Funding Intolerance

Written by Yoginder Sikand | Published on: March 1, 2005
the Revolution was seen by the Saudi regime as a menacing threat. If the Shah of Iran, America’s closest and strongest ally in the region, could be overthrown as a result of the passionate appeals of a charismatic Imam, the Saudi rulers, it was painfully realised, could well meet the same fate. Consequently, the Saudis, backed by the Americans, began investing heavily in promoting Wahhabi Islam abroad in order to counter the appeal of the Iranian Revolution, both within Saudi Arabia itself and abroad.

Stressing the regime’s ‘Islamic’ credentials now came to be relied upon as the principal tool to strengthen it and to stave off challenges from internal as well as external opponents, from Muslims opposed to the regime’s corrupt and dictatorial ways and its close alliance with the imperialist powers, principally the United States. Saudi export of Wahhabism was given a further boost with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Saudis, supported by the Americans, pumped in millions of dollars to fund Wahhabi-style schools and organisations in Pakistan in order to train guerrillas to fight the Russians. While such assistance, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, was presented as a sign of Saudi Arabia’s professed commitment to ‘true’ Islam, it also functioned as a thinly veiled guise for promoting the interests of the Saudi regime. In exporting this brand of Islam abroad, India, home to the second largest Muslim community in the world, received particular importance.

The sort of Islam that the Saudis began aggressively promoting abroad, including in India, in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, had a number of characteristic features. It was extremely literalist; it was rigidly and narrowly defined, being concerned particularly with issues of ‘correct’ ritual and belief, rather than with wider social and political issues; it was viciously sectarian, branding dissenting groups, such as Shias and followers of the Sufis as ‘enemies’ of Islam; and, finally, it was explicitly and fiercely critical of ideologies and groups, Muslim as well as other, that were regarded as political threats to the Saudi regime. Accordingly, these were routinely castigated as ploys of the ‘enemies of Islam’.


Saudi patronage and the Indian Ahl-i Hadith

A hugely disproportionate amount of Saudi aid to Indian Muslim groups in the decades after the Iranian Revolution is said to have gone to institutions run by the Ahl-i Hadith. This is hardly surprising, given the shared ideological tradition and vision of the Ahl-i Hadith and the Saudi Wahabbis. One result of the generous Saudi patronage of the Indian Ahl-i Hadith has been that there has been a growing convergence between the latter and the Saudi Wahhabi ulema, so much so that today there is hardly any difference between the two groups.

Saudi finance to Indian Ahl-i Hadith institutions has heavily influenced the contents of the vast amount of literature that they produce and distribute. In the last two decades there has been a mushroom growth in the number of Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India. Several of them are said to receive Saudi funds, directly or otherwise. Many of them produce low-priced books, and, now, audio tapes, video cassettes and compact discs, and some even operate their own web sites. Most of the authors whose works they publish are Indian and, to a lesser extent, Pakistani Ahl-i Hadith ulema who have received higher education in various Saudi universities.

Several of them are currently working in various official as well as private Islamic organisations in Saudi Arabia itself. Their vision and understanding of Islam is indelibly shaped by their own experiences in Saudi Arabia. They see the Saudi Wahhabi version of Islam as normative and other forms of Islam as deviant.

Much of the literature produced by Indian Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses focusses on the minutiae of ritual practices and beliefs. This is a reflection, in part, of the overwhelmingly literalist understanding of Saudi Wahhabi Islam. Scores of books penned by Ahl-i Hadith ulema are devoted to intricate discussion of what they regard as the ‘correct’ methods of praying, performing ablutions and offering supplications, as well as rules and regulations related to food, dress, marriage, divorce and so on.

A principle purpose of these publications is to attack rival Muslim, including Sunni, groups, and