Why Does Saudi Arabia Imprison Islamic Scholars? Understanding the Sahwa Movement

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, causing an international uproar. Under the guise of fearing an Iraqi attack, the Saudi regime invited American troops to protect its borders. This was the first time the Kingdom allowed non-Muslim forces into the land of the Haramain, the Two Holy Mosques. This decision gave rise to a group which stood in opposition against the royal family: the “Sahwa” (short for al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, “The Islamic Awakening”).

The thing that distinguished the Sahwa Movement was its ability to attract tens of thousands of young men to denounce the American presence. What started as an outburst of anger was soon organized into a Movement, and two leaders, Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-‘Awda, came into prominence. After publishing a ‘Letter of Demands’ and forming a ‘Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights,’ the state responded by imprisoning hundreds of Sahwa activists along with several of its leaders, including al-‘Awda and al-Hawali.

The Movement came to an end in 2017 when the new crown prince assumed power. He declared an end to the Sahwa Movement by imprisoning its scholars once again and declaring a return to “moderate Islam.”[1] Apparently the Saudi state’s idea of ‘moderate’ Islam is one in which Halloween is celebratedconcerts are proliferated, and hedonistic festivals involving the Statue of Liberty are legitimated.

To understand what the Sahwa Movement is; and why the Saudi regime perceives it as a threat, we must first venture back in time to understand its emergence, its ideas and the threat it poses against the Saudi project of liberalization.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928 by its founder, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), who was a student of Rashīd Ridā. Ridā was a fierce opponent of freemasonry’s introduction into Egypt by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and his student Muḥammad ‘Abduh. He was also a staunch opponent of the Zionist Movement, and these anti-Western ideas inspired the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For more on these three individuals⁠—and Muḥammad ‘Abduh in particular—see: Muhammad ‘Abduh: Leading 19th Century Modernist Reformer

In the December of 1954, the Brotherhood was accused of being behind an assassination attempt against Gamal Abdel Nasser which led to a series of repressive measures, and in 1965 the movement took a decisive turn that would forever change its image. Nasser had set up concentration camps for the Muslim Brotherhood members, and it was there that the thoughts of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) developed.

Contrary to al-Banna, who believed that preaching (da’wah) was the path to society’s reform, Qutb believed that the structural barriers which prevent the shari’a from being implemented must be removed first:

Those who have usurped the authority of Allah Almighty and are oppressing Allah’s creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching; if it had been so, the task of establishing Allah’s religion in the world would have been very easy for the Prophets of Allah.[2]

The Arab Cold War

During the decolonization years following World War II, authoritarian nationalist regimes came to power in the Middle East. These regimes were weary of the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood. They subjected the movement to harsh repression, and many of its members had to flee in order to survive. Following Nasser’s first wave of repression in 1954, many Brotherhood members found refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Until the late 1950s, the Brothers in Saudi Arabia remained politically inactive, but as the geopolitical situation changed between the West and the Soviet Union, regional rivalries increased. Saudi Arabia sided with the United States, while Nasser’s Egypt sided with the Soviet Union. The development marked the onset of the Arab cold war where the Brotherhood became a pivotal player on the Saudi stage.[3]

To counter Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism, king Faysal made Islam the kingdom’s chief symbolic resource. With the help of the Brothers, he introduced ‘Islamic Unity’ as an alternative to Nasser’s Arab nationalism. To further this goal, he established the Islamic University of Medina in 1961 to be run by those “who have been driven from their country after having been robbed, abused and tortured,” a direct reference to the Muslim Brotherhood members.[4]

At King Abd al-Aziz University in Jeddah and its annex in Mecca which became Umm al-Qura University in 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood was in the majority from the beginning. Among the most famous faculty members was Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid Qutb’s younger brother. A significant number of the most renowned members of the Muslim Brotherhood thus became teachers in Saudi Arabia and dominated the institutions during the 1970s and the ’80s. They also made up the majority of the personnel within the secondary schools:[5]

Saudi Arabia in the 1960s thus experienced a massive influx into the local religious field of an exogenous tradition, that of the Muslim Brotherhood and the establishment of institutions that were largely in its service in both form and content. This transplantation was the source of a vast social movement that produced its own counterculture and its own organizations and, through the educational system, soon reached almost all the fields of the social arena.[6]

The Emergence of the Sahwa

This social movement was known as al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Awakening), or just the “Sahwa.” The ideology of the Sahwa was a kind of mix between two different ways of looking at the world: the legacy of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood is primarily political and was constructed against the imperial west. The legacy of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab on the other hand was primarily focused on his understanding of tawhid and thereby purifying Islam from the innovations (bida’) that had been introduced into Islam, which were unknown to the first three generations of Muslims (as-Salaf as-Saaliheen).

The two traditions were thus completely distinct and had their own areas of focus. They complemented each other and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Sahwa through the Saudi educational system which was dominated by the methods and thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood who, in their Saudi variant, had adopted the ‘aqida of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

The intellectual father of the Sahwa Movement is Muhammad Qutb. Born in Egypt in 1919, he grew up in the shadow of his older brother Sayyid Qutb. After spending six years in prison and witnessing the death-by-hanging of his brother in 1966, he decided to emigrate to Saudi Arabia in 1971. Here he was appointed professor at the Faculty of Shari’a in Mecca.

Qutb was very successful in merging the legacy of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and that of his older brother. He added a fourth pillar to the original three forms of tawhid described by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which he called tawhid al-hākimiyya, meaning that Allah alone must be sovereign. What he meant by Allah alone being the sovereign was that any hākim (ruler) who ruled by other than what Allah had sent down, was violating the tawhid of Allah.

