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“Pure Islam” is anything but peaceful

Is the Saudi crown prince a reformer or a historical revisionist?


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Associated Press/Photo by Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace

“Pure Islam” is anything but peaceful

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently spoke with The Atlantic about his views on religion, politics, and economics. The heir to the Saudi throne emphasized Islam as the fundamental foundation of the state, denounced Islamist extremism, and insisted that he aims at returning Saudi Arabia “back to pure Islam.”

The interview is important for several reasons. The crown prince (often known by his initials, MBS) is arguably among the most powerful and influential Muslims of our day, and Saudi Arabia is the most cherished place on the planet for billions of Muslims. It is the heartland of Islam, where Muhammad presumably lived and preached. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Sunni Islam—a version commonly followed by more than 85 percent of Muslims worldwide.

While the interview revealed a great deal about the crown prince’s religious and political views, his remarks on reforming Islam by rejecting extremism and returning to “pure Islam” are worth examining, as they present factual inaccuracies and lack historical support.

MBS began the interview by distancing himself from Muslim extremists, accusing them of distorting Islam and claiming they “hijacked and changed our religion into something new for their own interests.” He presented himself as both a true conservative and a real reformer, as he vowed to bring Saudi Arabia “back to the roots” of the true faith.

“We are going back to the real teachings of Islam, the way that the Prophet and the four rightly guided caliphs lived, which was open and peaceful societies,” MBS said. Thus, for the crown prince, Muslims should follow the way Muhammad and his earliest four successors lived.

Frankly, this imagined view of peace and harmony may be good for public relations, but it has nothing to do with what historical Muslim accounts reveal about Muhammad’s time and that of his successors.

When Muslims follow the actions of Muhammad’s time and apply the authoritative texts describing the behavior of his successors, we end up with patterns similar to what militant Muslim groups—such as ISIS—apply and imitate.

The Muslim tradition reveals that Muhammad, in the last 10 years of his life, led or commissioned more than 70 military campaigns against non-Muslims, including pagans, Jews, and Christians. He ordered the assassination of enemies, especially poets who criticized him.

Is this a picture of peace and harmony and open societies? Not at all. But there is much more, especially if we examine the time of the caliphs.

Once the news of Muhammad’s death had spread, Muslims fought each other to seize power and the wealth gained by the spoils of the many raids Muhammad commissioned. And many died while Muhammad’s body remained unprepared for burial.

Others openly abandoned Islam—since the prophet was no longer alive—and some rejected paying taxes to the caliph. Consequently, instead of letting these ex-Muslims live, the caliph launched the Apostasy Wars, giving them a choice between returning to Islam and paying taxes or severe death.

Still, the crown prince wants to follow the way Muhammad’s earliest four successors lived.

The problem is, according to Muslim historical accounts, the time of these caliphs was far from peaceful. Three were assassinated by fellow Muslims and the fourth died mysteriously. The first civil war between Muslims occurred during this time. Even Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, spearheaded a war against Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, during which thousands of Muslims died. This war was followed by another, in which Muslims from various factions fought each other and multitudes died. If this represents “the real teachings of Islam,” as MBS claims, the world is in trouble.

When Muslims follow the actions of Muhammad’s time and apply the authoritative texts describing the behavior of his successors, we end up with patterns similar to what militant Muslim groups—such as ISIS—apply and imitate. When Muslim extremists fight infidels or slaughter innocent people, they have textual support in Islam to support their horrifying actions.

While everyone should encourage all attempts for peace and harmony in the world, imitating examples from the early Muslim time will not achieve either. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman certainly knows this, as do we.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.


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