A year ago, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of Germany rebuked Saudi Arabia for financing Wahhabi mosques worldwide. In the case of Germany, he added, such mosques had fostered extremists who threatened public security. That campaign by Saudi Arabia as well as other nations or organizations in the Gulf has been fueled by oil-wealth and has taken strategic advantage of Saudi control of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. And it has been carried out by states that rely on the military, security, and economic ties with the United States and by other Western nations.
Is Wahhabist ideology a problem, and if so, for whom? The answer is yes, it is a problem; and it is a problem not only for those concerned with public safety in Germany or other Western nations, but for just about everyone except those preaching it.
The questions that Gabriel and other critics of Wahhabist ideology do not address are these. What is Wahhabism? What makes a particular mosque, teaching circle, set of books, treatises, audio-cassettes, or Internet site Wahhabist? And given that there are few if any self-identified “Wahhabis”, how might one distinguish Wahhabism from Salafism more widely?
“Wahhabism” refers first and foremost to the teachings of the 18th-century Arabian preacher and activist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who in 1744 made a pact with a local chief from the Saud tribe. This pact set the model for subsequent Saudi-Wahhabi rule: the clerics—Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his successors—would decide what was proper Islam and the rulers— Muhammad ibn Saud and his descendants—would enforce the cleric’s interpretation of Islam, control territory, administer the state, and eliminate improper beliefs and practices.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached a radical understanding of Takfir, that is, the declaration that certain beliefs or practices are apostasy. He taught that the vast majority of Muslims living in his time were in fact apostates, as had been the majority of Muslims since the eighth century. It is not enough for Muslims to carry out the daily prayers, fast during Ramadan, give alms, attempt to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and affirm that “there is no god but God.” To avoid the charge of idolatrous polytheism, he taught, they must also renounce all beliefs and practices that negate, implicitly or explicitly, the oneness of God. Apostates who do not repent are to be executed. Whoever doubts that that the beliefs and practices condemned by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab are apostasy is himself an apostate. Whoever hesitates to support the appropriate punishment for the apostate is himself an apostate.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab condemned a wide array of practices: building mausoleums or even simple grave markers that rise more than a few inches from the ground; visiting shrines to saints or imams; making or displaying images of animals, humans, or angels in the form of sculptures, bas-reliefs, paintings or drawings; and making or wearing talismans, which are popular throughout many Islamic cultures. He also condemned the enactment of any law that is not God’s law as taught by the Prophet Muhammad; any sign of disrespect for Islam or Muhammad; and aiding non-Muslims against Muslims. In order to root out apostasy, he insisted, it was necessary to eliminate tombs, shrines, and art works along with the apostates who value them.
The claim that Wahhabi doctrine follows a “literal reading” of the Qur’an is mistaken. There is nothing in the Qur’an directing believers to level graves, for example. There is nothing in the Qur’an directing believers to destroy images of animals and humans. Wahhabi doctrine singles out specific Qur’anic verses and derives theological conclusions from those verses. And its most distinctive teachings are based not upon the Qur’an, but upon selections from the vast corpus of sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad.
It was during the “Arab Cold War,” which broke out in the 1960s, that Saudi rulers began to transform Wahhabi doctrines into a militant, pan-Islamic ideology. The Saudi kingdom felt threatened by the secularist nationalism epitomized by Nasser’s Egypt, and by liberal, socialist, and Marxist currents within Arab and Islamic societies more widely. With the backing of the United States, Britain, and other Western nations, Saudi Arabia entered into proxy wars against leftist regimes and developed a globalized Wahhabist ideology in response to the Cold-War ideologies of communism and liberal democracy. Saudi rulers and clerics also found common cause with Islamist ideologues like Mawlana Maududi in South Asia and Muslim Brotherhood circles associated with the Egyptian Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb. After Qutb’s execution in Egypt, Saudi Arabia provided asylum to Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid’s brother, and other radicalized members of the Brotherhood and provided some of them university positions and an increasingly sophisticated global platform.
Saudi rulers and clerics have made a point of rejecting the word “Wahhabi,” a term which would have anchored it in local Saudi traditions and thus interfered with the effort to present their ideology as the true common denominator of Islam everywhere. They insist that they do not advocate Wahhabism, but “Salafism,” a name associated with diverse revivalist movements that emerged around the beginning of the twentieth-century. A core element of Wahhabist ideology is its self-portrayal as nothing more than the true Islam of the “salaf,” that is, the early followers of Muhammad and his companions.
Abdulaziz Bin Baz (d.1999), the most important Saudi cleric of recent history, took the leading role in the production and dissemination of neo-Wahhabi ideology. At one time or another, Bin Baz was President of the Senior Scholars Committee of Saudi Arabia; President of the Saudi Standing Committee for Islamic Research and the Issuance of Fatwas; a member of the Saudi Supreme Committee for Islamic Propagation; President of the Islamic Jurisprudence Assembly of Mecca; Chancellor of the Islamic University of Medina; Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia; Chairman of the Founding Committee of the Muslim World League; and Chairman of the World Supreme Council for Mosques.
Bin Baz and the other Saudi clerics of his generation oversaw a major program to revive, explain, and disseminate the writings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab on Takfir. When a distinguished Sudanese scholar, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, presented an interpretation of the Qur’an that opposed the imposition of the Shari`a in the Sudan, Bin Baz declared him an apostate deserving of death. After Sudan’s ruler, Jaafar al-Numeiri, had the 76-year-old Taha arrested, tried, and executed for apostasy, Bin Baz sent Numeiri a letter of congratulation. Muslims from Egypt to Pakistan who wrote interpretations of the Qur’an or who challenged Wahhabi assumptions about Islam risked being labeled an apostate. Those making the charge of apostasy seldom had to defend it, and many of those accused of apostasy found that even in the case where they escaped jail or execution, their careers were ended and they and their families could face years of threats and harassment.
Beyond direct threats of death and persecution, the pervasiveness of Wahhabist ideology serves to marginalize or silence Muslims who disagree with it. That ideology operates in a number beyond Saudi and Kuwaiti financing of mosques. 1) Tens of millions of artisans, engineers, medical professionals and others with technical skills come to the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, often staying for years or decades, and return to their home countries with new economic status. 2) Saudi Arabia offers scholarships to young Muslim men around the world who lack educational opportunity in their home countries to study Islam in the Kingdom. They are provided with generous stipends that allow them to live well and stay for years, before returning home to serve as religious teachers or imams. 3) Many who come to Mecca and Medina for the pilgrimage end up staying and studying in the holy cities. The Islamic University of Medina, in particular, has become one of the dominant religious institutions in Sunni Islam. 4) The Saudi state and wealthy individuals in the Gulf maintain or finance sophisticated publications and media networks dedicated to the spread of Wahhabist doctrines and ideology. 5) Gulf Arab commercial and financial networks play a powerful role worldwide and especially within the Middle East; those who need financing for small or large business may find that their chances are increased if they adopt and profess certain cultural and religious norms.
In strong contrast to the original Wahhabi movement, which was directed exclusively against Muslims, the new Wahhabist ideology warns that Islam is under mortal threat not only from apostates, but from Christians, Jews, and atheists who allegedly conspire to penetrate Islam with new ideas and thereby destroy it from within. Bin Baz supervised a new English translation of the Qur’an that would show that all non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, were enemies of Islam and of God. The translators did not think that the Qur’an itself was clear on such topics, so they added the words “Jews” and “Christians” to dozens of places in the Qur’an in ways designed to present Jews and Christians in the harshest light possible. Where the Qur’an refers to “those with anger upon them,” for example, the Saudi-authorized translation adds “such as the Jews.” Where the Qur’an refers to those who have gone astray, the translation adds “such as the Christians.” That militant English rendition of the Qur’an was then distributed free of charge throughout the world.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has found that its promotion of Wahhabist ideology can cause it trouble at home. In 1979, a group of religious students who had been deeply influenced by Bin Baz and by the Syrian-born scholar Nasir al-Din Albani, stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killed hundreds of pilgrims, and threatened the very existence of the House of Saud. They condemned the Saudi rulers for allowing the display of idolatrous images and other acts of apostasy, and for making alliances with non-Muslim powers. The same complaints burst out during the Gulf War, when Saudi clerics and, famously, Osama bin Laden, objected to the presence of non-Muslim soldiers on Saudi soil.
In the wake of such revolts, the Kingdom appeased Wahhabi clerics by ceding to them ever more control of Saudi education and society. They also exported young men who might want strict enforcement of the Wahhabi doctrines at home to preach or fight jihad outside of the Kingdom. In turn, the Wahhabi clerical establishment emphasized that it was not generally permissible to declare a Muslim ruler to be an apostate, thereby repudiating the position of Sayyid Qutb and other radical Islamists that they had once tolerated or embraced. But their reasoning was cold reassurance to the House of Saud. A Muslim ruler could only be declared an apostate if he deliberately enacted laws that were not God’s law or deliberately allowed apostasy to flourish, they explained. If he did so out of weakness, ignorance, or moral depravity, he should not be opposed, but counseled in private. And after decades on increasing Saudi ties to the West, important Wahhabist scholars lost patience and condemned Saudi Arabia as an apostate state.
How then might one identify the Wahhabist element in radical or extremist movements today? One way, of course, is simply to read or listen what the radicals preach. Take for example the highly influential book, Religion of Abraham, authored by the Jordanian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the mentor of al-Qaeda-in-Iraq’s leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Although Maqdisi is almost always referred to as a Salafi, the sources that he cites most often are Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, his sons, his grandsons, and a famous collection of early Wahhabi writings.
The other sign of Wahhabist ideology is physical. In the wake of the Arab spring, tombs and Sufi shrines were desecrated or destroyed in Tunisia, Libya, Mali, and in other areas of Africa where there was a vacuum of power. Wahhabist Salafi militias carried out much of the destruction; in other cases, local individuals or groups influenced by Wahhabist preachers may have taken it upon themselves to damage or desecrate a shrine. The systematic destruction of religious and cultural heritage carries a devastating human toll as well. Sufis, Shi`ites, artists, architects, archeologists and others who resist the destruction can face death or persecution.
In Syria and Iraq, of course, the destruction has been even greater. The second issue of the ISIS magazine, Dabiq, features “A Photo Report on the Destruction of Shirk [idolatry or polytheism]” in the Iraqi province of Nineveh. The captions on the photographs from that issue reveal clearly ISIS’s rationale: “Blowing Up The ‘Husayniyyatul-Qubbah’ Temple in Mosul” [p. 14]; “A Soldier of the Islamic State Clarifies to the People the Obligation to Demolish the Tombs” [p. 15]; “Demolishing the ‘Grave of the Girl’ in Mosul” [p. 15]; “Demolishing the Shrine and Tomb of Ahmad ar-Rifā’ī in the District of al-Mahlabiyya” [p. 16]; “Blowing up the “Husayniyyat Jawwād” Temple in Tal ‘Afar” [p. 17]. ISIS has acted with equal fervor against pre-Islamic artistic and architectural heritage in from Nineveh in Iraq to Palmyra in Syria.
At the time that ISIS was engaged in this campaign of tomb, shrine, and heritage destruction, two influential Sunni websites were issuing fatwas that celebrated the Taliban for destroying the monumental Buddha statues at Bamiyan and then smashing other artwork across Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001. The fatwas also urged Muslims to destroy such idols and tombs wherever they could do so, made particular mention of the areas of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and specifically singled out the “idol” of the sphinx and the tombs of the pyramids for destruction.
One of the sites, IslamQA.info (Islam Question and Answer), is the project of Saudi-based Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid, a former protégé of Bin Baz. The Alexa ranking of religious websites, based on the number of digital visitors, lists it among the top sites in the world, along with or exceeding, for example, the official website of the Vatican. The Saudi government does not allow al-Munajjid to promote his site within Saudi Arabia because he is not part of the official Saudi commission on fatwas, but it has given him a powerful base from which to project his rulings abroad. The second site, Islamweb, is the official site of Qatar’s Ministry of Religious Endowments.
These two websites address other questions as well. “Must all apostates be killed?” Yes, states al-Munajjid, unequivocally. Most probably, states Islamweb.
“Is it permitted for a Muslim who is married to have sex with his slave?” This question was sent to IslamQA in August 2015, just after ISIS opened up its slave market for Yezidi women and girls it had taken captive in its genocidal attack on Yezidi communities in northwestern Iraq. Yes, replied Shaykh al-Munajjid, in a response titled “Ruling on having intercourse with a slave woman when one has a wife”: intercourse with a slave is permitted, “and the wife has no cause to complain.”
Looking for “Wahhabis” will not solve the problem of Wahhabist ideology. It can only be addressed at its source: the destructive contradiction between a Saudi Arabia that defends and is defended by Western powers and its state ideology that views non-Muslims as threats and Muslims who take them as friends or allies as apostates. Wahhabist ideology offers a pessimistic, even despairing vision of Islam: as if the very light of the faith were at the point of being snuffed out by apostasy and by the plots of non-Muslims. Although it has been called “puritan,” it would be more accurate to call it purist. It demands that Islam subject itself to an endless process of violent purification, root out the traditions and civilizations it has developed over more than a millennium of history, and wall itself off utterly from the influences and ideas of non-Muslims. Unless the dysfunctional symbiosis between the princes and the clerics in Saudi Arabia and the dysfunctional symbiosis between Saudi Arabia and its non-Muslim allies are addressed, Wahhabist ideology will remain fixated on retrieving a purity that it, by its own definition, lacks.