In a recent article, we wrote about the Islamic Awakening Movement (also known as the “Sahwa”), a social protest movement that arose in Saudi Arabia during the ’90s as a reaction to the government’s decision to allow American troops into the land of the Two Holy Mosques.
The state cracked down hard on the movement, which included imprisoning its leaders as well as hundreds of its supporters. However, there was a more subversive strategy employed by the Saudi Government, one that was more effective at weakening the appeal of the Sahwa Movement.
With the emergence of “countermovements,” which were actively supported by the government, they were able to weaken the appeal of the protests and divert people’s attention away from criticizing and critiquing the royal family and, instead, getting them to focus on creating divisions between different Muslim groups.
One such countermovement is that of the so called “Madkhalis” or “Jamis” as they are also known, referred to as such after the name of their founder, Muhammad Aman al-Jami. They have also been known as “the scholars (‘ulama’) of Madinah,” due to the most eminent among them having been based there, primarily at the Islamic University.
Who are the “Madkhalis”?
How did they originate and why?
And were they really a created by the Saudi secret police?
These are the questions that we will be exploring in the course of this brief article.
The Age-Old Question: Da’wah or Politics?
Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali is its most well-known figure, right up to this very day. He was born in 1931, and he taught until the late 1990s in the Faculty of Hadith at the Islamic University of Madina. As a student of al-Albani, in the 1970s he had briefly joined the group known as Al-Jama’at al-Salafiyyat al-Muhtasibah (this was, of course, Juhayman al-Otaybi’s group).
After the disastrous 1979 siege of Makkah, al-Madkhali had somehow managed to not go to prison, and, thereafter, he had demonstrated an immense sense of loyalty towards the regime. In the late 1980s, he made a name for himself within the Saudi religious field through his authorship of a book entitled The Method Followed by the Prophets in Religious Preaching Contains Wisdom and Reason. Herein he argued that the priority in matters of da’wah should be the purification of the Muslim creed (‘aqidah).
This cuts right down to the core of Muslim disagreement in the modern age—the battle between those who say we must first secure a strong political structure which will protect the Muslims and those who say we must first educate the people on correct beliefs and then turn our focus to the government thereafter.
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The first group believes that securing a strong political entity will also rectify the problem of a lack of knowledge among the population (this is because you gain control of the educational institutions). The latter group, on the other hand, believes that by correcting wrong beliefs, this will somehow manage to end up trickling upwards and impact the government.
A Creation of the Secret Police or a Mere Tool of the Government?
As tensions between the Sahwa Movement and the Saudi government intensified, al-Madkhali was one of the first among the fraternity of religious scholars to openly criticize the Sahwa Movement and their scholars. He was soon joined in his criticism by other figures who were loyal to the royal family, and thus the Madkhali movement was formed.
In return for their loyalty, the Saudi government provided a huge amount of support towards this new countermovement, notably through the minister of the interior, Prince Nayef:
“The significant material and institutional resources it soon had at its disposal made it attractive to those who felt marginalized in the social arena or in the religious field”.
The Madkhalis focused on two things, namely fierce opposition against the Sahwa; and demonstrating intense loyalty to the Saudi royal family. They labelled the Sahwis as Muslim Brotherhood and accused them of having deviant ‘aqidah despite the Sahwis themselves identifying as belonging to the same Athari creed. Safar al-Hawali had actually even dedicated entire books to denouncing what he deemed to be the “deviations” of Sufis and Ash’aris.
To get around this obvious problem, the Madkhalis introduced a new distinction:
“These Sahwis may be ‘salafis’ in terms of creed (‘aqidah), but their methodology (manhaj) is not orthodox.”
In other words: These Muslims may very well have sound ‘aqidah according to us, but the methods they employ are blameworthy innovations (bida’), thus they are not true ‘salafis’ like us.
The Madkhalis also targeted the Sahwis’ interest in politics, which had allegedly turned them away from ‘ilm (sacred knowledge). To the Madkhalis, obedience to the government was an absolute obligation. They denounced the Sahwis’ hostility towards existing regimes and accused them of hizbiyyah, i.e., factionalism. The Madkhalis’ eagerness to support the Saudi regime led Sahwi leaders to mockingly accuse them of being a “party of the rulers” (hizb al-wulat).
The Madkhalis’ principal form of action was to produce dozens of refutations (rudud) against the writings and declarations of the Sahwi scholars. The Madkhalis also increased in their public lectures with the support of the authorities, who hastened to secure venues for them to lecture at. This went to the extent that they actually imposed themselves within the mosque where Safar al-Hawali would regularly teach.
On a particular occasion, al-Suhaymi and Abd al-Razzaq al-‘Abbad (two Madkhali scholars) were sent to Buraydah by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to uphold the Madkhali line when they were interrupted, while preaching, by young Sahwis who had cut the electricity, disabling the loudspeaker and chanting:
“Buraydah rejects you, you [Madkhali]!”
The Madkhalis also made a habit of writing reports on their opponents, which they would then send to the secret police. They urged for cooperation with the secret police, with the aim of encouraging them to act against their rivals. One such report was instrumental in convincing the Saudi government to support the Madkhalis.
The report in question is titled: The Secret World Organization, between Planning and Application in Saudi Arabia – Documents and Facts. Its authors identify themselves as “the loyal salafis” and denounce the existence of a secret Islamist organization inspired by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, which they allege had the goal of overthrowing the regime. Within this report, they went so far as to accuse the Sahwa of having ties with foreign groups and urged the government to put an end to the activities of the organization.
Based on the above, it can perhaps be concluded that the Madkhali countermovement really was a creation of the Saudi secret police, who viewed it as a chance to use the group in order to deter criticism away from the regime. Furthermore, it can be said that even if the Saudi intelligence community did not have a direct hand in the creation of the group, nonetheless the movement did, whether knowingly or unknowingly, serve as a convenient tool in the hands of government, one that was used to deflect criticism away from them.
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 Lacroix, Stéphane. Awakening Islam, Harvard University Press, 2011, p.212.
 Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca (New York, Doubleday, 2007).
 Awakening Islam, p.212.
 Ibid., p.213.
 See: Safar al-Hawali, Manhaj al-Asha’irah fi-l-’Aqidah [The Methodology of the Ash’arites in Creed], www.alhawali.com; al-Hawali, Al-Radd ‘ala-l-Khurafiyyin [Refutation of the Superstitious], www.saaid.net.
 Awakening Islam, p. 215.
 Ibid., p. 216.
 Ibid., p. 217.
 Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Bayna Manhajayn – Halaqah raqm 76 [Between Two Methodologies – Part 76], www.altaefa.com.