Why America Needs to Beware of Saudi Wahhabism – Robert G. Rabil/The National Interest
The Obama administration issued a statement welcoming leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—to the White House on May 13 and to Camp David on May 14. According to the statement, the gathering will be an opportunity for the leaders to discuss ways to enhance their partnership and deepen security cooperation.
Undoubtedly, this upcoming gathering is essential for improving U.S.-GCC relations, which have been affected by the GCC’s perspective that United States is beating a retreat in the Middle East by pursuing a feeble foreign policy towards both the Syrian crisis and Iran’s regional expansion of power. Central to U.S.-GCC negotiations is the concern about the implications of a potential U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement for the security of the GCC countries. The GCC countries consider Iran to be the bête noir of the Middle East. This is not for irrelevant reasons, but to blame Iran for all the mayhem resulting in the creation of ISIS and the civil wars in Yemen and Syria is counterproductive, and in Arab metaphoric parlance, a derisive pat on the shoulder of American-Arab relations.
Besides the necessary steps the Obama administration must take to alleviate GCC’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and Middle East policy, it is high time for the administration to face up to Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi creed, which is at the center not only of the kingdom’s official religious establishment but also of the attitudinal behavior of the Saudi state and some of its citizens. In other words, the Saudi monarchy has made some sort of a Faustian pact with the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam whose theological and political ramifications cannot be discounted as principal factors for paving the way for Islamic radicalism. Absent an American grasp of the relational religio-political dynamics in the Kingdom, and absent a cathartic friendly exchange between the two strategic allies, there is little hope that Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East might peter out any time soon.
The Saudi-Wahhabi pact goes back to the eighteenth century when Sheikh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam traveled to Diriya, the stronghold of the Saudi tribe, and struck a deal with its chief. The pact served the interest of both parties by expanding their respective political and religious influence throughout the regions of Najd and Hijaz.
Basing his ideas on the writings of classical Salafi scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Wahhab rejected shirk (idolatry, polytheism) and bid‘ah (heretical religious innovation), which he believed permeated the holy land of Islam. He believed in the return to the authentic ways of the salaf al-salih (pious ancestors) and advocated tawhid (oneness/unity of God) and transcendence of God. He called for unity and the purification of Islam. His puritanical movement became known as the Muwahhidun. Significantly, he justified leveling the charge of takfir (unbelief) on those he considered engaged in shirk. For example, the failure of Muslims to observe all the pillars of Islam or direct their exclusive worship toward God alone was tantamount to committing kufr (unbelief).
In their campaign to control Najd and Hijaz, the Saudi-Wahhabi movement faced serious setbacks that left indelible impressions on its political outlook. Coming on the heels of destroying holy shrines in what is today Iraq, the movement occupied the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1805, thereby disrupting Muslim pilgrimage. In response, Ottoman authorities sent the army of Muhammad Ali of Egypt to crush the movement. The army, aided by tribes and natives, destroyed the Saudi-Wahhabi capital of Diriya and took the Saudi chief to Istanbul where he was executed. Consequently, Wahhabi scholars, including the grandson of al-Wahhab, Sulayman ibn ‘Abdallah, issued fatwas (religious edicts) asserting that those who supported the invading army to be apostates and that the Ottomans were polytheists.
The next important setback took place during the campaign of Saudi chief Abd al-Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud) to conquer Najd and Hijaz (1902-1932). Radical Wahhabis, known as the Ikhwan, fighting on Ibn Saud’s side had begun to oppose him once he started to negotiate with the British. Preempting their budding rebellion, Ibn Saud rallied moderate Wahhabis and a number of tribes and harshly clamped down on the Ikhwan. Before long, he completed his conquest of Najd and Hijaz, and in 1932, he proclaimed himself king of the newly established Saudi kingdom.
Early on in their rule, the Saudis recognized that their assumption of power, unlike that of other tribes in the Gulf, was bloody and that opposition to their rule could emerge under certain circumstances within both Saudi society and the Wahhabi religious establishment. They recognized that their rule has to be based on a tripod of 1) appearing pious Muslims worthy of being the custodians of the Holy mosques, 2) conferring state benefits on Saudis to maintain their loyalty, and 3) supporting the Wahhabi religious establishment as a key source for legitimizing their rule. The Saudis institutionalized the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam as the official religious establishment of the Kingdom and strove to support its proponents in return for their political obedience. This division of labor between the two parties was in line with the initial pact whereby the Saudis were in charge of politics and the Wahhabis in charge of propagating (da‘wa) their version of Islam.
