Is Saudi Arabia a Theocracy? Religion
and Governance in Contemporary
In a recent study, historical anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed deﬁnes the current
Saudi monarchy as ‘politically secular
and socially religious’.
The de facto
separation between religion and politics in an otherwise highly Islamicized public
sphere, she argues, has arisen as the oﬃcial Wahhabi ‘ulama’ (religious oﬃcials) have
taken on the role of guardians of the social order, all the while relinquishing any
political authority to the ruling family and state machinery. Hence, the use of the
connotation ‘theocratic unitarian state’ in regard to Saudi Arabia by earlier
generations of scholars is misleading, al-Rasheed stresses.
Her observations about
(what she calls) the ‘enigmatic duality’ challenge long-standing notions about Saudi
Arabia as a theocracy. Studies on the Saudi state often emphasize the fusion of
religion and politics.
Saudi constitutional law and its judicial system rest on
traditional Islamic legal principles; the Qur’an and Sunna form its constitution and
Islamic ﬁqh supports the laws of the state.
Aharon Layish would even argue that
Saudi theocracy is ‘so great that it is not permitted to use terms connoting statutory
legislation in a Western sense with all the attendant negative associations’.
How can we account for al-Rasheed’s statement about the ‘enigmatic duality’ in
Saudi Arabia, when the Wahhabi religious point of view seems to dominate the
country’s political system? In other words, to what extent do the current Saudi
monarchies accommodate theocracy?
To address these questions, I ﬁrst examine
contemporary Wahhabi theories of politics and governance, speciﬁcally the question
of authority. Two fundamental Islamic principles will be addressed in this respect:
(1) sovereignty (hakimiyya) and (2) authority-holders (waliy al-umur, sing. wlai al-
I then discuss the extent to which religion is practically involved in politics
and governance by examining the mechanisms of domination, the actual relation-
ships between religious scholars (‘ulama’) and rulers (umara’), and the means by
which authority is actually implemented.
The current Saudi regime, I would suggest,
is best described as theo-monarchy, that draws power from long-standing religio-
cultural norms. In this context, Wahhabi Islam seems to authorize a distinctive
government paradigm, one not yet recognized by the relevant Islamic literature.
Before expanding on these issues, let us begin, however, with an overview of the
Islamic disputes in the matter of governance.
babuv 21/8/09 11:55 FMES_A_358778 (XML)
Middle Eastern Studies,
Vol. 45, No. 5, 721–737, September 2009
ISSN 0026-3206 Print/1743-7881 Online/09/050721-17 ª2009 Taylor & Francis
Muslim scholars and jurists throughout history often stressed the link between
religion and government. The Shaﬁ‘i scholar al-Mawardi (d.1058), one of the most
famous political thinkers of the Middle Ages, stated, for example, that ‘God . . .
ordained for the community (al-umma) a leader through whom He protected the
community (al-milla); and He entrusted to him authority (al-siyasa), so that the
management of aﬀairs should proceed (on the basis of) right religion (din mashru‘).
In the same vein, Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) insists that Islamic government is necessary
and required to impose Islamic law, thereby ensuring justice within the community
by means of the practice of the doctrine of ‘commanding right and forbidding
wrong’ (al-amr bil-ma‘ruf wal-nahi ‘an al-munkar).
Ibn Taymiyya’s pupil Ibn
Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d.1350) went on to argue that politics is part of religion, since
Islamic government is needed to protect religious values.
However, the political theories propounded by the traditional scholars were greatly
limited in scope, and only some issues, such as the duties and qualiﬁcations of a ruler,
For example, Al-Mawardi identiﬁed the ruler’s duties as follows: to
maintain the religion, to execute judgments between claimants, to protect the House of
Islam, to implement shari‘a, to guard the frontiers, to undertake jihad, to appoint
advisors, to collect taxes, to pay salaries, to oversee community aﬀairs personally, to
lead the Friday prayers, to perform pilgrimage, and to celebrate the religious
Al-Ghazali adds additional duties: to be commander of the Muslim army
and to lead all formal religious observances.
Most importantly, however, the ruler
must be, inter alia, a mature Muslim male, a just person, possessing religious
knowledge and able to make independent judgments on points of law as instructed by
the shari‘a. In other words, siyasa or governance must accommodate shari‘a (Islamic
law), which is known in classical Islamic literature as siyasa shar‘iyya.
In modern, as in classical Arabic discourse, the term siyasa is deﬁned as ‘the
proper administration of the subjects by political oﬃce-holders’, whereby the
practitioner is called sa’is, derived from the root s-y-s.
Ibn Khaldun deﬁned siyasa
as the tadbir shu’un al-ra‘iyya, the administration of the aﬀairs of subjects, executed
by caring for their well-being and needs, their property and honour, and the dispatch
of justice between and amongst them.
The term shar‘iyya is derived from the root
sh-r-‘ and is an expression of the application of shar’i practice. Thus, the compound
siyasa shar‘iyya describes administrative practice (siyasa) within the limits assigned
to it by Islamic law (shari‘a).
Al-Mawardi discussed Islamic political philosophy and referred to his work as the
‘rules of governance’ (ahkam sultaniyya).
He focused on Islamic government and
the administration of the aﬀairs of state by means of the siyasa doctrine. He deﬁned
the traditional siyasa shar‘iyya doctrine as a masdar tashri‘i tab‘i. an ancillary
legislative source, based on legal principles, such as striving for improved public
welfare (istihsan); catering to the public interest (al-maslaha al-‘amma); prohibiting
the use of evasive legal devices (sadd al-dhari’a); following local customs (‘urf);
showing consideration for the practical outcomes (i‘tibar ma‘alat al-af‘al); following
the intentions of the shari‘a and striving to ﬁnd its correct interpretation (maqasid al-
shari‘a); and sensitivity to disagreements in shari‘a matters (mura‘at al-khilaf).
In practice, these principles served most legal schools (madhhabs) as the basis for
legitimizing the use of siyasa shar‘iyya. For instance, the Malikis relied on the
principle of istislah to deﬁne the authority vested in the ruler, allowing him to use his
722 M. Al-Atawneh
mental faculties in developing legal procedures in accordance with contemporary
public interests. This principle is expressed in the deliberations of Ibn Farhun (d.1397),
who deﬁned the activities of the ruler within the structure of the siyasa shar‘iyya
doctrine as being the ikhraj al-haqq min al-mazalim, the uncovering of grievances.
Farhun regarded revealing the truth to be the essence of siyasa shar‘iyya and
emphasized the activities of the ruler towards the deterrence and prevention of
iniquity. For the Malikis, the ruler’s decrees concerning matters of criminal justice of a
shari‘a nature were recognized within the three categories of punishment (hudud,qasas,
and ta‘zir), as opposed to the view of the Hanaﬁ school, which limited the ruler’s
activities to discretionary punishment (ta‘zir).
Al-Shatibi (d.1370), also a member of
the Maliki school, supported conferring broad powers on the ruler within the structure
of this doctrine, his main contention being that there was no imposition of obligation
(taklif) without independent reasoning (ijtihad).
Al-Shatibi was of the opinion that
the various innovations and challenges of the time require constant adjustment of the
law. Thus, the creation of new shari‘a methodology results from necessity and is a
requirement when imposing taklif (personal obligation).
