Saudi Bigot-in-Chief Declares Iranian Shiites “Not Muslim”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

`Abd al-Aziz Al Shaikh, the chief jurisconsult or mufti for the interpretation of Muslim law in Saudi Arabia, said Wednesday that Iranian Shiites are not Muslims.

This statement is a huge step back from the limited progress Saudi had made under the previous king, Abdullah, toward being a more inclusive country.

It is also a violation of the 2005 Amman Message crafted by a large number of Sunni and Shiite leaders to combat the social ill of takfir or summary excommunication of some Muslims by others.

Al Shaikh was responding to the demand by Iran’s clerical Leader, Ali Khamenei (a Shiite) that the Muslim world establish a commission to look into replacing the Saudi administration of the pilgrimage with a more efficient and accountable body. Iranians still smart from the massive stampede in 2015 that left hundreds dead, a large number of whom were Iranians.

Al Shaikh said, “This matter is not surprising coming from those people. We have to understand that they are not Muslims. They are descendants of Zoroastrians. Their enmity with the Muslims is an old affair, especially toward the Sunnis.”

Ironically, in the 18th century Wahhabis were the ones denouncing the Sunnis and attacking the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Through the centuries the Wahhabis have gradually asserted that they are Sunnis themselves. But they did not start out that way.

The foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, replied to the mufti on twitter, saying sardonically that it is certainly true that the Islam of Iranians and indeed of most Muslims does not resemble that of Saudi Arabian Wahhabis:

But calling the Saudis “terror masters” isn’t fair, and feeds into a widespread prejudice against Wahhabis, most of whom are not terrorists and most of whom don’t support terrorism (in opinion polling, the Saudi public identifies terrorism as one of the biggest challenges facing their country).

The fact is, most countries support some terrorist group or another as part of their statecraft (consider the Reagan administration’s alliance with the Mujahidin and al-Qaeda against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s), and Iran would do better to challenge this unhelpful discourse in international affairs than to join in the game.

Admittedly, Saudi Arabia’s “Unitarian” form of Islam, founded in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab and popularly known as “Wahhabism,” is one of the more intolerant strands of the religion. In the past, its adherents excommunicated the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and mounted a rebellion against him (sort of like Protestants excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor). The Saudi Wahhabi tradition is also peculiar in its patriarchy, oppressing women and declining to even let them drive. (But note that Qatar is also Wahhabi and does not have the same policies, so it isn’t just the religious tradition).

One of the challenges to what I have called the “Wahhabi myth,” the stereotyping of Wahhabism as promoting terrorism, is that it isn’t good social science. Many Sunnis influenced by Wahhabism, the Salafis, check out of politics and are quietists. The Salafis in Egypt have been a force in parliamentary politics in the past 5 years. The Saudi citizen population is probably 20 million, and almost none of them are terrorists.

From an outsider’s point of view, Saudi Wahhabism is certainly a much more intolerant tradition than Sunnis; but there have been intolerant Sunnis and Sunni movements (e.g. the Almohads).

That is, Wahhabism is not a static essence but has a history. In the reign of King Abdullah (r. 2005-2015 but the real ruler from the mid-1990s), small attempts were made to reform the Wahhabi tradition. That king founded a university of science and technology that has a mixed-gender student body. He reached out to the 12% of the population, mainly in the Eastern Province, who are Shiites, and effected a reconciliation with some of their previously dissident leaders. These Saudi Shiites were allowed to become powerful through local elections on municipal councils in largely Shiite cities such as Qatif. Shiite rituals were allowed in public in wholly Shiite neighborhoods. At the national level, King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his 150-member appointive National Consultative Council, the embryo of the future Saudi parliament. He brought the former dissident Shiite cleric Shaikh Safar to Riyadh for a joint t.v. appearance with a Wahhabi cleric (a first).

In King Salman’s reign, all these (admittedly minor) forms of ecumenism have been undone and the kingdom’s rhetoric against Iran and Shiites has ratcheted up, recalling the old Wahhabi intolerance of the 19th century. The recent apogee of this turn to intolerance was the execution of dissident Shiite cleric Shaikh Nimr last winter (see video below).

The mufti’s pronouncements, which painted Iranians as crypto-Zoroastrians, reflected Arab nationalist themes more than religious ones. Iranians are not Arabs, speaking Persian, an Indo-European language. One of the subtexts of this sort of claim is that Arabs are echt Muslims, since Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula.

