– Internecine conflict in Islam –
The world of Islam with more than 1500 million adherents spread over almost all the continents of the world is not in a very happy state. In fact, the religion is in a dire state. This state of affairs arises not because Islam is under attack externally from rival religions, although there is some discernible evidence supporting this notion, but mainly because it is perennially in the throes of intra-religious animosity which is now surfacing as a violent internecine conflict. This conflict is of late taking on such severe dimensions that the very foundation of the religion is in danger of being seriously shaken or even damaged.
The sectarian conflict in Islam is not of recent making. The two major sects of Islam – Sunni and Shia – had been at loggerheads right from the time of the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. After the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, the religion had faced serious succession problem. The monolithic structure of the religion, which Prophet Muhammad had built up almost single handedly in his own lifetime, started to crumble immediately after his death. The split did not come about on ideological difference but because of political rivalry and power struggle between Prophet’s tribe and the heir of his family. Prophet Muhammad did not leave any son and his only daughter was married to his first cousin, Ali who comes from a different tribe. Although the son-in-law, Ali was Mohammad’s chosen successor and should be the legitimate heir to Islamic empire to assume the Caliphate, but he was effectively out-maneuvered by the leaders of the Quraysh tribe on grounds that Ali did not come from the same tribe. It may be recalled that tribe was at that time the central piece of Arab society and most seriously adhered to for physical, moral and economic protection. Hence the leaders of the tribe chose Abu Bakr, a prominent leader of the Quraysh tribe, as their first Caliph. For the sake of unity and cohesion in Islam, Ali accepted this decision as well as the decisions to select next two Caliphs from the same tribe bypassing him.
Eventually when he became the fourth Caliph of Islam, he had to face hostility from the Quraysh tribe and revolts by the followers of previous three Caliphs. On Ali’s death, after some political dissent and tribal antagonisms, when his son, Husayn, was invited to take up his position as the next Caliph in Kufah in Iraq in 680 AD and he was going there from Makkah with his family to take up the position. But on his way to Kufah, he was confronted in Karbala with the army of the rival Caliph supported by the Quraysh tribe. He along with his family was slain in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. That battle and the massacre ensuing thereof left an indelible mark of savagery in Islamic history and it formed the watershed of permanent split in Islam making two sects in Islam — the Sunnis, the followers of first three Caliphs and the Shias, followers of Ali and his descendants. That animosity and hostility between these two sects became so deeply ingrained that it remained vivid and undiminished even today.
The Sunni remained the dominant sect in Islam ever since and it effectively remained the flag bearer of Islam totally overshadowing the Shia sect. However, during the period of 8th century to about 14th century, when Sunnis along with Shias and other smaller denominations pursued science and literature, art and music, architecture and all other forms of human intellectual pursuits with utmost vigour and energy, the internal differences remained subdued. The Islamic world collectively achieved unimaginable cultural successes. Those were the Golden Ages of Islam and it was at the forefront of human civilisation. There were hardly any discontent and discord between the sects or denominations.
Since the start of Wahhabi ideology by Abd-al Wahhab (from Jaid, what is now in Saudi Arabia) in the 18th century and the adoption of this ideology by Mohammad ibn-Saud, the ruler of Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, the age-old fault line between the first three Caliphs of Islam and the subsequent developments of Islam from the fourth Caliph of Islam, Ali re-emerged. In fact, the division was exacerbated by Sunnis adopting the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology, whereas Shias upheld the extant ideology of the day. The Wahhabi movement, which may also be branded as Salafism, is the ultra-conservative Islamic ideology which rejects any interpretation of original Islamic teachings as unacceptable and impure — branding such practices as sheer innovation and revisionist in character. This movement demands that Islam must rely exclusively on Quran and Hadith as propounded by Prophet Mohammad and the first three Caliphs – the fundamentalist ideology. This dogma effectively excluded Shias from the main stream of Islam, which Sunnis effectively claimed to be their alone.
At the start of the alliance between Mohammad ibn-Saud made and Abd-al Wahhab, it was agreed that the Wahhabi movement of Abd-al Wahhab would be enforced and promulgated throughout the Arab land (and beyond) by ibn-Saud and his heirs in return of ibn-Saud family retaining the proprietary right of the movement. Since that time, ibn-Saud and his heirs kept their promise and the Wahhabism became almost synonymous with ibn-Sauds’ ideology and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia became the vanguard of Wahhabism.
The Saud family clung to this fundamentalist ideology of Islam not so much out of conviction for the purity of the ideology but as a strategic machination that by adopting this fundamentalist ideology they will have the legitimacy of Islam to rule over the holy land of Saudi Arabia. The king of Saudi Arabia became the custodian of two holy mosques in Saudi Arabia and hence he was, de-facto, the keeper of Islam and Islamic ideology in all its purity and pugnaciousness as enunciated in Quran and Hadith. This is the religious / ideological basis of ibn-Sauds’ claim over the land of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world.
During the next 140 years since the alliance, ibn-Sauds mounted various campaigns against other sects of Islam – particularly against the Shia. In 1802 they attacked the city of Karbala – the most holy city for the Shias, ransacked the city, killed thousands of civilians and destroyed the dome over the grave of al-Husayn (son of Ali). Since late 1940s when Saudi Arabia as a country started to become stable on the back of petro-dollars, there was discernible evidence of the gradual rise of Wahhabism. The country spent over $87 billion expounding Wahhabism throughout the world over the last 60 years or so. They overtly and covertly subsidised and donated funds to almost every country in the world to setup mosques, Islamic centres, Islamic schools, madrasas and Muslim ummahs (communities).