The Shaﬁ‘is deﬁned siyasa shar‘iyya by the application of the principle of maqasid
al-shari‘a, the intentions of the shari‘a. For instance, Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam (d.1262)
claimed that it is the obligation of the ruler or his appointee to seek out the intentions
(maqasid) of the shari‘a in order to reach the greatest common good.
Ibn ‘Abd al-
Salam’s claim gained support among other Shaﬁ‘i scholars, whose position was
backed by the practice of ijtihad, albeit they used maslaha instead of siyasa shar‘iyya.
The siyasa shar‘iyya doctrine is also recognized by the Hanbali school, where it
merges with the mechanisms of maslaha. Ibn ‘Aqil (d.1119), for instance, supported
the broad discretionary authority of the ruler within the siyasa shar‘iyya doctrine.
Ibn ‘Aqil deﬁned it thus: ‘Ma kana ﬁ‘lan yakunu ma‘ahu al-nas aqrab ila al-maslaha
wa-ab‘ad ‘an al-fasad, wa-in lam yada‘ahu al-rasul wa-la nazila bihi wahi’ (‘Whatever
draws people closer to justice and farther from corruption, even though it does not
emanate from the Prophet or an angel’).
Indeed, Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) was suspicious of the doctrine of maslaha, due to
its proximity to those mechanisms based on reasoning. In due course, however, Ibn
Taymiyya supported maslaha’s wide use, albeit in a limited fashion. He permitted its
application to all ﬁelds, even in matters of worship (‘ibadat), provided that no
contradiction arises between the textual sources and the accepted legal legacy of the
leading jurists. In his view, the role of the imam (ruler) is to enforce the shari‘a and to
require the moral behaviour of his subjects, who, in turn, should respond with
Ibn Taymiyya’s pupil, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d.1350) followed in his master’s
footsteps, permitting the even wider use of the siyasa shar‘iyya doctrine by means of
the same mechanism, the principle of maslaha. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya deﬁned
siyasa shar‘iyya as milestones (‘alamat wa-amarat) in the process in which Divine will
and that of the Prophet are revealed.
It is worth noting that Ibn al-Qayyim’s
approach resembles that of Ibn Farhun in his Tabsirat al-hukkam.
Modern-day Islamic discourse on governance attempts to elaborate on traditional
principles regarding the relation between religion and politics. This is clearly
indicated in the increasing debate over the question of ‘ﬁqh siyasi’, the philosophy of
governance in Islam.
Researchers identify very diﬀerent contributory factors in the
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 723
quest for an Islamic model of governance. Bryan Turner argues, for example, that
Islamism is a product of ‘the failure of authoritarian nationalist governments and the
socio-economic divisions that have been exacerbated by neo-liberal globalization’.
Other factors mentioned are: reactions to economic crises, social dislocations, and
reactions to authoritarianism.
I would add that, for some Islamic political forces in
the Arab/Islamic world, the provision of political programmes was vital as a pre-
condition to becoming integrated into domestic politics and power. A good example
of this may be the programme published by the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers
in September 2007.
Islamic parties in the Arab world often found themselves
heavily criticized, inter alia, for having no clear political, social and economic goals;
hence, they failed to gain public support in elections.
However, the modern disputes over the question of Islam and governance are the
most signiﬁcant. We ﬁnd a variety of answers when we study the Muslim scholars’
attitudes toward Western democracy and whether and to what extent it
accommodates Islamic law. Raghid El-Solh divided these attitudes toward
democracy into three major groups:
(1) those that reject democracy as a foreign concept that has been imposed by
Westernizers and secular reformers upon Muslim societies. According to El-Solh,
people holding such views are less likely to be the ones participating in elections
and they mostly limit themselves to participating in intellectual debates in the
media, remaining aloof from the political dynamics of their societies;
(2) those who believe that true Islam and democracy are compatible. This group
argues that Islam is inherently democratic and all of the principles and practices
of democracy are integral to it. Hence, the democratization and the Islamization
of Muslim societies are more or less the same process. Among the Islamists who
belong to this group is Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the Islamic National
Front in the Sudan;
(3) those who emphasize democracy in its representative forms. These seem to be
less sceptical than the members of the ﬁrst two groups regarding the possibility
of implementing democracy in Islamic society. El-Solh names two prominent
Egyptian proponents of this idea: Muhammad ‘Amara, a well-known writer in
Islamic aﬀairs, and Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, a leading thinker in the
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
To sum up, traditional and modern Muslim scholars believe in the inseparability
of religion and state. Government is considered to be vital, due to its lofty duty to
protect the religion and Islamic values. Yet both religion and state fall short in
providing systematic mechanisms: for delineating the ruler’s authority, for deﬁning
the relationship between the ruler and those being governed, and for providing a
practical model of how an Islamic state should be. The following portion of this
article will explore how Wahhabis stand in this respect, having practised religion and
politics for more than two centuries.
A central feature of Wahhabi political thought is the total fusion of religion and
politics. For the Wahhabis of all generations, Islam is not only a religion, it is a
724 M. Al-Atawneh
comprehensive system for governing everything public, social and political, and
Islamic law is a complete moral code that prescribes for every eventuality, including
This is clearly indicated in the Wahhabi conceptualization of the
question of authority and authoritativeness within an Islamic governmental system.
Here, I focus on two fundamental principles of governance that oﬀer insights into
current Wahhabi perceptions of the duality of religion and politics: (1) sovereignty
(hakimiyya) and (2) authority-holders (wulat al-umur).
It has been argued that Mawdudi and Qutb were the ﬁrst to use the concept of
God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya ilahiyya), but this is clearly not the case. As early as
the reign of ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph (656–661),
responded to a group in his camp, called Khawarij, who opposed ‘Ali’s dissolution
of a political dispute with a competing political faction (led by Mu‘awiya, the
founder of the Umayyad Dynasty, 661–750) by arbitration. According to the
Khawarij, this act of arbitration represented the acceptance of the human dominion,
rather than God’s alone. These Khawarij followed the Islamic slogan: ‘la hukm illa li-
Allah’ (the judgment is God’s alone) – meaning that all political decisions must be
based solely on the words of God.
‘Ali responded by calling upon the people to
gather around him, and brought a copy of the Qur’an, instructing it to speak to the
people and inform them regarding God’s law. The people were shocked and
exclaimed: ‘What are you doing? The Qur’an cannot speak, for it is not a human
being!’ ‘Ali then explained that this was exactly his point – that the Qur’an is merely
paper and ink and does not speak for itself. Instead, it is human beings who enact it,
according to their limited judgements and opinions.
This anecdote may best represent the beginnings of the initial Islamic
controversies over the perceptions of sovereignty. Traditionalists often stress
ultimate sovereignty as a feature of God. For example, Al-Ghazali stated the
ultimate sovereignty of God, stressing that God’s sovereignty is even more important
than God’s unity.
Ibn Taymiyya argued that the will of God was passed to
Muhammad by means of a revelation and so Muhammad’s legacy must be treated as
a divine law with God as the sole Sovereign.
Ibn al-Muqaﬀa‘ (d.759) insisted that a
government that does not implement the requirements revealed in the Qur’an and
the Sunna does not merit obedience.
