October 27, 2017
Earlier this week, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, declared that he was looking to return his country’s religious discourse to a “moderate Islam” – an Islam, he claimed, that existed in the country prior to 1979.
There would be no truck with extremism, he declared.
It is not surprising that the ears of the world’s press suddenly pricked up – but how excitable ought the world be in reaction to this news?
It is important to recognise the influence that Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment actually has worldwide on Muslim communities.
There are three fundamental ways in which the Kingdom promotes its religious outlook.
The first is the Hajj (pilgrimage), which every able-bodied Muslim is duty bound to perform, if one is financially able. During that pilgrimage to the holy places in the Hijaz region of what is today Saudi Arabia, visitors will be treated to a regular diet of whatever Saudi Arabia promotes in terms of religion – and it will be given a veneer of extra symbolic authority, considering that Saudi Arabia administers those holy places.
The second way is through education. Because Saudi Arabia has that symbolic authority, Muslims from around the world flock to study in Saudi Arabian religious institutions and institutes – often at the expense of the lush Saudi state. Those institutions will, of course, promote their own religious outlook, and the graduates will return to their communities and thus export it themselves.
Finally, the Saudi state invests heavily in promoting its religious interpretations by means of state organs (particularly the Foreign Ministry and Saudi embassies worldwide) and quasi-state/NGO organisations that proselytise for its religious world-view.
That is a lot of influence, when one considers the amount of petro-dollars at the disposal of the Saudi state for decades now. It’s difficult to estimate how much money has been put into this kind of enterprise, but it is substantial.
How much of an impact does that actually have, though, on Muslim communities around the world? Surely, if the Saudi Arabian kingdom administers the holy places, it is probably the most authentic version of Islam anyway, and thus its impact is probably just a strengthening of religious education for Muslims worldwide?
That is certainly the stance of the Saudi state, and the perception it wants to promote. But that’s not the historical reality. The Saudi Arabian religious establishment is primarily informed by what many academics call “purist Salafism” – a particular trend of religious thought which owes a great deal to an eighteenth century figure, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. It is from this particular individual the pejorative label of Wahhabi originates; and already in his own time, he was decried by many of his contemporaries as being “deviant” and “heretical,” for promulgating what was considered to be “extreme.” Whether he was or was not depends pretty much on one’s definition of extremism – but certainly much, if not the vast majority, of the Muslim religious establishment of the day viewed him as extreme, and religiously incredibly controversial.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s followers used violence to enforce their views, and they were particularly liberal in the way they “anathemised” (through the use of takfir) other Muslims who did not agree with their teachings.
Indeed, when many critics of Islam call for a “reformation” of Islamic thought, they don’t seem to realise that Islam has already had a Martin Luther. His name was Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, and his “reformation” was deeply problematic, to say the least.
Saudi Arabia, since its founding, owes its religious bedrock not to the mainstream of Sunni Muslim thought – as it claims today it is the most authentic representation of – but fundamentally to that stream of thinking begun by Ibn Abdul Wahhab. And that is not, it must be reiterated, a stream that begins in 1979. Rather, it begins two centuries beforehand, and has been harshly critiqued and criticised by more mainstream and normatively Sunni theologians and religious authorities since then until the present day. As the purist Salafism of Saudi theologians and preachers has been promoted among various Muslim communities, the harmonious balance of the indigenous, more mainstream religious culture of those communities has been hit. And the polarising nature of that kind of proselytization has had rather deleterious effects, particularly where there is a history of pluralism.
Was 1979 irrelevant? No. In 1979, the Iranian revolution took place, and it sent shockwaves into Muslim communities world-wide, which also had an effect upon the Saudi religious establishment. Moreover, radicals stormed the Great Mosque of Makkah and the ensuing aftermath meant that hard-line voices did indeed have more attention given to them.
But if the Saudi king-in-waiting is truly interested in pushing back against the extremism that Saudi Arabia has been pushing worldwide, he has quite a task in front of him. To foreign diplomatic delegations, he has been claiming that the Saudi religious norm is not Wahhabism at all – that they are Hanbalis. That is a traditional and a normative Sunni rite of jurisprudence (and one of the names given to a particular trend of Sunni theological tradition), and it is the one from which Ibn Abdul Wahhab emerged, though he diverged away from it. But it is also a way in which many purist Salafis claim a more normative historical legacy, rather than admit that Ibn Abdul Wahhab was rather actually more innovative than simply an acceptable minor variation on Hanbali thought.
Is Mohammad bin Salman genuine about his “moderate Islam” approach? If so, then it will require much more than simply a return to the pre-1979 status quo. It will need a much deeper process than that. It isn’t a reformation that Muslims need today against the backdrop of purist Salafism; after all, purist Salafism itself is the modern-day inheritor of a “reformation.” Rather, if Saudi is interested in returning to a more mainstream interpretation of the faith, then it is a counter-reformation that would be necessitated – and it is wholly unclear whether the Saudi Crown Prince is ready to engage in that.
H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute. He is the author of Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans and A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt, and co-author of the forthcoming “A Sublime Path: The Way of the Sages of Makkah.”