Let the Sane of Saudi Arabia Unite.
By Tarek Heggy
A little over two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1744 to be precise, an alliance was forged between Mohamed ibn-Saud and Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab, whereby the former agreed to rule according to the doctrine preached by the latter. A succinct statement made by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab shortly after the deal was struck expresses the essence of his doctrine, which is known as Wahhabism: "Blood, blood, destruction, destruction." These four simple words summarize what was and what continues to be the message of Wahhabism. The partnership between the two men led to the first incarnation of the Saudi-Wahhabi state. Anyone who, like me, has read the nineteen books written by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab will realize that he belongs more to the realm of proselytism than to that of Islamic jurisprudence. The first Saudi state lasted from 1744 until 1819, when Ibrahim Pasha, Mohamed Ali's eldest son, led a military expedition which destroyed the state, razed its capital, Al-Dir'iyah, to the ground and captured its prince, Abdullah ibn-Saud, sending him first to Cairo then on to the capital of the Ottoman state where he was executed.
The first Saudi state banned what it considered to be heretical practices, including the building of tombs, music, singing, dancing and any other manifestation of un-Islamic conduct. Members of other faiths were hated and despised as 'unclean'. Such was the hatred of foreigners that European consultants brought in by King Abdul Aziz at the beginning of the twentieth century were spat upon by the Ikhwan, members of an ultra-orthodox offshoot of the original Wahhabi movement. The presence of non-Muslims on the sacred ground of the Arabian Peninsula was seen as a desecration, as was any hint of modernity even when it came to such trivial matters as the shape of beards and mustaches. To the theologians of the first Saudi-Wahhabi state the only rightful interpretation of Islam lay in the Hanbalite school of law [founded by Ahmed ibn-Hanbal and further elaborated by his two main disciples, ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym al-Juzeya] even though it is by far the weakest of the four Sunni schools of law [the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafite and Hanbalite]. To this day, Saudi jurists remain committed to the version of Islam propounded by ibn-Hanbal, ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya, even though they rank far lower in stature than such towering Islamic jurists as Abu Hanifa Al-No'man, Malik Ibn Anas, Jaafar Al-Sadiq and Ibn Rushd [the second teacher after the first, Aristotle].
Where jurists like Abu Hanifa and Ibn Rushd relied on the tools of rationality and deductive reasoning, compilation was the hallmark of the Hanbalite School, which allowed no scope for reason or independent thinking but insisted on a dogmatic interpretation of holy texts. Thus while Abu Hanifa relied on istihsan [using few traditions and extracting from the Qur'an by reasoning the rulings which fitted his ideas] and Ibn Rushd on ta'weel [deductive reasoning], Ibn Hanbal insisted on a literal interpretation of holy texts. This led him to accept over ten thousand of the Prophet's Hadith as apostolic precept. It also bred a climate which favoured unquestioning adherence to tradition over the use of critical faculties, creating generations of followers and imitators and leading Islamic societies to the point at which they find themselves today: sidelined from History, science and the march of human progress. The Hanbalite School has turned the Muslim mentality into a passive recipient of answers instead of one that asks questions, let alone one that engages in critical thinking, the main engine of human progress.
Following Ibrahim Pasha's defeat of the first Saudi-Wahhabi state, the Saudis, with their Wahhabi partners, entered into an alliance with the al-Rashid family, who ruled the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula from their capital Ha'il. The alliance between the al-Rashids and what can be called the second Saudi state continued until the al-Rashids turned on the al-Saud family and sent them into exile in Kuwait in 1891.
In 1901, the young scion of the Saudi family, Abdul Aziz son of Abdul Rahman son of Faisal al-Saud, born in 1875 and endowed with the quality of leadership, seized Riyadh in a nighttime raid. From 1902 until 1925 he waged a campaign to assert his dominion over the Arabian Peninsula and, after seizing Mecca then Medina in 1925, proclaimed himself the ruler of Najd and other provinces now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Actually, the name only came into use seven years after Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud became Sultan of Najd and King of Hijaz in 1925.
