Prohibiting Politics: Saudi Wahhabi Religious Discourse
Saudi royalty sanctions official Wahhabi discourse for obvious political reasons. This religious discourse is responsible for closing channels of political debate and delaying the emergence of calls for political reform and participation in the country. Together with state repression, this discourse enforces interpretations of religious texts that call upon pious Muslims to consent to political authority and show ultimate obedience to rulers. This discourse also prohibits any public criticism of rulers and criminalises (in a religious and political sense) discussion of their policies. Dominant Saudi religious interpretations create “consenting subjects” rather than free citizens who engage in public affairs. I will demonstrate that official Wahhabi discourse is responsible for mystifying the world under the guise of religion. Official Saudi religious scholars consolidate a specific religious discourse to ensure the emergence of an acquiescent society. This discourse facilitates regime efforts to domesticate and discipline the population without resorting to excessive use of force, a practise that other Arab regimes have mastered under the umbrella of the modern state. The role of religious discourse is often ignored in academic research, in particular political science perspectives, on Saudi Arabia. This research usually privileges the influence of oil revenues within the framework of the rentier state as a mechanism consolidating the tradition of political acquiescence. Yet the sum total of religious interpretations that are propagated by a large religious bureaucracy are equally important as factors contributing to this acquiescence that the population exhibited throughout the twentieth century. There is no doubt that the redistributive state that transforms oil revenues into services and consequently loyalty owes its survival to the intersection of politics and the economy. However, there are subtle ways that veil relations between rulers and ruled and mystify this relationship. Wahhabi religio-political discourse offers a mystifying umbrella.
Today the Saudi religious establishment, the official bureaucracy created in the second half of the twentieth century, suffers from loss of credibility and fragmentation. It has no monopoly over religious interpretation, thanks to the rise of a new generation of young scholars, and the proliferation of new communication technology. The state has contributed a great deal to the trivialisation of the Wahhabi religious establishment. It remains to be seen whether the official Saudi-Wahhbi tradition can reinvent itself. The transformation from being an agent of mystification to being an agent of modernity takes more than a royal decree or the threat of American aggression. The transformation requires a serious engagement with the challenges of the twenty first century by religious scholars, social forces and political actors in a context characterised by freedom of expression and the rule of law. As these conditions are not fully manifested in Saudi Arabia, it remains to be seen whether the transformation of the existing authoritarian system will take place in the foreseeable future.
Official Salafi-Wahhabi Political Discourse
The eighteenth century message of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) claimed to revive religion by returning to the Quran, Sunnah, and the tradition of the pious ancestors. This return was meant to eliminate so-called religious innovations, apply the sharia, and establish the pious Muslim state at a time when the population of Arabia was believed to have degenerated into blasphemy, corrupt religious practices and laxity, mainly under Ottoman rule, whose religious tradition incorporated interpretations and practices allegedly outside the realm of true Islam. From the very beginning, Wahhabi teachings were not only religious but also political. To be a good Muslim, one needs to strive towards establishing a Muslim state, that upholds the sharia and enforces the obligation to command virtue and prohibit vice.
From the very beginning, Wahhabiyyyah was a contested Salafi movement within the Sunni world of Islam. Sunni ulama in Istanbul, Mecca, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad denounced Wahhabiyyah in long treatise that circulated across the Ottoman Empire. Non-Sunni Muslims, for example Shia, Ismailis, Zaydis and others immediately felt the danger of Wahhabi teachings that denounced their tradition. Non-Sunni ulama dedicated substantial energies to refute what they regarded a bigoted and uncompromising radicalism associated with the call of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Intellectual battles between Wahhabi advocates and critics remained alive throughout the last two hundred and fifty years. In the twenty first century, there is a new situation created by the events of the 11 September 2001, the demise of the Taliban regime and the occupation of Iraq in 2003 by the United States.
Today the critics of Wahhabiyyah are numerous. The movement and its supporters are accused of generating terrorism, intolerance and hatred. They are held responsible for delaying the emancipation of Saudi women and discriminating against religious Muslim minorities, for example Saudi Shia, Ismaili, and Sufis. Moreover, the movement is accused of providing the religious intellectual framework for denouncing Jews and Christians and promoting a culture of confrontation with the West in general. These remain controversial accusations that fall short of explaining world events and current affairs. To reduce worldwide problems and confrontations between the super power and the rest of the Muslim world to the influence of Wahhabiyyah is a misguided approach that attributes to this movement more influence, power and organisational potential outside Saudi Arabia than it actually possess.
