The still existing “alliance” between the two houses, the House of Saud – meaning the political wing – and the house of Al-Sheikh, to a great extent in charge of religion, has drawn controversies from its first days until today, not least in the Muslim world itself.
The “Wahhabi” ideology
Born in 1703 in Uyaynah, in the desert of Najd, Central Arabia, Ibn Abdul Wahhab acquired Islamic knowledge in Mecca, Medina and Basra , before introducing his reforming ideas to his native country, thereby triggering some argument.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab suggested a return to a more literal understanding of the religious scriptures, namely the Quran, believed to be God’s words, and the Sunnah, the traditions of the Muslims’ Prophet Muhammad.
This methodology implied an emphasis on the absolute oneness of God. Kitab at-Tawhid (the Book of the Unity of God) is one of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s most famous writings. A short collection of Quran verses and Hadiths, it highlights monotheism and provides religious excerpts de-legitimizing practices that had become common in the Arab society at the time, such as magic, grave worship, imploration of trees, wear of talismans and amulets, veneration of saints, etc. All these, Ibn Abdul Wahhab claimed, were manifestations of polytheism (Shirk) in defiance to God’s oneness (Tawhid), as, he argued, none can profit or harm except God.
This explains why they call themselves Muwahhidun – Unitarians – the term “Wahhabi” being used by Westerners , although it has been widely adopted by non-Wahhabi Muslims as well.
His methodology also implied the rejection of Bid’ah – innovation – defined as worshipping God by means that were not legitimized by the religion’s scriptures, such as the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday.
Another principle is his condemnation of all nonorthodox views and acts, whether mystic or heterodox (hence the rejection of Sufism) .
On the scale of Islamic law, Fiqh, Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s methodology implied another reform. Here, again, he opposed what had become common among Islamic jurists, namely Taqlid, i.e. imitation right or wrong of one of Islam’s four schools of thought (Hanbali, Maliki, Hanafi and Shafii).
Since the formation of these schools around the middle of the fourth century of the Islamic era (the tenth century of the Christian era), Islamic jurists had gradually adopted an imitating attitude . In the Arabian Peninsula, the Hanbali interpretation – the most conservative one – was implemented.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab favoured Ijtihad as opposed to Taqlid, where a qualified scholar becomes a Mujtahid, and, having more independence vis-à-vis the existing schools of thought, compares the different interpretations before reaching his own conclusion based on what he sees is most compliant with the relevant religious law. Ibn Abdul Wahhab broke his time’s mould when declaring it legitimate to subject any scholar’s opinion to critical analysis.
It was not surprising that he was to face resistance. According to Ahmed Abu Tamy, author of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s biography, his own father and brother were initially opposing his views .
Central Arabia was commercially and intellectually linked with western Arabia and the Fertile Crescent, but often isolated from general political and military trends because of its remoteness and relative poverty. The Najd was divided between a number of rival emirs.
“The ruler of ‘Uyaynah, ‘Uthman ibn Mu’ammar, gladly welcomed the returning prodigal and even adhered to his doctrines. But many opposed him, and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s preaching was put to a number of severe tests. The chief of the Al-Hasa region, who was of the influential Banu Khalid tribe, threatened to withhold gifts to ‘Uthman, or even to go to war with him, unless Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was put to death.” 
His rejection was not systematic. In 1740 he gained the support of Muhammad Ibn Saud, the ruler of Dar’iyya, who later became the founding father of the Saudi Arabian state.
The two men then founded the alliance that exists to this day between their two houses. On two brief occasions, from 1818 to 1824 and from 1891 to 1926, the existence of the Saudi Arabian state was interrupted when defeated by the Ottoman Empire, hence modern Saudi Arabia is often qualified as the third state.
Relation between clergy and monarchy
Ibn Saud soon pledged his fidelity to Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s cause, and committed himself to Dawah – inviting people to God’s message and to applying the Prophet’s traditions – applying religious prescriptions, and “ordering good and banning evil”.
Initially, Ibn Abdul Wahhab assumed the legislative power, which Ibn Saud executed. The latter took no decision without knowing the religion’s legal position . But the relation between monarchy and clergy seems to have changed with Saudi Arabia having gained political and economic importance, and, simultaneously, external pressure.
On the issue of the way religion affects politics in the contemporary world, Fred Halliday’s view understating religions’ influence on politics seems to apply to Saudi Arabia. He writes: “Religion is not ‘for’ or ‘against’ either [nationalism or cosmopolitanism], is not an endorsement or an obstacle, but can be interpreted to support either… These matters and others are resolved by history and interest, not text alone.” 
During the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) when the Islamic fighters were serving political interests (Saudi Arabia’s and those of the entire capitalist world lead by the United States), they were backed by the mainstream. Saudi Arabia was a major financier of the Afghan Jihad.
The interests shifted, however, with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Although Muslims believe only one interpretation of religion can be correct, scholars were split into two camps over the question of the legitimacy of uniting with a non-Muslim force (in this case America) against a Muslim enemy (here the Iraqi Baath army). This time, the political interest implied an alliance with the US, and mainstream scholars did not publicly denounce the Saudi government’s decision to allow US troops entrance on Saudi soil.