Modern-day Islamists assert various perceptions of sovereignty ranging from the
traditional ultimate sovereignty of God to a new modern view ﬁnding no conﬂict
between divine and human sovereignty. Al-Mawdudi stated that God is the sole
sovereign over all creatures,
and he was subsequently supported by Qutb, who
insists on ‘no sovereignty except God’s, no law except from God, and no authority of
one man over another, as the authority, in all respects, belongs to God’.
Turabi, a leading Sudanese activist and thinker, on the other hand, diﬀerentiates
between God’s hakimiyya and mankind’s vice-regency (istikhlaf). According to al-
Turabi, the proper political and social structures can be established on the basis of
mutual contracts; since the Qur’an speaks to the individual consciousness,
individuality should be maintained against any power of the state.
The Wahhabis follow the traditional view, in which sovereignty ultimately rests with
God, the source of all authority, the supreme law-maker, who has deﬁned good and
evil, the legal and the illicit (al-halal wal-haram). Members of the Muslim community
(umma) are God’s subjects; the community’s laws are divine; all its property belongs to
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 725
God; its army is His and its enemy’s are also His.
Moreover, this omnipotent
sovereign assumes that divine legislature will regulate all human interactions. Ibn Baz
argues, for example, that the term worship (‘ibada) includes all human actions, both
explicit and implicit. Accordingly, one must completely submit to God’s will as it
manifests itself particularly in the Qur’an and the Sunna. For this reason, the Qur’an is
much more than just the highest source of the Islamic corpus juris; it is a constant
source of inspiration. It constitutes an eternal constitution, appropriate for any time
and place, and, as such, it contains all the basic principles of Islamic law and provides
the platform for developing political, legal and moral norms.
Hence, it is incumbent upon Muslims to obey the Qur’an and the Sunna’s
instructions exclusively. To substantiate his arguments, Ibn Baz draws on nine
Qur’anic verses, all of which command obedience to God and His Prophet’s
instructions. One of these verses is: ‘But no, by thy lord they can have no (real) faith,
until they make Thee judge in all disputes between them, and ﬁnd in their souls no
resistance against Thy decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction (4: 65)’.
Another Qur’anic verse is: ‘O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger,
and those charged with authority among you. If ye diﬀer in anything among
yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last
Day: that is best, and most suitable for ﬁnal determination (4: 59)’.
All nine verses can be assimilated into the doctrine of allegiance and enmity in
Islam (al-wala’ wal-bara’), that is to say, Muslims must pledge allegiance only to God
and His Prophet.
According to this logic, strictly secular political ideologies, such
as communism and nationalism, must be rejected. Thus, Ibn Baz went on to declare
that: ‘He who thinks that human rules [are] better than those of God, or even
resemble them [God’s rules], thereby endorsing replacing them by positive rules or
human orders, is an unbeliever’.
However, God does not seek to regulate all human aﬀairs. In the Qur’anic
worldview, human beings are taken to be vice-regents of God, with abilities
approaching the divine (the miracle of the human intellect), and thus are given
considerable latitude in regulating their own aﬀairs, as long as they observe certain
standards of moral conduct, including the preservation and promotion of human
dignity and well-being.
Indeed, Ibn Baz is morally committed to protect and
preserve the integrity and dignity of mankind as a divine symbol. To this eﬀect, he
quotes from the Quran: ‘Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: I will create a vice-
regent on Earth.’ They said: ‘Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief
therein and shed blood? Whilst we do celebrate Thy praise and glorify Thy holy
(name)?’ He said: ‘I know what ye know not’, Qur’an (2:30). Thus, for Ibn Baz,
God’s sovereignty has, from the beginning of Creation, taken the form of human
agency. The Wahhabis associate this agency with authority-holders (wulat al-umur),
who should be obeyed, as long as they perform according to the shari‘a.
The question here is–who are the ideal authority-holders and what form should
their domination take? It must be noted that in Saudi Arabia authoritarian power
can be unwittingly drawn not only from religion/the sacred, but also from tribal or
clan social structures and from long-standing cultural norms.
Weber’s notions of ‘traditional authority’ and the dominance/subordination
relationship. Religiously speaking, classical Wahhabi political theory is based on
the premise that the purpose of government in Islam is to preserve the shari‘a and to
726 M. Al-Atawneh
enforce its dictates. To maintain and enforce the shari‘a, a temporal ruler is needed
and obedience to him is a religious obligation. However, this ruler must consult the
‘ulama’, who are designated as those most authorized to clarify the instructions of
Shaykh Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792), the eponymous
founder of Wahhabism, divided the ruling hegemony of the state between the ‘ulama’
(religious oﬃcials; ‘divines’), who were the authorities in matters of jurisprudence,
and the umara’ (political rulers), who ruled and presumably consulted the ‘ulama’.
Accordingly, the shari‘a needs the ruler’s commitment and enforcement, while the
state needs the shari‘a for its legitimacy.
However, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab neither
provided a precise model of cooperation between the ‘ulama’ and the rulers, nor
delineated the structure and functions of the Wahhabi state.
To a large extent, modern Wahhabis remain faithful to the classical authority
formula of ‘ulama’/umara’. Ibn Baz often stressed that: ‘the authority-holders are the
‘ulama’ and the umara’ of the Muslims, who must be obeyed on condition that their
decrees match the will of God and do not contradict it’.
According to Ibn Baz,
while the function of the ‘ulama’ is to interpret God’s will through analysis and
exegesis of His word, the function of the umara’ is to realize these interpretations.
However, little has been written by contemporary Wahhabis about the scope of the
King’s authority. The only treatises I found in this regard addressed the penalty on
brigandage (hiraba or muharaba), deﬁned as a hadd (criminal act).
In 1975, while
reforming the shari‘a courts and criminal law procedure, the Permanent Committee
for Scientiﬁc Research and Legal Opinion (CRLO) (Al-lajna al-da’ima lil-buhuth al-
issued a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) determining that the
court’s authority consists of identifying the type of crime and proposing an
appropriate punishment in accordance with the crime’s severity.
The ﬁnal decision
regarding the punishment is within the King’s purview, so that he may accept or
reject the courts’ recommendation, as he sees ﬁt. It was furthermore established that
the King should approve penalties for severe crimes, such as execution and
dismemberment, and, in general, any physical punishment; the King is entitled, as
the sole arbiter, either to approve the punishment, as determined by a court of law,
or to instruct the relevant authority to revise or reconsider it.
Although Wahhabis did not deﬁne the authority-holders’ scope of authority, they
expected the kingdom’s subjects to obey them, as long as they did not contradict the
shari‘a. A pertinent example is the debate that Ibn Baz conducted in the Faysal Ibn
Turki Mosque in Riyadh. There, he clariﬁed his views about authority-holders and
why they should be obeyed. His response to one of the questions asked at the debate:
‘To whom does obedience to authority-holders (wulat al-umur) belong, ‘ulama’or
umara?’ was the following:
God, exalted may He be: ‘O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the
Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye diﬀer in
anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe
in Allah and the Last Day: that is best and most suitable for ﬁnal determination
(4: 59). The authority-holders are the ‘ulama’ and the umara’ of the
Muslims . . . they must be obeyed in doing good, for only in this way will peace
and safety reign and will the usurped be saved from the usurper, while
disobedience will cause anarchy so that the strong will usurp the weak.
