As I sit to answer this I am gripped by a state of unexpected indetermination as what I thought to be a painless task has become rather difficult. Painless because I can simply translate a passage from one of the hundreds of manuals on Sunni creed—where defining Sunnism is a run of a mill standard procedure. Additionally, the relative homogeneity of the content on this subject matter by Sunni writers— for well over a millennium— makes the work further free from complication(1).
On the other hand it also involves considerable difficulties. How does one sufficiently and honestly summarize a creed, a methodology, a collective ethos of centuries to a readership that is primarily non-Muslim, who hold reservations—not without some valid reasons— about Sunnis and Sunnism as they have come to understand them, even when theses perceptions do not match the reality of historical Sunnism? This is further complicated by the following facts:
a) Two centuries of brutal Western colonial experience— first through direct military interventions and then subjugation through their political, economic and cultural institutions; and then the nationalist and socialist movements that tried to fight colonialism—which themselves, ironically, were influenced by modernist dialectics rather than Islam; and then finally the emergence of the religious reactionary movements opposing the nationalist and socialist worldview; all of these developments had a deeply tragic effect on the Muslim world in general and Sunnis in particular where today very few Sunnis can discern a difference between the high-culture religious ethos of their forefathers and the meager cultural scraps they have inherited, which they mistakenly take for authentic Sunnism. Today, the majority of Muslims in the streets of Makka, Cairo, Kabul, Baghdad, Karachi, and Jakarta, for example, would not have heard of the Ashʿarite Creed of which most of them are, unknowingly, subscribers to. Most Muslims do not quite understand let alone appreciate the intellectual heritage of the previous generations, invoking the cliche achievements of the past notwithstanding.
b) As a result of the above experience, a very large segment of the Sunni world in our times are leading a life of advanced cognitive dissonance where the dichotomous recall of the blessed memory of their glorious past and vicious advocation of Western scientistic worldviews are not only seen normal but a prerogative of religion.
c) The traditional vanguard of Sunnism like the madrasa(scholastic institutions) and the zawiya/khanqah/ribāṭ(sufi lodges) have become relics of antiquity in the Arab world( with some notable exceptions). And where they do still exist like the Indian Subcontinent, for example, they are merely a shadow of their former selves: artifacts now rather out of place in the modern cosmopolitan jungle. In other words, the traditional vision of Ahl al Sunna ethos is preserved in far fewer places and institutions than most Sunnis today are aware of. Satellite channels, television programs, and university courses have effectively substituted centuries old institutions as the sources of knowledge, wisdom, and guidance for Sunnis.
d) While most Sunnis do sense the tremendous helplessness and crisis overwhelming the Muslims world, they do not quite understand how it all went wrong and how to remedy the problem. That is, their diagnosis is in the main significantly problematic.
One can write all one wanted about the historical Sunni Creed, but other than providing some intellectual stimulation, this exercise achieves very little, for “on the ground” the entities manifesting that reality are few and increasingly receding from view. After all a creed is not just about believing in God and Muhammad as His Messenger. It is far more than that. The islands that do exist in this sea of postmodern religious superficiality are few and far apart. This is indeed tragic. Non-Muslims (and Muslims for that matter) may not fully comprehend the magnitude of the loss. To put it bluntly, it is the disappearance of these institutions that have allowed the mutilated versions of Islam such as Wahhabism to not only exist but flourish. I am reminded of the urdu poem:
چمن میں تخت پر جس دم شہ گل کا تجمل تھا
ہزاروں بلبلیں تھیں باغ میں اک شور تھا غل تھا
کھلی جب آنکھ نرگس کی نہ تھا جز خار کچھ باقی
بتائے باغباں رو رو یہاں غنچہ یہاں گل تھا
The garden once boasted the spectacular throne of the rose;
With thousand nightingales in commotion, merry in song, on willows
Then the daffodil opened her eyes—bewildered— to the reign of thorns,
And the mournful sighs of the gardener: “here was the rose and there the boughs”
My lamentations notwithstanding, there are some good news on the horizon. Some very interesting developments are taking place in the Sunni world of late. In August 2016 a conference took place in Grozny, Chechnya, where over a 100 Sunni scholars of the highest repute congregated with the aim of determining, as I proposed to do here, “ who are the Ahl al Sunnah wa al Jamaʿa?”(that is, the Sunnis).
As an avid observer of theological and political developments in the Middle East, I can not recall an event of recent times with as much far-reaching consequences as this conference. Its aftermath has caused quite a stir in the Muslim world, especially the Arabic speaking part. It has obliged many Arab governments to conduct special sessions to discuss its ramifications and has generated a social media frenzy unmatched in recent memory. What is so special about this conference? It is that for the first time since the inception of the state of Saudi Arabia, the religious framework underpinning its very existence—Wahhabism—was adjudged to be outside the fold of Sunni Islam!
One might naturally ask, “hold on, why did it take so long for the Sunnis to get their act together? Why did they allow this aberration to loom over them only to realize now that it does not belong with them? Too little too late!”
The fact is that the Sunnis have consistently refuted Wahhabism from its earliest days. In fact, the first refutation of the teachings of this sect came from no other than Sulaymān ibn Abdul Wahhāb, the brother of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. His father Abdul Wahhab, and his brother Sulayman were orthodox Sunni scholars of good repute who were disgusted with their own family member’s deviation from the well-trodden path. His brother wrote a refutation of the beliefs and activities of his younger brother in his book al Sawaʿq al -Ilahiyya (Heavenly Bolts of Lightenings). Since then an unceasing flood of literature refuting the Wahhabis have appeared exposing it for what it is: a false claimant to a Sunni Islam it shares little with, and little cares for.(2) That Sunni scholarship and institutions of the time perceived the deviation and danger of this aberration, and put a devoted resistance to it is not up for contention. As it has ever been, the problem has been politics.
