JEDDAH // A leading member of the Saudi royal family has come out in defence of the religious teachings upon which Saudi Arabia was formed, dismissing accusations that they are distant from the essence of Islam. Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of the Saudi capital Riyadh, told reporters on Monday that the Islamic structure of the Gulf kingdom, as laid out more than 250 years ago by the Sunni scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab, reflected "pure Islam".
The prince dismissed the label "Wahabism", often used to describe Saudi Arabia's austere religious practices, saying there was nothing to differentiate Abdul Wahab's teachings from those of the Sharia. "Enemies of the sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab labelled his teaching as Wahabism, a doctrine that doesn't exist here," Prince Salman was quoted as saying by the daily Okaz newspaper. "I dare any one to bring a single alphabetical letter from the Sheikh's books that goes against the book of Allah ... and the teachings of his prophet, Mohammed."
The prince was speaking after a meeting of an executive committee formed to develop al Diriyah, the original capital of the Saudi state, just days before the Janadriya festival, a celebration of Saudi heritage, which began there yesterday. The Saudi state was established in 1744 by Prince Muhammad ibn Saud of Diriyah, who agreed to support Abdul Wahab in cleansing the Islamic faith from what he considered "innovation", or Bidah - the distortion of Islam. Abdul Wahab was a Salafist, believing in a return to the Islam practised by the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century.
It was the Ottomans who first labelled Abdul Wahab's school of Islam in Saudi Arabia as Wahabism, according to the Saudi writer Abdul Aziz Qassim, a term that was then picked up by Britons during their incursion into the Middle East. The term has become widely used in the West, especially after the September 11 attacks, to describe certain forms of Islamic fundamentalism. "We don't like to call it the Wahabi movement but rather the reform or Salafi movement of the Sheikh," Qassim said.
Religious institutions in Saudi Arabia regularly come under international criticism over what is perceived to be harsh regulations of life in the kingdom, but Qassim said that should not be conflated with Abdul Wahab's teachings. "People who attack Wahabi teachings are referring to old views of the Sheikh and his followers but this is not fair as there are changes happening within the doctrine and among its followers," said Qassim, who also hosts religious television shows on Islamic channels.
"Saudi scholars were strict because the society was closed for hundreds of years, but they are changing nowadays." Qassim pointed to the tolerant views of the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Ashaikh, who is a descendant of Abdul Wahab, and to those of the minister of justice, Mohammed al Issa, who is against segregation between sexes in public and in universities. "Those two belong to the Wahabi school of thought and they are not extreme in their views," he said.