Fearful Saudi Conservatives Flexing Muscles

Over the last month the Saudi religious authorities have been flexing their muscles. They have attacked Shi’ah on pilgrimage, smeared the name of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, arrested a woman for driving, and lashed an elderly woman for spending time with a man she wet-nursed. I am indebted to Mona Eltahawy for pointing out to me that it may partially be in response to the realization that they are truly impotent if the royal family decides so. During the same time span, a woman was put in charge of women’s education, the head of the religious police was replaced, and a supreme court justice as removed from office.

The story of how the conservative Saudi leadership attacked the history of Imam Husayn is perhaps the most telling in terms of how they view the religion as a tool of control. Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti (legal opiner) Abdul Aziz said:

Allegiance of Yazid Ibn Muawiya was legitimate according to the sharia which was taken at the time of his father Muawiya and people had accepted and surrendered to it. But after Muawiya died, Hasan and Husain Ibn Ali and Ibn Zubair withheld their allegiances.

Husain and Ibn Zubair in their decision of not giving their allegiance were wrong. Because allegiance to Yazid was legitimate and was taken during his father’s life Muawiya and were witnessed by the people. But whatever Allah makes destiny is in that Hakeem and Aleem….. But after all, we ask Allah to be happy with Husain and request Allah for his forgiveness. Why we have to mention this, whatever mistake he made, he is responsible for that.

The generally accepted version of the history of the period is as follows: Ali ibn Abi Talib was declared the first Imam of the Shi’ah by Prophet Muhammad. He became the fourth Caliph – the last of what are called the Rightly Guided Caliphs – for what eventually became the Sunni community. Muawiya was a rival claimant to the Caliphate. Rather than tear the community apart with a civil war, Ali allowed Muawiya to take the position of Caliph with the understanding that Ali’s sons would take the authority upon Muawiya’s passing. Muawiya’s son Yazid reneged on the deal. When Ali’s son Husayn came to claim his right, Yazid had him killed on the fields of Kerbala.

This moment has been universally condemned, not only as a barbaric act, but also for sacrificing the Prophet’s favorite grandson for a political aim. Regardless of whether one was Sunni or Shi’ah, the Prophet and his immediate family – Ali, Fatima (daughter), Hasan and Husayn (grandsons) – have always been accorded a revered place in religious thought. What Abdul Aziz’ statement does is declare two things: the Prophet and his family are not important in his worldview, and political submission is more important than religious fealty. By saying that that Husayn committed a wrong, he has broken a taboo and introduced an innovation into traditional thought, one that is clearly motivated by his desire to maintain political power. If his argument is based on a compact made between Ali and Muawiya, it is Yazid who broke it, not Husayn.

What Abdul Aziz is arguing is that those with political authority are never to be challenged, regardless of the religious wrong that these people commit. It is an interesting argument to make as the Saudi royal family could remove him based on his argumentation and liberalize the state. Abdul Aziz, by seeking forgiveness for Husayn, says that disobeying the wrong political authority is a sin, but violating religious belief is not. He must twist history to say that there was a shari’ah, a term that did not have the same meaning then as it does now, that obligated Husayn to submit to Yazid. However, by both the standards of the time, and almost any other understanding of shari’ah now, an oath is an oath, and if it is broken it must be dealt with.

We know that control is exercised over those with the least ability to fight back. Often, issues of control are written on women’s bodies; their dress, the public appearances, they activities, their roles in society, etc.. Any political ideology that not only justifies but also encourages oppression will be moved from the macro to the micro level. The resultant attack on women is Saudi society is easy to see. It’s also the type of thinking that attempts to justify domestic violence.

The larger question is why are Shi’ah being targeted by the Saudi state. Although most other Muslims are considered deviant by Wahhabi standards, the Shi’ah are especially scorned because of the love of the Prophet and his family that is part of Shi’i theological thought. As a result, the authority structures of Shi’ism are different than that of Sunni Islam, which means that they pose a challenge for the Wahhabi way.

Due to the methodological similarities amongst Sunni the schools of interpretation, the Wahhabis can influence the process. Shi’ism different basis insulates it from this influence, posing a threat to Wahhabi hegemony. The Wahhabis must misread history and utilize a semi-religious language, claiming that modern shari’ah existed at the time of Husayn, and that Husayn did not follow it, thereby delegitimizing the Shi’ah and elevating themselves to the position of true holders of authority. Although the problems are political, the only way for the Wahhabi group to claim legitimacy is to put a veneer of religion on their ideas and hope that no one notices how empty those ideas are.

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