It is not clear what MBS means when he speaks of “returning” to a moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia, since the country, even before 1979, has always been accustomed to a conservative form of Islam

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:00

In October 2017, a few months after he was appointed crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) declared to the media all over the world that he wanted to take the ultraconservative Kingdom back to a moderate Islam. From that moment on, on more than one occasion, MBS has referred to what Saudi Arabia was like before 1979, when Saudis used to live a life similar to that of the other Gulf countries: women used to drive and work, and people used to go to the movie theatre. Besides the fact that the young prince, born in 1985, has had no direct experience of that period, the existence of an imaginary Saudi moderate Islam suffocated by the events of 1979 does not hold up. Saudi Arabia, in fact, arises contextually with Wahhabism and none of the three Emirates-States that followed since 1744 has ever experienced a different form of Islam.


Year zero?

It is certainly true that 1979 represented a watershed year for the entire Middle East. The Iranian Islamic revolution indeed marked the beginning of the clash between revolutionary Islam and conservative Islam: to protect itself from the effects of the revolution, in the following years Saudi Arabia responded by reactivating the anti-Shiite component inherent in Wahhabism.

Also in 1979, a few months after the Iranian revolution, the Saudi situation became more complicated on the internal front as well: on November 20, a group of revolutionaries, the Ikhwān of Juhaymān al-‘Utaybī, occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca, starting what is still considered to be the most dramatic operation in the history of Saudi militant Islamism. The conquest of the mosque must be interpreted in the Messianic view of Juhaymān, who believed the advent of the Mahdī, the Muslim Messiah, to be imminent. In fact, the final objective of the operation was to consecrate Muhammad al-Qahtānī, friend and companion of Juhaymān, as Mahdī. Even the date of the operation was not accidental, corresponding to the first day of the fifteenth century of the Islamic calendar, since it is believed that “at the beginning of every century – one of the Prophet’s sayings recites – God will send to His community someone to renew it” (Sunan Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-malāhim). The siege, which lasted two weeks, ended only after the intervention of the French special forces, called to the rescue by the king. This decision also aroused the opposition of a substantial part of Saudi Islamists, who criticized the presence of foreigners in the most sacred place of Islam.


In an attempt to remove the most extremist and potentially subversive fringe of Islamists from the Kingdom, the monarchy used another newly opened front to its advantage. On December 24, 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a country that until the end of the 1980s would act as an attraction pole for thousands of jihadist fighters from all over the Muslim world, began. The Saudi government, supported by the Wahhabi clergy, launched a campaign in favor of the jihad, and went as far as reimbursing 75% of the plane ticket to those who were going to fight.


Yet, despite this concentration of events (Iranian revolution, siege of Mecca and invasion of Afghanistan), 1979 cannot be considered the year zero of the fundamentalist drift, considered to be the origin of all the misfortunes of today’s Saudi Arabia by MBS. In the 1960s, for example, lay the origins of Sahwa, a hybrid Islamist movement born from the encounter between Wahhabi rigorism and Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s political activism, which in the 1990s would become the thorn in the side of the Saudi government. The Sahwī ideology is indeed a potentially explosive mixture because it adds to the Wahhabi exclusivism - which sees idolatry everywhere, even within the Muslim camp - the political struggle against the imperialist West (in Hasan al-Bannā’s version) or against the impious Arab regimes (in Sayyid Qutb’s version). Sahwa became deeply rooted in Saudi society with the appearance, in the late 1960s, of the jamā'āt, social networks organized according to a very rigid and clandestine hierarchy. This clandestine dimension was clearly due to the Wahhabi-Hanbali vision which forbids the establishment of parties other than the party of God, accusing them of favoring the division of society to the detriment of the unity of the umma.


The University of Medina

Moreover, in the 1960s, the so-called “Arab Cold War” began between the nationalist and socialist countries led by Nasser’s Egypt and supported by the Soviet Union, and the countries of the Islamic bloc, led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States. In an attempt to counteract the socialist influence, in 1961 the Saudi government created the University of Medina under the leadership of the sheikh Muhammad Ibn Ibrāhīm Āl al-Shaykh and Ibn Bāz (his deputy and future Grand Mufti of the Kingdom). Established with the aim of wahhabizing the Hejaz region, which due to its geographical position had enjoyed partial religious and cultural freedom, the University of Medina would soon become the main center of irradiation of Wahhabi Islam in the world. This and other Saudi universities would hire important names from the Muslim Brotherhood (Muhammad Qutb, younger brother of Sayyid Qutb), Salafism (Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī) and Jihadism ('Abdallāh ‘Azzām, ideologist of the Afghan jihad) as professors.


The University of Medina has also acted as incubator for another Islamic group, Jamā’at al-salafiyya al-muhtasiba, born in the mid-1960s by a group of students after an episode that would go down in history as taksīr al-suwar, “the smashing of images.” Animated by an iconoclastic fury, the members of this group started to destroy images, photographs and mannequins displayed in Medina’s public spaces and shop windows, causing clashes with the inhabitants of the city and raising the level of tension with the government. This movement was placed within the current of the Ahl al-Hadīth, which in Saudi Arabia spread under the impulse of Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī (died in 1999), one of the most prestigious figures of contemporary Salafism.