Saudi Arabia—the gift that keeps on giving
As the the Saudi state came into being in 1924, there was no real threat from any traditional Sunni political entity barring its path—mainly due to the Anglo-Zionist’s carving up of the former Ottoman Empire and reducing the emerging Sunni political entities into vassal-states post World War I. The precursor to the 1924 Saudi state was the short-lived First Saudi State of 1814 under the leadership of Abdullah ibn Saud, the great-grandson of Muhammad ibn Saud, the tribal chieftain whose political support to Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab allowed the Wahhabi sect to first survive and then grow within Eastern Arabia in the last half of the 18th century. After Abdullah ransacked Karbala in 1802 and killed 5000 inhabitants, and then marched onto Madina in 1805, the Ottomans could no longer afford to take this nascent nuisance lightly. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Pasha, the Ottomans sent an expeditionary force that finally routed the ragtag army of Abdullah ibn Saud in 1818 and sent him to Constantinople as a prisoner where he was executed. The Wahhabi center, Diriyah, was burnt to the ground. For a century thereafter the Wahhabis were political non-entities and a minor nuisance at the margins of Islamic thought— this until the British of blessed memory, decided to bring the genie out of the lamp once again, to create calculated chaos in the Muslim world at the onset of World World I. (3)
At the conclusion of WWI and the defeat of the Central Powers, among them the Ottoman Empire, the territory that is Saudi Arabia today saw a rivalry between Sharif Hussein of Makka— a Sunni— and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud— a Wahhabi—both fighting for ascendancy in the territories left behind by the defeated Ottomans. Interestingly both were instigated and supported by the British to mount the treacherous Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, and after its success, the British played both sides to see who gets the upper hand, whilst preferring the bedouin Abdul Aziz ibn Saud as representing a much more reliable vassal and servant of the Empire than the learned and more nuanced Sharif Hussein.(4) Eventually, Abdul Aziz defeated the forces of Sharif Hussein in 1926 (partly due to British betrayal of Sharif Hussein) and became the sole ruler of what is known today as Saudi Arabia.
After the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the political fortunes of the Saudi dynasty and their ideological patrons, the Wahhabis, changed dramatically— to the tremendous detriment of the Muslim world. Now they would have the financial clout to export their version of Islam to other parts of the Middle East and shape it as they saw fit, or rather as their patrons, the Anglo-Zionists, saw fit. In the following decades they would buy governments, institutions, groups, and individuals with as little effort as the signing of a cheque. They would bankroll the Muslim Brotherhood against the Nationalist regime of Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt throughout the 50’s and 60’s, and then decades later, ironically, support Abdul Fatah Sisi and the Egyptian military to remove the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammad Morsi. They would support the Houthi Imam Mohammad Al Badr against the Yemen Arab Republic forces in the North Yemen Civil War of 1960s, then decades later, again ironically, support the Yemeni government against the same Houthis (they supported formerly) in the current Yemen Civil War, which has turned an already impoverished country into a humanitarian nightmare. You got to appreciate the Saudi taste for consistency.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Saudis rarely missed the opportunity to logistically support and bankroll most sectarian Sunni outfits ever to appear upon the horizons in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Algeria, among others, and turn genuine grievances of the native populace into full fledged sectarian bloodletting, conveniently serving the interests of their masters, the Anglo-Zionists. As an Afghan, the present author has himself experienced first-hand the evil impact of Saudi oil money first in the Mujahideen era against the Soviet Union, and then in the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1996.(5) Their support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Wahhabi cleric Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittehad, and their advocacy to keep the sectarian pitch high in the political discourse, especially against the Shiites, has harmed Afghan national interests tremendously. It was the Saudi influence, through their warlords of choice that brought Wahhabism into Afghanistan, a country, hitherto, imbued with a Sufi cultural, spiritual and intellectual ethos which had guided the lifestyle of its inhabitants for centuries, and that primarily accounted for the existence of vibrant Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities that were found in many of its cities. A country where the Mathnavi of Rumi and the Gulistan of Saʿdi adorned every child’s lips saw the transformation of a generation into trigger happy excommunicators, thanks to the sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud who themselves conducted their night vigils in European brothels, but would happily see hundreds of thousands of youth perish in the diabolical “jihadi” paradigm that they established at the behest of Empire.
This was manipulation on a political level. On the intellectual level the effects were equally devastating. With their money, they build a very influential media empire. They bought publishing houses, satellite channels, bribed universities, created charity organizations that advanced their cause, bought journalists that articulated the inarticulable, promoted televangelists that promoted their version of Islam. Media power houses like MBC and Rotana are Saudi owned. They also have a huge influence in the print media. Arab News, Al Sharq al Awsat, and Al Hayat, among others, are Saudi monarchy’s mouthpieces. Like the Jewish Lobby’s juggernaut over the media and academia in the US, the Saudi influence on the media and academia in the Muslim world has been quite effective over the course of the past fifty years. Let us look at some examples from the Saudi Cables that Wikileaks released recently in which the extent of Saudi manipulations of the Muslim world could be seen:
This cable is about the protestations of the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan about the president of the International Islamic University of Islamabad, Mumtaz Ahmad, for inviting the Iranian ambassador to a cultural week on campus. The Saudi Embassy called Mr. Ahmad to express “its surprise,” and suggested that he invite the wife of the Saudi ambassador instead of the Iranian ambassador. Mr. Ahmad refused to disinvite the Iranian ambassador, so Saudi diplomats suggested having Suliman Abu al-Khail, a Saudi academic with a position in the university’s administration, convene a board meeting and “choose a president for the university who is consistent with our orientation,”. Mr Ahmed was replaced soon thereafter.
This cable is about the protestations of the Saudi ambassador in Cairo to Naguib Sawiris, founder of the privately owned ONTV network, over the appearance of a Saudi dissident, Saad al-Faqih, on one of its talk shows. The station, under pressure, said it would not invite al-Faqih again and asked the ambassador to appear on the program at a later date, as an act of redemption.
