[ Excerpt from the book “Contesting the Saudi State” by Madawi Al-Rasheed]
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wahhabi chronicles claimed that the message of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) in Deriyyah aimed to revive religion by returning to the Quran, Sunna and the tradition of the pious ancestors. While the sheikh and his followers never accepted the label Wahhabis, they considered themselves to be ahl al-sunna wal-jamaa (people of tradition and community), or ahl al-tawhid (al-muwahhidun: the people of monotheism). In contemporary scholarship, they represent one of the Salafi trends within Sunni Islam.1 The return to the tradition of the pious ancestors was meant to remove religious innovations, and apply the sharia at a time when the population of Arabia was believed to have degenerated into blasphemy, corrupt religious practices and laxity. This allegedly took place mainly under Ottoman rule,2 whose religious traditions, particularly Sufism, incorporated interpretations and practices considered outside the realm of true Islam. The rhetoric of the return to the pious ancestors and the sacred text, in addition to rejecting madhahib (schools of jurisprudence), allows Wahhabiyya to be counted as a Salafi movement.
Wahhabiyya painted an image of Arabia as the land of blasphemy and savagery. The myth that Arabian society was blasphemous prior to the rise of Wahhabiyya is taken for granted by many Saudi and Western scholars without any serious attempt to revisit what has become a ‘divine wisdom’ initially propagated by the supporters of Wahhabiyya, and later on by outside commentators. In a recent assessment of the evolution of Wahhabiyya, the blasphemy of other Muslims is taken for granted as a historical fact without any serious attempt to question the validity and 22 accuracy of this assumption.3 Like the Saudi royal family, Wahhabi descriptions of the past are sacrosanct.
Throughout the twentieth century, many – but not all – Saudis regarded the Salafi–Wahhabi movement as a solution to heterodoxy, religious laxity, saint veneration, immorality and superstition. Wahhabiyya claimed to safeguard the souls of its followers against the misguided Islam of others, such as other Sunnis, Shi_is, Sufis, Zaydis, Ismailis and graveworshippers (known as quburis).4 It was also regarded as a shield against subsequent ‘corrupting’ Western influences, undesirable social behavior and immoral and unacceptable alien ideas such as secularism, nationalism, communism and liberalism. Wahhabiyya promised liberation from heterodox religious worship and folk Islam, the Islam practised by either a jahil (ignorant), or dhal (one who has gone astray). So-called misguided Muslims who deviated in their creed and worship from the right path were seen as practising a corrupted religion, often dominated by mushawithun (charlatans) parading as holy men, witches, sorcerers and mystics. Such ‘corrupted’ Islam is centred on excessive ritual and festivity, punctuated by tomb visiting, intercession and mediation. Saudis viewed the religious practices dominant among Sunnis in other Arab countries as impure and corrupted. Wahhabiyya condemned all these folk practices as innovations and privileged the literal interpretation of sacred texts, the Quran and the Sunna, and called for an unmediated relationship with the divine, required by tawhid, the oneness of God. In religious discourse, the umma consists of sinners who need to be reprimanded and brought back to the true path.
Wahhabi demonisation of Arabian society in both past and present stems from the movement’s desire to control and gain legitimacy. Wahhabi legitimacy today rests on a myth that was perpetuated by generations of Wahhabi writers, historians, religious scholars and laymen, as well as royalty. The myth claims that Muslims in Arabia were and are blasphemous, and their salvation is entirely dependent on the message of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the political power that endorsed his message, the Al-Saud family. The Wahhabi narrative of the past undermines the seventh-century message of the Prophet Muhammad. If one is to believe this narrative, one must accept that the Prophet’s message had virtually no lasting influence. The teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab were therefore needed to correct corruption and ignorance that had crept into the religion. If Wahhabiyya and the Al-Saud were accomplices in the salvation of Arabian society, then they must be obeyed, revered and sanctified. Saudi–Wahhabi efforts at mystifying the past have resulted in the disappearance of sources that might have challenged the myth about the alleged blasphemy in Arabia in the pre-Wahhabi era.
Even if tomb visiting, saint veneration or tree worship was practised in Arabian society, it cannot be taken for granted that all members of that society indulged in such practices. It is possible that they only existed among a minority of the population. However, such myths have continued to dominate the historiography of the movement, often written by its own ulama.5 This demonisation of Arabian society continued in the twentieth century in order to justify the establishment of the modern Saudi state.6
The war against the so-called blasphemous religious practices that survived despite the sacred message of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century and a later wave of religious revivalism and purification in the eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was always in need of a political authority.7 In Wahhabi discourse, an executive power is needed to protect faith from corruption, uphold the Salafi tradition and punish transgressors. Only a strong and pious state can practise the fundamental Islamic obligation of amr bil-maruf wal-nahy an al-munkar (the promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice).8
In the twentieth century a state was born, under the pretext of fighting religious innovations, to protect the realm and ensure its purity against the return of such innovations. With excessive coercion, Wahhabiyya was extremely successful in eradicating most but not all so-called religious innovations in the Arabian Peninsula. With the establishment of the modern Saudi state, Wahhabiyya became a hegemonic discourse supported, protected and promoted by political authority. However, although Wahhabi ulama and preachers were convinced that the state reflected Wahhabi teachings, this was an illusion. Wahhabi scholars controlled nothing but religious praxis and the social sphere, while royalty and a group of technocrats with modern educations were in full control of politics, the economy, foreign relations and defence matters.12 The state needed Wahhabi ulama to control the social sphere in such a way as to ensure compliance. The appearance of an Islamised social sphere was mistakenly taken to represent an Islamic polity.
Read book here: Contesting the Saudi State