Original here. This essay is very well-done, the best I have ever read on the subject.
This is the first of a two-part post on Salafi jihadism. Part 1 is intended to provide a definition of jihad, a look at the history of Salafism/Wahhabism, their similarities and differences and how they spread in the end of the 20th century.
Also before anyone thinks I’m targeting Salafis for an agenda, I intend to cover jihadism in each segment of Islam. I simply chose to begin with Salafi jihadism due to its greater relevance and attention in the world today.
Definition of Jihad: The Arabic word Jihad is derived from the verb Jahada – meaning to strive or struggle. In Islamic terminology it means to make an effort, to endeavor and to strive for a noble cause. The word is generally used to describe any type of striving in the cause of Allah (God). According to Islamic teachings there are three main types of Jihad as explained below:
i) Jihad-e-Akbar, i.e jihad of the highest order. This is the jihad (struggle) for self-reformation. The struggle is against our own temptations such as greed, lust and other worldly temptations. This type of jihad is obligatory on every Muslim throughout his life.
ii) Jihad-e-Kabir, i.e major jihad. This is the jihad of propagation of the truth, the message of Qur’an. The Qur’an also instructs us to spread this message with wisdom, tolerance and respect to others and their beliefs and prohibits the use of any coercion or force. According to the Qur’an anyone who devotes his time, effort, wealth or knowledge to the cause of righteousness is practicing Jihad-e-Kabir. This is also obligatory on all Muslims.
iii) Jihad-e-Asghar, i.e jihad of the lower order. This is the jihad of a defensive battle. The Qur’an has clearly restricted this type of jihad to certain conditions while forbidding transgression of any sort. The conflict must of a defensive nature for the Muslim community, Muslims must have been prevented from freely practicing their religion and beliefs, and they must have been driven from their homes.
Another requirement for the declaration of this type of jihad is the existence of an Islamic State and a Muslim leader to declare it; without this condition, Muslims are allowed to defend themselves in case of being attacked or persecuted but not to declare and prosecute an official jihad. Once a jihad has been declared, the Muslim army is bound by a set of regulations to observe while on campaign, some of which are listed here.
It is critical to understand that the aim of jihad is not the conversion of non-Muslim populations. Most scholars agree upon the concept of jihad being a defensive measure; some modern Islamic revivalists such as Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam argued for the use of jihad as an offensive measure but for the expansion of Muslim territory and Islamic ideals rather than the religious conversion of the local peoples, forced or otherwise, to Islam. As a result, jihad is similar to the Christian concept of a crusade but differs in this critical matter among others. However, jihad is a hotly debated topic in jurisprudence, and a look at the opinions of various scholars can be found here.
History of Salafism/Wahhabism: Salafism is a conservative, orthodox movement within Sunni Islam that seeks to return the practice of Islam to its fundamentals. As such, it emphasizes emulation of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Salaf as Saliheen (Pious Predecessors) which comprise the first three generations of Muslims (Companions, Successors and Successors of the Successors), and it rejects any rituals or beliefs not practiced by them; as a result, they are against any innovations, or bidah.
In legal jurisprudence, Salafis are divided among those that remain faithful to the four Sunni maddhabs (schools of law) and those that reject them in favour of ijtihad (independent legal judgement).
In terms of politics, Salafis are generally divided into three categories.
The largest category consists of the quietists, those who believe in remaining indifferent to politics and repression in favour of being closer to God.
The next largest category is the activists, that comprises those who participate in politics to advocate for Islamist agendas and religious legislation.
The smallest category by far is the jihadists, which are the most well known category worldwide but are a tiny minority.
The central tenets of Salafism have existed since the earlier days of Islam, with scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah referring to and emphasizing adherence to the model of the Salaf. However, Salafism did not spread widely until the 18th century when Muhammad Abdul Wahhab started preaching in the Najd area of Arabia. Abdul Wahhab believed that the practices of the society around him, including venerating the tombs of the Companions, or making invocations to holy men, were similar to the practices during the pre-Islamic Jahiliya (Age of Ignorance).
Thus, he wished to return to a more puritan and conservative form of Islam free of any supposed innovations or bidah and similar to how he believed Islam was practiced in its earliest days. He also believed that those who professed themselves to be Muslim but participated in bidah were beyond the pale of Islam. He began preaching in the town of Unayna, but his actions and ideals were unpopular with the nobility of the era, with Abdul Wahhab being expelled from his town due to pressure applied by a powerful chief, Sulaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Ghurayr.
However, he managed to find refuge with the ruler of the town of Diriyah, Muhammad ibn Saud. In 1744, they formed a pact whereby ibn Saud would protect and propagate the doctrines espoused by Abdul Wahhab by military action, while the latter would religiously legitimize the former’s military conquests and allow the imposition of Islamic taxation, which would net the Al Sauds more income than at the current rates.
Hence began a period of conquest over multiple generations that expanded the Al Sauds’ holdings to much of Arabia, created the First Saudi State and the propagation of Abdul Wahhab’s teachings, pejoratively termed Wahhabism by its critics, outside of Najd. This is also where Abdul Wahhab broke with traditional Salafist thinking; unlike traditional Salafists, Abdul Wahhab was willing to use force and coercion to spread his teachings and was willing to participate in politics and political agreements to achieve that goal.
Scholars are disputed over the degree of brutality sanctioned by Abdul Wahhab, but it is clear that in successive generations, the Wahhabis have become more and more radical, ultimately adopting ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas of takfir (excommunication); this allowed them to brand Muslims living in violation of Islamic law to be non-Muslims and thus justified their fighting against other Muslims. They also adopted a ‘convert or die’ approach to their enemies.
