This article is based on a brilliant insight published by the ex British Intelligence Officer (MI6) and author Alastair Crooke in 2014.
by Dan Hughes
The 14th century Muslim writer Taymiyyah, who died in 1328, was a bit of an extremist by all accounts. He declared ‘war’ on Shi’ism, Sufism, every other ‘ism’ you can think of and Greek philosophy too. He also frowned upon visiting the grave of the prophet and the celebration of his birthday, declaring that all such behaviour represented mere imitation of the Christian worship of Jesus as God and therefore, examples of idolatry.
Four hundred years later in 1741, another Muslim ‘scholar’ Abd al-Wahhab who had managed to garner a few devoted followers, made much of this radical thought bubble and that made him somewhat unpopular at home in Njad, on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula.
As a result, he was banished and after some wanderings, he found refuge about 500 kilometres away, under the protection of Ibn Saud and his tribe who were in the agricultural business about where the current capital of Saudi Arabia now sits. At that time, Ibn Saud was really just another village chief, but he was also an ambitious and competent part time desert raider.
What Ibn Saud saw in Wahhab’s novel teaching was the means to overturn Arab tradition and convention. It was a path to seizing regional power and the future Saudi Arabia made its first stirrings.
Wahhab the man
Wahhab despised “the decorous, arty, tobacco smoking, hashish imbibing, drum pounding Egyptian and Ottoman nobility who travelled (across the narrow Red Sea) to Arabia to pray at Mecca.” (At that stage the Turkish Ottoman empire included Mecca which is on the western edge of modern day Saudi Arabia.) These were not real Muslims as he saw it and he liked the Bedouin natives even less.
Like his long dead hero, Wahhab denounced prayer to saints, ancestors, pilgrimages, religious festivals, Muhammad’s birthday and even the use of gravestones. According to his old 14th century hero, it had to be all Allah and nothing else. Then Wahhab made a few modifications, in particular the new version allowed for him and his followers to declare fellow Muslims infidels (you can kill infidels) should they engage in activities that in any way could be said to offend the absolute Authority (that is, the King).
Not only can those who did not conform to this view be killed, their wives and daughters should also be violated and enslaved and all their possessions confiscated. Those who deserved death included the Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations and Christians too of course. Just about everybody really.
Wahhab demanded all Muslims pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (a Caliph, if there were one, or in this case, the King).
His message was “One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque” referring to the Saudi king, the absolute authority of Wahhabism and the teachings of Wahhabism i.e. the mosque, in that order.
Needless to say, this was enthusiastically endorsed by Saud (king) whose son married Wahhab’s daughter creating an alliance that endures to this day.
The Saudi strategy
Like ISIS was to be another 100 years in the future, the Saudi strategy was to conquer, control and instill fear in all people, all mankind.
Ibn Saud’s clan, could now not only do what they had always done, raid, pillage, rape and steal from other tribes, but they could do it under the banner of a jihad, the sanction of Allah. Wahhab also made another important modification that was very handy, granting automatic martyrdom status to those who perished in the fighting, thereby granting them instant entry into paradise. A neat benefit. He didn’t quantify the virgins as far as I know.
In the beginning, they just conquered local tribes and communities and the conquered were given a ‘choice’ Wahhabism or death. Most picked Wahhabism in case you hadn’t guessed. By 1790 (Wahhab was 87 years old and died two years later) the Alliance controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula and repeatedly raided Medina, Syria and Iraq.
In 1801, the Saudis attacked Karbala, 1,000 kilometres north in Iraq where they massacred thousands of Shiites, not sparing the women and children. Shrines, including the shrine of Imam Hussein, the murdered grandson of Prophet Muhammad were destroyed.
A British official, Lieutenant Francis Warden, observing the situation at the time, wrote: “They pillaged the whole of it [Karbala], and plundered the Tomb of Hussein… slaying in the course of the day, with circumstances of peculiar cruelty, above five thousand of the inhabitants …”
Najdi, the historian of the first Saudi state, wrote that Ibn Saud committed the massacre in Karbala. He proudly documented that massacre saying, “we took Karbala and slaughtered and took its people (as slaves) then praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, and we do not apologize for that and say: ‘And to the unbelievers: the same treatment.’”
In 1803, Abdul Aziz, the Saudi king, then entered Mecca (about 600 kilometres to the west of his home town) which quietly surrendered instead of suffering a worse fate than Karbala. Medina, too was taken and in the name of Wahhabism, demolished historical monuments, tombs and shrines. By the end of the rampage, they had destroyed centuries of Islamic architecture.
