Awda, Salman al- (1955–)

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Awda, Salman al-

Salman ibn Fahd ibn Abdullah al-Awda (Oadah) is a Saudi Arabian preacher whose sermons, widely distributed by audiotape, became influential among Islamist political thinkers at home and abroad during the 1991 Gulf War and much of the decade following. Incarcerated in the 1990s for opposition to the Saudi government, he is now a supporter of the regime.


Al-Awda was born in 1955 in al-Basr, near the city of Burayda in Qasim Province, in central Saudi Arabia. He had a classical Islamic education in the Wahhabi tradition, beginning at the Burayda Institute, where he studied Arabic grammar, standard Wahhabi treatises, Hanbali jurisprudence and hadith under the personal guidance of local shaykhs. He completed a B.A. and M.A. in Islamic jurisprudence at Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud University. Incarcerated for five years for inciting opposition to the Saudi government, al-Awda emerged rehabilitated in 1999 to become one of the kingdom's most respected religious spokespersons. With a television program and a Web site that disseminates opinion in four languages, he has also become a spokesperson for the regime, operating under its protection and in competition with the government-sponsored establishment ulama (clergy).


Al-Awda identifies himself with the Saudi Arabian Sahwa intellectual movement that arose in the 1970s. Sahwa (Awakening) is grounded in the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam that views true Islamic government as based on an equal partnership between ulama (clergy) and state, and Islamic law as derived solely from the Qur'an and Sunna (the customary behavior of the Prophet as illustrated in books of his collected sayings and deeds [Hadith]) According to Madawi al-Rasheed in her book Contesting the Saudi State, in al-Awda's view Sahwa specifically incorporates the idea of individual responsibility for carrying out the Qur'anic injunction to command what is good and condemn what is wrong, a responsibility that should not be abrogated in favor of state agencies and official ulama. While individuals who identify themselves with Sahwa neither subscribe to a particular political organization nor express a uniform viewpoint, as a way of thought the movement is overtly political, underpinning a discourse of contestation that draws from religion to solve contemporary concerns.

Al-Awda's views on government and society were influenced by the circumstances of his birth. He was raised in an agricultural village near Burayda, which, like Qasim Province as a whole, is poor and underdeveloped in comparison to the capital region and the cities of the Hijaz, the northwest quadrant of the Arabian Peninsula. Burayda is known historically as a stronghold of Wahhabi conservatism and for its active opposition to some government-sponsored development projects that impact local cultural values, such as girls' education when that was first introduced in the early 1960s. Al-Awda's sermons from the start expressed an ideology of resistance to cultural challenges arising from globalization and development, as well as opposition to the monopoly of power held by Saudi Arabia's ruling family and its failure to invest in the economic development of Qasim.


Name: Salman ibn Fahd ibn Abdullah al-Awda (Oadah)

Birth: 1955, al-Basr, Saudi Arabia

Family: Married; twelve children

Nationality: Saudi Arabian

Education: Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud University, B.A., M.A., Islamic jurisprudence


  • 1990: Teaches, Burayda mosque
  • 1994: Imprisoned for anti-government activities
  • 2001: Director, Islam Today website

The 1990–1991 Gulf Crisis and War, in which an American-led coalition of forces aligned against the Iraqi regime of saddam hussein in response to its seizure of Kuwait, proved an opportunity for al-Awda and others to tap into an already-existing current of discontent within the kingdom. When the then-Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Baz issued a fatwa lending Islamic justification for the regime to invite American forces to defend Saudi Arabia from Hussein, al-Awda raised questions about the incapacity of the Saudi military to defend the kingdom when so much of its resources had been invested in American-made weapons. During the war period al-Awda was a moving force behind two reform petitions addressed to the king. The first, in 1991, was known as the Letter of Demands and was signed by leading Saudi religious, mercantile, and socially prominent figures seeking changes in the form of government, notably the establishment of a Shura (consultative) Council. A year later, the second petition, known as the Memorandum of Advice, which was signed by more than one hundred religious scholars, including establishment ulama, called for individual freedoms and a Shura Council, but also media censorship under religious guidance and review of all the kingdom's laws to insure their conformity with shari'a. Both petitions expressed loyalty to the house of Sa'ud while opposing the lack of representation in the existing government. Meanwhile, audiotapes of al-Awda's sermons gained wide circulation and gave encouragement to other opposition voices during the years following the war, as the United States military settled in for a long stay at an airbase outside the capital.

