Rasheed, professor of social anthropology at King's College London, notes that much of the scholarly literature on politico-religious discourse in Saudi Arabia merely establishes that it is strongly rooted in Wahhabism. Her purpose in Contesting the Saudi State is to move beyond that cursory understanding by analyzing the evolutionary dynamics of that discourse, its fragmentation, and the resulting state of political consent and contestation. This is done through a frank and compelling analysis that could have been voiced only by a Saudi scholar living outside of the kingdom.
The starting point for Rasheed's narrative is the political consolidation of the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by an alliance of the Saudi family and the Wahhabis, who together established Wahhabism as the official discourse of the resulting Saudi emirate. The Saud strategically allowed the Wahhabi ulema (religious scholars) a wide sphere of social control in return for the religious legitimization of their authoritarian rule. This legitimization was accomplished through a creative interpretation of the Qur'an, in which obeying one's rulers became a corollary of the mandate to obey God. However, as Rasheed contends, within the religious requirement of political consent lay the origins of dissent.
The author analyzes the breakdown of official Wahhabism through the lenses of several dissenting discourses, but her argument becomes fully nuanced only when she engages a singular voice: that of Salafi dissident Lewis Atiyat Allah. As Atiyat Allah has at various times been a proponent of competing interpretive discourses—Sahwi Islamism, liberalism, and jihad—he personifies the complexity of the contemporary Saudi politico-religious milieu in all of its fuzziness. The labels that Atiyat Allah has attached to himself are not clear-cut and precise; around their edges, there is room for both movement between them and debate about what they actually signify.
Rasheed manages to analyze and clearly communicate the evolution of Saudi politico-religious discourse, all the while highlighting these complexities in a way that advances the readers' understanding of Saudi Arabia beyond the categories of Salafi, Wahhabi, Sahwi, or jihadi.