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 727
In prefacing his opinion on an interpretation of a Qur’anic injunction, he enjoins the
believers to obey the kingdom’s authorities. In this regard, he links submission to
Allah and his Prophet with obedience to the temporal ruler. Here, submission paves
the way to happiness in both this world and the next. Therefore, Ibn Baz based his
arguments mainly on maslaha and siyasa shar‘iyya, the two principles that appear as
basic concepts in Wahhabi legal and political thought, by means of which the ruler’s
actions are legitimized. Basing himself on these principles, Ibn Baz requires
obligatory obedience of all royal decrees and rulings, even those that are not covered
in the shari‘a, such as traﬃc regulations, road accidents, employer/employee
relations and social norms, since all these address the well-being of the public.
Nevertheless, the believer is equally obliged to disobey a ruler or person of
authority should his orders violate the shari‘a: ‘If . . . the decree issued counters the
will of God, neither the ‘ulama’ nor the rulers should be obeyed. An example would
be a decree to drink wine or to deal with usury.’
Such decrees are to be considered
as blatant blasphemy (kufr bawwah), one of the most severe transgressions in Islam.
Such a transgressor must be excluded from the Islamic community.
All the same,
open rebellion is forbidden: ‘No opposition must be raised against the rulers, even
when not fulﬁlling the shari‘a, but rather they must be advised through ways of
Opposing a ruler who fails to act in accordance with the shari‘a must
be done through non-confrontational reasoning, namely drawing the ruler’s
attention (tanbih) to the transgression and showing him how his actions are
inconsistent with the shari‘a. One means is to provide secret advice (nasiha) in writing
to the ruler (mukatabah). Under no conditions should this advice be made public.
Clearly, Wahhabis in all generations attributed authority to both the ‘ulama’ and the
political rulers. While the former were obliged to clarify the shari‘a, the latter were
expected to implement those instructions. The following pages are dedicated to an
examination of the means by which this religious authority was rendered into practice.
Since the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘ulama’/umara’ power relations
have considerably changed as the ‘ulama’ were incorporated into state apparatuses.
The incorporation of the ‘ulama’ into the state administration began with the
establishment of the ﬁrst oﬃcial institution – the Ifta’, called the dar al-ifta’ wal-
ishraf ‘ala al-shu’un al-diniyya (the Institution for the Issuance of Religio-Legal
Opinion and the Supervision of Religious Aﬀairs), under the chairmanship of the
Grand Mufti. The Ifta’ was reorganized in 1971 into two major, interrelated religious
agencies, the Board of Senior Ulama (BSU) and the CRLO.
These changes in
‘ulama’/umara’ relations stemmed from the increasing diﬀerentiation between the
religious and the political spheres, on the one hand, and the increasing domination of
state institutions in areas once exclusively the province of the ‘ulama’.
There is no consensus on the new political setup between the divines and the
rulers. Today, two main views have emerged: one maintains that the ‘ulama’ have
ceased to constitute an autonomous body, but continue to have some sway over
royal policies and decisions; the other maintains that the ‘ulama’ have lost their
power in both the religious and the political spheres. Political scientist Ayman al-
Yassini claims, for example, that ‘the ‘ulama’ lost many of their traditional functions
and became a pressure group limited to exerting inﬂuence over the government’s
728 M. Al-Atawneh
activities and policies, but never acted as an autonomous center of power’.
Likewise, Aharon Layish argues that modern Saudi ‘ulama’ ‘have ceased to be one of
the two foci of power alongside the umara’, though they still belong to the political
elite and play an important role, especially in times of crises’.
Their decline resulted
from the bureaucratization of government activities in tandem with a more aﬄuent
society, open to alternative forms of knowledge, especially exposed to new media.
Al-Rawaf stressed that:
The activities of the ‘ulama’ are socially and not politically orientated. The
‘ulama’ have exercised very little or no inﬂuence over major policies concerning
foreign aﬀairs, internal security, economic development, oil production and
pricing, wealth distribution and regional allocation, or political participation.
What emerges from recent studies of Saudi Arabia is the ‘ulama’s non-involvement
in national politics. The author believes that analyzing the ‘ulama’/umara’ power
structure in terms of predomination is somewhat problematic for at least three
reasons: ﬁrst, there is little doubt that distinguishing position from inﬂuence is nearly
impossible, as Aharon Layish and Ayman al-Yassini argued. Secondly, the
distribution of power between ‘ulama’/umara’ was never clear enough throughout
the more than two centuries of mutual relations. As mentioned above, neither the
modern nor the classical Wahhabi scholars ever delineated the limits of practical
authority of either party; it is quite diﬃcult to distinguish the internal dynamics of
the power distribution between them. Thirdly, attributing the decline of the ‘ulama’
to their incorporation into state administration requires further consideration. It is
possible to assume that, via this incorporation, the ‘ulama’ increased their inﬂuence
over oﬃcial policies and governmental circles. In other words, by holding oﬃcial
positions, the ‘ulama’ became players from within the power structure. Had they
remained external to the government, their inﬂuence would have diminished.
In any event, the ‘ulama’ maintained their cooperation with the ruler and
continued to exercise inﬂuence in several areas, including nearly all legal and
religious aﬀairs. They even managed to increase their power over time by expanding
their control over other ministries and religious agencies, such as the Ministry of
Justice, the Ministry of Islamic Aﬀairs and Endowments, Call and Guidance, the
Ministry of Pilgrimage, the Committee of Commanding Good and Forbidding
Wrong, Preaching and Guidance of Islam at Home and Abroad, the supervision of
girls’ education, notaries public, the supervision of mosques and awqaf (charitable
trusts), and ﬁnally the World Muslim League and the World Assembly of Muslim
Thus, in Saudi Arabia, the ‘ulama’ continue to play a signiﬁcant role, at
least in inﬂuencing social and internal policies, and in shaping the Saudi socio-
cultural facade. Moreover, in Saudi Arabia the religio-legal opinion (fatwa, pl.
fatawa) is still used, not only as a legitimizing basis for government policy, but also
as an instrument in its implementation, as witnessed in at least two diﬀerent areas:
legislation and the endorsement of political decisions.
In Saudi Arabia, both political and religious institutions are main authorities in
the Saudi legal system. Technically, this system is divided into two components: one
based on the shari‘a and one on political authority (siyasa). The ﬁrst, grounded in the
application of the shari‘a, is articulated primarily by fatawa, whereas the second
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 729
consists of royal decrees. Indeed, these two components complement each other, the
latter deriving its legitimacy from the former. Royal decrees are issued directly by the
King or his representatives, such as ministers and the Saudi umara’, who favour
legislation or various political decisions, at times not in keeping with the tenets of the
shari‘a. In such cases, the fatwa serves as the most important instrument in rendering
religious legitimacy to these policies, that must accommodate shari‘a law.
It must be noted that in Saudi Arabia, siyasa shar‘iyya is arguably the most
important tool at the disposal of the monarch for conducting state matters under the
aegis of the shari‘a. Frank Vogel suggests that the religious deﬁnition of siyasa
shar‘iyya in Saudi Arabia oﬀers the widest possible basis for royal legislation.
Moreover, the Saudi constitution (al-nizam al-asasi) of 1992 speciﬁcally states that
royal authority is based on siyasa shar‘iyya. For example, Article 55 states: ‘The
King shall undertake the governing [siyasa] of the nation based on siyasa shar‘iyya,
in accordance with tibqan [the rules] ahkam [of Islam].’