Known as Muhaddith al-‘asr, “the traditionist of our century”, al-Albānī set out to make Wahhabism more Salafist. He believed that the Wahhabis were Salafists in doctrinal matters but not in jurisprudential matters and challenged them on their adherence to the Hanbali juridical school and the taqlīd, i.e. the imitation of the great ulama of Islamic history, including Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb and his medieval inspirer Ibn Taymiyya. Al-Albānī also rejected some Wahhabi practices which he considered to be too innovative, such as the obligation to remove shoes during prayer and the presence of the mihrāb in mosques (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca).


Ahl al-hadīth also rejected identity cards and passports because they displayed the photograph of the person and denoted his/her belonging to a State rather than God. Additionally, they forbade wearing the ‘iqāl (the rope that keeps the turban that the Saudis wear on the head in place) and believed that the traditional dress worn by men had to end four fingers below the knee, unlike the Sahwīs who wanted it all the way to the ankles.


A campaign of arrests

In light of these events, it is difficult to say that before 1979 Saudi Arabian society was open and moderate. If the historical reality contrasts with MBS’s narative, even the practices implemented by the monarchy in the last year make his speech hardly credible. In the autumn of 2017, MBS arrested dozens of peaceful activists, preachers and intellectuals, accusing them of plotting with their enemies (Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar in particular) against the government. However, if we analyze the profile of those arrested, we can see how many of them belong to the Neo-Sahwa or the Islamic-liberal currents of thoughts.


The first group includes Salmān al-‘Awda (born in 1956), a famous preacher (14 million followers on Twitter) and Sahwa veteran. Al-‘Awda was one of the first preachers to support the Arab Spring, thus becoming unpopular to the Wahhabi clergy and the Saudi government. The latter had already suspended his television program Hajar al-zāwiya in 2011 and forbidden the dissemination of his As’ilat al-thawra [The Questions of the Revolution] in Saudi Arabia, a book in which he rehabilitated the notion of revolution against the official doctrine of unconditional obedience to the ruler. However, this is not the only aspect that makes him unpleasant to the monarchy. Indeed, Al-‘Awda promotes a hybrid discourse, which combines Western political thought with Islamic tradition. The preacher borrowed from the West the notion of peaceful revolution understood as a search for political change through a collective action that manifests itself in certain political, social, psychological and economic conditions; he Westernized the Islamic notion of shūrā (consultation), claiming that the entire Islamic community, and not just a select few as it happens today in Saudi Arabia, should access such mechanism; he believes that the application of the sharia is appropriate but cannot be forced; he rehabilitates the notion of ijtihād, personal reasoning, as opposed to taqlīd, the blind imitation advocated by Wahhabism. Al-‘Awda also theorizes the idea of ​​a State founded on a civil contract between the society and the governor, which establishes the division of the three powers – executive, legislative and judicial – and believes that there is no room for theocracy in Islam.


Among the victims of MBS there is also ‘Abdullāh al-Hāmid (born in 1950), co-founder of HASM (Jam‘iyya al-huqūq al-siyāsiyya wa-l-madaniyya), the Association for political and civil rights created after September 11 by a group of reformist Islamists. Al-Hāmid theorized the idea of ​​constitutional monarchy, giving it a religious justification, and the notion of peaceful jihad (jihād silmī), i.e. the Islamic version of nonviolent protest, hunger strike and civil disobedience, all forms of demonstration prohibited in Saudi Arabia. In his view, peaceful protests should be a public and expanded form of nasīha, the advice that clerics traditionally give privately to the sovereign.


What does “moderate Islam” mean?

The arrest of these and other Saudi personalities are the signs of the policy adopted by MBS, more inclined to suppress dissent than to free the reformist circles that are likely to follow up on the modernization that he has hoped for. As of now, it is not clear who could take on the task of reforming Saudi Islam, since the Wahhabi establishment has no interest in promoting a reform that could call into question its status, and most of the best known Muslim reformists are in a state of arrest. It is also not clear what MBS means by “moderate Islam”, whether the abolition of corporal punishments established by the sharia for crimes committed against the rights of God, the setting of a minimum age for marriage or the limitation of polygamy; the elimination of a repressive religious police - although in 2016 King Salman partially limited its prerogatives - or the loosening of relationships with the Wahhabi clergy.


However, it is clear that the existence of the Saudi monarchy is deeply linked to the existence of Wahhabism. Although the monarchy has lost the jihadist impetus that accompanied the creation of the different Saudi kingdoms, it has never been moderate nor open. It is therefore unlikely that MBS can question the relationship of the monarchy with the Wahhabi clergy, because this would mean sawing off the branch the dynasty has been sitting on for over two hundred years.


Further reading:

Stéphane Lacroix, Les Islamistes saoudiens. Une insurrection manquée, PUF, Paris 2015.

Madawi al-Rasheed, Muted Modernists. The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia, Hurst & co., London 2015.

Madawi al-Rasheed (ed), Salman’s Legacy. The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia, Hurst & co., London 2018.


Text translated from Italian