GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Role of the Official 'Ulama in Saudi Arabia: Traditional or Rather Modern?
Paper Proposal Text :
The Saudi state is often described as an Islamic state, especially due to the visiblity of 'ulama in the state echelons. But does their being visible in the state structures necessarily imply their influence on the policy-making and administration? The proposed paper will study how far the official 'ulama class in Saudi Arabia constitutes an effective countercheck on the executive power and whether it exercises any effective influence on the policy-making.
The paper will take a brief look at the classical constitutonal structure of the Muslim world up to the bureaucratization and canonization efforts undertaken by Suleyman the Magnificent. The three-fold role of classical 'ulama as (a) the interpreters of the shari'a, (b) the judges appointed by the state in its courts (qadi-mufti relationship) as well as (c) the legitimizers of the ruler's authority historically made them into an effective countercheck on the executive power. Back then, there was no necessity to characterize the state as Islamic because the ruler derived his authority from his responsibility to 'command the good and forbid the evil.' For it, he had to rely on qadis (appointed, inter alia, from among the 'ulama) who were supposed to judge according to the shari'a. Moreover, the administrative regulations the ruler used to pass could not contradict the shari'a.
Yet, with the bureaucratization and canonization efforts starting from the period of Suleyman the Magnificent (establishment of the position of the Grand Mufti as well as shari'ah-compliant legislation) opened the doors for the co-optation of 'ulama, the instrumentalization of religion for political ends as well as the state control over the religious discourse.
The emulation of the Ottoman constitutional model, especially in oil-rich countries where the state assumes the ownership of oil resources, is unlikely to produce the system of checks and balances. Eventually, the official 'ulama end up binding the community to obedience by exercising considerable control over social sphere and religious practices but are effectively deprived of the opportunity to loose it, if the need arises. Often, ''[t]he appearance of an Islamized social sphere is often mistakenly taken to represent an Islamic polity." (Madawi, Al-Rasheed. Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.25).
According to the classical Islamic constitutional order, for a State to be Islamic, it is not necessarily to have the 'ulama as a part of the official establishment. The independent 'ulama are to be the fourth branch of power balancing and checking the rest three branches as the custodians of the conscience and faith of all, rulers and ruled. The paper will demonstrate that the offcial 'ulama in Saudi Arabia fail to perform this classical role of theirs, and they are rather custodians of the state than of the shari'a. In that sense, theirs is not a traditional role rather the role dictated by the modern socio-economic conditions. Indeed, the effective voices may rather come from non-official 'ulama as demonstrated by Sahwi movement at the very beginning of the movement till its leaders were imprisoned.