The Intersection of Wahhabism and Jihad

By Mohammed Al Jarman - 06 July 2017

Mohammed Al Jarman explores the evolution of Wahhabism and its intersection with Jihad through its source material. This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.


This paper is an attempt to outline the different paths Wahhabism has taken and examine how they intersect with the global Jihad phenomenon.

It argues that Wahhabism is not a monolithic vision, but is in fact comprised of three distinct tracks which have in turn produced multiple currents and sub-currents. A fuller appreciation of these dynamics is crucial to developing an understanding of the complex relationship between Wahhabism and the global Jihadi movement.

Wahhabism’s three tracks can be described as the academic, the historical and the inherited track. Each path had a distinct evolutionary momentum and would inevitably clash with the others later on.

There have been previous attempts to differentiate between the original Wahhabi school and the contemporary Saudi clerical establishment. In this article however, a more detailed map of Wahhabi branches is drawn with a view to drawing clear distinctions between these tracks. The construction of this intra-ideological taxonomy makes it easier to understand the contradictory behavior among many Wahhabis and the connection of Wahhabism to Islamic groups, the Saudi government and the wider world.

This taxonomic approach also applies to understanding the story of the Egyptian and global Jihadis; namely which direction each has taken; where they intersect; how they exchanged intellectual concepts and military, political and media experiences. Furthermore, this approach enables a comparative study of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the context of their respective relationships with Wahhabi ideology. It finds that Wahhabism on its own would not have created a Jihadi movement and that the expansion of global Jihad is connected more to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, US support for repressive Arab regimes and the over-protection of Israel, than it is to Wahhabi dogma.

Since the emergence of al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State”, there has been an explosion of interest in the role of “Wahhabi” thought in the formation, evolution and legitimization of the Jihadi trend.  Interest in the ideological roots of the Jihadi trends started at the beginning of the 1990s, but the insistence on linking Jihad to Wahhabism only came after the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks. This grew even more following the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

The debate, however, has been overshadowed by two complex obstacles which either forced researchers astray or propelled them toward hasty conclusions. The first of these was the dearth of information available to scholars. The second is the immense political and sectarian pressure that impacted heavily on academic objectivity and neutrality. Hence, some researchers adopted a non-evidenced based approach and jumped to conclusions to satisfy academic requirements in this field.

Information on these topics does exist, it is just in a raw form that requires effort to extricate. Most Wahhabi literature and commentary on the Wahhabi movement and the First and Second Saudi States, and the beginning of the Third Saudi State, is in Arabic. Most of what is written on these subjects in English is either deficient or prejudiced.

What compounded this effect was the non-academic, commercial publishing world, including newspapers and books, which tends to lack discipline and scrutiny. The proliferation of commercial or quasi-academic products and commentary on al-Qaeda and Bin Laden poses a wide range of challenges to the integrity of academic research. These challenges are compounded by the fact some publications became best sellers.

Furthermore, researchers found themselves grappling with sectarian and political issues, brought to bear by strong forces working in the background. One such force is Iran which, due to its antagonistic attitude towards Wahhabism has spared no effort in drawing a structural relationship between Wahhabism and the Jihadi tendencies. Saudi Arabia has also expended great effort to exonerate its religious institutions, and thereby the Wahhabist school, from such a relationship. It is not surprising, therefore, that these two states, given their enormous resources, would throw their financial, political, and public relations services behind their respective agendas. The impact of their efforts would eventually prove to be tremendous on the neutrality and integrity of academic works.  Both Iranian and Saudi authorities have great experience in manipulating the media and academic worlds.  Many institutions claim immunity from political influence, but these countries are adept at methods which can deceive even the most vigilant institutions. The influence of foreign governments on research centers has often been reported in the media.

To maintain an academic standard one must consider these two challenges. Dealing with the first challenge mandates going directly to the original sources, be they books, personal documents, reports or oral narrations. As for the second, it is important to conduct a study of the forms, fundamental tenets and evolution of Wahhabism independent of the Jihadi movement.

Only by studying the two tracks independently, noting the points of contact and influence can we understand the multi-level cross-pollination of these two trends and reach an objective conclusion.

