Although the high degree of overlap between various religious and political entities was ended by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the current Saudi state, a dialectical connection between the clerics and the royal family persisted throughout the process of state development. The most obvious evidence of this interaction was still the significant overlap between the religious and legal spheres. Judges with extensive Islamic sharia training were employed in the general jurisdiction courts, with no reference to state law codes. (In contrast, judges in Syria or Morocco might have taken an Islamic law course in law school, but the majority of their study would have been in state-legislated law books.) The Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, or, more often, the religious police, was responsible for upholding public order in the kingdom in addition to the regular police. This translation is partly due to the committee’s historically strong enforcement abilities, which, until more recently, expanded rather than declined with time. Nearly all facets of Saudi public life and official services, from media to education, are influenced by religion.
Over the past 50 years, the Saudi state has expanded greatly and quickly in practically all areas, including social welfare, education, construction, the media, and governmental agencies. Saudi Arabia’s state-building has a tendency to build on historical patterns rather than breaking them, notwithstanding the size and speed of this institutional and infrastructure expansion. There have undoubtedly been changes, but no self-styled revolutionary government has ever taken control of the nation with the intention of overturning the status quo.
It’s not as if Saudi Arabia was stuck in time; on the contrary, the function of religion evolved over time and assumed a more defined form, supported by a variety of state actors. Thus, despite some broad continuity, Saudi observers noted a change; nevertheless, the exact timing of that transition, as well as its cause, is still up for debate. Some people view the reign of the former king Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (1964–1975), whose conservative outlook was supported by rising oil revenues, as a turning point in the country’s history. However, today’s proponents of the most recent changes speak instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s gradually radicalizing influence between the 1960s and 1979 as a pivotal point in history.
The Grand Mosque in Mecca being taken over, the Iranian revolution, and a rise in religiosity throughout the region were all religious issues that year, and the Saudi leadership responded by strengthening its commitment to religion in public life within the kingdom. 4 The country’s religious leaders appeared to have a veto over certain aspects of governmental policy, social constraints grew more severe, domestic religious institutions received more lavish financial assistance, and financing for religious operations abroad became easier to come through.
Some Saudi citizens refer to 1979 as a turning point, which is based on a real change but is also partially tactical in nature: mentioning such a recent date can be meant to imply that Saudi Arabia’s current institutions and practices are the result of much more recent political calculations, both external and internal, rather than deeply ingrained traditions rooted in history and religion. Thus, opposition to these contemporary institutions and customs might be justified as a return to Saudi society’s original foundations, which were allegedly more pluralistic, tolerant, and liberal on a social scale.
The Wahhabi reform movement, which originated in the Arabian Peninsula about three centuries ago and has been associated with the Saudi political cause from its inception, is frequently referred to when foreigners discuss the Saudi religious establishment. This is a valid justification. The official Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia has in fact always been influenced by Wahhabism. However, the Wahhabi nature of the Saudi leadership is not recognized, in part because Wahhabism is avoided as a name because, in the eyes of its supporters, it is the sole accurate interpretation of Islam, not just a peculiar school of thought.
However, the long-dominant approach to Islam in the country has characteristics that are similar to movements, regardless of the label used for it (anchored as it is in certain circles, regions, families, and informal networks). Wahhabism is another name for a school of religious thinking that adheres strictly to the original holy writings (similar to Salafism) and forgoes customs it considers to be non-Islamic accretions (such as the veneration of tombs). Wahhabi scholars often adhere to the teachings of the movement’s founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and other key Wahhabi figures, despite being skeptical of some academic interpretations. Many Saudi religious bookcases are decorated with elegantly bound copies of his fatwas (legal opinions on a matter of Islamic law).
Wahhabism, however, is not a static or unchanging force, much like Saudi Arabia itself. If the Islamic trend began as a movement, the establishment of the Saudi state substantially boosted its power and provided it with a solid institutional structure. What had formerly been a school of thought was gradually woven into the Saudi state’s fabric as it grew larger, more intricate, and frequently less coherent. As a result, religious organizations and officials gained enormous power in a variety of spheres.
The result, however, was not merely to integrate religion into the state and ensure that it had a significant influence in many spheres of public life, but also to ensure that Wahhabi Islam was presented to kingdom citizens as having full state authority and to elevate Wahhabi scholars and leaders to positions of authority in the state. Those academics were unable to reject the promise of influence and did not do so either. It was an alluring proposition to be able to broaden their social and geographic reach, educate new generations, and place graduates in various Saudi governmental organizations. And because of this access to power, the religious institution gained significant influence, even though it hired its followers as government employees.
The Saudi state’s leaders continue to use the clerics’ fear of losing their privileged position to force them to change and subdue them in accordance with the needs of political survival. Wahhabi academics take pride in the authenticity and purity of their method, although historically the movement has grown via contacts with other methods and internal competition. Despite being initiated by the royal court today, modifications adhere to the same principles of political adaptation.
Therefore, fundamental aspects of Saudi state structures, such as who reports to whom, where different offices typically recruit new hires, what training and credentials they expect of their members, and what their jurisdictions or competencies are, have been the very instruments through which religion has shaped Saudi public life, society, and politics, whether intentionally or not. Even seemingly small changes to those aspects of state procedures and structures could have a big impact on society and religion.
The many institutions in which Islam is taught, practiced and enforced have undergone methodical recasting and reordering during the past few years in the Saudi religious sphere. These changes have not taken the form of a formal program, but rather a collection of administrative actions with two distinct outcomes: an increase in the level of central control over religion (a reduction in the autonomy of religious figures) and a transfer of power to less obviously religious structures that are closer to the royal court.
But despite the rhetoric, there hasn’t been a formal transformational program, and there haven’t been any overt shifts in religious doctrine. Instead, dozens of technical modifications are being made under the reform banner rather than widespread institution-wide abolitions or a major shakeup. Only when these changes are taken as a whole and when it is clearly not only how effective but also how long-lasting the changes are, will the overall effects of these changes be apparent. However small and temporary the changes may be, they are still getting attention.
The Council of Senior Scholars’ consent, or nowadays, it’s a posteriori blessing, is now required for some of the aforementioned reforms in the Saudi religious sector, particularly those that revisit the traditional Wahhabi conceptions of religion. 6 The council is the pinnacle of Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. It is composed of the most eminent and recognized religious academics in the nation. It was established in the 1960s and represents the Saudi religious establishment as a whole. It makes sense that the extensive program of religious restructuring implemented by the Saudi monarchy would have a profound impact on, if not pose a threat to, such a powerful body.
However, there are no indications that the council will undergo significant changes. Although there have been significant personnel changes, the majority of the new council members have followed traditional professional routes. The traditional Wahhabi strategy is to discreetly advise while simultaneously supporting the current Islamic monarch; the council is composed of senior officials but its members are scholars who have advanced within state organizations. It would be practically inconceivable for such individuals to criticize the nation’s leaders or question the nature of the state.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.