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)

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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.

Dakheel’s revisionist remarks were not particularly rare for Saudi intellectuals to make against Wahhabism. However, talk about the need to revisit the historical connection is remarkable, and its timing was unlikely to be spontaneous. It came against the backdrop of unprecedented statements and moves made by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, involving the role of Wahhabism in the country, from restraining the clerics to announcing initiatives to revise and update religious texts.

The latest of these moves to marginalize Wahhabism is the setting of a new official date to mark the founding of the Saudi state (“youm al-taasees” in Arabic) on Feb. 22, in addition to the usual national day (“al-youm al-watani”) on Sept. 23. The national day in September celebrates the formation of the nation under the name of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, while the new date celebrates Muhammad bin Saud’s takeover of Diriyah, now widely referred to as “the founding capital,” in 1727. The new date marks the official beginning of the new dynamic that Dakheel called for.

What makes this story more significant than a ­simple political decision to rewrite the national narrative is that the fate of Wahhabism is no longer up to Saudi Arabia, just as the interests of Saudi Arabia are not tied to Wahhabism any longer. Wahhabism’s decline as a movement has been many years in the making, and this has something to do with the political shift pushed by Bin Salman — but only to a certain degree. The decline preceded him and would have happened without these political changes, if not at the same speed or so quietly. This distinction matters, because it means that other factors contributed to the waning power of Wahhabism both in the kingdom and in the wider region, and it is this internal decay and the surrounding environment that make Wahhabism’s current troubles deep and permanent.

The current crown prince’s displacement of Wahhabism was part of a two-pronged campaign he and the previous king waged against broader Islamism as they set out to deal with emerging problems in the past two decades. In many ways, the decline of Wahhabism was primarily an unintended (and ironic) consequence of the Saudi leadership’s fight against hostile Islamist and jihadist forces in the country.

With the Muslim Brotherhood, Bin Salman was brutal and direct: He jailed clerics associated with the group and pushed for a national narrative that labeled them as a foreign ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood was Egyptian, so the narrative ran; Sururism, a hybrid of Salafism and political Islam, was Syrian; another strand of Salafism that was heavily inspired by Wahhabism but associated with the Syrian-Albanian cleric Muhammad Nasiruddin was dismissed as also imported. With Wahhabism, the only undeniably native Islamist ideology, he followed a different and incremental approach of pacifying and neutralizing the doctrine. His campaign started with hints and intensified over time until the unequivocal proclamation in 2021 that the kingdom should not be wedded to one person or ideology.

A hand drawing of Diriyah and Wadi Hanifa in 1808 (Twitter/KSA Foreign Ministry)

In a way, the current Saudi crown prince is doing to Wahhabism what his grandfather and founder of the “Third Saudi State,” Abdulaziz ibn Saud, did with former allies in 1929. For years prior, the nomadic and radical Bedouin tribesmen known as Ikhwan Min-Ta-Allah (the brethren of those who obey God) defied Ibn Saud and continued raids into Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, in the name of spreading the true and pure message of Islam and conquering non-Wahhabi lands. Ibn Saud eventually waged a campaign against the tribesmen and defeated them at the Battle of Sabilla (or Sbalah) in the spring of that year, then decisively in January 1930. The tribesmen surrendered, with their rebellion destroyed. Some of them were absorbed into what later became the National Guard.

The movement almost died out, except for one desperate attempt to seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca exactly half a century later by one of the children of a rebel leader. Juhayman al-Otaybi’s seizure of the mosque in 1979 was ended, but it was not without a lasting effect on politics. The new rebellion alarmed then-King Khalid bin Abdulaziz and led him to appease the clerical establishment and establish conservative practices, often at the expense of decades-old attempts at modernization with the advent of oil revenue. (Other geopolitical events, such as the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, equally contributed to the new policy.) It also meant that the kingdom had largely tolerated both Wahhabi and Islamist activists, especially throughout the 1980s. This state appeasement by King Khalid and his successors is frequently cited by Bin Salman as a setback and to argue for opening up the country and cracking down on extremists. Bin Salman is dealing with some of the same threats that his uncle bowed to almost half a century ago and his grandfather ended half a century before that.

