Why America Needs to Beware of Saudi Wahhabism

May 18, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: Saudi ArabiaUnited StatesReligion

Why America Needs to Beware of Saudi Wahhabism

"It is high time for the administration to face up to Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi creed..."

The Obama administration issued a statement welcoming leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—to the White House on May 13 and to Camp David on May 14. According to the statement, the gathering will be an opportunity for the leaders to discuss ways to enhance their partnership and deepen security cooperation.

Undoubtedly, this upcoming gathering is essential for improving U.S.-GCC relations, which have been affected by the GCC’s perspective that United States is beating a retreat in the Middle East by pursuing a feeble foreign policy towards both the Syrian crisis and Iran’s regional expansion of power. Central to U.S.-GCC negotiations is the concern about the implications of a potential U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement for the security of the GCC countries. The GCC countries consider Iran to be the bête noir of the Middle East. This is not for irrelevant reasons, but to blame Iran for all the mayhem resulting in the creation of ISIS and the civil wars in Yemen and Syria is counterproductive, and in Arab metaphoric parlance, a derisive pat on the shoulder of American-Arab relations.

Besides the necessary steps the Obama administration must take to alleviate GCC’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and Middle East policy, it is high time for the administration to face up to Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi creed, which is at the center not only of the kingdom’s official religious establishment but also of the attitudinal behavior of the Saudi state and some of its citizens. In other words, the Saudi monarchy has made some sort of a Faustian pact with the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam whose theological and political ramifications cannot be discounted as principal factors for paving the way for Islamic radicalism. Absent an American grasp of the relational religio-political dynamics in the Kingdom, and absent a cathartic friendly exchange between the two strategic allies, there is little hope that Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East might peter out any time soon.

The Saudi-Wahhabi pact goes back to the eighteenth century when Sheikh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam traveled to Diriya, the stronghold of the Saudi tribe, and struck a deal with its chief. The pact served the interest of both parties by expanding their respective political and religious influence throughout the regions of Najd and Hijaz.

Basing his ideas on the writings of classical Salafi scholar Ibn Taymiyyah , al-Wahhab rejected shirk (idolatry, polytheism) and bid‘ah (heretical religious innovation), which he believed permeated the holy land of Islam. He believed in the return to the authentic ways of the salaf al-salih (pious ancestors) and advocated tawhid (oneness/unity of God) and transcendence of God. He called for unity and the purification of Islam. His puritanical movement became known as the Muwahhidun. Significantly, he justified leveling the charge of takfir (unbelief) on those he considered engaged in shirk. For example, the failure of Muslims to observe all the pillars of Islam or direct their exclusive worship toward God alone was tantamount to committing kufr (unbelief). 

In their campaign to control Najd and Hijaz, the Saudi-Wahhabi movement faced serious setbacks that left indelible impressions on its political outlook. Coming on the heels of destroying holy shrines in what is today Iraq, the movement occupied the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1805, thereby disrupting Muslim pilgrimage. In response, Ottoman authorities sent the army of Muhammad Ali of Egypt to crush the movement. The army, aided by tribes and natives, destroyed the Saudi-Wahhabi capital of Diriya and took the Saudi chief to Istanbul where he was executed. Consequently, Wahhabi scholars, including the grandson of al-Wahhab, Sulayman ibn ‘Abdallah, issued fatwas (religious edicts) asserting that those who supported the invading army to be apostates and that the Ottomans were polytheists.

The next important setback took place during the campaign of Saudi chief Abd al-Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud) to conquer Najd and Hijaz (1902-1932). Radical Wahhabis, known as the Ikhwan, fighting on Ibn Saud’s side had begun to oppose him once he started to negotiate with the British. Preempting their budding rebellion, Ibn Saud rallied moderate Wahhabis and a number of tribes and harshly clamped down on the Ikhwan. Before long, he completed his conquest of Najd and Hijaz, and in 1932, he proclaimed himself king of the newly established Saudi kingdom.

Early on in their rule, the Saudis recognized that their assumption of power, unlike that of other tribes in the Gulf, was bloody and that opposition to their rule could emerge under certain circumstances within both Saudi society and the Wahhabi religious establishment. They recognized that their rule has to be based on a tripod of 1) appearing pious Muslims worthy of being the custodians of the Holy mosques, 2) conferring state benefits on Saudis to maintain their loyalty, and 3) supporting the Wahhabi religious establishment as a key source for legitimizing their rule. The Saudis institutionalized the Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam as the official religious establishment of the Kingdom and strove to support its proponents in return for their political obedience. This division of labor between the two parties was in line with the initial pact whereby the Saudis were in charge of politics and the Wahhabis in charge of propagating ( da‘wa) their version of Islam.