The Clerics of Islam

The Clerics of Islam: Religious Authority and Political Power in Saudi Arabia

Nabil Mouline
Translated by Ethan S. Rundell
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    The Clerics of Islam
    Book Description:

    Followers of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab, often considered to be Islam's Martin Luther, shaped the political and religious identity of the Saudi state while also enabling the significant worldwide expansion of Salafist Islam. Studies of the movement he inspired, however, have often been limited by scholars' insufficient access to key sources within Saudi Arabia. Nabil Mouline was granted rare interviews and admittance to important Saudi archives in preparation for this groundbreaking book, the first in-depth study of the Wahhabi religious movement from its founding to the modern day. Gleaning information from both written and oral sources and employing a multidisciplinary approach that combines history, sociology, and Islamic studies, Mouline presents a new reading of this movement that transcends the usual resort to polemics.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20661-6
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction: The Ulama, Clerics of Islam
    (pp. 1-16)

    “The ulama are the heirs of the prophets.”¹ Attributed to the prophet Muhammad (d. 632), this tradition reflects the importance assigned to clerics in Arab-Muslim culture. Although in theory Islam gives all believers equal access to the sacred, in practice Muslims have found it necessary to create a group of “specialists” authorized to interpret the holy texts and oversee worship. In other words, the representation of the divine, the systematization of belief, and the regulation of social behavior to achieve salvation all require “an independent and professionally trained priesthood, permanently occupied with the cult and with the practical problems involved...

  4. 1 The Birth of the Hanbali Tradition
    (pp. 17-45)

    The political quarrels that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 were driven by personal rivalry, factional conflict, and the question of how power was to be transmitted.¹ By contrast, the nature, legitimacy, and prerogatives of the institution of the Caliphate were almost never called into question. The first caliphs—or, as they were later known, the Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-Khulafaal-Rashidun) (632–661)—inherited the religious authority and kingly prerogatives of the Prophet.

    Though excluded from divine revelation, the first Muslim sovereigns enjoyed extensive prerogatives in the religious, legal, and political domains thanks to their messianic status....

  5. 2 Shedding New Light on the Life of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab
    (pp. 46-69)

    The historiographer of the Saudi Emirate, Ibn Ghannam (d. 1810), presented a dark picture of the religious situation of Arabia and its surroundings at the beginning of the eighteenth century when he wrote:

    most Muslims had returned to the pre-Islamic darkness. Ignorant, at the mercy of potentates gone astray, deprived of the light of good guidance, they turned their backs on the book of God, thus imitating the custom of their ancestors. So they worshippedmarabouts, living and dead, they venerated trees and substituted new idols for God…. Such was the situation in Najd …, in the holy places …...

  6. 3 Hanbali-Wahhabism in the Nineteenth Century: Grandeur and Decadence
    (pp. 70-93)

    Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s death in 1792 does not seem to have diminished the determination of his descendants and disciples, who continued to actively promote his ideas. A genuine and nearly permanent division of labor between the religious and political authorities emerged: the Sauds henceforth dominated the political, military, and financial space while the shaykh’s descendants and followers monopolized the juridico-religious space. Political power and religious authority worked side by side to impose the three O’s. Emir Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud (d. 1803) continued to oversee politico-military affairs, while Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1829)...

  7. 4 The Birth of a Kingdom and the Renaissance of a Tradition
    (pp. 94-118)

    The ulama’s wish came true when a grandson of Emir Faysal ibn Turki, Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman, undertook to restore the house’s power in the first years of the twentieth century. Following several unsuccessful attempts, in 1902 he succeeded in seizing Riyadh and expelling the Rashid’s small garrison. This initial victory was the founding act of a military and political epic that resulted in the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Conscious of the ideological importance of the Hanbali-Wahhabi tradition, King Abd al-Aziz(1902−1953) hastened to resume the historic alliance that had united his predecessors with the...

  8. 5 Routinization and Institutionalization of Hanbali-Wahhabism
    (pp. 119-145)

    The question of political succession is the Achilles’ heel of the Saudi monarchy. Since its emergence in the eighteenth century, the royal house has done its best to resolve this problem, which is principally due to the horizontal manner in which power is transmitted and distributed, after the model of the local kinship system. Phases of generational transition systematically coincide with periods of crisis, in the course of which each branch attempts to monopolize power. As we have seen, the instability and subsequent collapse of the Saudi Emirate in 1891 were mainly due to this structural problem.¹

    The prevailing conception...

  9. 6 The Committee of Grand Ulama: An Organization in the Service of the Prince … and the Population
    (pp. 146-170)

    The unity of the clerical corps and the energetic manner with which it defended its interests did not leave the monarchy indifferent. Though symbolic and without effect, the clerical corps’ criticisms were no doubt seen by the country’s rulers as a precedent that might have significant consequences in the future.¹ A structural consideration must be added to this purely conjunctural factor. All processes of state construction require the emergence of a central power that leads a monopolist and homogenizing policy in all domains. After the (re)unification of the kingdom, the monarchy became involved in this dynamic, which accelerated during the...

  10. 7 Raising the Veil on the Conditions of Access to the Religious Establishment
    (pp. 171-202)

    The predication of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab made many disciples. In the founder’s lifetime, several of his followers showed great devotion and zeal to propagateal-da‘wa.¹ Upon the master’s death, his charisma was “routinized” in Max Weber’s sense of the term: while the members of his family inherited a large part of this charisma, his disciples also benefited from routinization. The result was the creation of a number of “houses” of ulama (buyut ‘ilm, sing. bayt ‘ilm) that monopolized the religious space of the successive Saudi emirates up until the middle of the twentieth century (though several isolated cases of...

  11. 8 Religious Authority in Practice: The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice
    (pp. 203-234)

    According to Jürgen Habermas, before the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere tied to the spread of capitalism and the rationalization of state structures, the European public sphere, still dominated by feudalism and personal relations, was structured by representations. These consisted of a particular display of symbols, style, attitude, and rhetoric—“in a word, a strict code of ‘noble’ conduct … for virtue must be embodied, it has to be capable of public representation.”¹ The public sphere thus became a space of regulation and control in the sense that the holders of power defined acceptable and legitimate conduct in keeping...

  12. 9 At the Crossroads: The Religious Establishment Put to the Test of the Saudi Politico-Religious Space
    (pp. 235-256)

    Having examined how the clerical corps imposes and defends orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the public sphere, we now study how it defends the established order—in the Hanbali-Wahhabi view of things, an indispensable bulwark of any effort to achieve salvation. For purposes of illustration, I draw upon three important episodes from contemporary Saudi Arabian history: the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, the Islamist protest movement of the early 1990s, and the Jihadist threat following the September 11 terrorist attacks. My aim in the present chapter is not to study these events in their own right—something...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 257-264)

    Natura non facit saltus—nature does not make jumps. This adage, employed by philosophers and natural scientists since late antiquity, nicely captures the idea that all change proceeds from successive stages rather than abrupt transitions in space and time. The historical sociology of Hanbali-Wahhabism tends to confirm this premise. Reconstructing the genealogy of this tradition, retracing its historical trajectory, describing its origins and practices, determining its identity, grasping what is permanent and the changes that have cut across it—such were the ambitions of this work. Studying itslongue duréehas in effect allowed us to review the historical, social,...

  14. Appendix: House of Saud and Map of Saudi Arabia
    (pp. 265-268)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 269-310)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-333)