This increasing ruthlessness was the cause of the Al Saud’s downfall. In 1802, the Wahhabis attacked Karbala, slaughtering much of the population and desecrating the shrine of Imam Hussain, and launched a similar assault on Taif in 1803, slaughtering the male population and enslaving women and children.
Ultimately, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Arabia at the time, had enough and dispatched an army in 1818 that destroyed the First Saudi State, killing the Al Saud ruler, razing Diriyah and doing their best to stamp out both the House of Saud and the Wahhabi movement. However, the remoteness of the Najd prevented either from happening, and a Second Saudi State resulted in that region; consequently, by the end of the 19th century, most of the townspeople in the area were Wahhabis.
Many of the new members were former Bedouins who abandoned nomadic life for settlements on the insistence of Wahhabi religious scholars who declared that a nomadic lifestyle was incompatible with Islam. The newly settled Bedouins served well as soldiers for the Wahhabi religious leaders.
Although alive, Wahhabism remained mostly confined to the Najd till the end of the First World War. During the war, the reigning head of the Al Saud family, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, aided the Allies by revolting against the Ottomans. Although his campaign to rule Arabia had begun in 1901, he was unable to assert his authority over Hijaz until 1923, when the British removed their support for the Sharifs of Makkah.
In 1927, Abdulaziz signed a treaty with the British, who recognized his independence from the former Ottoman territories in exchange for letting go of Transjordan, Iraq, Kuwait and other British protectorates. However, Abdulaziz faced an internal rebellion among his troops. During his campaigns, he made use of the Ikhwan, a militia of radical Wahhabi Bedouin warriors. When he signed the treaty with the British, the Ikhwan refused to obey and raided Transjordan.
Unwilling to risk British ire, Abdulaziz fought the Ikhwan and defeated them in 1929 with British support. The survivors of the Ikhwan were then organized in various militias which would later form the core of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Although defeated, the Ikhwan left their mark on Arabian society by uprooting the old cultural norms and supplanting them with radical Wahhabi ideology as part of their campaign on behalf of the Al Sauds.
In addition, Wahhabi ideology spread to the cities of Makkah and Madinah and gained control of the religious apparatus in the land. Although the Wahhabi religious establishment was given much latitude with respect to religious observance and teaching, in many cases Abdulaziz overruled the ulema, allowing the driving of automobiles and the attendance of Shia pilgrims at the annual Hajj. In addition, most of Abdulaziz’s consolidation of power and dealings with Western powers kept him at odds with the ulema.
Although Salafism/Wahhabism inspired offshoots such as the Ahl-e-Hadith and Deoband movements in South Asia, the reach of these two ideologies was quite low during most of the 20th century. Even within Saudi Arabia, the implementation of Islamic law was relatively relaxed compared to today.
This changed in 1979, when two things happened. First the Iranian Revolution occurred, toppling the Shah there and sending shockwaves through the monarchies in the region. Second, the Grand Mosque in Makkah was taken over by Islamic extremists who called for the stricter implementation of Islamic doctrines and the fall of the Al Saud family.
In the aftermath of these events, the Saudi government became stricter in religious matters. Due to the huge increase in oil income since the 1973 oil crisis, the government had lavished funding on religious literature, scholarships and hundreds of new Islamic schools, universities and mosques. In order to counter any threat of an Iranian-style revolution by the Shia population of the country and to satisfy disgruntled conservative clerics, this funding was further increased.
The beginning of the Afghan War provided an opportunity to export troublesome clerics to Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. This achieved two aims; first, it allowed the Sauds to embed a Wahhabi religious establishment of their choice, and secondly, the export of Wahhabi ideology served as a bulwark against the revolutionary doctrines that Iran was beginning to propagate in the Middle East. Since the Afghan War attracted volunteers from all over the Muslim world, almost all of whom spent time in the Saudi-sponsored religious schools, the spread of Salafism was assured.
Due to the financial support that Salafism/Wahhabism enjoys from the Gulf, it has received attention and commands influence disproportionate to its size. There are roughly 50 million Salafists in the world, a tiny fraction of the total Muslim population. Yet, Salafi scholars such as Zakir Naik from India are some of the most recognizable in the Muslim world, having instant name recognition even amongst many non-Salafis.
The Salafi movement is described as the fastest growing Islamic movement in the world, according to a report by the BND, the German domestic intelligence service. This is especially true for regions such as Europe and North America, which have no native Islamic traditions of their own and thus are more susceptible to supplanting than historically Muslim areas.
Although Salafis have historically been peaceful and apolitical, believing in using persuasion rather than force, modern Salafism is often considered indistinguishable from Wahhabism and in many cases, conflict has arisen when Salafis have tried to propagate their doctrines. For instance in Pakistan, there is much animosity between followers of the Deoband movement, inspired by Salafism, and the Barelvi movement, inspired by the Sufi traditions of the subcontinent.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, more and more Salafists are becoming part of the activist category, joining politics to propagate their beliefs. One example of such a movement is the Nour Party in Egypt, which gained a quarter of the seats in the 2011-12 elections.
In normal circumstances, one might consider the engagement of conservative Islamists in democratic politics to be a positive sign; however, the failure of the Arab Spring to bring meaningful change to the lives of people in most of the affected countries has disillusioned many democratic Salafis, many of whom have shifted to the jihadist category of Salafism, thinking military action to be the last feasible route.