Author: Madawi Al-Rasheed
Publisher: Cambridge University Press,

Year: 2006. Pp. 308

ISBN: 0-521-85836-4 (HB)


Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed, herself a member of a notable Nejdi clan and based at Kings College, London, unravels the nexus ‘Saudi Wahhabi Salafiyya’ and in so doing provides insights on the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia today and its wider repercussions. 

Her work also helps to resolve some puzzles: how is it that a state with so many Islamic scholars – all with impeccable Arabic scholarship and access to sources – should produce a polity with so many regulations in the social sphere yet no influence on political life? Why is it that so many non-Saudi Islamic scholars, so adamant on a political project in their own countries, should have availed themselves of the King’s shilling without a hint of a troubled conscience? How come an intellectually bereft and simplistic religious world-view should have become so appealing to bright Muslim university students in the western world?

Professor Al-Rasheed has an anthropologist’s faith in history as a dialectical unfolding. She has no truck with the ahistorical dimensions of a revealed religion.  Thus when Muslim history throws up exceptions it must be a myth or Muslims’ odd way of perceiving the world.  So the reference to Umar ibn Abd Al-Aziz – widely regarded as following the footsteps of the four caliphs in his brief three year caliphate – is as someone “celebrated in the historical imagination of Sunni Muslims as a just ruler” (p.227). Jehadis’ feeling of humiliation is “a result of a perceived injustice inflicted on the Muslim world by superpowers” (p.207). Her account of a dissident, ‘Lewis’ Atiyat Allah offers a greater insight into mind of the author rather than the subject: “Lewis is committed to a constant search for a grand meta-narrative, a historical myth in which he is the central character and his faith is the motivating force…”(p.208).  Would it not be equally feasible to posit that ‘Lewis’ is inspired by the hadith, “The most excellent jihad is the uttering of truth in the presence of an unjust ruler”?  Anthropologists take a ‘non-essentialist’ view of religion, and regard it as nothing but a social construct.  Thus Islam becomes nothing but the actions and histories of Muslims, with no free-standing normative dimension.

The term ‘Wahhabism’ is derived from the name of a sheikh from Nejd – a region north west of Riyadh. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) initiated a movement to bring about unity, seek an Islamic order for society and shift the focus away from religious superstitions and dependence on the power of intercession of saints.  This was in the tradition of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) who, in the wake of the Mongol invasion, had formulated a powerful reformist and unifying message, ‘return to the Qur’an and sunnah’.  Ibn Taymiyya developed his own philosophical argumentation to assert that sciences and religious institutions whose origin could not be traced to early Islam should be rejected, and instead, the Salafiyya way (the practice during the early period of Islam) adopted.  Abd al-Wahab’s teachings were also expounded at a time of crisis – Napolean’s invastion of Egypt – but unlike ibn Taymiyya’s, his salafism was anti-intellectual.  Abd Al-Wahhab’s descendents, the Al-Shaikh family, provided religious legitimacy to the first Saudi-Wahhabi emirate from 1744-1818.

At about the same time Shah Waliullah of India (d. 1762) spent formative years in the Hejaz, where he absorbed ibn Taymiyya’s message of rebuilding socio-political life in line with the basic teachings of Islam. His approach was both mystical and intellectual, in contrast to the Nejdi Wahhabis.   On his return to India, Shah Waliullah established the Madrasa Rahimiyya in Delhi, which was closed down after the 1857 insurrection. However many teachers escaped to establish Deoband and important differences – as well as many similarities – remain between the Nejdi Wahhabis today and  the Deoband alumni.

For some reason, the Raj adopted the term ‘Wahhabi’ to describe Indian Muslims opposed to their rule and the use of Muslim troops to fight the Ottomans in World War I.  Paradoxically, at the very time that the Raj in India was ostracising and isolating the Indian Wahhabis, the British officer Captain Shakespear was fighting alongside Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to help the Saudi consolidation of power!   The British were able to prompt the Barelwi ulama to issue fatwas against the Deobandis during World War I.  Thus even then, there were the ‘bad Wahhabis’ and the ‘good Wahhabis’!

In a continuing alliance with the Saud tribe, the ‘Nejdi Wahhabis’ later provided religious legitimacy to Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s military campaigns from 1916-1922 which resulted in the emergence of the modern Kingdom. Professor Madawi is searing in her descriptions of the House of Saud’s manipulation of the religious establishment, its outcomes and reactions. 

