Will Saudi Arabia redefine its religion?
A move to change the country’s explicitly Islamic flag raises questions
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Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Islam. It means a great deal to Muslims, as it is home to Muhammad’s birthplace and the land where he proclaimed his religious message.
The Saudi flag represents its dignity, identity, and history. This flag has been explicitly Islamic for centuries and it can never be lowered even as a sign of mourning. Lowering the flag is considered religiously blasphemous.
However, in a huge announcement last week, we are told, “Saudi Arabia moves to redefine Islam-bearing green flag.”
The Saudi king appointed a council that “voted in favor of changes,” which “aim to more clearly define the proper uses of the state emblem, raise awareness about the importance of the flag and anthem, and protect the flag from infringement or neglect.”
What is unique about the Saudi flag and why would the Saudis change it? The flag is green and has an Arabic phrase and an image of a sword. The statement is the most important religious phrase for Muslims. It is the Islamic creed: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” This creed is the profession of faith for Muslims. In their beliefs, stating the phrase publicly converts non-Muslims to Islam. This creed has been consistently on the Saudi flag since the days of the first founder, Muhammad ibn Saud (1727–1765). Accordingly, “violating the Saudi flag” is a crime.
The sword underneath the creed represents the hegemony, power, and victory of Islam. This symbol is central to Islam, its history, and religious texts. Islamic history details more than 70 military expeditions led or commissioned by Muhammad against non-Muslims during his last 10 years. Even the sword he used in these raids is given a revered name in Islamic traditions. Muhammad reportedly exhorted Muslims to march to battles, promising them, “Paradise is under the shades of swords.” He declared, “I have been sent with the sword.”
Muhammad openly identified the mission he received from Allah: “I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.’” The bottom line is that fighting would remain until people declare the profession of faith, “No god but Allah.”
Without a doubt, the sword and the Islamic creed are essential elements in the Saudi ultraconservative version of Islam, known as Wahhabism. This understanding of Islam goes back to the first founder and his fellow preacher Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). Both sought to apply Islamic texts literally, as exemplified in the life of Muhammad and his earliest followers.
For Saudi Muslims, it has been plausible for generations that the sword and the Islamic creed are clearly placed on their flag—but perhaps not for long.
A Saudi council has presented a proposal to the king to “redefine” the flag. Will the “Islamic creed” go away? Will the “sword” vanish? No one knows exactly what this redefinition entails, especially in the absence of a free press in Saudi Arabia. This redefinition is a mystery for the public, as the “council has not disclosed further details.”
I am skeptical. In a sense, this news might be simply an attempt to test the public reaction to such a controversial call. Still, there is a powerful man behind this proposal—the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Known widely by his nickname, MBS, the crown prince wants to redefine Saudi identity by advancing “a national-cultural identity that is not solely defined by religion.” MBS wants a new Saudi image, appealing to multi-religious modern societies.
But the new Saudi concept necessitates a new definition of Islam. MBS wants to reform Islam and he vows, “I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam.” Reforming a country may pass as a compelling idea, but reforming a religion is arguably a harder, more daring call.
MBS is too progressive for many Muslims, especially among conservative Saudis. His opponents believe he is deviating from the true Islam by advancing heresies and by “social loosening.” Some even identify him as a “feminist reformer for his efforts to lift the driving ban against women” in 2018. While MBS is calling for progressive changes, there is no proof that he is as powerful as the centuries-old Islamic traditions that are revered and cherished by Saudis.
I am doubtful that Saudi Arabia will change its explicitly Islamic flag, especially as its state-run media is decidedly ambiguous and claims “the changes favor amending the system governing the flag, the slogan, and the national anthem but not its contents.”
The matter of the Saudi flag might point to a theological crisis within the birthplace of Islam. Will Saudis preserve traditions and keep explicitly Islamic symbols on their flag, or will they change course?
Only time will tell.
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