The Ties Between Radical Islam And The Saudi Royal Family Are Disturbing.
“It is all too obvious that the theology of ISIS is reciprocal to the Wahhabi religious doctrine that has governed Saudi Arabia from its inception to this very day.” -Lincoln Clapper
This week we examine the evolution of the Wahhabist movement and how it is inextricably linked to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To properly do so, we go back to the beginning of the movement and establishment of the country.
Wahhabism refers to the Islamic doctrine founded by Muhammad Ibn’ Abdul-Wahhab. Born in 1703, Abdul-Wahab grew up in Nejd (present-day Saudi Arabia) and was a religious zealot who believed the two most important aspects of religion were, “the Quran and the sword.”
As a young teen, he was introduced to the works of Ibn Taymiyyah, an atavistic theologian whose works still resonate in present-day Sunni militant theology. Ibn Taymiyyah’s belief that, “misguided Muslims who do not abide by his interpretation of Shari’ah law should be fought as if they were infidels,” is a foundational principle of Al-Qaeda and ISIS alike.
Abdul-Wahhab continued his devotion to the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah throughout his early adult life and began to travel across Nejd projecting his views on Shi’ite communities demanding conformity — a conformity that was to be demonstrated in physical and tangible ways. He argued that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (a Caliph, if there were one). Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated, he wrote. The list of apostates meriting death included the Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations, whom Abd al-Wahhab did not consider to be Muslim at all.
Abd al-Wahhab’s advocacy of these ultra radical views inevitably led to his expulsion from his own town — and in 1741, after some wanderings, he found refuge under the protection of Ibn Saud and his tribe. What Ibn Saud perceived in Abd al-Wahhab’s novel teaching was the means to overturn Arab tradition and convention. It was a path to seizing power.
Ibn Saud’s clan, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions. Only now they were doing it not within the ambit of Arab tradition, but rather under the banner of jihad. Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab also reintroduced the idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad, as it granted those martyred immediate entry into paradise.
The inextricable relationship explained:
Ibn Saud, under the religious conviction Abd al-Wahhab was “driven to him by Allah,” struck a deal with him in 1744 that remains solidified to this day between the House of Saud and the House of Ash-Shaykh (the descendants of Abd al-Wahhab). Abdul-Wahhab and Bin Sa’ud’s army went about waging wars against Muslim and non-Muslim tribes alike across Arabia, spreading Wahhabism as the predominant religion. This bond between Abdul-Wahab and Bin Sa’ud legitimized the use of religion as the instrument for consolidating power and establishing Bin Sa’ud as the ruling family.
The alliance forced obedience from the conquered tribes to the House of Saud and their policies, of which Abd al-Wahhab strongly encouraged. At that point, Wahhabism became compliantly submissive to the new royal family and continues to be so to this day, evidenced by the 2003 statement from the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz Bin Abdullah Al Ash Shaykh that, ” the rulers should always be obeyed, even if unjust.”
Every Saudi ruler since Ibn Saud has followed his predecessor’s domestic policy by ensuring that the religious establishment remains in significant control of public affairs. Present-day Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia is very much like that of the first Saudi state. The religious police, Mutawwa’ah, still roam the streets with sticks enforcing Wahhabism’s strict standards regarding the separating of sexes, women’s dress code, use of alcohol or drugs, and religious observances. Shi’ites are highly discriminated against, any type of political dissent is immediately suppressed on the basis of religious violations, and public beheadings are still routinely used as a type of capital punishment for “sorcery, drug trafficking, and rape.”
The relationship between the ulama (political elite) and muftis (religious authorities) has been honored and respected as the royal family has allowed the appointment of a member of the House of Shaykh to be the Grand Mufti since 1744. The only exception to this was ‘Abdul-‘Aziz Bin ‘Abdullah Bin Baz, better known as Bin Baz.
In 1993, Bin Baz became the first non-member of the House of Shaykh to hold the position, and has since played an instrumental role in the political legitimization for the House of Saud with his obscurantist views of Islam that resembled the early teachings of Abdul-Wahab. It is argued that he is responsible for the religious propagation and extremely radical interpretation of Islam through this viewpoint of Wahhabism.