This Pakistani newspaper published an interesting report, received through the Wikileaks dump, by a US Consulate worker, Bryan Hunt, on the Saudi support for radical religious schools in Pakistan. While reports by US consulate employees should be usually taken with a grain of salt because it is the US intelligence agencies themselves promoting and benefiting from the fake “Islamic Terror” paradigm, this need not negate that certain reports, like this one, could well be congruent with reality. Moreover, not all employees in government institutions are necessarily aware of the their own government’s involvement in such designs. Here is an interesting excerpt from the report:
Locals believed that charitable activities being carried out by Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith organizations, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Al-Khidmat Foundation, and Jaish-e-Mohammad were further strengthening reliance on extremist groups and minimizing the importance of traditionally moderate Sufi religious leaders in these communities. Government and non-governmental sources claimed that financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from “”missionary”” and “”Islamic charitable”” organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments. Locals repeatedly requested USG support for socio-economic development and the promotion of moderate religious leaders in the region as a direct counter to the growing extremist threat.
Another malevolent contribution of the Saudis is their financial support of popular televangelists that promote the Wahhabi worldview. One of the most popular— among a long list— is the physician turned Muslim preacher Dr. Zakir Naik. What is interesting about Dr. Naik is that he can hardly pronounce Arabic words properly, let alone read texts, and lacks any traditional training in Islamic sciences—a common trait among the self made TV preachers. As mentioned before, in the absence of traditional sources of knowledge and wisdom, television has become the most effective source of forming perceptions among the masses. Muslims are no exception to this. Dr Zakir Naik has used the TV platform to skillfully play on the emotions of a disconnected and powerless Muslim masses by preaching a confrontational (though he calls it “peaceful”), triumphalist and superficially high handed Islam of debates, “proving” this, “debunking” that. All along dressed in a Western suit, speaking English, his discourses riddled with superficial scientific terminologies, on a T.V channel (owned by him), ironically called Peace TV.
Dr Zaik Naik claims a viewership of over 200 million viewers worldwide.(6) This number is not off the mark. In the absence of potent Muslim institutions, his showmanship provides a sense of moral triumph to the Muslims who see in point scoring on issues such as evolution, “contradictions” in the Bible, “scientific” wisdom behind Muslim rituals, “scientific” miracles of the Quran, etc— a reiteration of the truth of their religion. Unknown to the masses that this materialistic approach (even if some of the points are true) to religious discourses is in stark contrast to the intellectual and spiritual traditions of Sunnism. The reliance of religious conviction on the “findings of science” is a trademark reformist/Wahhabi preoccupation, for the Wahhabi approach to God is indeed a quantitative one. Understanding this is crucial in allowing one to distinguish the radical superficiality of the reformist/Wahhabi worldview from that of traditional Sunnism where longing for the Divine was manifested in a totality of experiences, cultural and spiritual practices and intellectual pursuits and not only through a narrow, rather Protestant preoccupation with texts.(7)
Let me quote here in detail Dr. Khaled About El Fadl who explains the above phenomenon very aptly:
There is a real irony in the way the puritan(Wahhabi) approach social and political issues that they believe originated in the West. In fact, the contradictions that plague various aspects of the puritan approach in this regard border on schizophrenic. Puritans reject inquiries into philosophy, political theory, morality, and beauty as too subjective—and, even worse, as Western inventions that lead to nothing but sophistry. With the majority of the puritan leadership comprised of people who studied the physical sciences, such as medicine, engineering, and computer science, they avowedly anchor themselves in the objectivity and certitude that comes from empiricism…so values like human dignity, love, mercy and compassion are not subject to quantification, and therefore cannot be integrated into Islamic legal judgments. Because aesthetic judgments are considered anathema and humanism is waved away as a Western corruption, puritans render the humanistic legacy of the Islamic civilization irrelevant and they ignore the accomplishments of past generations of Muslims in fields such as philosophy, the arts, and architecture, poetry and music, moral and ethical theory, and even romanticism and love. Puritans ignore the fact that long before there was a Western influence, Muslims wrote volumes upon volumes on love, beauty, and chivalry….this puritan attitude only augments the sense of disoriented rootlessness keenly felt by many modern Muslims. But even more, the puritans conveniently ignore that one can as easily claim that empiricism itself is indeed a Western invention…. The impact of puritans on the Islamic intellectual heritage…has been nothing short of devastating.(8)
The rise of preachers like Dr. Zakir Naik is less due to their intellectual abilities (though he has a great memory) and more to the financial and logistical support by the hidden hands (or not so much) of the Saudis. In the process, a whole generation of Sunni Muslims are raised thinking that people like Dr. Zakir Naik are the true flag-bearer of Sunni scholarship. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Chomsky referred to the subversive social engineering that “manufactures consent” in society. The same has been been happening in the Sunni world where for the first time a new creed is being manufactured, unknown to the oblivious Sunni masses, who are to be the victims. Now, this phenomenon clearly cannot solely be attributed to the Wahhabi missionary zeal to export its version of Islam. The Anglo-Zionist Empire prefers nothing more than subjugating people who are disconnected from their roots and faithfully play the role assigned to them in the diabolical paradigm called “clash of civilizations”. Towards this end the intellectual framework of Wahhabism has done wonders. Superficiality as a Path to God, the title of this article, is not only referring to the idea of achieving God’s pleasure through “sanctioned” militancy, but more importantly referring to the intellectual framework underpinning this state of mind.
