Numerous books penned by Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars discuss in detail the ‘great’ contributions of the present rulers of Saudi Arabia to the ‘Islamic cause’, inevitably concluding with the claim that Saudi Arabia under its present masters represents the only ‘truly’ Islamic State in the world today. They also make it a point to call on God to bless the Saudi king and pray for his continued rule. The Saudi monarch is invariably presented as a pious, fully committed Muslim, whose sole concern is, so it is sought to be argued, the protection and promotion of ‘authentic’ Islam. Support for this ‘authentic’ Islam and for the Saudi rulers are presented as indivisible.
Interestingly, there is no reference at all in Ahl-i Hadith writings to the widespread dissatisfaction within Saudi Arabia itself with the ruling family. Nor is there any reference to the rampant corruption in the country, the lavish lifestyles of the princes, and to Saudi Arabia’s close links with the United States.
Nor, still, is there ever any mention of the claim, put forward by many Muslims, that monarchy is ‘un-Islamic’, particularly one like the despotic and corrupt Saudi regime. This is added evidence of the fact that Saudi-sponsored propaganda abroad is tailor-made to suit the interests of its ruling family.
Ahl-i Hadith-Deobandi polemics and the Saudi nexus
As a claimant to Sunni ‘orthodoxy’, the Ahl-i Hadith is not alone in denouncing the Shias as heretics and therefore outside the pale of Islam. In fact, many Deobandi and Barelvi ulema share the same opinion. Hence the virulent opposition to the Shias on the part of the Ahl-i Hadith is hardly surprising. Given its commitment to what it sees as ‘pure’ monotheism and its fierce opposition to ‘wrongful innovations’, its denunciation of the Barelvis, who are associated with the cults of the Sufis, is also understandable.
What seems particularly intriguing, however, is the fact that, of late, Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India have been devoting particular attention to denouncing the Deobandis who, while being muqallids as well as proponents of a reformed Sufism, share with the Ahl-i Hadith a commitment to strict compliance with the Shariah and the extirpation of what they describe as bidaah. In that sense, the Ahl-i Hadith are closer in doctrinal terms to the Deobandis than to any other Indian Sunni group. Despite this, it appears that in recent years Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars have been focussing considerably more attention on combating the Deobandis than critiquing their Barelvi and Shia rivals. This seemingly puzzling development begs an explanation.
One possible reason for this is that the Deobandis in India are far more organised and influential than the Barelvis. The Deobandis manage a number of influential organisations, madrassas and publishing houses all over India. Consequently, they have probably been more effective in critiquing the Ahl-i Hadith than their other rivals, which in turn has forced the Ahl-i Hadith to pay particular attention to the challenge they face from the Deobandi front. In addition to this factor are other developments, related to struggles over money, influence and authority, which have made for a sharp intensification of rivalries between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in recent years. The Saudi connection seems to have played a major role in abetting these conflicts.
The Deobandis, by and large, seem to have maintained the somewhat ambiguous attitude of their elders towards the Ahl-i Hadith and the Wahabbis till at least the late 1970s, when the situation began to change with new access to Saudi funding. In the course of the Afghan war against the Soviets, the Saudis recognised that the Deobandis were far more influential and had a far larger presence than the Ahl-i Hadith in both Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Consequently, much Saudi funding began making its way to Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan in order to train guerrilla fighters armed with a passion for jehad against the Russians. A shared commitment to a Shariah-centric Islam made such assistance acceptable to both parties.
Impact of recent developments on Saudi links with Indian Muslim groups
The 1990s were characterised by fierce polemical battles between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in India, with each group charging the other of being ‘anti-Islamic’ and as hidden fronts of the ‘enemies’ of Islam. Although the two groups continue to regard each other as fierce rivals, the sharp polemical exchanges between them now seem to have dampened somewhat. One factor for this is probably the strong need that many Muslims feel to present a united front to combat the challenge of aggressive Hindu groups in the country.
Another important factor for the apparent decline in overt strife between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in recent years is what seems to be a significant shift in Saudi strategy. Following the events of September 2001, Saudi Arabia came under tremendous pressure from the United States to clamp down on Wahhabi militants at home and abroad. The Saudi strategy of sponsoring radical Wahhabism seemed to have boomeranged, as a new generation of Islamist radicals emerged within Saudi Arabia itself, critiquing the Saudi regime for its corruption and for its close links with the United States. Consequently, the Saudi Arabians were forced to take action against their own internal radical Islamist opponents, realising the major challenge that they posed to the Saudi monarchy.
Simultaneously, and because of these developments, Saudi aid to Wahhabi groups abroad, including India, is said to have declined somewhat. This will naturally have a major impact on relations between different Muslim groups in India, and will most notably impact on the expansion of the Ahl-i Hadith, who have been the major recipient of Saudi assistance in recent years.
Another possible indication of the shift in Saudi strategy is the fact that of late certain Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India have brought out books praising the Saudi State and critiquing what they describe as the ‘terrorists’ who wish to weaken it. These books argue that the ‘correct’ method of the political ‘reform’ that Islamist opponents of the regime seek is not through violence but rather through ‘guiding’ the political authorities to follow the path of God by providing them with ‘Islamic’ advice.
This shows how Islam is conveniently marshalled and often interpreted in diametrically opposing ways by the Saudi regime to suit its own strategic and ideological purposes abroad. Saudi Arabia is said to have been the largest financier of radical Islamist groups abroad, some of whom, as in the Philippines, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir, have taken to armed struggle and terrorism against non-Muslim States. Saudi-funded literature routinely extols such groups as mujahids engaged in a legitimate Islamic jehad. Yet, faced now with its own internal and increasingly vocal Islamist opposition, it considers similar movements within Saudi Arabia as major sources of ‘strife’ and as clearly ‘un-Islamic’. Whether, as a result of increasing international pressure, the Saudis will be willing to extend the same logic to Islamist groups abroad whom they have been patronising for many years is a moot point. n
(This article is an excerpt from the writer’s monograph, "Intra-Muslim Rivalries in India and the Saudi Connection" which can be accessed from his web site www.islaminterfaith.org).