A History of Wahhabism and the Hijacking of the Muslim faith
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – George Orwell.
The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East,
Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum.The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the U.S. to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the Kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam.
People from Muslim background claim Wahhabism is not of Islam and Islam will never be of Wahhabism – it is sanction murder, looting and atrocious barbarism. Islam opposes despotism, injustice, infamy , deceits, greed, extremism, asceticism – everything which is not balanced and good, fair and merciful, kind and compassionate.Wahhabism is no more than an engineered perversion, a division, an abomination which has but spread like a cancer onto the Islamic world and now threatens to destroy all religions.Wahhabism and its legions: Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, are but the manifestations of a reactionary atheist movement which seeks the death of all faiths.Religious disagreements have occurred over the centuries and Muslims have fought and argue over the legitimacy, legality and religious superiority of their schools of thoughts and judicial principles,But though those powers which thought themselves cunning by weaving a network of fear around the world to better assert and enslave are losing control over their brain-child, ISIS and its sisters in hate and fury, as they all have gone nuclear, no longer bound by the chains their fathers shackled them with.
After ibn Wahhab’s death, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As Al Saud sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Hussain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children. A few years later, in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader, wary of that his army would do to the population.
ISIS’s obscene savagery epitomises the violence which is inherent and central to Wahhabism and Salafism – its other deviance. And though the world knows now the source of all terror, no power has yet dared speak against it, instead the world has chosen to hate its designated victim – If anything, Wahhabism is the very negation of Islam. As many have called it before – Islam is not Wahhabism. Wahhabism is merely the misguided expression of one man’s political ambition – Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, a man who was recruited by Empire Britain to erode at the fabric of Islam and crack the unity of its ummah (community).During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, governments were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of society was also a religious problem.
As Wahhabism began its land and mind grab in Hijaz – now known as Saudi Arabia – one family, Al Saud saw in this violent and reactionary school of thought a grand opportunity to claim and retain power. This unholy alliance has blotted the skies of Arabia for centuries, darkening the horizon with its miasms.
Looking at events currently unfolding in the Middle East such warnings have found a deep echo within the Muslim community and religious leaders, among whom most prominently Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both have mapped their decisions within such religious parameters. And whether one agrees with those men or not is not the point – understanding where they are coming from and where they stand however, is.
And if we can agree that not all is as it seems, then could it not be that those enemies we have imagined are indeed – not? This divide actually goes beyond Islam’s great schism – which schism it needs to be noted remains part of this myth Saudi Arabia has been so eager on selling the world.
God’s boundless mercy onto His creation and His injunction of peace. And if those holy messengers came at different times and places in our history, the essence of their message has been as permanent and immovable as God’s will. From Adam’s first cries of remorse and calls for forgiveness,
Under Wahhabism’s interpretation of Islam, women reverted to being objectified. Those many great women Islam saw rise under the strict protection of the Quran, those models Muslim women came to look up to and aspire to become – Maryam, Khadijah, Fatimah, Zaynab; Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab would have had locked up in chains in their home. women their rightful place within society, Wahhabism denied them everything.
It rules that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Until Wahhabism came knocking, Muslims remained traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.
Little do we remember the sacking of the holy city of Medina, when Al Saud’s legions ransacked mosques, schools and homes. Al Saud’s army murdered hundreds of men, women and children, deaf to their screams. . On the ground which saw rise the first mosque of Islam, Al Saud soaked the earth red with blood.Where the footsteps of the last Prophet of God still echo, Al Saud filled the air with ghastly cries of horrors.
But such terror has been erased from history books. Such tales of blood and savage betrayals have been swallowed whole by Al Saud as this house attempted to re-write history and claim lineage to the house of the prophet.
Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.
In the Ikhwan we see the roots of ISIS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the Wahhabi-style jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.
In 1915, Abd Al-Aziz planned to conquer Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd Al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.
After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement.
But the Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, instead it gained new ground in the 1970s, when the Kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, in 1979 it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia Islam by Wahhabizing the entire Muslim world.
Just as Nasserism posed a threat to both the Saudis and the US in that it entailed independence and a supranational sense of belonging and solidarity, in opposition to colonialism and feudalism, Iran Shia democratic movement presented too much of a pull for countries in the region to follow to be allowed to shine forth.
And so the wheels of propaganda were set in motion and Iran became western powers and its allies’ designated enemy. Right alongside Soviet Russia, Iran became the source of all evil, while all the while Saudi Arabia was left to industrialize radicalism on a mass scale.
Slowly Muslims’ understanding of Islam became polluted by Wahhabism and Sunni Muslims began to think and breath Wahhabism, no longer in tune with its own religious tradition, cut off from free-thinking Islam, moderate Islam, compassionate Islam and non-violent Islam.
At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.
Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst, writer and commentator for the Middle East with a special focus on radical movements and Yemen. The Director of Programs at the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Catherine is also the co-founder of Veritas Consulting. She authored Arabia’s Rising – Under The Banner Of The First Imam.