Wahhabism is Waning In Saudi Arabia

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By Kareem Shaheen
Middle East and Newsletters Editor, 
New Lines

One aspect of Wahhabism and the broader Salafist strain in Islam that always fascinated me is how a movement based on the idea of a return to the roots and origins of the faith can be based on a complete historical fantasy.

There is something of course incredibly comforting in seeking simplicity and certainty in an era of gray morality, rampant consumerism and malaise, in seeking white-hot clarity of purpose in a grinding existence, in being told precisely what being good and virtuous means. It is, in essence, a form of minimalism of the spirit. And there is peace in that.

But it is also based on a harkening for a utopia that, like all utopias, never existed. Salafism and its offshoot, Wahhabism, are based on the idea of replicating the society of the Prophet Muhammad, through the literal emulation of his actions in life and those of his companions, the paragons of a perfect society.

The main problem with this mythologizing of early Islamic society is that barely two decades after the prophet’s death, those same companions engaged in a terrible civil war that began as a rebellion against the third caliph, Othman ibn Affan, who was accused by the rebels of nepotism and mismanagement. Othman was the prophet’s son-in-law and one of a pantheon of 10 companions personally blessed by him as future denizens of Paradise. His assassination in Medina triggered the civil war — a precursor to the Sunni-Shia schism — which pitted paragons of Islam like the prophet’s cousin, Ali, against his favored wife, Aisha, and two other members of the companions’ pantheon, Talha and Zubayr. Thousands of Muslims died in this war, a political conflict to determine the shape and structure of a Muslim society, conducted by the very people who lived in the prophet’s time. Even they did not know which path Muslim society would take. How could we?

And yet the march of Wahhabism continued, bolstered by the tacit or explicit backing of the state in Saudi Arabia. It was visible with every returnee family from around the Middle East who came home after a stint in the Gulf, the religiosity taking on more strident tones in support of an orthodoxy that could not be countered because it was allegedly based on the pure teachings of the prophet himself. It was made manifest in the lowered volumes of music replaced in cars and taxis by the omnipresent tones of Islamic cassette evangelists, the spread of the niqab, hitherto a Gulf cultural tradition, and the disappearance of women from their families’ photo albums.

But this era appears to be coming to an end, as our editor in chief Hassan Hassan outlines in a fascinating essay this week on the “conscious uncoupling” of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia.

Hassan delves into the historical roots of Wahhabism and its role in the early years of the Saudi state as well as its evolution into a force to be reckoned with. But things are changing. The impetus for the piece was the latest move to marginalize Wahhabism, through the setting of a new official date to mark the founding of the Saudi state (“youm al-ta’sees” in Arabic) on Feb. 22, in addition to the usual national day (“al-youm al-watani”) on Sept. 23. The national day in September celebrates the formation of the nation in 1932 under the name of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while the new date celebrates Muhammad bin Saud’s takeover in 1727 of Diriyah, now widely referred to as “the founding capital.”

The weakening of Wahhabism has been in the works for years but has accelerated at the direction of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The movement has decayed over the years, especially after the 9/11 attacks, as Riyadh sought to wage a war against extremist currents and their involvement in regional conflicts. Essentially, the unraveling began when Riyadh arrived at the conclusion that it no longer needed the support of Wahhabist clerics to maintain its hold on power, but that the same clerical establishment could be coerced into supporting its nation-building efforts, ones that have become increasingly a nationalistic enterprise rather than one married to doctrines of faith and based in religious precepts.

Hassan is not alone in making the argument. Saudi scholar Sultan Alamer also argued that Wahhabism has been waning in the kingdom, and the state has taken drastic steps to distance itself from the movement. One notable step has been to remove any mentions of the movement in school curriculum.

The reasons for Wahhabism’s decay are complex and go beyond state sanction of course, but Hassan concludes that the damage is likely irreversible.

He argues: “Whatever Wahhabism is morphing into, though, it will not lead to a new lease on life. In Saudi Arabia and beyond, Wahhabism has been losing ground for too many years. The factors that once helped it grow no longer exist. Politically, the state no longer needs the ideology, which would not have flourished without the state. Even if the Saudi state decided to change its view about the utility of Wahhabism, it would not be able to reverse the trend. Wahhabism ran out of gas ideologically before it did politically.”

“The ideology, sometimes seen as a distinct sect even from the Sunni tradition it emerged from, had long projected power disproportionate to its actual appeal and strength because it had the backing of a powerful and wealthy kingdom and a vast network of rich and generous donors,” he added. “That bubble has now burst, and Wahhabism is reduced to its right size of being a minor player in the Muslim landscape, progressively including in Saudi Arabia.”


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