Contemporary Wahhabism started to face internal and external challenges with the increased involvement of jihadist ideologies in regional wars, the rise of satellite channels as well as technology and the youth bulge in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Before that, Wahhabis benefited from the simplicity, purity and unity of their message: return to the early generations of Islam and tawhid (monotheism). Wahhabism thrived when it was able to channel all its energy — with near-limitless resources — against the trinity of what it labeled polytheistic or heretical practices: the mystical current of Sufism, heretical ideas of progressive or moderate clerics, and “deviant” teachings of Shiite Islam and other non-Sunni sects. The puritanical and categorical nature of its message had an appeal in villages and cities across the Muslim world. Its preachers had immeasurable wherewithal to conduct lavish proselytization trips to Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and even Europe and the United States. Muslim expatriates working in Arab states of the Persian Gulf found it easy to obtain funds to build mosques in their home countries. Saudi embassies monitored Shiite proselytization and countered it with all the financial might they had, supplied by the Saudi state or charities.

A microscopic view of the changes that swept away Saudi Islamism in general was recently offered by Sultan Alamer, a Saudi scholar at George Washington University. In his extensive study published November 2021, Alamer traces the intellectual transformations in Saudi Arabia in the decade or so that preceded the 2011 Arab Spring, specifically from 1998 to 2001. He focuses on the conditions that led to the emergence of what Saudis call “tayyar al-tanweer” (the enlightenment current) and why it later faded from public life. The tanweeris are not a monolith, as the author writes, but they tend to diverge from Islamism and Wahhabism in advocating for modern values and nonsectarianism. They include a wide range of figures, from Mansour al-Nogaidan, a former Islamist who turned so secular that he pronounced on TV that humanitarianism became his only religion, then left the kingdom and adopted a new nationality in the United Arab Emirates, to Salman al-Oudah, a former icon of the Islamic Awakening who became known for his progressive religious and social views and was jailed in 2017 for trumped-up terrorism charges, which many believe to be because of his opposition to the Saudi and Emirati crisis with Qatar that year, to the young economist Essam al-Zamil, who was jailed and sentenced for 15 years in 2017 for warning about unrest due to the crown prince’s economic policies.

Alamer reviews two Saudi positions about the rise of progressive ideas, one blaming the “September Earthquake” (of 9/11) that put the whole Islamist current on trial, which in turn weakened it and made it less popular. This, in the pro-Islamist view he cites, left a power vacuum for the progressive current to emerge. The other view says the progressive movement predated 9/11, specifically starting in 1998. That nascent movement involved a “quiet period lacking in tension, negative influence or reactionary ideas,” dominated by revisionist Islamist ideas that started to move away from radical ideas of the late 1980s and 1990s. That shortlived movement was disrupted by 9/11.

Alamer argues that the biggest effect of the post-9/11 campaigns was that they did away with what he dubs “the Faisal Formula,” by which he means the Saudi balancing act of allowing Islamists to dominate the public space — whether in the educational, religious or social domains — without interfering in political decisions such as the relationship with the U.S. This balancing act was established by King Faisal, who wanted to use Islamists to safeguard the home front, including against sweeping ideologies like communism, liberalism and pan-Arabism, and to rely on the U.S. for security externally. The formula, which became the basis for dealing with the post-1979 threats, was challenged after the 1991 Gulf War, and the state response primarily involved security and authoritarian measures without doing away with the formula. During that period, fatwas issued by the official Wahhabi establishment, in favor of working with the U.S. against Saddam Hussein, were publicly defied by Islamist activists for the first time in Saudi history. Saudi authorities took steps to regulate the public space and contain the blowback. In turn, Islamists formed a political opposition in the diaspora and radical elements resorted to violence and declared war against the U.S. Still, this period also involved the emergence of a progressive current, with the rise of satellite TV channels and later the internet.

