By Yahya Smith
“This Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam… is a huge threat to Britain and the British people because it’s popular and very well-funded… particularly by the Saudi Arabians. Where do we go from here? First of all stop winding up real hard liners to recruit… by getting out of their countries and stop interfering. The only place Britain has an interest in interfering in the Middle East… is Saudi Arabia… because here you have a tiny Sunni Wahhabi over lordship ruling and oppressing… and they’re the ones funding terrorism… they’re the real problem and we should interfere there as far as this… an embargo on Saudi Arabia… no help to Saudi Arabia… no trade to Saudi Arabia… until Saudi Arabia reforms… and in particular stops funding terror and Islamisation in the West. Until they do that Saudi Arabia is the great enemy of Britain, France, America and the enemy in fact of the whole of damned humanity because of this poison, this appalling thing mascaraing as a religion that they are working to force on the whole World. And we should look to bring down the House of Saud and … let the Saudi’s replace it with something better… and finally sending home every last Wahhabi.” – British National Party Leader Nick Griffin, MEP speaking in July 2013 after his visit to Syria.
As a British born convert to Sunni Islam, I largely agree with him!
Muslims are not all the same
Wahhabis account for less than 3% of the World’s Muslim population, most of whom live in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is a puritanical movement that is considered outside of ahul sunnah wal jamat or the Sunni majority; a majority of nearly 87%. Muslims are not one homogenous group and neither are their interpretations of Islam. It would be inaccurate to say that Islam or Muslims generally are violent or anti-Western since research does not show this. The Gallup international poll found that of the 7% of Muslims who thought the 9/11 attacks were in some way justified gave a political reason only and no reference to Islam, whilst the 93% majority most commonly gave the response that Islam prohibited such atrocities. Likewise the Joint Intelligence Committee (April 2005) identified no religious reasons for membership to terrorist organisations, but rather opposition to the war on Iraq and socio-economic problems. Neither is the West a source of hatred in the Muslim World, The Gallup poll found that unfavourable views of the USA and Canada – the same region but with different foreign policies, if you will – differed greatly, for example 66% of Kuwaitis have an unfavourable view of the USA, but only 3% viewed the same of Canada. Muslims also are generally devoted to their religion and hold it in high esteem. The Gallup poll found that 100% of Egyptian Muslims identified Islam as playing an important role in their life, as did 99% in Indonesia, Bangladesh and 98% in Morocco, and with 70% here among British Muslims, reflecting similar figures to other Western European countries. Therefore to blame Islam generally as the source of ‘jihadist’ terrorism – bearing in mind that the vast majority of victims are Muslim – is unfair and simply fuels the fire of extremism because these same ‘jihadists’ use anti-Islamic sentiments from the West to underhandedly recruit Muslims who by default hold their religion in high regard. So what differentiates these ‘jihadist’ terrorists who identify themselves as Muslim from the overwhelming majority of Muslims who do not identify with them?
Sunni Islam has been the mainstay in the Muslims World for the religion’s fourteen hundred year existence, it is what most people refer to when they mean Islam. Muslims virtually unanimously agree on the key beliefs, practices and scriptural sources of Islam, where they differ however is in interpretation. Shi’ism -the other significant traditional group making up some 6% of Muslims Worldwide –puts the authority of interpretation in the hands of individual expert scholars whom the laity are obliged follow. Sunnism sees the role of scholars as more collegial and the authority of interpretation is with the consensus. This has given rise to Sunni Islam being a continuum of opinion rather than a single body of thought. The continual and almost limitless debate however is moderated and protected from spiralling off to extremes by an agreed canon of authoritative texts. This canon of Sunni Islam fixes where Islam will not go and so protects the religion and the World from terrorism in the name of Islam. Wahhabism contrasts starkly with Sunnism and Shi’ism by belligerently rejecting the expert opinion and authoritative texts that maintain moderation for a single narrow and literal interpretation.
Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab
Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (d. 1791), Wahhabism’s founder, came from a family of scholars in the Nejd region of central Arabia, however he did not finish his education as his younger brother Sulayman did. It is not clear whether he was expelled or simply left the local seminary that his father lectured, but his father was said to be unhappy with his elder son as he was a poor student and was arrogantly defiant of his teachers. Ibn Abd al Wahhab preached his anti-intellectual, anti-mystical and sectarian message only after his father’s death to much criticism from the entire scholastic community, fiercest of all by his own brother Sulayman, on the basis his views were ignorant, arrogant and had no precedence in Islamic history. Ibn Abd al Wahhab claimed the community had diverged from the first generation – known as the Salaf – which he imagined as a utopian period, and he saw the centuries of scholastic debate and development as heretical innovations extending the meaning of extreme terms such as devil, polytheist and apostate to the scholars of Islam and anyone who didn’t agree with him. Unlike the normative view that made a distinction between fiqh –man’s attempt to reason and understand God’s Will – and Shariah – God’s immutable Will – ibn Abd al Wahhab made no such distinction; the literal outward meaning of the scripture was God’s Will. The view that God entrusted man with guidance and the ability to reason right and wrong empowering him to take responsibility for his own actions was reduced to simply following a detailed set of instructions; those who did were saved and those who did not were damned! His ideas were reactionary; trying to find certitude in literal readings of the scripture as an answer to the uncertainty of the times he lived in and the challenges of modernity.
The Establishment of Saudi Arabia
In 1745 ibn Abd al Wahhab’s zealous revolution was joined by the then Bedouin warlord of Ad Diriyah, Muhammad ibn Saud. The pair successfully established the first militant state in central Arabia and it grew rapidly conquering its capital Riyadh in 1773. Even after ibn Abd al Wahhab’s death in 1791 the movement continued to expand eventually conquering the two holy sites of Mecca and Madinah by 1806. After a number of years of indiscriminately murdering tens of thousands of Muslims and pilgrims claiming them apostates, stopping the annual pilgrimage (hajj) and openly rebelling to Ottoman authority the Sultan sent the governor of Egypt Muhammad Ali to restore order and control. Mecca and Medina were retaken in 1812 and the entire Saudi state was eventually vanquished by 1818. Although the Wahhabi intolerance, hate and fanaticism remained despite its military suppression by the Ottomans. After its collapse in 1922 there was no resistance to Abd al Aziz ibn Saud’s (d. 1953) eventual bloody reestablishment of the Saudi state based on the puritanical theology of Wahhabism and the Bedouin tribal culture. This new model of an ‘Islamic’ state restricted personal liberty forcing its unwilling subjects to abide to a very specific code of conduct unlike their Ottoman predecessors who had tolerated diverse religious and cultural practices.
Saudi Arabia’s control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was deeply unpopular throughout the 1920’s to the 1960’s because the belief system was at odds with the rest of the Muslims World. Secular regimes such as Nasser’s Egypt also saw the theocratic government in Saudi Arabia as historically retarded. Saudi Arabia faced many challenges to their custodianship of the Holy Cities, Nasser even attempted to overthrow the Saudi government in the 1970’s. Coinciding with the discovery of oil and its sharp rise in price the Saudi government decided to aggressively export the Wahhabi creed to gain acceptance, initially funding other fundamentalist organizations and a decade later creating a more sophisticated network. One of my teachers who was a student in the Muslim World during the 80’s said that in every seat of learning there were funded people to deliberately try and undermine the lecturer and promote Wahhabi thought. Wahhabism however did not spread under its founder’s namesake as it would have appeared just another school of thought within Islam, rather the Wahhabis view is it as Islam and so they prefer the term Salafi meaning from the illustrious first generation, the Salaf.
Wahhabis rebranding to Salafis
The term Salafi pre-dates Wahhabism to the medieval reformer ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and is a term that has been used by any reformist seeking legitimacy in their attempt to refer back to the ‘golden age’ of The Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. As such Salafism is a broad term covering all manner of groups from liberal reformers to moderates to Islamists and jihadist terrorists. What connects them is the same fundamental methodology; Muslims should directly reinterpret the source texts in light of the modern demands of today. This approach has not been entirely negative or without merit as it has revived an intellectual movement that has blown some of the dust off a rather stagnated scholastic tradition. Salafism per se is not actively hostile to the classical scholastic tradition or indeed even anti-Western, in fact some have stove to legitimise modern ideas such as democracy, constitutionalism and the nation state within Islam. The term Salafism is more palatable to Muslims generally as it is hard to disagree with, at least to some extent. It only becomes intolerant in the form of the exported Saudi Salafism, but since the 70’s the two terms have slowly become synonymous marking a great victory for the Wahhabi propaganda machine.
