Several months ago, women’s suffrage was on public agenda in Saudi Arabia. According to the ruling dynasty this issue wasn’t tackled in the last municipal elections (for instance, men and women have to vote in separate polling stations). Thus the dynasty promised that the next elections will make up for this.
This bottleneck, which seems to be a harmless technical one at first glance, however, only illustrates the atmosphere within the Saud monarchy. The conservative ruling elite have been reforming the regime, which is legitimised and affected by Wahhabism, with great difficulty. Anyway, it is gradually forced to respond through certain concessions to the pressure from abroad, particularly the United States. The linkage of Wahhabism and Saud regimes remains rather firm despite the mentioned changes which doesn’t represent such a huge progress in comparison to its influence on the Saudi Arabian regime itself.
Wahhabism in politics and within Saudi society
Religion plays an important role in Saudi Arabia. Constitution, which disseminates that the Koran, the doctrine of the Prophet and Allah’s prayers amount to the constitution, derives legitimacy from Allah. According to Hudec (1), the Arabian Peninsula country is in comparison to other Islamic countries an exception as to the legitimacy source, because it is exactly the other countries in which the sovereignty is derived from the people. The consequence of this seemingly irrelevant phenomenon is the fact that in accordance with the Islamic right, the discontent with the king can be voiced only in case of his breaching with Islamic laws. Thus the elections are pointless in this case, since this way is perceived democratic enough. However, constitution or the often pronounced, rather prosaic ground that there are two of the three holiest places of Islam (Mecca and Medina) situated in the country, are not the only central factors.
Saudi Arabia is specific due to the fact that it deems Wahhabism, professed by solely 2 per cent of Muslims around the world, an official religion as the only country. Wahhabism is a puritanical and radical branch of Sunni Islam whose goal is the return to the basic principles of faith, which represent the original ideals of old Muslim communities, and the rejection of habits and innovations clashing with the doctrine of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions (2). In this case Wahhabism is connected with the Ijtihad (re-interpretation) principle which enables the preservation of the unique and complete image of Islam as mentioned in discovered sources, it doesn’t rely on various newer interpretations of particular schools (3). Ijtihad actually means that a scholar or a lawyer adjusts the interpretation of law to given circumstances according to his own deliberation. This line amounts to the resistance to all non-Wahhabists, i.e. atheists, Jews, Christians as well as other Muslims (primarily Suffists and Shiites) against whom it is necessary to wage Jihad according to Wahhab.
The uniqueness of Saudi Arabia in terms of the relation between politics and religion rests also in the fact that in the present, the relation system between religion and state authority is as the solely one in the world characterised by Medhurst like being made sacral with the exclusion of boundaries between the sacral and the secular, or rather, these boundaries are very dimly defined (4). Ali Al-Ahmed, a critic of the human rights violation in Saudi Arabia, is of the same opinion. He affirms that Wahhabist institutions aren’t separated from the government at all (5). Although since the 19th century, the institutional and personal competences in terms of state and religion have been divided between the Al ash-Shaikh family, which administers Mecca and Medina and is in charge of the religious sphere within Saudi Arabia, and the Saud family, which oversees the matters of ruling, there isn’t a tangible border between religion and state authority in the country. This opinion is confirmed by Kostiner (1997) who maintains that “Wahhabist Islam remains a moral order, unifying factor and an ideological impetus of the society, but solely in connection with state interests and the legitimacy of the Saud rule” (6)
For example, Saudi Arabia is the only country where the legal system is based exclusively on Islamic law (Sharia) unless it is in conflict with state interests. The fact remains that Saudi Arabian criminal law emerges from Islamic law hadd, which punishes offences like, for instance, alcoholism by whipping. Commercial law, however, is despite the disapproval of clergymen excluded from Islamic law, or rather, assessed by a special committee (7).
Since 1930s, when Ibn Saud declared Wahhabism a state religion, ulema, the top ranked clergymen, have become a part of the system of monarchy possessing religious authority. The Great Mufti is the head being directly or indirectly in charge of many religious institutions which are closely linked with the state, but not straight under the government’s control (for example, the Council of Grand Ulemas as the most important religious institution). More central fact is that these ulemas, as I mentioned before, didn’t (and don’t behave) independently, but in accordance with state-controlled institutions.
A crucial argument referring to a close relation between religion and state authority in Saudi Arabia is their financial linkage. Religious institutions as well as spiritual authorities are donated by the state.