She notes, “It is in the hands of sheikhs such as Ibn Baz, together with sheikhs Muhammad al-Uthaymin, Abd al-Muhsin al-Obaykan, Salih al-Fawzan, the current mufti AbdulAziz Al-Shaikh and many others that the Wahhabi tradition underwent a transformation beyond genealogy and geography.  Under their guidance Wahhabiya ceased to be a religious revivalist Salafi movement and became an apologetic institutionalised religious discourse which confirmed the servitude of religion to the state.  Ibn Baz’s inability to engage with the politics of the modern world and the superficiality of his religious opinions and interpretations contributed to the trivialisation of the Wahhabi message. . . .in order to survive as traditional religious notables in an age where the state began to be dominated by technocrats who were mainly educated abroad, the official Wahhabi ulama, under the religious leadership of Ibn Baz ceased to be independent mediators between government and the governed; they confined themselves to being guardians of public morality.  This amounted to enforcing the appearance of a highly Islamised public sphere, represented by the number of mosque in cities, minarets calling for prayers, predominance of religious education, segregation of the sexes, government spending on proselytising inside the country and abroad, and other related maters of appearance. . . With state co-optation they developed into a class in its own right and with its own interests.  The majority of them confirmed political decisions by providing a religious seal of approval for policy matters.  Official ulama sanctioned authoritarian rule and anchored it in religious interpretations… while twentieth-century Wahhabi scholars were constantly pre-occupied with questions of ritual performance, tomb-visiting, intercession and other so-called polytheistic innovations, they failed to produce a single treatise on the nature of the Islamic state and political authority. . . No important theological doctrine was developed in these areas because of their political sensitivity, which such intellectual exercise would expose.  Wahhabi ulama continued to reiterate opinions of selected scholars of the medieval period without serious engagement with contemporary political issues.  Their excuse was that they are Salafis, following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of pious ancestors. The official ulama failed to reflect on their own rule in the modern Saudi state. They refrained from critically examining this role and tracing its evolving nature.  Simply content with being guardians of the moral order while leaving political power in the hands of the ruling family and an expanding class of technocrats and bureaucrats, they lacked self-consciousness and awareness.  The Saudi ulama accepted the de facto separation between religion and politics, while adopting a narrow definition of religion as all matters relating to personal conduct and ibada.  They excelled in controlling the social sphere while leaving the political field in the hands of the state. The Wahhabi ulama contributed to the consolidation of the state that is politically secular and socially religious.  This enigmatic duality is an important feature of the contemporary Saudi regime. . . Wahhabiyya succeeded in Islamising Saudi authoritarianism rather than society”. (p. 32-33; p. 46; p. 57; p.256).

Professor Madawi cites Ibn Baz’s fatwa justifying the invitation of foreign troops to Saudi Arabia during the 1990-1 Gulf War and his 1993 Fatwa legitimising peace with Israel.

Equally forthright is her analysis of the impact of the export of this Nejdi Wahhabism across the world thanks to the oil riches of Eastern Arabia. Students from across the world were drawn to the Islamic university at Medina, established in 1961 and Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, granted university status in 1974.  These were monocultural environments and emerging graduates were often deeply loyal to the established order and equipped to preach rather than debate.  From the 1970s vast amounts of religious literature and aqida books also flowed out of Saudi Arabia, finding its way to even the smallest of prayer rooms in universities across the UK and the USA. Professor Madawi notes, “Certain Muslim university students worldwide may appreciate their clarity, purity, certainty and authenticity.  They may also appreciate the absence of ambiguity and hesitation. . .Saudi Wahhabi discourse creates the illusion of empowerment, an empowerment that is achieved by complying with rigid rules and fatwas that regulate almost every aspect of one’s life, body and relations with others.  It is the new ‘science’ of young Muslims”.   In the course of the Afghan War in the 1980s, the unsophisticated theology combined with the rhetoric of jihad and ‘hatred of the kuffar’.  The result, to use Professor Madawi’s phrase was “the premature transationalisation of Saudi religious discourse”.   In environments where religious discussion has to be nuanced and sophisticated, the simplistic approach is wrong-footing and embarrassing Muslim communities.

