They say when it rains, it pours. But no one could have predicted this new storm for the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia.
The country's list of recent woes is pretty impressive; the US support for the regime has dwindled visibly, there have been consistent ISIS attacks, Iran continues to be a threat, and to add to all these, there is an economic recession as well as the waxing of ‘Shia Crescent’ in the neighbourhood. But the real bolt has come from the ‘Honourable University of Al-Azhar,’ whose scholars recently 'excluded' Salafi-Wahhabism from Sunni Islam. Historically speaking, the Salafi movement of the 1960s-70s gradually subsumed the Wahabi ideology to the effect that adherents of Wahhabism today call themselves Salafis, even though they practise a more puritan form of Islam than mainstream Salafi Muslims.
Established in Cairo in 975 AD, Al-Azhar is one of the world’s oldest extant universities and Sunni Islam’s most prestigious academic institution. The fatawa (edicts) of its clerics are held in high esteem, even if not observed to the letter, by most Sunnis around the world. On August 25-27, a delegation of eminent Al-Azhar scholars attended a conference held in Grozny (Chechnya) titled ‘Who are the Sunnis’. At the conference, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb categorically renounced all forms of extremist and terrorist actions, saying that such deeds were incompatible with the teachings of Sunni Islam.
Reportedly, in the same conference, the Shaikh also excluded the Salafi-Wahhabi movement from the sect of Ahlus Sunna (the Sunnis).
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb categorically renounced all forms of extremist and terrorist actions, saying that such deeds were incompatible with the teachings of Sunni Islam.
The same omission was repeated in the final statement of the conference that limited the definition of Sunnis to 'Asharis, Maturidis by beliefs, followers of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Malaki, Shafai and Hanbali), and followers of pure Sufism in terms of ethics and chastity'. Conspicuously absent from this definition were names and terminologies associated with the Salafi-Wahhabi movement.
The statement also refrained from mentioning any Saudi religious institutions. It restricted to consecrating only traditional non-Salafi Sunni academic institutions, namely Al-Azhar, The University of Al-Quaraouiyine (Fez, Morocco), Al-Zaytoonah University (Tunisia), Hadramaut University (Yemen) and some Russian universities. It is to be noted here that majority of Sunni Muslims in India belong to the Ashari and Maturidi systems of belief, including Deobandis and Barelvis, which were consecrated at the conference.
In their joint statement, the participants observed that the conference represented 'an important and necessary turning point to correct the sharp and dangerous deviation that has affected the concept of the Sunni community following attempts by extremists to seize and monopolise this title.' Scholars from over 100 countries including India, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain, etc. participated in the conference and were united in their stand against terrorism.
Scholars from over 100 countries including India, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain, etc. participated in the conference and were united in their stand against terrorism.
Speaking to the Middle East media website ‘Al-Monitor’, Prof Ahmad Karima of Al-Azhar University accused the Salafi-Wahhabi scholars of promoting the idea that they are the only real Sunnis to the exclusion of Ashari theology, which is adopted by Al-Azhar. He said, 'They (the Salafi-Wahhabis) even went further, deeming us non-believers in the Al-Masira Encyclopedia of Contemporary Religions, Sects and Parties (published by the Saudi World Assembly of Muslim Youth) … The Chechen conference was held to put things back in order, Sunnis are Asharis,' he stressed.
In another interview, Ahmad Karima added, 'If the world is looking forward to uproot terrorism, it has to stand up against Wahhabism because they are the root of all sedition and conflict.'
The Wahhabi intellectuals and Saudi officials were predictably enraged by the final statement of the conference. Saudi journalist Muhammad Al-Shaikh reportedly tweeted: 'Tayeb’s participation in the Grozny conference … will force us to change our behavior with Egypt. Our country is more important and Sisi’s Egypt shall go to hell.'
It is noteworthy that this internal Sunni feud came at a time when Saudi officials and their religious scholars were engaged in a bitter takfiri tirade with their Iranian counterparts on the eve of the Haj pilgrimage. After Riyadh and Tehran failed to agree on terms governing the Hajj this year, Iranian President Ali Khamenei accused Saudi Arabia of 'murdering' Iranian pilgrims in last year’s Hajj stampede. He also called Saudis 'puny Satans who trembled in fear of … the Great Satan (the US).' In response, the Saudi Grand Mufti said: 'We have to understand that they (Iranians) are not Muslims. They are ‘Majus’ (in reference to Zoroastrians, the pre-Islamic religious community of Iran), and their enmity to Muslims – specifically to Sunni community – goes way back.'
However, it is ironic that the message of the Saudi Grand Mufti did not resonate with the non-Salafi Sunni community, which in turn started questioning the religious credibility of the Salafi-Wahhabi movement itself. As noted Middle East expert Juan R. Cole put it: 'Ironically, in the 18th century Wahhabis were the ones denouncing the Sunnis and attacking the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Through the centuries, the Wahhabis have gradually asserted that they are Sunnis themselves. But they did not start out that way.'
In fact, a nascent Sunni backlash against Salafi-Wahhabism seems to be gradually spreading across the world now; the non-Wahhabis Sunnis find relations with the Shiite community more acceptable, than with ‘ghair-muqallid’ (non-traditionalist) Wahhabis. For instance, Shias and Sunnis offered the second consecutive joint Eid Namaz at Imambara Shah Najaf at Lucknow in India recently.
a nascent Sunni backlash against Salafi-Wahhabism seems to be gradually spreading across the world now
This was followed by an Eid Milan ceremony that invited Sikh and Hindu religious leaders. Meanwhile, there has been growing unease within the ruling Malaysian party UMNO over the rise of Salafi-Wahhabist extremism within its ranks. The secretary of the UMNO Veterans Association recently warned that a federal minister was using government facilities to spread the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology. This sense of alarm against the rise of Salafi-Wahhabism in Malaysia, which has until now allowed its spread unhindered, is a new development. Clearly, Sunni Muslims are becoming wary of being associated with 'Salafi-Wahhabi radicalism' that has spawned major jihadist organisations, like Al-Qaeda and the ISIS.
Apprehensive of the growing trend, several Islamic scholars and secular commentators stress that it would be wrong to directly equate Salafi-Wahhabi ideology with extremism or terrorism. They aver that majority of Wahhabis (over 80 per cent), who prefer to call themselves Salafis these days, are doctrinally apolitical and peace-loving; the jihadist strain only affects a small minority in that community.
several Islamic scholars and secular commentators stress that it would be wrong to directly equate Salafi-Wahhabi ideology with extremism or terrorism.
The branding of Salafi-Wahhabis as non-Sunnis, non-Muslims or Muslim extremists by any community exacerbates religious polarisation leading to further alienation and radicalisation. They also warn against the potential rise of McCarthyism against Salafi-Wahhabi adherents by various societies and governments. Therefore, the solution to extremism and violence solely lies in religious tolerance and communal harmony, irrespective of any ethnic, racial or religious differences across the board.