The Saudi-Ahl-i Hadith connection: Wahhabism as an external policy tool
The 1970s witnessed a growing involvement of certain Arab states, institutions and private donors in sponsoring a number of Islamic organisations and institutions in India. This was a direct outcome of the boom in oil revenues, particularly following the hike in oil prices by OPEC members in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Although the precise magnitude of Arab assistance to Indian Muslim organisations cannot be ascertained, it was certainly significant, although the Indian press routinely exaggerated it, leading to a scare of petrodollars flooding the country as part of an alleged grand conspiracy to convert poor, particularly ‘low’ caste, Hindus to Islam.
In actual fact, few Muslim organisations actually engaged in missionary work among Hindus received such money. Instead, most Arab, including Saudi, financial assistance went to Muslim organisations to establish mosques, madrassas and publishing houses. To a lesser extent, money was channelled to Muslim organisations to set up schools and hospitals in Muslim localities and to provide scholarships to needy Muslim students.
Saudi funds for Muslim institutions in India have come through a range of sources, including the Saudi State, various Saudi-sponsored Islamic organisations such as the Mecca-based Rabita al-Alami al-Islami (World Muslim League) and the Dar ul-Ifta wal Dawat ul-Irshad, as well as private donors, mostly rich sheikhs, some with close links to the Saudi ruling family. Several Indian Muslims working in Saudi Arabia in various capacities also send back money to fund Islamic institutions, based mainly in towns and villages where their families live.
Monetary assistance to selected Islamic institutions is only one method through which the Saudis have sought to patronise and influence key Muslim leaders and opinion makers in India. Other forms of assistance include sponsored Haj pilgrimages for Muslim leaders, including ulema, patronising of selected publishing houses, scholarships for madrassa students to study in Saudi Islamic universities and jobs for such graduates in both the private as well as public sector within Saudi Arabia.
The largest beneficiary of this largesse is believed to be the Ahl-i Hadith, although the Jamaat-i Islami and the Deobandis are also said to have benefited to some extent. The Barelvis and the Shias, both of whom regard Wahhabism as wholly heretical, have received little or no financial support at all from Saudi sources. This itself suggests that Saudi finance to Muslim institutions in India is intended to serve and promote a particular ideological vision of Islam, one that ties in with the interests of the Saudi regime and its official Wahhabi ulema.
Saudi Arabia emerged as a significant sponsor of Islamic institutions internationally, including in India, only in the 1970s. This was a period of intense ideological struggle in the Arab world. Arab socialism and pan-Arab nationalism under Nasser in Egypt and the Baathists in Syria and Iraq and various communist parties active in numerous Arab states all called for the overthrow of monarchical regimes in the region, which they saw as lackeys of the United States and as helping the Zionist occupation of Palestine. Within Saudi Arabia itself voices of dissent and protest emerged, including from those who had been influenced by socialist trends elsewhere in the region.
Then came the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which led to fears of an export of revolutionary, anti-monarchical Islam to the Arab world, including to Saudi Arabia. Ayatollah Khomeini vehemently denounced the Saudi kingdom, insisting that Islam had no place for monarchical rule. He also bitterly attacked the Saudis for being American stooges and for willingly acquiescing in American support for Israel.
In his will, made public in 1989, he denounced the Saudi regime as ‘anti-Islamic’, claiming that it was in league with ‘Satanic powers’. He argued that Wahhabism represented ‘anti-Koranic ideas’ and a ‘baseless, superstitious cult’, and was aimed at destroying Islam from within. Radical appeals emanating from Tehran, including anti-Wahhabi and anti-Saudi sentiments, soon captured the imagination of Muslims all over the world.
The Iranian Revolution played the role of a major catalyst in moulding Saudi foreign policy, in which the export of its official Wahhabi form of Islam emerged as a key instrument. The anti-monarchical thrust of