wide range of topics in articles in the Saudi press over the past eight years, with his detractors labeling him a “lackey of the liberals” and a “fame seeker,” particularly for his opinions on thorny topics made public in newspaper articles over the last few years.
In a lengthy interview with the Al-Arabiya news network published on its website recently, Sheikh Ahmad spoke candidly on subjects ranging from his father’s fatwas, women driving, the role of religious authorities in the Kingdom, and the nature of the relation of the Islamic state to the rest of the world.PAINTED by some as riding on the coattails of his father’s reputation, Sheikh Ahmad told Al-Arabiya he was fully confident of his own credentials as an Islamic scholar. “I am honored to have studied under my father Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz and learn from him and his approach in the call to Islam, and in practical and academic work, for over 20 years. He had a huge influence on me. I also studied at the Shariah College at the Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University where I earned my degree and then a Master’s in Islamic Jurisprudence. I was also a lecturer at the university for over 10 years. There’s no doubt that the sheikh being my father conferred on me great responsibility, and at times left me unable to say what I wanted,” Sheikh Ahmad said.
Sheikh Ahmad began making his voice more public after his father’s death in 1999. “But my activity at events and academic discussions has increased since the start of the reformist revolution led by King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” he said.
It has been his remarks on fatwas in general, but on some of his father’s most famous decrees in particular, that brought Sheikh Ahmad to the attention of senior scholars and the public alike. He was not surprised, however, by the response to his views that his father’s fatwas were issued “in accordance with the nature of the time and its circumstances.”
“Things are judged based on the study of reality, and that reality might change, whether in terms of changing people or times or situations or places,” he said. “That’s why fatwas may change with the changing times. Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal may have had nine different views on one topic, and Imam Al-Shafi’i has his old and his new edicts, and many other imams and scholars have had more than one view on any particular subject or retracted some of what they said in view of the changing times and circumstances. My own father on several subjects had old and new views, such as on television and video recording which he declared haram, and later declared that they were like all machines, in that it depended on their use for things either haram or halal.”
In an article in Al-Watan newspaper, some readers were left with the impression that Sheikh Ahmad believed some of his father’s fatwas to be invalid, something he denies. “I was a bit annoyed at Al-Watan, as they gave a rather eye-catching headline to the article taken out of context, but if you read the whole piece you’ll see that I did not say that my father’s fatwas were invalid. The problem is many people are lazy and only read the headlines. What I meant was that my father would maybe issue fatwas for a person on a specific subject for specific reasons or according to specific circumstances, but the fatwa might not be applicable to another person as the circumstances or times might be different. One can’t generalize, is what I meant.”
Generalizing is also to blame for extremist thought and “takfeer” – accusing persons of unbelief – according to Sheikh Ahmad. He refuted accusations by some commentators that he has not brought textual evidence to support his argument in this area.
“There are many texts, but in the Qur’an for example the Jews and the Christians are only named in those terms or under the umbrella term ‘People of the Book’, and that’s throughout the Qur’an. When Ali Ibn Abu Talib left for Yemen the Prophet (peace be upon him) said to him: ‘You are to arrive in the land of People of the Book’. I have found them described in no other way either in the Qur’an or the Sunnah.”
When asked by Al-Arabiya how it is possible not to use the term “kafir” for someone who has received the call to Islam and does not embrace Islam, Sheikh Ahmad responded by saying that he had “a lot of things to say on this issue”.
“I’m calling for a re-look and discussion on the definition of ‘kufr’ (disbelief),” he said. “The word has different meanings, but what we gather from the texts is the denial and refusal and lack of acceptance… takfeer is only for those who have received the truth and rejected it, but today, can we say that the world receives information of the true Islam or of a distorted version?”
Al-Arabiya described a recent article by Sheikh Ahmad on the subject of women driving in the Kingdom as “welcome.”
“The point of the article was not just about women driving, but all Shariah rights for women which are sometimes ignored,” the sheikh said.
