Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam

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By: Raihan Ismail

New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016. 328pp. $74.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0-19-023331-0.

Volume: 4 Issue: 11

November 2016

Review by:

Christopher Anzalone, ABD

Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Cambridge, MA

The theological disputes over “true Islam” between Salafi Sunnis and Shi’i Muslims, once an obscure issue of interest only to specialists and academics, has entered the mainstream consciousness of Western media and general audiences, thanks in large part to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.  The 2003 U.S. and British-led coalition invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq following the toppling of the Iraqi Ba’th Party government of Saddam Hussein, marked the beginning of Western fascination and, often, misunderstanding, of this increasingly bitter set of disputes between competing groups among the global Muslim population.  At the forefront of this conflict are Saudi Salafi religious scholars (‘ulama), who represent arguably the most vocal and influential segment of anti-Shi’i Sunnis today, and their Twelver Shi’i clerical opponents, some of them independent and others aligned with the Iranian Shi’i Islamist state.  Neither group, however, represent a unified front and are divided into a number of sub-groups or intellectual/ideological currents.  Disputes between Salafi Sunni and Shi’i clerics and scholars are also often shaped by current events and contemporary politics as well as medieval theological disputation and the clash of historical narratives.  In the book under review, Raihan Ismail provides a major contribution to the scholarship on both Salafi, and specifically Saudi Salafi, Islam and historical and contemporary ideological differences and conflicts between Salafi and Shi’i Muslim theologians and ‘ulama.  She does this, however, with a careful eye to how modern politics impact how these seemingly obscure theological disputes.

Ismail utilizes an extensive array of primary sources including audio and video recordings of sermons and lectures, written publicans, and juridical opinions (fatawa) and rulings (ahkam) from Saudi Salafi ‘ulama related to their positions on Shi’ism and modern conflicts in places such as Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain.  She examines materials not only from mainstream ‘ulama aligned or even employed by the Saudi state but also materials produced by a diverse group of Saudi Salafi religious scholars including more moderate voices, such as that of Shaykh Salman al-Awda, and more extreme anti-Shi’i voices, such as that of Shaykh Nasir al-‘Umar.  This second group include ‘ulama from the non-establishment clerical elite, a collective that is loosely referred to generally as the Sahwa or “Awakening” movement, though it is not a single organization but rather an intellectual/ideological current of ‘ulama not employed by the state and who are willing to sometimes criticize the monarchy when it fails to, in their eyes, maintain proper Islamic positions on a range of issues.

Beginning with a brief historical overview of the Saudi Salafi ‘ulama and their relationship with the Al Sa’ud family, Ismail details how the ‘ulama, particularly the state-aligned clergy, became institutionalized within the modern Saudi state.  Understanding this relationship is critical to understanding the ways in which state ‘ulama both use and are used by the monarchy and how dissident and non-establishment Sahwa ‘ulama see themselves as being separate from the state-sanctioned clergy.  Many of the Sahwa clergy were influenced not only by the Najdi Salafism of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his clerical descendants but also by aspects of the political thought of the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in Egypt and Syria through ideologues such as Muhammad Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb, many of whom fled their home countries to escape government persecution and were allowed to settle and work in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.  Some Saudi ‘ulama therefore draw not only from a particular form of Salafism but also from political aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the book’s second chapter, Ismail provides a historical overview of the division and differences between what would become Sunni and Shi’i Islam.  The origins of the theological/doctrinal disputes between Sunnism and Shi’ism, such as the debates over the Prophet Muhammad’s decision (or not) to name a specific successor as leader of the Muslim community and the status of his companions (Sahaba), are discussed in detail.  Criticisms of Shi’ism from Sunni ‘ulama, though today often blamed solely on “Wahhabis”/Salafis, have been made historically, as Ismail shows, by many mainstream Sunni scholars, many of them predating the emergence of Salafism, broadly speaking, as a recognizable intellectual current within revivalist Sunnism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  These include Malik ibn Anas, one of the founders of the four surviving schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the famous hadith compiler and commentator al-Bukhari, and the medieval Syrian Hanbali jurist Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya, though the latter is now often accused of being a sort of “Wahhabi”/Salafi godfather figure.  Ismail also discusses the more accommodating views of more modern Sunni ‘ulama such as Mahmoud Shaltut, the grand rector of Al-Azhar mosque and seminary in Cairo between 1958 and 1963 and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Yusuf al-Qaradawi based in Qatar.  Shaltut accepted the Ja’fari school of jurisprudence as a legitimate legal school of thought and al-Qaradawi has generally taken a more inclusive view of Shi’i Muslims, though his views have hardened since the execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and even more so since the sectarianization of Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Moving beyond the theological and creedal disputations of Saudi Salafi ‘ulama with Shi’ism, which she covers in great detail in chapter three, Ismail also recognizes the role of politics and social competition as drivers of anti-Shi’i sectarianism.  Saudi Shi’is, who make up a significant and even majority of the populations in the oil-rich Eastern Province of al-Ahsa, spark demographic fears of an internal “enemy” among many Saudi Salafis, both ‘ulama and non-clerics.  The history of anti-Shi’i discrimination in the Saudi state from its founding in 1925-26 is long and continues to this day, despite a relative loosening under the late King Abdullah (2005-2015).  Though Abdullah was relatively more tolerant toward the kingdom’s Shi’i citizens, there remained certain limits imposed on Saudi Shi’i social and political activism, employment discrimination, and public denigration of Shi’ism by state ‘ulama.  Ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, both beset with mounting levels of violent sectarianism, also had an adverse effect on Saudi Shi’is.  In addition, even relatively more moderate Saudi Salafi ‘ulama, such as al-Awda, still do not accept the legitimacy of Shi’i theology and creed, thus limiting the nature of any acceptance of Shi’ism by a Saudi Salafi religious scholar.

Saudi Shi’is are also negatively effected by the state’s geopolitical rivalry with Shi’i Islamist Iran.  They are seen by many Sunnis as a potential “fifth column” of Iran in the domestic space.  Iranian involvement in conflicts in Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are seen by Saudi ‘ulama and many Saudi Sunnis and Sunnis in the Arab Gulf states as being a part of a broader attempt to spread Shi’ism in Sunni majority countries.  Thus, the Saudi state has harnessed the official Salafi religious establishment as yet another tool to use against Iran.  Through financial support for religious institutions, building projects, da’wa (missionary propagation) campaigns, and political actors across the globe, the Saudi state is engaged in a sustained anti-Iran campaign designed to counter Iranian state interests and attempts to broaden its popularity among the world’s Muslims.  The Saudi state form of Salafism has thus been able to spread through official and semi-official Saudi religious institutions to Sunni communities from North America to Indonesia.  Modern political disputes often shape the nature of Saudi Salafi ‘ulama criticisms of Shi’ism and Shi’i actors, but Ismail argues that it is primarily Salafi objections to Shi’i theology, creed, and ritual practices, such as mourning rituals during Muharram and Arba’in, that form the basis of the former’s anti-Shi’ism.  The intensity, timing, and specific parameters of anti-Shi’i sectarian discourse, however, is influenced significantly by geopolitics.

Ismail’s book fills a gap in the literature on Saudi Salafism and Salafi-Shi’i theological disputes and also makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the utilization and contours of sectarianism in modern conflicts in the Middle East.  It is thoroughly sourced and includes many fascinating details while remaining clarity and highly readable prose.

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