Sayyid Qutb and Islamism
Not all Saudis are Wahhabis and not all Wahhabis are terrorists, in fact the majority are not, however the likes of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are Wahhabis, what differentiates them is an additional ‘Islamist’ political view. Ibn Abd al Wahhab’s movement was purely religious aimed at purging the community of its heretical deviance, it had no global political aspirations per se. Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), a Salafi and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (although not entirely its representative), however incorporated an Islamo-Marxist political model in which he divides the world into two; either Muslim or Jahiliyyah (pre Islamic time of darkness and ignorance). Ignoring usual norms he redefined many terms and ideas, identifying Muslim society as only one in which they live in complete obedience to Islamic Law. Qutb writes in his famous Milestones: ‘there is no Islam in a land where Islam is not dominant… [it is our] God-given right to step forward and take control of the political authority so that it may establish the Divine system on Earth.’ He saw that everyone need not be Muslim but must live under Islamic Law as this was the only source of true justice and so he viewed there was a perpetual war against the jahiliyyah. Qutb’s name became legendary when he was sentenced to death for his ideas by Egypt’s then ruler Gamal Nasser, he is seen as a martyr even by those who disagree with him and so his ideas have gained wider acceptance.
Qutb’s ideas contrast sharply with Sunni thought. He revived medieval terms from a by-gone era, such as dar al-Islam(abode of Islam) and dar al-harb(abode of war) to justify his dichotomous World view, but chose to ignore other terms such as dar al-suhl (abode of neutrality) or dar al-amman (abode of agreement), let alone the scholastic debate that such non scriptural terms are too simplistic and have no bearing on the modern World. Qutb also polarised these terms from their classically nuanced meanings, for example Abu Hanifa (d. 767) – the most influential jurist in all Islamic history – defined dar al-Islam as anywhere where one could pray the five daily prayers at the mosque unhindered, which would therefore make modern Britain and indeed the Western World dar al-Islam. Neither does Qutb’s obligation for Muslims to live under Islamic Law in its entirety take into account the Prophetic examples of those who did not. Oppressed Muslims fled Mecca at the behest of the Prophet Muhammad to migrate to the non-Muslim King of Abyssinia, known as the Negus, because of his trustworthiness and tolerance. In fact ibn Hisham’s (d. 833) famous autobiography of the Prophet, quotes the refuges as actually praying for the Negus’ fair and just rule to continue! Sunni thought does not promote political domination, but rather religious freedom; as Patricia Crone observed in her book on Islamic political thought, God’s Rule, The Prophet Muhammad’s only interest politically was in ensuring the freedom for Muslims to practice their religion.
Jihadist Wahhabis as Kharijites
We might term these modern terrorists then as ‘Jihadist Wahhabis’ to be specific, but they have also been described by the last great scholar of Al Azhar Muhammad Abu Zahra (d. 1974), who witnessed their appearance and growth, as Kharijites (secedes) as have many other scholars including most recently Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri (b. 1951). Imam Shahrastani (d. 1153) defined the Kharijites in his famous book on heresiology as: ‘Anyone who revolts against the Muslim government that enjoys the support of the community.’ Kharijite is the Muslim name given to those of rebellious intent, who stir up civil strife, label the Muslim community apostates and kill indiscriminately. This is an important definition because the Kharijites are considered to have left the fold of Islam and are actually described by the Prophet Muhammad as the worst of all creation and a religious obligation to oppose at every level. From a Sunni perspective then there is a jihad (literally it means struggle), but not against the West or non-Muslims or corrupt governments or indeed anyone else that the Jihadist Wahhabis identify, but it is actually against the Jihadists themselves.