This division of labor came under duress during the Cold War when Saudi Arabia led the pro-Western conservative camp and Egypt led the left-leaning nationalist camp in the Arab world. The two countries fought by proxy in Yemen. During that time Saudi Arabia welcomed many members of the Muslim Brotherhood when President of Egypt Gamal Abdel-Nasser clamped down on them for trying to assassinate him. The Saudis assumed that nobody was better suited to taunt and criticize nationalist Nasser than the pious members of the Muslim Brotherhood. As it turned out, their assumption proved deeply flawed and harmful to the security of the royal family. Once in the kingdom, the Brothers joined the burgeoning field of education, in particular the newly established universities. It was there in the universities of the kingdom that a theological cross-fertilization took place blending the political outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood with the dogmatic stance of Wahhabism. The corollary was that a number of Wahhabi-Salafists became politicized and consequently began to air their displeasure with the rule of the Saudi royal family.
Soon enough, this displeasure grew into opposition to the royal family, which manifested itself in the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979 by Juhayman al-Utaibi and his followers in the religious establishment. Al-Utaibi anathematized the Saudis as corrupt and illegally rulers of the holy land because they did not belong to the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh. With help from Pakistan, Saudi authorities stormed the Grand Mosque and either killed or detained the miscreants. Subsequently, Saudi authorities beheaded al-Utaibi and his followers.
This episode in the history of the Kingdom has had tremendous impact on Saudi domestic and foreign policy. Domestically, the royal family removed all Brothers from their educational positions and supported the apolitical camp within the religious establishment. This camp rallied around two illustrious scholars: Sheikhs Muhammad Aman al-Jami and Rabi’ al-Madkhali, who professed unquestionable loyalty to the Saudi regime. Doctrinally, they endorsed the view of Sheikh Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s (1914-1999) scientific Salafi school, which is also known as the quietest Salafi school.
As a Salafist, the principal tenets of al-Albani’s scientific school are: tawhid, itba’ (following only the Prophet), and tazkiah (purification). He, like classical Salafists, adhered to the broad principle of tawhid. In respect to the tenet of itba’, al-Albani stressed following only the Prophet in affirmation of the Muslim pillar of shahada (testimony): “I testify/bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This testimony would not be complete without the belief that Muhammad was a human being, who received a divine revelation: the Qur’an and the Sunnah. And this testimony would be completed by loving the Prophet and emulating the beneficent first three generations in Islam. It follows from this that Al-Albani categorically rejected what he considered reprehensible innovations introduced to Islam by “rationalist” groups; innovations that tarnished the creed of and worship in Islam. In respect to the final tenet of tazkiah, al-Albani considered it as the primary purpose for which the messenger of God was sent. Its objective was “to cleanse and heal the soul,” and “purge it of its abominations,” by abiding by the revelation and creed and ethics of Islam, which achieve justice and benevolence.
For al-Albani, these aforementioned tenets of scientific Salafism could not be properly understood and applied without engaging in da‘wa, the vehicle of societal change. Da‘wa is a priority for al-Albani’s scientific Salafist school, for without which neither the upright Muslim nor the Muslim state could be brought about. Correspondingly, al-Albani premised the methodology (manhaj) of change inherent in his da‘wa on the concept of “al-tasfiyah wa al-tarbiyah (purification and education).” He believed that, in order to effect the exemplary Muslim, and by extension the Islamic State, Islam should be purified of everything that is alien and fraudulent. To that end the Sunnah (customs and traditions of Prophet Muhammad) must be purged of all forged and weak hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) so that the revelation can be understood in light of authenticated hadiths. As for tarbiyah, al-Albani believed that only by instilling into the youthful generation the authentic Islamic creed, as outlined in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, could a pure Islamic society be formed as the basis of an Islamic state.
Put in simple terms, according to al-Albani, it follows from this that unless religion is purified and rightly practiced, political action will lead to corruption and injustice in Muslim society. This explains al-Albani’s opposition to Islamism (political Islam) as adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Harakis (Muslim activists). Similarly, al-Albani perceived politics in its Western contemporary concept as a reprehensible innovation based on takfiri (unbeliever) principles, reflected in deception, dishonesty and cunning. Al-Albani opposed Muslim participation in both elections and parliaments.
This is the fundamentalist, anti-Western, and anti-modern school of Islam representing the official religious orientation in the kingdom’s institutions.
