Houses are burnt while young men flee from one place to another in order to escape arrest. If they are arrested and sentenced, they risk the death penalty—like their peers in January 2016 who were beheaded by the Saudi authorities.
Peaceful people in the eastern Saudi town of Awamiya are still waiting for international media coverage as their properties are burnt, sons arrested and targeted, children terrified and their neighbourhood turned into a one-sided war zone—Saudi tanks versus unarmed Shia Muslim civilians.
Like the people of Awamiya, I waited for international news headlines. A child was shot and he didn’t make it to the news. A number of people were killed and injured and the code of silence continued.
On the 10th day of the Awamiya siege, US President Donald Trump visited the Kingdom, and he stole all the headlines. A new American-Saudi alliance is formed to combat what both identify as a “terrorism” threat. During Trump’s visit, the Saudi foreign minister confirmed that this alliance would “drain the swamp” of extremism.
The swamp of extremism has been dwelling in the kingdom for centuries—with a lasting impact on both internal and foreign affairs. It wouldn’t have been possible for Saudi Arabia to come to existence without religious extremism in the form of Wahhabism.
Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab preached the simple, but yet complex concept: “There is no God, but Allah.” He, like the founders of Islam, named it Tawheed, which means: monotheism. That was not a new concept, but his reflections were unique. Today, you will find the most recognized universities in Saudi Arabia offering post-graduate programs on what’s known as Tawheed. Any individual not abiding by the Wahhabi interpretation of monotheism would be labeled as Kafir or apostate. As the custodians of the Holy City of Mecca, the symbol of Tawheed, the ruling class and their clergy often use this banner to discriminate against religious minorities and other Muslims. The history of Saudi religious intolerance dates back to the eighteenth century.
With his fanatical interpretations of Islam, ‘Abd al-Wahhab helped establish the first Saudi state (1744-1818). He wasn’t a simple Bedouin as his opponents portray him, but a literate, intelligent and informed scholar who had knowledge of the Quran. With his ideologies, he conquered the region, under the leadership of Al-Saud. And later, Najd changed to Saudi Arabia, and its people became Saudis, signifying total submission to the ruling class.
Not far away from Riyadh, ‘Abd al-Wahhab was born in 1703. He was raised in a respected family. His father was a judge, but according to historians, they often disagreed with each other. His aspirations were phenomenal: to re-introduce the religion under his own terms and conditions.
In 1744, ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Mohammed bin Saud found each other and created the alliance that led to the foundation of the first Al-Saud state in Dar’iyah. The self-proclaimed freedom fighters left Dar’iyah and started the journey of spreading their version of Islam, with the ISIL- style black banners of “There is no God, but Allah.” With the sword, they conquered lands and the state became stronger, including more than Najd.
The Dar’iyah agreement had a set of rules that ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Al-Saud agreed upon. They decided that “blood for blood and destruction for destruction” would be the policy governing the state. Centuries later, the swords and spears turned out to be tanks in Awamiya and airstrikes on Yemen.
In his book God of Monstrosity: Takfir and Wahhabi Politics, Ali Al-Dairy takes us back to the time in which the spark of Wahhabism was ignited, formed the Saudi state and spread with its missionary vision. Al-Dairy is a Bahraini author, journalist and historian living in exile.
“Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab believed in power. He believed in a book of power, not in the power of a book; meaning that he believed in a Da’wa armoured with force that would impose itself on people“¯ argues Al-Dairy in his introduction. Under Wahhabism, Da’wa, or call to religion, would not give people the option to either believe in it or not. ‘Abd al-Wahhab orchestrated the politics of the war, where there is no place in the middle: an individual is either with or against him.
Centuries later, Wahhabism is thriving and flourishing in many parts of the world, including North America. They don’t necessarily carry their black banner in the streets proclaiming “There is no God, but Allah“¯ but they indoctrinate their ideologies in generations of Muslims who look up to Saudi Arabia as the custodian of the Holy Land.