This obviously does not mean that all Wahhabis are inherently violent people. This author has some friends of Wahhabi conviction who are decent people and abhor all kind of violence. The problem however is—and even the decent among them are beginning to behold this—that when you have a creed that is supremacist in nature, monopolistic on piety, and holding all other manifestations of Islam to be outside the fold of Islam, it easily leads to violent, at worst, and disinterested in the plight of others, tendencies among its subscribers. Because there is nothing that brings the worst out of man more than seeing himself morally superior and cosmically different than the rest. The kind of people of whom the Qurʿān says,
“then your hearts became hardened thereafter and are like stones, or even yet harder.(Baqarah, verse 74)
What was the point of this lengthy digression? To prove that the Muslim world has been an hostage to a Saudi Leviathan for the last half century at least, and that mounting an effective resistance against it is a very tall order. The traditional pulpits of influence were simply out maneuvered and out financed. Which Sunni government would challenge the Saudis since many of them are recipients to Saudi largess? Which publishing house would dare to publish refutations against the Wahhabis, only to be inevitably shut down? Which media outlets would make the mistake of producing materials exposing the horrors of the House of Saud? If one can understand the complete Zionist hold on the political and intellectual centers of power in the U.S., one will be in a position to begin to understand the Saudi hold on Sunni centers of power. Therefore the fact that the Grozny Conference was able to be conducted with the presence of so many recognizable Sunni scholars despite the always present threats and sabotage of the Saudis is a very welcome respite from their menacing juggernaut. (9)
Its not that these scholars suddenly had a boost of conscience after years of convenient procrastination. Many moral Sunni scholars and writers have run their pens dried exposing the Saudis for what they are. But books do not cause change anymore. Few read them. Meaningful change is contingent upon the most important factor of our times: political will. But not for the efforts of Ramazan Kadyrov to spend money, provide logistics, and all the resources of the state to make this conference a reality, something of this nature would never have happened. Political Will is the single most important factor in changing ground realities.
It will be naive to think that this one conference could change the ground realities overnight. Conferences do not do much if no political will exists to convert their aspirations into reality. In spite of my own reservations, I sincerely hope that the momentum generated by this conference can lead to a new age of Sunni consciousness where the masses begin to understand that what they hold to be “Sunnism” is a modern construct mainly created by colonial subversions, and has little to do with the heritage of true Sunnism. This is especially more true for the Arabs than any other group. I also hope that it sends a message to non-Muslims(at least those interested) that the savagery perpetrated in the name of Islam has no religious sanction, the Quran and Hadith-citations of the Jihadists notwithstanding.
With that preface—despite all its shortcomings— let us delve into the question set at the outset, Who are the Sunnis? Here is a translation of Sheikh Usama al Azhari’s concluding remarks in the Grozny Conference answering that question.(10) It has been rendered into idiomatic English and certain liberties have been taken to get rid of repetitions and rhetorical ploys intelligible in Arabic only:
On August 27th 2016,—as a response to the grand theft of the Ahl al Sunna wa al jamaʿa (the People of Approved Way and the Group, hereby we refer to them as Sunnis) that has been effected by the false claimers—the Khawārij(11) and their ilk—who have greatly disparaged the image of this beautiful religion by their evil acts,—this conference, by the initiation of Muslim scholars worldwide, has taken place— with the auspicious remembrance of the martyred Sheikh Ahmed Kadyrov( father of Ramazan Kadyrov)— to deliver a decisive verdict on ‘who are considered to be Sunnis’, what are their attributes, their beliefs, their canons, their overall Path to God (sulūk), and to show how the modern claimants to this blessed title, have deviated from the truth. This we do under the patronage and care afforded to us by his excellency Ramazan Kadyrov, may God preserve him. And with the sacred presence of the Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Tayyib. And the presence of over 200 renowned scholars of Islam from all over the Muslim world. After much deliberations, this conference makes the following conclusive remarks:
Firstly, the Sunnīs are limited to the subscribers of the Ashʿarī and Matūrīdī creed.(12) And those imitating the 4 schools of Jurisprudence : the Hanafī, Shafiʿī, Mālikī and Hanbalī schools respectively.(13) And those associated with the authentic Sufism— the aim of which is refinement of character through purification of the self—following the principles set by Junayd al Baghdadi and those who have followed him earnestly and became lighthouses of guidance.(14) And this [Sunni] path sanctifies all sciences that serves the Revelation, and expounds the teachings and aims of this religion, most important among them: the preservation of life and the intellect, and the preservation of the religion from deviation and from becoming a thing of manipulation, and the preservation of items of value to people, and their honor, and the preservation of refined manners.
Secondly the Qurʾan is like a sacred precinct surrounded by sciences that serve her, by helping extrapolate meanings within her, and helping us understand the aspirations and aims it sets which, if followed, ultimately brings us closer to God. It is the fountainhead that keeps giving. The verses in it inspired civilizations, cultures, sciences. Life imbuing mercy within it inspired high etiquettes and faith, and the desire to build, and to spread peace and security in the world, so that different people and cultures could see with their own eyes that this faith is raḥmatun lil ʿalamīn (mercy unto the worlds). And that it is the source of contentment in this world and the Hereafter.
Thirdly, the Sunnī Way is the most inclusive and accurate of all the narratives within Islam. It is the most authenticated [thanks to its self critical traditions]; and the most cautious with judgements; and the most concerned with correct and honest transmission of scholarly work.; and the most advanced in their pedagogical approach— setting the highest of scholarly standards, part of which is to employ the human intellect to understand the Revelation concurrently with the examination of ground realities that may exist, and to remove the dichotomies, to the extent possible, between the two.
Fourthly, throughout the ages many centers of learning came came into being and represented the Sunnī Way, the likes of al Azhar in Egypt, Zaytuna in Tunis, the Qarawiyyīn in Fes (Morocco), and the schools of Mauritania, the learning centers of Algeria, Sudan, Hadramawt (Yemen), and the theological seminaries of Suleimaniyya and Baghdad, and the schools in Syria, the Malay Archipelago, India, and the Caucuses, and many other places across the world. Throughout the centuries all these schools taught and transmitted earnestly the beliefs of the Ahl al Sunna as preserved in the Ashʿari and Maturīdī creeds. And they successfully produced hundreds of thousand of scholars who strove to reach all horizons from Siberia to Nigeria, from Tanzania to Jakarta. In the process they assumed different positions and ranks. Some in capacity of ifta (rulings), others as judges, and many as teachers. Societies as a whole benefited tremendously from their services. They extinguished the fires of sedition and wars. And played great roles in extending peace and security to all, and most importantly, the right view of the religion was able to take hold amongst the people.
