Bernard Haykel: ‘Untamed Wahhabism’ squared with ISIS ideology.

Wahhabism and so-called Islamic State may have a lot in common, they may share similar goals and visions of what a Muslim empire or state should look like, they may even both preach from the same ‘scholars’ and books, and one may even go as far as to say that the majority of those individuals involved with so-called Islamic State, (hereafter referred to as ‘IS’), are in fact Wahhabis themselves. Although, upon further examination, whether or not so-called IS are indeed some sort of ‘untamed version’ of Wahhabism is a very different matter entirely. That is so, for it is the basis of a premise that the reality of Wahhabism is somehow different to that of so-called IS, and the manifestation of Wahhabism has been misinterpreted and misrepresented within the so-called Islamic State ranks. Thus, the importance, understanding, and analysis, will be discussed. The discussion surrounding the comments of Bernard Haykel will give critical context to the state of affairs with regards to so-called ISIS and measure up how exactly they fair with the Wahhabi political ideology in Saudi Arabia. This should enable us to strengthen our understanding of political Wahhabism, and how the ideology of so-called ISIS ties in with the former.

Wahhabism as an ideology may be understood by many as a ‘sect’ within Islam, or a supposed puritanical version of Sunni Islam, to say the least (Macris, J. 2016, p.239). Others, on the other hand, consider Wahhabism an ideology outside the framework of the religion entirely, and thus declare Wahhabis as heretics and subsequently as non-Muslims, although according to Bernard Haykel, he believes very few are actually willing to announce such declaration (Dagli, C. 2015). The pendulum swings both ways however, and Wahhabis, otherwise known to many as ‘Salafis’, take a very keen stance on the literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, tradition of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and this has encouraged their fixated tough stance on how Islam should be practiced and implemented (Dagli, C. 2015). Their firmness and dedication to violence and domination is not something new however, for this kind of vision existed long ago with primarily two relatively-historical men that may be considered the most prominent of recent times in Saudi Arabian history; Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud (Ali, T. 2002, pp.73-74). With the concoction of Ibn Saud’s military desires and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s fight to change the entire ideology of the Muslims and what they believe, it certainly made a powerful force for changing the face of Arabia. Ibn Abdul Wahhab was to give ‘religious’ legitimacy to the actions of Ibn Saud and his claim for rulership, and in return Ibn Saud would give Ibn Abdul-Wahhab the freedom to preach his heretical interpretation of Islam (Ali, T. 2002, pp. 74-75). This ultimately allowed free reign for Ibn Saud to go from village to village, town to town, and raid them of their possessions, kill those men who did not submit to the new authority of the land, King Ibn Saud, and violate the women and children (Crooke, A. 2014). A cruel act indeed, and it is this common pattern of behaviour which we witness with so-called ISIS, and it is this element which may be among the key elements which explain as to why many would favour labelling them as ‘Wahhabis’. 

Before considering the ideology and understanding of so-called ISIS, it is critical to comprehend the political philosophy of the Wahabiyyah (Wahhabis) and how the constructive opposing arguments analyse just how Wahhabi-influenced so-called ISIS and their supporters are. Having said that, the roots of the cause are traced back to the previously mentioned individual, Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. With the rise of fame, Ibn Abdul-Wahhab preached a very puritanical interpretation of Islam, based very much upon the belief of ‘restoring that which came before’ i.e. restoring the beliefs and practices conducted by the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Although many would argue that in fact his methodology does not represent mainstream Muslims and does not reflect that which the Salaf believed. Moreover, Haykel (2016), argues that Pseudo-Salafis, otherwise known as Wahhabis, do not all follow the violent enraged upheaval and call to arms as is apparent by so-called ISIS. Rather, he argues that while the majority of Pseudo-Salafis base their understanding on a strict literal method of extraction from religious texts, it is only the Jihadi-Salafis which push for the very real violent and armed struggle. But it is with reference to the literalist ideology, as not all scholars agree with Haykel, as some have stated the that it would be outright preposterous to suggest such literalist behaviour on part of the ‘Salafis’. Examples which manifest this argument included verses, which if taken literally, would mean, ‘Wherever you turn, there is the face of God’, and scholars such as Dagli, make the point that Wahhabis simply do not literally believe this (Dagli, C. 2015). This is points to the evidence that the view of Wahhabis as literalists is not as black and white as it may seem.

