Sunday, 25 September 2016



Wahhabism, the ruling religious sect in Saudi Arabia, ‘is no part of Sunni Islam’. So has virtually implied a gathering of two hundred Sunni Muslim scholars assembled in Grozny, the Chechen capital. In practice, as the Christian Church used to do, they have issued a covert anathema: ‘Let the Wahhabis be cast out’!

Explosive stuff. As mainline Islam consists of the two major movements, Shias and Sunnis, to suggest that a group is excluded from the latter is logically tantamount to declaring Wahhabis non-Muslims. Like the much detested and persecuted Pakistani Ahmadiyya. Or at least to make them into heretics. Count on it, the arrogant Saudis, custodians of the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, oil rich, British monarchy-connected and armed to the teeth, will hit back. With weapons not all metaphorical, probably.

What sort of weight the Grozny verdict precisely carries is disputable. There is no Muslim Pope to promulgate official dogmas. (Influential Imams like Yusuf al-Qaradawi might covet the role but it is a no-no.) Instead, there is something called ‘consensus of believers’. In practice that means agreement of the ulama’, the scholars. But what when the ulama’ are divided? Or accused to be in the pay of rulers like Putin (Chechnya, led by thuggish Ruslan Kadyrov, is part of the Russian Federation) and the Egyptian strong man General Sissi? Tricky.

You could argue that it serves the Saudi-Wahhabis right. They have been fomenting sectarianism and extremism throughout the Middle East and further afield. Inspiring murderous Jihadis like the ISIS bunch, a.k.a. Daish. The mayhem in wretched Syria emanates directly and indirectly from Saudi regime. Jihadis’ unpleasant habit of doing ‘takfir’ – pronouncing fellow Muslims ‘kuffar’ or infidels and hence fair game, i.e. to be lawfully slaughtered – goes back to a medieval fountainhead, the famous Ibn Taymiyya. His fatwa against Mongol converts forms the ancestral theological basis for Wahhabi lethal intolerance, exemplified in the practice of takfir. The Grozny judgement perhaps pays the Wahhabis back in their own coin. Poetic justice?

Interesting how the Catholic Church seems to have given up anathemas. Contrary to centuries-old custom Vatican II, the last Council, did not issue any. Maybe a wise, pragmatic decision. When the State was the secular arm of the Church, damning people for being outside the body of Christ had dire consequences. From confiscation of property to imprisonment or execution. Today the Church is powerless. Anathemising any dodgy lot, like advocates of priestesses or the baptism of cats and dogs, would only confer on them extra kudos as victims. When the Vatican stripped theologian Hans Kung of his title as a Catholic teacher, the heretic’s book sales soared!

Amongst the Wahhabis’ traditional adversaries and bêtes noires are the Sufis. Folks organised in mystical Orders, cults under the leadership of a sheikh or spiritual master. The Whirling Dervishes of Turkey are an example. Sufi veneration of their founders, praying by graves, honouring saints and the like, the Wahhabis consider as dangerous innovations, to be violently eradicated. Somehow that gives the Sufis a good press in the West. Not violent ones but harmless contemplatives and quietists, they are assumed to be. But because fundamentalist fanatics loathe the mystics it does not follow all Sufis are cute, cuddly and pacific. Instead, some Sufi fraternities have been exceedingly warlike. Muhammad Ahmad of Dongola, the putative Mahdi of Sudan who rose up against the British and in 1885 killed General Gordon at Khartoum, was a Sufi and a leader of dervishes. Likewise, the Turkish Mevlevi Order, to which the whirling fellows belonged, actively participated in all the Ottoman
military campaigns. And the fighters who resisted the French advance in North Africa obeyed the commands of Sufi masters. So, quite pacifists the Sufis are not.

‘There is a civil war raging within Islam, especially in the Middle East, between Sunnis and Shias’, pundits pontificate. True and the Grozny conference and its related squabbles and anathemas indicate that the conflict runs through the heart of Sunnism, too. Of course, because for Semites religion and politics are closely intertwined the battle encompasses both spheres. Maybe Putin miscalculated when he personally opened the gathering. You see, he has identified himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church – twice visiting Mount Athos, a prestigious centre of Eastern monasticism – and if anything could unite all Sunnis it would be their common hatred against the Third Rome. And not just the Sunnis. After all, didn’t Ayatollah Khomeini once write to President Gorbachev, inviting him to embrace Islam?

To be fair, any religion has to draw a line somewhere. Even an ultra-liberal and wimpish Christian outfit like the World Council of Churches, which would never dream of casting anathemas, excludes some movements. Because the WCC is open only to churches which profess the divinity of Christ and believe in the Trinity. So, ‘Christians’ like Unitarians and Jehovah Witnesses are barred from membership. I recall some zealots way back wanting to declare apartheid a heresy and so the Dutch Reformed Church pulled out of the WCC before being expelled. Maybe anathemas still have a use in Christianity, providing they are politically correct!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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