The IS of Iraq and the Levant: A genocidal campaign – part 2: The rise of Wahhabism and the formation of a bastion of terror.
In the previous article, we examined the history of the concept of Takfir, Muslims who engage in excommunication of other Muslims. We also examined the history of the first great split within Islam. In this part we will examine the second surge of Takfir, one that originated in the Arabian Peninsula during the 18th century. Before we examine this surge closer, a short introduction to Islamic jurisprudence, also known as Fiqh is needed.
Islamic Jurisprudence the human understanding or rather interpretation of Sharia, the divine law. Sharia is developed through interpretations of the Quran and the Sunnah (the teachings and practices of Prophet Muhammad) by Islamic jurists (Ulema). As the Islamic community went through several Fitna’s (divisions) several schools of jurisprudence (madhab) developed with different understandings of the concept of Sharia. Among the Sunni schools of thought, four main branches have gained prominence among the Sunni community. These branches are: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali schools of thought.
The Hanbali school of thought stands out as it is not only the smallest of the four main schools but also the most extreme one. Founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) who was a disciple of Al-Shafi’i (founder of the Shafi’i school), he was deeply concerned with “reinterpretations” of the doctrines of the Quran and the Hadiths. Ibn Hanbal was a strong advocate of a return to the literal interpretation of the Quran and the Hadiths, rejecting several religious rulings which he considered to be mere speculations. As he gained followers (Hanbalites), the relations with the Abbasid Caliphate became more and more strained as Ibn Hanbal’s successors such as Al-Hasan ibn Ali Al-Barbahari advocated violence against those deemed to be sinners. Soon, armed mobs were formed, attacking Shiites and fellow Sunnis who were suspected of sinful behaviour.
As chaos began to spread in the Caliphate, Caliphh Ar-Radi publicly condemned the Hanbali school and ended its patronage by state religious bodies. Thus, the Hanbali school had been marginalized.
18th century: The rise of Wahhabism
Wahhabism, is named after the 18th century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd-Al Wahhab who started what he saw as a revivalist ideology in the Arabian region of Najd, today part of Saudi Arabia. His ideology advocated a purging of practices he considered to be idolatry (shirk) and the “cult of saints”, referring to the visitation of shrines and tombs of important figures in Islam, something he considered to be impurities and innovations. Thus, his main mission became to spread what he believed to be a call for restoration of true monotheistic worship.
Abd Al-Wahhab began to attract followers, including the ruler of Uyayna (a village in the Najd region) Uthman ibn Muammar. Abd Al- Wahhab came to an agreement with Ibn Muammar to support Ibn Muammars political ambitions of expanding his rule over Najd and beyond, in exchange for Ibn Muammars support for Abd Al-Wahhabs religious teachings. Abd Al-Wahhab began to implement his ideas in the region, forbidding what he considered grave worshipping, organizing stoning of women who were accused of adultery and destroying the grave of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, a companion of Prophet Muhammad.
These actions were however not left without attention from other influential rules in the Najd region, one of them being Suleiman ibn Muhammad ibn Ghurayr who threatened ibn Muammar with denying him the ability to collect taxes in the Najd region if he did not kill or exile Abd Al-Wahhab. Thus, Ibn Muammar forced Abd Al-Wahhab to leave Najd.
Abd Al-Wahhab did not stop his quest there, instead he was invited by a ruler of a nearby town in Diriyah, Muhammad ibn Saud. In 1744 they met and engaged in a pact where Ibn Saud would protect and propagate the doctrines of Abd Al-Wahhab while he in turn would champion Ibn Saud’s claim to rule the entire Arabian Peninsula. This agreement was confirmed with a mutual oath of loyalty (bayah) and that same year marked the emergence of the first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah.
Wahhabist doctrine and the Salafist movement
The Wahhabi movement can be said to have been inspired by the writings of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali school of thought. Although this question is much of for debate as the Wahhabis do not consider themselves to be part of any school of thought. Wahhabis have always rejected all jurisprudence that in their opinion did not adhere strictly to the letter of the Quran and the Hadiths, still despite this claim, they follow the Hanbali methodology of extreme conservativism in applying Sharia law.
The Salafist movement
The Salafi movement is an ultra-conservative movement within the Sunni branch of Islam. The doctrine of Salafism is one that takes a fundamentalist approach to Islam, focusing on emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers the Al-Salaf Al Salih (Pious forefathers). Much like Wahhabism and the Hanbali school, they reject innovations and support a strict implementation of Sharia law. Although it shares many similarities with the Wahhabi doctrine, Salafists still reject the term Wahhabi as derogatory. Still, modern Salafists tend to consider Abd Al-Wahhab as a Salafist, and his book Kitab al-Tawhid is still read and cited frequently by Salafi followers and scholars. Although they share a different past since Wahhabism originated in the Arabian Peninsula and Salafism originated in Egypt, they share the same doctrine of purging practices deemed by them to be idolatry such as shrine and tomb visitation and other “impurities”.
