By Tarek Heggy
Exclusive for Al Waref
As early as the first century of the Muslim calendar, Islam has known radical sects who demanded blind adherence to their rigid reading of the articles of faith, side by side with mainstream Islam, whose adherents eschew violence and extremism and do not profess to hold a monopoly on Truth.
The phenomenon began with the emergence of the Khawarij (Secessionists) in 660 AD, (the middle of the first Hejira century), a sect which preached a dogmatic interpretation of Scripture and practiced a version of excommunication by branding those who did not adopt its teachings as heretics. This was the first such sect but by no means the last, and throughout the history of Islam the quiet of religious life was broken many times by marginal groups who tried to impose their extremist views on the majority by violent means. A comprehensive history of these groups has been compiled by my friend, Professor Mahmoud Ismail Abdul Razzaak, in an authoritative reference work entitled “The Secret Sects of Islam.” The author devotes special attention to the Qarmatians, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka’bah and kept it in a remote area in the east of the Arabian Peninsula for over a century.
Alongside the groups and sects whose members insisted on a literal interpretation of holy texts and laid down strict rules governing all aspects of life, there was the general trend represented in the main Sunni schools (the most important being the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafite and Hanbalite, and their offshoots, Al-Laith and Al-Tabari), as well as the Shiites, who are split into a number of sects. The most important Shiite sect is the Imammeya, or Ithna’ashariyya, (i.e. Twelvers), so called because they accept as imams twelve of the descendants of Ali ibn-Abu Talib (according to their belief, the twelfth imam, who disappeared about 874 AD, is still living and will return). Within this general trend there emerged prominent proponents of deductive reasoning, like the great jurist Abu Hanifa, who accepted just over one hundred of the Prophet’s Hadiths as apostolic precept, as well as uncompromising champions of tradition, like Ahmed ibn-Hanbal, whose book, Al-Musnad, is a compilation of over ten thousand Hadiths. The conservative ibn-Hanbal served as the bulwark of orthodoxy and tradition against any intellectual endeavour, and for a time exerted a considerable hold on public imagination. Although his influence eventually waned, in its heyday tradition reigned supreme and very little room was left for reason. The two main disciples of ibn-Hanbal were ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya, who, like their mentor, allowed no scope for reason or independent thinking, but insisted on a dogmatic adherence to the Hadiths as authoritative sources of all matters spiritual and temporal, laying down strict guidelines to govern every aspect of everyday life. In addition, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas between Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali (Algazel), a strict traditionalist who did not believe the human mind capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by God, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who championed the primacy of reason. The exponents of these two schools waged a bitter battle in which the first salvo was fired by Al-Ghazzali with his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Ibn Rushd answered with his brilliant treatise in defense of rationality, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But despite his spirited defense, the outcome of the battle was clearly in Al-Ghazzali’s favour, and the great majority of Islamic jurists adopted his ideas, interpreting the precepts of Islamic law by appeal to the authority of tradition and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. Islamic jurisprudence was dominated by the Mutakallimun, or dialectical theologians, who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql), as advocated by Al-Ghazzali, over that of reason (‘aql), as advocated by Ibn Rushd. But though Ibn Rushd’s ideas were rejected by the Muslim world, they took root strongly in Europe, particularly France, which embraced his vision of the primacy of reason wholeheartedly.
Thus Muslims can be said to have known two different understandings to Islam, as it were, one based on a rigid, doctrinaire interpretation of holy texts and the violent repression of free thought, the other on a moderate and tolerant understanding of Scripture which allowed for the acceptance of the Other. The first was espoused by the secret sects (limited in number and influence) which emerged in remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula and can best be described as the Bedouin model. The second took hold in the more intellectually vibrant climate that prevailed among the peoples descended from ancient civilizations in places like Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Levant, which I call the Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model of Islam.
Until the mid-eighteenth century, this was the model adopted by most Muslim communities outside the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. But that was before the rise of Wahhabism, a puritan revival movement launched by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab from Najd, where he was born in 1703. In 1744, he forged an alliance with the ruler of Al-Dir’iyah, a tribal chieftain by the name of Mohamed ibn-Saud, who became his son-in-law. The alliance led to the first incarnation of the Saudi state, which, by 1804, had expanded to control nearly one million square metres of the Arabian Peninsula. It was a short-lived incarnation, lasting only until 1819, when Mohamed Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, led a military expedition which destroyed Wahhabi power and razed the capital of the first Saudi state, Al-Dir’iyah, to the ground.
Mohamed Ali’s decision to send first his son Tousson then his son Ibrahim Pasha, known for his military skills, to destroy the first Saudi state had implications going far beyond the political or military ambitions of one man. It was in fact an expression of a cultural/civilizational confrontation between the two models of Islam, a confrontation the enlightened Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model decided to take to the heartland of the obscurantist, extremist and fanatical Wahhabi model. Mohamed Ali, who was extremely impressed by the European model of development and saw no contradiction between the mechanisms by which it had come about and his Islamic beliefs, believed the Wahhabi understanding of Islam stood as a major obstacle in the way of the dream he had nurtured since coming to power in 1805 (and until he abdicated in favour of his son Ibrahim in 1848) to place Egypt on a similar road to development.
