About Lewis

A review of Al-Rasheed, Madawi. (2007) Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. First published by SaudiDebate.

Being an anthropologist of Saudi Arabia does not make for an easy life. Rigid state control of research in the Kingdom means Al-Rasheed has (p.12)(n.1) “not come across an impartial sociological or anthropological study of religion and religious practice… conducted by a Saudi researcher.” And while being outside Saudi Arabia allows you the liberty of working critically, it prevents you doing the type of intensive ethnographic fieldwork that is the mainstay of anthropology elsewhere in the world.

To make matters worse, the world is not exactly receptive to the type of nuanced analysis for which good anthropology has become known. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, many writers seem content to trot out a few clichés about Wahhabism and to dig no further into the facts of the matter. That Al-Rasheed has overcome these problems to produce a finely nuanced account of the ways in which the Saudi state is contested at the start of the 21st century is a triumph.

It is important to emphasise the fact Al-Rasheed is an anthropologist because an anthropological approach seems to avoid some of the central problems hampering much of the writing about the Kingdom. If the reader is anything like me, he or she will by now have read hundreds of articles which endeavour to calmly delineate those age-old categories: Wahhabi, Salafi, Sahwi, Liberal and Jihadi. Reading these articles, nothing seems simpler than the way people happily adhere to the roles they have been given. The problems start when you read another article, which has an entirely different set of categories, and find out that actually, according to article (b), those calm categories of article (a) aren’t actually the way we need to see Saudi Arabia, and that the author of article (b) has the definitive set of categories.

There is a problem when an article contains more categories than there are people mentioned in the article to fill them.

Madawi Al-Rasheed does not full into the trap of classification. Contesting the Saudi State is full of people, many of whom have moved between categories, most of whom do not fit neatly into any of them. Al-Rasheed is well aware that categories are only useful in so far as they allow us to understand the richness and complexity of the human relations beneath them. She is also aware that these people may not agree with the categories they have been placed in(n.2) . Most importantly, the books starting point is that even if people call themselves a certain name, or put themselves in a certain category, that self-ascription might be contested by others.

Which is to say, giving names to things is not a prologue to understanding a situation; understanding the contested nature of the names involved in a situation is, in an important sense, the situation itself. In Saudi Arabia at the dawn of the 21st century, understanding the arguments that revolve around names like Salafi is to understand much of the current situation.

Such an approach means not taking names to refer to absolute objects, but understanding that underneath names are discourses that legitimate themselves, and that these discourses are in turn used to respond to very local concerns, which often have only limited relevance to the explicit intentions of the discourse. Al-Rasheed uses such an approach to look to see how underneath different interpretations of what it means to be Salafi there are discourses which encourage and legitimate different types of action on a local level. For instance, (p.137) “even if Jihadism… is a function of global terror networks and transnational religious and political flows, it grows in a specific local context with its own cultural codes and experiences.”

Her method of analysis is vital in Saudi Arabia not just because political science is content to rest at the level of names, but because so much of the politics of contestation in Saudi Arabia is about naming; the official ‘ulama call the Jihadi’s Kharijites, the Jihadis return the compliment – and unless one understands the background underneath all this catcalling, these names float in a vacuum.

Most of the book is taken up in working out what it might mean to be a number of names: Muslim, Saudi Arabian and Salafi being the most prominent. One of the great successes of the book is the way it, in looking at these names, manages to talk about faith. As Al-Rasheed argues (p.210), in social science faith has too often been either an ideological supplement to what is essentially a materialist motivation, or it has stood apart as an irrational motivation for action. Contesting the Saudi State instead traces a very delicate path through the ways religion has interacted with politics; how many Jihadis are not in search of some sort of nihilistic redemption, but are rational actors (ibid) “guided by divine power, empowered by faith in a world where such empowerment is dismissed as emotional, irrational, misguided and even destructive.”

