A history of Wahhabism and the hijacking of the Muslim faith
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” - George Orwell
Our century so far has been overshadowed by a plague which roots, western powers have proclaimed, can be found in Islam and its practice. And though politicians have been careful not to publicly brand all Muslims terrorists, the narrative has nevertheless been one of suspicion and assumption. The words terror and Islam have been juxtaposed too many times in the media for anyone to believe that it was not by “design.” There has been a war of words against both Islam and Muslims. Its aim is rather simple and only too predictable since it falls within an equation of greed and cynicism.
By ridiculing Islam and dehumanizing its followers, western powers have essentially laid the ground for intervention - positioning their armies within a narrative of moral salvation and liberation when their aims are everything but.
Iraq serves a perfect example. Even though US soldiers committed heinous crimes against Iraqis, despite the rapes, the raids and the mass massacres; in the face of systematic tortures and aggravated human rights violations, Washington still claimed moral high ground, arguing the greater good required decisive actions.
Truth is, from the moment the towers of the Trade Center tumbled down to the ground in great swirls of smoke and ashes, the MENA and with it all Muslims within it, have been lined up as sacrificial lambs to the altar of imperialism.
If anyone and anything has benefited from this grand war on terror, it is surely weapons dealers and all those behind who feeds corporate America its fill of blood. The signs are everywhere for those who care to see!
Terror was engineered and unleashed as a weapon of mass destruction and a political trojan horse. What better way to control the narrative and outcome of wars but by creating the very crisis, one intends to find solutions to, while keeping a hand in both pots?And if speaking the truth is conspiratorial theorism then so be it!
If not for 9/11 Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq would not have been invaded. Arguably, without the war on terror Americans would still enjoy some of their civil liberties, and terminologies such as rendition and institutionalized torture might not have become generic terms. But then again corporations would not have seen their bottom lines explode under the influx of billions of dollars in weapon sales, security deals, and oil concessions the way it did.
The terms “follow the money” takes on a completely different meaning when correlated to terror.
But if corporate America has indeed played the terror card to forward its own very selfish and radical form of capitalism, it did not invent the ideology of terror per se - it only rebranded and repackaged it to fit its purpose.
It is again in history we must look to understand how this evil - Wahhabism, came to be in the first place; and under whose influence it first sparked into life. There too, the shadow of imperialism lurks ...
It is crucial to understand though that ISIS, terror’s modern manifestation and expression, carries no tie with Islam. NONE!
Actually both Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali warned us against this black plague.
In Kitab Al Fitan – a compilation of hadiths (Islamic tradition) relating to the end of times put together by prominent scholar Nuyam bin Hammad in 229 AH – Imam Ali recalled the Prophet saying,
“If you see the black flags, then hold your ground and do not move your hands or your feet. A people will come forth who are weak and have no capability, their hearts are like blocks of iron. They are the people of the State (literally the people of Al Dawla), they do not keep a promise or a treaty. They call to the truth but they are not its people. Their names are (nicknames like Abu Mohammed) and their last names (are the names of town and cities, like Al Halabi) and their hair is loose like women’s hair. (Leave them) until they fight among themselves, then Allah will bring the truth from whoever He wills.”
In another reference to a period of intense religious, political and social confusion Imam Ali warned,
“If you are against a group of Muslims and the kuffar (unbelievers) are against them too, then know that you have aligned yourself with the kuffar against your own brothers. And know that if that is the case, then there is definitely something wrong with your view. If you want to know where the most righteous of Muslims are then look to where the arrows of the kuffar are pointing.”
In this extract, Imam Ali clearly refers to a time when Muslims will cross swords with other Muslims while in alliance with non-Muslims. And because western powers are undeniably colluding with those radicals they claim to want to destroy - training them and funding them in plain view, one can legitimately ponder.
Looking at events currently unfolding in the Middle East such warnings have found a deep echo within the Muslim community and religious leaders, among whom most prominently Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both have mapped their decisions within such religious parameters. And whether one agrees with those men or not is not the point - understanding where they are coming from and where they stand however, is.
And if we can agree that not all is as it seems, then could it not be that those enemies we have imagined are indeed - not?
If ISIS has certainly been sold as an Islamic movement, everything it professes and teaches stands against Islam and its teachings. This divide actually goes beyond Islam’s great schism – which schism it needs to be noted remains part of this myth Saudi Arabia has been so eager on selling the world.
