On 13 November 2015, a series of coordinated militant attacks in Paris shook the world. The attacks, reportedly the deadliest in France since the Second World War, followed soon after many European countries had opened their doors to the traumatised and homeless refugees from Syria and Iraq, many of whom are Muslims. Although many nations in the European Union expressed discomfort with the decision, this was largely seen as a great humanitarian gesture on the part of the EU. Some even saw it as an expression of guilt for the West’s violent involvement in the ongoing conflicts for decades. Over the last month, countries such as the United States of America and Canada announced that they would be joining the European nations in granting asylum to refugees.
However, the path forward is unclear. Two fronts require serious action. The first and foremost challenge is the one that faces not only Muslim nations but all Muslims: to unambiguously confront the custodians of the Islamic faith, who have hijacked the narrative of Islam. The second is that in order to decimate the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the West must shelve their strategic and economic interests in west Asia.
Islamic faith, as it stands now, has been vandalised. The vandals of the faith are the same custodians of the holy places of Islam who ganged up with the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim preacher Abdul Wahhab almost two hundred years ago. Wahhab believed that Islam should be returned to the original principles that were followed by the first three generations of Muslims, and rejected many common practices that the faith had come to include over time. The Ottomans, who controlled the region then, may be answerable for the many atrocities they committed during their rule, but the Islam they professed and propagated was based on the traditional heterodox Bektashi Sufi thinking, a dervish order of Islam. Their outlook was loose, and was accommodative of diverse local cultural practices. It is still practiced and venerated in the regions of the Balkans and the erstwhile Russian states in central Asia. The battle between the subsequent Wahhabi-Saudi combine and the Ottomans was not merely a fight for territorial control, but also a fight to save traditional Islam from the depredations of the combine. The defaced Islam peddled by the Islamic State and other fundamentalists today originated two hundred years ago, and mayhem and mass murders are the ugliest manifestations of this corruption.
To understand the criminalisation of Islam, we must delve into the rise of the Wahhabi-Saudi combine. The Ottomans perceived the emerging combine from Najd, the most backward region of Arabia, as a serious threat. Inspired by the 14th century scholar Ibn-Taymayya, who hated the Shias and Sufis, Wahhab also decried them to be grave worshippers. He also declared war against Greek philosophy, which inspired the Baitul Hikma (House of Wisdom), a major intellectual centre during the Abbasid period, to generate a huge corpus of scientific literature between the 8th and 11th centuries. Wahhab took this revisionism forward in his main work, The Book of Monotheism, laying down the framework of a sectarian and hateful Islam. The Prophet’s personality and his dedication to compassion and mercy were amputated from the body of Islam. Wahhab denounced his opponents, and all Muslims not willing to accept his views, as idolaters and apostates. He believed that all Muslims had fallen into unbelief and that if they refused to follow him, they should be killed, their women violated and their possessions confiscated. Shias, Sufis, and other Muslims—who were heretical according to his doctrine—were to be exterminated, and all other faiths were to be humiliated or decimated. With this awful dogma, the basis for the future Islamic fundamentalism, and ultimately terrorism, was laid.
S Irfan Habib is the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.