This was in direct violation to the international system established in the wake of the first world war, where the Caliphate had been dismantled and the Islamic Empire had been broken up into several nation states that were governing by other than what Allah had sent down, opting instead for secular constitutions formed on the script left behind by the Western colonizers.

This notion of tawhid not being complete until the shari’a had sovereignty over the ruler, was an idea that would later dominate the Sahwi thinking and their criticism of the Saudi regime.

RELATION: The Logical Necessity of the Caliphate

An Opposition Begins to Take Form

Inspired by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, a new generation of Saudi citizens grew up. They had attended the youth camps set up by the Sahwa, where the focus had been on Islamic tarbiya, invoking pride in the Muslim identity and a sense of responsibility towards Muslims around the world. They had been infused with the idea that religion and politics were not two separate entities but rather that Islam was to be viewed as a holistic way of life, encompassing all areas of society.

Traditionally, the political arena had been allocated to the Al-Saud (Saudi ruling family), but with a new generation of intellectuals, scholars, and activists who felt sidelined by the political and religious elites, a new sense of responsibility and confidence in their right to speak out against injustice began to take form.

On August 13, 1990, the Council of the Committee of Senior Ulema (Hay’at kibar al-‘ulama) held a meeting in which they issued a fatwa supporting “the actions decided on by the leader to call upon qualified forces possessing equipment provoking fear and terror in those who would like to commit aggression against this country.”[7]

The Sahwi ulema reacted vehemently against this fatwa. They denounced the religious authorities’ support for the move to bring US forces to the land of the Two Holy Mosques and challenged the fatwa directly.

Safar al-Hawali published a paper called Leading the Ulema of the Umma out of Confusion. Herein he criticized the Saudi ulema for not having a proper understanding of fiqh al-wāqi’, meaning they did not have an accurate understanding of the geopolitical reality, which was leading them to an erroneous conclusion regarding the matter.

Salmān al-‘Awda delivered a lecture titled “The Causes of the Collapse of States,” in which he presented a vision of Saudi politics, emphasizing what a state should not do if it wanted its legitimacy to endure. Drawing on the writings of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), he described twelve causes that were likely to lead to the collapse of a state, among which were the moral and economic corruption of its governing apparatus, the oppression imposed by its leaders and the absence of consultation (shura) in decision making. In a not-so-subtle allusion to the regime, he stated:

Some states were founded on the basis of religion, to protect and propagate it, to implement the principle of commanding right and forbidding wrong, and to apply shari’a… As long as a state [like this] remains faithful to its foundation and to the purpose for which it was built, it cannot fail to remain powerful, respected, and unconquered, because it has the support of its population. But if it moves away from its founding rationale … it loses the reason for its existence, and its first supporters abandon it… while it shows itself unable to win new support, which causes its collapse.[8]

The state responded by cracking down on the Sahwa Movement and imprisoning both al-‘Awda and al-Hawali. In the end, what the Sahwa wanted was to advise the Saudi Kingdom and warn them against the path they were on, but the regime interpreted the Sahwa demands as a threat and as interfering in their domain of politics. For the first time in its history, the Saudi Political arrangement was shaken. An arrangement that had seemed stable since its inception in 1932.

A Generation of Consumers, Not Thinkers

With the latest crown prince, the regime decided to end the Sahwa Movement once and for all. The new government had spared no one, not secular activists and certainly not Islamic activists. Anyone that was deemed to be a threat to Vision 2030 of liberalizing Saudi society has been preemptively neutralized. This includes al-‘Awdah, al-Hawali, Ali al-Omari, Awad al-Qarni and many others who have once again been imprisoned following a crackdown in 2017.

RELATED: Saudi Arabia’s Dystopian Line City: Can Technology Replace Nature?

The regime decided to remove the voices of those that advocate for real change in the Kingdom. Instead of real reform, the regime has decided to rely on an illusion of reform, where it feeds the youth with endless streams of entertainment and superficial changes that pose no threat to the royal family. Instead of fostering a generation of independent and strong Islamic thinkers, they are fostering a generation of Netflix-watching, roller coaster riding, rock concert listening superficial citizens sedated into compliance and obedience.

Those who are defiant have been decisively scared off by the example that was made of Khashoggi and the arrest of those ulema who are critical of the Saudi liberalization project. With those actions, the regime made it clear that no dissenting voices would be tolerated.

The Islamic Awakening has officially ended, but you cannot extinguish an idea. The idea that Islam has a role to play on a societal level. That Islam came as a complete way of life and not something to be relegated to the four corners of your home. We long for a true Muslim society today where the shari’a is above the ruler, and this is not something that is unattainable. We had it once before (al-Khulafā al-Rāshidūn), and we can have it again, in shā Allah.

RELATED: The Concept of Khilāfah in Islam


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/24/i-will-return-saudi-arabia-moderate-islam-crown-prince

[2] Sayyid Qutb, Ma’alim fi-l-tareeq (Milestones), p. 68.

[3] Lacroix, Stéphane. Awakening Islam, Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 40.

[4] Ibid., p. 42.

[5] Ibid., pp. 44-45.

[6] Ibid., p. 51.

[7] Charles Kurzman, Pro-U.S. Fatwas, in MIDDLE EAST POLICY, VOL. X, NO. 3, FALL 2003, p. 157.

[8] Salman al-’Awda, ”Asbab suqut al-duwal,” recorded lecture, August 28, 1990.


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