But most Arabs at the time Islam began were pagan worshipers of north Arabian deities like Allat and al-`Uzza, or were Christians (the Banu Ghassan in Syria) or Jews (most Yemenis). What is the difference between these backgrounds to becoming Muslim and Zoroastrianism?

Moreover, Iranians were central to the development of the Sunni tradition and most did not become Shiites until the Safavid reformation of the 1500s and 1600s. That is, Iranians were Sunnis for hundreds of years and it is not clear that historical Sunnism would look at all the same without their contributions. Remember that Wahhabism began as a rejection of Sunnism and involved violent attacks on Sunni authorities.

Twentieth-century Muslim reformers often aimed at taqrib or bringing Sunnis and Shiites closer in an ecumenical spirit.

In some ways those efforts culminated in the Amman Message of 2005, which said,

“They specifically recognized the validity of all 8 legal schools of Sunni, Shi’a and Ibadi Islam; of traditional Islamic Theology (Ash’arism); of Islamic Mysticism (Sufism), and of true Salafi thought, and came to a precise definition of who is a Muslim.

Based upon this definition they forbade takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims.

Based upon the legal schools they set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas [jurisprudential rulings], thereby exposing ignorant and illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam.”

In the end, the mufti’s name-calling is just juvenile, like kindergarten taunts. The difference is that his sentiment at this time of terrorists and guerrilla movements could get Shiites killed. As I survey history from the vantage of my 60s, I am increasingly convinced that most of the wars and violence in world history have been fueled by immature behavior. Immature is a better word for it than ‘childish.’ Some children are well-behaved.


Related video:

RT from last winter: “Executed cliric al-Nimr’s son: ‘Saudis didn’t extract bullet to make him suffer’”

22 Responses

  1. When a person openly calls himself a non-Muslim, i.e. he accepts that he is a Christian, Jew, Hindu, etc. He is confirmed as a non-Muslim

    But followers of Shia sect are those who do not negate the basic principles of Islam, but have a difference of opinion with the Muslims for example, they say Ali (Radiyallahu Anhu) was the most superior amongst all the Sahabah (Radiyallahu Anhum).

    Such Shias will not be regarded as non-Muslims,

  2. I didn’t read Javad Zarif’s comment as calling Saudis terror masters. He says ‘Saudi terror masters’ and, with respect, there are terror masters partout but he is specifically referring to the Saudi ones and including them with the Wahhabi top cleric.

  3. Both sides ( the Saudi scholars and the Ayatullahs of Shih sect) have made mistakes, blaming each others recently due to Saudi Iran regional and global politics

    And both sects are getting into more troubles. And some of us are pouring more fuel into the fire

    It is not desirable to keep this controversy getting kindled ruining the peaceful understanding between sects and by keeping the fire burning the Ummah loses politically, militarily, economically in our international relations with other hostile non-Muslim nations,

    The Shiah leadership should come out openly asking their followers to completely stop insulting the Sahaba ( Prophets companions), the wives of the prophet and contemplate changing their views on the infallibility of their Imams

    • “The Shiah leadership should come out openly asking their followers to completely stop insulting the Sahaba ( Prophets companions), the wives of the prophet and contemplate changing their views on the infallibility of their Imams”
      1.respected “pamohamedameen” has asked something to be done by one side and nothing by the other!
      2.i am not sure how the infallibility of imams concept can be a cause of hurting unity.
      3.”insults” can’t be justified, however it shouldn’t be mingled with difference of opinion or dis-likening. basic tenants of islam no where asked to agree with or like the companions, even the companions fought among each other bloody battles killing thousands.

      unity is to learn living with the differences and not to abolish the differences because if differences are no more, what “unity” will mean!

    • The comment starts off about both sects but then puts the onus on the Shias repeating common Sunni grievances, which is sometimes used to justify bigotry, if not violence.

      The Shia leadership do ask their followers to be respectful but at the same time do condemn personalities based on historical accounts who they don’t consider as saints as Sunnis do, who tend to put all on a pedestal and praise them despite conflict and opposition amongst these characters (I would recommend reading Lesley Hazelton’s ‘After the Prophet’ on the details).

      Asking Shias to change their views on infallibility of their Imams (which really shouldn’t matter to Sunnis) is like asking Sunnis, or all Muslims, to contemplate changing their views on religious miracles with the Prophets which is part of Muslims’ core beliefs. Instead of inclusiveness it sounds like as if one sect is to change their beliefs to appease the other sect.

