Wahhābī Islam Facing the Challenges of Modernity Dār al-Iftā in the Modern Saudi State

  • Book Title:
 Wahhabi Islam Facing The Challenges Of Modernity
  • Book Author:
Muhammad Al Atawneh
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  • Acknowledgments … ix
  • Map of Arabia … xi
  • Introduction … xiii
  • Chapter One: Muftīs and Fatwās in Saudi Arabia: Background . 1
  • The Genealogy of Wahhābī Muftīs .. 3
  • Iftāʾ Institutional Manifestations .. 6
  • The Early Fatwās and the Formation of Wahhābī Islam . 10
  • Chapter Two: Dār Al-Iftāʾ Today .. 17
  • The Board of the Senior ʿUlamāʾ (BSU) .. 17
  • The Permanent Committee for Scientific Research and
  • Legal Opinion (CRLO) .. 24
  • The Grand Muftī … 30
  • Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Bāz .. 31
  • Chapter Three: Muftīs, State and Society .. 35
  • Muftīs and King in Tandem .. 35
  • Wulāt al-Amr: ʿUlamāʾ, Umarāʾ and the Question of
  • Authority … 37
  • Muftīs and Politics … 42
  • Muftīs in Society … 51
  • Chapter Four: Modern Wahhābī Jurisprudence . 55
  • Salafīsm as the Spirit of Wahhābī Legal Thought . 55
  • Legal Theory … 57
  • Ijtihād … 64
  • Taqlīd and the School of Law .. 71
  • Methodology: Tarjīḥ and the Evaluation of Evidence . 77
  • Chapter Five: Bidʿa Vis-à-Vis Sunna: The Limits of Change . 83
  • Bidʿa in Islamic Law … 84
  • Bidʿa in Wahhābī Thought .. 87
  • The Limits of Change: The Prohibited .. 93
  • Exalting Islamic Historical Sites .. 93
  •  viii contents
  • Celebration and Remembrance .. 94
  • Women in Saudi Society .. 99
  • Leisure Time and Entertainment .. 107
  • Chapter Six: Wahhābism Applied: Flexibility Towards Change . 115
  • Flexibility towards Change: The Permissible . 115
  • Visual Media … 115
  • Financial Matters … 121
  • Medical Issues … 134
  • Conclusions … 147
  • Appendix A: Translated Decisions of BSU .. 151
  • Wifeʾs Disobedience … 151
  • Population Control … 153
  • Autopsy … 154
  • Limiting Dowries … 155
  • Cornea Transplants … 157
  • Sighting the Crescent Moon [of Ramaḍān] at
  • Observatories … 158
  • Drug Smuggling and Trafficking .. 159
  • Terrorism … 161
  • Appendix B: Translated Fatwās of CRLO .. 163
  • Islamic Mystic Sects and Movements .. 163
  • Celebrations and Remembrance .. 164
  • Modern Science and Technological Innovations . 167
  • Financial Matters … 170
  • Womenʾs Issues … 173
  • Appendix C: Āl al-Shaykh—Genealogy of Prominent Muftīs . 180
  • Appendix D: Modern Saʿūdī Institution of Iftāʾ . 181
  • Glossary of Arabic Terms .. 183
  • Bibliography and Sources … 189
  • Index …. 203


This book examines Dār al-Iftāʾ, the official Saudi religious establish- ment for issuing fatwās between 1971 and 1999, chiefly under the leadership of the prominent Grand Muftī, Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Bāz (d. 1999). Specifically, I explore the challenges that this scholarly body encountered when applying Wahhābī interpretations of the Sharīʿa to late twentieth-century modernity.1

In Saudi Arabia, the history of Dār al-Iftāʾ goes back to 1953. Pre- viously, for almost two centuries following the well-known Saudi- Wahhābī pact of 1744, muftīs had practiced iftāʾ (the issuing of fatwās) in an informal manner.2

 In an attempt to modernize the religious struc- ture of the Kingdom, King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Saʿūd (d. 1953), the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, appointed Shaykh Muḥammad Ibn Ibrāhīm Āl al-Shaykh, one of the most prominent modern Wahhābī muftīs, to head Dār al-Iftāʾ and other religious agencies.3 At this point, Dār al-Iftāʾ becomes virtually a one-man institution, because Āl al- Shaykh was perhaps the most influential Wahhābī scholar and held the highest religious authority in the Kingdom until his death in 1969.

 In August 1971, King Fayṣal (1904–1975) restructured Dār al-Iftāʾ, co-opting an unprecedented number of senior scholars to serve in the State Administration. These scholars were divided into two public

In Saudi Arabia, Dār al-Iftāʾ plays a vital role in the conduct of day- to-day life, perhaps more than in any other country in the Middle East. It is often involved in social, political, legal and judicial procedures and its fatwās constitute an important factor in the formulation of social and cultural norms in Saudi society. These fatwās function as a medium for discourse, re-evaluation and redefinition of the connec- tion between state, society and religion.

 Official and unofficial muftīs, as well as other ideological groups in the Kingdom, use fatwās to define and negotiate these links, stemming from the strong fusion of religion and state.5 Islamic law is crucial to State legislation, since the Saudi judicial and constitutional systems rest on traditional Islamic legal principles, i.e. the Qurʾān and the Sunna form the basic Constitu- tion.6 For example, Article 7 of the Basic Regulations for Governance (al-Niẓām al-asāsī lil-ḥukm) from 1992 reads: “Government in Saudi Arabia derives its power from the Holy Qurʾān and the Prophetʾs tradition.”

Article 23 reads: “The State protects Islam and implements its Sharīʿa; it orders people to do right and shun evil; it fulfills the duty regarding Godʾs call.”7

The 1971 restructuring of Dār al-Iftāʾ occurred in response to the challenges of modernity. Over the second half of the twentieth century, especially since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia became one of the wealthi- est countries in the Middle East.

The Oil Price Revolution of 1973 intensified the pace of economic development and change, generating a substantial increase in Government income.8 This translated into a rapid and overwhelming modernization of the country, accompanied by impressive advances in infrastructure, education and technology.9

To better engage in these transformations, the Saudi State set out to improve administrative, bureaucratic and legal systems while but- tressing the Sharīʿa, the raison dʾétat of this theocratic monarchy. Turkī al-Ḥamad noted, in this respect, that: “Modernizing Islam was a necessary step, socially and ideologically—for the purpose of social mobilization and regime legitimacy.

 In other words, its adaptation was imperative.”10 King Fayṣal, whom scholars perceive as a modern- ist, sought to preserve the Wahhābī religious nature of the State as a basis for Saudi dynastic rule, all the while adapting state and society to far-reaching technological and economic changes.11 In Fayṣalʾs own words:

Our religion requires us to progress, advance and bear the burden of the highest tradition and best manners. What is called ʿprogressʾ in the world today and what reformers are calling for, be it social, human or economic progress, is all embodied in the Islamic religion and laws.12

The challenge of leading the monarchy into the modern age by means of a more flexible interpretation of Islam was far from straightforward.

In Saudi Arabia, Islam serves to legitimize the regime and provide sta- bility; at the same time, Islam is the ideology of various conservative groups, who tend to distinguish between those who seek modernity and change and those who try to preserve tradition.13 Dār al-Iftāʾ was the natural candidate for accommodating the Sharīʿa to modern times in a way that preserves the delicate balance between these divergent groups. In other words, Dār al-Iftāʾ was expected to bridge the gap

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