by Hanin Alsudais
In Saudi Arabia, clerics have traditionally held great social power. With recent social and technological changes, the role of clerics in Saudi Arabia has evolved. This is easy to see with the evolution of how fatwas (legal opinions based on interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna) are delivered. As the public sphere has expanded in Saudi Arabia over the last five decades, changes in how clerics interact with the public and deliver fatwas has altered society’s perception of them.
To understand this evolution, it is important to understand the nature of Saudi Arabia’s public sphere at the time of the establishment of the Senior Council of Ulema in 1971. Using the definition put forth by Jürgen Habermas, the ‘public sphere’ should be contrasted with the ‘private sphere’, which refers to activities that do not contribute to ‘civil society’. While Habermas saw the public sphere as an important underpinning of a free society, Pieter Boeder adds that the nature of the public sphere is also relevant: an abstract forum designed for ideological dialogue that transcends physical space.
In 1971 in Saudi Arabia, the public sphere was not very public. Although mass media existed in the form of state-run radio and television stations, these were hardly part of the public sphere as conceived by Boeder or Habermas. Fatwas at this time were typically issued in person from the cleric to the individual. However, clerics were able to use recordings to spread their sermons. In 1990, it was estimated there were 60 to 70 Islamic recording stores in Riyadh alone, and sales were as high as 200,000 copies per sermon. The distribution of these sermons expanded the popularity of the clerics even outside of religious circles, with listening to recorded sermons a common experience many different segments of Saudi society shared.
The public sphere expanded even more for the clerics after the year 2000, when they started appearing on talk shows. The public would call in and ask the cleric to issue a fatwa for them. This means that for the first time, interactions between regular people and clerics were televised, allowing the public sphere to expand to incorporate something that until then had been strictly in the private domain. One of the hourly programs, Fatwa Live, ran daily on a state-operated channel. Hosted by a high-ranking member of the Senior Council of Ulema, the show would take call-ins from the public asking questions, and the Council member would issue the fatwa live.
The public sphere continued to expand with the advent of social media. By 2014, Saudi Arabia had 2.4 million active Twitter users (out of a total population of about 25 million), and the country accounted for 40 percent of active Twitter users in the Arab world. Clerics tended to adopt Twitter partly of their own accord and partly because their followers asked them to set up accounts. Abdullah Al-Ghathami uses the Arabic term ‘kashf al hijab’ (‘revealing what’s behind the veil’) to describe how this presented the clerics in a new light to the public. Al-Ghathami argues that the people were newly able to see the ‘real’ cleric behind the scenes.
In his book, Twitter Culture, Al-Ghathami gives the specific example of a former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Adil Al-Kalbani. Prior to social media, Al-Kalbani was only known for his beautiful voice when reciting the Qur’an at the mosque. However, when he eventually joined Twitter, he became known for his sarcastic retorts.
Helped by his charisma, Al-Kalbani racked up over six million followers in Saudi Arabia. He also showed his liberal stripes, contesting certain overly conservative religious views, and arguing that music should not be forbidden, provoking pressure from scholars for him to change his position. Al-Kalbani even dealt cards to players at a tournament for baloot, a popular card game in Saudi Arabia with several fatwas forbidding it. Of course, he suffered criticism, but the pictures went viral on social media.
The expansion of the public sphere in Saudi Arabia to include both mass- and social-media enabled clerics to go from providing private fatwas to television fatwas to becoming approachable on social media. While this may be seen as positive in some ways, one side effect was to erode the perception of holiness of the clerics. Now, the clerics get into public arguments on Twitter, and this display of their personality may shatter the predefined image many people in Saudi Arabia had of the cleric. Al-Ghathami observed that people would post replies on Twitter that indicated this: ‘I’m very disappointed in you,’ ‘you changed your mind,’ ‘you are not who I thought you were,’ and, ‘if I knew that was your opinion, I would not have followed you’.
In summary, the implementation of mass media and then social media has expanded the public sphere in Saudi Arabia, and the participation of clerics in these has started a feedback loop. Although the clerics have become more approachable, they are increasingly less revered. The rapid feedback loop associated with social media even more strongly influenced the decline of perception the clerics’ social authority.