  4. Rand Study a non Muslim study shows an increased sectarianism that suggests exploiting Sunni Shia and Arab non-Arab divides to promote U.S. Policy.

    A Muslim scholar Imam Sa’dullah Khan points out that Political ideas often deepen the wounds of division,

    And the historical Sunni-Shi’a differences are still deeply used by people with vested interests for political or religious hegemony or regional domination

    The unhealthy hands which strengthen the differences between the Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims, belong neither to the Shi’ites nor the Sunnis.

    They are the forces of new imperialism which plan to destabilize Islamic countries

  5. “The Saudi citizen population is probably 20 million, and almost none of them are terrorists.” — All but two of the 9-11 attackers were Saudi. A very large contingent of terrorists operating in both Iraq and Syria are Saudi. The Shia communities of the Ahsa have been continuously attacked by homegrown Saudi terrorists. Saudi clerics themselves have called for violence against Shias, including women and children.

  6. “The Saudi citizen population is probably 20 million, and almost none of them are terrorists.”
    That is quite a blanket statement, especially in the current climate, not to mention 9/11.Do Saudis join Daesh or al-Qaeda? Haven’t they also busted cells, and had multiple terrorist attacks against the kingdom by Saudis? Yeah, almost none. Thanks for the historical perspective though throughout the rest of the article.

  7. A Modest Proposal

    Now Turkey, Iran, and Russia are well positioned to make a great peace initiative. Simply make a deal with Israel to move to Cyprus with its vastly better natural defenses as an island, at the expense of building mansions for the Cypriots in Turkey or Greece (paid for by funds lost by the US DOD). Now Turkey has Israel which it donates to Daesh and AlQaeda. Now the Sunnis of E Iraq move to Syria or ISIsrael as they please, making room for the separatist Kurds of Turkey (at some distance from Turkey). Everyone is happy.

    If the US spent on this what it has wasted in destroying the Mideast for fifteen years, it could pay these thirty million happy migrants about one hundred thousand per household plus infrastructure, a mini-mosque for every family in a thousand McMeccas.

    Now if Israel does not agree, the best thing Russia could do is to give Daesh, AlQaeda & the Chechens free tickets to south Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Gaza, and have them attack Israel. Russia arranges to “defend” Saudi Arabia and Egypt to preclude US intervention. With all those US SAMs etc, they should get past any air force and into the cities for some door-to-door exercises. Any Israeli first-use of nukes (if they really have any) would be on their own territory. Such neighbors should make Israel consider Cyprus an attractive option.

  8. political executions by our allies must be ignored while political executions by our enemies must be exploited as atrocities. saudi arabia executes 47 one day and shia iraq executes 36 on another. it all gets buried in the back pages. why? because we are allies with both. how can we be allies with both when they are practically at war with each other?
    thats just how we roll baby!

  9. i guess you could say saudi arabia is winning the atrocity match 47-36. what was the spread? a touchdown? saudi arabia must have covered the spread. 11 points is a big margin.

  10. all of this is not to say we don’t help out in the political execution fest. we conducted a droning of six convicts in yemen on monday.

  11. you know the picture of the south vietnamese officer executing the vietcong captive at point blank range? that officer was getting paid by us.

  12. “Because of Saudi rulers’ oppressive behaviour towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj,” that’s what Khamenei wrote on his website.
    It’s not only last year’s stampede with several hundreds fatalities Khamenei addresses here, I suppose. Look at the construction work (a crane crash has caused last year an additional 107 dead people just before hajj), which has desecrated the holy site in recent years, just for commerce. The third-tallest building, the 601 m tall Abraj al-Bait clock tower in the immediate vicinity of the Ka’aba is an abomination. It dwarfs the House of God in a way which can only be regarded un-Islamic. The faithful, many of who have longed for their entire life for eventually making the hajj, are meanwhile driven like cattle from one holy place to the other. Saudi Wahhabism has no problems with destroying historical early Islam places in Mecca and Medina, such as Jannat al-Baqi.
    I really appreciate your attempt to put, in a way, pious Wahhabism into perspective, rather than equate all Wahhabism with terrorism. This is certainly respectable. I can, on the other hand, understand Khamenei very well. To get each year 2-3 million to Mecca is a challenge. I doubt, however, whether KSA, self-proclaimed custodian of the two holy places, can grant the safety of the pilgrims, let alone does Islam any favor.