Similarly, Article 67 states:
‘The regulatory authority shall have jurisdiction to enact nizams [regulations] and
lawa’ih [bylaws] in order to attain welfare and avoid harm in the aﬀairs of the state,
in accordance with the general qawa‘id [rules] of the Islamic shari‘a.’
Instances of involvement of the religious institutions in the legislative procedure
can be found, especially regarding controversial issues such as criminal law
procedures, ethical and moral issues, family law and ritual prescriptions. Substantive
legislation was formulated with full interaction and cooperation between the
religious and the political establishments. From a procedural perspective, this
legislation is manifested in two diﬀering, yet complementary, ways: lending legal
validity to an existing fatwa or new legislation based on an existing fatwa.
The ﬁrst (lending legal validity to an existing fatwa) manifests itself in the
transformation of the fatwa itself into a state law by royal decree. We must point out
that according to the shari‘a, the fatwa is a non-binding regulation; its purpose is to
be informative and non-obligatory, in contrast to the qadis (judge’s) decision, which
is binding on the parties involved.
However, a royal decree can render a fatwa into
binding law. It may be possible to distinguish a number of fatwas, particularly in the
realm of morals and ethics, which later became laws by royal decree. For example,
the fatwa that forbade locals to serve food to foreigners during the Ramadan fast,
and that prohibited the latter to eat in public during the fast, was issued by the
CRLO and became law through a royal decree.
Another example was the fatwa that prohibits women from driving. This fatwa
was issued by the CRLO in 1990 and was made into law by the Saudi Ministry of the
Interior. It is based on quotations from the Qur’an and Islamic tradition,and its
justiﬁcation was that it prevented women from encountering dangerous situations
that may result from being alone (khalwa) (while driving).
Another fatwa issued by
the BSU, upon request of the King, pertained to the limitation of dowries. In Islamic
law, at least in the Maliki School, a dowry constitutes one of the conditions of the
‘aqd nikah (marriage contract). However, the exact sums of money, not having been
deﬁned by Islamic law, are determined by the parties involved in the drawing up of
the marriage contract, in accordance with the ‘urf (local custom). The BSU
rationalized its fatwa, claiming that conditions should be conducive to the fulﬁlment
of requirements for marriage – one of the most important prescriptions in Islam (in
order to prevent negative phenomena, such as prostitution (zina)). Accordingly, the
730 M. Al-Atawneh
BSU prohibited the rejection of marriage proposals on behalf of daughters or sisters
for non-legitimate reasons. A long list of mitigating circumstances were established
for youngsters requesting permission to marry,
some, for example, in the form of
special, guaranteed government loans for young people, or a special fund set up by
Shaykh Ibn Baz and supported by governmental sources, with the intention of aiding
potential marriage partners.
The second method (legislation based on existing fatwas), is implemented to
provide a legal basis for governmental legislation. Extensive legislation exists based
on existing fatwas. For instance, the royal decree prohibiting women from engaging
in certain professions, deﬁning them as being ‘inappropriate for her nature’, or those
which deal with encounters between men and women, such as might occur in the
course of secretarial and various administrative work.
However, the implementa-
tion of this law was problematic, because it caused the cessation of existing positions
for many women working in managerial and clerical jobs. In spite of the existence of
afatwa from 1979 dealing with the subject,
an additional and more detailed fatwa
was issued on 10 September 1981, intended to clarify the shari‘a stance on this
matter. According to this fatwa, work is permitted for women outside their homes
when two basic conditions are fulﬁlled: ﬁrst, that no contact between a woman and
an unrelated male is allowed in the workplace; second, that the occupation be
‘appropriate to a woman’s nature’, deﬁned as being similar to a woman’s role and
job within the home. The ﬁrst condition is both central and crucial regarding the
principle of women working outside the home, yet strict when considering women’s
freedom of movement; it results from a rigid, conservative interpretation of the legal
term of khalwa, deﬁned as a meeting between a woman and a man or men, whether
in private or in public, without the presence of a mahram (a blood relation). Hence,
the jobs that women hold in public service, involving encounters with male strangers,
are prohibited by the shari‘a deﬁnition of the legal term khalwa.
In any event, many decrees have been issued based upon existing fatwas. For
example, Saudi women are prohibited from appearing dressed in a manner not
beﬁtting the shari‘a, as understood by the Wahhabis – so women must cover their
entire bodies, including their faces, leaving only their eyes uncovered.
regulation, too, is strict in comparison to other orthodox schools, which allow
women to expose their faces. Foreign women are required to appear in appropriate
attire and conform to the local customs and tradition.
This decree included
instructions to foreign embassies, explaining the essence of this new legislation. It
authorized the Commanding Right and Forbidden Wrong Committee to apply this
rule by inspecting the markets, especially in respect to maintaining compliant
behaviour, in the spirit of the shari‘a.
Based upon the fatwa prohibiting the meeting of men and women, limitations were
placed upon such meetings in many areas;
this included meetings in restaurants,
where proprietors are compelled to provide separate spaces for families dining out.
Furthermore, women are prohibited from working in hotels, and services provided
by men to women in these places are also prohibited.
In addition, new hairdressing
establishments for women were forbidden to open, and it was decided that the
existing ones should be closed down.
Women can visit clothing stores and tailors
only when accompanied by a mahram, and stores and tailors are forbidden to have
changing rooms, as is customary in such places. Music and singing parties are
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 731
prohibited, as well as the use of loudspeakers at weddings, although weddings can be
celebrated according to the rules stipulated by the representatives of religion.
Additional examples of social legislation concerned cinema. Thus, the showing of
imported ﬁlms, in which the content was deﬁned as contradicting shari‘a, are
prohibited, and only documentary ﬁlms, imported by oﬃcial institutes for the
purpose of education, studies, and culture are allowed.
This prohibition is valid
both in public places and in private homes.
As for academic studies, only certain students are selected to travel abroad,
especially to the West, to complete their studies in various ﬁelds. A royal decree
limits travel for the purposes of study to those disciplines that cannot be studied in
This prohibition was mainly aimed at adolescent high-school
graduates, ostensibly to prevent them from being exposed to permissive societies and
cultures that diﬀer widely from a conservative culture, such as that of Saudi
Such stringent, highly restrictive social legislation was undoubtedly intended to
show the Saudi monarchy’s adherence to the rule of the shari‘a. This tendency was
most visible in the late 1970s through the 1980s, a period recognized as the peak of
modernization in the Saudi state.
It seems that the timing of this reform, in
addition to its orthodox conservative purpose, was not coincidental, but was rather a
part of the tacit agreement, based on the mutually ‘compromising arrangement’,
between the religious and political establishments. Here we focus on the part of the
‘ulama’ in this arrangement, by which they provide legitimacy to the Saudi regime’s
policy, chieﬂy in very sensitive situations.
The Saudi monarchy, consciousness of the state’s religious fac¸ ade,
sought validation of political decisions, particularly in cases where such decisions
were liable to contradict the shari‘a. Below, I oﬀer two famous examples in
illustration: the ﬁrst is a fatwa that aﬃrmed the use of weapons in the al-Haram al-
Sharif (the Ka‘ba Sanctuary), while the second validated the landing of US troops in
Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. The ﬁrst fatwa was issued on 24 November 1979
by the BSU, headed by Ibn Baz, and was intended to validate the use of physical
force against a group of fundamentalists that had taken over the Ka‘ba Mosque.
