More than 200 Muslim scholars came together in Grozni, Chechnya, for a conference on Islamic issues. They attended from Russia, Syria, Turkey, India, the UK, Lebanon, South Africa, Jordan… and Egypt had a very strong presence.
So what’s special about this, you may be wondering? This is perhaps one of the first times that mainstream Sunni scholars distanced themselves so clearly from Wahhabis, and everyone noticed… But to better understand the significance, here is the broader context to keep in mind…
A bit of context
There are two ideological schools in Islam, namely the Sunni and the Shia, in addition to the Sufi school which runs across both, being more of an behavioural outlook on life than an ideological school. Sunni Islam has two main theological schools (Ash’ari/Maturidi and Mu’tazilite) as well as four major legal schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali). This conference was organized by Sunni scholars, for Sunni scholars.
In the Sunni world, there are two main centers of religious authority: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Egypt is home to Al Azhar, one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world, having been founded around the year 970 by the Fatimids. (Although it only gained university status according to modern standards in 1961, it has been continuously teaching and graduating students since its foundation in 970, making it one of the oldest universities in the world today.)
Saudi Arabia [as it is called today in reference to the family of Saud who basically were given the country to rule in exchange for their allegiance, first to the UK, then to the US] is home to Islam’s 2 holiest sites: Mecca, where about 3 million Muslims converge yearly for about 10 days to perform their annual pilgrimage,
and the city of Medina (or Al Madina Al Munawwarah, the “Radiant City” or the “Illuminated City”) where the Holy Prophet Muhammad is buried.
Egypt, with a population of about 92 million, carries much political and religious weight because Sunni Muslims generally look up to the positions of Al Azhar and its Imam, as well as the grand mufti of Egypt, as the top religious authorities in the world. Egypt is tremendously rich in history, culture, arts, personalities, and has a strong presence in the region in terms of politics and military power, as well as economically. Egypt is therefore considered the center of mainstream Sunni Islam in the world.
Saudi Arabia, although about twice as large in area size, has a population of about 30 million, and has none of the diversity and richness of Egypt in any dimension. Since the 1940’s when oil was discovered, it has been doing what it can to position itself as the main power in the region, having now become the largest importer of arms in the world and often being overtly and directly involved in the internal affairs of its neighbouring states. Saudi Arabia is home to Wahhabism (who themselves prefer the term Salafis and scripturalists), an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, under the Hanbali school of Islamic law. Generally speaking, the reverence that Muslims have for Saudi scholars stems from the symbolic significance of Islam’s 2 holiest sites being in Saudi Arabia, as well as the unmatchable funding that Saudi Arabia uses to propagate its ideology and promote its policies.
The roots of the Saud family can be traced back all the way back to a Jewish man by the name of Mordakhai bin Ibhrahim bin Moshe, who initially lived in southern Iraq, and who joined a caravan by tricking them and came to the Arabian Peninsula in 851. With time, he was able to eliminate opponents and those who questioned his historical fabrications, create allegiances and alliances, and have many children to spread his name far and wide. (Of course, this is not the official version of their biography, and many historians and journalists in Saudi Arabia have lost their lives when digging too deep and revealing too much of this history. The official family tree of the Saudi Dynasty is now directly connected back to Prophet Muhammad…)
In 1744, one of the descendants of that man, Muhammad ibn Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin (d. 1765), [his father’s name, Saud, being the name based on which present day Saudi Arabia is named] made a pact with a rogue religious scholar called ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of the Wahhabi movement.
The latter was running away from the wrath of many Islamic scholars, including his father and his brother, who had run out of patience with his un-Islamic and unacceptable ideas and who considered him as having deviated from the religious teachings. He came to a little place called Ad-Diriyyah seeking protection, and was allowed to become the much needed religious and ideological façade of the Saudi family, in return for political and military protection and wealth. Their oath of loyalty was made official and public by marrying the son of Ibn Saud’s son (Abdul Aziz d. 1803), to ibn Abd al Wahhab’s daughter.
Today, about 300 years later, the two families are still very intertwined and closely knit and the descendants of Abd al Wahhab hold a prestige similar to that of the Saud family (descendants of ibn Abd al Wahhab carry the family name Al ash-Sheikh who form the majority of the clerics in Saudi Arabia).
The 3-day conference, organized by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, and which actually took place about a week ago, was called “Who are Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah?” Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah is the full name that Sunnis give to their school of thought. In other words, the title of the conference was “who are the real Sunnis?”
This conference is creating all sorts of buzz. As we speak, the Internet is brewing with tweets and articles, especially from Wahhabi and Saudi scholars, hoping to attract the world’s attention to the “coup” that is being staged against them by the evil false scholars, who are conspiring against the poor victims that they are.
