Muted Modernists

The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia

November 2015 9781849045865 224pp


Analysis of both official and opposition Saudi divine politics is often monolithic, conjuring images of conservatism, radicalism, misogyny and resistance to democracy.

In her new book Madawi Al-Rasheed challenges this stereotype as she examines a long tradition of engaging with modernism that gathered momentum with the Arab uprisings and incurred the wrath of both the Saudi regime and its Wahhabi supporters.

With this nascent modernism, constructions of new divine politics, anchored in a rigorous reinterpretation of foundational Islamic texts and civil society activism, are emerging in a context where an authoritarian state prefers its advocates to remain muted.

Based on a plethora of texts written by ulama and intellectuals, interviews with important modernist interlocutors, and analysis of online sources, mainly new social media activism, Madawi Al-Rasheed debunks several academic and ideological myths about a country struggling to free itself from the straitjacket of predetermined analysis and misguided understandings of divine politics. She also challenges much of the scholarly received wisdom on Islamism in general, blurring the boundaries between secular and religious politics.


‘While Muted Modernists is written in the careful language of an academic monograph, its insights into the nuances of a unique political culture are relevant to everyone concerned with domestic security in Europe.’ — Financial Times

‘Madawi al-Rasheed, in Muted Modernists, performs an extremely interesting and useful service in introducing us to some of [the]…different complexities not just of Saudi Arabia, but also of Islam itself… [T]he book is valuable for anyone wanting to understand some of the internal discourse in the kingdom which is obscured from the outside world.’ — Church Times

‘Islamism is a piebald, elusive form of religious politics in the modern Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a key player, yet until now no one has shown how notable Saudi scholars, many of them marginal to traditional networks but with access to social media, are reshaping Islamism within the Kingdom. Written by the foremost scholar of dissident political movements in Saudi Arabia, this book is a must read for policy mavens and students of international affairs as well as Middle East specialists from all disciplines.’ — Bruce Lawrence, Professor of Islamic Studies Emeritus, Duke University, and author of Who is Allah?

‘In this latest publication, the increasingly prolific Madawi al-Rasheed demonstrates again why she is one of the foremost authorities on developments in Saudi Arabia. Muted Modernists not only challenges one-dimensional portrayals of Islamists, it also shows an ability to look behind the scenes of superficial media coverage and identify issues that often go unnoticed, but which are affecting the social fabric of what remains one of the most poorly understood countries in the Muslim world. Forceful in her conclusions, her findings evince a subtle understanding of the complexity of Saudi society. She offers valuable insights that should not be ignored by anyone with a genuine interest in one of the major players in Middle Eastern politics.’ — Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam & the Muslim World, King’s College London, and author of Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Values and Ideas

‘Madawi Al-Rasheed demonstrates here, as she has in her past works, that the intellectual and political scene in Saudi Arabia is much more diverse and argumentative than the conventional view would have it. Despite an authoritarian government that clamps down on even the hint of critical political speech, a religious establishment that rejects modernist reinterpretations of Islam and a general public that has not yet mobilised in large numbers for political change, there is an active intellectual debate among Saudis about what their religion means for their politics. Al-Rasheed captures a part of that debate that most outsiders could easily miss. No one writing in English follows the Saudi political scene more closely and more critically than she does.’ — F. Gregory Gause, III, Bush School of Government, Texas A&M University

‘Western (and Saudi) categories of  “radical” and “moderate” fail to capture the intensely fluid politics in Saudi Arabia of Islamist modernists who publicly challenge the religious roots of authoritarianism and advocate the emergence of genuine civil society. At great personal risk, especially after 2011, Saudi youth and intellectuals have sought, often via Twitter and other new media, to shape the debates over the direction that Saudi society should take. Muted Modernists is a must-read for understanding Saudi Arabia today and for asking better questions about turmoil in neighbouring states.’ — Dale F. Eickelman, co-author of Muslim Politics

‘A highly critical and informative inside-out study of Saudi society, Muted Modernists gives voice to Saudi youth and public intellectuals who struggle, against great odds, to shape the debates about the future direction of their country. Al-Rasheed expands the intellectual lens through which to view Saudi Arabia, and shatters the notion of Saudi uniformity and exceptionalism. A must read.’ — Fawaz A. Gerges, Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics


Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is the author and editor of several books on Saudi Arabia, most recently Salman's Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia, also published by Hurst.

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.