Toward A Better Understanding of Muslim Sectarian Division (Part X)

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

المسجد النبويEverything we have learned about Hanbali extremism pales in comparison with the work of Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 C.E.), who took Hanbali extremist teachings to the highest levels of intolerance that essentially classified much of conventional Muslim practices as acts of shirk (associating other deities with God) and kufr (unbelief).  Ibn Taymiyya made a name for himself by attacking the Shia, the Ash’aris, the Mu’tazila, the philosophers, the Sufis (or most of them), the Jews, and the Christians.  Even practices that are conventional to almost all Muslims, such as traveling to visit the tomb of the Prophet, Ibn Taymiyya considered them violations of the faith and a form of shirk.  Similarly, he went in his rivalry with the Shia to the point that he expressed opinions about their first Imam and highest symbol Ali ibn Abi Talib that are inconsistent with the general Muslim beliefs about Ali. It is safe to say that Ibn Taymiyya went out of his way to challenge the almost unanimous views on Ali’s excellence and, at one point, he expressed doubt in the validity of Ali’s first acceptance of Islam.  He also went many extra miles in praising Ali’s enemies, most notably Mu’awiya.  Ibn Taymiyya’s opinions about Ali were so negative that he was put on trial for them by his contemporary Sunni scholars and was described by some leading Muslim jurists as a hypocrite (munafiq), as prominent Sunni scholar Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani stated.

Ibn Taymiyya was also known for his extremism in claiming a monopoly on the truth and whenever he made an argument he would use the statement ajma’a ahlu al-ilm… (scholars unanimously said…).  This claim involved an obvious problem: (1) scholars hardly ever made an argument unanimously.  Therefore, he dismissed all those who disagreed with his preferred argument as non-scholars.  For him, the holders of an extremist argument represent a unanimity, whether they were a few or many.  This method of exclusive claim to the truth is commonplace among the followers of Ibn Taymiyya nowadays.

Ibn Tymiyya lived in Damascus during the Mamluk era, when the Levant was united with Egypt.  The general religious environment in Damascus was Shafi’i, while Ibn Taymiyya and his fellow Hanbalis were a minority.  His anthropomorphism (claiming that God has a body and limbs, and He sits on a throne and moves from one location to another, etc) was another important reason for his prosecution and a cause for the writing of many books to refute his opinions.  He ultimately was imprisoned for life and died in jail.  Both in Ibn Taymiyya’s time and following his death, it was considered a crime to publicly espouse his opinions, but when the Saudi monarchy was established, his extremist ideology was resurrected (as we will see shortly) and his fatwas were compiled in more than 30 volumes, published at Saudi government expense for free distribution, and made a basis of the Wahhabi-Saudi state religion, referring to him by the hefty title Sheikh Al-Islam.

Just like reducing most of Muslim jurisprudence into the aberrant opinions of Ibn Taymiyya, the Saudi monarchy put another religious fanatic on a large pedestal, Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab (d. 1791 C.E.), whose name and opinions became the state religion of the Saudi monarchy since its inception in the eighteenth century.  The family of Al Saud found in the fatwas of Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab, which are based on the ideology of Ibn Taymiyya, all they needed to subjugate the Arabian Peninsula in the name of jihad and Islam.  All those who were not under the Saudi authority were deemed unbelievers unless they surrendered and adhered to Wahhabism, otherwise, they would be killed to a man, their women and children would be taken into slavery, and their property became spoils of war, no matter what kind of religiosity they practiced.

When they invaded a Shia community, the Wahhabis took a particular interest in committing a systematic genocide.  In 1802, for instance, the Wahhabis attacked the Shia holy city, Karbala, in one of their murderous waves and committed heinous atrocities against the defenseless community on the watch of the Ottoman administration of Iraq.  It is unclear whether the Ottomans were unable to defend the city or they simply looked the other way.  But be that as it may, let us see how the Wahhabi historian Uthman ibn Abdullah ibn Bishr proudly described the massacre:

“The Muslims [i.e. the Wahhabis] scaled the walls, entered the city by force and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes.  Then they destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Ḥusayn by those who believe in such things… They took everything they found in town: different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qurʾan, as well as much else – more than can be enumerated.”

By the time the Saudi monarchy established its political authority and imposed the Wahhabi religion over the Arabian Peninsula, the number of casualties were more than 400,000 people between dead and injured, and they administered more than 40,000 public executions.  They also destroyed all the religious shrines everywhere they took control, simply because their theology, as articulated by Ibn Taymiyya and adopted by Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab, prohibited the construction of shrines and considered visiting the graves a form of associating other deities with God (shirk).

Despite all such coercive measures and extremely harsh treatment of opponents, Wahhabism failed in two and a half centuries to make itself the religion of the majority of the people in Saudi Arabia – Wahhabis are estimated at 25% of the population.  However, the Wahhabi thought met some success in the West and some communities in South Asia, with the help of billions of petrodollars the Saudi government spent on mosques, schools (madrassas), relief organizations, charities, and aid to governments that accepted to allow Wahhabi proselytization.  This expansion of Wahhabism in communities with limited access to sources of mainstream Muslim theology and jurisprudence became the genesis of extremist and terrorist ideologies that came in full swing in the past decade or so, from Al-Qa’eda, to its off-shoots, such as the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

To be sure, the first waves of Wahhabi expansion worldwide did not involve any practical anti-Western manifestations.   In fact, it was working toward goals not different from the Western international worldview, the most important of which was the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the struggle against communism and nationalist political movements which were not on good terms with the West.  By contrast, the Wahhabis were very friendly to the pro-Western monarchies in the Gulf.  But all this changed completely after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as the extremist movements ran out of anti-Western targets, so they turned against the West as their next enemy, as we will see in the next article.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

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