The danger with writing such a book – stood away from your field of research and working from discourse, especially when you want to take faith claims seriously – is that discourse becomes the horizon of your work. It is to Al-Rasheed’s credit that, as far as possible, she does not allow this to happen. Very early on in the book, she makes the point that despite the claims of the official ‘ulama, the government operates according to personal political gains rather than religion.

Indeed, much of the dissent Al-Rasheed writes about in the book emerges precisely from this gap between words and things. It emerges due to the distance between the words of a regime that praised jihad in Afghanistan and the fact it allowed American troops into the country during the first gulf war. Al-Rasheed eloquently describes this contestation of a regime that (p.1) “insisted in complete submission to political authority while preaching total submission to God.”

The book traces the development of the official Wahhabi religio-political discourse, and its implications on contemporary political life. While Al-Rasheed is admirably sceptical of the official claims, proving their verity, or otherwise, is not the focus of the book. For instance, the Wahhabi myth (p.23) “claims that Muslims in Arabia were and are blasphemous, and their salvation is entirely dependent on the message of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab.” Now clearly, the fact there was tomb worship does not mean that everyone was a tomb worshipper. But this sort of exercise is not what Al-Rasheed is driving at; she wants to understand how this claim functions to legitimate the Al-Saud regime, and the effect it will have on how those who want to challenge the Kingdom create their opposition.

This review does not allow me the space to go into her claims in detail, suffice to say that even when her book deals with relatively worn ground, the perspective she takes allows new insights. For instances, much of the academic debate on the emergence of the Sahwa centres on whether it was an internal development to Saudi Arabia, or whether it was an imported phenomenon that arrived with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 60′s. Al-Rasheed, characteristically, turns the debate on its head. While she disagrees (p.73) with Kepel (n.3) , who claims that the Sahwa enters the Kingdom with the Muslim Brotherhood, and even suggests the reverse – that the Muslim Brotherhood were influenced by ideas from inside the Kingdom – she suggests this is not the point. What is more important is to see how these ideas (foreign, ‘internal’), are understood on the ground, and made relevant to local concerns in the Kingdom.

Nowhere is this better achieved than in her portrait of Lewis Atiyat Allah, “one of the most popular Jihadi Islamist internet writers” (p.175). Under a nom de plume, he writes sophisticated critiques of the Kingdom, and responds articulately to criticisms. His support of al-Qa’ida is not simply based on the sentiment of “kick the infidel from the Arabian Peninsula”, but is a carefully phrased argument which examines the duty of jihad, and the task of making Islam a hegemonic religion. Reading Al-Rasheed’s presentation of his ideas, you may not agree with him – I hope you don’t – but you cannot walk away claiming his argument is anything other than considered. Her presentation of his work moves from global to local (Saudi Arabian) concerns, not simply showing how the local is now part of the global, and visa versa, but how both local and global share similar dynamics. At each stage of the argument, Al-Rasheed shows the relationship between Lewis’ ideas and the official Wahhabi discourse. It is a rich portrait, that should be required reading for anyone interested in the Peninsula.

This portrait also points to the necessary limit of the study. Inevitably, given the repression within Saudi Arabia, Al-Rasheed’s fieldwork has been a virtual one. In one sense, this is the same movement that has occurred within Saudi Arabia: due to internal repression, critics of the regime have in large part also moved to the internet. However, her treatment creates a slight imbalance in the book. For while we get a sense of the gap between the official discourse and the way the Saudi state functions, the majority of the book – which deals with the ways this discourse is contested – rests on the level of a discursive analysis. Which is to say that the ethnography of jihad has yet to be written, but one cannot fault Al-Rasheed for this. As a nuanced picture of the contradictions of Wahhabi religio-political discourse, and the actors contesting it, Contesting the Saudi State succeeds admirably, and deserves the widest possible readership.


n.1: All page references to Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation will be indicated by a number inside brackets. Other books will be referred to in the normal way. Notes are denoted by the letter (n)
n.2: Have you ever met anyone who describes themselves as a Wahhabi? 
n.3: Kepel, G. (2004) The War for Muslim Minds. pp. 170-196. Cambridge: Belknap Press.