Last month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” and claimed that it had become “extreme” 30 years earlier, spurred by Iran’s revolution of 1979. His real message was that before Iran went crazy, Saudi Arabia was a moderate state uninterested in spreading its hard Wahhabi creed.
It is true that Saudi Arabia stoked the Sunni-Shia conflict in the region after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but the jurisprudence of the intra-Islam war of the sects was dug up from the Saudi past and its embrace of Wahhabism in the 18 th century. If it gives up extremism in 2017, it will have to say goodbye to all that Wahhabism has entailed.
Prince Salman has staged the big revolution in Saudi Arabia. The world is too shocked at this sudden change — some say not so sudden because it was done in consultation with the United States that has its 5th Fleet in the Gulf — to comment rationally on what is going on. But a reaction is bound to come — and not only from within Saudi Arabia.
In 1979, a “revolution” of a different sort was staged in Kaaba for the opposite cause: The Kingdom was not Islamic enough. A religious fanatic, Juheiman ibn Said al-Utaiba and his gang of followers occupied the most holy place of Muslims. Crown Prince Fahd, who ran the kingdom at that time, decided to placate and promote the Saudi clergy under the fearfully literalist leadership of Sheikh Bin Baz. (Juheiman had been his pupil.)
New fundamentalist Islam soon spread from Indonesia in the east to Algeria and Morocco in the west. One-fourth of the seminaries and mosques of Pakistan are still funded with Saudi money with many mosques dedicated to the cult of the late Bin Baz.
Saudi Arabia has “funded” madrasas all over the world. They are quiet now but will react negatively, and Saudi Arabia under Muhammad bin Salman can ill-afford this reaction since all sorts of Muslims come for hajj to Saudi Arabia every year. The biggest challenge may rise in Pakistan where the Ahle Hadith clerics enjoy a heft with the state beyond measure.
The Islamic State and al Qaeda, in decline these days, will find new volunteers from the madrasas, and a great war may ensue supported by the conservative tycoons of the United Arab Emirates who stand behind terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network that Pakistan can’t get rid of. Unless, of course, the coup in Riyadh is well-planned and coordinated with all the stakeholders of the region and has their consent.
Pakistan started killing its Shias in the decade of 1990 after reading a compilation of fatwas of apostatisation from all the main Sunni madrasas of Pakistan and India. A book was put together in 1993 titled Khomeini Aur Shia Kay Barah Main Ulema Karaam Ka Mutafiqqa Faisla (Consensual Verdict of the Ulema on Khomeini and the Shia) in Pakistan. The text belonged to an Indian cleric, Maulana Manzur Numani, who claimed that “it is a masterpiece of research”.
What the fatwas revealed was even more dangerous. They took their cue from an Indian saint, Shah Waliullah (1703-1764 AD), who went to hajj in 1731, carrying a translation of the first apostatising book, Radd-e-Rafaviz, by an earlier saint, Sheikh Ahmad, honoured under the personal title of mujaddid alf-e-sani (renewer of faith of a thousand years). Waliullah’s son, Shah Abdul Aziz was to issue another anti-Shia compilation, which holds the field even today and was used by the “butcher” of the Shia of Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who blazoned its text on his website.
Will the Saudi prince ensure that no one like the chief priest of Mecca, Mufti Bin Baz, ever comes to power in Saudi Arabia. Bin Baz first embarrassed the Saudi king by writing a book “proving” the earth was flat rather than round, then funding the great Madrasa Banuri Town in Karachi to get its leader Mufti Shamzai to hound the Shia till the latter was killed in 2004.
Saudi money funded to power the South Punjab madrasas of the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba that also sent proxy warriors to Afghanistan. When the founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba, Jhangvi, was killed his widow revealed that she was being maintained financially by Osama bin Laden from Saudi Arabia.
General Zia began the war in Afghanistan with big US-Saudi money and began killing Shias on the side. He was supposed to fight the Soviets, but he “legislated” Pakistan into an anti-Shia state through Saudi persuasion, routinely killing Shias in many parts of Pakistan.
Just as Prince Salman can’t take it any more, the Iranian voter is tired of hardline governments and has elected another “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani, who has signed peace with America and has actually forced hardline spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei to announce the doctrine of narmish-e-qaharmananan (heroic flexibility) to prevent the revolution of Imam Khomeini from destroying Iran. It is time Saudi Arabia too took the olive branch between its teeth and declared peace in the world.