History of Wahhabism

Wahhabism is a term given to a religious trend or school which appeared in the eighteenth century in the central Arabian Peninsula, led by Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulwahhab (M.B.A.) (1703 – 1791). This trend gave rise, in 1744, to what was known as the First Saudi State which continued until 1818 when it was brought down by an Egyptian invasion supported by the Ottoman empire. The Wahhabi ideas, teachings and culture, however, outlived the Saudi State, and its influence expanded with time. This was due to the spread of the writings and teachings of M.B.A. and the spread of his students and followers, both contemporaneously and then across the generations.

Supporters of M.B.A. claim that his primary motivation was the perceived departure from Islam and the pollution of its teaching with heretic innovations. He launched a social campaign, starting with a call on people to return to the basic first principles of Islam. He later succeeded in convincing a local chief (Ibn Saud) to adopt his message which transformed the plan into a full-scale expansionist political program, historically known as the First Saudi State. The Saudi State authority spread through the use of force upon all of Arabia.  

This was accompanied by immense theological-oriented educational activities by M.B.A. and his students and followers. The intellectual influence spilled beyond Arabia to Iraq and the Levant and other parts of the Muslim World, including far-flung areas such as India and the Maghreb. This influence followed three tracks each differing in their nature, process of expansion and ideological substance.  

The first track: Wahhabi academic discourse

This refers to the bulk of literature produced by M.B.A. and the subsequent writings, commentaries and addition supplied by his students and followers. This was the most effective track and most widely spread owing to the support and services of the Salafi schools in the Muslim world generally. The books themselves deal with fundamental questions such as the basic tenets of the faith, the concept of Tawheed (the oneness of God), Muslims’ attitude towards non-Muslims, the stance of the Islamic state towards non-Muslim states and entities, Takfir (expulsion from Islam), the nature and sources of Islamic law, the importance of upholding it and related issues.

These publications were collected in a series entitled Addorar Assaniyah. The most important works were Kitab Attawheed by MBA himself and Fathulmajid by his grandson ِAbdulrahman Bin Hassan.

This track does not, in fact, deviate a great deal from the so-called Salafism branch of mainstream Sunni Islam.  Although very close in terms of concepts and methodology, Wahhabism and Salafism are not synonymous as many researchers claim. In short, every Wahhabi is Salafi but not every Salafi is Wahhabi. Fathi al-Husan discussed Wahhabi-Salafi links at length in his book Alfikr Assiyasi Littayarat Assalafiyyah (Political Thought of Salafi trends).

This affinity meant Wahhabism was immensely helped by the Salafi movement in general and men like Sheikh Mohamed Ali Shawkani, a 19th century renowned scholar from Yemen, and Ahmed Erfan Al-Barawli, a 19th century Indian scholar in particular. Others in Mesopotamia and the Arab world led to the dissemination of the Wahhabi thought outside Arabia.  Among them was Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Ridha who ironically is considered a leading renaissance figure in the modern Arab world.

Wahhabism has spread most notably, however, in the wake of the contemporary influence of the present Saudi state and the establishment and growth of Saudi Islamic universities. Many non-Saudis flocked to study Islam in these universities from all over the world. In addition, Saudi religious authorities established and sponsored satellite universities in various parts of the world. Ordinary Saudi citizens contributed to this cause either as individuals or as organised charities.

This academic discourse track of the Wahhabi movement benefitted indirectly from other Islamic movements that advocate the revival of Islamic identity and glory, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Such groups are in fact accused by the Wahhabis of being lax in upholding true Salafism, but both found themselves in the same trench against the “enemies of Islam such as communism, socialism, nationalism and liberalism. This undeclared accord was boosted by the large number of Brotherhood members who flocked en masse into Saudi Arabia to escape the tyranny of Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt in the 1960s.  The exodus of Brotherhood members to Saudi Arabia during the Nasser regime opened new channels of communication with Wahhabism, influencing Brotherhood programs as the Brotherhood found itself obliged to comply with the prevailing salafi trend.

More specific inspiration for the academic track however was the publication in the 1960s and 1970s of a series of books written by the Egyptian intellectual, writer and activist Sayyid Qutb, which were widely distributed all over the Arab world, including his most illustrious works: In the Shade of the Quran (1951-1965) and Milestones (1964). Scholars agree that these books have had a tremendous influence on all the Islamist and jihadist movements ever since.