The article said that sheikhs had prohibited women from driving in the past “due to considerations which I don’t think come into play today or which we could discuss and take another look at.”
“My father’s fatwa came under certain circumstances a lot of people may not know about,” Sheikh Ahmad told Al-Arabiya. “At the time, in 1990 to 1991, the region was witnessing some of the most significant events since the two World Wars, with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the arrival of the US army and the joint forces, and fear of an unknown future pervading the region, as well as the beginning of satellite television.”
According to Sheikh Ahmad, these and other factors came into play when a “group of women in Riyadh got into their cars and drove and announced the breaking of restrictions imposed on them regarding driving cars.”
The event caused, the Sheikh said, a “shock by any standards.”
“That form of behavior in addressing issues and expressing opinions is not the done thing, especially by women, and goes against social customs. I’d add that the political atmosphere was charged at the time and fear was in the air, and as some would remember gas masks were being distributed.”
“But more importantly than that,” Sheikh Ahmad continued, “there was the fear of internal division in facing the external enemy that was at our gates, and after what might be called the demonstration by the women came, by a day or two, the gathering of thousands of whom are known as ‘mutaawa’a’ at the front of the Dar Al-Iftaa’ while a group of scholars, my father among them, was inside.”
It was in that context, Sheikh Ahmad said, that his father’s fatwa declaring the driving of cars by women as haraam was issued. “So one can’t remove fatwas from the contexts and circumstances under which they were issued,” he said.
When asked if such remarks have given others the opportunity to criticize his father’s work and revive the issue of what they call the “Wahabi sect,” Sheikh Ahmad replied: “My father was the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He assisted a great deal both theoretically and in practice, and in terms of the call to Islam, that only Allah knows about. Here we are not criticizing his fatwas, as we learnt a lot from him and from his methodology, but as I said earlier there were certain circumstances and backgrounds to those fatwas. But we always need to review and rethink reality and look to the future and apply self-criticism, and I don’t care what others say.”
Sheikh Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz Bin Baz went on to discuss the “chaos of fatwas” as Al-Arabiya called the proliferation of fatwas issued by individuals through the media, and was asked how the codification or unification of the fatwa-issuing process might be achieved.
“It’s us who created the chaos,” Sheikh Ahmad said. “If we look at the pious ancestors they never did this and did not ask all these questions, and people didn’t dare give fatwas as we see happening today.”
The sheikh was asked if he still believed that fatwa programs required review and whether they open the way for questions on things which Islam has been silent about “out of mercy for the people,” leaving “haram fatwas” to take over, given the recent fatwa trend toward permitting things at the expense of what were previously considered fixed tenets.
“Some issues have been blown out of proportion and become fixed indisputable tenets even though they are no more than branching off into subjects which scholars have long differed over. Most of what is discussed is of that type, and we should put things in their proper place and give matters their due importance, and not give them more weight than they deserved,” he said.
“Saudi today is perhaps seeing fatwas delve into detail and transgressing areas of permissibility in Islam, showing that our handling of new aspects of culture has gone no further than the specific points of religious texts and not their wider purposes.”
Is the religious institution in a predicament?
“Since the term ‘religious institution’ is general and undefined, I’ll give a general answer: ‘Yes,’” he said. “It needs a rethink and to open up to the various jurisprudential schools, and to look at reality impartially and research the wider and complete purposes of Shariah.”
“The problem we have today is those who want to force one view and one sect on people and believe the world is still that small village of 60 or 70 years ago. It’s obvious that correcting the path and giving opinions greater flexibility and broadening the areas of dialogue and room for discussion, needs to be done gradually with time and effort, but it requires sacrifices that should have been for things of more importance.”
Sheikh Ahmad has been accused by some of being a “lackey of the liberals and secularists” for his writings.
“Change and reform don’t come without a price,” he said. “Those who say such things are superficial and have neither the academic nor intellectual qualifications for constructive criticism or dialogue and only categorize people and use prefabricated accusations for anyone whose opinion they don’t like. It’s old news now. People today read and understand and discuss and are no longer content just to follow others.”