Then 9/11 happened. The informal pact unraveled, Alamer argues, and progressives were one tool used by the political elite to end it. In other words, the twin pillars of the Faisal Formula crashed with the Twin Towers. As Alamer put it: “Just like Greek heroes whose glory is not complete until they die fulfilling their noblest acts, this current perished the moment the Faisal Formula was crushed.”

The Arab Spring presented a further dilemma for Saudi Arabia: While the progressive current helped it counter Islamism in terms of rights, minorities and social freedoms, it also pushed for discussions about democratic ideals and constitutional change. The current’s victory against Islamism happened just before the wave of popular uprisings demanding democratic change in the region, which naturally led the Saudis to take a hostile position toward this current.

While political Islam was the target during this period, the winners and losers were not necessarily limited to the two main sides of the fight. Progressives may have weakened but not before they paved the way conceptually and ideologically for a new movement to emerge, and any reform introduced in the kingdom in the past two decades has happened with their help or during their rise. The progressive movement, opposed to both Islamists and the state, has likely not died. Rather, it is both latent and cautious. Understandably, any such voices will tread carefully under the current political atmosphere of crackdowns and lack of clarity, but the roots of this movement already exist and don’t need to form from scratch. The anti-Islamist movement will likely shape the ideological landscape in the kingdom in the coming years, as the forces of Islamism continue to wane.

Both Wahhabism and political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood type have weakened, while progressive ideas have a space and a future in the kingdom in a way that the former two do not. Wahhabism was not the direct target of the state war against Islamism, but it emerged as a loser for reasons that go beyond the state’s approach to it.

That appeal of Wahhabism diminished in the mid-2000s. Its disintegration started before, specifically with the attacks of 9/11, but the movement had still benefited from a murky situation because the rise of jihadism in Iraq and Afghanistan kept ideas like tawhid afloat. Jihadists raised the same slogans, but it took a while for the differences and disagreements between Wahhabism and Salafi-jihadism (a movement that merged the revolutionary ideas of political Islam with the fundamentalist teachings of Salafism and Wahhabism) to be amplified in public. Salafi-jihadists benefited from the ideological infrastructure or groundwork laid out by Wahhabism and Islamism but carved out their own distinct space, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 and the regional wars that followed. The appeal of Wahhabism shrank even further with the Arab uprisings, as their liberal and radical rivals joined the conflicts against their regimes, while an already fragmented and hollowed-out Wahhabi establishment stood firmly by the status quo.

The final double-blow for Wahhabis came when their Saudi backers stopped supporting them and when the Islamic State group’s rise in 2014 focused attention on Wahhabism and extremism writ large. Years before the crown prince spoke about Wahhabism in public, the former king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz did something unprecedented for a Saudi monarch: He came out on national television, sat down the top ulema of the Wahhabi clergy and rebuked them, in a statement that was widely reported and discussed in the kingdom. He told them: “I see laziness and silence in you.” In the Gulf, any such disagreements or statements would be made behind closed doors. This terse remark about their inability to mobilize against the new threat was demeaning for the kingdom’s highly respected and powerful clerical establishment, reflecting his disappointment with their faint response to the Islamic State group — whose clerics have sometimes trained at the hands of Wahhabis or heavily borrowed from Wahhabi literature — as it charged through swaths of Iraq and Syria after declaring a historic caliphate and vowing to expand into “the land of the two holy sites” in Mecca and Medina.

(To be fair, this was a problem that many clerical establishments in the region had, as they tended to be slower and more pedagogical in the way they attempted to disavow or counter the shrewd and galvanizing jihadist propaganda. The dual attack from the liberal and jihadist polar opposites also disoriented Wahhabism and made it hard for it to navigate the new political and religious waters at home and in the region.)