To move beyond the controversy surrounding this revivalist movement, this chapter examines the transformations and mutations of Wahhabiyyah and its interpreters in Saudi Arabia. The chapter argues that the main problem of Wahhabiyyah stems from its historical alliance with an absolutist monarchical state under the leadership of the dynastic Al-Saud family that became extremely rich as a result of oil revenues in the last half century. Without this alliance, and given the historical marginality of the region where the Wahhabiyyah originated, the movement would most probably have had the same fate of other eighteenth and nineteenth century revivalist movements in the Muslim world. It would have gone down in historical imagination as a nuisance to the Ottoman Empire in one of its far flung most insignificant territories, namely central Arabia. However, the combination of dawah (religious call) and dawlah (state) in Wahhabi literature, together with a changing regional Arab power context and unprecedented wealth in the second half of the last century granted Wahhabiyyah a hegemonic status unmatched by its early eighteenth century intellectual credentials or its later development in the twentieth century.
The events of 11 September 2001 influenced the way this revivalist movement began to be perceived. First, Wahhabiyyah became a contested religious discourse in its own home, nowhere but Saudi Arabia. While official Saudi discourse continues to deny the very existence of a religious discourse that can be described as Wahhabi, Saudi ulama, intellectuals and political activists are currently engaged in debate about the Wahhabi movement. In the public sphere there is a serious effort to reform religious discourse, without naming this discourse or even referring to the teachings of the Wahhbi ulama over the last two hundred and fifty years. While this debate remains in great measure muted in the official public sphere, it flourishes in printed books published outside Saudi Arabia, and in internet discussion boards. Only a glimpse of this debate does occasionally erupt into the Saudi public sphere, which is controlled by the official religious establishment and the state.
In an important study evaluating the Saudi religious curriculum, a young Saudi judge who is a grandson of an important Salafi-Wahhabi religious scholar associated with editing and publishing the monumental sixteen volume Wahhabi collection of religious opinions, al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi al-ajwibah al-najdiyyah, asks, ‘Where is the Fault?’ His response confirms that Saudi religious education, which draws heavily on Wahhabi texts and interpretations, falls short of being appropriate for modern times. The judge does not name any famous Wahhabi religious scholar whose interpretation is deemed inappropriate. His references draw on the various books used in schools, without naming the original sources. He argues that ‘it is an exaggeration to claim that our religious curriculum bears the responsibility for violence against the West. In fact the faults of the current education poison relations between Muslims more than between Muslims and non-Muslims. These views are a novelty in Saudi Arabia. They are a direct product of the events of 11 September and subsequent waves of violence. While some Saudi scholars and political activists are beginning to deconstruct the hegemonic status of Wahhabiyyah as an intellectual and religious field, others defend it with intellectual vigour and determination. The battle continues today and will remain heated for the foreseeable future.
Second, after the 11 September, the West, mainly the United States through its academic community, researchers, and think tank consultants have become active agents in the debate about Wahhabiyyah. Despite official Saudi attempts to dissociate their state religion from the atrocities of 11 September, outside accusations of Wahhabiyyah continue to flourish abroad. These accusations are given substance and credibility by Saudi political activists abroad, some of whom have a vested interest in demonising the Wahhabiyyah. In response, the state encouraged academic studies in English, in addition to Salafi publications to restore the image of Wahhabiyyah in the Western English speaking world. Despite the controversy surrounding Wahhabiyyah, there remains a general consensus in Western popular imagination that Wahhabi religious interpretations are uncompromising and radical. In some accounts, these interpretations are held responsible for terrorism that is directed against the West.
