In This Review

Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia
Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia
By Madawi Al-Rasheed
Oxford University Press, 2016, 256 pp

Rasheed writes about a small group of Saudi intellectuals: “liberal” syncretists who blend Western ideas about civil society, checks and balances, and popular choice with the Islamic values of community (ummah), consultation (shura), and accountability (hisba). They assert that there should be a negotiated contract between the ummah and its rulers, one that is subject to change and revision. Rasheed is sympathetic to this line of thought but points out that Saudi state repression and the negative reactions that such “modernist” positions would induce in many Saudis may limit their appeal. Some of the figures she profiles emerged out of the “awakening” (sahwa) movement that followed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent stationing of U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. The shock of that event propelled some Saudi thinkers toward radical jihadism and others toward Islamic liberalism; for both groups, holding the regime accountable was at the heart of their concerns. Rasheed’s protagonists are not quite liberals: some have problems with the idea of gender equality; others with the idea of Shiites as the equals of Sunnis. But if there is to be reform within Sunni Islam, it will proceed with hesitations and ambiguities.