Sunnīsm throughout the ages played the role of a watch tower, alarming and cautioning the onset of devious ideas and groups. They would set the standards for debating and exposing them. Always showing urgency and will in pushing back deviations into the hole it came out of. They employed all the tools at their disposal to maintain the primacy of authentic representation of Islam. Their services at the scholarly front curtailed many waves of deviation that would rise from time to time. As a result, the Ummah of Mohammad (PBUH), was afforded the space to build a civilization, and out of it came the geniuses of this nation who excelled in fields as various as Algebra, Geometry, Arithmetics, Medicine, Surgical Sciences, Engineering, Psychology, Optics, Acoustics, Biology, Anatomy, Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy among others. Achievements in these fields was not a coincidence. But rather the fruits of the intellectual space that the scholars of Sunnīsm had set as a result of raising the level of religious discourses.
But nonetheless, in every age deviant tendencies, like bubbles riding the waves would rise, and would wrongfully claim to be the rightful flag-bearers of the Revelation. They fight the established wisdoms of our traditions and spread sedition and chaos. The first of these deviants were the Khawarij of old. The latest manifestation of these Khawarij in our times are the Salafi Takfīris , like ISIS and others who share their sectarian and bloody visions of “Islamic glory”.(15) The common denominator between the latest manifestation of Khawarij and their historical forefathers is their manifest deviation [from the well trodden path], the encouragement of things considered invalid traditionally, and most crude and ignorant interpretation of the faith, which has unfortunately opened doors to all kind of perverted thoughts entering religious discourses, the most outrageous being takfir and its twin sister: spilling of blood, in the process disparaging the name of islam, and causing its hatred by others. This has necessitated the upright and fair-minded to come forward and wrest the faith from the wrong-doers per the Prophetic injunction: “this religion is carried by the most upright amongst people, who deny the deviants their malice, the usurpers their usurpation, and the ignorants their ways”.
This conference could be, God Willing, a turning point in resting the title of Ahl al Sunna from these fake claimers and save it from being used for their nefarious ends. No more on our name we declare! And hopefully this can be the beginning of a new effort to revive the Right Way once again, which was built by our great seminaries and its men, which negates and fights sectarianism and deviation. And through it a message of mercy, peace and security could be sent to the world. So that, by the Will of God, our lands could once again be a light unto the world and bastions of peace.
The conference concludes with the following recommendations:
1) to start a satellite channel in the Russian Federation, and through it propagate the right image of Islam to people as an effort to correct the damage done by these terrorists and Khawarij.
2) to resuscitate the return of theological seminaries where the true aims of the Revelation— as historically done by our pious forefathers— with the right method(manḥaj), and dispensation of a comprehensive curriculum that produce a complete man and woman of learning, capable of addressing modern problems, and able to curtail the growth of deviation [in thought], and one capable of holding the primacy of peace and security at all times.
3) strong effort is needed in reaching out to people through social media, and to employ capable people, who know how to navigate the modern space of electronic media to address people. With the aim that this presence [on the social media] may provide an alternative view and at the same time refute the toxic material being disseminated by the Khawarij.
4) to elevate the [learning and teaching] level of all the Islamic sciences, especially Uṣūl al Fiqh(Legal Methodology) and Kalām(Rational Scholasticism). For these two are most useful in addressing the intellect, and most advantageous in refuting the ideologies of takfīr (excommunication) and ilḥād (atheism).
5) a research center should be established in Chechnya to study the deviant groups, their conceptual frameworks, statements and methods. And to publish critical literature on them, so their toxic effects could be driven back to some degree. Moreover, to study the causes and intellectual trends that make people abandon their religion. We need to arrest the developments of these currents by providing a cultivated and refined alternative to the primitiveness that has plagued religious discourses. We, the attendees, have recommended to call it Markaz Tabṣīr (lit: Center for Insight/providing light)
6) the importance of raising cooperation between different centers of learning like al Azhar, Zaytuna, Qarawiyyīn and other research bodies, with their counterparts in the Russian Federation.
7) opening distance learning institutions for those [within the Russian Federation] who desire traditional scholarship but are unable to commit due to work and the inconveniences of travel.
8) bring to governments’/politicians’ attention the need to support and foster the space needed for the growth of religious institutions dedicated to wasaṭiyya (middle way/moderation). And to caution them (the governments/politicians) on the dangers and pitfalls of forming alliances of convenience for the sake of political expediency [with groups subscribing to the same conceptual frameworks as the Khawarij], because this creates further problems.
9) arranging scholarships for [students] attending this conference and others in the Russian Federation to study in places like Al Azhar University.
10) to conduct meetings of similar nature on a constant basis to assess and reassess the aims and aspirations envisioned in this conference.
11) and lastly to make a committee that see through the enforcement of the recommendations made here. And also to see through that the work of this conference is translated into different languages especially into Russian, and other local dialects, so that awareness of what was achieved here is spread. (End)(16)
Some final remarks
As could be gaged from the recommendations made by the conference, the Sunni scholarship is clearly trying to move towards Russia. This is not because of opportunism or financial gain because praising the Saudis would have been much more lucrative towards that end. This pivoting is mostly because the Sunni scholarship is finally afforded some meaningful role to play without the arm twisting by the political entities in defining where they stand on the diabolical paradigm of religious discourses set by the Ango-Zionist empire. And they have chosen the side that makes rational and moral sense. Let’s be clear here, I do not think this conference was initiated at the behest of Vladimir Putin, as suggested by many of its detractors. I do not think Putin is interested in Sunni revival. He may see some practicality in forging alliance with traditional Sunni entities because he has seen the devastating effects of Wahhabism in Russia and its sphere of influence. But I do not think he is interested except in terms of its potential to accommodate Russian national interests. (Interestingly there was no coverage of the conference on Russia Today or Sputnik, both, practically, mouthpieces of the Russian government, which should suggest that it was not a Russian project).
