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Council of Senior Ulama

The ulama, or Islamic religious leaders, served a unique role by providing religious legitimacy for Saudi rule. Except for Iran, where the ulama participated directly in government, Saudi Arabia was the only Muslim country in which the ulama constituted such an influential political force. The kingdom's ulama included religious scholars, qadis (judges), lawyers, seminary teachers, and the prayer leaders (imams) of the mosques. As a group, the ulama and their families included an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 persons. The descendants of Abdul-Wahhab and others of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia form a body whose opinions cannot be ignored by the Saudi royal family.

Only the thirty to forty most senior scholars among them exercised substantive political influence. These prominent clergy constituted the members of the Council of Senior Ulama, an official body created by Faisal in 1971 to serve as a forum for regular consultation between the monarch and the religious establishment. Fahd continued the precedent set by Faisal and Khalid of meeting weekly with Council of Senior Ulama members who resided in Riyadh.

The Council of Senior Ulama had a symbiotic relationship with the Saudi government. In return for official recognition of their special religious authority, the leading ulama provided tacit approval and, when requested, public sanction for potentially controversial policies. Because Saudi kings esteemed their Islamic credentials as custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, they considered ulama support critical.

For example, in 1979 members of the Council of Senior Ulama signed the religious edict (fatwa) that sanctioned the use of force to subdue armed dissidents who had occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest shrine. In 1990 the decision to invite thousands of United States military personnel to set up bases in the northeastern part of the country alarmed some devout Muslims who believed that the presence of so many non-Muslims on Saudi soil violated the sanctity of the holy land. Fahd defused such concerns by obtaining ulama approval for the United States military presence. The Council also declares the new king, which would be based on a fatwa (judgement) from this council that the succession is legitimate.

Historically, the royal family maintained close ties with the ulama, especially with members of the Al ash Shaykh [Al-Asheikh]. The Al ash Shaykh included the several hundred direct male descendants of the eighteenth-century religious reformer Abd al Wahhab. The Al Saud dynastic founder, Muhammad ibn Saud, had married a daughter of Abd al Wahhab, and subsequent intermarriage between the two families reinforced their political alliance. The mother of King Faisal, for example, was the daughter of an Al ash Shaykh qadi who was a direct descendant of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. The preeminence of the Al ash Shaykh thus derived not only from its reputation for religious erudition but also from its position as part of the country's ruling elite.

By the early 1990s most of the Al ash Shaykh men were not members of the clergy but held key positions in government, education, the security services, the armed forces, and private business. Nevertheless, the Al ash Shaykh ulama dominated the kingdom's influential clerical institutions such as the Council of Senior Ulama, the Higher Council of Qadis, and the Administration of Scientific Study, Legal Opinions, Islamic Propagation, and Guidance. In addition, the most senior religious office, the grand mufti (chief judge), was traditionally filled by a member of Al ash Shaykh. As of 2003 Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Asheikh was the top cleric in the kingdom, the Grand Mufti. He also chaired the Council of Senior Ulema (religious scholars). Two other members of the Al-Asheikh were in the Saudi council of ministers (cabinet). Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Asheikh is Minister of Islamic affairs and Dr Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al-Asheikh was Minister of Justice. They were recognisable as strict Wahhabis because their heads were covered but without a black band, the iggal, holding it in place.

Not all of the kingdom's ulama belonged to the Al ash Shaykh. Ulama from less prominent families tended to criticize, usually privately, the senior clergy, especially after 1975. The increase in numbers of students in seminaries led to a larger number of clergy willing to challenge the senior ulama's role and to criticize their support of government policies. In December 1992, a group of ulama associated with the conservative Salafi religious trend signed a public letter criticizing King Fahd personally for failing to understand that the clergy had a religious duty to advise all believers--including the royal family--of their obligation to abide by God's principles. This unprecedented action caused a major stir in Saudi Arabia. The king rebuked the ulama establishment and dismissed several senior clergy from their official positions.

The decade of the 1980s was characterized by the rise of ultraconservative, politically activist Islamic movements in much of the Arab world. These Islamist movements, labeled fundamentalist in the West, sought the government institutionalization of Islamic laws and social principles. Although Saudi Arabia already claimed to be an Islamic government whose constitution is the Quran, the kingdom has not been immune to this conservative trend.