Significantly, critical events in the 1980s and the 1990s, in particular the Afghan war and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, further polarized the Salafists. Wahhabi-Salafist scholars frowned upon the deployment of American troops in the holy land, whose invitation by King Fahd was sanctioned by a fatwa from the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom, Sheikh ibn Baz. For them, the Americans were no better than the Ottomans as apostates. Salafis rallied around two religious scholars: Sheikhs Salman al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawali, who waged a public campaign against the monarchy impacting its religious legitimacy. Although the Kingdom imprisoned al-‘Awda and al-Hawali and their supporters, and counterattacked with fatwas from the religious establishment, it could not stop the growth of this campaign that transformed into a branch of Salafism interested in acquiring political influence in order to remedy and prevent further catastrophic developments in the Muslim world. This school of Salafism further grew following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In fact, it is true that by the late mid-1990s, religious opposition to the monarchy had petered out. However, this critical episode in the relationship between the monarchy and the politicized Salafists only reinforced the trend and determination of Harakis to organize and be politically and socially active, with the objective of affecting or attaining power. Though, broadly speaking, they do not excommunicate rulers, they act in the capacity of the guardians of Islamic society. In other words, these activist Salafists, whose political consciousness stem from the political and cultural outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood, strive to found Muslim governance on the will of God’s as outlined in the sharia. Conversely, governments that base their governance on idolatrous foundations become target of de-legitimization. Significantly, their discourse and actions have more or less blurred the lines between protecting the ummah (community of believers) and implicitly excommunicating the “ungodly” ruler who does not govern in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah by delegitimizing him, therefore justifying or paving the way for waging jihad against him.
Eventually, this concern with creating an Islamic state governed in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah preoccupied activist Salafists, whose theology can be traced to the hybrid ideology that was born out of the fusion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political and cultural outlook and the creed of Wahhabism. Whereas the application of sharia has been a central tenet for the Muslim Brotherhood, purification of the creed has been a central tenet of Wahhabis. Harakis, striving to establish an Islamic state, overlaid this hybrid ideology with that of tawhid al-hakimiyyah (the unity of sovereignty), which means that God alone is sovereign, and therefore the application of sharia is imperative. This new concept is completely in line with the Salafi creed of tawhid, because it derives from the creedal tenet of tawhid al-uluhiyyah, which means that all forms of worship must be directed exclusively toward God alone. Correspondingly, this concept developed into a sacrosanct obligation sanctioning the excommunication of rulers who do not apply sharia, and therefore jihad against them. Salafi jihadists embrace this obligation and strive to 1) propagate Islam, 2) prepare and wage jihad in the path of Allah, 3) work to recover the homeland and the authority that has been violated, and 4) appoint a caliph who will rule according to what God has sent down.
Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State embrace this Salafi-jihadi ideology. Significantly, what Bin Laden failed to accomplish, al-Baghdadi achieved with the creation of the Islamic State. He confirmed to Islamists and Salafists of all stripes that only through jihad can the Islamic State be realized, and that quietist Salafis are wasting their time. It should come, therefore, as no surprise that many Islamists and Salafis have joined the Islamic State.
It follows from this, as I painstakingly argued in Salafism in Lebanon, that Salafism has now emerged as a prominent ideological and political driver to a Sunni community in crisis, and that the three branches of Salafism are something more than distant relatives. Herein lies the problem and the challenge for United States in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. True, Saudi Arabia opposes and battles Salafi-Jihadism; nevertheless its support of the quietest school of Salafism within and beyond the border of the Kingdom breathes life into the lungs of Harakis and Salafi jihadists to pursue their core mission.
This is not to say that United States should meddle in the domestic affairs of the Kingdom. More so, Washington, as the Obama administration rightly stated, should indeed enhance its relationship with Riyadh. But this, under the current circumstances in the Middle East, should not mean sweeping American intentional or unintentional ignorance about the challenge of Salafism under the rug of better yet injudicious American-Saudi relations. Washington should hold frank and pointed discussions with Saudi Arabia focusing on the perils the ideology of Salafism poses to Muslim and Western societies alike. Washington should skillfully nudge the Saudi monarchy to take overdue decisions to wean itself from the foundational ideology that has thus far served as the basis for the legitimization of Saudi rule. Late King Abdullah recognized the challenge and tried to curb the power of the Wahhabi religious establishment by trying to make the other schools of Islam (Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki) part of the religious establishment and by removing from there hardline scholars. But Arab revolutions threw a wrench in the wheel of his slow reform movement. The royal family chose to maintain its pact with the Wahhabi religious establishment by securing its support in banning demonstrations and underscoring the religious legitimacy of Saudi rule.
Apparently, the Obama administration, as its predecessors, is more or less cognizant of the limits of the pressure it can put on the kingdom. Nevertheless, it can no longer afford misconstruing or dismissing the hazardous correlation between the various schools of Salafism and their ramifications for the Muslim and Western world; nor can it accept at face value Saudi propagation of Wahhabism overseas and support of pro-Saudi Salafists as key aspects of their pact with the Wahhabi religious establishment.
Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (Georgetown University Press, 2014). This article is largely based on the research of the afore-mentioned book.