Throughout the twentieth century, the majority of Saudis regarded the Salafi-Wahhabi reformist movement a perfect solution to heterodoxy, religious laxity, saint veneration, immorality and superstition. Wahhabiyyah claimed to safeguard the souls against the misguided Islam of others, for example Shia, Sufis, Zaydis, Ismailis, grave worshippers, known as quburis, and many others. It was also a shield against ‘corrupting’ Western influences, undesirable social behaviour, immoral and unacceptable alien ideas such as secularism, nationalism, communism, and liberalism. Wahhabiyyah promised liberation from heterodox religious worship and folk Islam, the Islam practised by either a jahil, ‘ignorant’, or dhal, the one who has gone astray. So called misguided Muslims who deviated in their creed and worship from the right path practised a corrupted religion often dominated by charlatans, mushawithin, parading as holy men, female witches, sorcerers, and mystics. Such ‘corrupt’ Islam is centred on excessive ritual and festivity, punctuated by tomb visitation, intercession, and mediation. Saudis viewed the religious practices dominant among Sunnis in other Arab countries as impure and corrupted. Wahhabiyyah condemned all these folk practices as innovations and privileged the literal interpretation of sacred texts, the Quran and the Sunnah, and called for an unmediated relationship with the divine, required by tawhid, the oneness of God . The war against blasphemous religious practices that survived in Arabian society despite the sacred message of the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century and a later wave of religious revivalism and purification in the eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was always in need of a political authority that strives to establish a state to protect the realm from the return of such blasphemy and corruption. In Wahhabi discourse, an executive power is needed to protect faith from corruption, uphold the Salafi tradition and punish transgressors. Only a strong and pious state can practice amr bi al-maruf wa al-nahi an al-munkar, promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice.
It is important, however, to emphasise that describing the Wahhabi movement as puritanical does not necessarily imply austerity or asceticism. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab considered it a characteristic of the people in the age of ignorance to ‘worship God through prohibiting the permissible’, implying that excessive austerity does not make one closer to the divine. With oil wealth and consumerism, Wahhabi ulama, the ruling group and society were capable of a great degree of material indulgence, consumption, and the fulfilment of all worldly desires, within the limits prescribed in the holy book and the tradition of the Prophet, at least in public. Describing Wahhabiyyah as puritanical invokes an uncorrupted Islam and an unmediated tradition, except that which draws directly on the Quran, the Hadith and a chain of recognised authoritative interpreters of the tradition, rather than moral austerity and asceticism. The dawah, call, was from the very beginning a project to create an Islamised personality, society and state. An Islamised personality is not necessarily one that abstains from worldly pleasures, as often mistakenly projected in some outside accounts of the movement. In fact, an Islamised personality indulges itself in all permissible pleasures, according to Islamic tradition in general and the Wahhabi variant in particular. Wahhabis may be seen as excessive in resorting to the principle of sad al-tharai’, blocking the means, for example when they continue to voice opinions against women’s right to drive in order to prevent further sins, yet they do not and cannot forbid what is divinely permitted. However, a group of religious scholars are always needed to define and regulate the permissible, while the state ensures that the prohibited does not become permissible, at least in theory.
In the twentieth century, under the pretext of fighting religious innovations a state was born to protect the realm and ensure its purity against the return of such innovations. With the exception of few isolated pockets of resistance in the Hijaz, Asir and the eastern province it seems that the Wahhabiyyah was extremely successful in eradicating most but not all so called religious innovations in the Arabian Peninsula. With the establishment of the modern Saudi state, Wahhabiyyah became a hegemonic discourse supported, protected, and promoted by political authority. However, although Wahhabi ulama and preachers were convinced that they controlled the state, it was so obvious in practice that this did not correspond to reality. Wahhabi scholars controlled nothing but religious praxis and the social sphere, while royalty and a group of experts were in full control of politics, the economy, foreign relations and defence matters. An Islamised social sphere was mistakenly taken to represent an Islamic polity.
