On February 22, Saudi Arabia will celebrate its Founding Day for the first time. The commemoration of this grand historic event not only reflects the significance that the Saudi state attaches to its deep, prestigious history, but also celebrates its present and future.
The theoretical effort of “laying the foundation” for Founding Day is crucial to building states, cementing identity, and enlightening society. The Saudi identity is coherent, modernist, and developed; and like identities throughout history and across the globe, it must be reimagined and reestablished constantly, especially during transitional, historic periods. Today in Saudi Arabia, this effort takes the form of Vision 2030.
One of the main pillars of the process of laying the foundation for Saudi Founding Day was sifting through historical events, old and new, and establishing an understanding of their circumstances and contexts, as well as the leanings and beliefs of the historians who documented them. It is known that some historians favored da’wah, as education was limited to a certain category while politicians and leaders were busy unifying the country and waging battles and wars. This is evident in some local history books, and further evidenced when comparing foreign documentation from Turkey, Egypt, Britain, and others with the writings of foreign nomads who visited the country or the Western writers and historians of the time.
A clear example of this in the First Saudi State can be found in John Lewis Burckhardt’s Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, which describes the great Imam Saud as not sharing any of his plans with the sheikhs and elders. Similarly, Mai bint Mohammad Al Khalifa says in her book, Sebazabad and the Men of the Glorious State, that Imam Faysal bin Turki of the Second Saudi State once told British officer Lewis Pelly when he visited Riyadh: “We do not mix religion and politics.” Pelly cites Imam Faysal as saying that “there is always a difference between wars of religion and politics… In politics, each case is unique.” Historian Munir al-Ajlani also mentions that “Abdulaziz was so fascinated by his grandfather, Imam Faysal, that he boasted about being “the descendent of Faysal” in battles. During the Third Saudi State, Abdulaziz is also described by Amine al-Rihani as differentiating between politics and religion. Al-Rihani says the King “did not care if the sheikhs and scholars did not always approve of this urban plan, since they had no authority to oppose his domestic or foreign policies.” Khayr al-Din al-Zirikli also cites Abdulaziz as saying that scholars “have expressed to me that they do not intervene in political matters.” In the same vein, Armstrong indicates that “although Ibn Saud has yielded to the scholars’ will on religious matters, he ordered them to go back to their books when they advised him on political and military matters on which he disagreed.”
This sharp political acumen among the kings of the Three Saudi States is clear evidence that the “state” and its “leaders” were aware of their role and leadership without any external involvement. When laying the foundations for Founding Day, it was crucial to note, reinforce, and disseminate these concepts.
Over the years, many infamous erroneous concepts with historic, religious, cultural, and social dimensions were promoted despite lacking a sound historic and scientific basis. One such concept is that the “da’wah” preceded the “state,” when in fact, the state had been established for over a decade by the Founding Father, Muhammad Ibn Saud, when the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab arrived. This historical truth contradicts the account that the state was established through “an alliance between the two Imams” with equal state hierarchy, decisionmaking power, and leadership positions. In fact, the state was established to unify the lands and enforce stability and security, not only to “help the da’wah prevail,” as is often reiterated by the anti-state ideological rhetoric.
Another of these false concepts is that “the Najd and Saudi communities were polytheist and infidels before the da’wah.” Reading pre-da’wah scholastic and historical writings is enough to understand that the imams of the Saudi state and the society of Najd were Hanbalis long before the advent of the “da’wah” and had jurists, scholars, and imams.
Resisting development is a multifaceted process with many historical variations across time and space. Its greatest contemporary representation in the Arab world is the rhetoric, ideology, work, and organization of Political Islam movements. Examples abound, but perhaps the most accurate manifestation of this opposition is the false logic of “embarrassing” the state or decisionmakers with a language and concept that opposes and destroys ideas, including the vilification of any decision citing the words of consensual political figures who, nonetheless, uttered these sayings in completely different eras and cultural and social contexts. With the ultimate purpose of resisting development, and motivated by fear for the “identity” or “organization”, they resort to this trick of hiding behind “symbols” or citing famous sayings out of context to oppose a project, decision, or vision.
Thus, the resistance against Founding Day by some “commoners” or “non-experts” is understandable, as this could change when they receive the rhetoric of “laying the foundations” for Founding Day with openness. The problem lies in the experts who understand but resist, especially those responsible for supporting and laying the foundation for Founding Day, because this is considered an abuse of responsibility and dereliction of duty.
Resistance also finds roots in the dissemination of false sayings and their connection to systems of cultural, economic, social, or bureaucratic interests, since any development or change at such a significant, historic level that serves the state and the people on the long term perhaps damages the interests of these “systems.” Cue resistance.
In Islamic tradition, when the faithful disapproved of the leader’s decisions, they resorted to “isolation,” like Abu Dharr al-Ghifari who went into isolation in Al Rabatha, allegedly upon the order of Othman bin Affan. However, contemporary resistance turned dissatisfaction into “an industry of discontent” with Sayyid Qutb and leftist, nationalist currents before him. Older versions of this concept also figured in Islamic history under the “khawarij” label.
Lastly, laying the foundation for Founding Day is the duty of historians, researchers, and intellectuals, but this responsibility also falls on public and private research institutions and cultural and media establishments.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.