Wahhabism centre underlines legacy

The restored historical Al-Bureji area in the Unesco World Heritage Atturaif district, on the outskirts of Saudi capital Riyadh. Saudi King Salman is shepherding a major development project in Addiriyah, birthplace of the ruling Saud dynasty, which i
The restored historical Al-Bureji area in the Unesco World Heritage Atturaif district, on the outskirts of Saudi capital Riyadh. Saudi King Salman is shepherding a major development project in Addiriyah, birthplace of the ruling Saud dynasty, which includes the Atturaif district.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia's new research centre on Wahhabism, to open on the edge of the capital Riyadh, looks fitting for a branch of Islam considered inflexible, intolerant and unchanging.

Imposing with its limestone blocks, their bulk lightened only by glass-enclosed bridges, the centre is part of a major development project shepherded by Saudi King Salman.

The building honours Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, the 18th-century fundamentalist preacher who co-founded the Saudi state.

It is a clear sign that his legacy remains central to the Saudi soul despite his strict doctrine and accusations that it is fuelling deadly Sunni extremism around the world, including the murderous drive of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group militants.

Featuring cafes and palm trees decorated with tiny lights, the project is set in Addiriyah, birthplace of the ruling Saud dynasty, and includes the Unesco World Heritage Atturaif district.

"It has very high historical value for the government and for us," said Mr Abdullah Arrakban, the urban development manager for the High Commission for the Development of Addiriyah.

Here, King Salman, monarch of the world's biggest oil exporter, has a turreted palace overlooking the crumbled mud brick homes of his ancestors now undergoing preservation.

And it was here that Abdul Wahhab's partnership with a contemporary local chief, Imam Mohammed bin Saud, laid the foundations for today's kingdom and its reliance on the sheikh's 270-year-old teachings.

Conceived in 2000, the project is targeted for completion by the end of next year.

It has involved refurbishing the district, restoring its ancient Atturaif oasis community and creating crucial green space in this heart of the Arabian peninsula.

Five mini-museums will depict life in the first Saudi state, which lasted from 1744 to 1818 when it fell to Turkish-Egyptian invaders.

"We are trying to keep the atmosphere of Addiriyah - the nature, the colour, the original architecture," Mr Arrakban said, fingering blue prayer beads while being interviewed in his book-filled office.

Although the heart of the 750 million riyal (S$276.8 million) project will be Atturaif, the adjacent Abdul Wahhab Foundation is designed to honour the sheikh's role as co-founder of the state and tell "the truth" about his intellectual heritage, Mr Arrakban said.

It will feature a library of books and documents about his teachings, available for research, as well as a multimedia "Memorial Hall" illustrating the religious movement he inspired.

Mr Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said honouring Abdul Wahhab and preserving Addiriyah is "hypocrisy" at a time when "Islamic heritage is being wiped away" elsewhere in the kingdom.

"If you honour an extremist cleric, why could you not honour the Prophet of Peace?" said Mr Alawi, who contends that Wahhabism has inspired militants of ISIS.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Wahhabism centre underlines legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe