Its claim of representing Islamic ‘orthodoxy’ is the Saudi regime’s principal tool in seeking ideological le-
gitimacy. Saudi Arabia prides itself on being, as it calls itself, the only ‘truly’ Islamic State in the world, although this claim is stiffly disputed by many Muslims. Official Saudi Islam, or what is commonly referred to as ‘Wahhabism’ by its opponents, is the outcome of the movement led by the 18th century puritan Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-91), who, along with Muhammad ibn Saud, was the chief architect of the Saudi State.
Exporting Wahhabi Islam to Muslims elsewhere in the world emerged, particularly from the 1970s onwards, as a major preoccupation of the Saudi regime. This was seen as a vital resource in order to gain legitimacy for the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Transnational linkages are thus crucial in the project of contemporary global Wahhabism. Since Wahhabism is seen by its proponents as the single, ‘authentic’ and ‘normative’ form of Islam, it has an inherent tendency of expansionism, seeking to impose itself on or replace other ways of understanding and practising Islam.
As home to a Muslim population of over 150 million, India has been an important target of Saudi Wahhabi propaganda. Private as well as semi-official Saudi Arabian assistance has made its way to numerous Indian Muslim individuals and organisations.
Intra-Sunni rivalry and the emergence of the Ahl-i Hadith
The establishment of British rule in India had momentous consequences for notions of Muslim and Islamic identity. The widely shared perception of Islam being under threat helped promote a feeling of Muslim unity transcending sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Yet, at the same time, British rule opened up new spaces for intra-Muslim rivalry. It was in this period that serious differences emerged within the broader Sunni Muslim fold, leading to the development of neatly-defined and on numerous issues mutually opposed sect-like groups, the principal being the Deobandis, the Barelvis and the Ahl-i Hadith. Each of these groups claimed a monopoly of representing the ‘authentic’ Sunni tradition, or the Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jamaah, branding rival claimants as aberrant and, in some cases, even as apostates. This brought to the fore the deeply fractured and fiercely contested nature of Sunni ‘orthodoxy’.
The pioneers of the Ahl-i Hadith saw themselves as struggling to promote what they believed to be the ‘true’ Islam of Muhammad and his companions. Like most other Sunni ulema, they considered the Shias to be outside the pale of Islam and therefore, kafirs. In addition, they believed that the other Sunni groups too had strayed from the path of the ‘pious predecessors’ (salaf).
Overall, they saw their mission as rescuing Muslims from what they saw as the sin of shirk and guiding them to the ‘pure monotheism’ (khalis tauhid) of the Prophet and his companions. Most of them were inspired by the example of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab and his companions, particularly appreciating the Wahhabis’ criticism of popular custom. Yet, they did not identify themselves as such, refusing the label of Wahhabi that their detractors used to dismiss them.
Many Hanafi ulema saw the Ahl-i Hadith as a hidden front of the Wahhabis, whom they regarded as ‘enemies’ of Islam for their fierce opposition to the adoration of the Prophet and the saints, their opposition to popular custom and to taqlid, rigid conformity to one or the other of the four generally accepted schools of Sunni jurisprudence.
Further, they also saw the Ahl-i Hadith as directly challenging their own claims of representing normative Islam. Numerous Hanafi ulema issued fatwas branding the Ahl-i Hadith as virtual heretics, contemptuously referring to them as ghair muqallids for their opposition to taqlid, which they believed to be integral to established Sunni tradition. Hanafi opposition to the Ahl-i Hadith was fierce. In many places Hanafis refused them admittance to their mosques, schools and graveyards. Marital ties with them