The Saudi reforms launched by Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to in media as MBS) have been underpinned by a fundamental ideological claim: that Saudi Arabia has turned the page on Wahhabi Islam, which having served as state ideology for a limited period of historical time is now over. The government has sought to disseminate the trope of Saudi Arabia entering a “post-Wahhabi era” in Western media and policy circles, utilizing a large network of public relations firms, Gulf-funded think tanks, and even academics.
These claims have been backed up most clearly by the changes regarding social freedoms enacted on Bin Salman’s orders since 2016, when a year after his father became king, he launched the Vision 2030 project to transform Saudi economy and society. Women can now drive, unrelated men and women can mix freely in public space, music is played in restaurants, publicly accessible pop and rock concerts are held, cinemas operate commercially, shops are no longer forced to close during the Muslim prayers, and the religious police no longer roam the malls and streets wielding powers of arrest. The underlying motives behind this have been twofold: to improve the country’s image abroad and to stimulate economic activity. Further liberalizations on the way are widely expected to include introducing alcohol in hotels inside the Kingdom’s liberal enclaves such as the tech city Neom, and prestige tourist projects such as Red Sea Resort and Amaala Red Sea Riviera, and hotels inside the Riyadh economic zone. Major brands of global tourism and the financial institutions funding them all have an interest in seeing these plans come to fruition. Western finance has been critical to propping up the government throughout the fall in oil prices since 2014 and Covid crisis of 2020 through credit lines that help maintain foreign currency reserves and the riyal’s peg to the dollar.
“This social revolution required twisting the arm of the one institution capable, if not determined, of stopping it: the Saudi religious establishment.”
This social revolution required twisting the arm of the one institution capable, if not determined, of stopping it: the Saudi religious establishment. The religious scholars, or ʿulamaʾ, have been an influential feature of Saudi society since the modern state’s inception in the period from 1902 to 1932, and even before that, going back to 1744 when the Shaykh Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, a religious scholar of the Hanbali legal rite and follower of Syrian theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), made a pact with the Saudi clan. Wahhabism acquired a particular abhorrence for belief and practice outside the Hanbali framework, even among Sunnis, vilifying the veneration of individuals other than Muhammad associated with Shiʿism and Sufism. The Saudi-Wahhabi system also remained wedded to premodern juridical practices such as beheading for a wide range of what we might call crimes of faith. This enigmatic alliance has often been both troubled and opaque to analysis, but the power relationship basically runs in one direction. In the twentieth century the ʿulamaʾ consistently objected to innovations related to the development of the modern state, notably its increasing ties with foreigners and their culture, but the ruling family was always able to subdue and coopt the recalcitrant. The scholars initially objected to telegraph, girls’ education, television, commercial tribunals, women driving, entering the WTO, and the presence of US troops, but the majority sooner or later acquiesced.
However, the scale of change now is arguably greater than ever before, requiring a stronger arm to persuade them. Numbers are hard to pin down, but dozens of religious figures have been among the hundreds if not thousands jailed over the past five years, from prestigious scholars such as Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-ʿAwda, to preachers such as Sulayman al-Duwaish and Ibrahim al-Sakran, and religious thinkers such as Hasan al-Maliki. Although in some cases, the pretext was frivolous – after the Qatar boycott began in June 2017 al-ʿAwda tweeted his hope that Saudi Arabia would end the feud – important shifts in the relationship between Saudi religion and state underlie the current crackdown. Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ʿulamaʾ al-sultan, or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaʿida and its focus on questions of foreign policy. Under the influence of Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood cadres, the left began advocating for a more equitable relationship between ruler and ruled in the 1990s, aimed at making society more not less Islamic, according to their utopian vision. This discourse would evolve in critical ways in the early 2000s, producing the political reformism of al-ʿAwda which moved beyond the traditional pietistic concerns of Wahhabism to endorse the popular movements of the Arab uprisings (see his book Asʾilat al-Thawra) and the notion of popular sovereignty as an Islamic principle, as Madawi Al-Rasheed documented in her book Muted Modernists (2014).
“The Wahhabi right proved problematic in a more visceral yet ultimately less threatening manner for the Saudi state.”
The Wahhabi right proved problematic in a more visceral yet ultimately less threatening manner for the Saudi state. In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, in which Saudi Arabia was a complicit if silent partner, a domestic al-Qaʿida insurgency emerged that was able to launch a series of high-profile attacks on foreign residential compounds and government installations including Aramco between 2003 and 2009. But the government’s success in bringing the insurrection to an end, through a mix of security policies, incentives to make peace with the state, and ideological messaging, was such that the second round of insurrectionary activity – the Islamic State (ISIS) campaign of 2014 to 2016 – was by comparison a minor inconvenience. This was partly because, in a play for public opinion, ISIS targetted only government personnel and Shiʿi Muslims. The government also had a better sense of the ISIS threat since it emanated from the Syrian civil war in which Saudi Arabia was a central player through funding of proxies like Jaysh al-Islam. The government knew the actors and kept close tabs on Saudis who went to fight there. Indeed, with no domestic arena of political contestation to worry about, provoking Islamist violence in Syria and crushing it when it came back home were acts of little consequence for the Saudi government. It was telling that when Adel al-Kalbani, imam of the King Khalid Mosque in Riyadh, stated bluntly in a television interview that the ideology of ISIS was taken directly from the Wahhabi playbook, he received no significant internal pushback to speak of.