Years after the defeat inflicted on them by Ibrahim Pasha (who captured their leader and sent him to Egypt, then to Istanbul where he remained until his death), the Saudis reemerged as a political force in the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula. Basing themselves in Riyadh, they began to meddle covertly in political affairs. This placed them on a collision course with the al-Rashid family in Ha’il, and the two sides were soon locked in battle. The Saudis, under the leadership of Abdul Rahman, father of the founder of the current Saudi dynasty, King Abdul Aziz, were defeated in 1891. Abdul Rahman fled to Kuwait with leading members of the House of Saud, where they remained in exile until 1902. During this period, they were the guests of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabbah, who played an important role in the formation of the young Abdul Aziz. Born in 1876, Abdul Aziz, who came to be known as Ibn Saud, was encouraged in his dream to recapture Riyadh by the ruler of Kuwait. In 1902, Ibn Saud (Abdul Aziz) seized Riyadh and waged a 30-year campaign to assert his dominion over the Arabian Peninsula. In 1925 he entered first Mecca then Medina, and, in September 1932, the 56-year old proclaimed himself king over the Kingdom of Najd and Hejaz, later to become the first kingdom named after its ruling dynasty, Saudi Arabia.
Concomitantly with the birth of the new kingdom, which officially adopted the doctrine of Wahhabism, came the discovery of vast reservoirs of oil under its deserts. This provided the Wahhabis with a virtually endless source of funds which they used to propogate their model of Islam.
Three decades after the creation of Saudi Arabia and the discovery of oil, many things had changed in the world:
One, Saudi Arabia had built up a huge fortune that enabled it to further the cause of Wahhabism not only within its own borders but throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Its efforts proved successful, as many once moderate Muslims were gradually won over to the harsh version of Islam preached by the Wahhabis.
Two, beginning in the ‘sixties, Egypt suffered a reversal of fortune at all levels, including a decline in its general cultural climate, allowing Wahhabi influence to infiltrate the venerable institution of Al-Azhar. The defeat of June 1967 opened the door wide to groups which espoused the Saudi understanding of Islam and who translated their radical views into political action, often at the point of a gun.
Three, in the context of the Cold War, the West in general and the United States in particular adopted a number of misguided policies towards the region, including turning a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabi influence in the Arab and Islamic world, and even occasionally supporting radical groups inspired by the Wahhabi doctrine to achieve their own political ends, such as ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an extremist group was a wake-up call which alerted the world to the growth and spread of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi model of Islam and the retreat of the Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model. A succession of similar events attested to the dangerous spread of this model in most societies with a Muslim majority, in Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia. On the morning of September 11, 2001, a group of fanatics belonging to the Wahhabi brand of Islam launched attacks on New York and Washington that illustrated how the members of this sect view the Other in general and Western civilization in particular.
For the average European or American unfamiliar with some of the facts presented in this article, it is easy to believe that Islam, violence and terrorism go hand in hand. But those who have a more thorough grasp of the issue know that this perception of Islam has taken hold only because a puritanical, fundamentalist model of Islam, which was marginal and ineffectual before oil wealth put it on the map, has managed, thanks to petrodollars, to make the world believe that its interpretation of Islam is Islam. The doctrinaire version of Islam propounded by the Wahabbis had no followers among the Muslims of the world before the expansion of Saudi influence following the oil boom. Millions of Muslims in Egypt, Turkey, the Levant, Iraq, Indonesia and throughout the world remained immune to the appeal of the fanatical, violent and bloody message of what was a small and obscure sect bred in the intellectually barren landscape of the eastern Arabian Peninsula. All that changed with the massive influx of petrodollars into the coffers of Saudi Arabia, which used its new-found wealth to propagate the message of its home-grown Wahhabi sect with missionary zeal. Hence the emergence of militant Islam as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, a force that now represents a dangerous threat to world peace, to humanity and to Islam and Muslims. Half a century ago, the Muslims of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey were models of tolerance who believed in a gentle and enlightened Islam that could, and did, coexist peacefully with other religions and cultures. Following the decline in living standards they have suffered since at the hands of despotic and corrupt rulers, they have become easy prey for the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The perception of Islam today by many non-Muslims is that it is a fanatical and violent religion. That is a superficial view which ignores the fact that there are two models of Islam, one that is uncompromising and extremist in its views and another that is tolerant, moderate and humanistic. It is also a naïve view that can lead to dangerous decisions like the ones which informed the West’s policies when it turned a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabism and established close links with radical Islamic movements like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Finally, there is no need to point out to the neutral reader that the existence of Qur’anic texts which can be used to evidence the violence of Islam is unimportant, because there are enlightened interpretations of the same texts which link them to specific circumstances and events. At the end of the day, any text, even if it is divine, requires a human agency to interpret it, and the real test is how the mind elects to interpret it. Moreover, there are also many Qur’anic texts which proscribe the use of violence and aggression against those belonging to other faiths and creeds, and calls on Muslims to treat them fairly and humanely. But texts should not be the focus of debate here, not least because this would allow extremists on the other side to justify their use of violence by invoking Old Testament texts exhorting believers to violence, notably in the Book of Joshua, son of Nun.
What needs to be done at this stage is to champion the cause of enlightenment by supporting moderates and promoting the humanistic understanding of Islam that once prevailed among the vast majority of Muslims. Efforts in this direction must go hand in hand with a counter offensive against the rigid, doctrinaire, even bloodthirsty, version of Islam that first appeared among isolated communities separated from the march of civilization by the impenetrable sand dunes of the Arabian desert. Geographical isolation coupled with a narrow tribal outlook is a lethal mix that cannot possibly shape a humane and tolerant perception of the Other. The time has come for the Saudi government to part ways with Wahhabism and to realize that the alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi dynasty is responsible for the spread of obscurantism, dogmatism and fanaticism, poisoning minds with radical ideas opposed to humanity, progress, civilization, cultural continuity and pluralism, the diversity of opinions and creeds that is one of the most important and enriching features of human life.