This is an initiative spearheaded by Ramazan Kadyrov, with his money, time and effort. Kadyrov is one of a kind in today’s dark political elite: a sincere religious Sufi Muslim who deeply cares about the state of the world. He has first-hand witnessed the devastation caused by Wahhabism in his homeland of Chechnya, culminating with the assassination of this father, Ahmed Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen resistance against the Russians. His father had the foresight that fighting the Russians was a war that could not have been won, and—most importantly— that the Russian state under Putin was not the Soviet Union with its high-handedness and hubris . It was an entity that could be spoken to and respected. What ultimately, however, pushed the Chechen leadership to pursuit peace was the malevolent presence of the Wahhabi elements in the Chechen resistance which Ahmed Kadyrov knew would surely bring gloom and destruction to Chechnya and its traditions. He suited for peace and ended his fight against the Russians, for which he was assassinated eventually by the Wahhabi elements. This submission to fate was in accordance with Chechen traditions of honorable reconciliation and submission to a stronger adversary from whom one expects honorable treatment, unlike the American reception of naked human pyramids at Abu Ghraib. Imam Shamil Daghestani, the legendary Chechen folk hero, before him fought the Tsar’s army for over 25 years but when he was finally defeated, he handed himself to Prince Aleksandr Baryatinsky believing that as a nobel adversary who sent shivers down the Tsar’s army he will be treated with dignity. And so he was.
Ramazan Kadyrov’s Chechnya is a living example of what Sunni Muslims are able to achieve when left to their own devices, free from external manipulations. A Sunni-Sufi society living peacefully with its neighbors and respecting the different national and religious traditions within it. This does not mean she has to open her doors for filth and debauchery, like Dubai, to make the white man happy and be called a “progressive” state. Chechnya has not sold its soul. It is a deeply conservative society where the ideals of Islam could be seen in the public and not only in houses of worship like some Arab states. In the West, Kadyrov has been called a “thug”, “dictator”, “Putin’s poodle”, among other names, and has had more bad press than all the Saudi princes combined which is quite a feat if you think about it. Simply because he represents a model of leadership that is anathema to Anglo-Zionist designs: a deeply religious man who can not be bought or lured.
We would have to wait and see if the aspirations and goals set in this conference will become a realization. We would also have wait and see if the people involved in the conference will escape the clutches and spell of the Anglo-Zionist configuration systems which will work overdrive to stop it at its tracks. I have no doubt that some of the scholars involved in the project, like Habib Ali Jifri and Habib Umar are incorruptible. But the Empire’s configuration system— at its head its Wahhabi henchmen— will spare no trick to sabotage it.
I hope that I have proved in this article—to some extent at least— that Sunnism and Wahhabism are two different traditions with different theological and spiritual frameworks, despite its conflation as one by confused, misinforming and sometimes downright lying sources of information. Muslims being people thrown at the forefront of today’s political, social and cultural warfare, and suffering from the brunt of its assaults, it is high time for people in the West to understand properly their Muslim terms that keep flashing on their TV screens as they sip their latte’s, oblivious to the state of the world. Ignorance maybe blissful but it is never a virtue, especially in our times when the powers that be count on our ignorance and fear to destroy peoples, lands and cultures and increasingly push us into the abyss from whence there is no return.
I would like to end this article with providing some samples of zikr or remembrance of God, a practice primarily associated with the Sufis in our times but which once adorned most houses, villages and cities of the Muslims, but now unfortunately the preoccupation of old people only. The youth substituting it with movie theaters and football.
1) For example, if one had to take a look at Aqīda al Taḥawiyya (Creed of Imam Taḥawī), written in the 9th century, and Tuḥfat al Murīd Sharḥ Jawḥar al Tawḥīd of Imam Bajūrī in the 19th century, one would struggle to find any meaningful differences in creedal matters other than the unavoidable evolution of writing style—the mutaʾakhirīn (later generations) works employ heavy philosophical terms in comparison to the mutaqaddimīn(former generations).
2) I have sufficed in this article with some basic differences between the traditional Sunni worldview and the Wahhabi one, simply because I thought the audience being non-Muslims primarily will not find it too relevant. To read further on the differences between the Wahhabi creed and traditional Sunni creed and methodology and some of the outstanding issues between the two camps, read this very well written, short but informative article by Zubair Qamar, Wahhabism: Understanding the roots and role models of Islamic extremism,
Wahhabism: A Critical Essay by Hamid Algar is a also very useful read.
3) For an excellent account of the services of the Saudi state and Wahhabism to Empire read, The Direct Instrument of Western Control over the Arabs: The Shining Example of the House of Saud, by Dr. Abdullah Mohammad Sindi.
4) There is an interesting verse in the Qurʾān that says “the bedouins are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy”(Tawba, verse 97). There is also a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): “He who dwells in the desert (al-bādiyah) becomes rough in disposition,” recorded by Tirmidhī (among others) on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās. One has to say that the British were not negligent of these texts and chose their partners accordingly.
5) Even if the decades following the Soviet invasion has taught us that the problem of militancy in Afghanistan started with the formation of the Mujahideen or resistance fighters to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this does not make the resistance to the Soviets regrettable. To the contrary. The sad part is that factions within the Mujahideen, like all groups historically, saw power and money along with the good cause and sold themselves to the highest bidder. Recently it has become a trend within liberal commentators on Afghanistan to put the blame of all that went wrong with Afghanistan on the resistance movement against the Soviets. The metamorphosis of a genuine cause into something undesirable does not make the cause any less genuine or morally wrong. It should however teach us about the Empire’s configuration skills at taking something genuine and turning into repugnant if it suits her designs.