At this stage, it is fitting to return to the core ideology of Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab as a benchmark and means of contextually analysing the core essence of his ideology against that of his followers, and ultimately against the actions of so-called ISIS. Therefore, as a sub-topic of that, it is important to note the political involvement of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. Controversially claiming that the state of the Muslims was in dire need of revival, and that the Arab peninsula had reverted back to the days of polytheism by worshipping graves, invoking on other than God, and becoming overzealous about the Prophet Muhammad (Macris, J. 2016, p.240), Ibn Abdul-Wahhab turned to political and tribal alliances in attempt to ‘revive’ the Muslim Ummah (nation of Muslims), in his view. Whether his so-called revival was a political movement, or purely influenced by religion is itself up for debate by historians and scholars alike. On one hand, if we consider that Ibn Abdul-Wahhab with his alliances to the Ibn Saud tribe and his vision for a centralised state of domination, we ergo conclude that his methods were politically central to his movement. On the other hand, we see the interpretation of history that the core element for Ibn Abdul-Wahhab was thoroughly grounded in religious affairs, with religious objectives, and supposedly justified by and for religion (Al-Dakhil, K. 2009, pp.25-27). This then raises the central concern of this essay, how exactly does this play out with regards to so-called ISIS and what are the connections therein? Do the patterns of similarity relate to the political, religious, or both?

The emergence of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab brought about a dynamic among a few dynamics that will be discussed with relation to so-called ISIS. However, among the most pressing elements is the notion of revival, ‘bringing back the glory days’, and restoring the supposed correct way after having been broken via violent means. After arriving in Deraiya, a small city in Najd, in 1744, Ibn Abdul Wahhab was indeed greatly welcomed by the Emir of the Tribe, Muhammad Ibn Saud. Now while they were partners in this ‘revival’ and brought about huge change across Saudi Arabia, then Hijaz and Najd, it is important to note that while Ibn Abdul-Wahhab was notorious for his amputation punishments for theft, and stoning punishments for adultery, at this point, he was not considering the prospect of raising arms in order to push forward his agenda. Scholars have argued that in fact it was down to Ibn Saud, who saw the charismatic charm in Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and the potential legitimacy to pursue Ibn Saud’s own military ambitions, which ultimately led to the violent uprising (Ali, T. 2002, pp. 73-75). In fact, some argue that not only did Ibn Abdul Wahhab give legitimacy to Ibn Saud’s political-military agenda, but also convinced him and convinced many Muslims through extremist techniques and the art of persuasion that change was only possible by the conduct of violence, especially during the times of mass European influence and the rise of occupation in the Middle-East (Haj, S. 2007, p.2). What is interesting to note, is that until today Saudi Arabia still advocates, encourages, and publishes this kind of interpretation with regards to the ‘puritanical’ understanding of the faith, and has been liked to a ‘housebroken’ version of so-called ISIS in modern times, spending an approximate $4 billion on promotion of such ideology (Bandow, D. 2017).

Evidently, upon closer inspection with so-called ISIS, after their emergence in June 2014, we begin to notice similarities with reference to revival and bringing back that which was supposedly lost. Declared by the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, making his initiation speech in Mosul, Northern Iraq, we see rhetoric like, “they fear the return of the Khilafah” and “the return of Muslims to pioneering and leadership” (Al-Baghdadi, A.B. 2014). It all rejuvenates the whole notion of the hyping up of desires for a better future by looking and turning back to the past. Despite these claims, it has been argued that in reality so-called ISIS lacked vision and tactic, and the widespread view in Washington during 2014 was that they were just a “bunch of thugs and psychopaths” (Cottee, S. 2017, p.441). What we find extraordinary is that Hamid Algar, a researcher at the University of California, highlighted that the beginnings of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia were drenched with campaigns of killings, looting, and stealing. He went on to state that along with the power given by the Saud tribe and family, Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and his followers were able to launch a jihad against any one individual which did not confirm to their theology (Macris, J. 2016, p.243). This is an important link to highlight, because it gives us great insight into the divisions and unwilling compromises both Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and so-called ISIS enacted in their eventful beginnings, and sheds light upon the struggle they both encountered when rebelling not only against Western and European powers, but also against the vast majority of the Muslim Ummah. This rebellion against the majority should be seen as an important element for distinguishing how politically Islam, Wahhabism, and so-called Islamic State are. Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, argues that it is evident from the pure fact that most Muslims do not practice and understand the ideals of Islamic State to be ‘Islamic’, and as such denounce so-called ISIS as a “destructive cult”. He goes on to argue that the likes of Graeme Wood, an American journalist and author, should not understand so-called ISIS’ manifestation of Islamic entities to the conclusion that therefore they must be ‘Islamic’ (Cottee, S. 2017, p.441-442).