Arrest and Imprisonment

In 1994, al-Awda was arrested after refusing to cease his political activities and stop delivering sermons. His arrest and imprisonment, along with that of other Sahwa shaykhs, notably his colleague Safar al-Hawali, brought attention from the international media and energized Saudi opposition voices abroad. To their followers in Saudi Arabia, the personal sacrifice of the incarcerated Sahwa activists was inspirational. In the eyes of Saudi progressives and establishment ulama, however, some of these activists came to be suspected of responsibility for encouraging the kind of violence that erupted in the kingdom, such as the bombing of a building housing American Air Force personnel in Al Khobar in 1996.

Al-Awda's views on the source and remedy for Saudi Arabia's problems are inconsistent, as Mamoun Fandy shows in his 1999 book, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. Based on a reading of al-Awda's taped sermons from his pre-imprisonment years, he finds, on the one hand, al-Awda arguing that Saudi Arabia is likely to follow the course of Egypt and Algeria, mired in violence as a product of the existing Saudi dictatorship and the silencing of opposition. On the other hand, al-Awda seems prepared to accept the current regime if it would only reassert that partnership between religion and state which the Saudis claim as the basis for their legitimacy.

Implicit in his notion of partnership between religion and state is a form of representative governance that eschews the kind of corruption al-Awda sees in the Saudi regime. In his sermon "Why States Disintegrate," according to Fandy, al-Awda advocates government based on shura (consultation), which, while not democratic, is also not authoritarian. He praises the stability of western governments, but he thinks that Muslim governments derive authority for legislation from a higher source, the divine shari'a, and should therefore be able to insure stability and the free exercise of individual rights, if only there were not so much corruption.

Despite his criticism of the Saudi regime, al-Awda shows himself to be a Saudi nationalist. In another taped sermon analyzed by Fandy, al-Awda draws a connection between the Saudi state, its superior people, and its special brand of Islam. Foreigners and foreign behaviors he sees as culturally polluting, and he draws the boundaries of cultural exclusivity within the kingdom to exclude non-Wahhabi Muslim citizens of Saudi Arabia, especially Shi'ites, who, he thinks, should be expelled.

As a cultural purist, al-Awda is an opponent of women's driving, which he thinks necessitates an immoral exposure of their bodies. He also opposes abortion, and argued against Saudi participation in the 1994 United Nations Conference on Population and Development on the grounds that the conference was meant to undermine Islamic values under the guise of promoting human rights. Western promotion of birth control, for example, would encourage premarital sex, and is meant to reduce the growth of Muslim populations; calling for equality between men and women would contradict Islamic inheritance laws, which favor male heirs over female. In al-Awda's concern about insuring cultural integrity, Fandy shows, he endorsed censorship of satellite television programming and also of the local media, although at the same time he called for freedom of speech for himself and other conservative religious reformers.


Many of us talk among ourselves about the absence of social justice from our society. The problem lies in our failure to apply the rules of our religion (shari'a) which was sent with a comprehensive reform message that included the spreading of justice, equality and abolishment of state and societal oppression. The message was sent to address our needs and protect our dignity and rights. Under Islamic law, no one will have a right to insult another fellow being, oppress him in any way, spy on him, arrest him without just reason or invade his privacy … All of these rights would be protected under the Islamic shari'a.


On the issue of human rights, Fandy shows, al-Awda's sermons assert the superiority of Islam over western human rights traditions. Expressing resentment at what he perceives to be double standards on the part of the West, he warns his audience not to be misled by human rights ideals touted by western critics of Islam, as these ideals are contradicted in practice. He notes, for example, discrimination against immigrants in France and Germany and support for the confessional system in Lebanon, while at the same time western powers disregard Muslim rights in Palestine and Bosnia.

Influence on Usama bin Ladin

During the decade of the 1990s, the impact of al-Awda's ideas was felt beyond Saudi Arabia in one particularly important way: his influence on Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin adopted al-Awda's criticism of Saudi government corruption and pandering to the United States, and his critique of the establishment ulama, whom he saw as servile to the interests of the regime. He was especially energized by al-Awda's criticism of Grand Mufti bin Baz for his 1990 fatwa legitimizing Saudi Arabia's invitation to the United States to defend the kingdom. Bin Ladin was also influenced by al-Awda and his fellow Sahwa shaykh Safar al-Hawali in their concern about secular ideologies and cultural pollution coming from the west.

Bin Ladin acknowledges the influence of the two shaykhs in his 1997 interview with journalist Peter Arnett, in which bin Ladin states that their imprisonment compelled him to step into their place in order to fulfill the Islamic obligation of "commanding the good and forbidding the wrong." He would do this, bin Ladin says, by issuing critical declarations directed against the Saudi government. In this same interview, he repeats al-Awda's denunciation of the West's double standards in claiming support for human rights while intervening militarily in Muslim countries, and also takes up al-Awda's assertion of the legitimacy of jihad, in that Muslims who are under assault are entitled to defend themselves. Bin Ladin's remedy in advocating suicide bombing, however, was his own.