7) Radical superficiality is a term coined by Professor Vincent Cornell of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
8) Abou Fedl, Khalid. The Grand Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. HarpersCollins. 2005
9) For example a very prominent Saudi writer, Mohammad Ale Sheikh, explicitly threatened the Egyptian state and people for allowing their highest religious authority to attend and bless the conference: “the participation of Sheikh Al Azhar(Rector of Azhar) in the Grozny Conference, that has excluded the Kingdom[of Saudi Arabia] from being considered Sunni, forces us to change our relationship with Egypt. Our country is more important, and Sisi’s Egypt can go to Hell”
In the past these threats were taken seriously, but Sisi seems to realize that the end of the Saudi state is nigh and does not seemed to be bothered too much. This may account for the recent rift between the Saudi and Egyptian governments. The most intense in decades. This does not make Sisi a hero. He is a politician after all and raises his flag to whatever direction the breeze is blowing.
10) Sheikh Usama Al Azhari is one of the leading Egyptian Sunni scholar and known for his contributions in refuting extremism. Of late he has become quite intimate with the Egyptian President Sisi and this could potentially mare his reputation if he is not careful. Political strongmen always cast magical spell on the most sincere and moral of people. I pray his proximity to Sisi does not cause him to lose his objectivity.
11) Khawārij (Outsiders/Seceders) were a literalist sect that appeared during the Caliphate of ʿAli, May God be pleased with him. Their appearance is considered the First Schism(fitna) within Islam. But they were more of a military threat than an intellectual one. Their stunning literalism of the Qurʾan, devoid of any principles, found little support among the Muslim masses. They were the first to do takfīr (excommunication) of other Muslims if they found them in opposition to their beliefs. They were the first to adjudicate the completeness of one’s belief with action, even though mainstream Muslims held beliefs and actions to be two separate things. Therefore with the Khawarij, a sinner was as good as not being a Muslim even if he he/she held the right beliefs—something the Wahhabis creed also maintains—but considered unanimously invalid by mainstream Muslims to this day. This accounts to the blood-spilling tendency of the modern Khawarij—the Wahhabis— for whom the notion of God is a blood-thirsty Creator who finds nothing more satisfying than see His creation punished for the most trivial of matters, as opposed to being the Most Merciful the Most Compassionate, a statement that every chapter of the Qurʿan begins with. The Khawarij were vanquished in 659 A.D. in the battlefield of Nahrawan by ʿAli, May God be pleased with him.
12) Ashʿari refers to Abu al Hasan al Ashʿari (874-936 A.D), the 9th century theologian who wrested traditional Muslim creed from the excesses of Muʿtazilī rationalism that was increasingly becoming state religion. He did not come up with a new creed but rather revived the true creed of the First Righteous Generations (Salaf Saliḥ), which was being inoculated by the heavy Greek dialectic philosophy of the Muʿtazilīs. This theme of “revival” (tajdīd) of the true creed is a recurring theme in Muslim history. The basis of which is a Prophetic tradition: “Verily God will send at the beginning of every century such a person for this nation (ummah) who will rejuvenate and restore their religion.” (Reported by the Hadith master Jalal ud Din al Suyūṭī in his Jamiʿ al Saghīr). Refer to Part I of this article of furthering reading on Imam Ashʿarī’s role.
Maturidī referes to Abu Mansur Maturidī (853-944 A.D), a contemporary of Ashʿari who performed a similar role to him in the Far East (Transoxania) of the Muslim domains. While Imam Ashʿari’s main constituents were the Arabs, Imam Maturidī almost entirely was addressing the Ajamī( non-Arab) Muslims. The Ashʿari and Maturidī creeds are usually mentioned separately as an appreciation of their monumental and equal efforts in defending the right creed, and not necessarily to drive the point of any substantive difference between the two. The differences, if any, are peripheral at best.
13) The Four Schools of Sunni Jurisprudence
Hanafi founded by Nuʿmān ibn Thābit ibn Zūṭā ibn Marzubān also known as Imam Abū Ḥanīfah ( 699 – 767 AD). This school contains the most followers among Sunni Muslims, especially among non-Arabs. This school is followed in Turkey, Afghanistan, Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia, Sudan, and parts of Iraq and Syria.
Māliki founded by Mālik ibn Anas ibn Mālik ibn Abī ‘Āmir al-Asbahī (711–795) also known as Imam Malik. He was a student of Abu Hanifa and Imam Jaʿfar al Sadiq. This school’s followers are mostly in North Africa in our times. Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia mostly. These countries are mostly Arabs and Berbers.
Shāfiʿī founded by Abū ʿAbdullāh Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (767–820 AD), also know as Imam Shāfʿī. He was the student of Imam Malik. Most followers of this school are Arabs with the exception of Indonesia and Malaysia. Followed mostly in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Hejaz and Iran(before it converted to Shīism).
Hanbali founded by Aḥmad bin Muḥammad bin Ḥanbal Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Shaybānī (780–855 AD), also known as Imam Ahmed. This school historically claimed the least followers and is in our times, practically speaking, almost extinct in its original form. Many Wahhabis claim to belong to this school but this is a deceitful Trojan horse tactics. They do no adhere nor hold adherence to any of these schools praiseworthy.
These are the Four Schools of Sunni Jurisprudence whose differences lay in some legal issues only and not in creed. Other schools also appeared but became defunct with the passing of time. One can adopt any school among these four and be considered a Sunni. They were all considered valid manifestations of worshipping God among the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout the ages. Only in modern times have their validity been questioned by reformist trends, among them the Wahhabis. These reformist movements would like to connect themselves to the “pure” and “pristine” times of the First Righteous Generations(al salaf al ṣalih) by bypassing these schools of Jurisprudence and a millennia of scholarly input which they hold to be “man-made” artifacts of little spiritual value. How would they connect themselves back to those pious generations? By merely sticking to the guidance afforded by the Qurʿan and Sunnah (Prophetic Ways preserved in books), so they claim. In essence they want to deny all the history and achievements of Muslims from the 8th century to the 18th century(this is when Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab appears), which they call as “ages of innovation in worship”. A millennia of Muslim achievements in law, philosophy, art, architecture, and all kinds of humanities assigned to the dustbin of history!
