When people wonder: why Islam gets connected with violence so easily, they need to learn about the entry of Wahhabism into Islam in the 18th Century. Pious Muslims watch helplessly the decline of spiritual Islam (which purifies mind and heart) as it is increasingly used for political dominance through violence.
All manners of Islamic extremism that the world has started witnessing in the past decades can be traced back to an Islamic ideology that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in Bedouin tribal areas of the eastern Arabian Peninsula. It has sidelined all spiritual practices for personal growth and bypasses the “essence” behind Prophet’s words in favor of ‘literal’ interpretation of what he preached. It originated in the thinking of a scholar named Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab (1703 – 1792), hence the name “Wahhabism.” If spiritual Islam unites people through purification of conduct and spreads the message of peace and harmony, Wahhabism seeks dominance through hate and violence.
Wahhab preached that over the centuries Islam has got corrupted by various traditional interpretation of Islam by Islamic scholars and preachers – whether Sunnis or Shias. He also vehemently criticised all traditional practices that had evolved among people of the area – various established acts of worship, reverence of pious saints in Islam, pilgrimages to tombs and so on. He accused Sufis and Shias of committing Shirk (polytheism or associating God with people) – the most abominable sin in Islam, and therefore declared them apostates. For him there was only one interpretation, his own and demanded absolute submission – if you follow me you are a “true Muslim”, else you are doomed as an apostate, disbeliever or idolater.
For all practical purposes, Wahhab’s movement was like throwing out the baby with the bath water. While attacking the superstitious practices of Najdi tribes, he also declared an all out war on Muslims and non-Muslims unless they submit to his doctrines. Thousands of innocent traditional Muslims – both Shias and Sunnis – were massacred, their villages burnt down and terrified Muslims fled from the marauding Wahhabis. All the traditional writings of past twelve centuries were burnt. But in reality, he only ended up legitimizing the tribal culture of that period – killing opponents, confiscation of their wealth and violation of their female folks – in the name of holy Jehad. He did won followers, but his father and son were not among them.
His best known follower was the first Saudi Arabia monarch Ibn Saud – who was then just one tribal leader amongst many in Bedouin tribes who perennially squabble with each other in the hot and hostile desert of the Nejd region. In 1744, Ibn Saud declared that he would create a state based on Wahhab’s Islamic philosophy. Coming from the Sunni branch of Islam, the hatred for the Shia Muslims was natural for the Wahhabis. Their earliest acts of killings and destructions were carried out in Karbala in 1801, after Wahhab’s death in 1792. It was followed by the looting and wrecking of the tomb of Prophet’s grandson, Hussain, who was killed in 680 in Karbala (located in today’s Iraq).
Non-Muslims may know that the Shia-Sunni rivalry is rooted in the succession struggle for Prophet’s teachings. Shias come from the faction that believed that blood descendents of the Prophet form the natural order and they should inherit his legacy; they are opposed by the Sunnis who follow the sunna (Arabic for “way” or tradition) of Muhammad. Today, 87 – 90% Muslims are Sunnis and the rest are Shias. While Iran is the global power center of Shias, the Saudi Arabia dictates the Sunni world through its Wahhabi ideology. This rivalry shapes the politics of the Gulf region.
The rise of the Wahhabis and their expansion alarmed the staunchly orthodox Ottoman Empire in Turkey and it started taking measures to contain them. For Wahhabis, the Ottoman Caliphs were non-Muslims because they practiced Sufism. In the ensuing confrontation, the Ottoman regime drove them back to the Arab deserts where they remained confined for almost a century until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the WWI. However, detailed accounts of their atrocities were recorded by Ottoman officials and generals.
In the 1920s, the politically astute Abd-al Aziz ibn Saud very successfully re-established his supremacy in the Arabian Desert and planted the Wahhabi Islam as the state religion. The discovery of oil in the 1930s and enormous reservoir of the ‘black gold’ underneath the ground gave Saudi Arabia and the entire Gulf region extraordinary strategic importance in the WW2 and thereafter. It transformed the virtually destitute tribals into money lords of the world but their ideological fissures and mutual mistrust remained intact. Keeping the promise of the first Suadi monarch to propagate the Wahhabi faith, the Saudis have been exporting their intolerant brand of Islam across the world, particularly to the poor countries, through the network of Madarasas and charitable organizations. Experts estimate that since 1970s, Saudis have spent billions of dollars on this venture. As a result, all other milder Islamic versions developed in various countries are now at the risk of extinction.
Influence of Wahhabism Today
Being extremely flexible in justifying any form of hatred or greed led violence, as holy Jehad, post-WW2 various Islamic groups have routinely labelled their political struggle as Jehad. It also inspired growth of various Islamic extremist groups and their Jehadi terror tactics. Perhaps the latest example in the recent chain of events comes from Afghanistan. In the 1980s, Afghan Islamic fundamentalist outfits used it successfully to drive out the Russians from their land. Of course, they were funded liberally, armed and trained by Pakistanis along with the US.
Since the departure of Russians from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan started diverting these trained Jehadis towards Kashmir. But since the Kashmiri Muslims practice Sufi Islam which promotes peaceful co-existence, Pak efforts have been largely sustained through infiltration of Islamic extremists brainwashed with Wahhabi principles of hate killing in Pak established terror factories. Osama Bin Laden learned the basic tenets as a Saudi and showed how it works through Al Queda. Boko Haram, Al Shabab and their clones are doing the same thing elsewhere.
Afghan Taliban’s large scale destruction of Buddhist shrines in the 1990s and currently, if the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) in the Middle East is destroying shrines, it is only following the foot-steps of Saudi Wahhabis who in 1920s demolished 1,400-year-old tombs in the Jannat ul Baqi cemetery in Medina. In fact, ISIS appears to be a better copy of the original produced by the Saudis!
While learned scholars can’t imagine, even in their wildest dream, the Prophet behaving the Wahhabi way and can cite instances of him urging compassion for the weak and non-believers, but they are marginalized because many Muslims see the current Islamic fundamentalist groups as standing against the hegemony and unjust myopic policies of the wealthy West.
When leaders claim that violence perpetrated by Islamic groups has nothing to do with Islam, they only show their ignorance of the Gulf history of past two centuries – clearly stamped by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al Wahhab in collaboration with Ibn Saud.
Today, if rise of the ISIS is worrying Saudi regime, it must be only reminding its dumping of the ‘Ikhwan’ in 1920s to win over international legitimacy.