In his reformist vision, Muhammad Bin Salman is promising to return to the “moderation” that preceded 1979. It is definitely too soon to talk about the Kingdom’s de-Wahhabization, however: its ulama have always been masters at adapting to change

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Last update: 2018-11-16 18:54:08

Religion plays an important part in Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s reforming vision. The crown prince is promising to return to the “moderation” that preceded 1979, the year when everything changed. It is definitely too soon to talk about the Kingdom’s de-Wahhabization, however. Over the course of history, the Saudi ulama have always been masters at adapting to transformations so that everything can stay the same.


The meteoric rise of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) seems to be opening a new chapter in Saudi Arabia’s history. Riyadh’s new strong man has imposed a completely different style. His declarations (which are, to say the least, bombastic) are suddenly revealing his ambition i.e. to reconfigure the Saudi social field in order to monopolize power. If he is to make his absolutist dream come true, MBS will certainly have to take over the country’s political, economic and diplomatic spheres, but it is the kingdom’s most important (symbolic) resource that he will, above all, have to control: religion. In this field, various statements of his (about the need to support a moderate form of Islam) and various gestures (letting women drive cars, for example) have been interpreted as the precursor to an unprecedented and profoundly revolutionary project: the de-Wahhabization of society and the regime. But once the euphoria of the moment has passed and we have acquired the necessary detachment, what are we really to make of this project? A closer look at the historical and sociological variables that are weighing on MBS’s choices will enable us to label the latter better and, at the same time, contextualise them in the country’s long history.



An unfailing alliance

In actual fact, attempts to normalize, if not marginalize, Wahhabism are nothing new. Indeed, they are rooted in the Saudi entity’s turbulent politico-religious history. Born in central Arabia during the second half of the eighteenth century, this theocracy legitimizes its hegemonic ambitions by relying on a literalist, messianic doctrine, Wahhabism, which is a revival of the Hanbalite legal and theological school. The founder of this doctrine, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792), stated that only strict observance of the orthodoxy and orthopraxy established by the Hanbalite creed enables one to succeed in this life and the afterlife. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb excluded from the community and from salvation all those who do not accept this dogma (particularly the Sufis) and stated that jihad was the main means of bringing “the lost” back onto the right path. In actual fact, adopting jihad allowed the Saudi emirate to legitimate an expansionist policy that translated into control of a good part of Arabia between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century.


After consolidating his community and spreading his doctrine, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb ushered in a new phase. In an attempt to win acceptance from the other Muslims, he began to soften his positions a little, particularly those relating to the exclusion of his enemies from the community and from salvation (takfīr). His successors created a genuine religious establishment and pushed this normalization process even further. They moderated certain aspects of their doctrine, particularly the condemnation of Sufism and the stigmatization of Islam’s other currents. The aim of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s successors was to respond to the Saudi emirate’s new and unprecedented situation: following the conquest of Mecca and Medina at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was no longer a marginal entity but had become, rather, an Islamic power. The peripheral phenomenon of Wahhabism had therefore turned into an umma-level reality.


This tentative beginning of an opening rapidly turned into a doctrinal retreat, however. In order to stand up to the Ottoman empire and preserve the declining Saudi emirate’s unity and homogeneity, the Wahhabi ulama developed ultra-conservative, exclusionary ideas throughout the nineteenth century. The doctrine called al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ (loyalty [towards Islam] and disavowal [of everything else]) should be noted, in particular. It was by relying principally on these ideas and taking advantage of favourable circumstances that King ‘Abd al-Azīz (1902-1953) established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


The unfailing alliance between the guardians of Wahhabism, on the one hand, and the Saudi monarch, on the other, did not prevent the latter from furnishing proof of his lucidity about the nature of the tradition he was promoting and its structural incompatibility with his new status as protector of Islam’s two holy cities, head of one of the few independent Muslim countries and monarch of a territory that was not ethnically and religiously homogeneous. In order to prevent any type of crisis whatsoever, he undertook a double operation: to make Wahhabism more respectable (and therefore more acceptable) by seeking to “water it down” into a more moderate and, above all, more modernist politico-religious current, Islamic reformism.


