Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia

On arrival in Saudi Arabia, more than ten years ago now, I was amazed at how different everything was to my preconceptions. I had been fed the usual line that Saudi was a staunch ally and supporter of the West and that life was easy and comfortable there. How very wrong these ideas proved themselves to be! A particular incident crystallized the reality for me.

I was quickly shipped out to Ras Tanura: a major ARAMCO training complex (but a small and boring little town) and in the evenings I used to walk into the center, buy a few things– and maybe get a take-away meal. On this occasion, I noticed that everyone in the pizza shop was rushing around, as if desperately trying to beat some deadline. They just about managed to prepare my pizza and take my money before closing for the sunset prayer. All this was very new to me, so I thought the best thing to do was take a quiet walk on a hopefully deserted beach while I ate my pizza. As the sunset and I munched away, I noticed a crouching presence right in front of me. Suddenly he sprang up and started shouting and gesticulating wildly at me. Even though I was new to the country, it was fairly clear that he was objecting to my consumption of pizza in his presence while he was praying. I tried to utter a few conciliatory words, but he suddenly barked out a few words in egregious English.

“You must pay fine of one hundred riyals.”I shook my head incredulously and informed the man that I didn’t have one hundred riyals with me (not actually true!).

“OK, you pay one riyal,” came back the immediate response. I took a deep breath and drew out one riyal from my pocket and handed it to the man. He had made his point. It was the principle that mattered in this oil rich country and not the amount.

This was my first encounter with Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam that is taught in Saudi Arabia. Muhammed ibn Abd Al-Wahhab who died in 1792 was the founder of this severe form of Islam– and the unification of the vast majority of the Arabian peninsula into the Saudi nation took place on the back of an alliance between the Saud family and the Wahhabis, and continues to this day. Wahhabism is still the form of Islam taught in the Saudi schools–and also in those numerous Islamic schools around the world that have been financed by Saudi money. So what exactly does Wahhabism stand for?

It is said that Wahhab was actually a reformer as he wished to eradicate non Islamic practices that had crept into the religion, such as the veneration of Saints, the celebration of the prophet’s birthday and so on. In practice, his ideas soon became the foundation for an extreme and fundamentalist sect of Islam that taught that only Wahhabis were on the right path to salvation. Even other non-Wahhabi Muslims were said to be in serious error and their eventual fate could not be assured. Particular opprobrium was reserved for Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc. Wahhabism did not in itself preach violence, but rather an austere form of Islamic asceticism. This included no pre-marital sex nor post marital adultery- or the consequence was pain of death! Music, cinema and all forms of light entertainment were also frowned upon and sometimes banned by force of Shariah law. Effectively, one read the Qu’ran and followed its precepts: this was the only sure way to obtain salvation.

Is Wahhabism a breeding ground for terrorists? Its ascetic precepts can certainly be directed along these lines, though the cross over point between ascetic fundamentalism and terrorist violence is not a very clear one. Osamah Bin Laden was educated as a Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia and he has become the world’s most sought after terrorist. On the other hand, he comes from a respected Saudi family, which has made millions of dollars from the construction industry in the Middle East. And no one suggests that his father or brothers are ‘terrorists.’ It is worth remembering that Osamah Bin Laden lost his Saudi citizenship long before September 11 and in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He went around the mosques preaching that the Saud family were puppets of the West. It was that which lost him his citizenship and sent him into continuous exile.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly plenty of young Saudis–educated in the Wahhabi tradition– that agree with him and they are a fertile breeding ground for his anti-Western and anti-Saud message. The Royal Family in Saudi Arabia have now understood the danger and are moving aggressively and systematically against Bin Laden’s supporters. However, their task is complicated by the sympathy that many within the Wahhabi tradition have for Osamah and his message of Jihad, or “Holy Crusade” against the West and its supporters in the Arabic and Muslim world. New tensions are arising between the Saudi Royal Family and the Wahhabi clergy and it will be interesting to see how this conflict of interests plays itself out in the months and years ahead.

One thing is for sure: Saudi Arabia is changing and opening itself up to new ideas from the outside world. Not everyone is happy about this and isolated factions within the Wahhabi tradition might easily turn to violence as its power and influence inside the country, is gradually stripped away. All in all, the next five to ten years in Saudi Arabia will be an uneasy time and is likely to give birth to many new ideas and changing perspectives. In the west, we should all fervently hope that these changes can be contained within the present status quo.

January 1st, 2004 by