Alwaght – The relationship between the Saudi government and the Wahhabism preachers-led religious apparatus has always been subject to criticism as the clergy allow the government to sway the religion and they themselves use the religion for the personal privilege.
Over the past few days, a Twitter account, claiming links to decision-making circles in Saudi Arabia, published a Saudi intelligence agency-linked document addressing the Council of Senior Scholars. The document appears to show that the council has been used instrumentally as it issued a fatwa in support of the Libyan National Army, a militia led by Saudi-backed General Khalifa Haftar who is leading an assault against internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
The document also calls on the clergy to focus on encouraging the youths to join the Saudi-eyed Arab Army and offer ideological and religious enlighten in the face of “terrorism.”
This comes while Libya is now a theater for ideological and proxy rivalry of regional and international actors. This fuels the presence of terrorist groups in the already war-hit nation. These groups majorly rely on the Salafi and Wahhabi fatwas to recruit youths from all around the Muslim world.
This report has already been referred to by politicians, international organizations, media, and clergy. For example, in 2017, Al-Sadigh al-Gharyani, the grand mufti of Libya, in an article said that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates inject “dirty money” to recruit African mercenaries and occupy southern Libya. He warned that if this is not prevented, the country will be divided.
Syria, too, has not been safe from the Saudi fatwas which struggled to mobilize terrorist forces to overthrow its government led by President Bashar al-Assad.
Council of Senior Scholars: state’s monopolization of religious law
The Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) was founded in 1972 by a royal decree issued by King Faisal bin Abdulaziz. Until 2009, the muftis of the council were restricted to the Hanbali faith. On February 14 of the same year, King Abdullah expanded the council to cover scholars from other Sunni faiths of Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanafi. Despite its diversity, many still argue that the council is compliant with the government agenda and demands.
In 2010, in a decree King Abdullah said that only the officially ratified scholars could have the right to issue fatwas. The decree majorly covered the CSS’s clergy who are appointed every four years.
By restriction of the fatwa issuing, the government officialized state monopoly in the religious discourse. It especially stripped of a platform to make themselves heard the moderate religious figures who pursued democratic reforms. For example, in 2011 the independent investigator and former judge and also the founder of Saudi Social and Civil Rights Association Suleiman al-Rushudi was detained as he issued a fatwa on the rights of gathering and having political parties. Moreover, in 2017 security forces detained Salman al-Ouda, a prominent mufti, as part of a crackdown on the opposition and otherly voices. Al-Ouda is known for his 2011 petition calling for holding elections, trying the economic corrupts, granting civil freedoms, and releasing the political prisoners.
But the CSS clergy have been busy justifying the political status quo instead of genuinely focusing on religious principles. The council played a bold role in relaying the government outlawing of public protests and joining what the royal family saw a “diversionary political parties.”
The CSS is mainly mobilized to advocate the state decrees. It, for example, issued a fatwa in 2011 banning anti-government protests as diversionary. They labeled “haram”, Arabic for outlawed, according to Sharia law the anti-government demonstrations and any actions that lead to “instability and split” of the country. The fatwa said that reforms are possible only through providing consultation to the rulers not by signing petitions for “horrible and defiant” actions that “violate what God said.”
In 2017, the grand mufti issued over eight fatwas all warning against disobedience of the “legitimate ruler”, a term meant to mention the king. The fatwa gave the ruling family religious support. In 2016, the grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh issued a fatwa in which he said the “mu’min”, Arabic for believer, should like the ruler, defend him, and not insult him. From June 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was meant as the ruler in these fatwas.
On the other side, the government tolerates weird and even extremist fatwas by the CSS as it finds its legitimacy tied to the religious support of the scholars. In 2017, Saleh al-Fozan, a CSS scholar, held that whoever doubts that Shiites are infidels is himself an infidel.
Having in mind that the Al Saud family relies on such religious figures for existence and takes advantage of their religious discourse for its own rule, it will tolerate their radicalism, albeit as long as they show loyalty to the ruling elites. It sometimes utilizes this extremism for its own actions like recruiting forces for the Yemen war. The same recruitment was made for Syria and Libya wars.
The CSS hardly opposes the government and if it does, it stays silent. While some note that the government consults the council before it publishes its decrees or takes its decisions, some others argue that the government does what it likes and after implementation seeks the religious apparatus’s support and ratification. Christopher Boucek, a former associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program, suggests that the CSS actions and behavior vary with the way the ruling family feels secure.
In 1992, when King Fahad failed to get the signature of the CSS scholars to a letter condemning conservatives’ attacks on the royal family, he put pressure on seven senior members of the council to step down. In 2009, Sheikh Saad bin Naser al-Shaytari went under pressure to resign from the CSS when he opposed mixed-gender classes at the newly-founded King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
As another example, when in September 2017 a royal degree allowed the women to drive cars, the Wahhabi CSS’s fatwa was interesting. It said that a majority of the senior scholars think that women driving cars is allowed by the religion.
The big power of the ruling family and the dependence on the government of the religious leaders encourages the government to snub the clergy independence, something allowing the political leaders to tighten their grip on the religious apparatus. Unlike other Islamic countries, the Wahhabi scholars in Saudi Arabia have no independent income sources like mawqufat, or religious donations, and rely on the government to pays.
Looking back at the bonds between the religious apparatus and the political apparatus in Saudi Arabia reveals that since the first state in Saudi Arabia and the unity of Al Saud as political leaders and Al Shaikh as religious leaders, Wahhabi institutions have had power and influence less than the governments. Even worse, in the past decades, the government drew duties to the religious apparatus making it part of the political bureaucracy with little independence in some limited areas.
The Saudi state view on religious institutions is mainly influenced by a notion looking at them instrumentally. If sometime the power of the religious scholars should be challenged, the majorly liberal Saudi rulers will not hesitate to do so.
Undermining of the religious apparatus even moved faster after the death of prominent Wahhabi leaders like Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al Sheikh, Abdulaziz bin Baz, and Mohammad bin Saleh al-Uthaimin, with it becoming increasingly state-dominated. Now the role of the obedient CSS should be labeled as consultative not more.