The ideologies and organizational frameworks of Saudi Arabia’s religious organizations have changed in peculiar and distinctive ways since the country’s founding roughly a century ago. Wahhabi interpretations of Islamic texts and teachings, pursued and enforced by organizations like the Ministry of Education, the Religious Police, and a judiciary with general jurisdiction and sharia (Islamic law) training, have given the Saudi state a religious character that is unmatched in the region. However, these qualities are not timeless nor unchanging, and they might even be shifting.
The governmental structures of the nation are being consolidated, redesigned, and restrained. The religious philosophy of the country is no longer “committed blindly” to Muhammad ibn Abd al-teachings Wahhab’s or to any “particular school or teacher,” as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the reformer, declared on April 27, 2021. The Saudi government has undergone a swift and drastic reform, which may be the system’s most significant change since it was established a century ago. The way that Islam is practiced in the Saudi state and in public life is changing as a result of a variety of procedural modifications, personnel adjustments, bureaucratic reorganizations, and changes in the jurisdiction.
However, despite all the potentially profound, cumulative impacts, the majority of these modifications are merely technical tweaks, responsibility redistributions, or adjustments to appointment patterns. More radical actions might be forthcoming at some time, according to the way rhetoric and tone are changing. The majority of the modifications started under the previous monarch, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and are not entirely new. And because these changes are more like reorganizations than redesigns, they might be reversible or they might just be the goal in and of themselves. Wahhabi principles have not been directly attacked, despite occasional indications to the contrary; instead, enduring structures have endured, seeming immune to existential threats—at least for the time being. Formerly dominant actors are being overthrown, and while their structures are still in place, they are changing. These modifications have negative effects on both Saudi diplomacy at home and internationally.
While Saudi religious institutions are being reorganized, their administrative resources are being reduced, reportedly to improve governance but probably also for political purposes. As is customary in Saudi Arabia, the transformation began at the top. The royal family has enlisted the support of individuals in the religious establishment who are receptive to its new political vision, whereby the monarchy-led state, not the religious establishment, defines public order, in order to help sell these changes to Saudi society while maintaining credibility and reducing tensions.
These modifications appear to have been made for three reasons: to consolidate the regime; to further centralize the state; and to remove obstacles to anticipated political, social, and economic changes. Additionally, the immediate results are evident. Saudi religious institutions (with their broad areas of influence and huge bureaucracies) and the dominant Wahhabi (as non-Saudis refer to it) religious doctrine has developed over decades into essential and significant components of the state machinery. But because of those same characteristics, they are unable or even unwilling to fight against these changes.
Saudi Arabia is experiencing these shifts not just later but also so quickly that careful calibration seems unlikely. The leadership’s parallel strategy of clinging to some of the distinctive elements of exclusionary and radical state doctrine, as well as the fact that the ultranationalist and political motivations behind some of the changes are occasionally quite obvious, raise the possibility that these changes will result in strong pockets of resistance and resentment.
By first reviewing its historical development, this dissertation explores the changes in the religious establishment of the Saudi state. Second, it looks at the various ministries and other institutions that employ ulema (religious scholars), giving those voices access to a tiny amount of state power in addition to the authority of their own knowledge. However, evaluating the changes in the Saudi religious establishment necessitates not just focusing on organizations that are led and dominated by ulema but also bearing in mind other state institutions where they play significant but non-leading roles.
Thus, the majority of the essay is devoted to examining two sets of institutions: those that are meant to mold the nation’s religious identity and those that carry out that mission. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Council of Senior Scholars are included in the first group. The Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, the Ministry of Education, and Islamic philanthropic organizations are included in the second group. Due to the major role its secretary general is playing in disseminating this new Saudi religious discourse abroad, the World Muslim League is likewise included in this second category.
However, in actuality, this division of labor between the two institutional groupings is not entirely obvious. Political leaders frequently decide to forego the first set of institutions and impose the new religious narrative directly through implementation and deeds. Typically, the goal is to avoid direct conflict with and opposition from the first group of institutions while gradually and visibly limiting their ability to legitimize governmental policy. In truth, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice have been gradually developing the nation’s religious identity for a long time because of the flexibility their staff has in their courts and classrooms. Due to the World Muslim League’s secretary general’s tight ties to the royal palace, the organization is now more than just a vehicle for propagating and operationalizing the nation’s new religious discourse overseas.
Unlike most of its neighbors, the Saudi state of the twentieth century was established differently. There has never been a time when Europe ruled the country; instead, Western oil companies have historically had a much larger presence there than any European military or diplomatic entity. Only a few areas of the country were once home to Ottoman institutions, and the kingdom’s borders and territory were established as a result of conflicts on the Arabian Peninsula (albeit with a heavy British hand in fixing some borders, including those with Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait). Islam was crucial in forging the distinct identity of the emerging political entity because it not only came before state formation but also set limits on outside influence.
Saudi bureaucratic systems tended to be less coherent and were constructed later than those in other countries in the region. The process of centralization was much slower. And until the current Majlis al-Shura (Shura Council), established in 1992 and still consultative, became remarkably active, legislative procedures shunned parliamentary organizations with relatively modest consultative mechanisms. Religious adherents in previous attempts to establish a Saudi state had the dual responsibility of persuading and even coercing Saudi citizens to submit to the state by taking on official religious and civil (and, early on, even military) tasks like conquest, control, and policing as well as the collection of tax and zakat (mandatory annual charitable donations made by Muslims).
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