Saudi King Abdullah’s decree that only officially approved religious scholars would be allowed to issue fatwas is the latest example of how the state is working to assert its primacy over the country’s religious establishment. According to the August 2010 royal edict, only clerics associated with the Senior Council of Ulema (clerics) are now authorized to issue fatwas. Much of the commentary that followed was focused on Abdullah’s attempts to take on the ulema and reform the clerical establishment. Such restrictions have been in place since at least 2005 but were seldom enforced; the August decree is about bureaucratizing and institutionalizing state control.
In the text of the decree
delivered to Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz al-Ashaikh, Abdullah wrote: “As part of our religious and national duty we want you to ensure that fatwas are only issued by members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars and other permitted people.” It continued, “Individual fatwas on personal matters such as matters of worship, dealings, personal matters are exempt from this ruling, but they should be between the questioner and the scholar. There should be a total ban on any topics involving strange or obsolete views.” Abdullah stated that it is a violation of Islamic law when unqualified individuals issue fatwas, and such actions undermine the official state institutions and cross into “state jurisdiction.” The decree also instructed the Grand Mufti to identify those scholars qualified to issue fatwas. A number of senior figures, including Minister of Islamic Affairs Shaikh Saleh bin Abdel Aziz al-Ashaikh and chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council Shaikh Saleh bin Humaid have voiced their support for the new restrictions.
The Senior Council of Ulema is the Kingdom’s highest religious body and its members are all appointed by the king. The Senior Council clearly reflects the state’s interests and it frequently aligns itself with state policies. The state frequently uses the Senior Council to approve its decisions once they have been made. On occasions when Senior Council’s views differ from those of the state, such disagreements are typically conveyed through its silence. In the February 2009 government reshuffle, Abdullah expanded the Council to 21 members and for the first time in Saudi history extended membership to representatives from all four schools of Sunni legal thought, not just the Hanbali madhab. Despite these changes, several observers have noted that all the members of the Senior Council have similar positions when it comes to aqida (creed). Closely affiliated with the Senior Council is the Standing Committee for Scholarly Research and Fatwa.
A new fatwa committee affiliated with the Standing Committee has been created by the Senior Council in order to supervise the issuance of fatwas and prevent the involvement of unauthorized scholars. According to the Saudi newspaper ‘Ukaz, the new committee opened offices throughout the kingdom and was charged with responsibility for appointing approved scholars to evaluate the legitimacy of fatwas. Shaikh Saleh bin Mohammed al-Luhaydan was named to head the new fatwa committee. Al-Luhaydan is a member of the Senior Council and until the February 2009 government shake-up also headed the Supreme Judicial Council. He received international attention after he issued a controversial fatwa in September 2008 that seemingly permitted the execution of satellite television station owners for broadcasting content deemed immoral.
Following the decree, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs instructed all imams and preachers to abide by the edict and to explain it their Friday sermons. The Ministry also directed its employees not to accept requests for fatwas. Al-Watan noted that the president of al-Imam Mohammed University, for example, would take strong measures against any faculty member who violated the king’s directive. Some scholars have been publicly reprimanded for failing to adhere to the ban, including Shaikh Youssef al-Ahmed, who asserted that employing women as cashiers at a supermarket violated Islamic law.
Since the decree, a number of fatwa outlets have been shuttered, including websites and call-in shows on religious satellite channels. After several weeks of monitoring, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CTIC) contacted websites violating the ban and offered them a final chance to comply with the royal decree. In early September, CTIC blocked three websites for failing to comply. Shaikh Salman al-‘Awda, once a rather controversial figure who has since moderated significantly, preemptively closed the fatwa section of his website before it could be shut down by the government. “Fatwas on Air,” the radio program of senior advisor to the Royal Court Shaikh Abdel Mohsin al-Obeikan, was also taken off the air, as he is not a member of the Senior Council of Ulema.
Nonetheless, not all unauthorized clerics have been silenced. While others have either self-censored or had their outlets closed, Shaikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak has continued to issue fatwas. Al-Barrak is a very senior scholar widely respected in the hard-line conservative community who does not hold any official position with the government. He infamously asserted in a February 2010 fatwa that those who support allowing the sexes to mix freely in Saudi Arabia should be executed unless they renounce their beliefs. Although measures have been taken to diminish the influence of al-Barrak’s opinions, because of his independence and prominent stature the state and its proxies are unlikely to take measures to censure him.
Regarding state-clerical relations more generally, contrary to popular belief the government rarely consults the ulema during the deliberative process. More often than not, the government does as it likes and then seeks approval after the fact. Traditionally issues such as foreign policy, national defense, and international affairs have been the purview of the state, while issues related to religion and society such as justice, education, and family matters, had been given to the religious establishment. Recently, the Saudi state has been working to reclaim control of these areas.
The level of control asserted by the state over areas traditionally run by the ulema also varies according to how secure the government feels. The recent fatwa restrictions are only the latest assertion of state authority. Within the past two years alone, the government replaced nearly every senior religious and judicial leader in the February 2009 reshuffle, opened the co-educational King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, and for the first time in Saudi history dismissed a member of the Senior Council of Ulema for publically disagreeing with stated government policy. State efforts to assert control over the religious establishment are likely to continue for now, as long as the regime feels secure and confident.
Christopher Boucek is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.