Qutb neither used Wahhabi methodology nor referred to it, but focused on a number of central questions that coincided with issues dear to the Wahhabi cause. The only mention of Wahhabis in his writings was in an article he published in Arrisalah Magazine in 1952 in which he regarded  the destruction of Wahhabism by the Egyptian army as a cause of a 100 years delay in an Arab revival.

The main issues he rigorously and seriously tackled were those of Islamic identity, loyalty and the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims. He also addressed issues pertaining to the Shariah (Islamic principles of law), the necessity to refer to it as the supreme law and to reject any other system of legislation. Furthermore, he spoke of emulating the behavior of the Prophet Mohammed as the perfect individual role model and the first Islamic society as the ideal society.

Qutb also contended that although at a personal level present-day Muslims live according to Islam, at a social level they live a form of Jahilliyah i.e. an ignorant and non-Islamic way of life. This characterization is not at odds with the Wahhabi approach. In celebration of Sayyid Qutb’s work came this leaflet by Sheikh Bakr Abuzeid which was distributed manually in 1992 and later published online on bulletin boards.  It was also re-published following a rebuttal of Sayyid Qutb’s Ideology by Sheikh Rabie al-Mudkhali.

Sayyid Qutb was perhaps, inadvertently, most influential in adapting Wahhabism towards the Jihadi trend. Noted for his literary prowess, he redacted many principles and ideas using a modern style and made them more contemporary, accessible, and in line with present-day usage. Despite the universality of concepts such as identity, superiority and ascendency, their influence on Jihadis remained local and limited to Egypt. The transformation of these ideas into a Jihadi movement with a global outlook did not come to fruition until 1990.

There appears to have been two factors which prevented the Jihadi movement from becoming a global movement earlier, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Wahhabism. The first factor was the third Wahhabi track, (discussed below), which succeeded in taming academic Wahhabi discourse; the second was the emergence of a relatively docile groups within Saudi Arabia which integrated the Muslim Brotherhood’s and Wahhabist’s approaches. This hybrid approach pursued Wahhabi fervor in a peaceful and education-oriented fashion. Above all, it succeeded in assimilating and absorbing the enthusiasm of the youth. This amalgam is discussed by Stephane Lacroix in his book Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia.

The academic Wahhabi track might have been a strong factor in inspiring global Jihad but reference to its literature did not appear in the Jihadi movement’s writings until after its establishment. The Jihadi movement found what they were looking for in the Wahhabi-Qutb amalgam. Qutb provided the theoretical framework while the Wahhabis prepared the legal setting.

Thus, it seems, that the Jihadi mind was moulded into a more settled formula according to this Qutb-Wahhabi view, which in turn shaped its worldview of itself, other societies, authorities, Islam and the West. Understanding this complex integration and cross-pollination is crucial to understanding the Jihadi mentality.

Given that Qutb – perhaps unwittingly – created a coherent ideological framework for Wahhabist political concepts, it is a great irony that he is described as a heretic by one track of Wahhabism while another views him as a great scholar.

The second track: the Wahhabi historical record

This refers to real historical events in the first Saudi state as documented in two famous chronicles: Inwan Al-majd Fi Tarihk Najd (The History of Najd) by ibn Bishr and Tarikh Ibn Bisher (The History of Najd) by ibn Ghannam. These documents carefully record details of events, behavior, decisions and attitudes, together with the letters exchanged between M.B.A. and his military leaders and his enemies. Reading these reports and correspondences carefully, it becomes clear that the expansion of Takfir (excommunication) and the widespread and lax justification of homicide was the norm at the time. By contrast, the first academic track did not give enough clues as to the real situation on the ground as explained by Sheikh Hatim Aloni in this interview.

These chronicles were not widely distributed and remained strictly within the domain of researchers and historians until recently when interest grew as some researchers tried to link the practices documented in them to the practices of ISIS and other jihadi groups as explained in a series of lectures by the egyptian thinker Dr Mohamed Salim al-Awwa.

