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. Because the Quran had given Muslims a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody is treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the ummah was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.
If 18th-century reformers were convinced that should Muslims ever regain lost power and prestige, they would have to return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order, Wahhabism would come to pervert such desires.
There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism”; not yet, rather, it was a grassroots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad.
Only, if the idea of going back to the root of Islam at a time when society had strayed from the path was indeed laudable, Wahhabism would work to betray such ideal by twisting on its head Islam’s most sacred pillars, perverting Islamic law and the interpretation of its scriptures to serve the mighty and enslave the weak.
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 model Muslim women came to look up to and aspire to become – Maryam, Khadija, Fatma, Zaynab, Mohammed Abdel Wahhab would have had locked up in their home.
When Islam gave women their rightful place within society, Wahhabism denied them everything.
And for those of you who continue to live under the premise that Islam is profoundly unfair against women, do remember it is not Islam but rather men’s interpretation of it which is the source of your ire.
Islam secured women’ status according to God’s will. Islam poses both men and women o a equal footing in terms of their faith – it is only in their duties and responsibilities which they differ, not worthiness. Islam calls on men to provide for women and offer them security, both financial and physical. Under Islam women are free to marry, divorce and work. Under Islam women cannot be bought, bartered or oppressed. Under Islam women enjoy more freedom than most western women have been given. It is society which has denied them those rights, not Islam. Read the Quran and you will see!
Like Martin Luther, Abdel Wahhab claimed he wanted to return to the earliest teachings of Islam and eject all later medieval accretions. To achieve such ambitions he opposed Sufism and Shia Islam, labelling them as heretical innovations (bidah) as both opposed tyranny in faith. He went on to urge all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (scholars) and interpret the texts for themselves, or rather under his guidance.
This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Wahhab found a patron in Mohammed Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. Ibn Saud quickly used Wahhabism to support his military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting such violence was all in the name of the greater good.
To this day Al Saud’s house is following in such bloody footsteps.
Although the scriptures were so central to Abdel Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he distorted the Quranic message in the most violent way. The Quran firmly states that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256).
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.
After 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; in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.
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. As imams pleaded for the most sacred relics of Islam to be protected, Al Saud’s men pillaged and looted, setting fire to Medina’s library. Al Saud made an example out of Medina, the very city which proved so welcoming to Islam. 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 echoed, Al Saud filled the air with ghastly cries of horrors.
But such terror has been erased from history books. Such tale 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 (Daesh). 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 U.S. 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.
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.
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.
Slowly Muslims’ understanding of Islam became polluted by Wahhabism and Sunni Muslims began to think and breathe 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.
A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check; but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.
Daesh / ISIS – the brain child of Wahhabism
Like the Ikhwan before, ISIS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the ISIS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq – Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army.
This would actually explain ISIS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could be regarded as religious novices.”
A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught. Misguided or disguised ISIS militants are certainly not looking for religious enlightenment; rather they have been sold to a violence which speaks to their own pain and sense of loss.
Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon. ISIS militants are no Muslim devouts, only sociopathic begots.
It would be a mistake to see ISIS as a throwback; it is a thoroughly modern movement which has drawn its inspiration from the Ikhwan crusades. It has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about ISIS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.
ISIS is not just a terror army, it is a terror movement with imperialistic ambitions. And if its methods are terrifying and bloody they are hardly an innovation. There too ISIS drew from past examples – Mass killing is after all a thoroughly modern phenomenon, one which western powers gave into many times over.
During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children.
The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption.
In the 1990s, Armenia slaughtered hundreds upon hundreds of Azeris in a grand scale flash ethnic cleansing campaign.
Similarly, ISIS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity – industrial killing to achieve politico-strategic goals.
Above all ISIS wants rebuild the caliphate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey declared null and void in 1925.
The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the ummah and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet ISIS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world.
That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world; this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, ISIS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.
The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity; the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colonial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so ISIS emerged from the resulting mayhem.
ISIS has declared war against all — Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Yazidis — there is no escaping this reactionary band of Godless criminals and murderers.
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has now become the designated target of ISIS militants. As if playing out a Greek tragedy, ISIS seeks now to strike at its creator, intent on pushing the boundary of the acceptable to reinvent itself not a religion but a radical atheist movement which stands in negation of the Holy, in all its forms and all its manifestations.
If Wahhabism did not scare you, ISIS should.
Maybe just maybe it would be a good idea to choose those allies which intend to defeat and destroy ISIS and deny the one power which started it all – the Kingdom.