Al al-Shaykh Family

views updated


An important family or clan in Saudi Arabia; one of only two nonroyal families, the other being the Al Sudayri, with whom Al Saʿud princes may marry.

The Al al-Shaykh (the family of the Shaykh) are descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the Islamic reformer who formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saʿud in the mid-eighteenth century. This association has shaped their families' fortunes and those of most of the Arabian peninsula since. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born in 1703 in the Najd, probably in the central Arabian town of alUyayna. Influenced by the strict teachings of Ibn Taymiya, a thirteenth-fourteenth century jurist of the conservative Hanbali Law School, he returned home from prolonged study to preach a simple, puritanical faith that eschewed theological innovations and aimed at countering the moral laxity of his Najdi contemporaries. Those who accepted his teaching and its emphasis on tawhid, the oneness of the Qurʾanic god unchallenged and untainted by any earthly attributes, were Muwahhidun (unitarians), known outside Arabia as Wahhabis. Unwelcome in al-Uyayna, the preacher moved to al-Dirʿiya, where Muhammad ibn Saʿud was amir, ruler of a district in Najd. The latter's political leadership and the military abilities of his son, Abd al-Aziz, combined with the reformer's zeal, brought all of Najd under Saudi rule within thirty years. In 1803, the year of his death by assassination, Abd al-Aziz took Mecca, and his son Saʿud expanded the first Saudi state over the course of the next decade to approximately its present limits.

During his lifetime, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was the imam (Muslim spiritual leader) of the expanding Saudi state, a title conveying responsibility for enforcing norms of correct Islamic belief and behavior as well as carrying the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam to the rest of the Islamic world and beyond. When he died, the title passed to the Al Saʿud rulers. The shaykh's descendants did not exercise direct political power in the decades that followed, although they were accorded special respect. The Al Saʿud have continued the practice of intermarriage with members of the Al al-Shaykh, begun when Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad married a daughter of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The late King Faisal's mother was Tarfa bint Abdullah, daughter of a distinguished Al al-Shaykh scholar and jurist, making Faisal the great-great-great grandson of the original shaykh. Moreover, the family continued to produce religious leaders who exercised great influence on all decision-making in a state whose legitimacy depended on adherence to and propagation of Muwahhidin beliefs. Members of the Al alShaykh held the post of qadi (judge) of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and later the position of grand mufti, highest judicial office in the state.

In recent years the position of the Al al-Shaykh has changed in significant ways. In 1969, as part of his effort to create a more efficient government securely under Al Saʿud control, King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz abolished the office of grand mufti and replaced it with a ministry of justice. Although the first minister of justice deliberately was not an Al alShaykh, subsequent ministers have been. Moreover, from the early 1960s on, members of the Al alShaykh have held ministerial positions. The family's representation in the cabinet dropped from three to two members with the reshuffle of April 2003: minister of justice, Dr. Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh; and minister of Islamic affairs, waqf, daʿwa, and irshad, Salih ibn Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad Al al-Shaykh. Other members of the family serve in important military and civilian capacities, as well as serving as qadis and other religious figures. Although the Al al-Shaykh domination of the religious establishment has diminished in recent decades, the family alliance is still crucial to the Al Saʿud in maintaining their legitimacy. At the same time, the Al al-Shaykh wholeheartedly support the continued rule of the Al Saʿud because of the exceedingly close ties between the two families.

see also al saʿud family; muwahhidun; shaykh.


Helms, Christine Moss. The Cohesion of Saudi Arabia: Evolution of Political Identity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; London: Croom Helm, 1981.

Holden, David, and Johns, Richard. The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Kechichian, Joseph A. Succession in Saudi Arabia. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Malcolm C. Peck

Updated by J. E. Peterson