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Mouline Nabil, Les clercs de l’Islam : Autorité religieuse et pouvoir politique en Arabie Saoudite, xviiie-xxie siècle, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2011, 400 p.

David Commins

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1Nabil Mouline’s book is a major contribution to scholarship on Saudi Arabia’s religious tradition. His survey of “Hanbalo-Wahhabism” is notable in three ways. First, he situates the kingdom’s clerics in a historical context encompassing the evolution of the Hanbali tradition and the early Saudi emirates. Second, he offers a superb study of religious institutions in the kingdom’s petroleum era. Third, he sets forth a lucid framework for understanding Hanbalo-Wahhabism’s historical dynamism: the clerics are animated by a sense of moral responsibility to sustain orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and political order---what Mouline calls “the three O’s”. Without a sturdy political order, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are jeopardized by chaos. The imperative to maintain order---construed by clerics as firm dynastic rule---sometimes requires tempering doctrine. In this view, revising beliefs and practices is not a token of abandoning principle but a matter of necessity if orthodoxy and orthopraxy are to survive.

2Mouline raises the question of how Hanbalo-Wahhabism fits into the history of classical Sunni learning. Because so many Muslims have branded Hanbalo-Wahhabism as a rupture with centuries of tradition, this is not a purely academic issue. Mouline highlights classical Hanbalism’s consensus on the believer’s duty to obey the ruler and Ibn Taymiyya’s vision of a symbiotic relationship between clerics and rulers. Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab’s achievement was to gain support from a ruler to implement his particular, if not eccentric, reading of the Hanbali tradition. Mouline makes a convincing case for the view that his core teachings on belief and idolatry did not conform to classical Hanbali tradition, but followers in the twentieth century revised their scholarly lineage to invent an organic tie to it. The source-critical approach applied to the historical antecedents of Hanbalo-Wahhabi doctrine is evident in Mouline’s reading of the earliest Saudi chronicles---composed more than half a century after the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was formed in Najd (Central Arabia). Mouline demonstrates how chroniclers shaped the narrative of Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab’s tribulations to parallel episodes in the Prophet Muhammad’s life. That critical perspective is more persuasive than the credulous reading that leads the author to conclude that the first Saudi-Wahhabi emirate launched expansionist warfare as a defensive reaction to attacks by enemies and as a response to believers in the revivalist message seeking Saudi rule. Mouline does, however, offer a convincing explanation for the larger question of how a revivalist movement from a remote quarter of Arabia survived the trials of political collapse due to invasion in 1818 and civil war in the late 1800s. Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab’s achievement was to harness his mission to a political order based on a condominium of dynasty and clerics. Three particular historical conditions allowed the arrangement to endure. First, unlike most Arab lands, Saudi Arabia never came under direct colonial rule; consequently, Hanbalo-Wahhabi clerics were spared the kind of marginalization that afflicted their counterparts elsewhere. Second, authority in political and religious institutions remained patrimonial. Third, oil wealth turned Saudi Arabia into a rentier state possessing the resources to richly fund religious institutions.

3The book’s real reward awaits the reader in chapters that treat developments during Saudi Arabia’s petroleum era, when the logic of state-building exerted pressure on clerical autonomy at the same time it presented abundant resources to extend the reach of clerical authority to every corner of the country. Thanks to interviews with current and former officials in religious institutions, and extensive research in fatwas, treatises, official newspapers, and government documents, Mouline’s survey of modern religious agencies brims with statistical tabulations, detailed descriptions of institutional expansion, and incisive analysis of clerical writings. The central personality in the story of how informal clerical networks were transformed into formal government institutions is a descendant of Hanbalo-Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh. Determined to shield clerical prerogatives from centralizing impulses, he had a hand in every major initiative of the 1950s and 1960s: the Muslim World League and the Islamic University in Medina; faculties of Islamic Law and Arabic that eventually combined to become Muhammad ibn Saud University; institutes for memorizing the Quran, and more. In addition to planting the seeds of today’s sprawling religious bureaucracy, Ibn Ibrahim resisted encroachments on clerics’ judicial authority by blocking codification of religious law and lobbying for religious judges to sit on courts adjudicating commercial and labor statutes.

