Why ISIS is a threat to Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism’s deferred promise

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A file picture taken on March 15, 2008 shows Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh listening to a speech of Saudi King in the Saudi Capital Riyadh. (Photo: AFP-Hassan Ammar)

By: Fouad al-Ibrahim

Published Friday, August 22, 2014

For an accurate assessment of the danger represented by the project of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an overall reading of the Saudi political mindset is necessary. The Wahhabi Saudi state was established in the mid-18th century out of an alliance between Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Wahhab and Prince Mohammed bin Saud in 1744. This alliance founded a religious state based on a power-sharing arrangement between the cleric and the prince that was supposed to monopolize Sunni political representation and prevent the emergence of any other competing entity within the general Islamic public sphere.

Within the Wahhabi religious sphere, the guardians of the doctrine faced successive challenges to keep the Saudi state under the influence of the Wahhabi teachings developed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Wahhab through his letters, compilations and biography. There were efforts – sometimes individual and sometimes collective – to re- “Wahhabize” the Saudi state. But these efforts failed.

One of these individual efforts was carried out by Sheikh Abdel Rahman bin Hassan al-Sheikh, one of the grandsons of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Wahab, who was equivalent to a grand mufti in the second Saudi state. He sent letters to Prince Faisal bin Turki al-Saud (1788 – 1865) reminding him of the religious basis that the Saudi state was founded on: “And the people of Islam did not assail those who opposed them, but by the sword of prophecy and its dominion, especially your state, which did not come to be except with this religion...” (The Splendid Pearls in the Najdi Answers, collected by Abdel Rahman bin Mohammed al-Najdi, 7th edition, 2004, part 14, p. 70).

Wahhabi scholars warned the princes of the second Saudi state against the dire conditions that befell the first Saudi state when Prince Saud bin Abdel Aziz bin Mohammed changed his father’s way, and wanted it to be a kingdom, in the words of Sheikh Abdel Rahman bin Hassan al-Sheikh. That is when “worldly matters overshadowed religious matters,” as he put it (The Splendid Pearls in the Najdi Answers, part 14, p. 123). Sheikh Abdel Rahman wanted to stress the role of religion in the endurance, stability, strength and unity of the state and its centralization in Najd. That is why he vehemently asked the prince to make governance a matter of religion (The Splendid Pearls, part 14, p. 124).

Clerics’ letters in later years reveal a deep frustration with the Saudi state’s divergence from Wahhabi principles and the rift between the two sides widened. Saudi rulers insisted on keeping the source of religious legitimacy within the popular environment that supports their rule, namely Najd. At the same time, they faced tremendous challenges imposed by modernity, such as borrowing systems and legislation not derived directly from the Quran and the Sunnah (the teachings and practices of Prophet Mohammad). The clerics considered this a violation of their sovereign domain, since legislation is their prerogative. This prompted the Grand Mufti and head judge during King Faisal’s rule, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Ibrahim al-Sheikh, to write a letter on the arbitration of the laws (Mecca 1960) which stated: “He who governs by other than what God revealed is a disbeliever, either disbelief (kufr) of opinion that expels one from the religion or disbelief of action that does not expel one from the religion.”

The former mufti, Sheikh Abdelaziz bin Baz (1999) was asked: “Are rulers who govern by other than what God revealed disbelievers? He replied: He who governs by other than what God revealed believes it is better than God’s law and is therefore a disbeliever (The Compiled Edicts of Sheikh Abdelaziz bin Baz, 4th volume, p. 416).

Students of Sheikh bin Baz and those who came after them, especially jihadis in al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), understood from these edicts that the Saudi regime is at the forefront of the regimes targeted by the edicts of the two clerics, ibn Ibrahim and bin Baz. These edicts set the ground for declaring the Saudi state a “disbeliever” since it applied secular laws in the courts.

The first dispute between the House of Saud and their popular base manifested itself in the conflict between ibn Saud and his ideological army represented by the Ikhwan about keeping the operational authority of the Wahhabi ideological vision based on takfir (disbelief), hijra (exile or emigration) and jihad open. They criticized him because he “neglected the obligation of jihad” and introduced innovations (bidah) like the wireless and the telegraph into the land of Islam.

The Battle of Sabilla in 1929 between ibn Saud and the Ikhwan was a confrontation between the modernizing Saudi state and the guardians of Wahhabism in its original version. The Ikhwan were defeated with British military support and their remnants were accommodated inside state institutions.