In Saudi Arabia, the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, had been years of explosive development, liberal experimentation, and openness to the West. A reversal of this trend came about abruptly in 1979, the year in which the Grand Mosque in Mecca came under attack by religiously motivated critics of the monarchy, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established. Each of these events signaled that religious conservatism would have to be politically addressed with greater vigor. Although the mosque siege was carried out by a small band of zealots and their actions of shooting in the mosque appalled most Muslims, their call for less ostentation on the part of the Saudi rulers and for a halt to the cultural inundation of the kingdom by the West struck a deep chord of sympathy across the kingdom. At the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini's call to overthrow the Al Saud was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the monarchy as custodian of the holy places, and a challenge to the stability of the kingdom with its large Shia minority.

In the years following these events, the rise of the ultraconservative periphery has caused the vast center of society to shift in a conservative direction, producing greater polarity between those who are Western-oriented and the rest of society. The 1991 Persian Gulf War marked another dramatic shift toward conservative sentiment, and this conservative trend continued to gain momentum in the early 1990s.

The conservative revival has been manifest in literature, in individual behavior, in government policies, in official and unofficial relations with foreigners, in mosque sermons, and in protest demonstrations against the government. The revival was also apparent in increased religious programming on television and radio, and an increase in articles about religion in newspapers.

On an individual level, some Saudi citizens, especially educated young women, were expressing the revivalist mood by supplementing the traditional Saudi Islamic hijab (literally curtain or veil), a black cloak, black face veil, and hair covering, with long black gloves to hide the hands. In some cases, women who formerly had not covered their faces began to use the nontransparent covering once worn mainly by women of traditional families. Some, especially younger, university- educated women, wore the hijab when traveling in Europe or the United States to demonstrate the sincerity of their belief in following the precepts of Islam.

In the Hijaz, another expression of the Islamic revival was participation in the ritual celebration of popular Islamic holidays. Some elite Hijazi families, for example, have revived the mawlid, a gathering for communal prayer on the occasion of the Prophet's birthday, or to celebrate a birth, mourn a death, bless a new house, or seek God's favor in fulfillment of some wish, such as cure of an illness or the birth of a child. Mawlid rituals, especially when performed by women, were suppressed by Abd al Aziz when he conquered the Hijaz because they incorporated intercession and the Wahhabis considered them the equivalent of polytheism.

Reacting to the revivalist mood, the government has backed the mutawwiin in responding to calls for controls over behavior perceived as non-Islamic. In November 1990, a group of forty-seven women staged a demonstration to press their claim for the right to drive. The mutawwiin demanded that the women be punished. The government confiscated the women's passports, and those employed as teachers were fired. The previously unofficial ban on women's driving quickly became official. As a further indication of the growing conservatism, considerable criticism of the women's behavior in asking for the right to drive came from within the women's branch of the university in Riyadh.

Religiously sanctioned behavior, once thought to be the responsibility of families, was being increasingly institutionalized and enforced. Women, for example, were usually prevented from traveling abroad unless accompanied by a male chaperon (mahram), a marked shift from the policy of the late 1970s, when a letter granting permission to travel was considered sufficient. This rule has compounded the difficulties for women wishing to study abroad: a 1982 edict remained in force that restricted scholarships for women to those whose father, husband, or brother was able to remain with them during the period of study.

State funding has increased for the nationwide organization of mutawwiin that is incorporated into the civil service bureaucracy. Once responsible primarily for enforcing the attendance of men in the mosque at prayer time, the tasks of the mutawwiin since the 1980s have come to include enforcing public abstinence from eating, drinking, and smoking among both Muslims and non-Muslims in the daylight hours during Ramadan. The mutawwiin (also seen as Committees for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice or Committees for Public Morality) are also responsible for seeing that shops are closed at prayer time and that modest dress is maintained in public. Foreign women were under increased pressure to wear clothing that covered the arms and legs, and men and women who were unrelated might be apprehended for traveling together in a car. In the early 1980s, an offending couple might have received an official reprimand, but in the early 1990s they might experience more serious consequences. In 1991, for example, a Saudi citizen who gave a foreign female coworker a ride home was sentenced to a public flogging and his coworker subsequently was deported.

