Wahhabi consolidation of the state

[  Excerpt from the book “Contesting the Saudi State” by Madawi Al-Rasheed]

Consolidating the state: mystification of the world

Twentieth-century official Wahhabi scholars used three mechanisms to consolidate the political realm. Hijra (migration), takfir (excommunication) and jihad (struggle in the way of God) are religious concepts that were conducive to domesticating the population and ensuring total control over the public sphere. It is ironic that these old concepts that consolidated the state are currently used to denounce it and even destroy it.


Hijra is a boundary-drawing mechanism that requires an individual to migrate to the realm of the pious state, established by Wahhabi efforts: the Saudi state.39 The tradition was invoked in the eighteenth century to distinguish between the realm created in central Arabia and other provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, in the nineteenth century the land that fell into the hands of the invading Egyptian troops who landed on the shores of the Arabian Peninsula was regarded as an unsuitable abode for true Muslims, who were therefore required to emigrate to the land where authentic Islam still prevailed.40 Finally, in the twentieth century, the modern Saudi state was founded as a result of invoking the tradition of hijra, which required true Muslims to leave not only their traditional land but also way of life in order to migrate to the land of Islam, the Saudi–Wahhabi realm.41 Abode in this land of Islam became compulsory, while travelling to the land of non-Muslims – a wide category that included not only Christians and Jews but also other Muslims – is forbidden. The fact that other Muslims were known to be part of ahl al-qibla (people who face Mecca for prayer) did not suffice to make their territory permissible as an abode for true Muslims. This distinction was based not just on a physical migration but also on a moral one, that involved abandoning the realms of blasphemy, religious innovation and, ultimately, misguidance. The migration includes prohibitions and restrictions on travelling to such blasphemous areas in times of peace. This application of the concept of migration was closely associated with the ulama of Riyadh and its environs, who were most radical in their distinction between the land of Muslims and that of non-Muslims. In pre-oil Arabia such areas had no commercial interest. In other towns in central Arabia – for example, Unayzah and Hayil – where there were more developed commercial interests with the outside world, scholars were more lenient in applying the prohibition on travel to the land of infidels. The commercial interests of these two towns required such a moderate theological position.42



The second mechanism deployed in consolidating and expanding the political realm was excommunication. The practice of takfir against those whose Islam does not correspond to that defined by the state ulama not only controlled social and religious ‘deviance’, as defined by Wahhabi interpretation, but also expanded the political realm under the pretext of correcting the blasphemy of others.

While there is extensive debate and documentation of Muslim opinions regarding the status of non-Muslims and near consensus over the terminology used to refer to them, depending on whether they are people of the book or others,48 the labelling of other Muslims as kafir has always been problematic in Islamic history. Excommunication of other Muslims is a practice that draws the boundaries in between Muslims rather than dividing Muslims from non-Muslims. In practice it amounts to symbolic violence against the ‘enemy within’ by drawing on religious discourse and evidence, usually by an expert – a judge or religious scholar – in order to remove an insider from the community of the faithful.


Excommunicating Muslims as groups was a mechanism for state expansion in the Wahhabi tradition. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab declared, ‘I excommunicate the one who knows the religion of the Prophet, and then he insults the religion, and forbids people to follow it, and becomes an enemy of those who know religion. This is the one that I excommunicate.’51 Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refutes the accusation that he was excessive in excommunicating whole communities. In response to a question about excommunication and violence, he explains that those who do not declare faith and perform the remaining four pillars of Islam (Prayer, fast, alms, and pilgrimage) are kafirs. He specifies four categories of kafir. First is one who knows tawhid but does not act according to its principle. This is a kafir whom we fight as a result of his blasphemy (nuqatiluhu bi kufrihi). Second is one who knows tawhid but insults religion and prefers polytheists to monotheists. Third is one who knows, loves, and follows tawhid, but hates those who accept it.Fourth is one who knows tawhid but whose own people (for example, family or local community) are polytheists; he supports them against monotheists because he is fond of them and cannot leave them.52

In the Wahhabi tradition, nawaqidh al-Islam (factors that remove a person from the realm of Islam) are polytheism; association with God; failing to excommunicate polytheists; preferring another authority to that of Islam; hating part of the Prophet’s message; ridiculing the Prophet’s message; sorcery; assisting infidels against Muslims (under the concept of al-wala_ wal-bara); excluding some people from the rule of Islam; and disrespecting Islam’s teachings.The violation of one of the above removes the person from Islam, (kufr mukhrij min al-milla).53

However, it is well documented that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his later disciples followed a well-known formula in addressing other Muslims and calling upon them to become true Muslims by abandoning their shirk (polytheism). In a letter to all Muslims, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab says: ‘The polytheists of our time are more numerous than the infidels at the time of the Prophet. They call upon angels, saints and pious people asking for forgiveness . . . Muslims know that tawhid is worshipping God. This is the religion of the messengers starting with Noah and the last one is Muhammad.’54 This is clear evidence of takfir al-umum, general excommunication of other Muslims.

