Islam in Saudi Arabia

Religion in Saudi Arabia is shaped by the Kingdom's geography and the dominance of an austere, conservative interpretation of Islam. The land occupied by the Kingdom marks the epicenter of the Muslim world. It is the birthplace of Islam. Over a billion Muslims face toward Mecca during their daily prayers and millions visit the Kingdom each year for the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj. Saudis--both the government and citizens--feel an obligation not only to maintain the physical state of Muslim shrines like the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of Prophet's Tomb in Medina, but to outwardly uphold religious values in government and social policies. This sense of responsibility has manifested itself in the imposition of a strict religiously-based social code at home and support for charitable, proselytizing, and sometimes militant causes abroad.

Ascendency of the Tawhid

The dominant religious doctrine of the modern Saudi state has its beginnings in the 18th century alliance between the founder of the Al Saud dynasty, Muhammad bin Saud, and a fundamentalist Muslim reformer, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. This doctrine, commonly referred to by Saudis as tawhid, or unitarianism, has earned the moniker Wahhabism by many in the West and critics in the Muslim world. It is a creed based on a fundamentalist application of the Sunni Hanbali school of Islam and focuses on the core and most verifiable sources of the religion, the Quran--the Muslim Holy Book--and the Hadith--documented sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. One of the tawhid's most central tenets is the oneness of God. It was this belief that led movement founder Abd al-Wahhab to view many local practices of his time as heretical. These practices included the Shia Muslim practice visiting the graves of popular Imams and perceived animist beliefs by some bedouin.

The Grand Mosque - Mecca

Strategic Alliance

For Muhammad bin Saud, a rising tribal chieftain, Abd al-Wahhab's reformist mission offered a compelling campaign platform with which to recruit bedouin fighters in his quest to extend his family's control over central Arabia. For his part, Abd al-Wahhab saw in Muhammad a charismatic leader with the military and political skills to help him implement his vision of a purer Islamic society. The bond between the two men was strengthened by the marriage of one of Abd al-Wahhab's daughters to Muhammad, a practice of intermarriage between the two families which continues today. During the early twentieth century followers of Abd al-Wahhab's creed helped rally warriors from disparate bedouin tribes-- referred to as the Ikhwan--around the then Al Saud chieftain, Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman bin Faysal Al Saud and his efforts unify the Arabian peninsula. The success of that effort and the long-standing ties between the Al Saud and movement cemented a central role for the religious community in the new Saudi state.

As oil money flowed into the Kingdom during the 1960 and 1970s some religious figures began to clash with the royals over the country's accelerating modernization. The confrontation came to a head in 1979 when religious radicals proclaiming a new Mahdi or Muslim messiah occupied the Grand Mosque. To appease the preachers concerns and keep them out of key policymaking areas like economic development and security issues, the royal family undertook a massive religious infrastructure that included Islamic ministries, advisory councils, research groups and charitable agencies. From early on, the Al Saud had ceded much of the Kingdom's educational system to the religious establishment and now began building Islamic universities like Umm al-Qura University in Mecca, Islamic University in Medina, and Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh. While all educational institutions in the Kingdom institute a core religious curricula, these universities were solely focused on a religious education and the graduation of students to fill roles in the Kingdom's religious bureaucracy.

The Islamic Awakening

The 1990s brought a younger generation of Muslim shaykhs into the forefront of Saudi society and sometimes into direct conflict with the royal family. Many of these shaykhs were graduates of the Islamic university system and had become frustrated with their perceived lack of influence over the country's direction. (Most of the Kingdom's key policy making positions were still in the hands of the royal family and Western-trained technocrats.) Others harbored concerns that the royal family was deviating from Islamic principles and relying too heavily on the non-Muslim West for the Kingdom's defense and economic development. These concerns erupted into the open during the 1991 Iraq war, which brought thousands of Western troops into the Kingdom and underscored the Al Saud's dependence on the United States. Called the Sahwah, or "Awakening" this movement expressed open hostility of the West, and by implication, criticism of the Al Saud's relationship to the Washington. A handful of Awakening shaykhs were able to circumvent the government controlled media and build a following through the use of Islamic cassette tapes and lectures at mosques and schools where the religious community exerted considerable day-to-day control.

Tensions between the Awakening shaykhs and the regime escalated during the early 1990s as the shaykhs became increasingly critical of the regime and joined other Saudi intellectuals in a series of petitions calling for government reforms. The confrontation came to a head in September of 1994, when the government imprisoned members of the Awakening, including two of the most prominent members of the movement, Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali. An accommodation between the Al Saud and the shaykhs was reached in 1999, when the two were released from prison. Awdah and Hawali were allowed to return to public life but appear now to tow the government line on most issues.

Other elements within the Saudi religious community were less inclined toward accommodation. A 2003 attempt by Al Qaeda operatives inside the Kingdom to assassinate a Saudi security officer has lead to an open and ongoing war between the government and Jihadist supporters. In addition to increased security measures, the government has also sought to assert greater control over the Saudi educational system. Several of the country's large Islamic universities have added technical courses and the current King Abdallah has sought to rein in the country's religious police (Mutawwa'iin)--a quasi-government agency accused at times of overzealously enforcing the Kingdom's religious codes.