Since he became crown prince in 2017 Bin Salman has been praised by state ʿulamaʾ as a moderniser (muhaddith) and a renewer (mujaddid), the latter being a religious term normally applied in the Islamic tradition to ʿulamaʾ who bring forth ideas that regenerate the Islamic faith in some manner or other. The ʿulamaʾ, arranged in two related bodies – a council of senior luminaries and a central fatwa committee – under the leadership of a Grand Mufti, provide religious justification for certain key underpinnings of the Saudi state that have not changed one iota: protests are banned, political parties are banned, and public petitions regarding government policy are banned. Through their media and preaching activities, the clerics are still tasked with policing what the government calls “ideological security” (al-amn al-fikri). The ruler is still framed ideologically as wali al-amr, the Islamic guardian of the state whose responsibility for its affairs is a trust from God that entails creating the protective conditions for securing the Muslim’s faith and salvation. This in turn requires the functioning of an extensive religious bureaucracy (i.e., the role of ʿulamaʾ in various government ministries and other institutions). Bin Salman extracts the fealty he requires from the official bodies while also making a point of drawing on the blessings of those with a form of transcendent, independent authority such as Salih al-Fawzan, who state media recently showed receiving a visit from Bin Salman during Ramadan. The council of senior ʿulamaʾ is still dominated by Najdi Hanbalis from or close to the family of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, despite a decree by King Abdullah in 2009 that non-Hanbali Sunnis could become members. The most significant transformation in the religious sphere – a revamping of the Saudi court system, training of judges, and writing of a penal code – was ordered by Abdullah in 2007. It was also Abdullah as crown prince and king who inaugurated a certain shift to national identity at the expense of transnational religiosity, a direction that was intended to strengthen the capacities of Saudi Arabia as a modern state.
“The council of senior ʿulamaʾ is still dominated by Najdi Hanbalis from or close to the family of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, despite a decree by King Abdullah in 2009 that non-Hanbali Sunnis could become members.”
What has driven Bin Salman is a desire to break the grip on religious discourse by the generation of ʿulamaʾ who operated on the margins of the state bureaucracy. Known as the Sahwa (awakening), a reference to the rise of Islamic movements from the 1970s, it was from this group that the left of al-ʿAwda’s Reform Wahhabism emerged as well as the right of its jihadist activism. To Bin Salman they are a powerful class of dubious loyalty, capable of turning their independent support base into platforms for challenging his political status and socio-economic plans. The Sahwa generation of ʿulamaʾ were empowered by King Fahd in the 1980s as a buttress to regime stability following the 1979 Wahhabi insurrection in Mecca as well as the rebellion of Shiʿi citizens in the Eastern Province following the Iranian revolution. The government allowed their powers in social and educational affairs to grow as the country went through critical demographic, economic, and administrative expansion in the 1990s, viewing them as another arm of the state. Bin Salman’s move to suppress many of them once he had taken over as crown prince in 2017 speaks to another motivation. During their three decades of influence, the Sahwa clerics developed a close relationship with the interior ministry under its long years of control by Prince Nayef ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz and his son Mohammed bin Nayef, who rose to the top of the security apparatus after his father’s death in 2012 and became crown prince in 2015. Since his removal from both posts Bin Nayef has been under a form of house arrest to prevent him from becoming a rallying point for opponents of Bin Salman’s eventual accession to the throne. The scholars have been targetted in this process of replacing the old guard.
“Bin Salman’s public comments have given the impression that in crushing the Sahwa clerics he has returned Wahhabism to a state of innocence.”
Bin Salman’s public comments have given the impression that in crushing the Sahwa clerics he has returned Wahhabism to a state of innocence. In interviews with American media outlets during a US trip in March 2018 he talked of the United States using Islamic movements to challenge the Soviet-backed left and Iran. The US-Saudi weaponization of Islam against the left kicked off in earnest in 1964 under the reign of King Faisal, before the Sahwa generation, as Rosie Bsheer has shown. At the same time, Bin Salman has cast himself as a religious reformer. In an interview broadcast on Saudi television in April 2021 he spoke like an early 20th century Muslim modernist when he said that only multi-sourced hadith reports going back to the Prophet would be used as the basis for law and social mores. Religious stipulations, he said, must speak to the needs of time and place according to the principle of continuously renewed interpretation (ijtihad). “There should no punishment regarding a religious question without a clear Qurʾanic stipulation,” he said, adding that ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab did not intend his views to be etched in stone. “There is no fixed school, there is no fixed person, and interpretation of the Qurʾan is continuous.” There is no such thing as Wahhabism, he continued, a statement that can easily be misconstrued in that Wahhabi scholars themselves have long resisted the framing of their Hanbalism as a legal-theological school in its own right.
“As they always have done, Saudi rulers are delineating the powers of the ʿulamaʾ according to the regime’s vision for state modernization at the current juncture.”
As they always have done, Saudi rulers are delineating the powers of the ʿulamaʾ according to the regime’s vision for state modernization at the current juncture. The ʿulamaʾ are required to be a less visible presence in social and economic life and retreat to new lines set by the government, while asserting the principle of obedience to the writ of the ruler and providing Islamic sanction for his controversial projects. None of this amounts to dethroning Wahhabism, but it does mean an attempt to return to the more limited societal influence its ʿulamaʾ had before the 1980s. The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralizing the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy. In other words, the only ʿulamaʾ to be tolerated in the current environment are ʿulamaʾ al-sultan. If there is any deep challenge from Bin Salman to Wahhabism itself, it lies not in new instructions on where the role of the priestly class begins and ends but in the implication that its scholars must engage in a form of modernist discourse alien to its traditions – yet there is no indication thus far that Bin Salman’s public and private musings mean any more than the demand to approve his rules and plans. As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-ʿAwda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down.
Andrew Hammond currently teaches Late Ottoman and Turkish history at Oxford university. He is the author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, Popular Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, and the forthcoming “Salafi publishing and contestation over orthodoxy and leadership in Sunni Islam,” in Wahhabism and the World, ed. Peter Mandaville (Oxford University Press, 2022).