One could break down the Wahhabi doctrine into these defining aspects:
- Strict adherence to the Quran, and the prophetic traditions. This means a literal interpretation of the Quran and opposition to Tawil, meaning metaphorical interpretations.
- Strict opposition to the act of Tawassul through other than Allah, meaning to ask Allah for things by the means of using a deceased saint or pious man as an intermediary. This part refers to their opposition to tomb visiting and a “cult of saints” belief. This act is viewed by the Wahhabis as Shirk (Polytheism).
- Embracing the ideas of Ibn Tayyima, which allows a self-professed Muslim who do not follow Islamic law to be declared non-Muslim— in order for the “true muslim” to justify their warring and conquering of those deemed to be non-Muslims.
The Wahhabi Mission
When Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab applied to the rulers of Dar’iyya with the view of disseminating his heresies easily through them, they willingly cooperated with him with the hope of extending their territories and increasing their power. They strove with all their might to disseminate his ideas everywhere.
They declared war against those who refused joining the army of Muhammad ibn Saud when it was said that it is halal to plunder and kill non-Wahhabis. Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab reached the conclusion, that those who wouldn’t accept Wahhabism were kafirs and mushriks (Polytheists) and it was halal to kill them and confiscate their possessions, publicly announcing this declaration seven years later.
This unholy alliance between the Wahhabi ideology and the Al-Saud family has endured for more than two and half centuries, surviving both defeat and collapse. The two families (that of Abd-Al Wahhab and Al-Saud) have intermarried multiple times over generations and it is no coincidence that in modern Saudi Arabia, the minister of religion is always a member of the Al-Sheikh family, descendents of Ibn Abd-al Wahhab.
One of the most notable and cruel attacks by the Wahhabis, was on Karbala in 1802. There, they entered the city and killed the majority of its population in the markets and their homes. They destroyed the dome placed over the grave of Imam Hussein, the third infallible Imam in the Shia faith, and looted the grave completely. This act was and still is considered to be one of the most heinous crimes committed against the city of Karbala and the Shia population as a whole. It is also noteworthy that this act was legitimized by the Wahhabi aggressors since they did not consider the Karbala population to be Muslims at all. This crime was followed up by several other heinous assaults around the region, including the attack on Taif, in the Hejaz region in the Arabian Peninsula where they massacred the entire male population and enslaved the women and children of the city in 1803.
Al-Saud managed to establish his rule over southwestern Syria between 1803 and 1812 before being driven out by Egyptian forces acting under the Ottoman Empire, led by Ibrahim Pasha. In 1818 they defeated Al-Saud, levelling the capital Diriyah and executed the Al-Saud emir. However, they failed to destroy the political and religious leadership of the House of Saud and the Wahhabi ideology. A second Saudi state soon rose from its ashes (Emirate of Najd) and lasted from 1819 to 1891. Since it was isolated within the region of Najd, a desolate place lacking any resources and with limited communication and transportation at the time, the Ottomans were not prompted to conduct further campaigns in the region, and so the Wahhabi ideology survived, albeit severely weakened.
But this would all change with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One as the British administrators would look for divisive collaborators in the Arab World, just as they had on the Indian Subcontinent in previous years. They found the perfect collaborators with the sectarian Wahhabi doctrine. The Saudis horrified and fascinated the British at the same time with Winston Churchill writing that the Wahhabis “hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all those who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the street”. 
Churchill nevertheless also expressed admiration for Ibn Saud for his “unfailing loyalty” to the British. A British government memo from the mid-1940s noted that “Ibn Saud’s influence in the Middle East is very great, and it has been used consistently for a number of years in support for our policy”. 
With the rise of Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, a hero of Arab nationalism, the US also began to take an interest in the house of Saud. US President Eisenhower was also looking for a plan to split the Arabs and defeat the aims of their enemies (the Soviet Union), by building up the Saudi king as a counterweight to Nasser. This close US-Saudi relationship was highly successful during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, where the Saudis and the US closely cooperated in arming, supporting, training and promoting jihadism against the “infidel Soviets”. This relationship is as Professor Tim Anderson describes it “not just a relation between a global power and an oil supplier, but rather that of the great power with a principal political collaborator in the region, and one with a long record of sectarianism”. 
This alliance still stands today and in the next part of this article series, we will explore their collaboration in the Syrian conflict and the project that is called “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”.