Accordingly, these shared elements of expressed ‘Islam’ have not gone unnoticed. However, to really get to the crooks of the argument with relation to ‘untamed’ Wahhabism, we have to face the question of, are so-called ISIS Wahhabies? To shed light on this further, it was Osama Bin Laden and Al-Zawahri of Al-Qaeda who really brought the Pseudo-Salafi-Jihadi ideology to the forefront of Middle-Eastern politics and the world of Islamism during the late 20th and early 21st Century. Therefore, it is important to understand, and perhaps vital, to discuss so-called Islamic State’s birth from Al-Qaeda and the relationship of Wahhabism, or so-called Salafism, therein (Azzam, M. 2003). As with Ibn Abdul Wahhab, so-called ISIS was described as an “qualitative evolution model” of Al-Qaeda by Lister (2015), and he makes the argument that this involves the transformation by an insurgent group or cell transforming into a very real military-political figure or key actor by which is in control of governance of a particular territory (Lister, 2015, p.11). This can only be magnified with the great military, political, and religious pact, that was formed between Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and Ibn Saud. Lister (2015), continues to point out that this insurgent cell turned military-political figure consisted of not only territorial control, but also geographical influence, economic development, and the “professionalism” of its security operations, which Lister (2015), believes would keep so-called ISIS a real threat for many years into the future.

It must be understood, however, that the brand of so-called ISIS is not as black and white as a mere “copy-paste” of the ideas and beliefs of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. While they may have common patterns and elements to their military campaign, and too their theological stance, so-called ISIS are not the only group which profess to follow the original ideas of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, or at least the common desire of ‘revival’ to some sort of ‘glory days’ of the past. Taking this into consideration, we have various forms of Wahhabism, otherwise known as Salafism. Given the high-profile debate between those that consider themselves as ‘moderate’ Muslims, and those that are labelled ‘fanatics’ it really does boil down to what side of the fence one sits on. In other words, those who profess the teachings and ideas of Ibn Abdul Wahhab to be correct, or not.  It was then in the early period after the emergence of Ibn Abdul Wahhab when his opposition, which was the mass majority, labelled him and his followers as Khawarij, otherwise a Kharijite heretical party. The argument being, that Ibn Abdul Wahhab and his followers did not, and do not, like the term and as such prefer to call themselves ‘Salafi’. The term ‘Salafi’ is a way of captivating what Ibn Abdul Wahhab attempted to achieve, that is the discourse and practice of the ‘pious predecessors’ by adhering to the strict fixation upon only one God, the literal reading of divine texts, and the rejection of all innovations, without exception (Macris, J. 2016, p. 87). This is what Wiktorowicz (2006), argues, that all the differing strands of Wahhabism, or so-called Salafism, are all “united” by a common creed, however divisions started to emerge when the issue of applying this ideology of literalism of the divine texts and fixation of avoiding human subjectivity were met with the application and resolve to contemporary problems (Wiktorowicz, 2006, pp. 207-208).

That having been said, according to some such as Freer (2016), states that Wahhabism is not the same as Salafism. She continues to argue that Wahhabism, although religiously-focussed, it has a political element to the ideology, mainly due to the upholding of the regime in Saudi Arabia and the Saud family. Whereas with Pseudo-Salafism, she argues that it is a religious stance and doctrine that lacks any political strand. This is where it can be dissected into three major groups of so-called Salafis; the purists, the politicos, and the jihadis. The purists are those that avoid the political sphere, they focus all their attention and efforts on education and propagation of their creed, claiming that politics is a distraction. An example of the purists would Bin Baz. On the other hand, you have those on the opposite side of the spectrum that are very much political-centric and take the view that the means of the so-called Salafi call can be spread through political means and enable them to uphold social justice. These are known as the politicos, and an example of a politico would be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Finally, there are the so-called Jihadis. They fail to seek the ends they desire and cannot see a solution through the current channels; thus, they ultimately result to violence and upheaval (Wiktorowicz, 2006, p. 208). This indicatively serves as a great insight into the core differing approaches to the contemporary problems so-called Salafis face, as Wiktorowicz (2016), explains is the major difference and not theological diversity. Although Wiktorowicz is not a standard that all agree upon, for others state that creedal differences do occur with regards to how one is classified as a believer for example, or what constitutes disbelief. These differences, often authored by the so-called purist Salafi, are many times the reason for tension and disputes between the so-called Salafi ideology (Wagemakers, J. 2009, p. 283).