Twentieth-century Wahhabi letters to other Muslims often start with a known formula. An example is a letter by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif in 1918. The sheikh begins: ‘From Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif to the people of Asir, Hijaz and Yemen, may God guide them to Islam’, implying that they are not true Muslims. As for the people of Najd, ‘they had been subjected to the work of Satan and they succumbed to his bad ways’; for example:

They visited the tomb of Zayd ibn al-Khattab to ask for favours, their women were immoral. When their husbands were absent they visited palm trees and other trees, one of which was called Tarafiyya. They hugged the trees and asked favours. In Deriyyah itself, before the dawa, there was a man called Taj who claimed holiness. People came to him asking for favours . . . In Taif, the tomb of Ibn Abbas was a place where associationist practices were performed, In Madina, the same associationist practices prevailed. In Egypt, paganism and associationist traditions prevailed. Also in Yemen, Sanaa, Hadramawt, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, the land of the Kurds, and Mashhad, In general in all these lands clear kufr was demonstrated.55

In 1918 Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif wrote a letter describing his horror over the blasphemy he witnessed in the Hijaz:

Our rightful Imam, the glorious most respected, the one who has happiness and authority Abdulaziz ibn Abdulrahman ibn Saud, may God elevate him and keep him for Muslims to teach what God instructed his slaves. We have come back from the land of Hijaz and we have seen how Satan lived in this land among its people. Your people abstained from seeing light and guidance. They have fallen into a dangerous ignorance. They are on the verge of a burning hell. They worship tombs and trees. They venerate dead saints. This is the religion of the people of the first age of ignorance to whom the Prophet was sent.56

It is certain that the frequency of excommunication fluctuated according to the requirements of specific historical and political contexts rather than theological concerns. The above letter demonises Hijazis and reprimands them for their polytheism, certainly a justification for attacking them in the name of Islam and correcting their so-called Satanic religious practices. Although the practice of labelling other groups of Muslims – for example, Shiis, Sufis, Ismailis and even other Sunni Muslims – as mushrikun (polytheists) or mubdiun (innovators) continued throughout the twentieth century, specific individuals within these communities were rarely branded as such. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the practice of excommunicating specific individuals was more or less under control, for obvious reasons.


Religious scholars who offer alternative religious interpretations or question the premises of the Wahhabi tradition can also be subject to the takfir ruling – for example, the Sufi sheikh Muhammad Ulwi al-Maliki (d. 2004), regarded by the Committee of Senior Ulama as dhal (one who has gone astray), and described as belonging to the religion of blasphemy (millat al-kufr).58 Sheikh al-Maliki was suspended from preaching and teaching in the Hijaz. Another sheikh who challenged Wahhabi interpretations, Hasan Farhan al-Maliki, discussed later in this book, was also subjected to a similar ruling. However, punishment – usually a death sentence after the offer of repentance – rarely followed such judgments. The political authorities either ignored such rulings or offered protection to those labelled blasphemous by their own religious institution, another manifestation of the contradiction between Saudi religious rhetoric and reality. The determining factor was political expediency rather than religious opinion, and the Saudi royal family and the religious establishment were accomplices in enforcing control. The damage to individuals and their reputation was, however, great. Ordinary Saudis had to navigate a difficult terrain of contradictions between religious doctrine and political expediency.



The third mechanism consolidating the state was jihad, the ‘struggle in the way of God’. In Wahhabi interpretations, jihad was defined and executed in several ways, violence being only one of them.65 Armed jihad under the banner of the ruler is considered an aspect of obeying him. While most Wahhabi scholars believed in peaceful dawa, they privileged jihad wars against a whole range of so-called infidels, a category that included several Muslim groups, nationalities and sects. While the position of the founder of Wahhabiyya on jihad is well documented,66 it is important to focus on how the duty of jihad was articulated by twentieth century official Wahhabi scholars.

In contrast with the antagonistic attitude towards other Muslims, who were regarded as worse than the infidels of Quraysh during the times of the Prophet, official Wahhabiyya not only cooperated with but also accommodated Christians, who came to Arabia with the approval of the ruler. For example, Wahhabi scholars who surrounded Ibn Saud in Riyadh early in the twentieth century had no qualms about the British officer Shakespear fighting side by side with Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan troops, who played an important role in consolidating his rule under the banner of enforcing monotheism. Shakespear died in battle while he was in Ibn Saud’s military camp in 1916.67 In the 1920s jihad against other Muslims – for example, the people of Qasim and Hail – was fought with subsidies that clearly came from the purse of so-called infidels: the British government.68 When it became clear to the Ikhwan that their ruler, the rightful Imam to whom they swore allegiance, was obviously operating within the British sphere of influence, they rebelled against him, an incident that threatened to undermine the newly created realm. Their rebellion was not, however, solely about relations with infidels. It was primarily a rebellion against their marginalisation after they secured the ream for Ibn Saud. The Ikhwan rebellion was motivated by worldly matters and power sharing. However, in the rhetoric of the rebels, it was above all a protest against the violation of one of the ten principles that remove a Muslim from Islam: al-wala wa l-bara (association with Muslims and dissociation from infidels), a principle at the heart of Jihadi struggle in the twenty-first century. While the rebellion failed to achieve its objectives, it nevertheless created a schism within the Wahhabi religious community that has not yet been repaired, namely the division between those pragmatic Wahhabis who were close to political authority in Riyadh and those who maintained their autonomy and allegiance to God rather than worldly authority. Unfortunately, there is no elaborate historiography of the religious scholars who sided with the Ikhwan rebels, a function of the triumph of the state in eliminating their rebellion.69 Although the Ikhwan fighters were defeated by 1930, the religious heritage that justified their rebellion remained a dormant trend within Wahhabiyya. The ulama who sympathised with the Ikhwan rebels in their hearts remained marginal; nevertheless, their interpretations continued to erupt in the public sphere against a background of strict government control and co-optation.


