By H.A. Hellyer
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, and Professor at the Centre for Advanced Study of Islam, Science and Civilisation.
Over the next few weeks, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, will be touring the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Last year, he declared his intent to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam” – an approach, he seems to insist, predominated in Saudi Arabia prior to 1979. It is a narrative that a number of prominent writers in the West have been keen to promote, even while minimising or ignoring the serious ethical concerns vis-a-vis Saudi policy domestically and internationally – particularly with respect to Yemen.
Certainly 1979 was a water shed moment for the Kingdom, where a more conservative approach took root in the country following the siege on the mosque in Makka, and the rise of the Iranian revolution at the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini. But it is less clear that the approach to Islam in Saudi was indeed “moderate” prior to that point, for lack of a better term, irrespective of the different claims promoted by Riyadh.
The purist Salafism of Saudi Arabia has been at the bedrock of that country’s religious establishment since the formation of the kingdom. Saudi is one of only two countries in the world that place purist Salafism as the normative interpretation of Islam. The other – ironically, in light of the deteriorating relationship between the two countries – is the state of Qatar. Both countries have promoted purist Salafism domestically and internationally.
With the declaration of the Crown Prince, however, the internal developments within purist Salafism itself have been less studied. Will Mohammed bin Salman try now to push an alternative interpretation of purist Salafism – possibly one that is more in line with mainstream Sunni Islamic intellectual history?
Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Abdul Wahhab and their Legacy
When it comes to normative religious practice, Sunni Muslims follow four extant “schools” or madhahib: the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi’i and the Hanbali schools. Two figures are important in understanding contemporary claims imputed to one of the four founders of those schools, the classical Muslim scholastic figure Ahmad bin Hanbal. One is Ahmad bin Taymiyya in the thirteenth century, and the other is Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab in the eighteenth century.
Ibn Taymiyya, a recognised Hanbali jurist and exponent of the doctrinal approach promulgated by the classical Islamic figure Ibn Hanbal, was a controversial figure for many Sunnis during and after his time, due to particular opinions he had in law and doctrine. Though the controversies were sometimes fierce, Ibn Taymiyya is quite commonly recognised as a part of the broader Sunni tradition of Hanbalism and Atharism, the classical legal and theological approaches of Ahmad bin Hanbal. At the same time, he is not always considered to be authoritative, whether for Sunnism in general, or Hanbalism in particular – on the contrary, some of Ibn Taymiyya’s opinions were considered by many other Sunni authorities to be “deviant.” More hostile opponents often went further.
Five hundred years after Ibn Taymiyya, at the beginning of modernity in the 1700s, another figure emerges in what is today Saudi Arabia: Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. He came from a Hanbali background – both in law and creed – and claims to be influenced by Ibn Taymiyya. But he was a far more controversial figure than Ibn Taymiyya for Sunnism. A common – but by no means the only – Sunni opinion about Ibn Taymiyya is that he was a Sunni that held certain aberrant positions. When it comes to Ibn Abdul Wahhab, however, the Sunni establishment, from his time until the contemporary era, holds a far less accommodating view.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab spawned a movement, which over time managed to take hold in parts of the Arabian peninsula, particularly due to the political power exerted by partisans of the Saud family and, later in the twentieth century, financial resources. His followers considered themselves to be muwahidun – that is, monotheists. The implication of the labelling is clear: that they are the monotheists of Islam, to the exclusion of others, and therefore the true inheritors of the first generations. Hence, Salafis. Sunnis en masse consider themselves to be salafi – a word that literally means “follower,” in the sense of following the first generations of Muslims, but it would not be until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that there would be a sect bearing that name.
Opponents of Ibn Abdul Wahab’s legacy – of which there are many – describe his movement as “Wahhabism.” Some of his followers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries took up the name of Salafi. Separately, a Muslim modernist movement – which including figures such as Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida and Hasan al-Banna (who later went on to form the Muslim Brotherhood political movement) – has also been described as Salafi, though the ideas are somewhat different, while linked, and lay outside my particular concerns here.
For the Sunni religious establishment when Ibn Abdul Wahhab began his message and ever since, the purist Salafi/Wahhabi movement was not considered to be just another Sunni movement, albeit with some quirks. Rather, it was described, as a movement, to be mubtadi, or deviant – to the point that Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s own father and brother, both prominent Hanbali scholars in their own right, harshly criticised him.
This point cannot be emphasised enough, particularly in the contemporary era when Ibn Abdul Wahab is recast as some kind of universally accepted “reformer” in the Sunni world. He was most certainly not regarded as such in his time, nor thereafter. The influence of the movement he spawned may have acquired a great deal of influence in the past few decades, but that has far more to do with the financial resources available to the Saudi and Qatari states that promote Ibn Abdul Wahab’s writings worldwide through different charitable organisations.
