pp. 893-894

Islam in Saudi Arabia, David Commins

Reviewed by Carolyn Barnett





It is no easy task to write a book about the religion and politics of Saudi Arabia that manages to balance accessibility with nuance and broad scope with engaging detail. David Commins has managed to do just that, writing a survey that covers, among other topics, the history of Wahhabi Islam, the rise and fall of successive governments led by the Al Saud, the tensions and compromises between the Wahhabi religious establishment and the Saudi royal family, the politics of everyday religion in Saudi Arabia, and the reach of Wahhabi influence around the world. Even as he covers such extensive ground, the book is compact and easy to digest.

The book is aimed at the level of an undergraduate course or a general audience, with spare endnotes and (admirably) minimal jargon and foreign terminology. It is a straightforward and well-crafted synthesis of existing research on Wahhabism and the Arabian Peninsula rather than a contribution of a new theoretical approach or an original interpretation of an understudied subject. It provides an approachable, comprehensive introduction to the subject for students and interested lay readers.

Commins’s strength is his ability to traverse history, sociology, anthropology, and politics to make clear the ways in which the power bargain between the Al Saud and the Wahhabi religious establishment affects everything from everyday religious practice in Saudi Arabia to the country’s international relations, labor market challenges, and efforts to control citizens’ access to the Internet. Commins is equally comfortable analyzing the emergence of Wahhabi doctrine in the religious context of eighteenth-century Islam, tracing the evolution of debates about religious and legal reform, and commenting on recent efforts by the Saudi government to find ways to employ more women as cashiers in supermarkets.

As such, the book includes material that would be suitable assigned reading for different types of courses related to the broad subject matter. Chapters on “The Establishment of the Wahhabi Tradition” and “Wahhabism and the Modern Saudi State” would be at home in a course on the history of the modern Middle East, Islamic thought, or political Islam; chapters on “Religion and Daily Life” and “Islam and Contemporary Saudi Society” would be useful for those examining religious praxis, the contemporary sociology and politics of Islam, or the politics of gender or sectarianism. Students of contemporary politics (including the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS and challenges to Saudi authority) will find the last two chapters, “Religious Politics” and “The International Reach of Wahhabism,” most useful, although the latter chapter is the book’s least cohesive.

Commins concludes the book with a discussion of the most recent shake-ups in Saudi Arabia’s politics: the passing of King Abdullah and his replacement by King Salman, as well as the rising power of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Prince Muhammad bin Salman within King Salman’s government. While noting, as other commentators have, that these changes inject a new source of uncertainty into Saudi high politics, Commins cautions that it “seems highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s rulers will introduce major changes to the country’s religious life” (p. 182). Even so, Saudis’ everyday faith, practice, and politics are constantly shifting, and they will continue to do so, he writes. No tectonic shifts in Saudi life are imminent, but neither is Saudi society stagnant. While not particularly surprising, this assessment rings true—and for nonexperts, Commins’s book is a useful starting point for trying to make sense of those changes as they occur.

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