Saudi Writer Recasts Kingdom's History

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 4, 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- When university professor Khalid al-Dakhil was growing up, clergymen had a say in everything.

Following the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher who founded the Wahhabi ideology that has inspired Islamic extremism, mosque imams took attendance at dawn prayers; people did not smoke in public or listen to music because it was viewed as sinful; and stick-wielding clerics forced men to pray.

The pervasive religiosity permeating his childhood here, where Wahhabism is the state ideology, sparked a burning question in young Dakhil's mind: How had these Wahhabi clerics come to wield so much power and authority?

After decades of research and a doctoral thesis on the history of the Wahhabi movement, Dakhil came up with an answer. The clerics had inherited their power from Wahhab. The fiery, puritanical preacher had been instrumental in catapulting the House of Saud ahead of others vying for power at the time and became an influential and trusted partner in the first Saudi state. That alliance between the ruling family and the clergy continued down the generations, with the Wahhabis eliminating all other doctrines, taking charge of education and enforcing their strict brand of Islam in mosques and schools.

The religious connection also gave the Saud family legitimacy to oversee Islam's holiest places.

Dakhil's findings offer a new reading of the Wahhabi movement that contradicts the official narrative and could lead to a reduction of the clergy's power. Wahhab was inspired by politics as much as religion, Dakhil said, and he used religious discourse to further his political aim of creating a state in central Arabia, then composed of dozens of city-statelets under the Ottoman sphere of influence.

A more accurate historical reading, which would decrease the role of religion and highlight the political context, should reduce the clout of the clergy and give ordinary Saudis more of a say in how the country is run, Dakhil said.

"Rewriting the history would be a trigger to widening the political system's basis of legitimacy to include not only the religious institute and the ruling class," said Dakhil, 54, an assistant professor of political sociology. "The political formula should involve the people as well."

Dakhil's work, laid out in a series of articles published in November and December, was the first attempt by a Saudi-based scholar to revise the prevailing religious account of the birth of Saudi Arabia.

By mainstream Muslim standards of his time, Wahhab used an extremist interpretation of Islam -- and particularly jihad, or holy war -- to rally people around the first Saudi state. He castigated those who did not believe in his interpretation, declaring local emirs and the Ottoman Empire infidels. The concepts were later used by the Saud family to conquer new territory. But that Wahhabi doctrine came back to haunt the royal family when it inspired armed militant groups, such as al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, to label them infidels and wage war against them.

Though Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a freer press since the reign of King Abdullah began in 2005, two topics remain off-limits: the religious legitimacy of the state and succession within the royal family. Dakhil has brought up both.

British historian Robert Lacey, author of "The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud," said the religious purpose of the Saudi state has always been a principle beyond question. "It's the founding article of faith for . . . the state. To suggest otherwise is to question the roots of Saudi legitimacy. It's akin to saying that the Pilgrim Fathers were atheists," said Lacey, who is in the kingdom working on a sequel.

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