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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has delivered his sharpest attack yet on the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment, declaring its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam out of date and often based on a faulty interpretation of Islamic scriptures. Speaking on national television in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, he also defended his promotion of secular Western entertainment in the kingdom which had long been condemned as heretical by its once powerful Wahhabi clerics.

He has openly set about sidelining the kingdom’s Wahhabi scholars and preachers who still command millions of followers in the country and beyond.

Of all his domestic reforms, none has been more consequential than his silencing of clerics and his promotion of a new version of the kingdom’s reigning Wahhabi creed often viewed abroad as a chief source of Islamist extremism. His attempt to reform the religious establishment is particularly risky as the crown prince has no official standing as a religious scholar. He has openly set about sidelining the kingdom’s Wahhabi scholars and preachers who still command millions of followers in the country and beyond. In addition, the legitimacy of the ruling House of Saud has been based for nearly 275 years on its alliance with the Wahhabi clergy. That alliance is now very much in question.

The main challenges to the ruling House of Saud have always come from Wahhabi conservatives. They seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, rose up in open rebellion in the mid-1990s, kept women from driving cars until 2018 and preached incessantly against the opening up of the kingdom to secular Western culture. This is precisely what MBS had been engineering before the COVID-19 pandemic closed down the kingdom a year ago, inviting a constant stream of Western male and female singers, bands, dancers and even American female wrestlers to come perform.

So far, his harsh crackdown on disgruntled clerics has prevented an open backlash, but the crown prince is now openly challenging the basis of Wahhabi doctrine on religious grounds, lecturing as if he were the kingdom’s top religious authority. It came in a wide-ranging interview with a Saudi reporter aired on state television the night of April 25, much of it devoted to defending his economic and social reforms since his father, King Salman, promoted him to heir apparent in June 2017. 

MBS called into question the enslavement of Saudi religious leaders to the Islamic sect known abroad as Wahhabism after its 18th Century founder Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab.

In language never before used by a Saudi monarch, MBS called into question the enslavement of Saudi religious leaders to the Islamic sect known abroad as Wahhabism after its 18th Century founder Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab. “There are no fixed schools of thought and there is no infallible person,” he intoned. Religious fatwas, “should be based on the time, place and mindset in which they are issued,” not regarded as immutable.

If Sheikh Abdul Wahhab were alive today, he would be “the first to object” to seeing Saudi religious scholars “committed blindly to his texts” and “deifying and sanctifying” him.  No one should stand between God and humans or inhibit continuous new interpretations (known as ijtihad in Islam) of the Quranic texts and Sharia, or Islamic law in keeping with changing times.

The crown prince asserted this was true even for the kingdom’s personal family code that must “preserve the security and interests” of Saudis in contemporary time, reflect “international norms” and keep the development of tourism, foreign investment and the non-oil sector in mind.  He recently ordered a codification of Saudi laws that would end the power of individual Wahhabi judges to implement, each according to his own interpretation, the prevailing Hanbali school of jurisprudence, the most conservative of four in Sunni Islam.

Acting in a new role of religious scholar, the crown prince questioned the prevalent interpretation of many hadiths—the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed as passed down through the centuries and verified by Islamic scholars—used by religious courts throughout the Muslim world as a component of legal rulings. Certain hadithare frequently employed by Wahhabi clerics to justify their harsh application of religious law in sentencing of Saudis. “There should be no punishment related to a religious matter except when there is a clear Quranic stipulation,” he asserted, accusing the kingdom’s clerics of “a falsification” of Islamic legal practice to promote their puritanical dominance.

Saudi activists and critics of the crown prince immediately understood his comments to be aimed at them as well and at establishing a religious basis for persecuting them.

MBS also lashed out at “extremism” appearing to include both terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and domestic ultra-conservative radicals, all of which he portrayed as major obstacles to his plans for the rapid modernization of Saudi Arabia. “We cannot grow, we cannot attract capital, we cannot have tourism, we cannot progress with such extremist thinking in Saudi Arabia,” warning that all religious extremists, “even if not a terrorist,” would be viewed as criminals and face “the full face of the law.” The Prophet himself, he noted, had ordered them to be killed. Saudi activists and critics of the crown prince immediately understood his comments to be aimed at them as well and at establishing a religious basis for persecuting them. The murder of Saudi journalist and MBS critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 has greatly augmented these fears.

Since then, there have been no other reported extra-judicial executions by Saudi security agencies. But a special court dealing with alleged terrorists has been handing down unusually stiff sentences against human rights activists and non-violent critics of MBS.

Last month, U.S.-educated activist Abdulrahman al-Sadhan,37, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and a subsequent 20-year travel ban simply for maintaining a Twitter account critical of human rights abuses in the kingdom. In reaction, the U.S. State Department issued a statement insisting freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense and said it was pressing the issue “at all levels” with Saudi officials.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

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David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more