The mutual relation of religious authorities and state power in practice
The donation of the clergy means besides the linkage of religious and state authority that they are to a large extent dependent on the dynasty’s willingness to pay. Therefore it is probable that some pro-Saud steps of clergymen are influenced by this fact. This is confirmed also by Alyemi who says that the clergy is as strong as the ruling Saud dynasty allows (8). Several fatwas (religious and legal decision) issued by religious authorities (the Great Mufti as well) as regards particular foreign politicians who were at odds with Saudi ruling elite, serve as a proof of the abuse of religion by ruling elite. This used to regard, for example, Saddam Hussein or the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It is almost positive that these fatwas were made at the request of Saudi political elite rather than religious authorities. The opposition representative Sa´ad al-Faqih has similar view as well. He claims that fatwas aren’t in this case the consequences of conviction but a dread of consequences the clergymen would face in the case of not issuing them (9).
Some analysts also say that although spiritual authorities have the opportunity to comment certain matters, they are, however, perceived an advisory capacity from the viewpoint of ruling elite. Thus as a result, the monarch resolves according to his own deliberation. Moreover, Saud dynasty is allowed to recall them anytime if any disputes come about and to designate new ones, since it is within the ruling elite’s competence (10).
The members of Saudi elite use religious rhetoric, or rather, spiritual leaders very thoughtfully for the fight against the liberals who have been criticising the current non-democratic conditions in the country and who have been calling for democratic reforms which would influence clergy as well as ruling elite. In this instance, however, joint struggle is convenient for both sides.
Contrary to this, Saudi elite is sure to understand the need for a mighty partner like the clergy and that’s why it isn’t appropriate to put religious authorities in unfavourable position. Even Hamzawy (11) affirms that religious establishment is a key and well-off player that cannot be commanded even by ruling elite. This means that the Saudis may have an institutionally and normatively secured predominance when compared to the clergy, however, they still have kind of blackmailer’s potential – the diversion from or even the objection against the regime could put an end to it. The ruling elite are therefore willing to consult decisions with the clergy in advance as to more crucial matters.
Nawal Obaid demonstrated this in his study by means of certain examples from the past (12). Though his study is disputable due to the lack of clear evidences, which are hard to capture in the case of unofficial and secret interactions between religious authorities and political elite, it is a study that has certain value. Obaid says that the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia have a strong influence on the decision-making of those involved. It is exactly this factor that besides other ones belongs to the most essential factors as far as the decision-making of Saud rulers is concerned. He offers the analyses of four events as a proof, namely, the oil embargo implemented by Saudi Arabia on the US during the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, the cases of the entry and stay of US soldiers in Saudi Arabia and the last one is the question of Taliban support.
The influence of clergymen and their struggle for Saudi Arabia being the leader among Muslim countries is to be disclosed right on these examples. The author argues primarily by means of the influence of the Great Mufti sheikh Muhammad Al Ash-Shaikh on the king Faisal as well as lengthy negotiations between the representatives of religious community and state as it was the case, for instance, in the Gulf War, when king Fahd had to convince more than 350 Muslim clergymen of the necessity for the presence of US army troops on Saudi Arabian ground. In the end, he had to promise the abidance of certain Islamic rules by US soldiers. Moreover, clergymen used to obtain some say in for them paramount fields like moral police in exchange for religious uphold of royal decisions. That’s why it would be an error to assume that state authority has a striking predominance in comparison to religious authorities as it may seem at first glance.
State authority is eager for Wahhabist religious elite owing to particularly one pragmatic reason from which everything starts. Wahhabism as well as the clergy legitimise the Saud autocratic regime and keep it in power. If the ruling dynasty lost the support of religious authorities, it would rid legitimacy. The dynasty would be forced to search for it among the people as it is the case in many other Arab and Islamic countries. For the regime, however, this would bear the necessary liberalisation interrelated with democracy in which the people would at least to a certain degree vote their representatives and subject the government to a wider control. Something like this would be obviously in conflict with the interests of current political elite which exist without the merest limitation in the country.
In addition to this, the more redoubtable and noticeable opposition in the country is the Islamic one. Therefore, state authority strives to maintain Wahhabist’s support and prevent them from the cooperation with opposition forces which would definitely lead to a destabilisation of political situation, or even most probably to the downfall of autocratic regime. The collaboration of the Saud and spiritual authorities isn’t thus much evident in this instance, since some ulemas refuse fatwas issued by loyal Wahhabists against opposition leaders and flirt with Islamic opposition with which they share the criticism of regime emerging from religious capacities (13).
One has to point out that potential power assumption by Islamic opposition wouldn’t probably bear the democratisation and liberalisation of the society, as the Islamists (rather Shiites and Salafists than Wahhabists) act from the viewpoint of religion yet more radically than the up-to-date elite. The elite are accused by the Islamist of the violation of Islamic laws because of forging friendly links with the United States, but also due to corruption and economic inequality.