After the establishment of the modern Saudi state, Wahhabi discourse was neither unified nor monolithic. Because of state control that aimed to circumscribe text and interpretation, it was natural for this discourse to proliferate and express pluralism within its general framework. Under state control, it was difficult to find a single Wahhabiyyah. There developed strands within this hegemonic discourse. While the strong and modern state strove to contain Wahhabi discourse through its institutionalisation, alternative interpretations and marginal but challenging voices continued to appear throughout the twentieth century. These voices occasionally erupted violently as the history of Salafi dissidence in the country demonstrated. State control of Wahhabiyyah was directly proportionate to the violence that erupted. The proliferation of state financed and controlled religious institutions, ministries, and hierarchies generated co-opted and independent scholars, the first enforced loyalty to the state while the second remained a potential threat. Who has corrupted the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the chain of scholars known as aimat al-dawah al-najdiyyah, the ulama of the Najdi call? Who has remained faithful to these teachings? These are questions that accompanied the institutionalisation of Wahhabiyyah in the second half of the twentieth century and continue to search for answers in the twenty first century. Because of censorship and heavy sanctions against dissident voices, both religious and political, violence accompanied the dual process of state subjugation of Wahhabiyyah and the proliferation of the movement into several strands. Today debating the movement does not take place among a small and limited group of ulama. A wide circle of people are drawn into discussing controversial religious matters, thanks to mass education and media. Violence in the twenty first century is yet another episode of hidden Wahhabi transcripts erupting, this time not only in Saudi Arabia, but also worldwide, especially among groups that claim ideological and organisational connections with the original Wahhabiyyah of Saudi Arabia.
In the process of establishing a state, Wahhabiyyah confirmed several political innovations that have accompanied the development of Islamic history and civilisation for centuries. Wahhabiyyah was a religious revivalist movement but it certainly did not offer an alternative political vision or theory different from the main stream dominant Sunni tradition. In a desperate attempt to safeguard against annihilation of the religious call, marginalisation of a Najdi class of ulama, and the disintegration of the Saudi realm, Wahhabiyyah supported and defended with text and practice one of the most controversial but dominant political innovations in Islamic history, namely hereditary rule and absolute obedience to political authority. From the early encounter between the religious reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the ruler of a small oasis in central Arabia, Muhammad ibn Saud, in 1744, the former confirmed the latter in the position of imamah, leadership, and confirmed his descendants in their role as future imams. It is reported that in Deriyyah, circa 1744 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab said to Muhammad Ibn Saud;
‘As you can see the people of Najd are now ignorant associationists, divided and diverse. They fight each other. I hope you will be the Imam around whom Muslims can gather and your children after you become successive imams. The Imam (Ibn Saud) welcomed him and gave him shelter.’ 
Wahhabiyyah confirmed two mechanisms for the foundation of political power, seizing power by force, istila, with the sword, and appointment of successor by current ruler (hereditary rule), taiyyin, while paying lip service to the third principle, namely shura, consultation. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab confirmed that it is compulsory to ‘ listen and obey the ruler, even the despot (jair) and the fasiq, debauched, as long as he does not order people to disobey God (for example order them to stop praying). People should gather around the one who assumes the caliphate and accept him. If he got the caliphate with his sword, he should be obeyed. Armed rebellion against a usurper is forbidden’. As a Salafi movement that draws on the tradition of the pious ancestors, Wahhabiyyah did not pay enough attention to the succession of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, which other contemporary Salafis consider as the first shura experience in Islam.
While twentieth century Wahhabi scholars were constantly preoccupied with questions of ritual performance and purity, tomb visitation, intercession and other so-called religious innovations, they failed to produce a single treatise on the nature of Islamic state and political authority, partly because they seriously believed in the Islamic nature of the state they created, hence there was no need to provide religious theorising of something that already exists and partly because of the sensitivity of political theorising in Saudi Arabia, even if this theorising originates in religious circles. Ignoring political theory was a feature of Wahhabiyyah since its rise. As a revivalist movement similar to other eighteenth century movements, it was concerned above all with religious purification rather than political reform. According to Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab’s biographer, the Sheikh did not concern himself with writing treatise that discuss the nature of the Islamic state. A mention of the hakim, ruler and his characteristics is made in passing. Most Wahhabi scholars do not go beyond the characteristics of the ruler, that he should be free, male, just, knowledgeable of sharia, and capable of public administration. If such characteristics are present in a person from Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe, then he has priority over others, otherwise the post is open for all Muslims. Other Muslim scholars confirm that Arab descent must be more privileged than other descent groups. The ruler is appointed as a result of the consensus of ahl al hall wa al aqid, those who can loose and tie, a reference to knowledgeable people. Wahhabis consider the umara, princes, and ulama, religious scholars, as people who should decide in matters related to policy but they are in practice happy to leave politics in the hands of the former. The ruler can be appointed by his predecessor, or he can seize power by force. In all situations, he must be obeyed according to Wahhabi interpretations.
