Musings I’d like to research: Do the Saudis really fear Iran?
Or better still, musings that I’d like other people to answer…
When neo-Hanbalites in Nejd have nightmares about the Shi'a bogeyman, do you they see before them a menacing Safavid or a bloodthirsty Carmathian?
Here is a breakdown for non-experts:
-Hanbalites: followers of Islamic jurist Ahmad bin Hanbal, who came into prominence during the first half of the 9th century in Baghdad. He set the methodological basis for the interpretation of Islamic scripture (Koran and sunnah) known as the Hanbali school. There are four such schools in Sunni Islam: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Hanbalism is a stricter interpretation of Islam that frowns upon external influences like philosophy or mysticism, which had came into Islam from other pagan or monotheistic religions or traditions. Hanbalism found a 14th century champion and reviver in the person of Ibn Taymiya, a Syrian cleric, who counseled the purification of Islam from all external embellishments and held these ‘foreign’ trappings as the reason for the weakness of Islam leading up to his time (the advent Crusades, reign of the Mamluks, Mongol invasion…etc.).
-Nejd: A geographical area at the center of the Arabian Peninsula, now in east-central Saudi Arabia. Never of great strategic importance apart from being on the pilgrim and trade route from Iraq to the Hijaz (where Mecca is located). The excess tribal population there would usually decant into the Levant or Mesopotamia or the areas in between. Right after Muhammad’s death, the tribes in Nejd and nearby Yamameh (…just where is Yamameh exactly?) reverted to paganism and were harshly dealt with by Muhammad’s successors. Nejdi merchants (especially horse-breeders from Qaseem), as well as the Nejd-based tribal amalgam that came to be known as the Ageilat, traveled far and wide in the Middle East and points further east and created settlements like Zubair in southern Iraq. So Nejd knew something of the wider world but opted to become a bastion of parochial Hanbalism—even though this school of thought was a minority in most Islamic domains. From Nejd emerged a certain Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab, who ostensibly picked up where Ibn Taymiyya (and the latter’s disciple Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya) left off and gave the world Wahhabism in the 18th century. It is best to think of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab as a neo-Hanbalist. [Note: Osama bin Laden is a neo-Wahhabist, Zarqawi is not, but that is a topic for a later time]
-The Safavids: an Islamic empire that emerged in Iran in the 16th century and that had its roots in extreme Shi'a-inspired mysticism. It gradually mellowed out and adopted more mainstream Shi'a tenets, and forcibly made Shi’ism the dominant creed in Iran and the areas under its sway. The Safavids were constantly at war with the Sunni Ottomans and sought to disseminate Shi'a propaganda among ethnic Turkmens and Kurds in Anatolia to undermine the Ottomans. The Ottomans responded by releasing a barrage of anti-Shi'a measures, most notably canonical excommunication. To the Safavids, Shi’ism increasingly became a tool for empire and an ideological foil to be deployed against the Ottomans.
-The Carmathians: known in Arabic as the qaramitah, were essentially nihilistic anarchists awaiting a messianic Shi'a revelation during the 10th century. They became wildly popular around Damascus, southern Iraq and in the environs of Aleppo, and were based in ‘Bahrain’ (the name survives today in the tiny Persian Gulf island but back in the day it was used to describe the entire length of the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, now the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where all the oil is). The Carmathians abrogated Islamic tenets, going so far as to attack Mecca, steal the holy Black Stone (they kept it for two decades then they returned it broken into three pieces) and massacred pilgrims on the hajj, according to the anti-Carmathian accounts that have survived. They were led by a short-lived dynasty of men from Janabeh, a town on the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf. It is yet to be conclusively established whether the Janabi tribe in central Iraq (consists of Sunnis and Shi'as, but mostly Sunnis) are descendants of these Carmathians. Most of the areas that were under Carmathian control in the 10th century contain pluralities of Shi'a populations, and in some, like the island of Bahrain, the Shi'as constitute an overwhelming majority. Just how the Carmathian utopian anarchists of the past turned into the docile Shi'a oasis peasants of these areas today is a big historical question.
