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The dramatic arrival of ISIS on the stage of Iraq and Syria has shocked many in the West. Many have been perplexed — and horrified — by its violence and its evident magnetism for Sunni youth world over. Many Saudis appear to be deeply disturbed by the radical doctrines of ISIS — and are beginning to question some aspects of Saudi Arabia’s direction and discourse.
Saudi Arabia’s internal discord and tensions over ISIS can only be understood by grasping the inherent (and persisting) duality that lies at the core of the Kingdom’s doctrinal makeup and its historical origins. It starts with the acceptance of Abd al-Wahhab and advocacy of his ultra-radical views which had resulted in his expulsion from his own town in 1741. After some wanderings, he found refuge under the protection of Ibn Saud the emerging ruler and his tribe. What Ibn Saud perceived in Abd al-Wahhab’s novel teaching was the means to overturn Arab tradition and convention by means of a rigid and radical interpretation of the scriptures. It was a path to seizing power.
They bonded well and their strategy – like that of ISIS today – was to bring the peoples whom they conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. In 1801, the newly found allies attacked the Holy City of Karbala in Iraq. They massacred thousands of Shiites, including women and children. Many Shiite shrines were destroyed, including the shrine of Imam Hussein, the murdered grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They pillaged the whole of Karbala and plundered the Tomb of Hussein, slaying in the course of the day, with peculiar cruelty, above five thousand of its inhabitants. Ibn Saud 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: to the unbelievers, the same treatment.”
In 1803, Abdul Aziz then entered the Holy City of Mecca, which surrendered under the impact of terror and panic (the same fate was to befall Medina, too). Abd al-Wahhab’s followers demolished historical monuments and all the tombs and shrines in their midst. By the end, they had destroyed centuries of Islamic architecture near the Grand Mosque.
In 1803, a Shiite assassin killed King Abdul Aziz (taking revenge for the massacre at Karbala). His son, Saud bin Abd al Aziz, succeeded him and continued the conquest of Arabia. Ottoman rulers, however, could no longer just sit back and watch as their empire was devoured piece by piece. In 1812, the Ottoman army, composed of Egyptians, pushed the Alliance out from Medina, Jeddah and Mecca. In 1814, Saud bin Abd al Aziz died of fever. His unfortunate son Abdullah bin Saud, however, was taken by the Ottomans to Istanbul, where he was gruesomely executed.
In 1815, Wahhabi forces were crushed by the Egyptians (acting on the Ottoman’s behalf) in a decisive battle. In 1818, the Ottomans captured and destroyed the Wahhabi capital of Dariyah. The first Saudi state was no more. The few remaining Wahhabis withdrew into the desert to regroup, and there they remained, quiescent for most of the 19th century.
It is not hard to understand how the founding of the Islamic State by ISIS in contemporary Iraq might resonate amongst those who recall this history. Indeed, the ethos of 18th century Wahhabism did not just wither in Nejd, but it roared back into life when the Ottoman Empire collapsed amongst the chaos of World War I.
The Al Saud — in this 20th century renaissance — were led by the laconic and politically astute Abd-al Aziz, who, on uniting the fractious Bedouin tribes, launched the Saudi “Ikhwan” in the spirit of Abd-al Wahhab’s and Ibn Saud’s earlier fighting proselytizers.
The Ikhwan was a reincarnation of the early, fierce, semi-independent vanguard movement of committed armed Wahhabist “moralists” who almost had succeeded in seizing Arabia by the early 1800s. In the same manner as earlier, the Ikhwan again succeeded in capturing Mecca, Medina and Jeddah between 1914 and 1926. Abd-al Aziz, however, began to feel his wider interests to be threatened by the revolutionary ” radicalism” exhibited by the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan revolted against him, leading to a civil war that lasted until the 1930s, when the King had them put down: he machine-gunned them.
Wahhabism was forcefully changed from a movement of revolutionary jihad and theological takfiri purification, to a movement of conservative social, political, theological, and religious da’wa (Islamic call) and to justifying the institution that upholds loyalty to the royal Saudi family and the King’s absolute power.
Ibn Saud was the ruler now. The dominant strand to the Saudi identity was firmly embeded directly to Wahabism of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism), and the use of this radical, excursionist puritanism was put to use by Ibn Saud. He subjugated the sparring Bedouin tribes in the baking and desperately poor deserts of the Nejd. He found the behavior of local Bedouin Arabs similar to the Shias, they aggravated him as they did Abd al-Wahhab by their honoring of saints, by their erecting of tombstones, and their revering graves or places that were deemed particularly imbued with the divine.
All this behavior, Abd al-Wahhab had denounced as bida — forbidden by God.