The ruler is also mentioned in the context of elaborating on taghut, a word often translated as despot with an obvious association with repression, tughyan. In discussing the five types of taghut, idols, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab lists the following categories: First, Satan is taghut because he calls people to worship those other than God. Second the despot ruler who changes God’s rule is a taghut. Third, the ruler who rules not according to the revealed message is a taghut. Fourth, the one who claims knowledge of the unkhown is a taghut. Fifth, the one who accepts to be worshiped instead of God is a taghut.
Disinterest in theorising the Muslim state is so surprising given that one of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s main objective was to establish the pious Islamic state, the agent that can preserve the purity of faith and worship, and fight religious innovations. It is clear from the copious body of literature devoted to matters related to creed and worship that his first objective remained, however, the purification of religion and the reform of religious practice. Yet he also endeavoured to see a vigorous application of the sharia, which was very much dependent on the establishment of the state.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s understanding of the Islamic state was limited to the application of sharia and fighting religious innovations, without paying attention to the most important pillar in state formation, namely the principle by which a ruler is chosen, made accountable and changed if transgression from the true path is apparent. In fact, Wahhabi discourse rules out the possibility of society actively changing the ruler. While any violent rebellion is abhorred and prohibited, there is room only for secret advice, with the hope that this would change any behaviour or policy not in accordance with true Islam. In the Wahhabi world view, the rightful ruler is the one who uqim al-salah, calls for and leads prayer. Only if such a ruler prohibits the performance of prayer, then Muslims can contemplate a hypothetical rebellion, which as far as Islamic history is concerned has never materialised. Wahhabi perception of political issues had always been determined by a reiteration of selected medieval Muslim treatises that privileged acquiescence and submission. While most Wahhabis revere ibn Hanbal, it is ironical that they have not followed his footsteps in political matters. In matters related to politics, Wahhabi scholars overlooked revealed religious discourse (the Quran), al-munazal, in favour of a lazy approach that endorsed constructed and interpreted religious discourse, al-muawal, that belonged to a later generation of Sunni ulama, especially Hanbali scholars.
Obedience to Rulers and Confusing Political and Religious Rebellion
In Wahhabi discourse, the survival of Muslim society is dependent on the strength of the state. Without the call, the state loses its raison d’etre, and without the state the call is weakened and risks being undermined by the return of the forces of misguided Islam and the confounding of the permissible and prohibited. Consequently, the Islamised person and society are constantly at risk of regressing to the status qua ante, the age of ignorance, in terms of personal piety, worship and societal relations. The concept of jahiliyyah was an integrated part of Wahhabi discourse since the eighteenth century as it was a label used to describe the population of Arabia at the times of the call of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In his famous treatise, entitled masail al-jahiliyyah Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab described a series of beliefs and practices that are associated with the age of ignorance, that prevailed around the call of the Prophet. The message was clear, the first age of ignorance is repeated in Arabia in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s times. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab described the population of eighteenth century Arabia as being ‘worst than the kafirs of Quraysh’, who were known to ‘disobey wali al amr, the ruler’. Among the people of ignorance, ‘refusing to obey the ruler is a virtue, some made this practice a religion. The Prophet ordered them to be patient when confronted with the repression of rulers. He ordered them to listen to him, obey him, and advise him’ Therefore, good Muslims should no imitate those ignorant people. They should obey the ruler.
Wahhabi discourse preceded Islamist theorisation of the concept of the age of ignorance, the most famous of which was that of Sayid Qutb. In Wahhabiyyah, the personal, social and the political were interrelated in a web that required the control of the person and society by the state and religious scholars. The question of obeying both the umara and the ulama is therefore, crucial. Theorising obedience rulers is the only Wahhabi contribution to politics.