Some of them even accuse the ruling dynasty that its objective isn’t to establish an Islamic state (Umma), but rather Mulk (secular state). From the point of view of the Western perception of the religious extremism of Saudi Arabian regime, these words, which criticise the weak role of religion in Saudi society, are hard to comprehend. Nevertheless, they prove the fact that the onset of the opposition may spark yet more radical pursuit of religious interests, although it is questionable whether under the flag of Wahhabism or another branch of Islam.
The statements made by the opposition and its perpetual criticism of the regime’s godlessness (although sometimes it is a pragmatic criticism as in the instance of corruption or nepotism) is in my opinion also the evidence of a powerful religious affiliation of the citizens. They don’t want to change the position of religion in the country, they rather wish to strengthen it, or rather, adapt it to their requirements. This proved right during the Gulf War, when a wave of outrage rose among the public due to the presence of foreign army troops in the country. One of the primary arguments was an illegitimate entry of “kafirs” into the territory of a country where are the two holiest places of Islam (14). In other words, relevant position towards religiously fundamental regime isn’t secular, or rather, liberal, but radically religious which attests to the importance of religion in the country. This situation is understandable, since Wahhabist elite is in charge of education in the country.
It is exactly the Wahhabist grip on such momentous fields within the state like education or judiciary that is a central argument for the linkage of state authority and the clergy, i.e. the long-lasting influence of Wahhabism on the Saudi society.
The majority of analysts (Hamzawy, Henderson, Lippman, etc.) are of the opinion that Saudi religious education is in the hands of Wahhabists. Practically it means that no other religions are taught, just Wahhabism and its history. These subjects can be taught solely by Wahhabists, there are only religious books that spread Wahhabism in libraries and exclusively Wahhabist ideas are covered by the media, no other religions (15). The entire orientation of such an education is aimed against other religions according to the Shiites. The fact remains that curricula for the whole of schools, no matter if private or public ones, are written by Wahhabists.
In terms of our research it is more important that this gradual Wahhabist intrusion into the society is upheld also by the government by means of concrete steps. One of the steps was the substitution of the reform-friendly Education Minister for one of the most radical Wahhabist Abdullah bin Salih Obeid who collaborated even with the Muslim Brotherhood (through Muslim World League).
This information, however, isn’t surprising. Yet in the past in 1960s – 70s, religious education in Saudi Arabia was taught by members of Muslim Brotherhood who established the organisation World Muslim League. The representative of Muslim Brotherhood himself Hasan Al-Banna was influenced by Wahhabism that he kept on spreading. The present Chancellor of Islamic University in Medina is allegedly a member of Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Professor Al-Qaradawi, who has been given an exclusion order by the United States owing to the support of violence and terrorism (16). This also testifies to the degree of radicalism of religious education at schools which in this way rear a lot of extremists with deeply ingrained hatred of Jews, Christians and atheists.
Similar situation is experienced on the courts. Exclusively Wahhabists try, even in Shiite regions. In other words, the Shiite destiny is in the hands of people the religion of whose disseminates the inferiority of other denominations.
The situation regarding the liberalisation of this system has been changing in accordance with diverse factors affecting the reform process. According to Hamzawy (17) although up to 2001 several changes went on, further progress has been impeded by pressure of the US on the regime after the attack on the World Trade Centre. 15 of the 19 assassins were of Saudi origin. All of them were taught to abominate Jews, Christians and atheists and thus Americans as well. At the same time the process inside the family, where the top ranked men were substituted, is given as a reason. (Fahd gave up his power in favour of Abdullah who reigns up to now and who is more conservative and anti-democratic than his Predecessor.) The last and simultaneously most significant moment of relative democratisation were the municipal elections which were held after a 30-year long break.
The spread of Wahhabism abroad
The fact remains (and the Saudi government hadn’t denied it before the September 11th attacks) that Saudi elite along with the clergy use financial means as well as human resources for the spread of Wahhabism across the borders.
The most evident and maybe the most famous intrusion of Wahhabism is its influence on the members of the probably yet international Muslim Brotherhood. In this connection Hasan Al-Banna, the founder of this fundamentalist organisation, is mentioned. Through him Wahhabism was spread further within this fundamentalist organisation but also beyond its boundaries. Since the Muslim Brotherhood has branches in more than 70 countries, Wahhabism enjoys an abundant representation abroad. Also the World Muslim League, which was founded in 1962 and provides for the financing of mosques, cultural centres, schools and other religious institutions, acts in favour of the spread of Wahhabism. The dynasty is also supportive of various Islamic foundations and fundamentalist movements abroad (the fortune of which often serves for terrorist actions, or rather, national fight for liberation in Palestine) despite the resistance of its political allies (i.e. the US). In this way it just confirms its serious relation to religion. The question remains to what extent this relief contributes to the spread of Wahhabism or the meeting of Saudi Arabian national interests. N. Obaid affirms (1999) in the defence of the spiritual impetus of Saudi elite that, for instance, in the case of Sunnite Taliban (not orthodox Wahhabistic) the uphold was also theological, as Taliban was comprised mainly of Afghan refugees who were educated in Pakistan at religious schools which were under financial as well as theological control of Saudi Arabia and where the Wahhabist theology and law was taught (18).