This attempt to remodel Wahhabism did not weaken the Saudi scholars, however. Rather, it demonstrated their great ability to adapt. The ulama not only re-vested their tradition with prestige (particularly by monopolizing the term “Salafism”, which had a positive connotation at the time) but they also assimilated some of the reformist ideas and a good part of the projects, whilst marginalizing the original promoters in order to defend their own world vision. In exchange for concessions in the area of education, administration and “doctrinal updating” regarding jihad and relations with non-Muslims, the Saudi scholars maintained a central position in the social space. This ability to adapt is the consequence of an ethic of responsibility, as defined by Max Weber. In other words, it is the ability to reflect and act, taking account of what the context and the power relations demand in order to preserve the essential elements of what is deemed to be the truth. And it was precisely this ethic of responsibility that was to allow Wahhabism to weather the crises, consolidate power at a local level and nurture its universalistic ambitions from the reign of King Faisal (1964-1975) onwards.



From the 1950s to 11 September

During the 1950s and 1960s, Saudi Arabia was called to meet numerous internal and external challenges, particularly in the face of Egypt’s aspirations to hegemony. In order to survive, the monarchy had to modernize its state structure; something it could not do without impacting on the interests of Wahhabism’s guardians. The spread of education (especially amongst girls), the introduction of positive laws, the massive influx of foreign labourers, the creation of new sources of entertainment (TV and cinema), the reduction of the religious police’s budget and powers and the creation of small pockets of freedom all necessarily created friction between the two historic partners.


Once again, however, the Wahhabi clerics managed to weather the tensions and avoid marginalization by resorting to their adaptation strategy. Indeed, they turned the battle with Egypt and the flow of petrodollars to their advantage. Whilst remaining ultra-conservative, they very rapidly assimilated the “unbelievers’” savoir-faire. This was particularly so in the organizational area, where they created institutions capable of responding to rampant modernity. Thus, a multitude of university faculties, institutes, schools, administrative systems, judicial bodies, associations and media was born in only a few years. At the same time and with the aim of fighting secularism and promoting Wahhabism as the new Islamic orthodoxy, the ulama worked on the creation of pan-Islamic organizations (the Muslim World League, the Islamic University of Medina etc).


Exploiting the dilemma that the monarchy, torn between two opposing trends, was facing, the religious establishment acquired a formidable “strike force” and it did not take long before it put it to use. In 1979, a series of events rocked the Saudi social space: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the seizure of Mecca by a messianic group and the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. And the outbreak of the economic crisis the following year only worsened the situation. Profoundly destabilized, the country threw itself into a traditionalist flight forwards under the aegis of those same guardians of Wahhabism, supported by the Muslim Brothers’ leaders. Whilst a pall of gloom descended on Saudi society, the Wahhabi forces and the various Muslim Brother factions combined to produce hybridizations that were to generate Saudi Islamism (sahwa) and jihadism.


After the 11 September attacks, Saudi Arabia found itself in the eye of the storm once again. Social changes, the fall in oil prices, American pressure and the jihadist threat all pushed Riyadh authorities to adopt a decompression policy that promoted a “moderate”, “open” and “tolerant” Islam. In this sense, columnists and intellectuals were authorized to criticize Wahhabism openly, the religious police’s powers were reduced, an intra- and interreligious dialogue was opened, many students were sent abroad, the status of women was discussed and even slightly improved, new sources and places of entertainment were created, the pockets of freedom were reinforced and foreign researchers were tolerated.


In the euphoria of the moment, observers even began to talk of a “Riyadh spring” and “post-Wahhabism.” Before long, however (indeed, as soon as the economic situation improved and the political one became clearer), the regime returned to the fundamentals and closed its “liberal” parenthesis. The situation evolved rapidly after 2011. Saudi Arabia launched a preventive “counter-revolution” with Wahhabism as its spearhead. If the religious institution’s funding grew, on the one hand, secular and Islamist opposition was silenced, on the other. The regime exhibited its respect for Wahhabi orthodoxy in the public space, applied corporal punishments to the letter and promoted an anti-Shi‘ite discourse. In exchange, the ulama granted women the right to vote and authorized them to sit on the boards of some governmental bodies. But it was only a smokescreen.



