“These astonishing things that have been happening in the Land of the Two Holy Places … if King Abd al-Aziz were to come out of his grave and witness them, he would not believe that this is his kingdom that he worked so hard to establish and unite.” So lamented Abd al-Muhsin al-‘Abbad, an outspoken Wahhabi cleric, in a late 2017 assessment of the social reforms being implemented in Saudi Arabia. The king in question was the founder of the modern realm, Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa‘ud (d. 1953), who is also the father of the present king, Salman, and grandfather of the new crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).
Since Salman’s accession in 2015, religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia have been seething at the direction and pace of change in their country, but rarely has their displeasure risen to the surface in so direct a manner. The social reforms being overseen by MbS indeed fly in the face of the kind of conservative Islamic society that the clerics have for so long fought to maintain and uphold. These include the move in April 2016 to strip the religious police force, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, of its power of arrest, and the decision in September 2017 to permit women to drive, which comes into effect on June 24 of this year. These two changes alone will transform everyday life in the country almost beyond recognition. Throw in the addition of movie theaters and concerts, women in the military and at soccer games—all of which have been introduced—and the country’s very identity as a conservative Islamic state is in serious jeopardy.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it has been officially known since 1932, harks back to the ancestral Saudi polity, the First Saudi State (c. 1745-1818), which took form as an alliance between a local chieftain, Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud, and a controversial preacher, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The alliance has endured in the partnership of the Al Sa‘ud (the family of Sa‘ud) and the Al al-Shaykh (the family of the shaykh, i.e., Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab), and has been remarkably successful. The partnership, as traditionally understood, entails a division of labor whereby the Al Sa‘ud dominate politics and the Al al-Shaykh and their clerical allies manage religious affairs. As the sovereign rulers, the Al Sa‘ud have long had the upper hand in this relationship, but the clerics’ role was still significant. They were empowered to police society and inculcate the exclusivist version of Islam known as Wahhabism.
MbS’s reforms, however, have called into question this centuries-old religio-political alliance. The crown prince, who has made no secret of his plans to transform his country’s economy and society, is looking for new sources of legitimacy outside the Wahhabi religious establishment. Understandably, the clerics are not thrilled.
Yet, for two reasons their views have been difficult to measure, even to ascertain. The first is that under MbS expressions of dissent have met with a heavy hand. In April 2016, for instance, following the move to weaken the religious police, a young and popular preacher named ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Tarifi voiced his disapproval of the change on Twitter. “Some rulers think that their compromising on some of the religion to satisfy the unbelievers will put an end to their pressure,” he wrote. “[But] their goal is ‘till thou followest their religion,’” he continued, citing a verse of the Qur’an, Q. 2:120, in which God says, “Never will the Jews be satisfied with thee, neither the Christians, not till thou followest their religion.” This landed al-Tarifi in prison, where he has remained since. A bigger round-up of popular clerics came in September 2017, after some of them objected to MbS’s policy of isolating Qatar.
The second reason is that some clerics, particularly those of the more establishment variety, adhere to a doctrine of self-censorship whereby advice on controversial matters is presented to the authorities only in private. The reticence of the senior scholars was on display back in September following the announcement on the driving ban. According to press reports, the new policy was supported by only “a majority of the members of the Council of Senior ‘Ulama,” which is probably true, since many of them, including Grand Mufti ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaykh, are on record vehemently opposing the idea that women be allowed to drive. Indeed, just months before the announcement, the mufti was calling the prospect of women driving a “danger” that must be prevented. Yet, on this and other controversial issues, the mufti and his colleagues have been silent when things have not gone their way.
The case of ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-‘Abbad, then, is both an exceptional and an illuminating one. The 79-year-old cleric, who does not abide by the culture of self-censorship, has been fulminating against the crown prince’s reformist agenda on his website for the past several years, and somehow has gotten away with it. It may be that al-‘Abbad is seen as unthreatening given his reputation as reactionary even by Wahhabi standards (he is still fighting the long-lost fight against photography). Or perhaps he is seen as untouchable on account of his age and résumé. Born in 1939, in a region north of Riyadh, al-‘Abbad is by no means the most influential cleric in the kingdom; the highest position he has held is vice president of the Islamic University in Medina. Yet, having taught in Medina for decades and trained countless numbers of students (one of whom, incidentally, is a top sharia official in the Islamic State), he is not to be dismissed as irrelevant. His views on social reform are likely reflective of the thinking of a large swathe of the clerical class.
For more than a decade now, al-‘Abbad has been criticizing a perceived Westernizing trend in the kingdom in his numerous lectures and essays. The trend emerged, as he sees it, during the reign of King Abdullah (r. 2005-2015), and the precipitating factor was the death of two venerated Wahhabi scholars, Abd al-Aziz bin Baz (d. 1999) and Muhammad al-Uthaymeen (d. 2001). In the absence of these two charismatic clerics, there was no one to play the role of “bulwark against Gog and Magog,” and an opening was created for the “Westernizers” in the king’s retinue to exercise greater influence. Their handiwork could be seen in the unprecedented displays of men and women interacting in the media, the appointment of women to the Shura Council, and the election of women to municipal councils, among other things.
The trend only worsened during the reign of Salman. In a late 2016 commentary, al-‘Abbad decried three new developments in particular: (1) The weakening of the religious police and the blow to its prestige; (2) the establishment of a General Entertainment Authority that would pave the way for the opening of movie theaters; and (3) the appointment of a woman as deputy director of the General Sport Authority. In March 2018, he penned a more general indictment of the kingdom’s reforms, portrayed as senseless concessions to an implacable West—the same argument made by al-Tarifi and that led to his imprisonment.
In al-‘Abbad’s view, the struggle for Saudi Arabia today comes down to a contest between two sets of advisers. This idea, he notes, comes from a hadith according to which the Prophet said, “No Caliph is appointed but has two groups of advisers: One group advises him to do good and urges him to adopt it, and the other group advises him to do bad and urges him to adopt it.” For al-‘Abbad, the Westernizers, or “the murders of morality and virtue,” are the advisers counseling the king to do bad. The clerics, or “the guardians of virtue,” on the other hand, are those advising him to do good. It is a duty to warn against the evil of the Westernizers, and this is “the greatest form of jihad.”
The question left unaddressed here is whether, as one group of advisers appears to triumph over the other, the jihad advocated by al-‘Abbad could one day take on a more violent character. The elderly cleric, of course, would not be the one to lead this struggle. But if a conservative backlash were to materialize—and it has happened before, in 1979 and in the early 1990s—it would surely be motivated by the ideas he has been espousing.
It is the fear of such a backlash that partly explains the recent roundup of Saudi female activists just weeks before women are officially permitted to drive. The arrests are an attempt to maintain the balance between social progressives and conservatives—between Westernizers and guardians of virtue— and more such efforts may well be in the offing.
As critics are right to point out, MbS’s reforms are not be mistaken for any sort of political opening. Saudi Arabia is becoming more authoritarian, not less, and that is not to be celebrated. But the social progress being made is no less real or unsettling, as the protests of al-‘Abbad and others indicate. The hope is that the reforms are not destabilizing and that the repressive policies are only temporary. But the opposite outcomes should not be ruled out either, and must be prepared for accordingly.