The rise in conservatism also can be seen in measures taken to obstruct non-Muslim religious services. Non-Muslim services have long been discouraged, but never prohibited, in Arabia. Even at the height of the Wahhabi revival in the 1920s, Christian missionary doctors held prayer services in the palace of Abd al Aziz. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Christian religious services were held regularly in private houses and in housing compounds belonging to foreign companies, and these services were usually ignored by mutawwiin as long as they did not attract public attention or encourage proselytism. With the end of the Persian Gulf War, however, mutawwiin began to enforce a ban on non-Muslim worship and punished offenders. In 1991, for example, a large number of mutawwiin accompanied by uniformed police broke up a Christian service in Riyadh and arrested a number of participants, including children.

The most significant indicator of the growing shift toward conservatism was the willingness of the state to silence opposition groups. For example, in May 1991, more than 400 men from the religious establishment and universities, including Saudi Arabia's most prominent legal scholar, Shaykh Abd al Aziz ibn Baz, petitioned the king to create a consultative council, a request to which the king responded favorably in February 1992. In their petition, however, the signatories asked not only for more participation in decision making, but also for a revision of all laws, including commercial and administrative regulations, to conform with the sharia. They asked for the creation of Islamic banks and an end to interest payments in established banks, as well as the redistribution of wealth, protection for the rights of the individual, censure of the media so that it would serve Islam and morality, and the creation of a strong army so that the kingdom would not be dependent on the West. The requests represented a combination of apparently liberal petitions (a consultative council, redistribution of wealth) with a conservative religious bent.

In a follow-up to the petition, a number of the signatories wrote a letter stating that funds for religious institutions were being cut back, that the institutions were not being given the resources to create jobs, and that their fatwas were being ignored. The letter further claimed that those who signed the original petition had had their passports confiscated and were being harassed by security personnel even though "they had committed no other crime than giving advice to the Guardian." This affair suggested that the government was sufficiently concerned about the increasingly conservative mood to shift its strategy from merely co-opting the conservative agenda to suppressing its extreme voices.

In another incident, a movement called Islamic Awakening, which had a growing following in religious colleges and universities, attempted to hold a public demonstration in early 1991, but participants were threatened with arrest if they did so. At the same time, the government arrested a well-known activist in the Islamic Awakening while he was preaching a sermon in a Riyadh mosque.

Factors contributing to the increased attraction of Islamic conservatism included the problem of impending loss of identity caused by overwhelming Westernization. As secular education, population mobility, the breakup of extended family households, and the employment of women chipped away at cherished institutions of family and society, religion was a refuge and a source of stability.

Another factor was disaffection with the existing economic system in the face of rising unemployment. During the rapid expansion of the 1970s, employment in the public sector was virtually assured for Saudi citizens with technical skills and for those with a Western education. By the end of the decade, however, those positions, especially in education and in the ministries, came under pressure from increasing numbers of university graduates with rising expectations that no longer could be fulfilled in public sector employment. In addition, in the 1990s a growing number of young men educated in Islamic colleges and universities were unemployed; their acquired knowledge and skills were becoming more irrelevant to the demands of the economy and bureaucratic infrastructure, even within the judiciary where traditionally Islamic scholarship was most highly valued.

An additional factor lay in the monarchy's continuing need to maintain legitimacy as an "Islamic government." As long as the ruling family believes it must continue to prove itself a worthy inheritor of the legacy on which the kingdom was founded, it will be obliged to foster religious education and the Islamic political culture in which the kingdom's media are steeped. A lesser factor in the rise of conservatism may be widespread sympathy with the sense of being victimized by the West, as evidenced, for example, in the continuing displacement of Palestinians in the occupied territories and southern Lebanon.

Islam remained the primary cohesive ideology in the kingdom, the source of legitimacy for the monarchy, and the pervasive system for moral guidance and spirituality. The nature of the Islamic society Saudi Arabia wished to have in the future, however, was one of the important and passionately debated issues in the kingdom in the early 1990s. The ultraconservative moral agenda appealed on an emotional level to many Saudi citizens. But the desire to expand the jurisdiction of sharia law and to interfere with the banking system was also a source of concern for many people. Because nearly all Saudis have reaped material benefits from state-funded development, people were hesitant to jeopardize those benefits and the political stability that allowed development. Some have suggested that the new system of basic laws was a clear signal that the monarchy was firmly committed to liberalization and no longer felt compelled to tolerate conservative excesses. Close assessment of the implications of the basic laws suggested, however, that the monarchy was making no substantive changes and, in effect, was taking no chances to risk disturbing the balance among competing religious persuasions in the kingdom.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:40:25 ZULU