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Sa῾ūd, ῾Abd Al‐῾azīz Ibn ῾abd Al‐raḥmān Āl

By:
Hermann Frederick Eilts
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

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Sa῾ūd, ῾Abd Al‐῾azīz Ibn ῾abd Al‐raḥmān Āl

(1880–1953), founder of the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its first ruler. His father was the youngest of the three sons of the renowned Imam Fayṣal. A self‐defeating family feud enabled the rival Āl Rashīd of Ḥa῾il to extinguish the second Saudi polity and to establish themselves as rulers of central Arabia. Subsequent paternal involvement in an abortive insurgency against Āl Rashīd forced the Sa῾ūd family to flee Riyadh. They eventually accepted asylum in Kuwait and spent ten years there.

Although reared in the stern principles of Unitarianism (a rigorous monotheism, often imprecisely referred to as “Wahhābism,” promoted by Muḥammad ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb in the mid‐eighteenth century), ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz showed scant interest in becoming an ῾ālim (religious scholar) like his father. Rather, frequent attendance at the majlis (parliament) of successive rulers of Kuwait taught him the intricacies of governance of Arabian tribal societies, inculcated a more cosmopolitan outlook than was generally prevalent among xenophobic Najdī tribesmen, and reinforced his ambition to recover the Āl Sa῾ūd patrimony.

In 1901, with help from the ruler of Kuwait, ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz led forty companions in a successful attack against the Āl Rashīd governor of Riyadh, thereby enabling the reestablishment of a Sa῾ūdī polity. Proclaimed imam by his Unitarian followers, he nevertheless chose to delegate religious authority to his father during the latter's lifetime (d. 1928), as ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz devoted himself to consolidating and expanding the Saudi domains.

Al‐Ḥasa Province was conquered from the Turks in 1913, the al‐῾Aydh emirate of ῾Aṣīr was annexed in 1919, and the Rashīds were decisively defeated in 1921. The British‐supported Hashemite family of the Hejaz (al‐Ḥijāz) was forced to abdicate in 1925, leaving ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz in possession of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (Madinah). Henceforth, the Ḥanbalī interpretation of sharī῾ah (the divine law) would dominate the legal structure of the expanded state. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formally proclaimed. Two years later, after a successful war against Yemen, a border between them was vaguely arranged. By then ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz was widely recognized as the paramount ruler in the Arabian Peninsula.

As the Saudi polity grew, the religio‐political legitimacy of ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz came to be rooted in the promotion of Unitarian doctrines. As early as 1909, in an attempt to bring the fractious central Arabian tribes under greater control, he began settling the tribes in permanent hijar (paramilitary settlements). Muṭawwa῾īn (religious tutors) were sent to instruct the tribesmen in the principles of Unitarianism. Strategically placed, fervidly devoted ikhwān (“brethren”) tribal forces were now available to further his expansionist goals.

Yet, by the late 1920s, various tribal ikhwān had become restive over constraints placed on them by their ruler. Raiding into Transjordan, Kuwait, and Iraq, they killed and looted Sunnīs and Shī῾īs alike. British military action was needed to expel them. Belatedly realizing the threat they posed, ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz managed to mobilize other indigenous forces, defeated his erstwhile tribal allies, and razed their settlements.

The Unitarian seizure of Mecca (Makkah) in 1925 also created widespread concern in the Islamic world lest Muslims of other schools and sects suffer Unitarian harassment when making their obligatory pilgrimage. Efforts by Egyptian, Indian, and other Muslim communities to place the ḥaramayn (holy cities of Mecca and Medina) under international Muslim jurisdiction were aborted, following assurances from ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz that Muslims from anywhere, regardless of school or sect, could perform their pilgrimage rites without harassment. That commitment was scrupulously honored.

῾Abd al‐῾Azīz was sometimes charged by conservative ῾ulamā' (religious scholars) and ikhwān with introducing bid῾ah (innovation) into the Saudi polity. His assumption of the regnal title, for reasons of external relations, offended their Unitarian sensibilities. As late as the 1940s, they rejected it as inconsistent with Islam and continued to refer to him as imam or, secularly, as shaykh al‐shuyūkh. Similarly, his introduction of the telephone, telegraph, and various transport improvements initially aroused strong opposition. This was overcome by demonstrating that Qur'ānic passages could be transmitted by these instruments.

A further source of Unitarian misgiving was the award by ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz of an oil concession in 1933 to the Standard Oil Company of California, which introduced non‐Muslim petroleum engineers to al‐Ḥasa Province. It also opened the door to the progressive, if slow, infrastructural modernization of Saudi Arabia. ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz's towering leadership abilities were required to surmount such criticisms.

The immediate post—World War II era heard speculation in the emergent Arab world that an Islamic caliphate might be reestablished. ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz was prominently mentioned as a putative candidate, but nothing came of the idea. ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz's meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in 1945 accorded him international stature.

During his lifetime, ῾Abd al‐῾Azīz sired thirty‐six sons and at least twenty‐one daughters. He died in 1953, before vast oil wealth eroded many traditional social values. His sons continue to rule the Saudi state.

See also Saudi Arabia; Wahhābīyah.

Bibliography

  • Almana, Mohammed. Arabia Unified: A Portrait of Ibn Sa῾ud. London, 1980.
  • Benoist‐Méchin, Jacques. Arabian Destiny. Translated by Denis Weaver. Fair Lawn, N.J., 1958.
  • Howarth, David. The Desert King: A Life of Ibn Saud. London, 1964.
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