Later that year, a Shiite assassin killed King Abdul Aziz (revenge for the Karbala massacre). Aziz’s son, Abd al Aziz, succeeded him and continued his father’s ‘work’, the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Ottoman rulers (Turkey) however, were getting a little testy and not really prepared to sit back and watch as the southern parts of their empire were appropriated. At that time, the Turkish control included Syria, Jordan, Israel, western side of Saudi Arabia and a fair chunk of Egypt.
In 1812, the Ottoman army, composed primarily of Egyptians, pushed the Saudi Alliance out of Medina, Jeddah and Mecca. Two years later, in 1814, Abd al Aziz died of fever. His unfortunate son Abdullah bin Saud, however, was taken by the Turks and transported to Istanbul, where he was humiliated and gruesomely executed, which included having his head fired from a canon, provoking quite some mirth and a deal of applause by all accounts.
The following year, the Saudi were crushed by the Egyptian forces. In 1818, the Ottomans captured and destroyed the Wahhabi capital of Dariyah. The chastened devotees withdrew to the desert and there they remained for nearly 100 years.
Wahhabism did not fade away, but roared back into life when the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I. The Saudi were then led by the politically astute Abd-al Aziz, who united the disparate Bedouin tribes, launched the Saudi “Ikhwan” militia to enforce the doctrine of Wahhabism.
As it happened, it was a British official, one Harry St. John Philby (the father of the MI6 officer who spied for the Soviet KGB, Kim Philby) who helped launch the revived doctrine that had been quietly sleeping for a century. He was to become King Abd al-Aziz’s close adviser and was until his death, a key member of the Ruler’s Court.
He, like Lawrence of Arabia, was an Arabist. He was also a convert to Wahhabi Islam and known as Sheikh Abdullah. St. John Philby was a man who was determined to see his friend, Abd al-Aziz, the ruler of Arabia. For this to happen, Aziz needed to win British acquiescence, and much later, American endorsement.
The Ikhwan militia was a reincarnation of the previous armed Wahhabist ‘moralists’ who had overrun large swathes of the Peninsula 100 years earlier. As before, the Ikhwan again succeeded in capturing poor old Mecca, Medina and Jeddah between 1914 and 1926.
When the militia reached the border of territories controlled by Britain, Abd al-Aziz tried to restrain them but the Ikhwan, already critical of his use of modern technology like the telephone were outraged by the abandonment of jihad for reasons of worldly matters.
They refused to lay down their weapons and rebelled, which lead to a civil war that lasted until well into the 1930s. Eventually the King solved the sticky problem of his unruly Ikhwan; he machine-gunned them. Well, most of them. Those who had remained loyal were absorbed into the Saudi National Guard.
Later, King Aziz’s son and heir, Saud, faced a different form of rebellion (less bloody, but more effective). He was deposed from the throne by the religious establishment because of his ostentatious and extravagant conduct, in favour of his brother Faisal. The religious establishment expected the “Imam of Muslims,” to pursue a pious, proselytizing lifestyle.
King Faisal too had a spot of bad luck in 1975 when his nephew appeared at Court ostensibly to make his oath of allegiance, but instead, pulled out a pistol and promptly shot poor old Faisal’s in the head.
It was not very fair as King Faisal was making a good fist of his kingship, too, modernizing, reducing religious faction in-fighting and even abolished slavery in the sixties. Anyway, they lopped off the nephews head, not that it did King Faisal any good.
Far more serious for the authority of the Saudi family was the seizure of the Grand Mosque by some 400-500 armed men and women in 1979, led by Juhayman whose grandfather was one of the leaders of the original Ikhwan in the 1920s so gracefully disposed of by machine gun.
Many of his grandfather’s comrades were absorbed into the National Guard thus Juhayman was able to obtain weapons and military expertise from sympathizers. He was also able to call on wealthy individuals to fund the enterprise.
Even when the mosque seizure was defeated and over, a certain level of forbearance for the rebels remained, presumably to the chagrin of the king. The language of senior ulema was curiously restrained. The scholars did not declare Juhayman and his followers non-Muslims, despite their violation of the sanctity of the Grand Mosque.
Harking back to the Alliance formed in the late 1700s by the Saud village chief and Wahhab, Saud also had three brothers and between they, have bestowed upon the world some 15,000 Saudi family descendants, however most of the wealth and power is under the control of about 2,000 family members.
While oil was being discovered all over the peninsular in the middle of last century, Britain and America were talking with Abd-al Aziz, while tending towards supporting Sharif Husain as the ‘legitimate ruler’ of Arabia.
The Saudi family realized that winning western endorsement required a change of mode from being an armed, proselytizing Islamic militia into something resembling a stable state. Wahhabism was trotted out and ‘amended’. It was no longer a force for jihad and pure theological enlightenment, it became a movement for conservative politics and one that ensures loyalty to the Saudi Royal family and the King’s absolute power.