In the Wahhabi world view, three levels of obedience have equal status: obedience to God, obedience to the Prophet and obedience to those charged with authority, defined as the rulers (umara) and the people of knowledge (ulama). In a lecture delivered at the Great Mosque in Riyadh, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz (d.1999) interpreted an important Quranic verse, ‘O ye who believe Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you ‘.The title of the lecture was, ‘Explaining the Rights of Those Charged with Authority’ . He stated that the route to happiness and guidance is obedience to God, the Messenger and those charged with authority. Obeying those charged with authority follows from fulfilling the obligation to obey God and the messenger. Obedience must be in maruf (the known) and no obedience is permitted in maisiyah (sins). In this interpretation, Ibn Baz follows a well-established Sunni tradition. Early Wahhabi scholars confirmed that ‘a Muslim should obey the rightful imam regardless of whether he is fajir, despotic, or fasiq, debauched, offer him zakat, perform jihad under his banner, give him booty after battle, and never rebel against him using the sword. A final word, obey him until God find you a way out. Any rebellious person is an innovator and a rejectionist who abandons the community, threatening dissent. A final advice is given to the true Muslim. Hold yourself (imsak) during dissent because it is a prophetic tradition’. 
Although Ibn Baz’s interpretation of the Quranic verse on obedience to rulers is the one adopted by the Saudi-Wahhabi religious establishment, it is not the only interpretation possible, nor is it the only one acceptable. According to one Salafi source, Ibn Baz’s interpretation of the Quranic verse overlooks the absence of the verb obey, atiu, when the text refers to the third element in the chain of obedience, i.e, uli al-amr (those charged with authority). The sura orders Muslims to obey God, and obey the Prophet, repeating the verb ‘obey’. However, obeying rulers is added using the letter wau (and) in Arabic. Some interpreters of the text argue that obeying the leader cannot be placed on equal footing as obeying God and his Prophet, this being demonstrated in the absence of the verb ‘obey’ before the order to include uli al-amr in the sura. With the outbreak of violence and Jihadi call for disobeying the ruler who fails to demonstrate his Islamic credentials and pursue an Islamic policy, Ibn Baz’s interpretation of obedience to the ruler remains an important weapon against dissidence and rebellion. In the media, it is constantly repeated to enforce obedience to rulers and to discredit those who ‘rebel’, This rebellion encompasses a wide range of acts in official Wahhabi discourse. At one end stands violence, khuruj bi al-sayf, while at the other end, writing critical article about the ruler, sending a critical fax, or advising a ruler in public are abhorred acts of kuruj ala wali al-amr.
Given the interpretation of the Quranic verse relating to obeying those charged with authority, now considered part and parcel of obeying God and Prophet, rebellion against rulers becomes a prohibition, except in very limited circumstances. Most twentieth century Wahhabi scholars insist that only limited conditions allow rebellion, but in practise they refrain from clarifying the conditions that allow such rebellion to take place without violating creed and faith. If the ruler announces and displays kufr bawwah, obvious blasphemy manifested in cases such as forbidding the performance of public prayers in mosques, armed rebellion may or may not be justified.
Responding to a question regarding whether a ruler who issues new secular laws deserves to be reprimanded or even disobeyed, Sheikh ibn Baz replied that if new laws do not contradict sharia, it is permissible for the ruler to do so as there might be good for Muslims behind such new legislations. However, if legislation contradicts or replaces sharia, this is not permissible. He gives the example of suspending punishment for fornication, alcohol consumption and theft, a suspension that is not allowed in his opinion. If the ruler suspends sharia in such cases, he is regarded as kafir, blasphemous. How do Muslims deal with a ruler, who suspends sharia or issues legislation which contradicts it? Ibn baz confirms that good Muslims should obey this ruler in maruf (known) and not in maisiyyah, sin, until God changes the ruler, ubadilu hu allah. Notice here that Ibn baz does not contemplate confronting the ruler even if he suspends divine law or introduces legislation that does not conform to sharia. He emphasises obedience to such a ruler until God decides to replace him or replace his actions, thus ruling out the possibility of changing him by human actions. In this official Wahhabi political world view that Sheikh Ibn Baz represents, disobeying the ruler is khuruj ala al-hakim, an abhorred rebellion that leads to chaos and discord, thus threatening religion and the community. A good Muslim should wait for God to act in this particular situation, a position that represents the views of some but not all Sunni scholars.