14) Junayd of Baghdad (835-910 A.D.) is a central figure in the spiritual chains of almost all Sufi orders. His chain(sanad) of gnosis goes to Ali and Abu Bakr, May God be pleased with them, and theirs to the Prophet of Islam(PBUH). He was known as shaykh al ṭaifatayn— the leader of the two groups— meaning possessing esoteric and exoteric gnosis. The mentioning of Junayd, May God be pleased with him, as part of Sunnism is to show that Sufism and Sufis are an essential part of Sunni identity, despite the modern day reformist charges that it is something alien to the Islam brought by Prophet Muhammad(PBUH). Sufism or tasawwuf, is the science of inner refinement of the self through inner and outer struggles(mujahadat), initiated and guided at each stage at the hands of a qualified master(murshid), who is connected to the Prophet of Islam, through an unbroken chain (sanad) of spiritual masters. The idea being that there is gnosis (maʿrifa) that can only be known through internal struggles and refinement of the self which books and automated ritual may not afford, though they may not be excluded at any stage. In this it could be compared to Platonic Transcendentalism but guided by Qurʿanic Revelation. The Prophet of Islam called this inner refinement iḥsān(lit: goodness) and defined it as “worshipping God as if you are beholding Him, for if you fail to behold Him then surely know that He is Beholding you.”
Iḥsān or Sufism therefore is the crowing jewel of the Islamic Revelation because it completes man (or woman for that matter as it is not intended for men only, Rabiya Adawiyya was a monumental woman saint of Islam, whose spiritual accomplishments dwarfed many a spiritual men of her times) as a spiritual being. Its through the Sufi ethos that one behold the glories of God mentioned in the Qurʿān “We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, till it is clear to them that it is the truth. Suffices it not as to thy Lord, that He is witness over everything?(Fussilat, verse 53). Sufism, in essence, is the science of of beholding the Signs of God in one’s self primarily, along with the horizons. The reformist trends within Islam want to deny this and talk only of beholding God’s Signs in the horizons, again denoting their materialistic approach to understanding God. The likes of Dr. Zakir Naik would like us to belief that God’s signs are, among other material things, in the miracle of the embryo, the life of bees, the formation of mountains, and other scientific miracles of the Qurʿan( which I hold to be true also). But he is utterly negligent of the greatest miracle of Islam: the transformation of the human state. How was it that a generation of Arabs used to burying their infant daughters alive, killing each other on the flimsiest of charges, inheriting their father’s wives, pagans of the crudest types, most backward of nations, all of a sudden burst to moral life, rhythm and civilization? It was through the initiation of iḥsān at the hands of the splendid Sun of Mercy, the Prophet of Islam.
Sufism, historically, manifested itself in Sufi Orders or tariqah But achieving iḥsān was not exclusive to the Sufi orders. It was the Sufi orders, for the most part, that were guiding the morality of Muslim societies and keeping check of deviant tendencies. No wonder when the Western colonial powers first interacted with Muslim societies they either tried to woo the Sufi leaders or tried to crush them. The appearance of groups like the Wahhabis are for a great part the result of the Western colonial efforts to push to the margins the role and influence of the Sufi orders.
The famous among the Sufi orders are the Qadiriyya, Rifaʿiyya, Naqshbandiyya, Suhrawardiyya, Chishtiyya, Shaḍhaliyya, Mevleviyya, Owaisiyya, among many others. Interestingly, one can hardly find a Sunni figure of historical repute from the 9th century onward to the 20th century who was not a Sufi or did not belong to a Sufi order! Salahuddin Ayyubi(Saladin), the Liberator of Palestine from the Crusaders, Mehmet the Conqueror, Imam Shamil Daghestani, Abdul Qadir Jazairi, Omar Mukhtar, are the warriors that the Wahhabis so fondly mention as mujahideen but conveniently gloss over the fact that they were all Sufis!
To conclude this issue of Sunni identity, historically a Sunni Muslim, for example Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin), was an Ashʿari in creed, a Shafiʿī in jurisprudence, and a Qadiri Sufi. While the first two—namely creed and jurisprudence— associations were essential in being called a Sunni, the third—Sufism—was more of an ideal association rather than essential.
Interestingly, there is also a tradition similar to Sufism in Shiite Islam. It is called ʿirfan. Mulla Sadra Shirazi, the famous Shiite philosopher, was a proponent of it. The Shiites of ʿirfanī orientation were much less discerning and sectarian vis a vis the Sunnis as they rightfully understood that Divine Attainment was not a monopoly of any one group.
15) Salafi is a euphemistic title that the Wahhabis use for themselves. A Salafi is a person who aspires to connect themselves to the First Righteous Generations of Islam or al sallaf al saliḥ—a period of high piety and righteousness, technically referred to the first 300 years of Islam but what the Wahhabis usually mean by this term is the generation of the Companions of the Prophet of Islam. They therefore negate the contributions of all generations of Muslims after the First Righteous Generations, in its totality, in the realms of scholarship and piety. This aspiration to connect oneself to the First Righteous Generations is the goal of all Sunnis, and not only the so-called Salafis. But the overwhelming majority of Sunnis historically never accepted that connecting oneself to the First Generations necessitates negating the validity of the preceding generations and their contributions. Moreover, each generation is instrumental in linkage to the previous generation because in Islam the wisdom of the religion is taken from the hearts of its men through tallaqī (unbroken human chain in understanding something) and not through texts only, as is the preoccupation of the Salafis. In reality, the Salafi title is an oxymoron: to be a Salafi one has to be living in that historical period. For one to believe that one is living in 6th century Arabia is most probably in an advanced stage of cognitive impairment. They are rightful called Wahhabis because their school goes back to one man only—Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab.
By Anwar Khan
Source: The Saker