With the advent of ISIS, the world is witnessing one of the most brutal carnage in recent history. This latest branch of Salafism has turned a dystopian fantasy into reality. Nevertheless, the so-called Islamic state is not the first fringe Islamic group that seeks to allure the Muslim mindset with their prophecy claims and bring a radical change in the Islamic jurisprudence.
History is replete with examples of extremist Islamist fractions in their attempt to rule the Muslim Umma bringing tremendous plight to ordinary Muslims, destroying heritage sites and shrines integral to Islamic history. ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi called for the destruction of the Kaaba stone. In its thousands of years of history, the Holystone has not remained immune to zealotry. In the year 929 A.D, a fringe tribal sect named Karmatian from eastern Arabia pilfered the Holystone during its pillage of Mecca. Their aim was not to destroy the Holystone, rather attract pilgrimage to their native town. The scheme never worked, and after twenty years they returned the stone, slightly damaged in the process.
The origins of all the modern Salafist groups can be traced back into the 1700s, to a Creed of fiery preachers led by Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab. In the name of God’s oneness, Wahhab led campaigns to stop the practice of music and destroy domes and tombs for they generated superstitious grievances among people. Wahhab reached a pact with Mohammed Ibn Saud, an ambitious leader from the oasis town of Dariyah. In return for support from Wahhab, Ibn Saud provided state patronage to Wahhabi mission in propagating their stern doctrines.
In 1802, al-Saud’s camel riding Wahhabi forces invaded the city of Karbala; an Ottoman ruled city revered by Shia pilgrims for its golden-domed tomb of Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussain. Some four thousand Karbala citizens perished in the attack. The Wahhabi zealots laid disemboweled fetuses of pregnant women atop bleeding corpses. Four thousand camels were needed to carry back the booty to Nejd. Next year was Mecca’s turn. The Meccans were aware of the wholesale slaughter of Karbala; they surrendered without offering a fight. During their reign, the Wahhabis banned tobacco, destroyed the mausoleums built over the tombs of prominent Muslims. In their siege of Medina, they went as far as desecrating Prophet Muhammed’s own tomb.
Egypt’s governor Muhammed Ali took six years to consolidate his position in Egypt before he concurred to the Ottoman sultan’s order to launch a military campaign against the Wahhabis. Far from home, the Egyptian army of 8000 men led by Tussun Pasha dealt a heavy defeat by the Wahhabis. The two sides struck a truce in 1915. Later upon hearing the news of Tussun’s death, Abdullah ibn Saud broke the truce and attacked Egyptian positions. Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali and commander in chief of the Egyptian military forces, pursued a relentless campaign, and successfully drove back the Wahhabis to their capital city of Dir’iyya, where the two sides engaged in one last war of attrition. Trapped inside the walls of the city, the Wahhabis were running low on food and water while the Egyptian armies outside the city gates endured the lethal summer of 1818. In the end, facing total destruction, the Wahhabis surrendered. The Egyptians forces left the city in ruins and brought back the apprehended Wahhabi leaders to Cairo. From Cairo, they were sent to Istanbul to face the justice of the Ottoman sultan, which he turned into a state occasion. Top government officials, foreign ambassadors, and aristocrats from the empire were invited. The chief minister of the Wahhabi state Abdullah ibn Saud, his military commander and the spiritual leader of the movement were found guilty and sentenced to death. Three of them were executed in front of a celebratory public at three different places: Abdullah ibn Saud in front of the Aya Sofia mosque, the chief minister before the main entrance of the palace, and the spiritual leader at one of the main markets of the city. For three days, their dead bodies with heads tucked under arms were displayed in public and later cast into the sea.
The Wahhabi movement was subjugated to the level of folklore; until they resurrected. In 1902, Abdelaziz a young Saudi Chieftain led a raiding party that besieged the city of Riad. The local governor was shot dead by Abdelaziz himself. The raid was followed by a series of skirmishes with local tribes who were eventually defeated as Abdelaziz’s forces gained control of much of the Nejd. The conquered population was compelled to adopt the Wahhabi ways of Islam. Wahhabis encouraged and even forced some of the Bedouins of the Nejd to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle in the Oasis communities ruled by them. Those who settled down adopted the name Ikhwan(brothers), and would soon instill horror all over the Arabian Peninsula.
Agriculture and farming were unfamiliar to the Ikhwan, who were rather good at warfare. Buoyed by the bigoted Wahhabi views, the Ikhwan followed the footsteps of Abdullah ibn Saud. In 1924, they raided the city of Taef, slaughtered four hundred Taef citizens, while just as their predecessors sliced open pregnant women’s wombs. With most of the Arabian Peninsula under his rule, Abdelaziz sought legitimacy from the Muslim world of being the custodian of Mecca and Medina. It meant that the Ikhwan could not further be allowed to smash non-Wahhabi pilgrimage sites and shrines. The Ikhwan was contemptuous with the King’s decisions. They felt betrayed, particularly when the King introduced the so-called devil’s inventions-the radio, the telephone, and the car. Defying the King’s words, they attacked the British positions in Iraq and Kuwait. The British reached an agreement with King Abdelaziz, and the British warplanes strafed Ikhwan positions as hundreds of men, women and children died.