4After Ibn Ibrahim’s death in 1969, King Faysal asserted royal authority over religious institutions by creating a ministry of justice, a supreme judiciary council, and the Committee of Senior Ulama. The Committee’s functions include issuing fatwas, propagating Hanbalo-Wahhabi doctrine, and publishing treatises from the Hanbalo-Wahhabi canon. While the fatwas address a wide range of social and economic issues, Committee members seldom broach political matters that impinge on royal authority, except at moments of political crisis, when they exercise their roles as authoritative interpreters of religious texts to reinforce the positions of the rulers, in the name of preserving order. Mouline’s research on the schooling and networks that lead to membership on the Committee reveals its members’ educational formation, regional and social backgrounds, and professional trajectories. During the 1950s and 1960s, the proliferation of religious institutions created demand for more clerics, thereby opening the ranks to men from outside Al al-Shaykh (descendants of Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab) and Najdi families renowned for religious learning. This opening had two consequences. First, Al al-Shaykh lost a monopoly on religious leadership, allowing men like `Abd Allah ibn Baz and Muhammad ibn `Uthaymin to rise to prominence. Second, staff in religious institutions became more representative of regional diversity, although the Committee of Senior Ulama remained mostly Najdi.

5For much of the outside world, the clerical agency best known for upholding Hanbalo-Wahhabi norms is the Committee for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong. Mouline digs deep into its history, utilizing government documents and interviews with active and retired officials. The first step to turning religious duty into a regulated agency was taken in 1928 when the royal court issued statutes and assigned a budget for the Committee’s branches in the Holy Cities. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Committee underwent notable expansion, as Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh used them to combat inroads by Western culture like cinemas and photography. King Faysal slowed their growth, but later kings responded to the 1979 Mecca uprising and the Sahwa protests of the early 1990s by increasing support for the Committee and other clerical institutions. After al-Qa`ida’s September 2001 attacks on the United States, the Committee became part of public debates over the roots of “extremism”---the term used in Saudi discourse for political violence in the name of Islam. Oddly, Mouline does not mention the March 2002 fire at a girls’ school in Mecca when religious police prevented girls from escaping because they were not fully covered, causing fifteen deaths. Widespread revulsion at the behavior of the religious police put the Committee on the defensive and stirred a media campaign calling for rethinking its methods and purposes. In 2009, the government issued a strategic plan to give the Committees a new look that emphasized advice and guidance rather than coercion.

6Mouline’s “three O’s” prove useful for explaining why Hanbalo-Wahhabi clerics embraced modern bureaucracy: it offers financial and institutional resources that multiply the means to enforce orthodoxy and orthopraxy. They also explain why the Committee of Senior Ulama has invoked the quietist Hanbali tradition to reinforce the dynasty’s legitimacy in the face of political threats posed by Juhayman’s millenarian band, the Sahwa protests, and al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula. In defending Saudi rulers against charges of violating religious principles, the Senior Ulama redefined volatile concepts such as allegiance to believers and disavowing infidels in order to justify co-existence and treaty relations with non-Muslims. Nevertheless, Mouline’s account may underestimate tensions arising from the imperative to maintain order on one side and the moral responsibility to uphold orthodoxy and orthopraxy on the other. Not all clerics supported King `Abd al-`Aziz against the Ikhwan; and the Sahwa movement counted numerous clerics in its ranks. More broadly, Mouline does not address the possibility that, over time, the cumulative effect of revising Hanbalo-Wahhabism’s exclusivist principles may be so extensive that it transforms the very orthodoxy and orthopraxy that political order is supposed to safeguard. After all, the book lays out, in great detail, the multiplication of government offices, bureaus, and agencies under clerical control, creating institutional interests that implicate clerics in the Saudi state. Their critics may not be far off the mark when, in the name of pure orthodoxy and orthopraxy, they condemn expediency as an expression of feeble conviction and accuse clerical office-holders of betraying core beliefs. Using the very Weberian terms Mouline cites, it appears that the routinisation of charismatic authority preserves clerical power at the expense of the mission that was their original raison d’être.

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David Commins, « Mouline Nabil, Les clercs de l’Islam : Autorité religieuse et pouvoir politique en Arabie Saoudite, xviiie-xxie siècle, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2011, 400 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 133 | juin 2013, mis en ligne le 01 février 2013, consulté le 30 juillet 2021. URL :

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David Commins

Dickinson College

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