By H.A. Hellyer
11 April 2018
On Saturday Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s Crown Prince, wrapped up his two week visit to the United States. Within the U.S., he was often touted as a religious reformer and as someone who will turn Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam back toward the mainstream. Indeed, in one interview he claimed that Wahhabism didn’t exist: “No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism. We believe we have, in Saudi Arabia, Sunni and Shiite.” He also gave the impression that Islam in Saudi Arabia is as normative and mainstream as Islam anywhere else.
Historically, however, that’s not necessarily quite the case.
Saudi Arabia is the heartland of different types of Salafism. Simply stated, these types are all those approaches that find their impetus within the mission of the 18th-century preacher Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in the Najd region of what is today Saudi Arabia.
It’s important to raise his name, because all too often the impression is that Saudi Arabia needs to only return to whatever the status quo was before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, an event that inspired certain repercussions in Saudi Arabia as well. As that particular narrative goes, the kingdom overreacted to events in Iran, which in turn created a backward religious establishment. The story continues that if Saudi could just return to pre-1979 conditions, the situation would be far better. It’s that turning back that the Crown Prince is currently associated with.
But that narrative doesn’t quite hold up. It is true that Saudi Arabia went through a deeply negative period in many respects, as part of a reaction to the revolution in Iran. But it would be folly to reduce the existence of various Salafi approaches to only that. On the contrary, any understanding of Saudi’s religious establishment today must look back to Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab and his missionary activity in the 18th century. That is a key period by which one can begin to understand how Saudi religion looks today – and it is what different forms of today’s different Salafi tendencies originate from.
Is his “reform” message going to tackle that heritage? It’s not particularly clear. In all the statements that have come out, it seems that the Crown Prince is interested in removing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi educational institutions; the subject of different types of Salafism is not mentioned. If he’s looking to encourage any new thinking in that regard, he’s not said it. He may be trying to reduce the impact of different Salafisms on the Kingdom’s day-to-day life – but that’s very different than encouraging genuine change within the different approaches to Salafism.
And there is a crucial difference between the two. There are figures like Sharif Hatim al-Awni in Saudi who have been working for years to get at the root of deeply problematic approaches to Islam from within the kingdom. Their stances have been based within mainstream Sunnism – even if a conservative reading of it – and their criticisms and the critiques are probably far more cutting edge than anything that has been proposed by the current government’s approach.
Perhaps, as some defenders of Mohammed bin Salman himself argue, that’s a better approach to take. When the Crown Prince mentioned these thoughts on Wahhabism in an interview, some argued he was simply defending Saudi religious scholars from a slur, as purist Salafis reject the term “Wahhabi”, and it is usually used in a derogatory fashion. Others argued, however, that Mohammed bin Salman knows full well what this heritage is about – but to achieve his “religious reform” goals, he has to repackage and re-represent the past. Time will tell.
It is most certainly true that “Wahhabism” is almost always used as a derogatory label; but it is also historically a reality that the label was used from within Arabia itself, as it continues to be used by many mainstream Sunni Muslim religious scholars as well. Even so, the impact of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab led to several different types of followings, and it is important not to be reductionist about them.
Be that all as it may, it remains wholly pertinent to raise these kinds of questions, as discussions around Saudi Arabia and its current claimed reform agenda is ongoing. Saudi’s forays regionally, particularly in terms of the disastrous and humanitarian disaster of Yemen, do not encourage much enthusiasm. But in any case, the task of critiquing the kingdom and its approach to religion is necessary because it is indeed so significant, owing to the presence of the two main holy places of Mecca and Madina, and the hajj pilgrimage. If Saudi Arabia were not important, it could reasonably escape much attention – the fact that it is so important makes it not only useful, but indispensable to critically evaluate it.
H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London and a professor at the Centre for the Advanced Study of Islam, Science and Civilisation at the University Technology in Kuala Lumpur