This fatwa allowed the use of force and weapons by the authorities on the al-Haram
al-Sharif’s premises, in contradiction to shari‘a prohibitions. It was used to justify
the blatant contradiction between the rebels’ acts and the shari‘a. Piscatori described
this fatwa as ‘renewed life’ for the royal family’s claim of legitimacy:
Precisely because the fatwa made clear, in the ﬁrst paragraph, the King’s
immediate interest in having the support of the ‘ulama’ and because it made
explicit the Islamic teaching on the need to defend the Haram, it helped the
Saudis to address some of the speculation on the value of their guardianship
and, hence, their stability. By calling on them to rescue the holiest place of
Islam, the fatwa gave renewed life to their primary claim to legitimacy. But it
did not remove the causes of the revolt, and, as a result, the longevity of that
claim remains in doubt.
Note that the BSU provided legitimacy for political measures to be taken by the
royal house, by means of signiﬁcant usage of classical terms such as ‘the leader of the
Muslims’ and the oath of allegiance to the ruler (bay‘a). However, the ‘ulama’
732 M. Al-Atawneh
showed no qualms regarding the diﬀerence between the nature of that state and the
Saudi one. No special explanation was given for the use of these terms that could
have explained the suitability of their purposes to the existing political reality of the
Analysis of the content of the second fatwa (the landing of US troops in Saudi
Arabia), shows the extensive use by the ‘ulama’ of the principle of maslaha.
‘ulama’ emphasize the authority and even religious duty of the ruler, being the leader
of the nation, of the Imam (who is the King) to take measures that maintain the
welfare of the public. Since the State is in danger, and it is the duty of the Imam to
remove that danger, he is entitled to take any steps necessary in order to fulﬁl his
duty, even to the extent of requesting the aid of non-Muslim foreigners. The BSU
again deﬁnes the authority of the King according to the classical Muslim theory of
absolute authority of the Islamic leader (imam). In this case, the ‘ulama’ not only
recognize the great authority of the King in defending the nation, but they stress that
it is a religious obligation.
Identifying the current Saudi monarchy as being a ‘theocratic unitarian state’, in
terms of divine power that governs an earthly human state, is misleading. Saudi
politics is not theocratic, because of the, inter alia, secondary role that Wahhabi
clergy play in politics and governance. This is clearly indicated in both the theoretical
and the practical authority in modern Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis, in all generations,
divide the ruling hegemony of the state between the ‘ulama’, who are the authorities
with regard to interpreting the shari‘a law and advising the political rulers, and the
umara’ (rulers), who are expected to implement the shari‘a stipulations, as
interpreted by the ‘ulama’. Yet the ‘ulama’s functions seem to be beyond mere
advice, and they often function in the social, rather than the political sphere.
All the same, the ‘enigmatic duality’ between the ‘religious society’ and the ‘secular
polity’, as pointed out by Madawi al-Rasheed, is not appropriate to the Saudi reality.
Political and religious authorities often perform in a cooperative and even
synchronized manner, as evident in legislation and the validation of political decisions.
It is diﬃcult, if not impossible, therefore, to make a dichotomization between the
‘social’ and the ‘political’, and to negate the mutual inﬂuence of these two aspects.
Therefore, the Saudi monarchy is neither theocratic nor secular in the Western
sense. Moreover, it is insuﬃcient to assume that the Saudi monarchy relies entirely
on Wahhabi or Islamic polemics regarding governance, because these fall short in
describing how an Islamic state should be and function, as indicated in the ﬁrst
portion of this study. The Saudi monarchy, I would suggest, is a genuine monarchy
that accommodates Islam. It is best described as a ‘theo-monarchy’ shaped by
religion and long-standing religio-cultural norms. It is based on an ongoing
compromise between the two major authorities, the existing religious institutions and
Saudi monarchy. In other words, throughout their cooperation, the ‘ulama’
maintained a central role in preserving the religious feature of the state, not only
in the social realm, but also in the political one, thus contributing to the theocratic
fac¸ ade of the state. The King, on the other hand, continued to consider the ‘ulama’s
opinions, consulting them and taking note of their interests. These ‘compromising’
relationships, which led to the Saudi theo-monarchy, still demand further
investigation, beyond the limits of this article.
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 733
1. Secularism is deﬁned here as the separation between religion and politics or between governmental
practices/institutions and religious beliefs. See ‘Introduction’ by M. King, Secularism: The Hidden
Origins of Disbelief (Cambridge: J. Clarke, 2007).
2. M. Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generations (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.57.
3. Ibid., p.58.
4. See, for example, A. Bligh, ‘The Saudi Religious Elite (‘Ulama’) as Participant in the Political System
of the Kingdom’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol.17 (1985), pp.37–50; A. Al-Yasini,
Religion and State in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Boulder, CO and London: Westview Press, 1985);
J. Kechichian, ‘The Role of the ‘Ulama’ in the Politics of an Islamic State: The Case of Saudi Arabia’,
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol.18 (1986), pp.53–71; A. Layish, ‘‘Ulama’ and Politics
in Saudi Arabia’, in M. Heper and R. Israeli (eds.), Islam and Politics in the Modern Middle East
(London and Sydney: Croomhelm Press, 1984), pp.29–63; J. Nevo, ‘Religion and National Identity in
Saudi Arabia’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.34 (1998), pp.34–53; M.G. Nehme, ‘Saudi Arabia 1950–
1980: Between Nationalism and Religion’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.30 (1994), pp.930–43.
5. On the Saudi legal and jurisprudence systems, see F. Vogel, Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of
Saudi Arabia (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000), pp.169–221.
6. A. Layish, ‘Saudi Arabian Legal Reform as a Mechanism to Moderate Wahhabi Doctrine’, Journal of
the American Oriental Society, Vol.107, No.2 (April–June 1987), p.279.
7. Here, I refer to the Catholic Encyclopedia which presents theocracy as: ‘form of government in which
divine power governs an earthly human state, either in a personal incarnation or, more often, via
religious institutional representatives (i.e., a church), replacing or dominating civil government’. See
New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), Vol.XIV, p.13.
8. Given the breadth of the topic, my theoretical analysis will draw on the deliberations of the ‘Board of
Senior ‘Ulama’’ (BSU) (hay’at kibar al-‘ulama’), which, since its establishment in 1971, is at the top of
the religious pyramid and issues the deﬁnitive decrees on shari‘a. Emphasis will be placed on the
writings and teachings of Shaykh ‘Abd-al ‘Aziz Ibn Baz (d.1999), the head of BSU and the most senior
of the Saudi ‘ulama’ between 1975 and 1999. Ibn Baz, one of the most authoritative Sunni religious
scholars in the twentieth century, held many important religious functions, most notably Grand Mufti
of the Kingdom from 1993 until his death at the age of 89. A sustained discussion of Ibn Baz and the
BSU can provide insights into the dynamic relationship between religion, politics and governance in
contemporary Saudi Arabia. See M.S. al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Majmu‘ Fatawa wa-Maqalat
Mutanawwi‘a (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 13 vols., p.1:9.
