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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Origins of Wahhabism and Salafism 

Since September 11, many people have tried to get a handle on the sources of Islamic terrorism.

Several assertions have become common around dinner tables, water coolers and weblogs around the world. And although these opinions are often informed by a level of research and thought, the Muslim world is extremely complex, leading to assumptions that are sometimes half true, and sometimes outright wrong.

For example, take the following assumptions:
It was with these myths about Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and Terrorism in mind that I wrote the article, Understanding the Origins of Wahhabism and Salafism, which has recently been published in the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor.

In this article, I show (contrary to common perceptions even amongst some Muslims) that Salafism and Wahhabism started independently as quite different movements in different places. Salafism was an Egyptian-centred movement that attempted to reconcile Islam with Modernism, whereas Wahhabism was a Najdi (now part of Saudi Arabia) movement that rejected modernity outright.

The most important Salafis, from Muhammad 'Abduh through Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and MB ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb and his brother Muhammad Qutb, and later terrorist leaders such as Salih Serriya, Umar Abd al-Rahman and Abdullah Azzam, have been educationalists. It is a little recognised fact that education and public services have remained a major plank of Salafi ideology - not just for moderate Salafis, but for the radical takfiris as well.

While more moderate Salafis saw education as a way of gradually awakening the whole society to Salafi Islam, takfiris inspired by Sayyid Qutb saw education as a way of awakening a revolutionary vanguard.

In Egypt under the monarchy, pan-Islamist Salafism and secular pan-Arabism had been close to each other. The Salafis saw pan-Arabism as a step towards the goal of pan-Islamic unity. However, the Muslim Brotherhood fell out of favour with the pan-Arabists in the early 1950s, soon after the Free Officers' Coup.

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia gave santuary to the Muslim Brotherhood dissidents in Saudi Arabia, and allowed them to teach in the new Universities. This policy was based on quite rational considerations, as it resolved both a foreign and a domestic policy crisis in one move. However, it also fundamentally changed the Saudi religious doctrine, and submerged it as a hybrid theology, a sub-category of Salafism. A generation of Saudi graduates was taught this 'official' ideology by Salafi teachers.

Despite the essential rationality of the policy, Faisal, and later Khalid, had been too indiscriminate in the range of Salafis they had allowed into Saudi Arabia. Some of the most important mentors of today's terrorists were teaching in Jeddah in the late 1970s, among them Muhammad Qutb, Maulana Maududi, Abd al-Rahman and Azzam. They 'awakened a revolutionary vanguard' in Saudi Arabia, the solid foundation (al-Qaedat al-Sulbah) for the predicted future Islamic state.

Saudi Arabia has since moved against the takfiris such as al-Qaeda, and confines its funding of Salafism to a those Salafis who condemn the radical tendency in Salafism. The result is a profusion of Salafi groups (often going by the name Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, People of the Prophetic Tradition and the Muslim Community) which accuse each other of not being real Salafis.

Neither regime change in Saudi Arabia nor simply increasing the quantity of education are panaceas for the Middle East. It was education by the wrong people that got us into this mess, and the Saudi monarchy is on the right side of a battle within Salafism.

To find out more, please read the article at Jamestown's web site.
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