“Sunnis condemn the Saudis” isn’t news

A group of imams in turbans and robes, with a small minaret with crescent and star symbols behindThe Independent carried a story last Thursday in which Robert Fisk claimed that “for the first time”, Saudi Arabia was under attack from both Sunni and Shi’ite scholars as some two hundred scholars, including the mufti of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib and mufti of Syria Ahmad Hassoun, as well as representatives from Kuwait, Libya, Jordan and Sudan, had met in late August in Grozny, Chechnya at a conference hosted by Putin’s infamous puppet-thug Ramazan Kadyrov and opened by Putin himself, issuing a statement that condemns Wahhabism as a “dangerous deformation” of Islamic belief and calling for “a return to the schools of great knowledge”, presumably meaning the four schools of law. Fisk claims:

Although they did not mention the Kingdom by name, the declaration was a stunning affront to a country which spends millions of dollars every year on thousands of Wahhabi mosques, schools and clerics around the world.

Wahhabism’s most dangerous deviation, in the eyes of the Sunnis who met in Chechenya, is that it sanctions violence against non-believers, including Muslims who reject Wahhabi interpretation. Isis, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the principal foreign adherents to this creed outside Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Fisk claims that this story was ignored by the world’s media, with the exception of one Benjamin Barthe at Le Monde in France and “the former senior associate at St Antony’s College, Sharmine Narwani”, who wrote a piece on Russia Today about it. In fact, the world’s media have covered it, with the Wall Street Journal claiming that it reflects “a new fracture”, when in fact it represents an old one. Both Fisk and the WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov give the conference a historical importance that it doesn’t really have. Scholarly works condemning Wahhabism have been around for as long as the sect itself. There is a wealth of literature available in English, both translated works from Arabic (and other languages) and some written in English, criticising different aspects of Wahhabism: the rejection of the four maddhabs and Sufism, the misguided literalism about the attributes of Allah ta’ala, the odd positions in fiqh they adopt, and their attitudes towards people outside the sect — not always unbelievers, but always “astray”. The article Advice to Our Brothers, the Scholars of Najd is a good example of the former by a Kuwaiti scholar, and the articles by Abdul-Hakim Murad and Shaikh Nuh Keller on Mas’ud Khan’s website, mostly written in the 90s but the website is still maintained, are fine examples of the latter.

The RT article goes into much more detail than Fisk, but no more demonstrates the statement’s historical significance. The conference’s conclusion, for example states that “Ash’arites and the Maturidi are the people of Sunnism and those who belong to the Sunni community, both at the level of the doctrine and of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Maliki), as well as Sufis, both in terms of knowledge and moral ethics” — statements like this have been appearing in scholarly texts and articles for decades — on which Sharwani commented:

In one fell swoop, Wahhabism, the official state religion of only two Muslim countries -Saudi Arabia and Qatar - was not part of the majority Muslim agenda any longer.

But is it? Saudi Arabia still has oil money and is still able to finance the publication of books, to pay imams, to finance mosque construction and maintenance the world over, while mainstream Sunnis have struggled to do a lot of these things. Imams in many mosques in the west are still underpaid, mosques themselves are often architecturally underwhelming, translations and printing often of poor quality, and publishing houses for high-quality original books and translations have come and go over the years I’ve been Muslim. She notes that the Muslim Brotherhood, “bank-rolled” by Qatar, was also specifically excluded, yet they also still command the loyalty of millions of Muslims worldwide and their figures still run Muslim organisations and are often trusted as leaders (they issued this statement which accused the conference of “igniting fires of discord among Muslims around the world”). One conference isn’t going to change that, especially when it says nothing that has not seen said many times before and it’s financed and hosted by an ally of the Assad regime. (According to the Italian-based site AsiaNews, the conference also resolved to open a new TV station to counter al-Jazeera; there are plenty of Muslim satellite TV stations already, so what makes them think this will have any more credibility than those, or al-Jazeera, just because it’s linked to Putin, Kadyrov or Assad?)

The media often make a big deal when an Islamic scholar issues a “fatwa against terrorism”, and ignores the fact that many other scholars had done the same many times before. A good example was the fatwa (or article or speech, as a fatwa is a legal opinion given in response to a question about a specific situation) condemning suicide bombings issued by Dr Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri, the leader of a group called Minhaj al-Qur’an which is based in Pakistan, which was trumpeted by the London Evening Standard in 2010 despite many such opinions having been given in the past (including by Wahhabis, such as the Saudi scholar Ibn Uthaymeen but also mainstream scholars such as in this example [PDF] from 2005) and despite Qadri’s influence being much less than the Standard made out. It gives the impression that Muslims had taken that long to condemn suicide bombings or terrorism more generally, when in fact they had not and the non-Muslim media had simply not listened or done their jobs properly, or had been invested in furthering a story that Muslims were complicit.

So, even though some of the scholars have a big international following, the conference and its communiqué are tainted by being hosted and financed by mass-murderers and their allies. Many Muslims the world over shy away from scholars who are closely linked to governments, both secular and religious, which bomb and starve Muslims, which bomb aid convoys, which reduce whole ancient Muslim cities to rubble, and which persecute Muslims for openly practising their religion. Many Wahhabis are apolitical, and they are not going to be convinced to change their beliefs on the names and attributes of Allah by a religious edict issued by people with these sorts of connections. For the rest of us, we knew all this anyway. Maybe the media did not fall over themselves to report this, but then, it’s not news.

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