So what form of ‘Bad Shi'a’—that is, an existential threat—would have lodged into Nejdi popular consciousness around the end of the 17th century (when Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab was born)?
The closest prototype of ‘Bad Shi'as,’ in geographical terms, were the Carmathians, who seized nearby ‘Bahrain.’ But was that such bad news for the Nejdis at the time and later on? It can be argued that most of the bedouin Arab tribes that stayed in Nejd never really converted to Islam until after the advent of Wahhabism; they had found that their pre-Islamic pagan mannerisms were enough to cover their nomadic lives. So would the Carmathians, who sought to undermine centralized Islam, have been such a calamity on the Nejdi bedouins? I don’t think so.
The other Shi'as the Nejdis would have interacted with since the Carmathians disappeared into the mists of time, especially those settled Shi'a communities that survived in eastern Arabia along the coast or in southern Iraq, would have been docile and meek after living under extended periods of Sunni—mostly Ottoman imperialism or ‘Sunni’, that is non-Shi'a, bedouin tribal—hegemony. These Shi'a communities could not have been classed as scary ‘Bad Shi'as.’
Even the Hanbalism that had been infused with Ibn Taymiya’s fervor does not deal with the ‘Bad Shi’ism’ of the imperialist variety. Ibn Taymiya’s gripe with heterodoxy in all its forms, and especially Shi’ism, was that it weakened the fiber of the faith and allowed pagan beliefs to survive in the Middle East. Ibn Taymiya directed most of his wrath against the Nusayris (today’s Alawites in Syria and Turkey’s Hatay Province who, in my opinion, are remnants of fertility cults that had prospered along the Mediterranean coast of the Levant) and the Druze (seemingly influenced by north Syrian remnants of neo-platonism and sun-worship). Ibn Taymiya saw Shi'as as collaborators with foreign invaders (Crusaders and Mongols were his examples), whose very presence serves to undermine the authority of orthodoxy. But Ibn Taymiya never would have envisioned a Shi'a empire gobbling up the Middle East like the Safavid one intended to do.
So where did this whole business of a 'Shi'a Crescent' come from?
Why are the Saudi royals, the Nejdi inheritors of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab, so freaked out by Shi'a Iran under Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard?
What model of ‘Bad Shi'a’ are they basing their fear on: the Shi'a anarchists or the Shi'a imperialists?
Wahhabi hate-speech against Shi'as has always focused on Iran’s (to them an extension of the pre-Islamic Persian—more accurately Sassanian—Empire) territorial ambitions in the ‘Persian Gulf’—a term that is a big taboo in the Arab world that prefers to call the body of water the ‘Arab Gulf.’ The Iranians indeed have territorial ambitions and tend to see the Gulf as a Shi'a lake; if you add up the population that inhabit the littoral, one will find that more Shi'as than Sunnis live there. The rivalry is made more feverish when one factors the grand prize of who gets to control 70 percents of the world’s oil reserves.
Khomeinist Iran tried to grab at these domains in its early years, but was quickly disabused of any hopes for success. Even majority Shi'a Iraq did not come their way; they had to wait until 2003 when the Americans overturned the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein to resurrect their ambitions there. Iranian influence in the new Iraq and in Lebanon through Shi'a Hezbollah is fueling this latter-day anti-Safavid fetish among Sunnis across the Middle East.
But let’s get back to the beginning of the 18th century and into the mind of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab and the minds of his followers: how did the Shi'a bogeyman get painted as a Safavid imperialist?
I think the key lies in the Kadizadeli movement of the Ottoman Empire.