In the course of a historical journey that has no parallel in history, the actions, policies, words and deeds of Abdul Aziz between 1902 and 1925 not only confirmed his exceptional leadership qualities but bespoke a profound understanding of the nature of power, both in absolute terms and as exercised by the Great Powers, whether the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire or the empire that was to emerge later, the American Empire. Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud played his role with great skill, using all his acumen to achieve the goal he had set himself during the years of exile in Kuwait as the guest of the al-Sabbah family in general and of the ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabbah, in particular.
Long before the Americans used the Islamists during the Cold War to help them defeat the Soviet Empire [notably after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979], Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud used Islamists to consolidate his power. In 1912, he incepted and financed a movement known as the Ikhwan, a forerunner of the Islamists/jihadists deployed by the Americans against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The symbiotic relationship between Abdul Aziz and the Ikhwan ended in 1930 with a ferocious battle between the erstwhile allies when the Saudis, led by King Abdul Aziz, crushed the Ikhwan, led by Faisal al-Dawish. The Ikhwan's religious views were so extreme that they considered any sign of modernity or progress the work of the Devil. As their alliance with Ibn Saud coincided with a period of great scientific advances, they had plenty of abominations to contend with: the telegraph, cars, telephones then radios were all regarded as sinful and anyone who did not resist them as a heretic. Such was the fanaticism of this lunatic fringe that one of its members advanced on the Sultan [Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud] with a pair of scissors and proceeded to shorten Ibn Saud's robes in full view of his entourage, thereby driving home the message that the principles of Wahhabism were stronger than the authority of the Saudis. Apparently short robes are a basic tent of Wahhabism and failure to observe this essential requirement of orthodoxy is heresy!
Abdul Aziz, first as prince, then sultan then king, used the Ikhwan when he needed them to further expand his suzerainty. For like all those who welcome death as a passport to paradise, they were fearless fighters. The problem was that they were equally fearless in standing up to Abdul Aziz whenever they considered him to have deviated from the true path. During the years of their increasingly uneasy alliance [from 1912 until he succeeded in asserting his dominion over most of the Arabian peninsula in 1925], fierce clashes often broke out between them. For example, they lashed out at him when he stopped riding camels and took to riding cars, publicly berating him when "he left Riyadh in 1925 on the back of a camel and returned in a Cadillac!" This was the last straw for the sultan, who could not countenance any challenge to his authority as the undisputed leader of most of the Arabian Peninsula. He barely had time to bask in the glow of his hard-won victory over the Hashemites and the expansion of his dominion over lands previously under their control before the Ikhwan forced his hand. The final showdown came in a battle between Abdul Aziz and the Ikhwan. They were routed and their leader, Faisal al-Dawish, was captured and imprisoned, dying in captivity a few years later.
But the question is whether the Saudi state, successful though it may have been when it came to defeating its enemies [from the Hashemite al-Rashids to Faisal al-Dawish], has been equally successful in ridding itself of the fanatical, not to say downright psychotic, ideas propounded by the Ikhwan of Najd, who militate against the use of cars, telegrams and radios and for the shortening of robes, the shaving of mustaches and the growing of beards. The truth is that the Saudi state, whether in its first, second or third incarnations, has never been free of the pernicious effects of the doctrine preached by the Ikhwan.
Today the Saudi state resists the education of women, frowns on television broadcasts, bans women drivers and considers music and singing sinful. The underlying logic behind these anomalies is not very different from that which informed one of the most heinous crimes in the history of Islam, the takeover of the masjid al-haram [the sacred mosque which is home to the Ka'ba] at the beginning of the fifteenth century of the Hejira calendar. All attest to the continued influence of Ikhwani ideas in the Kingdom, as do the ban on teaching music and philosophy in Saudi schools and the refusal to appoint women to the Shura Council or in cabinet posts. There is also the spate of fatwas inspired by this madness, like the fatwa in which Ibn al-Baz concludes that the earth is not round and the one proscribing the sending of flowers to the sick! To stop the madness, the Saudi establishment must take a firm stand preferably accompanied by a psychological campaign.
