Khalid al-Dakhil: Saudi Writer Recasts Kingdom's History

Historians in the News

When university professor Khalid al-Dakhil was growing up, clergymen had a say in everything.

Following the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher who founded the Wahhabi ideology that has inspired Islamic extremism, mosque imams took attendance at dawn prayers; people did not smoke in public or listen to music because it was viewed as sinful; and stick-wielding clerics forced men to pray.

The pervasive religiosity permeating his childhood here, where Wahhabism is the state ideology, sparked a burning question in young Dakhil's mind: How had these Wahhabi clerics come to wield so much power and authority?

After decades of research and a doctoral thesis on the history of the Wahhabi movement, Dakhil came up with an answer. The clerics had inherited their power from Wahhab. The fiery, puritanical preacher had been instrumental in catapulting the House of Saud ahead of others vying for power at the time and became an influential and trusted partner in the first Saudi state. That alliance between the ruling family and the clergy continued down the generations, with the Wahhabis eliminating all other doctrines, taking charge of education and enforcing their strict brand of Islam in mosques and schools.

The religious connection also gave the Saud family legitimacy to oversee Islam's holiest places.

Dakhil's findings offer a new reading of the Wahhabi movement that contradicts the official narrative and could lead to a reduction of the clergy's power. Wahhab was inspired by politics as much as religion, Dakhil said, and he used religious discourse to further his political aim of creating a state in central Arabia, then composed of dozens of city-statelets under the Ottoman sphere of influence.

A more accurate historical reading, which would decrease the role of religion and highlight the political context, should reduce the clout of the clergy and give ordinary Saudis more of a say in how the country is run, Dakhil said.

"Rewriting the history would be a trigger to widening the political system's basis of legitimacy to include not only the religious institute and the ruling class," said Dakhil, 54, an assistant professor of political sociology. "The political formula should involve the people as well."...
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