9. The term ‘ulama’ will be approached in a broad sense, to include scholars who somehow linked to the
religious functioning in Saudi Arabia. Umara’, on the other hand, includes rulers mainly from within
the Saudi House.
10. Cited in A.K.S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
11. A.I. Taymiyya, al-Siyasa al-Shar‘iyya ﬁ Islas al-Ra‘i wal-Ra‘iyya (Dimashq: Maktabat Dar al-Bayan,
1985), p.176. On the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding wrong in Islam, see, M. Cook,
Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
12. I.Q. al-Jawziyya, al-Turuq al-Hukmiyya ﬁ al-Siyasa al-Shar‘iyya (Beirut: Dar al-Arqam, 1999), pp.39–
13. Y. al-Qaradawi, Min Fiqh al-Dawla (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1997), p.7.
14. Lambton, State and Government, pp.91–2.
15. Ibid., p.111.
16. Many important works, some entitled Siyasa shar‘iyya, have been published on this. Amongst those
are Siyasa shr‘iyya by Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. For further accounts, see the
Introduction in Lambton, State and Government.
17. I. Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab (Beirut: Dar al-Sadir, 1956), p.108.
18. I. Khaldun, Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldun (Alexandria: Dar Ibn Khaldun, 1982), p.213.
19. Al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya wal-Wilayat al-Diniyya (Cairo: al-Matba‘a al-Mahmudiyya al-
Tijariyya, n.d.); see also Ibn al-Farra’, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (Indonesia: Maktabat Ahmad b. Sa‘d
b. Nubayhan, 1974).
734 M. Al-Atawneh
20. A’. Amru, al-Siyasa al-Shar‘iyya ﬁ al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyya (‘Amman: Dar al-Nafa’is, 1998), pp.5, 31;
M. al-Qadi, al-Siyasa al-shar‘iyya:Masdar lil-Taqnin bayna al-Nazariyya wal-Tatbiq (Cairo: [?], 1989),
pp.34, 116–17; Y. al-Qaradawi, al-Siyasa al-Shar‘iyya ﬁ Daw’ Nusus al-Shari‘a wa-Maqasiduha (Cairo:
Maktabat Wahbah, 1998), p. 73; see for example A. Zahra, Usul al-ﬁqh (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi,
21. I. Farhun, Tabsirat al-Hukkam ﬁ Usul al-Aqdiya wa- Manahij al-Ahkam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-
‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), vol.2, p.137.
22. Ibid., pp.138–40.
23. Al-Shatibi, al-Muwafaqat ﬁ Usul al-Ahkam (Cairo: Maktabat Muhammad ‘Ali Sbih, 1969), vol.4, p.60.
25. I.‘A. al-Salam, Qawa‘id al-Ahkam ﬁ Masalih al-Anam (Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1980), vol.2, p.189.
26. Al-Dimashqi, Kifayat al-Akhyar ﬁ Hal Ghayat al-Ikhtisar (Beirut: Dar al-Khayr, 1991), p.48; al-
Shirazi, al-Muhadhdhab ﬁ Fiqh al-Imam al-Shaﬁ‘i (Beirut: al-Dar al-Shamiyya, 1996), pp.220, 234; al-
Mawardi, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya, p.192.
27. I.Q. al-Jawziyya, al-Turuq al-Hukmiyya ﬁ al-Siyasa al-shar‘iyya (Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1998), p.19.
28. I. Taymiyya, al-Siyasa al-Shar’iyya ﬁ Islah al-Ra‘i wal-Ra‘iyya (Bierut: Dar al-Kutub al-’Arabiyya,
29. I.Q. al-Jawziyya, al-Turuq al-hukmiyya, pp.5–7.
30. See, for example, al-Qaradawi, Min Fiqh al-Dawla (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1997); H. al-Turabi,
Nazarat ﬁ al-Fiqh al-Siyasi (Umm al-Fahm: Markaz al-Dirasat al-Mu‘asira, 1997); F. al-Wahidi, al-
Fiqh al-Siyasi wal-Dusturi ﬁ al-Islam (Gazza, Matba‘at al-Hay’a al-Khayriyya, 1988); A. Salim, al-
Fiqh al-Siyasi lil-Hasana al-Diblumasiyyah (Amman: Dar al-Nafa’is, 2005).
31. B.S. Turner, ‘Class, Generation and Islamism: Towards a Global Sociology of Political Islam’, British
Journal of Sociology, Vol.54, No.1 (2003), p.140.
32. J. Esposito, Islam the Straight Path (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.160.
33. The full version of the Ikhwan’s election programme may be seen in their oﬃcial website: http://
34. R. El-Solh, ‘Islamist Attitudes Toward Democracy: A Review of the Ideas of Al-Ghazali, Al-Turabi,
and ‘Amara’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.20, No.1 (1993), p.58.
35. See, for example, I. Baz, ‘Wujub Tahkim Shar‘ Allah wa-Nabdh ma Khalafahu’, in M.S. al-Shuway‘ir,
Majmu‘ Fatawa, Vol.1, p.72. See also, A.U. Jan, The End of Democracy (Ottawa, Canada: Pragmatic
Publishing, 2003), p.148.
36. al-Qaradawi, Min ﬁqh al-dawla, pp.61–5.
37. M. Watt, Islamic Political Thought: The Basic Concepts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
38. See M. al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar Sharh Muntaqa al-Akhbar (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, n.d.), vol.7,
p.166; I.H. al-’Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1993), vol.14,
p.303; K.A. El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name (Oxford: One World, 2001), p.23.
39. Lambton, State and Government, p.109.
40. Ibid., p.145.
41. Ibid., p.53.
42. Al-Mawdudi, The Islamic Law and Constitution (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1969), p.204.
43. Qutb, Milestones, p.26.
44. A.S. Moussalli, ‘Hasan al-Turabj’s Islamist Discourse on Democracy and shura’, Middle Eastern
Studies, Vol.30, No.1 (1994), p.61.
45. I. Baz, ‘Wujub Tahkim Shar‘ Allah, vol.1, p.72; See also B. Lewis, ‘Politics and War’, in J. Schacht and
C.E. Bosworth (eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p.159.
46. I. Baz, ‘al-Radd ‘Ala man Ya‘tabiru al-Ahkam al-Shar‘iyya Ghayr Mutanasiba ma‘ al-‘Asr al-Hadir’, in
al-Shuwa‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.1, p.415; idem, ‘Hukm al-Islam ﬁ man Za‘ama anna al-Qur’an
Mutanaqid aw Mushtamil ‘ala Ba‘d al-Khurafat aw Wasafa al-Rasul bi-ma Yatadammanu Tanaqqusahu
aw al-Ta‘n ﬁ Risalatihi’, in al-Shuwa‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.1, pp.82–8.
47. Al-Shuwa‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.1, pp.268–9; other Qur’anic verses cited by Ibn Baz were: 42:10;
5:44, 45, 47, 50, 51; 9:23.
48. On the doctrine of wala’ wa-bara’ in contemporary Wahhabi legal and theological thought, see A. al-
Dawish, Fatawa al-Lajna al Da’ima lil-Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyya wal-Ifta’ wal-Da‘wa wal- Irshad, vol.2,
Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia 735
49. I. Baz, ‘Wujub tahkim shar‘ Allah’, in al-Shuwa‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, Vol.1, p.79.
50. A. El Fadl, ‘Islamic and the Challenge of Democratic Commitment’, in J. Cohen and D. Chasman
(eds.), Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p.68.