The Jihad against the Kharijites
One of the most important thinkers of our time is Khaled Abou el Fadl; he represents the best of classical Islamic scholarship and Western education. In his outstanding book The Great Theft he identifies two poles that are both a product of and a reaction to modernity; the puritan and the moderates. The puritans reject modernity and the moderates accept it. There is an irreconcilable tension between the two so that the very faith of Islam will be defined by one of these poles. The vast majority of Muslims repulsed by the ugly act of violence committed by the puritans have already sided with the moderates. Puritans although in the minority pose a formidable foe because of their control of the Holy Cities and their aggressive zealous well-funded propaganda machine. As el Fadl sates: “To win this very real war that has done inestimable damage to so many Muslims and to the truth of the Islamic faith, it is absolutely imperative to declare a counter-jihad against the puritan heresy.” He recommends Muslims need to be as equally loud against the Puritan acts of violence such as having public demonstrations denouncing the violence and flood the market with moderate literature to drown puritanical ones. He also calls for moderates to rekindle the charitable nature of Muslims to set up private endowment to establish moderate seminaries to counter the ever increasing puritan ones. He also implores Non-Muslims to become educated about Islam to remove prejudice, as prejudice plays into the hands of the puritans, who translate every anti-Islamic book into Arabic and use it as a recruitment manual. He also asks Western governments to bring about just and fair solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict and withdraw as much as possible from the Middle East to remove ammunition for puritans to justify ‘jihadist’ terrorism and to stop lending support to countries that use torture, such as Saudi, Syria, Egypt, Israel etc as torture is a factory processing line for terrorists – Sayyid Qutb himself being the victim of torture.
Islam is no more violent or less relevant to modern Britain than Christianity or any other of the main religions, it possess the same flexibility to adapt and meet the World’s contemporary challenges. If, as el Fadl encourages, Muslims anchor themselves in a humanistic understanding of Islam and nurture the foundational virtues of mercy and moderation, they can make a very real and positive contribution to the modern World whilst remaining true to Islam. But for this to happen Muslims must also take responsibility in leading the intellectual fight against the puritanical Wahhabi poison that threatens the faith of Islam and the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. To do this Muslims must engage positively with the wider British public and the political systems and structures in place as they facilitate freedom of religious practice and outright reject Saudi funding and Wahhabi influence because they do not. Working with the people of Britain rather than looking abroad will sooth tensions and allow Islam to manifest organically as something naturally British ensuring the security of the British people and the practice of Islam by its Muslims.
Bibliography and further reading
Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians, 2005, M A Al Akiti, AQSA Press, Oxford, UK. A brief legal verdict by one of the foremost Islamic scholars of today showing how terrorists attacks fail to fulfil the conditions of jihad on the grounds they carried out with no legitimate authority, against impermissible targets and with impermissible means. He also identifies some of the perversions of jihadist Wahhabi interpretations.
Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, 2010, M. Tahir ul Qadri, Minhaj ul-Quran International, London, UK. Detailed legal verdict that was stamped by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most authoritative institution, giving robust Islamic jurisprudential justifications and legal precedent for why terrorism, rebellion, indiscriminate killing of innocents and suicide bombings are impermissible and that the terrorists that view these attacks as rewarded in Islam are Kharijites and apostates.
Is Religion Dangerous, 2006, K. Ward, Lion Hudson, Oxford, UK. An interesting argument for religion as a vehicle of peace and a general overview of the very human nature of extremists in any religion or belief system. Chapter 3 gives a concise overview of Qutb’s beliefs and influences.
The Future of Islam, 2013, J L Esposito, Oxford University Press, New York, USA. Accessible account of Islam and the prevailing opinions currently in the Muslims World and explores the main issues facing Islam in the 21st century such as is Islam’s compatibility with democracy.
The Great Theft: wrestling Islam from the extremists, 2007, K. A. el Fadl, Harpiner, San Francisco, USA. One of the world’s preeminent Islamic scholars argues that Islam is currently passing through a transformative moment similar to the reformation. He delineates beliefs and practices of moderate Muslims, distinguishing these from the extremists and builds a vision for a moderate Islam.
he Muslims 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims, 2013/14, 2013, Prof. S. Abdallah Schleifer (editor), RISSC, Amman, Jordon. Chapter 1‘The House of Islam’, pp19-30, gives an accessible clear and brief overview of the details and demography of the groups that make up the Muslim population Worldwide.
God’s Rule – Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought, 2010, P. Crone, Columbia University Press, New York, USA. A detailed reconstruction and analysis of Islamic political thought focusing on its intellectual development during the six centuries from the rise of Islam to the Mongol invasions. Academic but accessible reading of the source texts in their contexts and relating to the modern reader by comparing it with medieval European and modern political thought.
The Oxford History of Islam, 1999, J. L. Esposito (editor), Oxford University Press, New York, USA. Arguably the foremost book on Islamic history. Chapter 12 gives a concise overview of the context and reasons behind the reformist movements in the 18th and 19thcenturies, of which Wahhabism is one of them.