The reason for these attacks? Wahhabis were snubbed. No Saudi or Wahhabi scholars were invited to the conference! (except one relatively known scholar; Hatem al ‘Awni) This, despite it being international, and invitations having been extended to many of the major figures of the different schools of Sunni Islam, except the Wahhabis. Why, you may ask? Simply because the conference wanted to make a stand against the ideology of those who encourage terrorism, hatred, and calling everyone who disagrees with their perverted, backward, and narrow mentality “heretic.”
Instead, the conference saw the participation of Ahmed el-Tayeb, the current grand imam of Al-Azhar, and previous president of Al-Azhar University, as well as previous Grand Mufti of Egypt.
The conclusion of the conference was to provide an answer to the question “Who are the Sunnis?” It stated
“Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah are the Ash’arites, Muturidis in matters of belief, and the followers of the four schools in law, as well as the adherents to pure Sufism in knowledge, manners and purification.”
The participants considered this conference to be
“an important and necessary turning point to correct the dangerous and sharp deviation that has taken place in the definition of Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah, as a result of the attempts of the extremists to hijack this noble title and allow it exclusively for themselves, excluding its true adherents from it.” Following this conclusion, they also recommended the establishment of a national television channel at the level of Russia, and whose objective would be to “communicate the true image of Islam.”
The conclusion, recommendation, and the choice of participants enraged the Saudi and Wahhabi scholars, in addition to Saudi journalists, and princes. Saudi Arabia’s highest group of religious scholars, the Council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia, issues a statement indirectly criticizing the conference by
“warning against any attempts to create rifts between Islamic groups.”
Saudi political analysts and journalists were writing that
“the participation of el-Tayeb in a conference that has excluded the Kingdom from the title of Sunnis necessitates that we change our relationship with Egypt. Our country is more important. Let Sisi’s Egypt fall into destruction.”
“The Chechnya conference took place under the oversight of the Russian and Iranian intelligence services to exclude the Kingdom from the Sunnis. And yet, the Imam of Al Azhar signs stupidly and innocently. Most miserable of allies!”
Many referred to the conference simply as a major betrayal. A known Wahhabi scholar, Adil Al Kalbani, tweeted:
“let the Chechen conference serves as a warning to us that the world is gathering firewood to burn us.”
One academic analyst writes
“The manner in which the imam of Al Azhar is rewarding Saudi Arabia for its immense services to Al Azhar, how he has allied with Putin to kick Saudi Arabia out of the Islamic world… these need a psychotherapist.”
Notable deliberate exclusions include Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian scholar who has been instrumental in the promoting the ideologies and policies of the Saudi Arabia and its allies, and who currently resides in Qatar.
He released a statement on his site declaring
“I was disturbed by this conference because of its objectives and its title, as well as the type of those who were invited to attend and participate in it, as it should have disturbed any scholar of Islam who is loyal and sincere towards his community… The concluding remarks of the conference, instead of aiming to unify the followers of Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah as one in the face of the devious groups in Islam, and who are supported politically by the world, and aided with money and weapons, rejects the use of Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah on the scripturalists and Salafis among the Wahhabis, when they are an important constituent among Sunnis. […] We did not hear a word of objection from those who have appointed themselves as representatives on behalf of Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah against what Iran and those who do its dirty work — such as Hizbollah militias in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen – are doing in terms of killing, looting and destruction, as well as sending the missionaries to Africa to misguide the Sunnis. And not a word is uttered against what Russia or those in its orbit are doing.”
Al Azhar issues a statement explaining that el-Tayeb did not exclude the “scripturalists” and always tries to be inclusive in all his participations and speaking engagements because he believes in the importance of unifying the differences within Sunnism without excluding anyone. But this statement seems to have been in vain so far.
As for the Hassan Farhan al Maliki, a well known and moderate scholar, he wrote that
“excluding Ibn Taymyiah’s branch is not an exclusion of all Salafism. However, Ibn Taymiah’s branch has grown a lot, and it considers the other Sunni schools as forbidden innovations. You reap what you sow. […] the conference remains sectarian, but it emphasises the importance of standing up to the extremists and exposing their use of Islam as a pretext and instrument for the spilling of the blood of those who are Muslims and those who are peaceful/innocent.”
It would not be surprising to see very soon, an international and prestigious conference funded by Saudi petrodollars, to counter the conclusions of the Chechnya conference, in order to re-establish its “Islamic leadership,” as it often refers to it.
I hope that this entry helps you navigate a complex map of foreign names, fragmented groups, and historically charged events, when trying to understand present day tensions…
see all the articles of Making Sense of Wahhabism series: