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The Origins of Wahhabi Islam and Jihad


Charles Allen
“God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad”

Washington-area Muslims affiliated with Salafi (or Wahhabi) organizations feel beleaguered says a story in the September 5 Washington Post. It seems that one of the area’s prominent Salafi imams is now in a US prison on charges he incited young Muslims to wage war against the US. The Islamic center where he preached is shuttered. And a local Wahhabi-oriented Saudi-run institute no longer has any students.

Noting that followers of “this conservative sect” read Islamic scriptures literally, reject centuries of Islamic legal scholarship as unnecessary "innovation", and regard Jews, Christians and non-Wahhabi Muslims as "unbelievers" who should be avoided, the article quotes Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, who says Salafis "are really focused on belief. . . . for the most part, they are apolitical." Defenders of Wahhabism, particularly academics, say the sect is nothing more than a puritanical reformist teaching.

But British historian Charles Allen argues that the true nature of Wahhabism is to be found in its ideological base: a militant politico-religious ideology rooted in violent intolerance, “an extremist cult”. And that a similar ideological base connects Wahhabism, Salafists, radical Deobandi movements such as the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and the Taliban.
That ideological base lies in the thought of Muhammad Ibn Abd-Al Wahhab. At the beginning of the 18th century, Al-Wahhab set down the outlines of his vision of Islam in Kitab al-Tawhid (The Book of Unity). Allen argues that Al-Wahhab reduced Islam to absolute monotheism (tawhid) and rejected all innovation (bidat) after the Prophet’s death. He also declared there only one interpretation of the Quran and Hadith was valid—his, of course.

And significantly, since the rise of Islam had been accomplished by jihad or armed struggle against idolaters, it then followed that jihad was only one course of action open to true Muslims according to Al-Wahhab. Never mind that Muslim sages in all four Sunni schools of law had developed the concept of jihad kabeer (lesser jihad or armed struggle) as something less important than jihad akbar (greater jihad or as inner spiritual or moral struggle). For Al-Wahhab, jihad was defined in strictly literal terms; that is, unrelenting struggle against all those who stood against Islam as defined by Al-Wahhab. In practice, this meant the only was to love Allah was to hate infidels.

This ideology was put into practice in 1744 as the result of Al-Wahhab’s partnership with Muhammad Ibn Saud, a strictly local Arabian tribal leader. Saud designated himself emir. In Islam, one needs both an emir and an imam in order to proclaim a territory as dar ul-Islam, a domain where sharia or Islamic law can prevail. (Ibn Saud became the head of the Saudi family, which later took on immamship as well).

Historically, Allen argues that this partnership initially united parts of the Arabian peninsula, tied the fortunes of Wahhabism with the Saudi family and promoted a stream of Islam that preached intolerance of every brand of religion but theirs. After initial military success which included destruction of Moslem holy places in Mecca and Medina, the movement was temporarily halted in 1818 with military defeat by the Egyptian army. However, Allen argues Wahhabism migrated to India under the influence of Syed Ahmad where it flourished in the religious school established in Deoban. The Wahhabi cult later made a comeback in Saudi Arabia where it became the ideology that helped unite the Arabian kingdom.

This would have mattered little except that in 1973, the price of crude oil spiraled. Saudi Arabia was now floating in petrodollars. The kingdom spent huge sums to promote Wahhabism throughout Sunni communities, especially on the Indian subcontinent. By 1977, Deobandi-trained idealists, under the patronage of General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, filled the Pakistani military and intelligence services. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan. Jihad as armed struggle became operative as Taliban, Deobandi, and Wahhabi jihadist fighters such as Osama Bin Laden went to Afghanistan to defeat the infidels.

Allen believes that history teaches us fundamentalist theocracy does not work. Saudi Arabia is the exception to the rule, he says, because the relationship between the clerics and the ruling family benefits both parties. So long as the world buys oil from the Saudis, Wahhabism will prosper in Arabia, he says.

What about Iran, which is a fundamentalist theocracy, but not Wahhabi? Allen is silent on this question, most likely because the question is beyond the scope of his book.

In Allen’s opinion, if the West were to remove Muslim grievances (especially failure to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state and occupation of Iraq), that would give moderate Islam a better chance to re-assert itself. On the other hand, there’s no sign that Wahhabi/Salafist/Deobandi movements would pack up their tents and disappear if all the so-called grievances in Palestine, Iraq and Kashmir were to be settled tomorrow. Just the opposite: there’s a growing belief among Muslims that Western advance is at an end and Islam is now in ascent.

If history has anything to teach, then a more critical question to ask is how many Arabs and Pakistanis have a clear understanding of their own history? Unfortunately Allen, who admits a lack of fluency in Arabic and Urdu, is unable to provide an answer.

Also Noted

Robert B. Silvers & Barbara Epstein (editors)
“The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships"
(New York Review Books)

One thing writers enjoy writing about as much as literature is other writers.

Writing on writers provides the opportunity for shop talk, extended meditations on the writing craft. The way a writer “piles up subordinate clauses, his digressions and questions, the cadences of his prose” as Joseph Brodsky says. And there are also ideas. The “the almost child-like enthusiasm in the breadth and degree of intellectual curiosity: reflections on poetic creation and language, thoughts on modern culture, politics and society, new scientific discoveries or intellectual inquiries and sudden swerves towards unpredictable subjects” as Enrique Krauze says of the Mexican writer Octavio Paz.

“The Company They Kept” is a collection of memoirs and literary appreciations by writers on other writers that have appeared at various times in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). Twenty-seven writers and thinkers are covered. These include Theodore Roethke, Albert Einstein, Delmore Schwartz, Amedeo Modigliani, Isiah Berlin, Joseph Brodsky and Francis Crick.

The American equivalent of the best European literary publications, the NYRB continues to aggressively carve out a space for books and ideas in a culture not quite suited for writers.
This book will give hours of pleasure to those who love literature.



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