Madawi al-Rasheed's "Contesting the Saudi State" is a rare and valuable resource on Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia and contemporary Islamic debate. If you are a serious student of these topics, then this is a "must read" book. Or perhaps I should say at least a "must buy" book for reference, since there are so few books available on Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism which really make use of Arabic sources. Most books on Saudi Arabia are written by people who couldn't read the front page of a Saudi newspaper.
If, on the other hand, you are a general reader looking to learn something about Saudi Arabia or Saudi Islamic thought, I'm not sure I'd recommend this, as I doubt you would get beyond the first chapter. The book is quite dense, and the writing style typical to Arab writers in Arabic - meandering back and forth, repeating the same assertions over and over, with loquaciousness rather than concision being a virtue - is on full display here. Al-Rasheed is writing in a foreign language, and the fact is it is incredibly difficult for a non-native-speaker of Arabic to really cover the depths of literature she covers here, including online Arabic forums, radio programs, books and pamphlets. This is not a book you read for enjoyment. (The fact that this is the first Amazon review of this book after so long confirms this.) This could have been put in a more readable format.
The book cover notes that Al-Rasheed teaches at the University of London. She is also a known figure in the Arabic media, and writes a column for the anti-Saudi, London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.
I must say that while I question Al-Rasheed's focus in some of the chapters, I follow this debate from a much higher level of generality, and have mainly followed the most high-profile Sahwa sheikhs, and have never attempted to plumb the depths of this issue, especially in the many forums that exist out there in the Arabic ether. That said, this is a chapter-by-chapter overview -
- Chapter one "Consenting subjects: official Wahhabi religio-political discourse" is basically an overview of the role of the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi society. This chapter is actually the most useful for the general reader, and would be beneficial to many if broken off into a separate article as an introduction to the topic. Mostly it deals with key individuals and concepts, ideas like categories of kafir, takfir, taghut and how support for Saudi rule is justified.
- Chapter two "Re-enchanting politics: Sahwis from contestation to co-optation" is about the travails of the "Awakening Sheikhs" (Sahwa) of Saudi Islam, people like Salman al-Awda and Aed al-Qarni who were steeped in the Wahhabi tradition, broke from it out of frustration for the hypocrisy of the regime, and then in recent years have been tamed, taking on the role of the "loyal opposition," pushing for change but within boundaries acceptable to the Saudi ruling family.
- Chapter three "Struggling in the way of God abroad" deals with the Arab Afghan experience and how their jihad abroad - sponsored by the Saudi establishment - intimately contributed to both violent and non-violent dissent inside the kingdom. This chapter covers some of the intellectual antecedents to al-Qaeda.
- Chapter four "Struggling in the way of God at home" largely focuses on the post-2001 period, in the context of both the bombing campaign inside the kingdom which began in 2003 and the debates of how Muslims should react to the war in Afghanistan.
- Chapter five "Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad" is mainly about an anonymous online jihadist writer who goes under the name Lewis Atiyat Allah. I'd never heard of the guy prior to reading this book. This is an example of how I question Al-Rasheed's judgment in terms of how material is proportioned across subjects. She devotes one-sixth of the book to an online figure, the only tangible achievement of whom she can point to is the coining of the nickname "al-Sulul" for the Saudi family (a reference to a famous early Muslim hypocrite), a term which Al-Rasheed says has caught on globally online. Based on my own familiarity with these debates, the Sahwa sheikhs are vastly more influential than even a widely-read online personage, so this seems odd to me.
- Chapter six "Searching for the unmediated word of God" reviews a variety of public figures who don't seem to have anything in common other than the fact that they haven't been covered in previous chapters. One figure given major coverage here is one Abdullah al-Hamid, an academic. She also chooses to discuss Saad Faqih and MIRA (Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia) here, which I thought was odd, since, as she notes, Faqih was part of the Sahwa movement during the 1990s, and is now a critic of them. Faqih is vastly more influential in Arabic discourse than virtually everyone else she mentions in the book, so it is odd for that reason that she waits to the very end to discuss him.