You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi
BEIRUT -- The dramatic arrival of Da'ish (ISIS) on the stage of Iraq has shocked
many in the West. Many have been perplexed -- and horrified -- by its violence
and its evident magnetism for Sunni youth. But more than this, they find Saudi
Arabia's ambivalence in the face of this manifestation both troubling and
inexplicable, wondering, "Don't the Saudis understand that ISIS threatens them,
It appears -- even now -- that Saudi Arabia's ruling elite is divided. Some
applaud that ISIS is fighting Iranian Shiite "fire" with Sunni "fire"; that a
new Sunni state is taking shape at the very heart of what they regard as a
historical Sunni patrimony; and they are drawn by Da'ish's strict Salafist
Other Saudis are more fearful, and recall the history of the revolt against Abd-al
Aziz by the Wahhabist Ikhwan (Disclaimer: this Ikhwan has nothing to do with the
Muslim Brotherhood Ikhwan -- please note, all further references hereafter are
to the Wahhabist Ikhwan, and not to the Muslim Brotherhood Ikhwan), but which
nearly imploded Wahhabism and the al-Saud in the late 1920s.
Many Saudis are deeply disturbed by the radical doctrines of Da'ish (ISIS) --
and are beginning to question some
aspects of Saudi Arabia's direction and discourse.
THE SAUDI DUALITY
Saudi Arabia's internal discord and tensions over ISIS can only be understood by
grasping the inherent (and persisting) duality that lies at the core of the
Kingdom's doctrinal makeup and its historical origins.
One dominant strand to the Saudi identity pertains directly to Muhammad ibn ʿAbd
al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism), and the use to which his radical,
exclusionist puritanism was put by Ibn Saud. (The latter was then no more than a
minor leader -- amongst many -- of continually sparring and raiding Bedouin
tribes in the baking and desperately poor deserts of the Nejd.)
The second strand to this perplexing duality, relates precisely to King Abd-al
Aziz's subsequent shift towards statehood in the 1920s: his curbing of Ikhwani
violence (in order to have diplomatic standing as a nation-state with Britain
and America); his institutionalization of the original Wahhabist impulse -- and
the subsequent seizing of the opportunely surging petrodollar spigot in the
1970s, to channel the volatile Ikhwani current away from home towards export --
by diffusing a cultural revolution, rather than violent revolution throughout
the Muslim world.
But this "cultural revolution" was no docile reformism. It was a revolution
based on Abd al-Wahhab's Jacobin-like hatred for the putrescence and
deviationism that he perceived all about him -- hence his call to purge Islam of
all its heresies and idolatries.
The American author and journalist, Steven Coll, has written how
this austere and censorious disciple of the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah,
Abd al-Wahhab, despised "the decorous, arty, tobacco smoking, hashish imbibing,
drum pounding Egyptian and Ottoman nobility who travelled across Arabia to pray
In Abd al-Wahhab's view, these were not Muslims; they were imposters
masquerading as Muslims. Nor, indeed, did he find the behavior of local Bedouin
Arabs much better. They aggravated Abd al-Wahhab by their honoring of saints, by
their erecting of tombstones, and their "superstition" (e.g. revering graves or
places that were deemed particularly imbued with the divine).
All this behavior, Abd al-Wahhab denounced as bida --
forbidden by God.
Like Taymiyyah before him, Abd al-Wahhab believed that the period of the Prophet
Muhammad's stay in Medina was the ideal of Muslim society (the "best of times"),
to which all Muslims should aspire to emulate (this, essentially, is Salafism).
Taymiyyah had declared war on Shi'ism, Sufism and Greek philosophy. He spoke
out, too against visiting the grave of the prophet and the celebration of his
birthday, declaring that all such behavior represented mere imitation of the
Christian worship of Jesus as God (i.e. idolatry). Abd al-Wahhab assimilated all
this earlier teaching, stating that "any doubt or hesitation" on the part of a
believer in respect to his or her acknowledging this particular interpretation
of Islam should "deprive
a man of immunity of his property and his life."
One of the main tenets of Abd al-Wahhab's doctrine has become the key idea of takfir.Under
the takfiri doctrine, Abd al-Wahhab and his followers could deem fellow Muslims
infidels should they engage in activities that in any way could be said to
encroach on the sovereignty of the absolute Authority (that is, the King). Abd
al-Wahhab denounced all Muslims who honored the dead, saints, or angels. He held
that such sentiments detracted from the complete subservience one must feel
towards God, and only God. Wahhabi Islam thus bans any prayer to saints and dead
loved ones, pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, religious festivals
celebrating saints, the honoring of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and
even prohibits the use of gravestones when burying the dead.
"Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and
daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated, he wrote. "
Abd al-Wahhab demanded 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
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.
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 deep threat to Saudi Arabia.
BRIEF HISTORY 1741- 1818
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.
"Their strategy -- like that of ISIS today -- was to bring the peoples whom they
conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. "
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.
In the beginning, they 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, the 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 peoples whom they
conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. In 1801, the 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.
A British official, Lieutenant Francis Warden, observing the situation at the
time, wrote: "They pillaged the whole of it [Karbala], and plundered the Tomb of
Hussein... slaying in the course of the day, with circumstances of peculiar
cruelty, above five thousand of the inhabitants ..."
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.