It was noted that the pattern documented in these chronicles was repeated at the establishment of the modern Saudi State when King Abdulaziz recruited “Ikhwan men Ta’allah” (The Brothers of Those Who Obeyed God), groups of Bedouin militia largely cut off from urban educated society, as warriors. Their story was extensively presented in Mohamed Jalal Kishk: Saudis and the Islamic Solution. These fighters were extremely preoccupied with Jihad and fighting for Islam and though they did not represent the bulk of the king’s army their practice was similar to the Saudi army in the First Saudi state. The King utilised them to expand his kingdom before he wiped them out in two famous battles: Sabillah and Umm Ridhmah.

Having eliminated the “Ikhwan men Ta’allah” the Arab and Muslim lands were expunged of this kind of Jihadi practice until the Grand Mosque seizure in 1979.  ِِAn armed cult stormed the Grand Mosque in Makkah and staged a sit-in. They claimed to be led by the Messiah, al-Mahdi, whose leadership would ensure the defeat of the Saudi regime.

This was a relatively small and parochial event, which while lasting only a few weeks, nevertheless had far-reaching repercussions, notably by forcing the Saudi authorities to radically review the Westernization program they had just embarked on. This group’s foundations and jurisprudence was not similar to the historic trend of the Wahhabis, but it left a psychological legacy and caused a cultural shock that paved the ground for the clash that came later between the first academic Wahhabi track and the third inherited Wahhabi track (see below) in Saudi Arabia.

This phenomenon recurred in the activities and behaviour of ISIS which is known for its laxity in relation to takfeer and the spilling of blood. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that the historic records themselves influenced or contributed to the formulation of ISIS’s behavior. There has to be another explanation for the similarity of these two models as we will see below.  ISIS was formed prior to the dissemination of these chronicles. ISIS supporters used second track literature retrospectively to justify and glorify their actions. Conversely, ISIS opponents used the same literature to demonize Wahhabism.

The third track: the inherited tradition of Wahhabism

This is a reference to the expansion of the Wahhabi school through the growth and the succession of generations of students and followers who claimed association with the Wahhabi school. Throughout the nineteenth century this track was similar to the first track and might even have been more extreme on issues relating to non-Muslims, non-Sunnis and the role of Sharia.

After the emergence of the third (current) Saudi state however, King Abdulaziz was able to contain the ulema and persuade them to amend their priorities to include issues such as social matters, the relationship of men and women, and personal behavior. Later kings succeeded in going further by making the job of Ulema to subjugate the public to their will and teach them to be totally obedient to them. In fact, Saudi Arabia has succeeded in inducing present-day Ulema to move away from defending the principles promoted by earlier generations of Wahhabi Ulema, opposing them without denigrating or in any way disparaging M.B.A. himself or the Ulema who came after him.

Doctrinally, although this third inherited track shares with the first academic track its approval for an unelected ruler (a well known school within the salafi trend), it differs from the first track in that it does not insist on the same conditions needed to legitimise his rule. The first track will accept an unelected ruler only on the condition that he guarantees the superiority of Shariaa, bases the state’s relations with other states on Islam, and prohibits by force any non-Islamic practice within his domain.

Despite its blatant abandoning of the original Wahhabi principles, proponents of the third inherited track still insist that they are the true inheritors of the Wahhabi school. They hit back at critics by pointing to the succession of students and the large number of descendants of MBA still in the front ranks of the movement, including the present Mufti of Saudi Arabia. Today’s official scholars in Saudi Arabia repeatedly claim that they are the natural and legitimate extension of the Wahhabi call and the most qualified to comment and explain its positions. This track is robustly supported by the Saudi authorities both inside and outside the country, through media, education, political and security resources, in addition to the repression of dissenters.The Saudi authorities have also persuaded other Arab and Muslim governments of the validity of this trend leading to its spread into a number of Arab countries under the name Jamyiah or Madkhaliyyah, after Mohamed Aman Jami and Rabi’ Al Madkhali who both upheld this trend with enthusiasm.

This approach does not pose any threat to Arab and Muslim governments or western governments for that matter. The opposite applies in so far as many of its followers have devoted their energies to supporting their governments with a view to combating Jihadi groups as well as non-violent movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. It is interesting to note that the US State Department often publishes statements and fatwas issued by eminent figures from the official Saudi school on its website and its Arabic Twitter handle.