If indeed religious disagreements have occurred over the centuries and if Muslims have in truth fought and argue over the legitimacy, legality and religious superiority of their schools of thoughts and judicial principles, scholars did so in the knowledge and express belief that while men are flawed, Islam is perfect.
Islam’s disagreements came about out from a desire to walk better on God’s path, not to obliterate people with an implacable and merciless truth.
Looking back at the long line of prophets, from Adam to Noah, Ibrahim, Jesus, Yehia and Muhammad, all shared in the Oneness which is God’s ultimate command, God’s boundless mercy onto His creation and His injunction of peace. And if those holy messengers came at different times and places in our history, the essence of their message has been as permanent and immovable as God’s will. From Adam’s first cries of remorse and calls for forgiveness, to Prophet Muhammad’s last breath, God’s message onto us has always been Islam - as Islam means submission. In truth, the only real freedom which was ever given to us is that to submit, body and soul to The Creator of All things.
Islam did not start at Prophet Muhammad, rather it was reborn with him and through him; a last call before the sunset, a last mercy and guidance for us to follow – or not – a last ray of hope before evil can get its fill and the last chapter of our fate written down.
Islam was on the first day as it will be on the last day – it is us which have called it many things in our need to possess and label the divine. It is us again which have strayed and plotted, coveted and perverted to serve very earthly ambitions.
Wahhabism is no more than an engineered perversion, a division, an abomination which has but spread like a cancer onto the Islamic world and now threatens to destroy all religions.
Wahhabism and its legions: Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, are but the manifestations of a reactionary atheist movement which seeks the death of all faiths.
Wahhabism is not of Islam and Islam will never be of Wahhabism – it is a folly to conceive that Islam would ever sanction murder, looting and atrocious barbarism. Islam opposes despotism, injustice, infamy , deceits, greed, extremism, asceticism – everything which is not balanced and good, fair and merciful, kind and compassionate.
If anything, Wahhabism is the very negation of Islam. As many have called it before – Islam is not Wahhabism. Wahhabism is merely the misguided expression of one man’s political ambition – Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, a man who was recruited by Empire Britain to erode at the fabric of Islam and crack the unity of its ummah (community).
As Wahhabism began its land and mind grab in Hijaz – now known as Saudi Arabia – one family, Al Saud saw in this violent and reactionary school of thought a grand opportunity to claim and retain power. This unholy alliance has blotted the skies of Arabia for centuries, darkening the horizon with its miasms.
Wahhabism has now given birth to a monstrous abomination – extreme radicalism; a beast which has sprung and fed from Salafis and Wahhabis poison, fueled by the billions of Al Saud’s petrodollars; a weapon exploited by neo-imperialists to justify military interventions in those wealthiest corners of the world.
But though those powers which thought themselves cunning by weaving a network of fear around the world to better assert and enslave are losing control over their brain-child, ISIS and its sisters in hate and fury, as they all have gone nuclear, no longer bound by the chains their fathers shackled them with.
ISIS’s obscene savagery epitomises the violence which is inherent and central to Wahhabism and Salafism - its other deviance. And though the world knows now the source of all terror, no power has yet dared speak against it, instead the world has chosen to hate its designated victim – Islam.
In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning ISIS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. But then again the Grand Mufti might remain oblivious to the history of Wahhabism or what Wahhabism actually professes.
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 models Muslim women came to look up to and aspire to become – Maryam, Khadijah, Fatimah, Zaynab; Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab would have had locked up in chains 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 interpretations of it which is the source of your ire.
Islam secured women’ status according to God’s will. Islam poses both men and women on 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 and cultural deviations which have denied them those rights, not Islam.
Women rights are forever imprinted in the Quran - this reality will never change, no matter how men chose to interpret it and falsify it.
Like Martin Luther, ibn 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, ibn 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 ibn 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” - Quran 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 ibn 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. A few years later, in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader, wary of that his army would do to the population.
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 echo, Al Saud filled the air with ghastly cries of horrors.
But such terror has been erased from history books. Such tales 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. 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 US 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 breath 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.
Don't miss reading the second part: "ISIS: The brainchild of Wahhabism"
Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst, writer and commentator for the Middle East with a special focus on radical movements and Yemen. The Director of Programs at the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Catherine is also the co-founder of Veritas Consulting. She authored Arabia’s Rising - Under The Banner Of The First Imam.