There was another attempt in the mid-1960s by young men, some of whom were descendants from members of the Ikhwan. They established a proselytizing group that called itself Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Group That Commands Right and Forbids Wrong) and chose the previous mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz bin Baz as their guide. The leaders of the group soon developed their ideas and methods into a religious and political vision and moved from the stage of peaceful proselytizing to a stage of armed confrontation, not only to re- “Wahhabize” the Saudi state but to transition to an advanced stage of global conflict. The confrontation culminated in the outbreak of a Mahdist rebel movement inside the Grand Mosque in November 1979 under the leadership of Juhayman al-Otaybi who was killed with his followers and the movement failed to achieve its goals.

Juhayman’s letters have become an essential component of jihadi salafi literature represented currently in al-Qaeda and ISIS. Juhayman defined the function of the Muslim ruler in the letter on principality, allegiance, obedience and discussed how the rulers deceived scholars and common people. He wrote: “The duty of the ruler is to establish Shariah (Islamic Law),” otherwise, “he would have strayed from the path of God...”

Juhayman believed that the situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “obstructs governance based on the book of God.” According to Sheikh Mohammed ibn Ibrahim and Sheikh bin Baz, a ruler that does that is considered a disbeliever.

Juhayman died but his ideas persisted and continue to influence much of Wahhabi society. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, an oppositional movement from within Wahhabi society emerged that was later known as the Awakening (sahwa) movement under the leadership of clerics from the second class of Wahhabi hierarchy in Saudi Arabia such as Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Oudah, Nasser al-Omar, Ayed al-Qarni, Adel al-Kalbani and others. They flooded the local scene with speeches of protest against the legal violations of the Saudi regime in light of what was stated in Juhayman’s letters.

Issuing the Memorandum of Advice in July 1992, signed by 108 clerics, judges, preachers, religious university professors, academics, doctors, engineers and other adherents of the Wahhabi religious movement, is considered the peak of the Wahhabi protest movement in the Kingdom. The signatories asked for the re-Islamization of the Saudi state based on the teachings of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Wahhab. The main demand in the memorandum was: “The necessity of trying and adjudicating through the law of God in all the affairs of the individual, family and state, in the relationship of the Islamic nation to the state and in the relationship of the state and the nation to other states and nations...” In going back to al-Qaeda’s literature, it will appear that the Awakening legacy, especially in relation to Saudi Arabia, formed the intellectual and political background for jihadi salafi organizations in the Arabian Peninsula associated with al-Qaeda and was automatically and smoothly incorporated into ISIS’ ideology.

It is necessary to note that ISIS’ ideology is not different from the ideology of any Jihadi Salafi or Awakening organization. A quick return to the doctrinal teachings on ISIS’ websites will reveal the ideological identity of the group. Needless to say, the writings of Mohammed bin Abdel Wahhab such as The Book of the Unity of God, Clarification of the Doubts, Nullifiers of Islam and others are distributed in the areas under ISIS’ control and are taught and explained in private religious classes that the organization’s educational department holds.

In addition, whoever reads the biographies of members of the leadership class in the organization the Islamic State of Iraq and later ISIS or the Islamic State (IS) will easily find that these people absorbed the Wahhabi doctrine and mastered all its details. As a matter of fact, their biographers emphasize the statement “he follows the teachings of the predecessors (Salaf),” in other words, he upholds the Wahhabi-Hanbali doctrine. This is what we read in the biographies of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, his successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former War Minister Abu Hamza al-Muhajir al-Masri, Information Minister and official spokesperson of the Kingdom Abu Mohammed al-Adnani al-Shami and others.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the first prince of the faithful in the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, formulated for instance the principles of his prospective state and they were Salafi-Wahhabi in nature. He is the one who devised the document introducing the State’s ideology. Among its goals is establishing the religion and disseminating monotheism “which is the purpose of creating people and calling for Islam...” This is the formulation found in Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab’s letters and the interpretations of the Book of the Unity of God by Wahhabi clerics.

ISIS’s project therefore is nothing more than reviving the Wahhabism of the founding generation and this worries the House of Saud because, this time, reforming the Wahhabi project comes from outside the Saudi state and undercuts its legitimacy.

Like all Salafi-Wahhabi organizations, declaring the other a disbeliever, whether he is Muslim or a Person of the Book, has become a well-established feature of ISIS’ doctrine. Simply put, that is because the rigid characteristics expected in a Muslim person, according to the vision presented by these organizations, apply only to the adherents of Wahhabism. Interestingly, ISIS’ leadership adhered to Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab’s logic when it accused him of being too indulgent in declaring transgressors disbelievers. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi says about the state’s ideology in his speech on March 13, 2007 entitled, “Say I am Aware of the Lord”: “People have thrown many lies at us that have no basis in our faith. They claimed that we declare ordinary Muslims disbelievers and consider their blood and money permissible for us.”

When he denied the accusation, Baghdadi first resorted to Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab’s teachings in declaring the other a disbeliever but in an indirect way. When we go back to the works of Wahhabism on disbelief, we find that Baghdadi is nothing more than an emulator who repeats Wahhabi arguments about the issue.