In a decisive battle in March 1929, the Saudi loyalist troops decimated the Ikhwan ranks. Many Ikhwan families found themselves orphaned by the fighting, while the survived Ikhwan fighters nursed grievances. Mohammed bin Seif al Uteybi, a veteran Ikhwan fighter always remembered the words of his legendary leader Sultan al Bijad: “Never give up.” Seven years later he celebrated the birth of a son. His baby son used to grimace a lot, so he named him ‘the scowler,’ or in Arabic ‘Juhayman.’
On November 20, 1979, a new generation of Ikhwan brothers led by Juhayman bin Seif al Uteybi forcefully took control of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. It was the first day of Muharram of the Hijri year 1400, the day the prophesied Mahdi is supposed to reveal himself. In front of the thousands of Muslim pilgrims assembled from all over the world, Juhayman declared his brother-in-law Abdullah Mohammed al-Qahtani as the new Mahdi. The affair proved to be quite a nuisance for the Saudi government who were at first clueless on how to tackle the situation. Rumors spread it was the Americans and the Israelis who took control of the Grand Mosque. The Saudi government was reluctant to quash these rumors; a media blackout was imposed. Violence erupted in the Muslim world as angry mobs attacked the American embassy in Pakistan blazing it to ruins. Two American soldiers were killed in the incident. Surprisingly enough, Washington did not take offense regarding the assault. President Jimmy Carter thanked President Ziaul Haque for deploying his troops, though Ziaul Haque didn’t do any such thing. In the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, an angry mob tried to burn down the American embassy . They were held at bay by the police.
Under mounting American pressure, the Saudi authority finally acknowledged there was no US involvement in the attack. The Saudi royals nonetheless couldn’t forgive Washington for leaking the news of a disturbance in Mecca on the first day of the crisis. The Grand Mosque in the meantime was in full control of Juhayman and his armed men. A recapture attempt made by the Saudi armed forces ended in a bloodbath, as they were mercilessly shot dead by Juhayman’s snipers. The Saudis were running out of options. In the meantime, they had to handle a sudden Shia uprising in the eastern borders. Juahyman’s forces took shelter in the intricate underground mazes of the Mosque complex. The Saudi troops didn’t have the logistic to carry an operation in such places. Finally, the Saudis approached the elite French forces. 11 members of the French force arrived with no identification. Three of them converted to Islam to enter the Mosque compound to assist the Saudi troops in carrying out the operations. The Bin Laden Company, which had constructed much of the Grand Mosque compound, helped the officials with the blueprints of the complex. In the final battle, the alleged Mahdi was killed in the gunfight. Juhayman and 170 of his followers were captured from the mazes, including his wife. Some 117 rebels had died. The Saudi authorities claimed that they had only lost 60 military personnel. A combined official total of 270 fatalities were greeted with skepticism. Independent observers and witnesses estimate that, the two weeks of warfare around the grand mosque cost well over 1000 lives, possibly even more.
On the morning of January 8, 1980, Juhayman and 80 of followers were executed publicly. They did not include two African-American converts who joined the revolution. The Saudi and the U.S officials reached an agreement not to disclose American presence in the uprising, a fact if disclosed could have fueled the conspiracy theories propagated by Khomeini. The event had a significant impact on the Saudi society. Soon after the Mecca uprising, the Saudi Prince Nayef ordered to remove all the women announcers from the Saudi TV. A parallel crackdown was also launched on working women. A giant influx of cash was made available to the Wahhabi ulema. It was an effort to express the Saudi government’s determination to enforce Islamic behavior. Apart from the Mahdi issue, the Wahhabi ulemas hold the same views Juhayman did.
The paroxysm of extremist groups is not a new phenomenon in the history of Political Islam. With ISIS starting to lose its control in much of the territories it once controlled is perceived by many as a signal of its end days. The ideas championed by ISIS can never be vanquished. ISIS is only the latest addition to a long list of Utopian Salafists, and they won’t be the last. It is not merely a skirmish; the Islamists have rather started a ‘war of ideas.’ Using the modern means the Islamists are reinventing a tradition to change the world order. The institutional Islamists like Muslim Brotherhood who participate in the elections and the jihadists like ISIS both are advocates of a genocidal totalitarianism. The only difference is that they merely use different means to attain the same goal.
1. The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda, Yaroslav Trofimov
2. The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan
3. Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia; Robert Lacey
4. The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, David Commins
5. Islamism and Islam, Bassam Tibi