I travelled to Ghana, where the majority of Muslims seek Sufism as their path to the Almighty. To the beat of the drums, I danced with them while I was listening to the melodious African songs repeating the names of Allah and Mohamed.
I was relieved: Wahhabism missed its way to this remote poor Ghanaian village. I shared my happy thoughts to a spiritual leader who expressed his fears. He took me on a tour in his town and pointed to a mosque. “This is funded by the Saudis“¯ he said. “But they can’t control us. No one is going to pray here. It will be empty.” He faced several threats, got attacked, and his office raided by pro-Wahhabi men. He continues to preach what he believes is the “true message of Islam.”
While Ghana is a safe haven that is not largely affected by Saudi finance and Wahhabi Da’wah, Nigeria is not. As I was enjoying my stay in the remote Sufi mosque, I recalled how Boko Haram raided villages, kidnapped schoolgirls, and killed innocent men, women, and children. Boko Haram, labeled as a terrorist group, embraces the Wahhabi strain of Islam.
Centuries ago, men, women and children enjoyed the melodies of Sufism while living in the place now known as Saudi Arabia. Christians, Jews and Muslims from different backgrounds, including Sufis and Shias, lived while practicing their rituals.
Al-Dairy mentions “the massacres of Tawheed” that aimed to erase what ‘Abd al-Wahhab viewed as Shirk or polytheism. The army of men demolished shrines, mosques, and places of worship that belong to people other than Wahhabis. Those who resisted faced cruel destinies.
In his book, Symbol of Glory in the History of Najd, Ibn Bishr proudly wrote about the Wahhabi raids and conquests. Al-Dairy follows Ibn Bishr’s narrations to write about the bloodshed caused by the army and mentions a painful story about the conquest of Ahsa’a. The army attacked the town before dawn and the pregnant women were terrified. The army continued to kill, demolish their houses and steal their money for months. The pro-Wahhabi historian Ibn Bishr wrote:
Before dawn, the Muslims held their rifles high. The ground trembled, the sky became dark, and the smoke found its way in the atmosphere. Out of fear, many pregnant women aborted in Ahsa’a. And Saud resided in the mentioned place. They submitted to him and all the people of Ahsa’a submitted to his kindness and cruelty. He ordered them to leave, and they left. He resided in that house for months: killing, evicting, imprisoning, confiscating money, demolishing shops and houses and building military fortresses. He ordered them to pay thousands of Dirhams and received that from them.
The above was a scene from Ahsa’a in the oil rich Eastern Province of today’s Saudi Arabia. However, throughout their mission of control, this has been repeated. Years later in the nineteenth century, the Saudi forces demolished the shrines, domes and tombs in the Holy City of Medina, home of the Prophet of Islam. The cemetery where the companions of the Prophet and his progeny were reduced to rubble—an act that has angered Muslims to this day.
Under Wahhabism, women aren’t allowed to visit cemeteries. I stood by the fence looking at the stones and wondering why a nation would abandon its civilization. As I was immersed in my thoughts, I heard a man crying. He was physically attacked by another man from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice who yelled: “you are committing Shirk. Don’t call the names of the dead.” The committee is a governmental organization.
For centuries, polytheism is an ideological charge against anyone who doesn’t abide by the Wahhabi version of monotheism in Saudi Arabia. Be it the shrine of a dead saint, a church or a synagogue—those are symbols of polytheism in the eyes of ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Al-Dairy writes about the time, in 1792, in which Qatif was attacked and the army of Al-Saud killed 500 men. He quotes Ibn Bishr who narrated, “Muslims erased all idols, icons and churches and burnt their ugly books.”
Centuries later, there are minimal changes. According to the Human Rights Watch 2017 annual report, “Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminate against Muslim religious minorities.”