While not distinguishing between various forms of armed and peaceful rebellions in public lectures, in general official Wahhabi scholars confuse political rebellion, khuruj siyasi, with religious rebellion that challenges creed, khuruj aqaidi. The first type of rebellion is a rebellion against worldly power, its permissibility is subject to debate among Muslim scholars, whereas the second is a rebellion against the divine message where there is a near consensus among scholars regarding the fate of this kind of khuruj . This confusion among official Wahhabi scholars contributes to the mystification of politics, thus granting sanctity to those charged with worldly authority, for example the umara and those in charge of interpreting the divine message, the ulama. Peaceful political activism, passive resistance, and armed rebellion are all deemed prohibited behaviour punishable by God. Under the patronage of the state, Wahhabi ulama sealed the fate of political activism, both armed and peaceful, by describing it as sinful behaviour that challenges creed, al-aqidah.
The overwhelming importance of submission to the ruler, now that such a submission is equated with submission to God and the Prophet, silenced any reflection on the role of those in power or criticism of their policies. In its extreme manifestation, this theological position encouraged total acquiescence and discouraged even the mildest public criticism of those charged with authority. Open criticism or even evaluation of the role of the ruler is confused with al-sab, insult, an unforgivable great munkar, an evil calling for evil. Having established the obligation to obey the rulers and people of knowledge, Sheikh Ibn Baz gave religious opinion regarding those who ‘insult the umara and ulama’. The subjects, al-raiyyah, are under obligation to praise the ruler rather than criticise him, and to applaud his deeds rather than expose his faults. In the same interview, Sheikh Ibn Baz is asked whether the ‘word’, al-kalimah, influences the country’s security, especially that which comes by fax from outside and is issued by those ‘who bear grudges against the land and its people of authority’. Sheikh Ibn Baz describes this kind of word as the worst evil, which must be avoided. The sanctity that Ibn Baz promotes is shared by the ulama, the class of religious scholars, mainly those tied through state institutions to the ruling group. Criticising them amount to insulting them.
If ever the ulama want to express reservations on policy and policy-makers, such expression must follow an acceptable and legitimate formula. Advising the ruler, nasiha, writing to him, mukatabah, and drawing his attention, tanbih, must initially take the form of ‘congratulating’ and ‘praising’ him for his good behaviour, and mildly encouraging him to reconsider matters relating to policy. All this should be done in secrecy and away from the gaze of the masses or the press for fear of undermining the sanctity and stature of the ruler. Sheikh Ibn Baz abhors the idea that the ruler’s uyub, faults or shameful behaviour, should be discussed using a public platform, for example mosques and mosque minarets or transmitted by faxes to the public. Later official scholars emphasised that resorting to the media to criticise the umara and ulama is also forbidden, a clear reference to Saudi opposition radio stations that broadcast from abroad.
Such an uncompromising total submission to religio-political authority consolidated the powers of the state and its shadow, the ulama. Having nurtured political acquiescence and threatened Godly punishment for those who disobey the ruler, Wahhabiyyah itself thrived with state-sponsored modernisation and oil wealth. It was propagated and enforced not only in mosques, scholar’s study circle, and pious shopkeepers’ private majlis, but also in ultra modern University lecture halls, international conferences, pan-Islamic organisations, and since the 1990s internet web sites and satellite television.
In the Wahhabi worldview, politics became religious when it was concerned with relationship between ruler and ruled, obedience being the only possible relationship, with secret advise by people of knowledge allowed only after praising the ruler for his good deeds. This was the first step towards a long process of mystification that obscured politics and eventually delayed calls for political participation in Saudi Arabia.
 This chapter is based on research on the political implications of the dominant Wahhabi interpretations in Saudi Arabia. A full discussion of these implications are in Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation, CUP 2007
 For a representative literature on the rentier state, see G. Gause 1994 Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States, New York: Council on Foreign Relations.
 This loss of credibility was instigated by the famous 1990 Fatwa that legitimated the invitation of foreign troops to Saudi Arabia after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the 1993 fatwa that legitimated peace with Israel. Both fatwa were controversial in the Saudi context. For a discussion of the implications, see Madawi Al-Rasheed 2002 a History of Saudi Arabia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 163-187.
 After the death of influential Saudi Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz in 1999, the religious establishment seems to have weakened its grip on religious interpretation. The current Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz al-Sheikh is seen as weak and lacking charisma.