Jihadi trends

Jihad did not take global shape until after 1990. It started in Arab countries as a national mission with an underlying religious spirit to fight the colonialist enemy and drive out the invader. The movement did not have a global agenda, plans for hegemony, nor Sharia domination. Moreover, it did not pose any challenge to super-powers. However, modern Jihad is completely different, in its inception, ideology and strategies.  The Urabi revolt in Egypt 1882, Rashid al Gilani in Iraq 1941, Al-Qassam in Palestine 1936, Prince Abdulqadir in Algeria 1832-1839, Omar Almukhtar in Libya 1911-1930 and Al Khuttabi in Maghreb 1921 - 1926 can all be considered as national revolts, albeit with an underlying Jihadi spirit.

The current Jihadi movement started as two independent trends both influenced by the salafi thought in general and Wahhabi ethos in particular. The first is the Jihadi movements in Egypt, and the other is the Jihadi movement in Afghanistan. The relationship between the two started tentatively but later transformed into a complete ideological and organizational merger. As for the relationship between the two jihadi trends and the Wahhabi thought and practice, we need to delve deeper into the detail.

Jihad in Egypt

The origin of armed activity in Egypt dates back to the formation of the military’s ‘special division’ at the behest of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The division’s supposed aim was to fight and expel the British from Egypt and Zionists from Palestine. But its commanders decided to exceed al-Banna’s instructions by targeting figures in the then Egyptian government, which created a rift between the regime and the Brotherhood. The ‘Special Division’ was dismantled by King Farouk’s government and subsequently dissolved by the Nasser regime.

The severe repression that followed and the harassment of the broadly peaceful Brotherhood movement led to the emergence of the Jihad Group in Egypt in the mid-1960s. This constituted the first group that openly adopted military force in confronting an indigenous regime as opposed to a foreign colonial force. Despite their actions being limited to Egypt, their philosophy harbored the essence of a global mission. It was the first group to endorse the salafi thought, based on fatwas of Ibn Taymiyyah, and was heavily influenced by Sayyid Qutb.

It is a historical fact that the founders of this group (Alawi Mustafa, Nabil Mar’i, Ismail Tantawi and later Ayman al-Zawaheri) were students of Sheikh Mohamed Harras who lived for a time in Saudi Arabia and was known for his enthusiastic embrace of Wahhabi thought. The influence of Wahhabism on Sheikh Harras’s beliefs probably constitutes the first interaction of modern Jihadi trends with Wahhabi thought.

The first articulation of Jihadi thought in Egypt was a booklet entitled The Absent Duty written in 1980 by Mohamed Abduassalam Farag. The treatise lacked references to Wahhabi literature but it was replete with salafi quotations akin to Wahhabi writings. This booklet was followed by two more important books written by another Jihadi scholar; Abdulqadir Abdulaziz, known as Sayyid Imam. The first of which was Al-Jame’ Fi Talab Al’ilm (The Compiler in Seeking Knowledge) which included numerous references to statements by Wahhabi scholars. It envisaged the books of Wahhabism as the most important references of Islamic ‘aqeedah’ (creed). The influence of Wahhabism was even more evident in his second book,Al-Umdah Fi I’dad Al’Uddah (The ultimate reference for perfect readiness) which contained extensive quotations from Wahhabi literature.  

Towards the end of the 1970s, the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya  emerged, initially as a peaceful movement in Egyptian universities, later evolving into a radical Jihadi organization. The group did not publish books but issued many treatises and leaflets replete with references to Salafi works, especially those of ibn Taymiyyah, but crucially it did not rely on Wahhabi literature. However, there was an indirect link through the first head of the group Sheikh Omar Abdurrahman, who had spent several years in Saudi Arabia and established good relations with Wahhabi scholars there. He was not known for specific Wahhabi rhetoric but was well known for reiterating the same principles.

Both groups; namely Egyptian Jihad and Jama’a al-Islamiyyah carried out a number of operations inside Egypt targeting the regime, such as the assassination of President Sadat in 1981 as well as targeting foreign tourists in the Luxor Massacre. The regime, however, was able to smash both groups, by imprisoning its members and executing many of its leaders. Several years later many prisoners were released, some of whom travelled to Afghanistan where they forged the first link between the Jihadis of Egypt and those based in Afghanistan.