The Saudi goal was to ‘Wahhabise’ Islam, at least in the Middle East, a movement which would transcend borders. This was never going to be easy because of the obvious contradictions in Wahhabist puritanical morality versus the practicalities of politics, money and the goods that money provides.
Billions were invested in this ‘soft power’ development of the new Wahhabism. It was the projection of stability and the Saudi willingness to manage Sunni Islam to further America’s interests that facilitated the embedding of Wahhabism educationally, socially and culturally throughout the Peninsula.
Westerners have been enthralled by the wealth, by the emerging modernization and the strong leadership of the Islamic world. Mostly Western observers presumed the Kingdom was forming to meet modernity and that the ‘management’ of Sunni Islam would eventually see it meld with modern life, essentially modifying and modernizing Wahhabism in the process.
Unfortunately, the impossible-to-avoid display of wealth did not curb puritanical Wahhabism, it was nourished instead.
As the Saudi monarchy blossomed in the oil age into an ever more wealthy, inflated institution, the appeal of the strict Wahhab message gained ground. The ‘Ikhwan militia approach’ still enjoys the support of many, even the privileged, notably in the form of Osama bin Laden and later, the 9/11 perpetrators.
According to the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper, in July 2014 “an opinion poll of Saudis released on social networking sites, claiming that 92 percent of the target group believes that IS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”
For many of the king’s subjects, ISIS’ extreme Wahhibist view replacing the King’s authority with their own, is seen as a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhab history.
Baghdadi, the first ISIS ‘prince of the faithful’ formulated the principles of his prospective state in 2006.
True to the Wahhab doctrine, one could not be a true believer, unless he or she actively denied and destroyed anything that could be construed as homage to other than Allah. The list of potential idolatrous worship is so extensive that almost all Muslims are at risk of falling under his definition of ‘unbeliever’.
They therefore are faced with the old ‘choice’ convert to Wahhabism or be killed and their wives, children and physical property taken as the spoils of jihad. Even to express doubts about the doctrine merits execution and the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people.
Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy, but many other acts can separate a Muslim from his head. These include selling alcohol, wearing Western clothes, shaving one’s beard, voting in an election (even for a Muslim candidate) and being too slow to nominate potential offenders.
Being one of the world’s 200 million Shia meets the standard because Shiism is ‘an innovation’ implying the original Koran is not perfect. Also a target are the heads of every Muslim country who have elevated man-made laws above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.
Perversely Christians are exempted from automatic execution if they don’t resist Wahhabism. The Koran’s ninth chapter instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” So as long as they acknowledge their subjugation and pay, it’s OK.
It’s reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing movies with public executions as evening entertainment, but those who claim ISIS un-Islamic are perhaps embarrassed that ISIS is exemplifying what their religion has historically and legally required; slavery, crucifixion and beheadings for the smallest deviation from ‘perfection’.
Wahhabists don’t care if you are an astute, stand out among your people, if you are an educated man, a lecturer or a tribe leader, a religious leader or an active politician or even a judge. You must obey the commander of the faithful (in this case ISIS) and pledge the oath of allegiance to him.
Recruitment and subsequent successful indoctrination of those from the fringes and not already under control, depends largely on being able identify isolated individuals who have little or no training in the art of critical thinking.
Wahhabism brutality was and is mainly directed at other Muslims so to the shame of Western politics, a blind eye was turned as they were perceived as being more effective in toppling the USSR in Afghanistan and in combating out-of-favour Middle Eastern leaders and states.
Now, is it any surprise then that in ‘managing’ the insurgency in Syria against President Assad that an ultra puritanical Wahhabist movement, that is ISIS should arise? Did the West really think a radical Wahhabism would somehow evolve into moderates and that a doctrine of ‘One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it, or be killed’ could ultimately lead to moderation or tolerance? I don’t think so.
ISIS is in lock step with the Saudis in all respects but one. They don’t think the Saudi Royal Family, with all its wealth and power, should be the ‘One leader’ part of the formula. Surprise surprise, they think it should be ISIS.
Wahhabism’s real potential for destruction lies in its fundamental appeal deep in the Saudi pysche and therefore the possibility of an implosion of Saudi Arabia, the stabilizing influence of the modern Middle East. Maybe not right now, but ultimately. Unfortunately, there is really almost nothing that the West could do about it.
The present Saudi king is vulnerable precisely because he has been a modernizer. The King has curbed the influence of the religious institutions and the religious police. He has also permitted the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence to be used, in direct contrast to the puritanical Wahhabist view that objected to all schools of jurisprudence other than its own.
For now, Wahhab extremism is suppressed by enormous effort on behalf of the superpowers of the world, but until education makes deeper inroads into belief systems, Wahhabism will remain an uncured cancer.
References and links
and the original Alistair Crooke articles
You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism
The Real Aim of ISIS Is To Replace the Saudis As the New Emirs of Arabia