 After 11 September, it became fashionable in Saudi Arabia to promote the notion of the renewal of religious discourse in an attempt to fight terrorism, described as a product of radical religious interpretations taught in Saudi schools. While the relationship between terrorism and religious discourse need to be described and assested, it is not so evident that religious discourse changes as a result of orders from above.
 For the responses of some Sunni ulama to Wahhbaiyyah in the Ottoman Empire, see Hala Fattah ‘Wahhabi Influences, Salafi Reponses: Sheikh Muhammad Shukri and the Iraqi Salafi Movement, 1745-1930’ Journal of Islamic Studies 14/2: 127-148, 2003.
 For a Shia responses to Wahhabi challenges in Iraq see Muhammad Kashif al-Ghata al-ajwibah al-najafiyyah fi al-rad ala al-fatawi al-wahabiyyah 2004 Beirut: al-Ghadir.
 See Hamid Algar 2002 Wahhabism: a Critical Essay New York: Islamic Publications International.
 For an interpretation of current terrorism in the Middle East, see Francois Burgat 2005 L’Islamisme a l’Heure de al-Qaida Paris.
 Abd al-Aziz al-Qasim, research paper on Saudi religious curriculum, presented to National Dialogue Forum 2003. http://metransparent .com/texts/qassem manahej.htm
 For an apologetic discussion of Wahhabi theological views on so called blasphemous Muslims, see Natana de Long-Bas Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. For a recent excellent historical account of the rise of Wahhabiyyah in Arabia, see David Commins The Wahhabi Mission in Arabia London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
 Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab 1408AH: 43, masail al jahilliyah, Riyadh: Dar al-Watan.
 For an account of the Saudi state of the twentieth century, see M. Al-Rasheed A History of Saudi Arabia.
 For the first confrontation between the Saudi state and Wahhabi interpretations that crystallised around the ikhwan rebellion in the late 1920s, see Al-Rasheed a History, pp. 62-71.
 Abd al-Rahman al-Qasim 2004 al durar al-saniyyah fi al-ajwibah al-najdiyyah volume 16: 348, Riyadh.
 al durar volume 1, pp. 33 and al-durar volume 16: 153.
 Abdullah Ibn Uthaymin, al-sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab 1992: 152, Riyadh: Dar al-Ulum. For a biography of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab see al durar al saniyyah volume 1, kitab al aqaid, page 373, and sheikh Abd al-Latif bin Abdulrahman bin Hasan volume 16: 314.
 Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab masil al jahiliyyah 1408AH: 12-13, Riyadh.
 Quran, Sura al-nisa, verse 59.
 Lecture by Sheikh Ibn Baz, 1/4/1417 AH, http://www.ibnbaz.com.
 al durar volume 1: 348.
 Hakim al-Mutayri al-huriyyah wa al-tawafan Beirut 2004.
 Sheikh Ibn Baz http://binbaz.org.sa/Display.Asp?f=bz01274.htm
 Hakim al-Mutayri al-huriyyah 2004
 Sheikh ibn Baz, Interview, 19/12/1415 AH, in al-dawah magazine,http://www.ibnbaz.com.
Welcome to the personal website of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed. I hope that you will find the information published here of interest. The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent any organisation.
- May 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- November 2011
- October 2011
- August 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- July 2010
- November 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- October 2008
- April 2008
- January 2008
- December 2007
- October 2007
- September 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- February 2007
- December 2006
- November 2006
- October 2006
- September 2006
- July 2006
- June 2006
- Salman al-Awdah: In the shadow of revolutions
- The Unpredictable Succession Plan Of Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia: local and regional challenges
- New Texts Out Now: A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia
- Madawi Al-Rasheed: Gulf States Co-opt Women’s Mobilization and Replace it with State Feminism
- A Most Masculine State
- Demystifying the Caliphate
- Imagined Heroism of the Saudi ‘Nail Polish Girl’
- Saudi Arabia Turns Blind Eye To Rising Youth Suicide Rates
- Saudi Arabia and Syria: logic of dictators
- No Saudi Spring, Anatomy of a Failed Revolution
- Saudi Arabia and Russia: Settling old scores in Syria
- The meaning of rights for women
- The Saudi trinity: oil, God and security
- In the Time of Oil. Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town