Like his professed mentor Taymiyyah the fourteenth century Muslim scholar, Abd al-Wahhab had declared war on Shi’ism, Sufism and Greek philosophy. He spoke out, too against visiting the grave of the prophet and the celebration of his birthday, declaring that all such behavior represented mere imitation of the Christian worship of Jesus as God (i.e. idolatry). Abd al-Wahhab assimilated all his guru’s teaching, and preached that “any doubt or hesitation” on the part of a believer in respect to his or her acknowledging this particular interpretation of Islam should “deprive a man of immunity of his property and his life.” Abd al-Wahhab denounced all Muslims who honored the dead, saints, or angels. He held that such sentiments detracted from the complete subservience one must feel towards God, and only God. Wahhabi Islam thus bans any prayer to saints and dead loved ones, pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, religious festivals celebrating saints, the honoring of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birthday, and even prohibits the use of gravestones when burying the dead.
“Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated,” he wrote.
Abd al-Wahhab demanded conformity — a conformity that was to be demonstrated in physical and tangible ways. He argued that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader. The main tenets of Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine has become the key idea of takfir. Under the takfiri doctrine, Abd al-Wahhab and his followers could deem fellow Muslims infidels should they engage in activities that in any way could be said to encroach on the sovereignty of the absolute Authority, that is, the Saudi King. Those who would not confirm should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated, he wrote. The list of apostates meriting death included the Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations, whom Abd al-Wahhab did not consider to be Muslim at all.
Ibn Saud’s, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions. Only now they were doing it not within the ambit of Arab tradition, but rather under the banner of jihad. Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab reintroduced the skew idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad, as it granted those martyred immediate entry into paradise
The institutionalization of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine of “One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque” — these three pillars being taken respectively to refer to the Saudi king as he was the ruler and the protector and guardian of the holy Mosque, has caused the major rift between the ISIS and the Wahabis. The ISIS denies these three pillars; they do not accept the Saudi king as the ruler or his authority. To them the ruler is the one who holds authority over the Muslims world over and it is in keeping with the original Salafi doctrine as enunciated by Taymiyyah (the Caliph is the ruler) and hence their violent and bloody movement for the Caliphate. ISIS is deeply Salafist, it is ultra-radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective movement to contemporary Wahabism. ISIS looks to the actions of the first two Caliphs, rather than the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself, as a source of emulation,
Saudi Arabia’s ambivalence in the face of this manifestation is troubling and inexplicable. It appears — even now — that Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite is divided. Some applaud that ISIS is fighting Iranian Shiite “fire” with Sunni “fire”; that a new Sunni state is taking shape at the very heart of what they regard as a historical Sunni awakening; and they are drawn by ISIS strict Salafist ideology. Other Saudis are more fearful, and recall the history of the revolt against Abd-al Aziz by the Wahhabis Ikhwan
As the oil revenues poured in exponentially, with the heady mix of billions of dollar soft power the Saudi decided to manage Sunni Islam , as it concomitantly embedded Wahabism educationally, socially and culturally throughout the lands of Islam and simultaneously sought and promoted western policy dependency on Saudi Arabia, a dependency that has endured since Abd-al Aziz’s meeting with Roosevelt on a U.S. warship until today. Westerners looked at the Kingdom and their gaze was taken up towards the wealth; by the apparent modernization; by the professed leadership of the Islamic world. They chose to presume that the Kingdom was bending to the imperatives of modern life — and that the management of Sunni Islam would bend the Kingdom, too, to modern way of life.
In the collaborative management of the region by the Saudis and the West in pursuit of the many Western targets countering socialism, Ba’athist, Nasserist, Soviet and Iranian influence, its politicians chose reading of Saudi Arabia through wealth, modernization and influence, but they ignored the Wahhabist menace totally; the more radical Islamist movements were perceived by Western intelligence services as being more effective in toppling the USSR in Afghanistan — and in combating out-of-favor Middle Eastern leaders and states.
Until the arrival of Osama bin Laden who was precisely the representative of a late flowering of the Wahabi Ikhwani approach.
In the aftermath of 9/11 in the backlash against Saudi Arabia and Wahabism, Saudi was portrayed in media, senate hearings, and elsewhere as a sort of oily heart of darkness, the wellspring of a bleak, hostile value system that is the very antithesis of our own . America’s seventy-year alliance with the kingdom was reappraised as a ghastly mistake, a selling of the soul, a gas-addicted dalliance with death.
There was even a proposal at the American Defense Policy Board, (an arm of Department of Defense) to consider `taking Saudi out of Arabia` by forcibly seizing control of the oil fields, giving the Hijaz back to the Hashemite’s, and delegating control of Medina and Mecca to a multinational committee of moderate, non-Wahhabi Muslims.
Will this proposal or a modified one take shape at least now?
The ISIS has now thrown open a very welcome and laudatory thought process the possibility of it taking shape looms large as equations and relationships between countries are fast changing.
Is it then the beginning of the end?