It is ironic that the call for jihad (with the tongue, heart and sword) was historically launched against fellow Muslims whose Islam was seen as corrupt or misguided, a situation that puts such Muslims in a category worse than the polytheists of Quraysh. It is a historical fact that most Wahhabi violence has targeted other Muslims rather than non-Muslims. This is not surprising, given that Wahhabi discourse continued to denounce Muslims whose Islam deviated from the true path as ahl al dhalal (those who have gone astray). Punishing errant Muslims should be harsher, according to Wahhabi interpretations. And resisting foreign occupation – for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq – is regarded by official Wahhabi scholars as illegitimate violence.

Hijra, takfir and jihad were three mechanisms used not only to enforce the boundaries of the pious state but also to ensure total obedience to rulers. While hijra advocated migration to the pious realm, takfir encouraged expulsion from it. Jihad, both peaceful and violent, rendered life a perpetual struggle in the way of God, but in reality it was transformed into a political strategy applied only to enhance the authority of the rulers. The three concepts were emptied of their religious meaning and turned into political weapons to consolidate the realm and its moral guardians, the ulama. Official Wahhabi ulama turned their backs on the scholar who had served as their role model, Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who is described as the model of the critic-scholar. In matters political, Wahhabi ulama followed the model of realist Mamluk scholar Badr al-Din ibn Jamaa (1241–1333), who preached ‘obedience to any lawfully constituted authority’. 76

Political innovations

In the process of establishing a state,Wahhabiyya confirmed several political innovations that have accompanied the development of Islamic history and civilisation. Wahhabiyya is described as a religious revivalist movement, but it certainly did not offer any political vision or theory different from those already in place within the Sunni tradition. In a desperate attempt to safeguard itself against annihilation of the religious call, marginalisation of the Najdi class of _ulama and the disintegration of the Saudi realm,Wahhabiyya supported and defended, with text and practice, two of the most controversial but dominant political innovations in Islamic history: hereditary rule and absolute obedience to political authority. It eventually deprived the Muslim community of its right to have a say in political matters. The only legitimate criticism of political authority was initiated in secrecy, between scholars and rulers: the latter are not in theory under any obligation to act according to the advice of the former.

During an encounter between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud in 1744, the former confirmed the latter in the position of imama (leadership of the Muslim state), and confirmed his descendants in their role as future Imams. It is reported that in Deriyyah around 1744 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab said to Muhammad Ibn Saud: ‘The people of Najd are now ignorant polytheists, divided and diverse. They fight each other. I hope you will be the Imam around whom Muslims can gather and your children after you become successive imams. The Imam [Ibn Saud] welcomed him and gave him shelter.’77 Wahhabiyya confirmed two mechanisms for the foundation of political power: istila (seizing power by force), and taiyyin (the appointment of a successor by the current ruler (hereditary rule), while paying lip service to the third principle: shura (consultation).78 The oath of allegiance (baya), normally given by both a loosely defined group called ahl al-hall wal-aqd (‘the people who tie and loose’) and the raiyya (subjects) became a dramatic ritual of obedience, and even more so with the advent of new communication technology.79 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab decreed that it is compulsory to ‘listen to and obey the ruler, even if he is a despot (jair) and debauched (fasiq), as long as he does not order people to disobey God. People should gather around the one who assumes the caliphate and accept him. If he got the caliphate with his sword, he should be obeyed. Rebellion against a usurper is forbidden.’80 As a Salafi movement that draws on the tradition of the pious ancestors, Wahhabiyya did not give sufficient significance to the succession of the first caliph, which other contemporary Salafis consider as the first shura experience in Islam. This sets the Wahhabi movement apart from other Salafi trends, especially contemporary variants that question the principle of total obedience to rulers and hereditary rule. Wahhabiyya is also different from the nineteenth-century modernist Salafiyya, which insisted on giving the umma an important role in the decision-making process.81


Read book here:  Contesting the Saudi State


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