Eight years after that rare comment, Bin Salman took the fight much further. He made the clearest remarks against Wahhabism by a Saudi leader in a wide-ranging TV interview in 2021 during the fasting month of Ramadan, when families would gather around television. He told the interviewer that Saudi Arabia was not bound by the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Even the choice of the interviewer was notable, as Abdullah Al Mudaifer is known for interviewing former extremists or clerics who moderated their views in recent years. Bin Salman said the emphasis on the teachings of Wahhabism’s founder amounts to idolizing a human, which would go against the very teachings of the founding sheikh. The full response to the interviewer’s question is stark and damning to the core tenets of the Wahhabi establishment:

When we commit ourselves to following a certain school or scholar, this means we are deifying human beings.

If Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab were with us today and he found us committed blindly to his texts and closing our minds to interpretation and jurisprudence while deifying and sanctifying him, he would be the first to object to this. There are no fixed schools of thought and there is no infallible person. We should engage in continuous interpretation of Quranic texts, and the same goes for the traditions of the prophet.

One can’t go and reinvent the wheel. The world follows clear laws that regulate the lives of people. Our role is to make sure all the laws passed in Saudi Arabia reflect the following: … that they do not violate the Quran and the traditions of the prophet, the Quran being our constitution; that they do not contradict our interests; that they preserve the security and interests of citizens, and that they help in the development and prosperity of the country. So, laws are passed based on this procedure according to international conventions.

For the Saudi leadership, Wahhabism was not just an obstruction to development and modernization with its rigidity but recently also proved useless when it was most needed in effectively defending the state against a new threat.

Meanwhile, multiple reasons, from the effects of the Arab uprisings and the rise of the Islamic State to the growing influence of geopolitical rivals in Iran and Turkey, coalesced to make Saudi Arabia focus more on fortifying the home front and move away from its global backing of the Wahhabi movement. The country has moved to close mosques and charities across the world, including in Russia and Europe. During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in October 2017, for example, King Salman bin Abdulaziz reportedly agreed to pull the plug on mosque funding and proselytization. In February 2018, Riyadh made a similar move when it gave up control of Belgium’s largest mosque, notorious as a breeding ground for extremism.

Wahhabism was no longer backed by a state agenda on the global stage, and its ability to help set the domestic agenda similarly faded, with the abolishment of its fearsome religious police, the lifting of the ban on women driving and the relaxation of social and gender-mixing restrictions.

One of the prominent former adherents to Wahhabism, Yasir Qadhi, spoke about how Wahhabism today is already drastically different from how it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. An American of Pakistani descent, Qadhi grew up in Saudi Arabia, learned under various Wahhabi clerics and was educated at the Islamic University of Madinah. In 2014, after he had publicly distanced himself from Wahhabism, Qadhi spoke of three transformations that Wahhabism has gone through, culminating with a movement today that is too watered-down relative to how it started. According to him, the first phase was the original period during the life of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1792; the second followed the taming of the rebellion under King Abdulaziz, in which Wahhabism was significantly toned down, as embodied by the ideas of Muhammad Ibrahim Al Sheikh, who died in 1969; the third is the modern “sanitized” one, embodied by Abdel Aziz Bin Baz and Muhammad ibn Uthaymeen, who died in 1999 and 2001 respectively. Without specifying its nature, Qadhi added that a fourth stage is in the making.

Whatever Wahhabism is morphing into, though, it will not lead to a new lease on life. In Saudi Arabia and beyond, Wahhabism has been losing ground for too many years. The factors that once helped it grow no longer exist. Politically, the state no longer needs the ideology, which would not have flourished without the state. Even if the Saudi state decided to change its view about the utility of Wahhabism, it would not be able to reverse the trend. Wahhabism ran out of gas ideologically before it did politically. The ideology, sometimes seen as a distinct sect even from the Sunni tradition it emerged from, had long projected power disproportionate to its actual appeal and strength because it had the backing of a powerful and wealthy kingdom and a vast network of rich and generous donors. That bubble has now burst, and Wahhabism is reduced to its right size of being a minor player in the Muslim landscape, progressively including in Saudi Arabia.

This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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