It should be known that one of the important tools utilised by the so-called Jihadist Salafi is the notion of takfir (ex-communication). That is, declaring apparently-outward Muslims as non-Muslims, and this justifies the opportunities for violence and murder. On the other hand, it is an increasingly important strategy used by violent heretics such as so-called ISIS, for it allows them to distinguish clearly who is for them and who is against them. Naturally, this would cause great uproar in the community, however it gives the go-ahead for groups like so-called ISIS and their supporters to rebel against fellow ‘Muslims’ and the Muslim community at large (Mendelejis, N. 2019, p.5). This issue of takfir however, is not only limited to the so-called Jihadi Salafi, as during the period of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, he too managed to cause great upset in the community when he started declaring other Muslims as idolaters, effectively calling their belief void, and this understandably enraged the Ottoman scholars at the time. Even more so, because making takfir enabled Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and his followers to justify their rebellion to Ottoman rule, and take advantage of a power grab in Hijaz, which later became known as Saudi Arabia (Commins, D. 2015, pp. 152-153).

 Both of the aforementioned theoretical and observational positions by Wiktorowicz and Wagemakers with regards to so-called Salafism make an important contribution to our understanding of the differing stances taken within the Pseudo-Salafi sphere. However, after discussing the basic principles of so-called Wahhabism, as was propagated by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Salafism and its major categories, I now turn the discussion to how Wahhabism (so-called Salafism) is situated within the Saudi Arabian government. According to Bunzel (2018), the link between Wahhabism as an ideology, the Saudi Arabian state itself, and so-called Islamic State have a lot in common. He argues that so-called ISIS deem themselves as a protectorate of Wahhabism, or at least the ideology, and the official religion of Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi thought. Moreover, he indicates that the so-called Jihadi-Salafi movement as an umbrella has increasingly encapsulated what it means to be Wahhabi and their leaders have become more Wahhabi inclined in both mentality and strategy. This then raises the difference between so-called ISIS and the Saudi state: both are attempting to represent and protect the same ideology and reach the same goals in different ways (Bunzel, C. 2018, p.2).  For this reason, naturally we see the relationship between the state of Saudi Arabia itself and Wahhabism, deeply rooted in the history of Wahhabism and the original ideology of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab himself. As Al-Dakhil (2009), explains Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s understanding of Tawheed (the concept of the Oneness of God), is also oneness in terms of people- the idea of unification. He continues to explain that Ibn Abdul Wahhab understands unity as a form of worship, and in order for unity to take place, “unconditional” allegiance must be sworn to the wali-ul-amr (the ruler). Therefore, he believes that being faithful to God is being faithful to the community, and therefore no question should be asked about the ruler (Al-Dakhil, K. 2009, pp. 28-29).

By the same token, this alliance between Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and the Ibn Saud clan has been a strong force since its beginnings in 1744, which is otherwise known as the first Saudi state. As previously mentioned, the pact in essence was formed of Ibn Abdul Wahhab being in control of the state’s religious affairs, and the Saud House would be in control of its temporal affairs, each giving validation to each other. Explaining this further, this validation with Saud power and Wahhabi ideological influence was manifest through the first state of Saudi Arabia invading Iraq in 1802. Astonishingly they raided the shrine of Imam Hussayn (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) in Karbala, looting the place, and robbing it of its treasures. Of course, Imam Hussayn and his shrine plays a key role for Shi’a Muslims, but it also plays a key role for importance in the Sunni Muslim world. That is why, Mahendrarajah (2015), makes the argument that Saudi-Wahhabi actions were not anti-Shi’a antics, for he points to the fact that the Wahhabis continued with their strict view of ‘ibadah, (worship), by completely destroying the mausoleums, graveyards, and domes. To the shock horror of many, they went to the extent of destroying the domes above the graves of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (the Prophet’s son-in-law), Abu Bakr Al Siddiq (the Prophet’s closest companion and father in-law), and Khadijah (the Prophet’s wife). They even attempted to destroy the dome above the grave of the Prophet Muhammad himself, yet were unsuccessful and only got away with looting the treasures and sentimental items in the Prophet’s tomb (Mahendrarajah, S. 2015, p. 391). This ultimately was a huge manifestation of the Wahhabi ideology upon the government of Al Saud and their legitimacy from it.