However, a number of highly-respected Saudi scholars formed a group called Sahwa – Awakening – to oppose their country’s policy during the 1990 Iraq war, on grounds that were not less moral than religious. That became more evident when human casualties in Iraq rose. These scholars included Safar Al-Hawali and Salman Oudah, both of whom were later imprisoned for their views.
The mainstream clergy’s silence vis-à-vis political developments in the 1990s was not priceless.
Because most Muslims see their religion as a way of life, from which politics are not excluded, the clergy’s responsibility to “order good and ban evil” involves political issues. In Saudi Arabia’s case, the clergy’s failure to oppose their country’s alliance with the US against Iraq was ground for frustration that was later translated into extremist ideologies and, eventually, into actions.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera television in December 1998, Bin Laden lamented the Saudi scholars’ weakness. “Sadly some Fatwas (religious decrees) [legitimizing settlement of US troops in Saudi Arabia] were issued as a result of pressure on those scholars by Gulf States,” he said. He then quoted one of Saudi Arabia’s senior scholars, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Uthaimeen, as saying to him: ‘We did not issue any Fatwa [on the US troops question]. Indeed, after the government allowed the US forces entrance, they assembled us and ordered us to issue a Fatwa because, in case we did not, youths would combat the US soldiers… We have no right whatsoever in the Committee of Senior Scholars to issue a Fatwa of our own accord.'”
After the 9/11 attacks, the Saudi government put forth a new strategy for its relation with scholars. Rather than stifling its political opponents, the monarchy approached the Sahwa scholars in a bid to focus on points of agreement instead of divergence. As a result, they “shifted away from political criticism towards social criticism,” says Professor Natana DeLong-Bas, author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. “It not necessarily meant corrupting these people and telling them what they had to say, but progressively it was felt that looking at the society as a whole was more important than looking at the political system.
“The idea was that you have to change peoples’ attitudes and minds if you want to change the situation.” And that goes through negotiation and dialogue, although the challenge for both sides is to prove to the masses that this dialogue is not a means to divert people’s attention from crucial issues.
Internal opposition is only part of the skepticism generated towards Saudi Arabia. In the West, the Kingdom is often represented as a piece of desert ruled by an ultra conservative clergy with radical interpretations of Islam. Women are oppressed, it is alleged; Wahhabi scholars want to convert the whole world; and non-Muslims are banned from practicing their faith on Saudi soil.
A Saudi woman I talked to calls these ‘sheer misperceptions’. “We are a people like all others in the world,” she says. “We support reform, respect human values, and cherish modernity.”
Incidentally, she – like other religious Saudi women – seems to enjoy her life as much as any Western female. Their conservative interpretation of Islam does not prevent education, shopping, fashion and parties from being part of their lives.
Becoming increasingly aware of its image abroad, Saudi Arabia chose diplomacy. In an attempt to refute allegations leveled against Islam – including the “Wahhabi version” – King Abdullah proposed to engage in an ongoing interfaith dialogue.
Last month, when inaugurating a three-day conference intended to prepare the ground on the Muslims’ side before engaging with non-Muslims, the monarch said: “You have gathered today to tell the whole world that … we are a voice of justice and human values, that we are a voice for coexistence and a just and rational dialogue.”
The first inter-faith dialogue conference is scheduled to take place in Madrid later this month.
Because Westerners remain skeptical about the outcome of such an enterprise, the challenge for the Saudi monarch is to show his interlocutors in the Judeo-Christian world what concrete results his interfaith dialogue is likely to initiate.
King Abdullah already hinted at some adjustment when, last November, he met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican. Last month, the Sunni monarch appeared next to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of mainly Shi’a Iran, in a symbolic gesture to encourage Muslim unity.
Such moves can be seen as part of a wider adaptation of Saudi Arabia’s clergy to modern life. The country’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, stressed that religion encourages accommodation to modern life. “We live in a communication era,” he said. “To adapt to it by holding dialogue and correspondence among humankind has become an obligation.”
The commitment to engage in an interfaith dialogue did take some extra effort in Saudi Arabia, due to suspicious stances that the Saudi clergy now seems to have overcome. Hassan Al-Ahdal, director of media and relations at the World Muslim League, relates this reluctance to the fear of ending up with a “one world religion” at the detriment of each religion’s teaching.
But the conference made clear that the goal is not to compromise on any faith’s principles. “The priority is to agree on common values without tackling religious matters because these are always ground for dispute,” Al-Ahdal says. “No side will ever succeed in changing the other.”
The key message conveyed by last month’s conference is that the two pillars of the Saudi Arabian regime – monarchy and clergy – agree that keeping in conformity with religious fundaments does not contradict modernity.
 Ahmad Abu Tamy, Cheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahab – ses croyances, sa réforme et les témoignages des Ulemas en sa faveur (published by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Arabia), page 21.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wahhabi.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wahhabi.
 History of Islamic Legislation (in Arabic), by Umar Al-Ashqar.
 Ahmad Abu Tamy, Cheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahab – ses croyances, sa réforme et les témoignages des Ulemas en sa faveur (published by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Arabia), page 32.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Saudi Arabia.
 Ahmad Abu Tamy, Cheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahab, page 40.
 Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations (Cambridge University Press 2005), page 214.
© 2008 Asma Hanif