Global Jihad in Afghanistan

Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s was primarily an indigenous resistance to Soviet invasion. However, it was manipulated and exploited by the US and its two allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to exhaust the Soviet Union with a view to ending its presence in Afghanistan. To achieve this, the gates were opened in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and many other countries for public incitement and recruitment via speeches, mosque sermons and media-orchestrated propaganda. By the end of the 1980s there was a huge presence of mujahideen from many Muslim and Arab countries who formed an international force for the sake of Jihad. How did this apparently ‘benign’ gathering evolve into a global mission which came to pose a credible challenge to the superpowers? This came about due to the following factors:  

First: The inevitable result of this gathering was the formation of a deep belief among those who flocked to Afghanistan that they shared a universal responsibility towards other Muslims. This mentality, although focused on one country, naturally created a psyche of collective responsibility for Muslims the world over. As nationalist feelings receded, this feeling of  ‘universal responsibility’ – and the political and cultural mission it embodied -  came to pose a pressing security challenge to the superpowers.

Second: The pioneering of this Jihadi mission by capable, articulate, charismatic and deeply learned figures led to this simple struggle being converted into a comprehensive mission with a cohesive body of theory, aims and methodology. Foremost among those was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam who utilised and even remolded the aforementioned Wahhabi-Qutb amalgam. During that period scholars like Azzam frequently visited Saudi Arabia and naturally leant more towards the Wahhabi trend. Other examples of important figures were Ayman al-Zawahiri and others from the Egyptian Jihad and the Jama’a al-Islamiyyah who fled Egypt to Afghanistan. Although they were more concerned with remotely directing Jihad in Egypt, nonetheless they contributed to the creation of the comprehensive global Jihadi mission. This documentary about al-Zawahiri’s life is a useful introduction to his ideas.

Third: The enlisting of tens of thousands of Saudi youth in the Afghan Jihad with the blessing of the Saudi and US governments. These youths, graduates of the Saudi education system, adopted the Wahhabi academic discourse outlined above. Under focused leaders who were extremely successful in integrating Wahhabism with Qutbism, this became the dominant academic discourse amongst the Jihadi youth in Afghanistan.

Fourth: The Kuwait crisis of 1990 was the turning point which triggered the conversion of this relatively parochial process into an unlimited global mission. It brought Jihadi groups face to face with the Americans who had marched into the heart of Arabia in full military gear. This widely unpopular presence represented a practical ‘case study’ on whom to apply the ideas upheld in Wahhabi literature. Indeed, the American presence in Arabia was a special challenge to the integrity and efficacy of the Jihadis who went to Afghanistan to defend its people against the invader. How could they now be expected to turn a blind eye towards another invader who came to their own land which according to Islamic doctrine is considered the most sacred on Earth?

The Kuwait crisis was the first historic event that put the academic track of Wahhabism on a collision course with the inherited track (official scholars). The Jihadi trend, which is committed to the academic Wahhabi track, viewed the American presence as an aggression on the sacred land of Arabia. The inherited track considered the Muslim ruler, in this case King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, as having full right to invite any force, Muslim or non-Muslim, to help him protect his land. Although the Jihadis did not carry arms against the Americans or the Saudis during the Kuwait crisis, this was the main trigger for the review of ideas and principles of the Jihadi trend that led to its current form.

Over the intervening years a mass of new ideas and literature was added to the existing stock. Considerable theoretical work was established on a proper Islamic basis derived from Salafi literature generally and from Wahhabi academic sources in particular. The increase in the volume of literature widened the gap between the academic and inherited Wahhabi tracks. Consequently, the two parties entered an undeclared war of words. The inherited official track was the initial victor, due in no small measure to direct media and security support from the authorities and the corresponding repression of its opponents.

With the spread of the Internet and social media the equation was reversed and proponents of the Jihadi trend were able to break the monopoly and restore the balance. As the basic points of references in this debate are Salafi and Wahhabi, it is natural that the Jihadi arguments would prevail. Indeed,  the Saudi authority cannot disassociate itself from its genuine connection with the academic track, and its clergy cannot win if the advantage provided by the regime is neutralized. The unavoidable reliance of the Saudi regime on the legitimating qualities of Wahhabism, therefore, makes it vulnerable.