Having said that, however, we must in all fairness distinguish between Wahhabism, its Ikhwan offshoot and the Saudi family. The truth is that not one of the nineteen books written by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab calls for any of the excesses required by the Ikhwan. Also, even though the Saudi family entered into an alliance with the Wahhabis at a certain political stage and with the Ikhwan at another, it does not necessarily share their views.
As a student of Saudi history of the last three centuries, I believe the House of Saud has reached a watershed in its relationship with both the Wahhabi school and the remnants of the Ikhwan. I think that when it transpired that most of the criminals of 9/11 were Saudi nationals, the Saudi family realized it was time for a showdown with the Wahhabis and the Ikhwan [the Nejdi, not the Egyptian, variety]. There is, after all, a historical precedent on which to draw, namely, the stand taken by the father of their oldest prince, King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud, who took on the Ikhwan in the nineteen thirties, despite the undeniable role they played in his triumphant career, defeating their army led by Faisal al-Dawish.
The House of Saud, which is not ideologically implicated in the ideas of Wahhabism and the Ikhwan, is today called upon to do the following:
Stand up to extremist elements in the country like their father did eight decades ago.
Remove Wahhabi and Ikhwan zealots from influential positions in the institution of education.
Remove Wahhabi and Ikhwan zealots from influential positions in the Ministry of Wakf, [religious endowments] Da'wa [the call to Islam] and Hajj.
Abolish the system of state-sponsored religious vigilantes like the motawa'een and the al-amr bel ma'rouf wal nahy 'an al-monkar who patrol the streets and mete out instant punishment for any perceived violation of strict Islamic practices, in total contradiction with the concept of the modern state.
Reduce the huge budget allocated by the Kingdom to the religious establishment [nearly three billion US dollars] and reallocate it to the fields of education and health [after all, those sporting short robes, shaven mustaches and untrimmed beards can contribute nothing of value to a modern state the only role they are qualified to play is a destructive one].
Encourage moderate professors of Islamic jurisprudence to set a timetable for introducing their students to Hanafi, Maliki and Shafite sources in place of the Hanbalite sources now exclusively in use so that in time the people of Saudi Arabia reach a stage of religious maturity in which they recognize that the doctrine of Wahhabism is not the only, or even the major, model of Islam. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, ibn-Hanbal, ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya were minor figures in the pantheon of Islamic jurists.
Launch an offensive against the Ikhwani obduracy on such issues as the appointment of women ministers, the inclusion of women in the Shura Council, allowing women to drive, allowing male teachers to teach female students and female teachers to teach male students, in order to promote a climate favourable to enlightenment and progress in place of the current reactionary climate that has no equivalent on earth.
Given that hundreds of the Islamic centers established by Saudi Arabia throughout the world have become a breeding ground for fanaticism and extremism and crucibles for violence, blood lust and terrorism, an alternative plan must be laid down to transform them into community service centers rather than allow them to continue disseminating obscurantist ideas that spawn a mentality of violence which has distorted the image of Islam in the eyes of the world over the last few decades.
The opinions expressed in this article are motivated not by enmity for Saudi Arabia but by concern for its future. For I firmly believe that unless the descendants of the great King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud follow the example he set with his stand against the Ikhwan of Najd and their leader, Faisal al-Dawish, eighty years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is headed for a highly detrimental confrontation with advanced societies. I also believe that the collapse of the Saudi regime, whether in favour of the extremists or of the trend calling for the country's partition and division would represent a great strategic danger to all the countries of the Gulf and the Middle East.
As reform in Egypt is a thousand times better than its takeover by any of a number of alternatives, so too is reform in Saudi Arabia a thousand times better than its takeover by alternatives that could plunge the entire region into unprecedented chaos. Maintaining the stability of Saudi Arabia and all its neighbours is imperative. But I believe guaranteeing stability is impossible absent a historical operation like the one undertaken by King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud against the extremists between 1925 and 1930. The question is whether the sane elements in Saudi Arabia will follow a course similar to the one taken by their famous forbear eighty years ago or whether they will continue to coexist with the modern-day disciples of Faisal al-Dawish until the ship sinks with everyone on board.
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