The book analyses the challenge that emerged from the group of dissident ulema, the ‘Sahwa’ (awakening) movement that began to emerge in the 1970s, though the author considers the motivation provided by Ikhwan activists who found refuge and livelihood in Saudi universities as “exaggerated”.  This is a contentious point, considering these included heavyweights like Muhammad Qutb.  However Madawi is probably correct in her assessment, because some Islamic movement leaders were refugees and could not rock the boat, while for others a Saudi association gave them kudos in their own domestic political struggle for recognition and legitimacy.  Prominent indigenous Sahwi leaders of the early perod included  Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, Shaikh Salman al-Awdah and Aidh al-Qarni.  The Sahwis asserted their right “to issue public advice on current affairs, and openly to criticise government policies”.  During the 1990s, Sahwis were imprisoned and some sought asylum overseas on release. 

Saudi Arabia provided “nearly US$4 billion in official aid to Jihadis in Afghanistan”.  Madawi records that throughout the 1980s when “Osama bin Laden….was furthering the US-Saudi project in Afghanistan, he was a ‘nice’ Jihadi, to use Khashogi’s words.  In the 1980s, Saudi Jehadis participated in the war to liberate Afghanistan from atheist Communism under the blessing of several sponsors, including the Saudi government and the official Wahhabi establishment.  To contain the rising religious enthusiasm of a whole generation of young Saudis, the government decided to facilitate the export of its own young subjects to the land of war”.  And she then notes wryly, the opening of the gate of Jihad abroad could not remain compatible with closing the gate of ijtehad at home.  The outcome was “the privatisation of jihad in an age of globalisation” (p. 155), and the rest is the stuff of history.

Following 9/11, a number of Sahwis were again imprisoned, but on their release made statements declaring their loyalty to the state.  Madawi notes, “Although senior princes attacked Sahwis in public, the regime enlisted famous Sahwis to perform two tasks – one intellectual and one practical.  The first involved preaching the religious discourse that denounced Jehadis as activists who failed to understand the meaning of Jihad. The second task involved negotiating with Jihadis in the hopes of delivering them to the regime.  Sahwi figures ‘volunteered’ to bring back those who had gone astray, mainly Jihadis who used violence against the state and people.  Only famous Sahwi scholars such as Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-Awdah were able to play the double role of preaching against violence and neutralising violent actors”.  The former, in November 2003 declared that  “wali al-amr is a father and we are his sons”.  In the eyes of their radical opponents, these Sahwis have become the ‘qa’idun’, those who sit, while they remain the ‘murabitun’ – the fighters. 

Following the co-optation of the first generation of dissidents, Madawi highlights two bright stars, who are happy to describe themselves as Salafis.  The first is Professor Abdullah al-Hamid, currently in prison.  He has distanced himself from the conventional Salafist view on dealing with state authority – that tyranny can be justified if the only other choice is anarchy or foreign aggression (for an analysis of this idea see Enayat, ‘Modern Islamic Political Thought).  According to Madawi, “al-Hamid deconstructs the meaning of wali al-amr, the one who determines and controls destiny.  He laments how this meaning is now loaded with notions of absolute rule and despotism.  Because of the heavy intervention of previous religious scholars, Muslims have succeeded in ‘Islamising oppression and backwardness’ under the guise of returning to the pious ancestors and guarding authenticity”. 

Another attempt to reform Nejdi Salafi discourse from within is associated with the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), led by Saad al-Faqih, in exile in London.  While al-Hamid remained loyal to the royal family (“at least in public”, notes Professor Madawi), Saad “gave up hope and that it will ever respond to demands for political reform or become capable of reforming itself… the more the rhetoric of the Sahwis moved towards glorifying the Saudi royal family and its centrality in the envisaged political reform process, the more that of al-Faqih moved in the opposite direction….al-Faqih does not believe that the royal family is an agent of unity…he believes that the umma must elect its leader…the ulama should be outside the state apparatus altogether.  They should derive their authority from their social base…” (p.240 – p.244). 

After the 7/7 bombings in London, the Saudi authorities have capitalised on Blair’s ‘change of the rules’ and are continiously pressing for al-Faqih’s deportation.  Professor Madawi is impressed by MIRA’s willingness to offer women a platform in the organisation’s media outlets to present their views, analyse the current situation and “more importantly, mobilise men by appealing to their Islamic, tribal and masculine honour, described as being regularly violated by the state and its agents”.  Saad “unequivocally rejects the connection, made by the USA, Western scholars and Saudi liberals, between the Saudi religious curriculum, which draws on Wahhabi interpretations, and terrorism.  He takes the view that the policies of the Saudi government, especially its unconditional alliance with the West, is at the heart of Jihadi violence” (p. 242).

While Professor Madawi’s anthropological jargon frequently jars, the book is essential reading to understand the medley of tensions buzzing away in a society that remains so opaque to outsiders.

M A Sherif, 2007