The principles of the state as defined by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi are almost literally copied from Wahhabi sources such as “the need to demolish and remove all manifestations of polytheism and prohibit its ways...,” “whoever utters the two testimonies, shows us Islam and does not commit one of the nullifiers of Islam, we will treat him as a Muslim...,” “there are two kinds of disbelief, major and minor” and “the need to resort to the law of God through seeking adjudication in the Islamic courts of the Islamic state and to look for them if we do not know of them because resorting to the idolatry of secular laws, tribal adjudication and so on is one of the nullifiers of Islam…”

The last point seems clear in that whoever seeks arbitration in courts other than those of the Islamic state commits one of the nullifiers of Islam and therefore becomes a disbeliever. That means that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are disbelievers because they seek adjudication in spaces other than an Islamic state’s courts.

In conclusion, ISIS, based on the aforementioned information, is one of the most indulgent takfiri groups in issuing declarations of disbelief. So much so, that you barely find a Muslim outside of ISIS. This represents a faithful commitment to the early Wahhabi vision.

From savagery to empowerment

Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ theorists formulate a comprehensive strategy for change that consists of three stages. They are vexation and exhaustion, savagery and empowerment (establishing the state). The savagery stage includes many tasks such as boosting the state of faith to fattract people to the ranks of the workers “by sending a messenger from the organization to the administration in charge of adjacent areas to call on them to pledge allegiance to the people of monotheism and jihad...” (Abi Bakr Naji, Management of Savagery, a series of articles in the jurisprudence of change, the first part of the series The Masterpiece of the Monotheists on the Way to Empowerment, The Center of Islamic Studies and Research, p. 47).

In the end, the strategy of jihadi salafism is based on a doctrinal vision and this is reflected in its conception of the battle. “Our battle is a battle of monotheism against disbelief and faith against polytheism. It is not an economic, political or social battle...” (A. Naji, Management of Savagery, ibid P. 112).

Abi Bakr Naji draws an idealistic image of the obligations of the management of savagery including, establishing Islamic courts among those living in the areas of savagery and disseminating the science of Islamic jurisprudence and worldly knowledge. The characteristics of the stage of savagery are similar to the characteristics of the religious principality that Mohammad ibn Abdel Wahhab established in al-Dariah, in the center of Najd, when he implemented his stringent religious vision in managing people’s affairs, enforcing Islamic law, establishing prescribed punishment (hadd) and collecting money from almsgiving and spoils.

Therein lies the danger for Saudi Arabia which represents Wahhabism, the ideology that legitimizes it, as ISIS adopts a global project that Wahhabism tried to achieve from the mid-eighteenth century until the end of the 1930s. It was, however, abolished because Abdelaziz al-Saud succumbed to the rules of the international system at the time.

The establishment of an Islamic state according to the Wahhabi doctrinal vision, represents a serious threat to Saudi Arabia which seeks to undermine any internationalist project that might reach within its borders. As a matter of fact, ISIS is the operational alternative to al-Qaeda network which is losing its branches in favor of the Islamic State. The latter is no longer restricted to Iraq and Syria but is rather geographically open. Every place that falls under its control becomes part of its sovereignty.

Abu Mohammed al-Adani gives a special definition of the state saying: “The Islamic state did not exist in the past or in modern times except to achieve this goal, namely, prompting all people to become monotheists and appealing to God’s law for adjudication in order to become one nation...”

In other words the Islamic State is a state of war. It derives its existence and legitimacy from an ideology of conquest, that is, conflict with other countries. With feud and hostility between them, the Islamic State wants to rule by the sword to implement Islamic law.

That is why we notice how the project of IS developed from being only for Iraq, and specifically for the Sunnis of Iraq, when the Islamic State of Iraq was declared in October 2006. Then it expanded to include Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 9, 2013 and finally it became an Islamic caliphate, which is geographically open, adopting the name the Islamic State in June 29, 2014.

To understand the IS’ goals, we must go back to the speech of the previous leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, in the context of outlining the gains of the state’s mujahideen four years after its birth. He said: “In a record period, a generation of young men were trained based on the forgotten doctrine of loyalty and disavowal.” This doctrine can not be implemented except in the presence of a group. The justification is that “the group is the practical embodiment of the reality of loyalty and disavowal in Islam. The association of believers with one group after their association with monotheism embodies this faith in real life.” The Islamic state then is a proselytizing state that has nothing to do with the concept of the state as we know it.

In light of this hyper ideologization of the state, we find ourselves in front of the pure Wahhabi vision devised by Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab when he established a religious principality to serve as a basis to launch the Islamic caliphate built on monotheism, loyalty, disavowal, exile and jihad.

