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 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. But despite the changes being little and temporary, people are nonetheless paying attention to them.
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. 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. There have been significant personnel changes, to be sure, but the majority of the new council members have followed typical career paths. 7 The dominant Wahhabi approach is to discreetly advise but also support the current Islamic ruler, even though the council is composed of senior figures and scholars who have risen through the ranks of state institutions. It would be nearly impossible to imagine such individuals criticising the nation’s leaders or contesting the nature of the state.
Some individuals that the previous king Abdullah had dismissed for their resistance to his cautious agenda of social changes have been reinstated by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. They include people like Saad al-Shethri and Saleh al-Luhaidan. The Saudi leadership appears to be maintaining the Wahhabi tenets on the council, as it does in other sectors, but avoiding them to prevent any direct conflict.
This interpretation is supported by many actions. First, Salman retained Abdullah’s practise of incorporating council members who are adherents of the three non-Hanbali Sunni schools. This limited expansion of the council’s makeup came at the expense of a diminished council’s power because Salman sought its counsel less regularly.
Second, within the Wahhabi establishment itself, progressive personalities like Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, the chairman of the Muslim World League and a former minister of justice, coexist alongside figures like al-Luhaidan and al-Shethri.
Third, by maintaining ultraconservative leaders in power, the state has been able to maintain control over their adherents. However, forcing them to abandon their previous conservative narratives has diminished their credibility more than merely replacing them with fresh individuals who have never opposed social reform. Fourth, the attorney general was appointed to the council by a royal proclamation in October 2020. Despite the fact that the attorney general’s appointment affirms the de facto centrality of religion to the kingdom’s justice system, the fact that he is there more because of his position than because of his knowledge of religion amounts to a de facto downgrading in importance and a sign of growing politicization.
Any objection to these measures that would be portrayed as opposition to the battle against extremism is complicated by the reform agenda’s blending of the fight against extremism with political interventions and state modernization initiatives. The ministry is essential in maintaining the apolitical features of Wahhabi philosophy while actively approving the implementation of the social, religious, and political agenda of the Saudi leadership, which de facto contradicts the ministry’s own set interpretations.
Abdullatif Al al-Sheikh, the current minister of Islamic affairs, is one of the key players in the new Saudi narrative on supposed religious centralism. According to him, this route is entirely in line with Wahhabi ideology and the “methodology of the virtuous forebearers.”
That methodology, in his perspective, needs to be improved after decades of Islamist intrusion. He fully embraced the religious language of the Saudi political leadership even before being appointed as a minister, lending his political passion to his dual credibility as a son of the official establishment and a member of the al-Sheikh family (of al-Wahhab).
It has been easy to see how the ministry has changed as a result. Despite denying the existence of a “written” black list in 2018, the minister of Islamic affairs (who had just been appointed at the time) stated that those in their positions “who don’t fit with the new vision of the king and his crown prince of a moderate nation that rejects extremism” would be terminated. Consider, for example, how Saudi political authorities have fired or otherwise silenced imams who oppose social liberalisation, incite conflict by praying against particular people, nations, and sects, or engage in political discourse.
Various rules have been enacted to restrict preaching in the mosques of the kingdom to Saudis and full-time imams who are subject to stricter regulation from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Prior to then, measures made to restrict the theological narratives advanced by ultraconservatives included the stricter enforcement of the choice to standardise Friday sermons and digitally monitor them throughout the kingdom. Scholars, both official and unofficial, are under constant pressure to religiously validate the socioeconomic and political changes that are taking place while also upping the ante on calls for complete submission to Saudi authorities.
THE SAUDI STATE’S ISLAM IMPLEMENTATION METHODS
The Wahhabi theology places a strong emphasis on dawa (Islamic proselytization). Wahhabism not only holds that every Muslim, including Saudi state authorities as Muslim rulers, has a responsibility to advance Islam and spread proper behaviour, but it also has a reputation for being less than pluralistic and demonstrating a strong belief in the Wahhabi teachings that come from the movement’s adherents. Dawa is not only a philosophical standpoint but also a state bureaucratic duty in Saudi Arabia. This proselytising function is carried out by a number of institutions that are outfitted with financial and administrative resources and staffed by ulema who serve as state bureaucrats in charge of putting Saudi Arabia’s unique identity and what the authorities are now calling “moderation” into action.
The Saudi court is one of the most notable state institutions and may be the strongest bulwark against the official function of the Wahhabi religious establishment. Judges who have received training in Islamic law sit on the general jurisdiction courts’ benches in Saudi Arabia, and they are urged to view their duties as the application of God’s guidelines for moral behaviour. They are expected to function under the political direction of a legitimate monarch, but their specialised training gives them an understanding of sharia.
The Saudi judicial system now plays a more complex role than it once did. Even as additional quasi-judicial groups have entered the judicial ranks, its structures have been institutionalised, its practises have been regulated, and its courts have specialised.
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