These doctrines are not confined to their borders, but have spilled into other parts of the world. For instance, Saudi assistance to armed rebels in Syria is questionable. The Maaloula massacre in Syria resembled the “Tawheed massacres” at the time of ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Armed rebels controlled Maaloula, demolishing churches and killing civilians. The kidnapping of the nuns made the news go viral all over the world—thanks to social media that never existed during the early days of Wahhabism. For centuries, people were quietly massacred under the fanatical verdicts of ‘Abd al-Wahhab.
The state forces Wahhabism upon everyone in Saudi Arabia. ‘Abd al-Wahhab wrote his books that were meant for a general audience, in a way that could be understood by the peasant and the scholar alike. “There are no books [written by ‘Abd al-Wahhab], except the books of Takfir and killings“¯ writes Al-Dairy. Takfir means declaring an individual as an apostate, which would put them under imminent threat of death.
Kitab Al-Tawheed or The Book of Monotheism is one of ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s most famous books, described by Al-Dairy as the “manifesto” of Saudi Arabia. It has been translated into several languages, and could be easily purchased anywhere in the world, including North America. The book is available online for free—something which ‘Abd al-Wahhab would have appreciated. I found several English versions of it, including ones with explanatory notes. In Saudi Arabia, this book is the pillar of the state and the foundation of all educational systems. It has also been turned into rhymes taught to schoolchildren.
In fact, the book is compulsory reading for all students in Saudi Arabia, making it the kingdom’s official document with its set of rules.
Going through The Book of Monotheism, it feels like a book solely written to do nothing but label others—those who don’t follow Wahhabism—as outcasts who could be discriminated against, oppressed, expelled, or killed at any time. Some of the titles found in this book: “To seek help in other than Allah is an act of Shirk“¯ “The condemnation of worshipping Allah at the grave“¯ “Exaggeration in the graves of the righteous persons extends them to become idols“¯ “It is Shirk to perform a deed for worldly reasons“¯ “Forbearance with what Allah has decreed“¯ etc. Under any of these categories, an individual is at a risk of performing Shirk, whch would label them as apostate. The radical Islamist militants in Libya demolished Sufi shrines and Christian graves after taking control and ousting Gaddafi. Likewise, while they occupied Mosul, ISIL demolished churches, mosques and historic sites while promoting ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s version of monotheism.
Donald Trump seemed jubilant while holding the sword and dancing Ardah with the Saudi royals. “It is beautiful“¯ he remarked to his wife, Melania. “This is the war dance“¯ said the Saudi. “I can see“¯ responded Trump. Saudi Arabia sealed a $110 billion arms deal immediately, and $350 billion over 10 years. The bulk of the kingdom’s budget is used for military expenditure—in other words, high-value arms deals with foreign countries, including the US and Canada.
The conflict in Yemen exposed the grave human rights violations committed by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition deepened the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, causing extreme poverty, famine, and deaths. According to Amnesty International’s 2017 annual report, there is evidence that the coalition “used imprecise munitions in some attacks, including large bombs made in the US and the UK, that have a wide impact radius and cause casualties and destruction beyond their immediate strike location.”
The UN has declared that the death toll in Yemen has exceeded 10,000. But the Saudi assault includes an ideological component, by way of flooding the nation with copies of The Book of Monotheism.
While I was writing about women’s rights in Jordan, I heard a male voice that frightened me. Although I was in my apartment in Amman, I heard Friday’s call to prayer and a speech from the mosque nearby that ruined the silence I needed for writing. The imam started his Friday speech by identifying various forms of Shirk performed by Muslim minorities—signaling his Wahhabi faith. He ended his speech by praying to God: “God, torment the Rafidis [a name Wahhabis use to label Shias] and Jews. Oh God, show them your power.”
During my six months’ stay in Amman, I heard this prayer every Friday. ‘Abd al-Wahhab died in 1792, but his God of Monstrosity is very much alive.
Yusur Al-Bahrani is a journalist based in Toronto. She spent much of last year touring the Middle East. .