Saudi religious establishment weakens in face of powerful state

The Saudi king criticized the country's religious establishment for its "silence" in the face of current turmoil, but has the state's growing power actually fostered a weak body of clerics?

al-monitor Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (not pictured) wait for a meeting at the king's private residence in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, June 27, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Topics covered

wahhabism, saudi arabia, salafist, religion and state, king abdullah bin abdulaziz al saud, fatwa

Aug 24, 2014

On the evening of Aug. 1, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz addressed religious scholars in a brief speech that nevertheless was unprecedentedly candid and reproachful.

The most expressive part of the king’s speech came when he directly and accusingly addressed scholars, saying: “You remain silent.” As shocking as this accusation is, it was not as shocking as when he alluded to them being “lazy.” Most likely, the king, through these improvised words, did not mean lazy in its literal sense. He rather aimed at shocking the scholars by expressing his disapproval of their continued silence throughout the critical circumstances faced by the kingdom and the entire region.

The scholars did not comment on the king’s choice of words, either to clarify their position or defend it. Most probably, their silence was due to a number of factors. First, they must have been taken by surprise. Second, perhaps there was concern that any comment could be construed as giving advice to their guardian, the king. According to Salafist principles, advice must be given privately, not in public. Third, the king concluded his speech with “go in peace,” thus closing the door on further debate.

The importance of the king’s speech lies in the fact that it unintentionally revealed the current state of affairs within the official religious establishment. The relationship between the religious establishment and the state is currently askew. The establishment cannot be characterized as suffering from “laziness,” but rather from a weakness and stagnation never before seen in its history. This is no longer the era of Abdulaziz bin Baz, Muhammad bin Ibrahim, Abdullah bin Abdul Latif, Abdul Rahman bin Abdul Latif and the founder of the [Salafist] movement, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Previously, the establishment was secure in embracing its traditions, teachings and hierarchy. No other organizations challenged its domination of society; its word was final, not through the might of the state and its apparatuses, but through the overwhelming acceptance and consensual support that it enjoyed, as well as its influence and prestige.

Then followed the changes caused by prosperity and modernity. They began eating away at that accrued heritage. The era of the great Wahhabis was forever gone, with Abdulaziz bin Baz being the last of those great leaders. The establishment now has competitors: the [Muslim] Brotherhood, the Sururis, the Jamis, the jihadist Salafis. Even terrorist organizations now compete with official religious establishments, not only in Saudi Arabia but throughout the world. Science and knowledge are no longer monopolized by religious teachings, and a secular education is now available in practically all fields. Colleges and universities have now supplanted religious studies workshops once held in homes or mosques. Students now graduate and receive degrees from universities. Workshops and corresponding diplomas issued by scholars to their students are forever relegated to the ancient past. This has been compounded by the effect of the telecommunications revolution and its accompanying online scholars and preachers.

Despite these factors, the religious establishment's main weakness is the intellectual stagnation which has plagued it amid the surrounding changes. Its methodological rigidity prevented it from properly interacting with the successive waves of change and precluded it from rising up to meet the challenges and necessities of this period.

Society is changing at breakneck speed, while the establishment remains planted in place. Its positions vis-a-vis social, political cultural and economic issues remain the same as those espoused by its leaders during the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, its stances concerning banks, women's rights, the wearing of the veil, women entering the workplace, modern science and individual opinions remain as they were two centuries ago.

The establishment’s opinions have clashed with those of the state on more than one occasion. The latest incident occurred four years ago, when the Standing Committee for Scientific Research and Ifta issued a fatwa (religious edict) banning women from working as store cashiers. Yet the Council of Ministers adopted a series of decisions that governed the employment of women in public and private sectors, pursuant to which the Ministry of Labor issued a decision allowing women to work as store cashiers. The fatwa banning women from working as store cashiers showed that the religious establishment disagreed with the state.

The religious establishment’s rhetoric is unable to accommodate the requirements of development. In its view, this need must always remain subordinate to the requirements of this rhetoric. This leads to an awkward situation: Religious scholars, who once were the state’s only learned people and are now considered its preeminent erudite class, are unable to keep up with the development of state and society. Still, the state is wary of widening the chasm between it and the religious establishment, and continues to nurture development in the hope that the establishment will one day change its stances.

This brings us back to the king’s recent speech. He reprimanded the scholars’ silence toward ongoing regional events, in particular the spread of violence and terrorism, the expanding range of transnational jihadist organizations and the potential threat they pose to the kingdom. From this vantage point, one might get the misguided impression that the religious establishment’s stance on those events differs from that of the state. In reality, the establishment’s opinion on this and other issues is completely consistent with the state's.

Where, then, is the point of contention? The Salafist religious ideology takes precedence in the establishment's fatwas and opinions. Political issues that cannot be ideologically determined pursuant to those standards are left for the king. The establishment fully obeys his decisions in that regard. As a result, the scholars are silent concerning pending issues of the state because they would rather adhere to the king's opinions.​ I may further venture to say that the scholars completely agree with the state’s stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. For instance, they reject, from a purely unwavering Salafist viewpoint, the activism of this movement, as well as its politics and ambition to attain power. However, they do not see the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Characterizing it as such would require an ideological and doctrinal adaptation that, according to scholars, requires exonerating proof.

In other words, the scholars lack the analytical reasons or the political jurisprudence needed to take such a stance. This in itself is another indication of the establishment’s weakness. This could be compared to the scholars' position during the 19th-century civil war that ravaged the second Saudi state. One should also review the words of Abdul Latif bin Abdul Rahman, the most prominent Wahhabi of the time.

Abdul Rahman wrote: “During the days of the most prominent of imams, historical events did take place that were similar to those currently occurring in Najd. The usurper’s rule became enshrined through the blessing of religious scholars. … Then, Saud bin Faisal passed away and people grew restless. We feared sedition and licentiousness of all kinds, until the learned wise men appointed Abdul Rahman bin Faisal as ruler.”

This letter is one among many that show this man’s efforts, along with others, to avert the collapse of the state. Another long letter by Sheikh Hamad bin Atiq dealt with a dispute that arose between him and Saud bin Faisal. It read: “From Hamad bin Atiq to Imam Saud bin Faisal. Greetings. I have received, read and thought about your letter. It made me suspicious to the point that I thought it was not you who dictated it. It contained matters that no sane person would accept, and was full of lies that do not befit a man such as yourself.” ("Sunni Pearls of Wisdom," Vol. 9, 2004).

The letter reflected the stature of a religious scholar and, by extension, the religious establishment’s influence in society. Can you imagine a letter of this sort being sent to a contemporary Arab ruler? The establishment’s power was a reflection of the period’s state of affairs — its circumstances and conditions. The letter clearly expressed the true nature of those times, when the establishment was a relative force to be reckoned with.

Nowadays, that same establishment has fallen victim to the laws of nature, whereby religious establishments (and ideological ones in general) grow weaker with time as the state grows stronger and larger. The religious establishment is currently weak and irrelevant. It is unable to reflect the true nature of the current era — just its own situation.

Since it also is a state establishment, its weakness becomes reflected upon the state as a whole, even if unintentionally. As such, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s criticism is entirely appropriate, but it should also be aimed at targets that go beyond the religious establishment.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Khalid al-Dakhil