The Kuwait crisis was the reason for the merging of the modern Jihadi ideas and literature of the academic Wahhabi track. This was expressed in the early 1990s in a book by Mohamed al-Maqdisi entitled “The Faith of Ibrahim”, followed by another book by the same author entitled “The Clear Disclosures of the Apostasy of the Saudi State” which was full of quotations from Wahhabi books and justifications for the repeal of the legitimacy of the Saudi state. It called for Jihad against that state based on Wahhabi literature belonging to the academic discourse. Both books were full of references to Wahhabi literature. Subsequent to their publication many public refutations were issued by the official religious authorities in Saudi Arabia.  

The Internet and social media played a major role in furthering the academic track’s influence on Jihadi trends. This began through anonymous contributors and aliases on bulletin boards and websites in the late 1990s.  Online forums (bulletin boards) were extremely popular in KSA prior to the era of social media and were widely used by Jihadi theorists.  Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks Jihadi scholars started to speak and write publicly with their true identities using these forums.

The first to speak out was Sheikh Hmoud al-Aqla al-Shu’aibi who issued a long statement justifying 9/11. Many other scholars emerged after the American invasion of Iraq, among them was Sheikh Ali al-Khudair, Sheikh Nasser al-Fahd and Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalidi who were promptly imprisoned. They were followed by Sheikh Faris bin Shweel al-Zahrani who issued many statements and books full of academic-oriented Wahhabi rhetoric, before he was captured in 2004, sentenced to death and executed in 2016 for his vociferous opposition to the Saudi regime.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

The ‘Islamic State’ is seen as an extension of al-Qaeda but there is a clear difference in their ideology, methodology and vision. ISIS are more extreme in Takfir and less stringent in legislating against homicide. ISIS also believe in the creation of a real political entity with full legal, military, economic and social powers on the ground. Al-Qaeda’s view, however, was to postpone the establishment of such an authority until the existing world order is dismantled. These and other differences were presented in testimony before the House Committee on US Homeland Security.

ISIS introduced its philosophy in stages, as explained by the prominent theorist Abubaker Naji in his book, Idarat Attawahosh (The Management of Savagery). Whilst it is true that the book contains no quotations from Wahhabi literature, the practices it calls for are rationalized using similar justifications found in the academic discourse. One careful reader of ISIS literature, al-Shareif al-Hasan al-Kattani, notes that ISIS’s first launch in Iraq was associated with the rising popularity of the writings of the aforementioned al-Khudair, al-Fahd and al-Khalidi .

More broadly, it seems ISIS went beyond using the references of the academic track of the Wahhabi movement and sought to emulate the practices of the first Saudi state. ISIS justified many of its deeds with examples from the actions of the Wahhabi army and its leaders during the life of M.B.A. One pro-ISIS writer (Pseudonym Annabe’) in an attempt to refute criticism summarized this close affinity in a detailed article. He considered the similarities as arguments in favor of ISIS’s position.

Another anti-ISIS writer highlighted the resemblance of the statements and practice of the earlier Wahhabis and ISIS, describing it as evidence of Wahhabi extremism rather than an argument in favor of ISIS.

However, many argue that ISIS extremism stems less from theories and related historical precedents, than it does from the sectarian conflict provoked by the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. ISIS’s leadership needed to properly ground their methodologies rather than have them portrayed as a reflexive reaction to the invasion and subsequent humiliations inflicted on Sunni Muslims. This was evident in the speeches and statements of a senior ISIS cleric Turki Al-Bin Ali and articles in their official publication Dabiq. ISIS does not shy away from the fact that it cherishes the Wahhabi thought and that it went so far as to prescribe Wahhabi books in the schools under its administration.

There is another historical parallel in the geopolitical context of the emergence and spread of ISIS and the first Saudi state. There was a resemblance in the atmospherics and geography in which both states emerged, as well as the nature of the powers opposing them.