Correspondingly, the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and the Saudi government are intertwined, and this leaves us with the analysis of so-called ISIS and their inspiration and ideology, which can be argued in some way, shape or form, has been taken from the aforementioned two elements. Bunzel (2018), argues that this can be evident by so-called Islamic State addressing its supporters in Saudi Arabia as the “people of tawhid” (people who believe in the Oneness of God), and the people of “al wala wal bara”, the “association and disassociation” of Muslims, or as Wagemakers (2009), puts it, the people of “loyalty to Muslims and denunciation of non-Muslims”. However, Bunzel (2018), makes an important point of reference, and considerably one of the most important points of Wahhabism within so-called ISIS, versus the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, and that is so-called ISIS have gone one step further and denounced the royal Saud family and their government supporters as inherently hypocritical of early Islam and have sold out the ‘creed’ and fell victim to failing to live up to expectations from the pseudo-Salafi sphere (Bunzel, C. 2018, p.3).  This can be dangerous on a number of levels for the Saudi government, as it gives validation and encouragement towards rebellion and revolt- something very much Ibn Saud, and the present Saudi regime avoid at all costs.

Having said that, returning to the initial creed of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, we see common denominators between his ideology and the acts carried out by so-called Islamic State. Macris (2016), points out that articles of faith stated by Ibn Abdul Wahhab, such as believers must destroy places that were used for idolatry worship, or preventing statues or graves becoming pilgrimage sites because they may lead people to worship them, and ultimately commit shirk (associating partners with God), have become regular practices of so-called ISIS and have been widely publicised in their literature. Despite this, Macris (2016), goes on to state that Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab himself was very rarely cited as a source for such acts, which begs the question does Wahhabism play a role in so-called Islamic State, or is it just a coincidence they have commonalities between the two? Noting the compelling difference between the two, it has been argued that while many persist that radical Islam, in other words Wahhabism, is the reason for so-called Islamic State’s violence, some point to political grievance or self-interest rather than any dimension of religious reasoning. To bring the closer to understanding, Dalia Mogahed argued that a “violent reading” of the Qur’an does not lead to political violence, but rather insists that political violence leads to a “violent reading” of the Qur’an (Cottee, S. 2017, p.443). Regardless however, whether or not it is read violently or violently read, Hassan (2016), insists that so-called Islamic State’s ideology is primarily influenced by Wahhabism, which happens to be the official religion of Saudi Arabia, and the ideals of the first Saudi state, which consisted as the previously mentioned raids, looting, and violence towards those that disagree with Wahhabi defenders (Hassan, R. 2016, p.768).

In concluding remarks, it is noticeable that throughout history, Saudi Arabia has relied upon the legitimacy given by the Wahhabi ideology for the spread of Wahhabism and so-called Islamic State. Nuances of behavior such as a fixation upon revival and an obsession with destroying anything tangible that may invite worship of that, other than God, even to the extent of a dome above one’s grave would be destroyed. While there seems to be differing strands of Wahhabism, it is fair to say that so-called ISIS land somewhere between ‘purists’ and ‘politicos’. This is what makes them Wahhabi. As Bernard Haykel argues so-called ISIS is ‘untamed Wahhabism’, I would disagree and argue that while I agree it is a form of Wahhabism, it is not untamed, but rather the pure essence of Wahhabism in its ultimate form, the end of the path to which it leads. This is so, for while contemporary Wahhabi scholars have denounced so-called ISIS, their teachings, methodology, and approach to contemporary issues, fall in-line very much with the arrival and revival Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab brought out. The three core issues of an attempt to ‘restore’ days of the past, a reading of the Qur’an out of context in comparison to moderate Muslims, and the ultimate denouncing of other’s Islam as void for not agreeing or adhering to their methodology, only leads one to suggest that so-called ISIS are Wahhabis and represent Wahhabism in its true form. To suggest it is ‘untamed’ is to suggest it has become out of control, which is why I can only argue that so-called ISIS is ‘tamed’ Wahhabism in the sense that so-called Islamic State is what Wahhabism ultimately demands.

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