Al-Awda was compelled as a condition of his release from prison in 1999 to moderate his public speaking, or refrain from speaking at all. Having chosen the former, his output is now in the service of the state, a role that has taken shape in part because of fallout from the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. After the attacks, in the view of Saudi liberals and establishment ulama, the whole Sahwa movement was under suspicion, not for involvement in the attacks themselves but for having encouraged the kind of jihadist thinking that condones violence as a remedy for political grievance. At the same time, the Saudi regime and its Wahhabi religious establishment came under harsh criticism by the United States, accused of incubating a culture of terrorism through its schools and da'wa (missionary) programs. Sahwa shaykhs were as determined to prove to the regime their innocence of complicity in acts of violence as the regime was determined to prove its innocence to the rest of the world. In this context al-Awda, a figure of exceptional prominence in the Sahwa movement, was able to serve both his own and the government's interests by denouncing jihadists while also inviting them to be rehabilitated under the tutelage of the regime.

Operating under the government's umbrella, al-Awda's voice has been amplified through a weekly television program and the Internet. He takes full advantage of the globalized media he once condemned as the conduit for cultural pollution, and he is well aware of the irony. "At one time," he writes on his website, Islam Today (, "our discussions surrounding mass media amounted to nothing more than condemning it and warning against it. This proved to be of no benefit, nor did it repel any harm." His goal in setting up his Internet site is "to serve our faith, defend it, and call to it,… and the Internet, with its immense, global potential … must be employed to its maximum potential." Islam Today is a sophisticated and expensive project, funded by Saudi donations, with pages in four languages—Arabic, English, French and Chinese—each section designed to appeal to a particular audience, and each reflecting the remade image of Islam that the Saudi government is promoting.

Tolerance and Moderation

The English-language section, which is under al-Awda's personal direction, appears aimed at redefining Islam in a way that will mollify concerns of a Western audience inclined to see militancy and violence as built into the Islamic message. For example, an announcement posted on 17 February 2007 reads, "During his television program entitled 'First Monday' which airs weekly on NBC in Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Salman al-Awda was asked to comment on Valentine's Day. He said: 'We do not feel a need for this holiday, since it is foreign to the mores and values of our society, but we are definitely in need of love.' 'Love' al-Awda says, 'is an indispensable part of our very humanity. It is an indispensable aspect of our faith and our mores—and Muslim societies need more than ever to be reminded of the importance of love and affection.'"

On the same webpage is an article about tolerance, which is a "beautiful word in every language and according to every culture … a 'great Islamic principle'" that "needs to be inculcated in those who govern and those who are governed." Tolerance has its limits, however, when it comes to non-Wahhabi Muslims. "One of our most important objectives for this website," al-Awda says on his homepage, "is to present Islam in its pristine purity according to prophetic methodology." By this he means the Wahhabi method, which allows only the Qur'an and Sunni-approved versions of the Prophet's life (as preserved in canonical Hadith) as the source for Islamic judgments. Ecumenicism is not his goal. Al-Awda states that his "Web site will remain free from the taint of heretical innovation, misguided sectarian ideas, blind imitation, and partisan bigotry." In other words, Shi'ite Islam and all its branches will not be tolerated on the Web site of toleration.

A series of bombings and shooting attacks against western targets in Riyadh in 2003 provided al-Awda an opportunity to display his loyalty to the state. In a statement issued in 2003, "The Bombings in Riyadh and What is Required of Us," posted on his website, al-Awda unequivocally condemns the use of violence, specifically violence in Saudi Arabia, because "we are all in the same boat. Any breach in the hull will drown us all…. Our sense of responsibility forces us to condemn what happened," he says, "no matter what excuse the perpetrators of the atrocities might have had." At the same time, however, he is sympathetic to the frustrations that give rise to such violence and manages to reiterate his own earlier criticisms of the Saudi government in the guise of advocating reform. "It is imperative that we create an atmosphere conducive to moderation," he says, "with justice, respect for human rights, and equal opportunity for all. We need to have the right to speak our minds, to publish, and to present our views freely."

While al-Awda is firm on repudiating violence as a means of solving problems in Saudi Arabia, he sees violence as a legitimate method of response in other places. In fact he encourages what he sees as defensive attacks wherever oppressed people have no other option. In 2004, for example, in the wake of United States military action in Falluja, Iraq, al-Awda joined twenty-five other shaykhs in signing a fatwa urging Iraqis to carry out "defensive jihad" against American "warriors of aggression" occupying their country. At the same time, despite his repeated calls for Muslim unity and a common defense, al-Awda discourages foreigners, particularly Saudis, from taking part in the Iraq fighting on tactical grounds, as they might sow confusion.

