The Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University organised a conference this week titled “al-Salafiyya: manhaj shar’i wa matlab watani” (Salafism: Legal Path, National Demand) where recently appointed crown prince Nayef and the state’s official spokesman and advisor on religious affairs, the Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh, gave speeches praising al-Salafiyya, or Salafism. The use of that word was striking. The phrase refers to the al-salaf al-saleh, the pious early Muslims, companions of the Prophet and leaders of the Muslim community after his death and in that form it is often used in Saudi political and religious rhetoric. But the use of the abstract noun to indicate the school or trend of Sunni Islam promoted and championed by Saudi Arabia is unusual, at least with this force.
Nayef’s short speech, reported in Defence Minister Prince Salman’s Asharq al-Awsat, ran: «إخواني الكرام، كما تعلمون فإن السلفية الحقة هي المنهج الذي يستمد أحكامه من كتاب الله تعالى وسنة رسوله صلى الله عليه وسلم، وهي بذلك تخرج عن كل ما ألصق بها من تهم أو تبناه بعض أدعياء المنهج السلفي، وحسب ما هو معروف فإن هذه الدولة المباركة قامت على المنهج السلفي السوي منذ تأسيسها على يد الإمام محمد بن سعود وتعاهده مع الإمام محمد بن عبد الوهاب رحمهما الله».
“My brothers, you know that the true Salafism is the path whose rules derive from the book of God and the path of the Prophet, and thus it has nothing to do with accusations attached to it or what some Salafi preachers have adopted. As is known, this blessed state has been established along correct Salafi lines since its inception at the hands of the Imam Mohammed bin Saud and his pact with the Imam Mohammed ibn Abdulwahhab, may God have mercy on them both.”
Saudi Arabia will continue on the “upright Salafi path and not flich from it or back down”, he said, adding that this path unites that which is “authentic and contemporary” and promotes progress and “peaceful coexistence with others and respect for their rights” – a response to critics over his policies towards political activists and Shi’ites, I would say.
The Mufti chimed in with similar rhetoric while linking this Salafism to the familiar phrase al-salaf al-saleh and the term wasatiyya, the “middle way” which the state under King Abdullah has favoured as the chief description of Saudi Islam.
«أيها الإخوة إن السلفية هي منهج السلف الصالح، وهذا المنهج السلفي له مميزات وعلامات من أعظهما أنه منهج أصحاب رسول الله، وقد أمرنا الله باتباع منهجهم، وأن السلفية منهج رباني شامل قائم على الاعتدال والوسطية، ويقوم على توحيد الله، وينبذ البدع والخرافات والضلالات، ويدعو إلى العقيدة السليمة، ويعظم نصوص الكتاب والسنة، وأن السلفية منظومة متحدة تشمل العقيدة والعبادة، والمعاملة، والأمور السياسية، والاقتصادية، والاجتماعية، منهج معتدل بلا إفراط ولا تفريط، وهذه الدولة منهجها منهج صالح، يأخذ بالتطورات الحديثة».
“Brothers, Salafism is the path of the pious predecessors, and this Salafi path has its distinctive features and marks, the greatest of which is that it is the path of the companions of the Prophet and God ordered us to follow their path. Salafism is a comprehensive godly path based on moderation and the middle way; it is based on the unitarianism and forsakes innovation, superstitions and erroneous things; it calls on correct faith and raises up the stipulations of the book and the path, and Salafism is a unified system comprising faith and practice, actions, political, economic and social affairs, it is a path without excess and negligence, and this state and path follows an upright path that takes account of modern developments.”
