The ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia

The separation of the sect from the state has been years in the making, as the state no longer requires adherence to the already hollowed-out ideology

The ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, accompanies the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MBS, as they view a selection of early texts from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths from the Lambeth Palace library collection. (Yui Mok – WPA Pool / Getty Images)

On a prominent podcast in 2019, a Saudi Arabian academic spoke of the need to rewrite the history of his country by disconnecting the story of the state from the fight against un-Islamic practices initiated by a tribal-­religious alliance between Muhammad bin Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 1744. As long as the two stories are connected, Khaled al-Dakheel argued, the Saudis are stifled by Wahhabism both at home and abroad. Dakheel, whose book on the subject was until recently banned, said the Saudis should emphasize that the kingdom had been established 17 years before Wahhabism entered the political equation. In his words, to Saudi podcaster Abdulrahman Abumalih:

We’ve written the state history improperly, which is why most Saudis don’t know the history of the Saudi state or the Arabian Peninsula, unfortunately. You’ve reduced it all to polytheism. You’ve told people that the whole story was about polytheism: Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab came to fight polytheism, Muhammad bin Saud joined him, and together they fought polytheism. … By doing so, you’ve dwarfed the state. We should instead teach the history of the state, which is bigger than that. We haven’t studied the history of our state; we’ve only been taught the words of Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr [the biographers of Wahhabism] and we’re still doing it.

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