I just recently became aware of this after doing some reading on the Ottomans: the Kadizadeli movement began during the reign of Sultan Suleiman Qanuni (1520-1566) when a religious cleric called Muhammad bin Pir ‘Ali bin Iskander al-Birgevi was born in the Anatolian town of Balikesir in 1522. He was a Hanafi scholar who began teaching proto-Wahhabi ideas in the town of Birgevi, where he died in 1573. His book against grave-worship and shrine visitation is even available on Salafi-friendly websites. Another native of Balikesir and a disciple of Birgevi’s teachings named Kadizade Mehmed came to have plenty of influence over Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640). Note that Birgevi formulated his ideas at the highpoint of Islamic imperialist power, so it was not a reaction against a sense of defeat. Furthermore, he did it as a Hanafi and a native of prosperous Anatolia, not as zealot Hanbali in the arid landscape of Nejd. It should be noted though that Birgevi relies heavily on the output of Ibn Taymiya’s student, Ibn al-Qayyim, in the writings of his that I’ve seen.
Anti-Shi’ism in the Ottoman Empire was a central tenet of statecraft ever since Sultan Selim the Grim (Suleiman’s father, 1512-1520) waged war against the nascent Safavids and stamped out the Shi'a-leaning Kizilbash ‘heresy’ in Anatolia.
The Kadizadeli movement was marked by hostility to Sufism, the Kizilbash, non-Muslim minorities and the ritual veneration of saints and tombs—all to become hallmarks of Wahhabism later. The Kadizadehs came in and out of prominence over the next few decades in Istanbul, and the last of their ‘stars’ was Vani Efendi under Sultan Mehmet IV (1648-1687).
So the Kadizadehs were probably still around when Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab left Nejd and traveled to Hijaz, Syria and maybe Iraq (…there is plenty of contention about his early life outside of Nejd, some scholars even believe he made it all the way to Qum in Iran). And thus the Kadizadehs may have influenced him at one point or another.
But the Ottoman version of the ‘Bad Shi'a’—both anarchist (the Kizilbash as Safavid agents) and imperialist (the Safavid Empire)—must surely have molded Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab’s concept of a ‘Bad Shi'a.’ Thus, this concept was an import into Nejdi consciousness and did not stem from it.
But how much traction could it really find in Nejd at a time when the Safavid Empire itself went defunct after being overrun by Sunni Afghans and Afsharids in the early part of the 18th century?
Shi'a Persian ‘imperialism’ was briefly revived under the Zand dynasty of ethnic Lurs, who occupied Basra for three years in 1775, and hence came closer in geographical terms to Nejd than the Safavids ever did. But that can’t be enough to explain, on its own merit, the ‘Bad Shi'a’ model later adopted by the Saudis.
So here is my theory: the Saudis, like the early neo-Hanbalis in Nejd, never really feared Shi'a Iranian imperial dominion. Their gut anti-Shi’ism was useful to fire-up the newly converted tribes to seek booty by raiding places like Karbala (1802) and the Eastern Region (finally taken over by the modern-day Saudis in 1913). But most of the strategic battles that the Wahhabis and their Saudi allies have fought in the centuries preceding our modern times were against other Nedjis, Ottomans, Egyptians, Hijazis, the Ikhwan and rival contenders for leadership—all Sunnis.
The ‘Shi'a imperialist bogeyman’ was an afterthought that was probably inherited from the Ottoman-tinted Kadezadehs. Arab nationalism in the twentieth century then added an anti-Persian tinge to it.
But in their heart of hearts, the Saudi royals are not afraid of Iran. They know that Iran will reach its elastic limit as it seeks to lead the Muslim world: their Shi’ism can always be used to discredit them.
So again, what is this business about a Shi'a Crescent?
What is the real deal about the Prince Turki vs. Prince Bandar fight about how to deal with Iran?
I think it is all a ‘Grand Distraction.’ See my upcoming column for more.
And in the meantime, I really hope that someone (…other than my exhausted self) would log the research hours to prove or disprove the assertions, rationalizations and analogies made above.
Well, I thought my column would run tomorrow, but I've been bumped to next week. In the meantime, you can get a preview of what's going through my mind on this topic by reading another column from June 2005, The Saudi Mega-Plot.