51. On diﬀerent types of authority, see Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive
Sociology (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968), pp.215–45.
52. For further account on authority in Islam, see, A. El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name, pp.31–85.
53. A. Al-‘Uthaymin, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab: Hayatuhu wa-Fikruhu (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Ulum, 1987), p.136.
54. Al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.7, pp.115–22. See also al-Sharq al-Awsat, 5 May 1993.
55. Al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.7, pp.115–22.
56. A class of crimes deﬁned as to content and penalty in Qur’an and Sunna, pl. hudud.
57. The CRLO is a branch of the BSU, both directly subordinate to the Grand Mufti.
58. Royal Decree No.8/1849 of 5 June 1982 based on the BSU’s fatwa No.85 of 10 Sept.1981. See also, I.
Zaﬁr, al-Ijra’at al-Jina’iyya ﬁ Jara’im al-Hudud (Riyadh: Maktabat Fahd al-Wataniyya, 1999), vol.2,
59. Ibn Zaﬁr, al-Ijra’at al-Jina’iyya, p.393.
60. Due to the length of the response, only an excerpt is quoted. The full response may be found in al-
Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.7, p.115.
61. al-Shuway’ir, Majmu’ Fatawa, vol.7, p.115.
62. Ibid., vol.8, pp.205–7.
64. Ibid. On the substantial diﬀerences between nasiha and Western forms of criticism, see Talal Asad,
‘The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East: Notes on Islamic Public Argument’,
Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reason of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University, 1993), pp.200–236.
65. See Umm al-Qura, 26 Dec. 1952; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Nizam wa-La’ihat Sayr al-A‘mal ﬁ Hay’at
Kibar al-‘Ulama’, Royal Decree 1/137 of 29 Aug. 1971, pp.3–8; Royal Decree A/4 of 9 July 1993 in
Umm al-Qura, 15 July 1993.
66. Al-Yassini, Religion and State, p.59.
68. Layish, ‘‘Ulama’ and Politics’, p.53.
69. The rest of the reasons can be found in Layish, ‘‘Ulama’ and Politics’, pp.54–5. See also his ‘Saudi
Arabian Legal Reform as Mechanism to Moderate Wahhabi Doctrine’, p.292; M. Abir, Saudi Arabia
in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites; Conﬂict and Collaboration (London and Sydney: Croom Helm,
1988), p.29; and S.S. Huyette, Political Adaptation in Saudi Arabia:A Study of the Council of Ministers
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), p.117.
70. O.Y. Al-Rawaf, ‘The Concept of Five Crises in Political Development: Relevance to the Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia’ (Ph.D. thesis, Duke University, 1981), p.527, cited in Abir, Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era,
71. Al-Yassini, Religion and State, p.68.
72. Frank Vogel, Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000),
73. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ‘al-Nizam al-asasi lil-hukm’, May 1992, p.15.
75. B. Messick, ‘The Mufti, the Text and the World’, Man, Vol.21 (1986), p.111. On ifta’ and qada’, see
for example M. al-Ashqar, al-Futiyya wa-manahij al-ifta’ (‘Amman: Dar al-Nafa’is, 1993); A.K.
Reinhart, ‘Transcendence and Social Practice: Muftis and Qadis as Religious Interpreters’, Annales
Islamoloqigues, Vol.27 (1994), pp.5–28; J. Sherman, Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional
Jurisprudence of Shihab al-Din al-Qaraﬁ (Leiden and New York: E.J. Brill, 1996), pp.201–17.
76. I. Zaﬁr, al-Ijra’at al-Jina’iyya ﬁ Jara’im al-Hudud, vol.1, p.99; Fatwa No.850 of 16 March 1978
became law under Royal Decree No.4/174277.
77. Khalwa: Islamic legal term which means ‘valid privacy with the wife’.
78. I. Zaﬁr, al-Ijra’at al-Jina’iyya ﬁ Jara’im al-Hudud, vol.1, p.85; Fatwa No.52 of 4 April 1977 became
law under regulation 12/133, issued by the Minister of Justice of 4 June 1981; see the fatwa in MBI
No.1 (1979), pp.95–100; al-Shamma‘i, Fatawa Islamiyya, vol.2, pp.395–409.
79. I. Zaﬁr, al-Ijra’at al-Jina’iyya ﬁ Jara’im al-Hudud, vol.1, p.99; Royal Decree No.8/1226 of 18 May
736 M. Al-Atawneh
80. This fatwa may be found in al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.1, pp.418–27.
81. Royal Decree No.4/30820 of 21 Dec. 1976. See relevant fatwa in al-Shamma‘i, Fatawa Islamiyya,
pp.256–66 and al- Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.3, pp.354–6.
82. al- Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.3, p.95; Royal Decree No.8/1858 of 23 Oct. 1979.
83. See the fatwa in al- Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.3 pp.19–20.
84. Royal Decree No.80/1631 of 30 July 1980. On the Saudi muftis’ positions on meetings between the
genders see al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.5, pp.236–41.
85. Royal Decree No.3/27746 of 12 Oct. 1980.
86. Royal Decree No.16/4582 of 18 Jan. 1979. See relevant fatwa in al-Shamma‘i, Fatawa Islamiyya, vol.2,
87. Al-Shamma‘i, Fatawa Islamiyya, vol.2, pp.97–8; Royal Decree No.14340 of 24 Oct. 1967. On the rules
governing weddings as determined by the ‘ulama’, see al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.4, pp.120,
88. al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.5, p.111; Royal Decree No.4/12368 of 4 May 1978.
89. Royal Decree No.25351 of 8 March 1964.
90. Royal Decree No.19851 of 1 July 1981, revised by Decree No.438/8 of 11 Dec. 1984. See relevant
Fatwa in MBI, No.6 (1983), pp.466–7; al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.4, p.195.
91. al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, Vol.4, p.153.
92. For further accounts of the ‘modernization’ of the Saudi state, see T. al-Hamad, ‘Political Order in
Changing Societies: Saudi Arabia: Modernization in a Traditional Society’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of
Southern California, 1985), pp.12–18, 152–171; Abir, Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era, pp.19–34, 69–94; al-
Farsy, Modernity and Tradition: The Saudi Equation; idem, Saudi Arabia: A Case Study in
Development; J.H. Thompson and R.C. Reischauer (eds.), Modernization of the Arab World
(Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1966); G. Lenczowski, ‘Tradition and Reform in Saudi Arabia’,
Current History, Vol.52, No.306 (Feb. 1967), pp.98–104; R. Looney, Economic Development in Saudi
Arabia: Consequences of the Oil Price Decline (Greenwich, CT: Jai Press, 1990); A. al-Sadhan, ‘The
Modernization of the Saudi Bureaucracy’, in A. Beling (ed.), King Faysal and the Modernization of
Saudi Arabia (London: Croom Helm, 1980), pp.75–124.
93. J. Piscatori, ‘The Role of Islam in Saudi Arabia’s Political Development’, in J. Esposito (ed.), Islam
and Development: Religion and Sociopolitical Change (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980),
pp.135–6. More on this fatwa in Kechichian, ‘The Role of the ‘Ulama’ in the Politics of an Islamic
94. al-Shuway‘ir, Majmu‘ Fatawa, vol.7, pp.359–61.
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