The Advent of the Young Prince

Since 2015, there have been certain significant changes in Saudi Arabia. In just two years, Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has managed (at least temporarily) to eliminate his rivals and monopolize power in a manner that is quite unprecedented. In order to face up to external and internal challenges and acquire legitimacy, he has been taking every opportunity to assert his will to transform the kingdom. The religious sphere, too, has been affected by this transformation. Whilst the various “liberal” measures include permission for women to drive and the re-opening of cinemas after a thirty-five-year ban (it is not yet known how this re-opening will be handled), on 24 October 2017 MBS launched an all-out attack on “extremist ideas” and promised to “destroy” them. In his opinion, this will allow the country to “return to a ‘middle-path’, moderate, tolerant Islam that is open to the world and all the other religions.” But how are we really to interpret these words and gestures in which some have wanted to see a genuine break with Wahhabism?


First of all, MBS voluntarily took up moderate Islam’s refrain of the middle path – to which almost all Muslim factions appeal (especially the most rigorist ones) in order to distinguish themselves from the jihadists – but he did not, in any way, specify in what it really consists. Subsequently, he was to explain more clearly, evoking 1979 (the year of the big changes) and sahwa (the Islamic awakening) as the two main sources of extremism. Having been profoundly destabilized, the Saudi authorities collaborated more closely with the Muslim Brothers. Born during this period from the hybridization of Wahhabism’s ideas and the Muslim Brothers’ modes of action, the sahwa current is one of the results of this collaboration. And it is precisely this that MBS is opposing when he calls for the eradication of the Brotherhood and all their ramifications (jihadism, in particular); something that can only please the Wahhabis,[i] exonerated as they are from every responsibility.


As regards the policy towards women, it reflects both opportunism and structural constraints. Authorizing women to drive is merely pursuing the policy inaugurated by King ‘Abdullah (2005-2015) to guarantee himself support from them and a part of the population and to improve the regime’s image in Western eyes. This is the opportunistic side. The other side of the coin is that Saudi women are increasingly well qualified and not encouraging them to work would be an enormous waste in economic terms. For several years now, the idea has been to replace part of the foreign workforce with Saudi women, in the services sector, above all.


Once again, Wahhabism’s guardians are rapidly adapting to these changes. In order to safeguard their temporal and spiritual interests, the ulama are ready to make concessions on points they consider secondary, just as they have already done, for that matter, in the 1940s and 1950s regarding television, cinema, the education of women and the presence of foreigners. And this is what they have done more recently regarding driving licences for women. In this respect, several important ulama were already stating, a few years ago, that women’s driving was not a religious issue but, rather, a social question that could evolve. The same thing has happened with the clothing sector. One of the most well-known ulama has actually declared that wearing the ‘abāya – the long black coat that totally covers a woman’s clothes – is not a religious duty.


It is not easy to predict future relations between the monarchy and the religious establishment. So far, the historic alliance binding the two partners has not been called into question; something that MBS and the ulama miss no opportunity to remind everyone. In order to survive the authoritarian redistribution currently under way, the Wahhabi clerics seem prepared, once again, to accept certain changes decided by the regime. This precisely so that nothing changes.



Short Bibliography
David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (I. B. Tauris, London, 2006).
Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (Oneworld Publications, Cambridge, 2015).
Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith. Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2016).
Bernard Haykel et al. (eds), Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015).
Stéphane Lacroix, Les Islamistes saoudiens : une insurrection manquée (PUF, Paris, 2010).
Amélie Le Renard, Femmes et espaces publics en Arabie Saoudite (Dalloz, Paris, 2011).
Nabil Mouline, Les Clercs de l’islam. Autorité religieuse et pouvoir politique en Arabie Saoudite (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle) (PUF, Paris, 2011).
Madawi Al-Rasheed, Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia (Hurst, London, 2015).

[i] It is in this context that the arrest of several Saudi Islamists (including Salmān al-‘Awda, ‘Awad al-Qarnī, Muhammad al-Habdān and ‘Abd al-Azīz al-‘Abd al-Latīf) in the autumn of 2017 should be placed. Having said that, the purge – which aimed at suppressing every pipedream of opposition – not only hit the main players in Saudi political Islam but also intellectuals and religious men of various leanings, bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and even dozens of Royal Family members.