A question of terminology
In 2003 Sheikh Ahmad published an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that received a curt response from Sheikh Saleh Bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, a noted member of the Senior Board of Ulema. Sheikh Ahmad wrote that categorizing a country as either an abode of Islam or of Kufr (unbelief) is “ijtihadi” – a matter of personal interpretation – and that “jurisprudential terminology needs to be changed for this day and age.”
Sheikh Al-Fawzan saw no difference between religious and secular judgments, saying that an abode of the kufr is any matching that of Makkah when the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions left - “governed by the unbelievers and with unbelief prevailing, and with Muslims unable to preach their religion.”
“This ruling is not a question of terminology,” Sheikh Al-Fawzan said, “but comes from the texts. The Islamic country is one ruled by the Islamic state and is free from polytheism and unbelief. I would ask Sheikh Ahmad to think before writing, especially on such important matters .”
Sheikh Ahmad told Al-Arabiya that he maintained his position.
“Sheikh Al-Fawzan is one of our most senior clerics and I am honored by his observations and criticism, but I still believe in what I wrote,” Sheikh Ahmad said. “We are still ruled by expressions and terms from centuries ago that didn’t come from the Qur’an and cannot be applied to reality. The concept in use during the countries of Muslim domination and the abode of polytheism and the abode of Islam is difficult to use in this day and age.”
“It’s undoubtedly difficult to adhere to these terms with the concept of the state, nation and citizen and diversity in ways of governing and ways to choose a government, and the nature of running the state, parliaments, representative bodies, elections and regional and global organizations etc. For example, a country like Lebanon has a president of one religion and sect, a prime minister from another, and a house of representatives speaker of another, so what is this country to be called according to the old terminology of the abode of kufr and the abode of Islam?”
“We need to create new jurisprudential theories for the concept of state, nation and loyalty, and international relations and global organizations, with a political, social, intellectual and legal dimension. We need an intellectual and academic ‘intifada’ and hold continual workshops and symposiums and dialogues, and for universities to assume responsibility to produce modern jurisprudential theories that accompany the rapid and successive cultural developments and upheavals and not just clone and ‘copy and paste’ as happens in what’s unfortunately called the ‘Islamic Economy’. Humanity has made cultural and human achievements in the modern age, from the industrial revolution to this digital revolution, that were not witnessed for thousands of years. We need to pause, contemplate and review, to lay down rules and theories based on the examination of the Islamic Shariah and consider all its purposes. We need to take the initiative, anticipate events and look to the future, and not just be passive receivers. Our mission and creativity at the moment only address immediate problems.” – SGProof for prayer times
Sheikh Ahmad has been accused of “attention-seeking’ for openly asking the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Promotion of Vice (the Hai’a) to provide proof for instructing people to pray at specific times during prayer times.
“Instructing and encouraging people to pray is a praiseworthy thing that reminds people and warns them not to neglect it,” Sheikh Ahmad says. “Firstly, the problem is in forcing it on people and making it an offense if they don’t. Secondly, I’ve written several times about the Hai’a over the last seven years: it’s not the first time I have been accused of seeking confrontation with them, but as you’ll know, some of their work conflicts with people’s freedom and affects people’s reputations, and so it needs to be discussed at every opportunity. Thirdly, accusations of “fame-seeking” are just ready excuses to ignore the real issues in any serious matter or ideas been worthy of consideration. Fourthly, this issue hasn’t been resolved yet, as I don’t think they have received a sufficient response.”Let’s not get personal
When asked about the views of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, head of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Makkah who last December spoke on the issue of “ikhtilat” – the mixing of genders – declaring it permissible, Sheikh Ahmad said: “Any discussion of an academic subject that is based on Shariah and is conducted on proper debate and on the rules of discussing differences, and without accusing someone of ulterior motives - without personalizing the issues or judging the individual – is something I support and encourage whether I agree with that person or not.”