Similarly, al-Awda supported the Lebanese political group Hizbullah in the summer of 2006 in its conflict with Israel, despite Hizbullah's being a Shi'ite movement. "This is not the time to express our differences with the Shi'ites," he wrote on his website, "because we are all confronted by our greater enemy, the criminal Jews and Zionists."

Al-Awda's ambivalence about political violence extends to his views on terrorism, which he rejects in principle, but then endorses as a militant response of last resort. "Terrorism," he says on his website, "is a form of warfare whereby innocent people are specifically targeted to instill fear in a population … [since] targeting civilians is strictly prohibited by Islamic Law … terrorism is categorically prohibited in Islam." Yet al-Awda is not categorically against suicide bombings where civilians may be present. A transcript of a New York Times interview in 2001 with Douglas Jehl posted on al-Awda's Web site quotes the shaykh responding to a question about a suicide attack in Jerusalem. "Regardless of whether the attacks were against civilians," he says, "the fact [is] that they were within the realm of resisting occupation. Is there any international law that denies the people the right to resist with any means they can?"

Gender Relations and Dialogue with the West

When it comes to gender relations, some Sahwa shaykhs continue to insist on the "anatomy is destiny" approach, defining women as weak and nervous and consigning them to home and family as the only means for them to attain happiness. These same men have opposed women's right to vote, and have insisted on the power of male guardianship over women's movements, challenging, for instance, the right of university women to live in dormitories or teachers to live away from their male guardian. Al-Awda, however, has moderated his views on women. According to al-Rasheed, he has adopted the Islamic modernizers' argument that there is a distinction to be made between religious rulings and social custom, a distinction that, when ignored, results in unwarranted restrictions on things women are entitled to do. Al-Awda has not, however, repudiated his earlier objections to women's reproductive rights, women's driving, or inheritance reform.

When it comes to trying to engage in dialogue with the West, al-Awda, as evidenced by his website, has been an important player. In 2002, he collaborated on a response to an Institute for American Values (a right-wing "think tank") statement entitled "What We're Fighting For," which laid out a moral basis for the United States' "war on terror" as necessary to defend "universal human morality" against "organized killers with global reach." Al-Awda joined 153 Saudi professors, religious scholars, businessmen, and writers, men and women, in signing a statement entitled, "How Can We Coexist?" which called for dialogue as an "alternative to the language of violence and destruction." The statement also notes that terrorism comes not from ideology, but from human experience of injustice when neither political channels nor an appeal to international humanitarian law produces redress of grievance. To underscore the potential for fruitful dialogue between Islam and the West, the statement lists examples of moral values that the two sides share in common, including the inherent worth of the individual and his right to life, regardless of religion, color or ethnicity; freedom of religion; morality and justice in human relations; environmental protection; and individual responsibility for one's actions, as opposed to collective punishment.


Al-Awda is now on the liberal edge of Saudi Arabia's conservative Sahwa movement, and has been an influential spokesperson for cultural conservatives as well as for those who oppose government corruption and the regime's monopoly of power. As such, he appeals to a broad swath of Saudi society. He has enjoyed the toleration of the state-funded ulama, and, since his release from prison, the toleration of the regime as well. Before imprisonment, the establishment ulama benefited from the presence of al-Awda and other Sahwa shaykhs, because their antigovernment rhetoric made the state more reliant on ulama support. At the same time, the Sahwa conservative social agenda proved a useful bogeyman to scare social progressives into moderating their demands for liberalizing rules of social conduct, especially in regard to women's rights.

At the time of the Gulf War of 1990–1991, criticism of the Saudi regime and the West by al-Awda and others was viewed unfavorably by the United States, whose military alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the region was put at risk. As of 2007, however, al-Awda represents the face of Islamic moderation with which the United States can feel comfortable.


In 2007, al-Awda and other Sahwa shaykhs who have modulated their critique of government were funded and protected by the regime. Having broken the monopoly over religious interpretation once held by the establishment ulama, they function in competition with them for the ear of the Saudi rulers and for the hearts and minds of the Saudi people and Muslims abroad. Al-Awda, says al-Rasheed, given his far-reaching media access, appears positioned for eminence in the Saudi religious hierarchy.


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Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women. Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld, 2001.

Al-Rasheed, Madawi. Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

DeLong-Bas, Natana. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and reform to Global Jihad. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. New York: Palgrave, 1999.

Gause, F. Gregory III. "Beware of What You Wish For." Updated 8 February 2006. Available from English Section. Available from

Okrulik, Gwenn. "Networks of Dissent: Islamism and Reform in Saudi Arabia." Current History (January 2002).

                                   Eleanor Abdella Doumato