Among the most affected Muslims are those from Pakistan, Palestine, Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya (Shamil Basayev for example) and Bosnia (19). However it is probable that the spread of Wahhabism wasn’t the main point in these regions, i.e. a side effect of political, or rather, geopolitical struggle of Saudi Arabia in times when besides the support of culture and religious centres it also provided considerable funds for an armed combat of particular groups against Saudi political enemies (for instance the support of the Palestinians against Israel). It is indisputable, however, that since 1975 to 1987 Saudi Arabia earmarked 4 billion dollars per annum for “foreign development aid”, in the end of 2002, the overall sum amounted to 70 billion dollars. Moreover, these figures don’t encompass the citizen’s modest contributions which are administered by controlled foundations as well (20).
The research of the relation between Saudi elite and Wahhabist clergy encounters several obstacles. The most serious one is the fact that a large part of the relations between state authority and clergy is under way secretly, or rather, “tacitly”. An additional issue is the existence of informal rules the Saudi society (as any other one) abides by to a certain degree and which we are unable to disclose from among the documents and analyses we have at our disposal.
From the analysis of institutions, their mutual interactions and practical outputs emerges that there is no boundary between the sacral and the secular in Saudi Arabia, although this boundary exists at least institutionally to a certain extent. Religion plays an important role within the society. Primarily Islamic religious parties along with the ruling Saud dynasty have profit from it. The relation between religious authorities and state power is mutually advantageous. To be at odds is good neither for state authority nor for religious authorities. For them it is better to cooperate.
Saudi Arabian regime upholds Wahhabism also outside Saudi Arabia. This statement can be challenged by the fact that the country’s support of particular governments and groups doesn’t necessarily mean the support of the spread of Wahhabism, just an ordinary pursuit of the country’s own national objectives. There are instances, however, where it is exactly the spread of cultural and religious values that is evident (the case of Pakistani religious schools).
Further development in Saudi Arabia as to the relation between religion and political elite is dependent on the oncoming elections after which it will be decided whether the women will obtain suffrage or not. Obviously, the issue of women’s rights is connected apart from religion also with tradition within the society which is influenced by tribal habits. The “modernisation” in terms of the democracy of elections is simultaneously an assault on Wahhabism rejecting such a modernisation. If the women acquire the suffrage, it may signal (ignoring other important factors like the exchange of women’s suffrage for other benefits for clergy) certain enfeebling of the ties between state power and clergy, or rather, the weakening of the clergy’s influence on state power. On the contrary, if the conservative wing of Saudi elite succeeds in pushing through the ban of women’s suffrage, it will prove the strength of Wahhabist influence on the elite’s decision-making.
(5)Interview s odborníkmi na sledovanú problematiku. http://www.pbs.org/frontline
(6) Kostiner, J: State, Islam And Opposition In Saudi Arabia, In: Middle East Review of international Affairs, volume 1, July 1997. http://www.meria.org
(7) World Factbook: Central Intelligence Agency, 2006. http://http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook
(8) Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? A Debate. In: Middle East Quarterly. Spring, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/930
(9) Kostiner, J: State, Islam And Opposition In Saudi Arabia, In: Middle East Review of international Affairs, volume 1, July 1997. http://www.meria.org
(10) Shavit, U.: Al-Qaeda´s Saudi Origins. Islamist Ideology. In: middle East Quarterly. Fall, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/999
(11) Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? A Debate. In: Middle East Quarterly. Spring, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/930
(12) Obaid, N.: The Power of Saudi Arabia´s Islamic Leaders. In: Middle East Quarterly, September, 1999. http://www.meforum.org/article/482
(13) Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? A Debate. In: Middle East Quarterly. Spring, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/930
(14) Obaid, N.: The Power of Saudi Arabia´s Islamic Leaders. In: Middle East Quarterly, September, 1999. http://www.meforum.org/article/482
(15) Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? A Debate. In: Middle East Quarterly. Spring, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/930
(16) Palazzi, H.: The Islamist Have it Wrong. In: Middle East Quarterly. Summer, 2001. http://www.meforum.org/article/14
(17) Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? A Debate. In: Middle East Quarterly. Spring, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/930
(18) Obaid, N.: The Power of Saudi Arabia´s Islamic Leaders. In: Middle East Quarterly, September, 1999. http://www.meforum.org/article/482
(19) Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed? A Debate. In: Middle East Quarterly. Spring, 2006. http://www.meforum.org/article/930