There is a great deal of significance in the call that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made in his sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul on July 4 to all Muslims to join the IS and emigrate to it: “O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing emigration (hijrah) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because emigration to the land of Islam is obligatory... So rush, O Muslims, with your religion to God as emigrants (muhajirin).”

The phrase “emigration to the land of Islam is obligatory..” is enough to uncover a doctrinal truth about Baghdadi and his followers. The mere fact of calling for emigration means that there is a land of polytheists that one should emigrate from to another place like the Prophet’s emigration from Mecca to the Medina. For emigration to be obligatory means that religious legitimacy is restricted to the geographical scope of the IS governed by Baghdadi. Here, we recall Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdel Wahhab’s experience when he moved from al-Ayinah to al-Dariah in the center of Najd and called on his supporters to emigrate to al-Dariah considering it the home of Islam and emigration to it therefore obligatory. Everywhere else automatically becomes the home of disbelief.

Saudi Arabia within the target range of IS

Saudi Arabia became part of a group of countries – that includes Jordan, the countries of North Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen – nominated to fall within the scope of savagery. They have geographical depth and the kind of topography that allows the establishment of areas governed by the management of savagery. In addition to factors like a weak ruling regime, weak military presence in remote areas, a promising Jihadi Islamist presence, the nature of the people in these areas and the ubiquitous presence of weapons among people. (A. Naji, The Way of Empowerment, ibid pp.8-9).

It is important to point out that the stage of managing savagery paves the way for the stage of empowerment. Including Saudi Arabia within the strategy of change means that ISIS is preparing to fulfill the deferred Wahhabi promise of establishing the caliphate.

A lot of people close to the Saudi regime rejoiced over ISIS’ control of Mosul and its expansion into other Iraqi provinces. Some of them went as far as to describe ISIS’ fighters as “revolutionaries” and to consider what ISIS did as a “liberation movement”. Suddenly, however, the public mood changed dramatically once IS was announced and there was talk of its expansion into the south where the Arabian Peninsula is.

The Saudi authorities were surprised by the level of support for IS among the popular Wahhabi base, to the extent that electronic campaigns were simultaneously launched that praised the State and pledged allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Saudi Arabia discovered that there is an ISIS society dwelling in the midst of the Wahhabi society that it thought it managed and controlled. The House of Saud noted that a Wahhabi resurgence was launched from outside the border this time and it represents the biggest and most dangerous threat faced by the Saudi regime since its inception.

The danger of IS stems from the fact that it embraces the same doctrinal claims and it preaches the same religious teachings formulated by the founder Mohammad ibn Abdel Wahhab. In addition, it carries within its folds a promise delayed for two centuries, namely, establishing an Islamic state and succeeding at a time when the clerics of Wahhabism and the Ikhwan, the Juhayman movement, the Awakening clerics, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other individual and collective efforts failed.

The House of Saud fought the religious regimes that emerged after the Arab Spring. They allocated a huge budget to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt in order to prevent the emergence of a model of Islamic rule that competes with and undermines the legitimacy of the Saudi regime. But there appeared from within the Wahhabi arena people who carry a competing project and who have inflammatory ideas, religious justifications, military and human power that make them a potential alternative in a divided environment. This was revealed by the calls made by young people on social networking sites to the prince of the faithful of the Islamic State to come to the Hijaz and liberate Mecca from the House of Saud.

Fouad al-Ibrahim is a researcher and political activist in Saudi Arabia.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Why are you trying to confuse the masses through deceit? We all knows Saudi are the one who sponsored Wahabism world wide and clandestine finance radicalism through covert channels.

The problem is that most of the muslims today do not know that Wahabbism was declared a bidaa by all the scholars of their time. The argument presented by the scholars of their time was that Wahhabis take Quran verses that were revealed for non-muslims and apply them to muslims. The Wahhabism is the biggest bidaa of muslim history so far. It is not a coincidence that they helped destroy the Ottoman Khalifate and are helping destroy muslim population and the essence of Islamic civilization. The west should thank the Wahhabis for being such good allies.

This article does not explain why these so-called Muslims (Wahhabis) are armed by the West and are being used by it to destroy specifically countries that are against the hegemonic policy of the west. They serve even more of a servant to the West than Zionist Arabia itself.

This is a great article and dismantles some of the lazy stereotypical tropes about Saudi Arabia sadly being circulated around the Western media suggesting a direct link between the ruling monarchy and Islamic State - ignoring both the longer term historical context of Wahabbi/Salafism as well as more recent events in Saudi Arabia.

Ikhwan is not the Muslim Brotherhood and should
be differentiated.

Thank you very much for your comment. You are correct and it has been changed accordingly. Regards.

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