Contemporary Claimants to Hanbalism
It is tempting to view Wahhabism or purist Salafism in the contemporary age simply as the modern heir of Ibn Taymiyya. But Sunni religious authorities did not, and generally do not, see them as such. There is a good reason for this: while Ibn Taymiyya generally viewed Muslims he disagreed with as Muslims, Wahhabism is somewhat different. Wahhabism is particularly censured because of its flagrant use of takfir – that is, the dismissal of other Muslims, including many if not most Sunni Muslims, as polytheists.
In the modern era, one can speak generally of four “movements” that claim some connection to Hanbalism that are in modern day Saudi Arabia – each with varying degrees of “normativity” vis-a-vis mainstream Sunnism. Each one has a certain type of impact, particularly in terms of religious education, depending on which movement is used as the standard.
The first group is perhaps best described as “purist Salafism” for the purpose of distinguishing it from the more extreme group below. Like that grouping, Ibn Abdul Wahhab remains a key reference point for purist Salafis, who continue to deploy the labels “deviant” and “polytheist” against other Sunni Muslims on a regular basis, though more rarely than they do so to other Muslims. That has actually been the norm since the beginning of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s movement.
For much of its history, purist Salafism was obscure and attracted little attention. In the last few decades, however, the financial resources of Saudi Arabia, in particular, and to a lesser extent Qatar, catapulted the group to prominence through its vigorous propagation machine. But unlike the other form of Salafism (which I discuss below), purist Salafis are usually politically quietist rather than given to militancy. Scholars such as Salih al-Fawzan, Muhammad al-Albani, Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, and Muhammad bin al-Uthaymin would all fall into this category, as would most of the higher echelons of the Saudi religious establishment.
Nevertheless, in recent years, there has been considerable effort made by members of this less militant purist Salafi trend to cast themselves as the direct heirs of the classical Sunni heritage of Ahmad bin Hanbal – particularly of the Ibn Taymiyya variety. This is not altogether convincing, however. Because the roots of their theological and juristic stances are the same as Hanbalism, purist Salafism has provoked a partial opening up of the religious establishment in Saudi. It led, for example, the likes of Bin Baz – the former mufti of Saudi Arabia – to take some positions on takfir that are quite dissimilar from more unreconstructed Wahhabis.
Yet it is undeniable that this purist Salafi establishment – the mainstream of the “Salafi universe” – still partakes quite liberally in takfir, effectively excommunicating huge groups of Sunni Muslims even while that Salafi establishment’s political quietism is evident.
To give a prominent example: in the late-twentieth century, Muhammad bin ‘Alawi al-Maliki, a prominent religious scholar in Mecca, was targeted by many in this group during the time of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz as being an apostate. It was precisely his attachment to normative Sunnism, rather than purist Salafism, that made him a target. Many in the purist Salafi establishment tried to put him on trial and have him executed by the state, their purist Salafi political quietism notwithstanding. Al-Maliki’s commitment to normative notions of Sunnism in terms of his theology, juristic approach and spirituality, combined with his profile and fame, was too much for the purist Salafi establishment to bear.
Primarily due to the political and economic role that Saudi Arabia plays in the Muslim world, other more normative Sunni scholars may not be as vocal about what they consider to be incorrect about this approach – but it is clear that deep criticisms exist.
The second and most problematic trend can be described as “unreconstructed Wahhabism.” It too considers Ibn Abdul Wahhab as a great renewer of Islam, and Wahhabis often consider other Sunni Muslims with whom they disagree as polytheistic, or at least deviant (mubtadi). Their choice of discourse with regard to other Muslims – particularly Shi’is – is even more intense.
Due to their religious aberration and extremism, it is this movement that attracts the most censure from more normative Sunnis, with numerous tracts and treatises over the past two hundred years describing the movement as heterodox. Indeed, even other groups that insist they are also adherents to Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s message will often condemn this group, on account of their views on other Muslims, their acceptance of militancy against authorities they deem as un-Islamic and so forth.
It is from this particular trend of unreconstructed Wahhabism that the more extremist aberrations of al-Qa’eda and ISIS emanate. When writers, in Arabic and in English, refer to “Salafi-jihadism” they are generally referring to a trend of unreconstructed Wahhabism combined with a specific interpretation of modernist Salafism – the offspring of such a marriage of two non-mainstream phenomena can be quite catastrophic.
At times, political imperatives might cause some of these to tamp down their tendency to engage in takfir, such as how Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qa’eda criticised ISIS for what he saw as their excessive takfirism. That does not indicate a reluctance to consider Muslims as apostates from Islam – rather, it shows a sense of pragmatism for political gain.