    • Yes, the logistics of the Hajj are beyond clerical administration. This is why I have long suggested giving Jerusalem to Walt Disney, and Mecca could become a franchise if Disney was not Jewish. But the principle can be extended by modern means.

      Let’s not stop there. We start by popularizing cartoons of ineffectual fundamentalist animals humorously dodging each others’ ambitions at every turn, and Bowery Boys movies with insecure extremist ringleaders somehow kept out of trouble by basically moderate kids and family oriented leaders. Then we can move to sports teams named after each sect battling things out on TV, later scandalously revealed to have multisectarian members working in harmony. Then we move to inflatable ayatollahs and rabbis ramming each other in parades, who gradually take on characteristics of multiple sects. In the finale, we introduce a terrible but hypothetical external threat from central Africa or Iceland, and impugn the allegiance everyone who minimizes the threat or fails to join forces with the unified muslim nations and their new allies. After a generation the threat is vanquished far away with the help of allies of all religions, and we march forward arm in arm to the rosy future.

  13. While deplorable, in honesty, and this might sound like a ‘they started it’ comment, but Ayatollah Khamenei initiated strong language and called the Saudis ‘murderous’ in his complaint about the last Hajj’s tragedy (yes, the Saudi investigation was shady), if the interpretation is correct.

    It’s the last thing you want to do as a Shiite and bad timing when there’s such great sectarian tensions now with the global Sunni population, thanks to Syria and Iraq. There was bound to be a natural strong reaction from a Saudi official, and unfortunately a lot of Sunnis will agree with what the Mufti said, Wahhabi or not.

    In regards to the the Iranian foreign minister use of ‘Saudi terror masters’, I think it’s somewhat fair, as it’s targeting the Saudi government and top officials (‘masters’) and their export of Wahhabism (‘preach’) that spawned a lot of intolerant, if not extremist, groups globally in the past. There’s also the Syrian Islamist militants that the Saudis support which the Iranians consider terrorists.

  14. It seems to be a permanent part of human nature to categorize groups as either us or them and to exclude unity.

    Some Evangelical Protestant groups still do not recognize Roman Catholics as “real” Christians go so far as to identify the RC Church with the allegorical “whore of Babylon” in the Bible.

  15. The historical development of religions offers the power of legitimacy to politicians who exploit it with the most skill. So, while your comments are well-taken the evolution of these conflicts has always stood to managed.

    This seems a classic case of the Saudi’s working to exploit an existing crack for their own selfish geopolitical purposes. These differences are real, but to a great extent they seem to have been exacerbated.

    What seems to be new here is how transparently self-serving the rhetoric has become. Is the Saudi clan getting close to going over the top, to the point it will become counterproductive to them?

  16. “The fact is, most countries support some terrorist group or another as part of their statecraft (consider the Reagan administration’s alliance with the Mujahidin and al-Qaeda against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s)…”

    This is a difficult sentence to stomach: it is certainly falsifiable. One could go through a list of countries systematically, and if one counted strictly on the number of countries that did not financially support terrorist groups, verily this number would be larger than those that actually do support terrorist groups. Too many countries simply do not have the resources to actually engage in material support of foreign terrorist groups. If one instead went by largest countries in the world by population size, well, China does not appear to support terrorist groups worldwide. India, too, does not engage in deep material support of terrorist groups the way Saudi Arabia supports terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. What Reagan did in the 1980s should not provide cover for Saudi Arabia is doing now. That Saudi Arabia is engaging in deeply perfidious activity in Syria and beyond is really beyond question.

    While I personally would avoid calling the government of Saudi Arabia ‘terrorist masters,’ I think the activities they engage in are far worse. They are responsible for ethnic cleansing of a large swath of the Syrian population through their support of terrorist groups in Syria. Surely, forcefully transferring Syrians out of their country is worse than the label of ‘terrorist master.’

    It is disheartening to read Informed Comment mitigate the actions of Saudi Arabia in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Saudi support of terrorist groups in Syria (terrorist groups that are openly allied with Al Qaeda). The depth of their material support is far greater than what other countries engage in. To state that Saudi’s activities are simply like any other country is just false: too many families of dead Syrians know this to be the case.

  17. Should the incident really be described as a stampede, or we should be using the word “panic”? Who dropped the word “stampede” in the mix? Was it was chosen by one of their PR agencies? It implies animal behaviour, blaming the victims. There a quite a few unanswered questions about what triggered it off.

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