Why America Needs to Beware of Saudi Wahhabism

May 18, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: Saudi ArabiaUnited StatesReligion

Why America Needs to Beware of Saudi Wahhabism

"It is high time for the administration to face up to Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi creed..."


Put in simple terms, according to al-Albani, it follows from this that unless religion is purified and rightly practiced, political action will lead to corruption and injustice in Muslim society. This explains al-Albani's opposition to Islamism (political Islam) as adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Harakis (Muslim activists). Similarly, al-Albani perceived politics in its Western contemporary concept as a reprehensible innovation based on takfiri (unbeliever) principles, reflected in deception, dishonesty and cunning. Al-Albani opposed Muslim participation in both elections and parliaments.

This is the fundamentalist, anti-Western, and anti-modern school of Islam representing the official religious orientation in the kingdom’s institutions.


Significantly, critical events in the 1980s and the 1990s, in particular the Afghan war and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, further polarized the Salafists. Wahhabi-Salafist scholars frowned upon the deployment of American troops in the holy land, whose invitation by King Fahd was sanctioned by a fatwa from the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom, Sheikh ibn Baz. For them, the Americans were no better than the Ottomans as apostates. Salafis rallied around two religious scholars: Sheikhs Salman al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawali, who waged a public campaign against the monarchy impacting its religious legitimacy. Although the Kingdom imprisoned al-‘Awda and al-Hawali and their supporters, and counterattacked with fatwas from the religious establishment, it could not stop the growth of this campaign that transformed into a branch of Salafism interested in acquiring political influence in order to remedy and prevent further catastrophic developments in the Muslim world. This school of Salafism further grew following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In fact, it is true that by the late mid-1990s, religious opposition to the monarchy had petered out. However, this critical episode in the relationship between the monarchy and the politicized Salafists only reinforced the trend and determination of Harakis to organize and be politically and socially active, with the objective of affecting or attaining power. Though, broadly speaking, they do not excommunicate rulers, they act in the capacity of the guardians of Islamic society. In other words, these activist Salafists, whose political consciousness stem from the political and cultural outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood, strive to found Muslim governance on the will of God's as outlined in the sharia. Conversely, governments that base their governance on idolatrous foundations become target of de-legitimization. Significantly, their discourse and actions have more or less blurred the lines between protecting the ummah (community of believers) and implicitly excommunicating the “ungodly” ruler who does not govern in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah by delegitimizing him, therefore justifying or paving the way for waging jihad against him.

Eventually, this concern with creating an Islamic state governed in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah preoccupied activist Salafists, whose theology can be traced to the hybrid ideology that was born out of the fusion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political and cultural outlook and the creed of Wahhabism. Whereas the application of sharia has been a central tenet for the Muslim Brotherhood, purification of the creed has been a central tenet of Wahhabis. Harakis, striving to establish an Islamic state, overlaid this hybrid ideology with that of tawhid al-hakimiyyah (the unity of sovereignty), which means that God alone is sovereign, and therefore the application of sharia is imperative. This new concept is completely in line with the Salafi creed of tawhid, because it derives from the creedal tenet of tawhid al-uluhiyyah, which means that all forms of worship must be directed exclusively toward God alone. Correspondingly, this concept developed into a sacrosanct obligation sanctioning the excommunication of rulers who do not apply sharia, and therefore jihad against them. Salafi jihadists embrace this obligation and strive to 1) propagate Islam, 2) prepare and wage jihad in the path of Allah, 3) work to recover the homeland and the authority that has been violated, and 4) appoint a caliph who will rule according to what God has sent down.

Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State embrace this Salafi-jihadi ideology. Significantly, what Bin Laden failed to accomplish, al-Baghdadi achieved with the creation of the Islamic State. He confirmed to Islamists and Salafists of all stripes that only through jihad can the Islamic State be realized, and that quietist Salafis are wasting their time. It should come, therefore, as no surprise that many Islamists and Salafis have joined the Islamic State.

It follows from this, as I painstakingly argued in Salafism in Lebanon, that Salafism has now emerged as a prominent ideological and political driver to a Sunni community in crisis, and that the three branches of Salafism are something more than distant relatives. Herein lies the problem and the challenge for United States in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. True, Saudi Arabia opposes and battles Salafi-Jihadism; nevertheless its support of the quietest school of Salafism within and beyond the border of the Kingdom breathes life into the lungs of Harakis and Salafi jihadists to pursue their core mission.  

This is not to say that United States should meddle in the domestic affairs of the Kingdom. More so, Washington, as the Obama administration rightly stated, should indeed enhance its relationship with Riyadh. But this, under the current circumstances in the Middle East, should not mean sweeping American intentional or unintentional ignorance about the challenge of Salafism under the rug of better yet injudicious American-Saudi relations. Washington should hold frank and pointed discussions with Saudi Arabia focusing on the perils the ideology of Salafism poses to Muslim and Western societies alike. Washington should skillfully nudge the Saudi monarchy to take overdue decisions to wean itself from the foundational ideology that has thus far served as the basis for the legitimization of Saudi rule. Late King Abdullah recognized the challenge and tried to curb the power of the Wahhabi religious establishment by trying to make the other schools of Islam (Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki) part of the religious establishment and by removing from there hardline scholars. But Arab revolutions threw a wrench in the wheel of his slow reform movement. The royal family chose to maintain its pact with the Wahhabi religious establishment by securing its support in banning demonstrations and underscoring the religious legitimacy of Saudi rule.

Apparently, the Obama administration, as its predecessors, is more or less cognizant of the limits of the pressure it can put on the kingdom. Nevertheless, it can no longer afford misconstruing or dismissing the hazardous correlation between the various schools of Salafism and their ramifications for the Muslim and Western world; nor can it accept at face value Saudi propagation of Wahhabism overseas and support of pro-Saudi Salafists as key aspects of their pact with the Wahhabi religious establishment.

Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (Georgetown University Press, 2014). This article is largely based on the research of the afore-mentioned book.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Fraz.khalid1