Can the Saudis Break Up With Wahhabism?

Portraits of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef on the wall of a restaurant in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.CreditJordan Pix/Getty Images
Portraits of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef on the wall of a restaurant in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit Jordan Pix/Getty Images

The speed and magnitude of change in Saudi Arabia has accelerated considerably after the consecration of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. To legitimize his ascent, fulfill his absolutist ambitions and face various internal and external challenges, Prince Mohammed has presented and positioned himself as the champion of “modernization.”

Several of the crown prince’s statements and initiatives — calling for a moderate Islam, authorizing women to drive, reopening cinemas — have been interpreted as his desire to break the historic pact between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious establishment.

In the mid-18th century, the Saud embraced Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a revivalist preacher who advocated a narrow reading of the Quran and the Hadith and attacked any deviations from or accretions to the original practice. People who deviated from the Wahhabi doctrine were excluded from Islam, and jihad was considered the only way to bring them back to the right path.

The compact with Wahhab and his disciples helped the Saud to legitimize an expansionist policy and create a durable state in the early 20th century. The Saudi monarchy monopolized political and military action; the Wahhabi clerics took charge of the religious, legal and social spheres.

Prince Mohammed is unlikely to pull off a break with the Wahhabi religious establishment because the clerics have proved to be resilient and have displayed a great capacity to adapt to transitions and vagaries of power. Attempts to marginalize the clerics date back to the early 20th century.

When King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who ruled from 1902 to 1953, set out to monopolize power, work with Western partners and find acknowledgment from the broader Muslim world, he felt the need to use Islamic reformism to weaken and moderate Wahhabism.

Wahhabi clerics preserved their authority and even grew stronger by offering ideological concessions such as showing more tolerance toward non-Wahhabis, allowing the presence of non-Muslims in Saudi territory, and accepting modern education and administration.

In the post-oil period, between the 1950s and the mid-1970s, under the reign of Saud bin Abd al-Aziz and then King Faisal bin Abd al-Aziz, Saudi Arabia had to modernize very quickly. The old structures of the kingdom were too archaic and personal to effectively control territory, to satisfy the expectations of a growing and heterogeneous population, to create new sources of legitimacy and to contain the hegemonic claims of pan-Arabist regimes.

The religious establishment saw the state-building and the concurrent changes as a threat but did not object to the kingdom admitting girls to schools or introducing television and cinema. Instead, the clerics took advantage of the Saudi conflict with pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s and the bounteous oil revenues to modernize the religious establishment by creating new institutions such as the office of Grand Mufti, a fatwa bureaucracy, and religious schools and universities like the Islamic University of Medina and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

The clerics also created Islamic courts, media organizations and pan-Islamic organizations such as the Muslim World League. Petro-modernity helped the religious establishment to maintain its influence in the kingdom and export its worldview.

The Islamic revolution in Iran, the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Army in 1979 tilted the scale in favor of the Wahhabi establishment.

To restore its credibility after the attack on Mecca, to contain the Shiite revolutionary challenge and to fight Communism, the Saudi monarchy proclaimed its attachment to Islam by applying sharia severely — inflicting corporal punishment, imposing gender segregation in public spaces, shutting down cinemas, increasing the power of the religious police, and providing financial and ideological support to jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Sunni Islamist movements around the world.

In return, the clerics supported the House of Saud against internal and external enemies such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and the Muslim Brotherhood. Memorably, the clerics issued a very unpopular fatwa in 1990 legitimizing the presence of American troops in the kingdom.

The Sept. 11 attacks put Saudi Arabia in a difficult position because Osama bin Laden and a majority of the hijackers were Saudi nationals. The kingdom was forced to distinguish itself from jihadist movements, allow criticism of Wahhabism, start an intrareligious and interreligious dialogue and reduce the powers of the religious police, among other measures.

The clerics came to the monarchy’s aid — and preserved their own interests as well — by sternly condemning jihadism and the Muslim Brotherhood through fatwas, publishing articles to such effect in newspapers and speaking on television networks. Even then some observers spoke of a post-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. As soon as the pressure eased, the clerical establishment and monarchy questioned the opening process.

After the Arab uprisings of 2011, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz requested the religious establishment’s support to thwart the challenges that the uprisings posed to Saudi Arabia. The clerics helped him out but got him to increase the budgets of religious institutions, allowing greater repression of any breach of the sharia in public space, promoting anti-Shiite discourse and muzzling secularist ideas.

King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz’s accession to the throne in 2015 led to the rise of Prince Mohammed. The crown prince’s public denunciations of extremist ideas and promises to promote moderate Islam have been interpreted as a renewed desire to break with Wahhabism. A closer reading shows that Prince Mohammed primarily condemns the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists and exonerates Wahhabism.

The religious establishment has lent unfailing support to Prince Mohammed and ratified his decisions by promulgating fatwas such as the one authorizing women to drive.

The clerics yielded on subjects they deemed secondary when the balance of power left them with little choice and managed to preserve their authority.

Wahhabism is likely to remain a pillar of the kingdom in the medium term. The religious establishment controls colossal material and symbolic means — schools, universities, mosques, ministries, international organizations and media groups — to defend its position. Any confrontation between the children of Saud and the heirs of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab will be destructive for both.

The historical pact between the monarchy and the religious establishment has never been seriously challenged. It has been reinterpreted and redesigned during times of transition or crisis to better reflect changing power relations and enable partners to deal with challenges efficiently.

To truly break the pact between the Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi religious establishment, it is necessary to have an alternative social project, the unfailing support of the elites and the population, a sound economic base and a very favorable context. Right now, Prince Mohammed does not possess those assets despite his personal inclination.

Nabil Mouline, a senior researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, is the author of The Clerics of Islam: Religious Authority and Political Power in Saudi Arabia.

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