The first Saudi state was facing a superpower in the form of the Ottoman empire which conducted war-by-proxy using the Egyptian army led by Mohamed Ali in order to militarily and politically to defeat the Saudis. However, this heavy defeat failed to eradicate Wahhabism. To press the historical parallel, presently ISIS is facing the might of the United States military, not to mention Iraq, Iran and Turkey, in addition to other regional states. Whilst ISIS may be vanquished militarily, the foundational beliefs and doctrines that drive the movement will be much harder to uproot.  

Current geographical distribution of Wahhabism

Wahhabism is currently practiced all over the Muslim world and also among Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries. The first academic Wahhabi and third inherited Wahhabi tracks are competing with each other in their prevalence. The first track has spread naturally under the auspices of Salafism. The third track has spread by sponsorship of governments. In addition to Saudi Arabia the third track increased its followers many fold in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Emirates and, interestingly, in some non-Muslim countries including among the Muslim community in the UK.  The second track can be seen only among ISIS and the similar groups, Alshabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

There are only two countries where Wahhabism is embedded in society in an institutional manner, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The difference between these two is that while the Saudi state adopts Wahhabism in its political system and regards the Wahhabi establishment as part of the state, Qatar does not. This commitment to Wahhabism in politics means the Saudi regime is exposed to continuous embarrassment as despite the state’s immense support for the third inherited track, the followers of the first academic track see government practices as hypocrisy, stripping the government of its legitimacy. This does not apply to Qatar which, absent a similar commitment, feels under no obligation to adopt Wahhabism in government. In Qatar, although the community or people are Wahhabis, there is, for example, no Senior Council of Ulama, only a mufti. Furthermore, the judicial system is much less religiously orientated.

Future of Wahhabism and Jihad

The history of the relationship between Wahhabism and jihad helps us forecast its future.

Before the internet and social media, the official, government-controlled third inherited Wahhabi track had by virtue of its media monopoly the ability to lay claim to the Wahhabi legacy. But through globalization and the immense impact of modern communication tools, the inherited track is deprived of the main advantage it has enjoyed up to now: exclusive access to the media on account of state support. As the playing field levels, the struggle for authority between the different Wahhabi tracks is changing and the party closer to the original Wahhabi literature, the academic track, is likely to prevail.

The Jihadi track would not have been able to survive and later to establish its intellectual dominance had these means of communications not developed. It might have otherwise been vanquished, or taken much longer to entrench itself with a view to recruiting ideologues and fighters for its cause.

At the same time, these same modern communication tools are likely to enable the broader practice of Salafism slowly to eclipse Wahhabism. The current tendency for most Muslims - including jihadis - is to regard all credible Islamic sources as references. The sanctification of a certain school, even one from within the Salafi canon, is no longer a popular trend. Over time this will make Wahhabi academic literature (the first track) equal to any other credible Salafi literature and slowly dilute its effect, but its influence is unlikely to subside completely as long as it remains intertwined with Salafism. The relationship between Wahhabism and Salafism explains Wahhabism’s endurance and influence in the wake of globalization. As Salafism derives its strength from an original religious text – and in view of this text’s centrality to the Islamic faith - it is not surprising that globalization has been central to the spread of Salafism.

As regards the second historical track, history may repeat itself again. One thing the first Saudi state, Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan min Ta’allah and the Grand Mosque seizure have in common is that they all ended abruptly and violently. That is probably because this trend acts like a cult, fitting the psyche and mentality of certain people in certain circumstances. ISIS will probably meet the same fate or find itself obliged to transform into a much more pragmatic group. The pressures of reality and the furious debates in social media will force Jihadi groups to soften their extremism as has happened with historical Wahhabism.

Regarding the third inherited Wahhabi track, this track will continue to clash intellectually with other moderate Islamic movements with which it is already at war and which play an important role in reducing jihad recruitment. In time, most governments will either stop sponsoring this inherited track or replace it with other moderate groups. This inherited track, which cannot rid itself of hostility to Shia and other non Sunni sects, nor a tendency towards what are widely seen as extreme social restrictions, will continue to create a public relations problem for the Saudi government. 



Mohammed Al Jarman is a candidate for MS in Global Affairs at New York University and a senior graduate researcher at the Qatar Foundation. Email - Further discussion and conclusions on this topic can be found here.

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