THE ROLE OF THE WAHHABI ‘ULEMA IN SAUDI ARABIA
R E P O R T
To Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
21 June, 2018
Jacquelyn F. Hooper of the State Department
Expert on Saudi Arabia
Religion and the ‘Ulema in the Saudi Regime
The importance of the role of religion in Saudi Arabia cannot be exaggerated. At the genesis of the Al Saud dynasty, Muhammad ibn Saud (the founder of the dynasty) became the patron of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (a zealous Sunni revivalist of the Hanibal School of Islamic Jurisprudence, the most conservative Sunni school of Islam) (Maisel, 2017). The bond that these two leaders formed in the 1700s is representative of the symbiotic nature of church and state in Saudi Arabia today (Brown, 2018).
The followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab were called “Wahhabis” by outsiders, but the followers themselves preferred to be called “Muwahhidins” (unitarians or monotheists), as the former title seemed to imply that they were worshipers of a human man rather than worshipers of the one true God (Maisel, 2017). Nevertheless, this is the nominal source of the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia today. The ‘Ulema heads the Wahhabi, and is composed of the country’s most important religious clerics.
Despite the fact that the Saudi Arabian government has claimed that there is “no such thing as a Saudi Arabian religious establishment”, The Wahhabi religious establishment is “constantly indulged as the co-ruler of the Saudi government” (Real Stories, 2016). The primary function of the ‘Ulema is to issue religious opinions to the people, but they are also in charge of overseeing all other institutions. Religion plays an inexplicably important role in Saudi society, as “Islamic law has always formed the basis of the Saudi constitutional system and is supreme, reigning even over the king” (Maisel, 2017). Article I of the Basic Law of Government (1992) makes this clear, stating that “The Saudi Arabian Kingdom is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s book and the Sunna are its constitution…” (Maisel, 2017). Religious legitimacy is the cornerstone of the Saudi regime.
The Overarching Power of the Clerics
I believe that the Saudi Arabian clerics of the Whhabi ‘Ulema hold too much power. They have control over the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Pilgrimage, and they control the Judiciary, as well as most of the state’s education system (Real Stories, 2016). In conjunction with the Wahhabi ‘Ulmea, the Saudi government spends billions of dollars to spread Islam around the world, funding more than 15,000 mosques, 202 colleges, and almost 2,000 schools in non-Islamic countries (Real Stories, 2016). Saudi Arabia has enormous influence in Britain through their support of mosques and Imams. The Saudi government claims that they are not trying to spread a fundamentalist message of any kind, and yet they spend billions and billions of dollars on such projects (Real Stories, 2016). While there are certainly other factors involved, I see this to be a clear indicator of the control the Whhabi ‘Ulmea hold over the Saudi government.
The Relationship Between the ‘Ulema and the Royal Family
In Saudi Arabia, there is a “balance of politics and religion for the sake of not only the survival but the strong, lasting impact of the ‘country of the two holy places'” (Mecca and Medina) (Maisel, 2017). The royal family allows the ‘Ulema to control the social sphere, public space and morality of the country. The royal family also grants the’Ulema their salaries and other subsidies (Real Stories, 2016). In return, the ‘Ulema provides the royal family with tacit religious approval for potentially controversial policies (Brown, 2018). Thus, the royal family and the’Ulema share a relationship which is symbiotic in nature. They each benefit from the existence of one another. However, in a sense they are also each controlled by one another. The monarchy has control over the salaries of the’Ulema and their sphere of public control, but the’Ulema also have control over the monarchy, as the monarchy often requires their tacit approval to legitimize its actions to the people.
A prime example of the monarchy getting religious approval from the’Ulema for a controversial policy involves the right of women to drive. The monarchy wanted to pass a law which banned women from driving, but they knew that it would be controversial. For this reason, they reached out to the’Ulema for religious approval. The’Ulema declared to the people that women must be prohibited from driving, not because the state was trying to control their actions, but because driving presents “horrendous dangers to a woman’s uterus and ovaries” (Brown, 2018).
The Unsustainable’Ulema/ Royal Family Dynamic
I do not think that this symbiotic system is sustainable. Monarchies are not skilled at modernization, and I do not think that Saudi Arabia (or any state) can last indefinitely without eventually giving more power to the people. One scholar has argued that monarchies cannot possibly survive the modern era because political participation is necessary to avoid revolution, and it’s impossible for modern monarchs to achieve political participation (Brown, 2018). In addition, the relationship between the monarchy and the’Ulema has not always been perfect. In recent times especially, there have been notable “awkward” disagreements between them (Brown, 2018). I cannot say for sure how the ruling bodies of Saudi Arabia may change in the future, but I will not be surprised if tensions continue to grow between the ruling family and the religious elites. As of right now, Saudi Arabia does not tax its citizens, so they have no rights. I will also not be surprised if, in the future, the people choose to rise up and demand that this change. In the end, it seems that something will have to give.
Brown, Dan. “Saudi Arabia.” Politics of the Middle East. 21 June 2018, Norman, Oklahoma.
“File: Seal of the United States Department of State.svg.” File: Cholesterol (Chemical Structure).Svg – Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_of_the_United_States_Department_of_State.svg.
Maisel, Sebastian. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 2017.
“Wahhabi Infiltration In The Saudi Government.” Real Stories, YouTube, 2016.