A third trend has developed further towards mainstream Sunnism, into what might be described as “moderate Salafism.” It derives its intellectual inheritance from Ibn Abdul Wahhab, but it deploys the labels “polytheist” and “deviant” far more rarely. It is likely that the fealty its exponents show to Ibn Abdul Wahhab is circumstantial, due to their training at the hands of purist Salafis. It is conceivable that the more temperate among them would probably ignore Ibn Abdul Wahhab altogether, though not quite bringing themselves to condemn him – and all the while maintaining strong fealty to Ibn Taymiyya and his approaches to practice and creed.
An example of such an individual might be the Saudi scholar Salman al-Awda, and probably Aidh al-Qarni. It is worth mentioning that al-Awda was recently detained by the Saudi state for apparently failing to sufficiently line up behind the anti-Qatar campaign.
The final trend is merely “Hanbalism” on the Arabian peninsula, against the background of the political and cultural context that is modern Saudi Arabia. Exponents of this approach in Saudi Arabia are often mistaken as Salafis simply because they have well-navigated Saudi civil society without disclosing too many of their differences from the various inheritances of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.
Many in Saudi would describe this trend as a type of “revivalist movement” within Salafism; and yet it is difficult to see how describing it as “Salafi” is particularly useful because it is no less or no more “Salafi” than the rest of Sunnism. In creed and in law, they consider Ahmad bin Hanbal as their imam – which makes them normatively Sunni.
These contemporary Hanbalis are genuinely Athari/Hanbali in their approach to theology, which means they may seem similar to purist Salafis – but they do not hurl accusations of polytheism or deviation at other Sunnis, any more than other Sunnis cast aspersions of the same upon Atharis. Indeed, those that are outside of Saudi are just described as (Sunni) “Hanbalis.”
A famous example of this trend in Saudi Arabia might be al-Sharif Hatim al-Awni, who has called for a movement to correct how purist Salafism has developed. He has been far more critical than most in Saudi in calling out the religious establishment for planting the seeds, in his opinion, of deeper exclusion and extremism. Given the political and cultural context of Saudi Arabia, it is unsurprising that he is relatively cautious about attacking Ibn Abdul Wahhab openly, as Hanbalis and non-Hanbali Sunnis outside of Saudi regularly do. For the time being, he has limited himself to critiquing what he called the Najdi Da’wah and claiming that the famous magnum opus of the latter Wahhabi movement, al-Durar al-Sunniya, is the root of radical extremism in the world today.
Yet, despite his restraint, all indications suggest that al-Awni is engaging in a rather innovative exercise through more scholarly means – the end result of which is presumably to have purist Salafis become virtually indistinguishable from Hanbali Sunnis. The purist Salafis, following an Awni “revival,” would then be drawn closer, en masse, to the normative Sunni mainstream, but without necessarily knowing it.
Awni’s movement might be called, within the context of Saudi Arabia, a “revivalist Athari” movement. One critical question is how much space al-Awni may have in Saudi Arabia going forward : will he be supported and instrumentalised in support of Mohammed Bin Salman’s efforts?
Pluralism and Sunnism: Wahhabism’s Divergence
There is a long tradition of internal pluralism that underpins Sunni Islam, and lively debate on all sorts of issues, with respect for different points of view, is mutually viewed as legitimate. Wahhabism’s most crucial historical aberration has been to deny that pluralistic convention: in casting themselves as the arbiters of what the Sunni consensus actually is, and expunging pretty much everyone outside of the Hanbali establishment, its adherents denied a critical element of Sunnism, which led to them being considered outside of that consensus.
There are differences that exist between mainstream Islamic thought, and much of the Salafi universe as it is presently constructed. This is well recognised within Muslim majority countries themselves, in the religious establishments as well as among the generality of Muslims – yet, it is often sorely misunderstood within Western policy networks.
Saudi Arabia has been key to the discussion of particular types of Salafism, because of the way it provides financial backing for their dissemination throughout the world. That kind of educational propagation, which is often contrary to the indigenous form of mainstream Islamic thought in Muslim-majority countries where this propagation continues to occur, has had a decisive effect on the cultural formation of Muslim communities worldwide, including among Western Muslim communities.
As shifts and changes take place within Saudi Salafism, such shifts may have repercussions far beyond Saudi Arabia, though particularly for the Crown Prince’s desire to move, as he says, towards a more mainstream interpretation of religion – in this case, Sunni Islam. As yet, there is no indication that he is particularly interested in doing much more than putting the religious establishment en masse into a straitjacket, for the purposes of his new national project. Perhaps that will change as the years go by, and perhaps all the talk about such change is simply a public relations manoeuvre bereft of substance.
Certainly, we shall have to wait and see how truly ethical the “new” approach is. The notion of ethics is something to be borne heavily in mind as we consider Saudi’s wider record on the protection and upholding of fundamental rights, whether within the Kingdom or in its dealings abroad – particularly with regards to Yemen. Nevertheless, there are still interesting developments within religious discourse inside modern day Saudi Arabia – and they will likely remain of interest for years to come.