A madrasa or religious school in Kattankudy: Many Muslims here follow the traditional Islam recognized by the All Ceylon Jammiyyatul Ulema. AFP
As investigations continue into the gruesome terror attack on April 21 Easter Sunday, with the people asking questions as to what drove the terrorists to commit this heinous crime on the innocent people, Wahhabism is often cited as the basis for the terror ideology.
But as blameworthy as the terror ideology is the monumental blunder -- the authorities’ failure to act upon the intelligence they had received from India.
While the colossal failure raises questions on the involvement of deep state or external elements, little is known about the outcome of the committee President Maithripala Sirisena appointed to go into the aspects that led to the massacre. One wonders whether there will be anything on Wahhabism or any other jihadi ideology in the committee’s final report.
Whenever a terrorist attack is carried out by a jihadi group, many assume that the problem begins and ends with Wahhabism. Without understanding what Wahhabism is all about and how it has evolved into different versions today, they project it as an evil ideology that is hell bent on promoting violent jihad to kill or convert the non-Muslims. They are only partly correct.
In the wake of the Easter Sunday massacres, the eastern city of Kattankudy was sullied as the hotbed of Wahhabism, whereas a majority of its people call themselves Sunnath Jamath Muslims who follow the guidelines of the Colombo-based All Ceylon Jammiyyathul Ulema.
Of Kattankudy’s nearly 70 mosques, perhaps only about 12 are identified as Thowheed mosques.
But all Thowheed mosques do not follow Wahhabism. Thowheed Jamath adherents would say they are not blind followers of any ‘isms’ or imams. They insist that to define what Islam is, they do their own research, perusing the Quran and what they claim to be ‘authentic’ Ahadeeth.
Thowheed groups and the Wahhabis promote monotheism with equal zeal. While the Wahhabis follow the Hambali school of thought, the Thowheed groups do not identify with any of Sunni Islam’s four schools of thought – the Shafis, the Hanafis, the Malikis and the Hambalis. This position brings the Thowheed groups closer to Salafism, which is also blamed for the so-called jihadi violence.
To understand Salafism, we need to understand Wahhabism, which emerged as a reform movement in the late 18th century. Founded by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, it flourished in the Najd province of the Arabian Peninsula. His reforms were aimed at reviving monotheism— Thowheed — and cleansing Islam from superstitions and new rituals introduced largely by Sufis and their blind followers. He saw ignorant Muslims becoming saint worshippers, instead of supplicating directly to Allah. He had the support of a powerful tribal leader, Muhammad bin Saud. Together, they established an emirate in Diriyah, close to Riyadh, with the aim of bringing the Arabs of the peninsula back to the “true” principles of Islam.
Abdul Wahhab was greatly influenced by the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century Islamic scholar who lived through the holocaust the Mongolian invaders under Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, brought upon the Muslim world. Though Ibn Taymiyyah was a reformist, he was less tolerant of Islam’s other strains, especially the Sufism, the Shiism and the Alawism. The problem with Ibn Taymiyyah and Abdul Wahhab is that they did not adopt intellectualism as a methodology to prove their point. Instead, they justified violence. At least, in Ibn Taymiyya’s case, violence was promoted in the context of the geopolitical upheaval that engulfed the then Muslim world.
It is said in 1802; ten years after Abdul Wahhab’s death, a Wahhabi army marched into Karbala in Iraq and ransacked the gravesite of the prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein, who is revered by the Sunnis and the Shiites alike. The Wahhabi soldiers killed thousands whom they condemned as ‘grave worshippers’. The Ottoman caliph saw the rise of Wahhabism as a rebellion and wanted it crushed. In 1811, the task was given to Muhammad Ali Pasha, the caliph’s viceroy in Egypt. The war went on for seven years. In 1818, Ibrahim, the son of Muhammad Ali, defeated the rebel emirate of Diriyah. Its emir Abdullah ibn Saud was sent to Istanbul where he was executed
by the Ottomans.
The Ottomans believed Abdul Wahhab was a British spy and he was working for them to destablise the Ottoman caliphate. Decades later the Ibn Sauds were to betray the Ottoman Caliph again -- this time decisively turning the tide of World War I in favor the Western powers led by Britain. The Arab rebellion eventually ended the Ottoman caliphate.
The Middle East was carved up and among the new states that were created by Britain and France in terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was Saudi Arabia. Abdul Azeez Ibn Saud became the country’s first king. Like his forefathers, he adopted Wahhabism as state religion.
In the meantime, Salafism emerged as a reform movement in the late 19th century. Initially, Salafism was a name given to the modernists. The name is derived from the term Salaf as-Saliheen or the righteous predecessors. These modernists promoted religious freedom, inter-faith dialogue and emulating the West in science and technological development. Among the famous modern Salafists were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdul and Rashid Riza. They deplored the blind acceptance of traditional doctrines and customs and called for the revival of the pristine faith as practised by the early Muslims in a bid to regain the glory of the Muslim world.
But in parallel to this movement, conservative Salafist groups also emerged. They saw the West as a problem and promoted their interpretation of Islam as a response to end Western imperialism and prevent the diffusion of what they called the ‘decadent’ Western culture into the Muslim world. They became more popular while al-Afghani’s and Abduh’s rationalist Salafism gradually lost its sheen.
Like the Wahhabis, the conservative Salafists are also zealous promoters of Thowheed or monotheism and vehement opponents of bid’ ah or any innovation in religion, while they also disapprove Shi’ism and Sufism. They are accused of relying heavily on the literal meaning of the Quranic verses and the Prophetic sayings while paying less attention to the spiritual meaning.
Today there exist may Salafi movements and analysts have identified three main categories: the quietists, the activists and the jihadists.
A vast majority of the Salafis are either quietists -- scholarly Salafists -- or political activists (like the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt). These versions are spreading fast across the Muslim world. The adherents of the dangerous version -- jihadi Salafism -- form only a small minority and they include terror groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab. Many Muslims believe these groups are handled by one intelligence agency or another.
Famous Salafi Imams such as Sheikh Nasiruddin Albani, Sheikh Muhammad bin al-Uthaymeen and Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Baz are promoters of non-violence. They have declared suicide bombing as unislamic and sinful. Condemning suicide bombings, ibn Uthaymeen wrote a book titled ‘The Suicide Bomber is not a Martyr and is in Hellfire.’
But the jihadi Salafis have denounced these respected Salafi scholars as Shiekhists – meaning they have become vassals of oil sheikhs.
To combat the spread of violent Salafism or Wahhabism, in countries such as Britain, the mainstream Salafis have at times been encouraged to play a part in countering terrorism. Perhaps, Sri Lanka can think about this, as the saying goes, we need a thorn to remove a thorn.