Wahhabism on Trial? How Islam is challenging Al Saud’s Custodianship of Mecca*
By Catherine Shakdam
Following Mecca’s crane accident, clerics called for an end to Al Saud’s custodianship over Islam’s holy sites. Beyond simply managing Mecca and Medina, it is the kingdom’s romance with Wahhabism that dominates this global Islamic conversation.
The absolute rulers of Saudi Arabia have long claimed to hold a monopoly over Islam’s divine attributes on account of geography. The kingdom is home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, the House of Saud could soon see its “custodianship” and self-proclaimed legitimacy over the Muslim world stripped away.
Mecca’s twin tragedies this September (a crane toppled on unsuspecting pilgrims and a fire devastated one of the city’s uber-luxury hotels), reignited a debate on Al Saud’s legitimate authority over not just Islam’s holy sites, but the Islamic community as a whole. Wahhabism, which holds sway in the kingdom, has served more as a divider of people than as a catalyst for dialogue and collaboration.
Needless to say, Al Saud’s support of radicalism, its princes’ play for political control through financial patronage and its clergy’s insistence on institutionalizing sectarianism, have only added fuel to the fire of dissent, inspiring millions to reject the kingdom’s overbearing footprint on Islam.
The House of Saud continues to imagine itself almighty and all-powerful, the leaders of a religious community whose only purpose seems to be to command absolute obedience to their diktat. Muslims have grown tired of such absolutism, especially since it has been tainted by sectarianism and ethnic profiling.
The Qur’an confirms all men and women stand equal before God, regardless of the colour of their skin, social status or economic circumstances. However, Al Saud’s elitist policies vis-à-vis pilgrims and faith in general have spoken a different truth, one that no longer reflects Islam’s tenets. The heirs and guardians of Wahhabism, a religious fabrication, the House of Saud has gone so far down the religious rabbit hole that most Muslims can no longer recognize their faith in the authority ruling over them. Moreover, its legitimacy was imposed and not bestowed.
In 1986, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz claimed the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a title that had traditionally been held by the Ottomans since the 16th century as a mean to assert and consolidate their political hegemony over an otherwise fragmented empire.
A man of ambitions, King Abdul Aziz understood that for his legacy to become lasting, Al Saud’s monarchy would have to root itself deep within Islam (a faith which today claims over 1.6 billion followers), by appropriating custodianship of Islam’s most cherished and symbolic monuments. For whoever controls Mecca and Medina can pretend to hold Islam’s destiny in the palm of their hands, if not spiritually, at least politically. Al Saud royals have done just that.
Ever since its kings declared themselves the sole guardians of Islam, their power over the global Muslim community has reached dizzying heights – so much so that even before the plundering of Islam’s historical heritage few dared to utter more than a whisper of criticism.
The architectural transformation, or rather, devolution of Mecca stands testimony to Al Sauds’ capitalistic custodianship.
Under the impetus of Nejd bedouins, Mecca has become a hub for venture capitalists and real estate tycoons. Like much of the Islamic faith, both Mecca and Medina have found themselves besieged; their memories defiled by those whose understanding of spirituality is limited to financial projections.
Muslims have looked on aghast as their heritage has been trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own traditions. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Muhammad insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s sole raison d’être – a perfect reflection of its masters’ ambitions.
Al Saud’s fortune continues to increase by dint of lucrative business deals and powerful political friendships, but the kingdom’s religious legitimacy is standing on quicksand. And if silence has defined the past decades, clerics have now joined together with those whom Wahhabis have labeled apostates – Shia Muslims, to reclaim Islam’s holy sites for the collective.
Calls against Al Saud’s rule over Mecca and Medina have now grown both in strength and tenacity, with Muslims increasingly disillusioned before Saudi Arabia’s unfair diktat and management of those cities, which were originally meant to be shining symbols of tolerance and equality.
The accidents in September came to epitomize the rot eating away at the system. From Al Saud’s drastic pilgrim quotas and the shunning of certain nationalities based on political upsets, Muslims have just about had enough of Saudi Arabia’s tantrums.
Only this year, Yemenis were barred from the Hajj. Those sites which God stamped holy, Al Saud has claimed ownership over – as if the divine was yet another commodity to squeeze a profit out of, to be belittled and forced into submission.
Earlier this September, Sheikh Salman Mohammad, adviser to Egypt’s Ministry of Endowment, broke his office’s tacit rule of silence by challenging King Salman’s religious legitimacy. He said:
“Many mistakes have been made during the Hajj ceremony in recent decades and the bloody incident on Friday was not the first case and will not be the last either; therefore, unless a revolution doesn’t take place in the administration and management of the Hajj ceremony in Saudi Arabia, we will witness such incidents in future, too.”
Professor Ashraf Fahmi of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, which is associated with the influential Al-Azhar Mosque, an institution kept under the financial and ideological thumb of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, also broke with tradition when he aligned his criticism to that of Grand Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani, a prominent Shia cleric based in Qom (Iran). Fahmi demanded that Saudi Arabia “admit its mistakes” in managing the Hajj pilgrimage.
For the first time in centuries – actually since Wahhabism rose its ugly radical head, both Shia and Sunni clerics have come to agree that Al Saud’s claim over Islam’s holy cities can no longer be tolerated, not when it implies the disappearance of Islam’s heritage and spirit.
Could this new tentative alliance, or at least common anger, mature into a full frontal attack on Wahhabism and become a real mobilization against the evil of our modern days – radicalism?