These outlets offered Saudi Arabia the springboard to spread Wahhabism or fundamentalist Islamic ideology all over the world. It carried out its operation very discreetly and surreptitiously so that no suspicion or antagonism is aroused in the host country. Many schools, colleges, universities, big industrial organisations in many Western countries had seen the seed corn of Islamic Centres sprouting up with Saudi funds, taking advantage of religious freedom of liberal democracies in the host countries. Radical Imams were recruited to the mosques to nurture Wahhabism. It then became a very small step from this fundamentalist religiosity to Jihadist ideology.
When the then USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the pro-Russian regime in that country, there were a large number of readymade Jihad ideologists in the Western Countries too eager to go and fight the infidels. The Western Governments, particularly the USA through CIA, channelled large amount of money, arms and ammunitions to the Mujahedeen comprising local and foreign Jihadists to fight the aggressors. Pakistan offered military support and intelligence through Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Saudi Arabia offered financial assistance and theological backing. The USSR (present day Russia) had been defeated and was forced to withdraw. The CIA backed Mujahedeen, which later became the backbone of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, took over the country and established an Islamic State. They introduced Sharia Laws – banned women education, banned modern education to introduce Islamic education through madrasas, destroyed art and culture associated with non-Islamic tradition. The country became the safe haven of terrorist organisations and Osama bin Laden was given the official sanctuary there.
The success of Afghanistan to become a fundamentalist Islamic State was the springboard for further expansion of Wahhabism throughout the whole world. The hands that fed Mujahedeen/Taliban in their infancy in Afghanistan were now bitten hard and Pakistan is in mortal danger of being swallowed up by Taliban. The tribal regions of North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, which were traditionally unruly and fractious, became the first areas to be taken over by fundamentalist Taliban. At the same time numerous religious organisations started cropping up in cities and towns in Pakistan and, needless to say, their expansion was accompanied by extreme violence. The Ahmadi sect belonging to Shia ideology was declared non-Islamic by the religious zealots in Pakistan, which was then upheld by the Pakistani religious hierarchy.
This process of backdoor Islamisation propagating Wahhabism had been going on ever since Bangladesh came into existence in 1971. Organisations like ibn-Sina Bank, ibn-Sina Hospital and Medical Centre, ibn-Sina School/College, mosques, madrasas etc. were setup with Saudi Arabian money or assistance to attract people to Islamic identity (Wahhabism). There were many ingenuous ways of supporting religious activities. For example, when a Muslim plans to go to Mecca to perform Haj, he/she has to have a medical certificate and that medical certificate can only be given by the ibn-Sina Hospital. The money accrued from this closed practice of offering certificates is ploughed back into madrasas, ibn-Sina educational establishments etc. In addition, there are financial kickbacks to corrupt politicians to support Islamic ideology and activities within the country. The ideology that is spread under all these activities is nothing other than Wahhabi fundamentalism.
In Iraq when Saddam Hussein was overthrown the conflict between the Sunni and the Shia, which was never too far below the surface, bubbled up and engulfed the entire country and the internecine conflict started with all its ferocity. Islamist fighters calling themselves Jihadists and purporting Wahhabi ideology congregated from various parts of the world – Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — to fight the Shias and decimate them.
The war that is raging in Syria now is nothing but the intra-religious conflict between Shia and Sunni. There is the veneer of Arab Spring fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad to establish democratic rights, but beneath it all is blood feud of Islam. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf States are pouring money, arm and ammunition to rebels who are dominantly Sunni fighters and they are joined by al-Qaeda jihadists to fight against the Shias represented by the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. This clear religious divide can be seen when Hamas (Lebanese Sunni militia) joined the rebels and Hezbollah (Lebanese Shia militia) joined the Assad regime. Turkey, a Sunni country, is supporting rebels whereas Iran, a Shia country, is supporting the Assad regime. So Shia-Sunni religious conflict is raging in all its severity in Syria and sucking in Western powers inadvertently.
The sectarian conflicts in the Middle East may not all have their roots firmly embedded in the Shia-Sunni divide, but the major ones are definitely so. The decade long in-fighting and blood bath in Lebanon, the present sectarian killing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and so forth are all rooted in Shia-Sunni conflict. In Pakistan, Sunni Muslims instigated by religious zealots perpetrated bestial murders of Shias in the name of religion.
Then there is the additional religious divide: the fundamentalist Sunni upholding Wahhabism and the moderate Sunni. The conflict in Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood purporting Wahhabism and the so-called secularists believing in moderate Sunni theology should be seen in that light. A similar situation is brewing up in Bangladesh almost imperceptibly. The Jamaat-e-Islam, Hifazat-e Islam and many other religious-political parties are following Wahhabi ideology almost obliviously through their ignorance.
The internecine conflicts that are raging overtly all over the Islamic world and covertly in non-Islamic world are damaging the very foundation of Islam. When faced with regressive positions of the Muslims vis-à-vis other religious followers, the Muslim theologians came out with the overt solution that progress could only be achieved through the enforcement of strict ideological purity and by rejecting western modern education. The basis of such a theological dogma was mistakenly based on the presumption that Islam achieved greatness during the ‘golden ages’ by adhering strictly to its religious values. Nothing could be furthest from the truth and it is extremely dangerous to underpin theological basis on wrong historical presumptions. Islam achieved greatness by following whole heartedly science and technology, art and culture etc. and relegating religious dogma completely. If religion is rejected as the main anchor in the Islamic world today, then the historical schism that had dogged Shias and Sunnis from the beginning will lessen in strength and the religion can coexist with other religions in the modern world.
September 17, 2013
A. Rahman is a Nuclear Safety Specialist.