In its savagery and brutality, the ISIS is acting strictly in accordance with the teachings and practice of al-Wahhab who enjoyed the active political support of the founder of the first Saudi state.
In his Haj sermon on October 4 to the nearly two million Muslim pilgrims from across the globe assembled in Mecca, the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, proclaimed that the killing of innocent human beings is the worst fitna (strife) and is strictly forbidden in Islam. Moving on from the general to the specific, he described the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “enemy number one” of Islam and humanity.
Sounds good, but it’s hardly good enough. Along with some other Sunni-majority Muslim countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is now part of the US-led coalition ostensibly committed to “degrading” and “destroying” the very monster they had until recently collectively nurtured in Syria and Iraq. Given the long-standing, mutually legitimising relationship between the Saudi royal family and the country’s ulema, the Grand Mufti’s belated discovery of Islam’s message of peace and the denunciation of the ISIS was only to be expected.
But it does not address the uncomfortable question Muslims, including many from within the Arab world, are asking: How can those who are part of the problem be part of the solution? Who can deny that the Saudi royalty and clergy on one hand, and the ISIS on the other, are part of the same theo-genetic pool as they all draw inspiration from the same “Shaikhul Islam”, Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab?
The story goes back to the 18th century. Al-Wahhab was born in a family of Muslim theologians in Uyainah, a small town in the Najd region of Arabia. He grew up into a manic monotheist determined to root out what to him were the illicit innovations, heretical and idolatrous practices that had crept into Muslim practice. He enunciated a version of Islam that was puritanical, rigid, inflexible, intolerant, violent.
Al-Wahhab had a simple solution for Muslims who did not subscribe to his militant theology: they should be killed, their daughters and wives enslaved, their property confiscated. “You will see much evil from my son Muhammad,” his own father, a recognised orthodox Sunni scholar, Abdul Wahhab Ibn Sulaymaan an-Najdi, is reported to have lamented shortly before his death.
Because of his extremism, al-Wahhab was driven out of Iraq and later had to flee the town of his birth, Uyainah. Then he found an ally and protector in Muhammad bin Saud, a small-time but politically ambitious local ruler from the Saudi clan in neighbouring Diriyah. In 1741, the two entered into a “win-win” relationship. Al-Wahhab bestowed religious legitimacy on Saud, who in turn would forcibly impose the former’s ultra-radical theology as the “only true” Islam on all Muslims.
The arrangement yielded rich political dividends; a local fiefdom grew into a state. By 1790, the fanatics had captured most of the Arabian Peninsula where Shias and Sufis were the worst victims. Muslims in the newly conquered areas were given an option: swear allegiance to Wahhabi Islam or face the sword. In 1801, the holy city of Karbala in Iraq was attacked, several thousand Shia Muslim men, women and children were butchered, many shrines, including that of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, were destroyed.
..the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, proclaimed that the killing of innocent human beings is the worst fitna (strife) and is strictly forbidden in Islam. Moving on from the general to the specific, he described the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “enemy number one” of Islam and humanity.
The holy cities of Mecca and Medina too were targeted, citizens terrorised, historic monuments and shrines razed to the ground. The terror campaign ended only in 1815, when on behalf of the Ottomans the Egyptians crushed the Saudi-Wahhabi forces. Three years later, the Ottomans destroyed the Wahhabi capital of Diriyah.
A century later, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the midst of World War I, the Saudi-Wahhabi coalition led by Abd-al Aziz (Ibn Saud) made a dramatic comeback, capturing Mecca, Medina and Jeddah between 1914 and 1926. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 with Abd al-Aziz as its reigning monarch. (It’s the only country in the world that is named after a single clan). The astute king realised that the 20th century world was very different from the 18th one (when the first Saudi state was founded). Recognising the need to woo the new world powers, the US and UK, he redefined Wahhabism. The “new” Wahhabism would retain its arid, puritanical, ultra-orthodox, rigid, intolerant, “true Islam” strain. But it would abandon its earlier Jacobin-like reign of terror and mutate instead into an ideology of Islamist supremacism.
Ibn Saud’s “revisionism” brought him into headlong confrontation with the purists who were crushed with brute force. Those willing to see the light were co-opted into the new doctrine.
In due course, with the discovery of oil, the Saudi rulers switched to the use of soft power in a bid to “Wahhabise” Islam. In recent decades, it has poured billions of petro-dollars into Muslim quarters across the globe (India included), seeking to destroy the reality of a diverse faith and replacing it with a single intolerant, supremacist creed.
For millions of Muslims across the world, the seemingly benign Saudi Wahhabism is bad enough. But for those who still remember and revere its theological founder, Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it is not good enough. Among the latter is the ISIS and its numerous followers, not only in Iraq and Syria but in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere too.
This takes us back to where this column began. The ISIS is not a foreign object that can be purged through a simple surgery. It’s a cancerous growth within the theo-genetic make-up of Wahhabi doctrine. In its savagery and brutality, the ISIS is only acting strictly in accordance with the teachings and practice of al-Wahhab who enjoyed the active political support of the founder of the first Saudi state.
To effectively counter the ISIS and sundry other violent Islamist outfits, Saudi Arabia and Muslims elsewhere must question the three modern-day ideologues of political Islam: al-Wahhab (Arabia), Syed Qutb (Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt), Abul A’la Maududi (Jamaat-e-Islami, Indian subcontinent). One way or another, the world-view of Muslims still hallucinating about khilafat (caliphate), shariat (Islamic law), jihad and shahadat (martyrdom) can be traced back to one or the other of these worthies.
When you have a problem tree in the orchard, chopping branches won’t help. Get to the roots of the problem.
(This article was first published in The Asian Age on October 15, 2014)