The use of the term comes at a time when it is very much in vogue elsewhere in the region. Salafi is the buzz word to describe the movement in Egypt of quietist Sunni puritans who unlike the Muslim Brotherhood kept out of politics, which they saw as haram, and were tolerated by Mubarak in return. Since Mubarak’s fall they have ditched the anathema for politics and their main party, Nour, has done surprisingly well in the parliamentary elections. The general suspicion is that they have Saudi money behind them; Saudi insiders say privately that Saudi Arabia sees them as their counterbalance to the Brotherhood, whose ideological counterparts in Saudi Arabia are viewed by Nayef and co. as the main threat among the various opposition movements going around (note the 30 year prison sentence for Saud Mokhtar al-Hashemi in November whose efforts to set up an Islamist political party led to a trial for “financing terror” and plotting a coup with al-Qa’ida). “Salafi” as a term for Islamist activists has also been noted for Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Gaza, Tunisia, Kuwait and Libya. Their ideological inspiration is Wahhabism – the accurate term for Saudi Islam that the state and its ulama religiously avoid – and believe in gender segregation and the other obsessions of al-Wahhabiyya.
The sudden elevation of the term to the guiding title for the Saudi Islamic message suggests an attempt to stake publicly Saudi Arabia’s ownership of the Salafi trend. It suggests a shift away from the king’s focus on wasatiyya as the guiding principle for Saudi Arabia’s contested – at least since 9/11 – Islam. It also suggests Saudi Arabia wants to rise to the challenge of Qatar.
This month Qatar announced a new mass capacity mosque it has built in Doha would named after Abdulwahhab and the Emir of Qatar gave a speech at its inauguration. His language reflected more that used normally in Saudi Arabia, talking of the “upright path” (al-manhaj al-qaweem) that the “able reformer and pioneering renewer” called people to in the Arabian Peninsula (see the text here: http://www.qnaol.net/QNAAr/News_bulletin/News/Pages/11-12-16-1125_541_0031.aspx). Qatar’s move right into the discursive turf of Saudi Arabia was bold and striking: while Qatar’s body of ulama have traditionally followed the Wahhabi form of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, the state has encouraged budding scholars to follow Egypt’s less rigid Azhari tradition, not least since 9/11 when Wahhabism became a bad word in the United States. Qatar has allowed women to drive, while Saudi Arabia has agonised for a decade over the issue; there is no strict gender segregation enforced by a coercive apparatus like the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and this mosque was not even originally intended to carry the name of The Sheikh.
But something has clearly changed. 2011 has been the Year of Qatar, as it promoted itself right, left and centre as the leading Arab state and leading interlocuter with the West, paving the way for NATO intervention in Libya, going after Bashar al-Assad at the Arab League and blatantly employing its al-Jazeera TV station as a tool of political mobilization. Many are those governments who have tried to champion some kind of “moderate Islam”, now we can add Qatar to that list.
How this particular chapter in the ongoing rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will play out is maybe not so hard to predict. We know what Saudi Salafism as a model for Muslims outside Saudi Arabia is all about, but not what Qatari Wahhabism outside Qatar could entail. Despite the name, it most likely means the Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism of Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, the Mufti of al-Jazeera who will preach at the Doha mosque despite being a critic of al-Wahhabiyya! Qaradawi has distanced himself from the Salafis in Egypt (“the absence of al-Azhar’s role with its middle way has allowed the rigid Salafi trend to become stronger,” he told al-Masry al-Youm) and, with Qatar behind him, he has not flinched from publicly lampooning al-Wahhabiyya (“they only see and only believe in their own opinions,” he said in 2008). Al-Wasatiyya has long been Qaradawi’s hobby horse in any case, before the Saudi king latched on to it.
Qatar’s projection of an Azharite-inflected Wahhabism with Qaradawi as its face might have some effect on Muslims around the world but I doubt it will do anything to Saudi Arabia, the font of al-Wahhabiyya, itself. Saudi Arabia has more than just a channel and a fancy new mosque to promote its vision of the Wahhabi/Salafi message – it spends billions on promoting its religious scholars and centres of learning. That’s if we assume that this supreme act of tokenism in Doha had rescuing al-Wahhabiyya as its goal at all.