Bin Baz’s rulings and fatwas range from: disputing the landing on the moon — the banning of pictures, statues and relics — the banning of prayer behind a man wearing a suit and tie — rejection of the rotation of the earth — the banning of singing and music — banning women from driving — and declaring Muslims who do not believe the stories of the Prophet as infidels. Bin Baz enforced strict dress codes for women, as well as men, forbade people who practiced martial arts from bowing to each other, and continued anti-Shi’ite, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic propaganda through public statements.
His hostility towards other religions was apparent through his sermons and fatwas: “It is incumbent upon Muslims to take as enemies the infidel Jews and Christians and other polytheists, and to avoid their amiability,” and “(Shi’ites) are the most polytheist, and none of the people of passion are more lying than them, and more remote from monotheism, and their danger on Islam is very great indeed.”
This was the same rhetoric and propaganda used during the inception of Al-Qaeda by Bin Laden, and Bin Baz was no different regarding militant legitimization for religious superiority.
There is nothing here that separates Wahhabism from ISIS. The rift would emerge only later: from the subsequent institutionalization of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab’s doctrine of “One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque” — these three pillars being taken respectively to refer to the Saudi king, the absolute authority of official Wahhabism, and its control of “the word” (i.e. the mosque).
It is this rift — the ISIS denial of these three pillars on which the whole of Sunni authority presently rests — makes ISIS, which in all other respects conforms to Wahhabism, a theological threat to Saudi Arabia.
In the beginning, Ibn Saud’s and Abd al-Wahhab conquered a few local communities and imposed their rule over them. (The conquered inhabitants were given a limited choice: conversion to Wahhabism or death.) By 1790, their Alliance controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula and repeatedly raided Medina, Syria and Iraq.
Their strategy — like that of ISIS today — was to bring the people they conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. In 1801, these allies attacked the Holy City of Karbala in Iraq. They massacred thousands of Shiites, including women and children. Many Shiite shrines were destroyed, including the shrine of Imam Hussein, the murdered grandson of Prophet Muhammad.
Osman Ibn Bishr Najdi, the historian of the first Saudi state, wrote that Ibn Saud committed a massacre in Karbala in 1801. He proudly documented that massacre saying, “we took Karbala and slaughtered and took its people (as slaves), then praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, and we do not apologize for that and say: ‘And to the unbelievers: the same treatment.'”
In 1803, Abdul Aziz then entered the Holy City of Mecca, which surrendered under the impact of terror and panic (the same fate was to befall Medina, too). Abd al-Wahhab’s followers demolished historical monuments and all the tombs and shrines in their midst. By the end, they had destroyed centuries of Islamic architecture near the Grand Mosque.
In November of 1803, a Shiite assassin killed King Abdul Aziz (taking revenge for the massacre at Karbala). His son, Saud bin Abd al Aziz, succeeded him and continued the conquest of Arabia. Ottoman rulers, however, could no longer just sit back and watch as their empire was devoured piece by piece.
In 1815, Wahhabi forces were crushed by the Egyptians (acting on the Ottoman’s behalf) in a decisive battle. In 1818, the Ottomans captured and destroyed the Wahhabi capital of Dariyah. The first Saudi state was no more. The few remaining Wahhabis withdrew into the desert to regroup, and there they remained, quiescent for most of the 19th century.
It is not hard to understand how the founding of the Islamic State by ISIS in contemporary Iraq might resonate amongst those who recall this history. Indeed, the ethos of 18th century Wahhabism did not just wither in Nejd, but it roared back into life when the Ottoman Empire collapsed amongst the chaos of World War I, though most Westerners remained ignorant of the contagion.
We will continue to examine the history of our ‘ally’ in the Middle East next week as we see how the extreme oil wealth extended the movement well beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia.
NOTE: This report is an amalgamation of Lincoln Clapper’s paper entitled Wahhabism, ISIS, and the Saudi Connection as well as Part I of Alastair Crooke’s historical analysis of the roots of ISIS and its impact on the future of the Middle East.