But 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
1812, the Ottoman army, composed of Egyptians, pushed the Alliance out from
Medina, Jeddah and Mecca. In 1814, Saud bin Abd al Aziz died of fever. His
unfortunate son Abdullah bin Saud, however, was taken by the Ottomans to
Istanbul, where he was gruesomely executed (a visitor to Istanbul reported
seeing him having been humiliated in the streets of Istanbul for three days,
then hanged and beheaded, his severed head fired from a canon, and his heart cut
out and impaled on his body).
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.
HISTORY RETURNS WITH ISIS
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
The Al Saud -- in this 20th century renaissance -- were led by the laconic and
politically astute Abd-al Aziz, who, on uniting the fractious Bedouin tribes,
launched the Saudi "Ikhwan" in the spirit of Abd-al Wahhab's and Ibn Saud's
earlier fighting proselytisers.
The Ikhwan was a reincarnation of the early, fierce, semi-independent vanguard
movement of committed armed Wahhabist "moralists" who almost had succeeded in
seizing Arabia by the early 1800s. In the same manner as earlier, the Ikhwan
again succeeded in capturing Mecca, Medina and Jeddah between 1914 and 1926. Abd-al
Aziz, however, began to feel his wider interests to be threatened by the
revolutionary "Jacobinism" exhibited by the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan revolted --
leading to a civil war that lasted until the 1930s, when the King had them put
down: he machine-gunned them.
For this king, (Abd-al Aziz), the simple verities of previous decades were
eroding. Oil was being discovered in the peninsular. Britain and America were
courting Abd-al Aziz, but still were inclined to support Sharif Husain as the
only legitimate ruler of Arabia. The Saudis needed to develop a more
sophisticated diplomatic posture.
So Wahhabism was forcefully changed from a movement of revolutionary jihad and
theological takfiri purification, to a movement of conservative social,
political, theological, and religious da'wa (Islamic call) and to justifying the
institution that upholds loyalty to the royal Saudi family and the King's
OIL WEALTH SPREAD WAHHABISM
With the advent of the oil bonanza -- as the French scholar, Giles Kepel writes,
Saudi goals were to "reach out and spread Wahhabism across the Muslim world ...
to "Wahhabise" Islam, thereby reducing the "multitude of voices within the
religion" to a "single creed" -- a movement which would transcend national
divisions. Billions of dollars were -- and continue to be -- invested in this
manifestation of soft power.
It was this heady mix of billion dollar soft power projection -- and the Saudi
willingness to manage Sunni Islam both to further America's interests, as it
concomitantly embedded Wahhabism educationally, socially and culturally
throughout the lands of Islam -- that brought into being a western policy
dependency on Saudi Arabia, a dependency that has endured since Abd-al Aziz's
meeting with Roosevelt on a U.S. warship (returning the president from the Yalta
Conference) until today.
Westerners looked at the Kingdom and their gaze was taken by the wealth; by the
apparent modernization; by the professed leadership of the Islamic world. They
chose to presume that the Kingdom was bending to the imperatives of modern life
-- and that the management of Sunni Islam would bend the Kingdom, too, to modern
"On the one hand, ISIS is deeply Wahhabist. On the other hand, it is ultra
radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective
movement to contemporary Wahhabism."
But the Saudi Ikhwan approach to Islam did not die in the 1930s. It retreated,
but it maintained its hold over parts of the system -- hence the duality that we
observe today in the Saudi attitude towards ISIS.
On the one hand, ISIS is deeply Wahhabist. On the other hand, it is ultra
radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective
movement to contemporary Wahhabism.
ISIS is a "post-Medina" movement: it looks to the actions of the first two
Caliphs, rather than the Prophet Muhammad himself, as a source of emulation, and
it forcefully denies the Saudis' claim of authority to rule.
As the Saudi monarchy blossomed in the oil age into an ever more inflated
institution, the appeal of the Ikhwan message gained ground (despite King
Faisal's modernization campaign). The "Ikhwan approach" enjoyed -- and still
enjoys -- the support of many prominent men and women and sheikhs. In a sense,
Osama bin Laden was precisely the representative of a late flowering of this
Today, ISIS' undermining of the legitimacy of the King's legitimacy is not seen
to be problematic, but rather a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhab
In the collaborative management of the region by the Saudis and the West in
pursuit of the many western projects (countering socialism, Ba'athism, Nasserism,
Soviet and Iranian influence), western politicians have highlighted their chosen
reading of Saudi Arabia (wealth, modernization and influence), but they chose to
ignore the Wahhabist impulse.
After all, the more radical Islamist movements were perceived by Western
intelligence services as being more effective in toppling the USSR in
Afghanistan -- and in combatting out-of-favor Middle Eastern leaders and states.
Why should we be surprised then, that from Prince Bandar's Saudi-Western mandate
to manage the insurgency in Syria against President Assad should have emerged a
neo-Ikhwan type of violent, fear-inducing vanguard movement: ISIS? And why
should we be surprised -- knowing a little about Wahhabism -- that "moderate"
insurgents in Syria would become rarer than a mythical unicorn? Why should we
have imagined that radical Wahhabism would create moderates? Or why could we
imagine that a doctrine of "One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it,
or be killed" could ever ultimately lead to moderation or tolerance?
Or, perhaps, we never imagined.