Themes and concerns of the Saudi Board of Senior Scholars
Religion in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a powerful force, but it is unclear to what extent the Saudi religious establishment controls the expression of religion in Saudi Arabia. In many publications, scholars make assumptions about the nature of the relationship between the religious establishment and the state. Some scholars have assumed that the religious scholars (ᶜulemā’) are the true power in Saudi Arabia and it is they who control government policy. Others have claimed that they scholars intentionally stay out of the state’s way and attempt only to affect Saudi civil society or that the scholars simply function as yes-men, legitimizing the state’s actions but lacking any autonomy. Clearly these positions are incommensurable. What, then, is the reality of the relationship between the scholars and the state in the Kingdom? Do the religious scholars control the government or do they limit themselves to simply controlling Saudi civil society? This paper examines the fatwas published by the Saudi Permanent Council for the Issuing of Fatwas (al-lajna al-dā’ima li’l-iftā’) between 2000-2013 in order to determine the primary concerns of the Council and their ability to affect both Saudi society and government. It argues against both positions; this paper will demonstrate that the Council does not attempt to control government policy, it does not simply serve to affirm and legitimize that policy, and it shows little interest in affecting Saudi society in general. In reality, the Council is a religious institution and their concerns are overwhelmingly religious and ritual, rather than political or social. This paper will also use newspaper articles from a variety of sources in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding nations to examine the first stages of an ongoing project known as the “High Values Program” (barnāmaj al-qiyam al-ᶜuliyā’). The stated purpose of the program is to combat the religious rhetoric of groups like ISIS in the region. This paper will use the articles to demonstrate who, even when assisting the government in attempting to control society, the Council’s concerns remain ritual-oriented.