The faith that was founded more than 14 centuries ago in what is now Saudi Arabia still suffuses the daily life of almost all the population there, as well as in most of the rest of the Middle East. Islam is at the core of their being, and it is for just this reason that the faith has been used to promote the geopolitical objectives of various dominant powers of the globe: the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and later the United States.
In the 18th century, a preacher named Abdul Wahhab emerged with little understanding of the essence of Islam. His version of the faith -- which was, in several key respects, at variance with the softer, more inclusive teachings of the Sufi scholars favored by the Ottoman Empire -- struck a chord with the rugged, unlettered desert people of the peninsula. And it was swiftly identified by the British Empire as a useful wedge against Turkish influence in the region.
With silent but potent help from Britain, the new doctrine spread across the Arabian Peninsula until it became accepted by the family that finally unified the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud. This fateful decision brought the family the welcome backing of the British in their efforts to rid the peninsula of Ottoman influence.
There is a widespread misperception that Islam was spread by the sword, but the reality is that the religion was attractive across the Middle East largely because of the human rights and dignity granted to believers in the faith, which contrasted with the prevalent social divisions of the time. The expansion of Islam was not unlike the process by which Christianity swept over Europe, where religion was seen as a bulwark against the oppression of the nobility and thus spread rapidly among commoners.
The Golden Age
The Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation in his 40th year. He continued receiving revelations for nearly 23 more years -- the rest of his life -- of which 20 were years of peace. Give that the peninsula at that time was wracked by conflict and rarely saw a month of peace between spells of turmoil, the remarkable achievement demonstrates the importance the Prophet attributed to peaceful conflict resolution.
Indeed, the Golden Age of Islam -- from the eighth to the 15th century A.D. -- was marked not so much by conflict but by the honorable coexistence of different faiths under Muslim rulers and by the spread of knowledge across the Arab world.
But this meant nothing to Wahhab, whose followers systematically desecrated even sites and structures associated with the life of the Prophet.
Sadly, a fateful error was then committed by the British Empire, which wrongly regarded the Wahhabi faith as an important weapon against the Ottoman Turks, whose own favored version of Islam was the syncretic, inclusive strand named Sufism. The British appear to have encouraged the family that was unifying the Arabian tribes against the Turks, the House of Saud, to embrace Wahhabism as their state doctrine.
In fact, the Sauds did not really need Wahhabism. The obedience and loyalty of the Arab people was ultimately secured not through the teachings of an extremist preacher, but because the Sauds themselves were rooted in the traditions of their land and its people, as well as in their qualities of leadership.
Extremism Comes To Afghanistan
Although Wahhabism was the official doctrine of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932, little effort was made to export it the beyond the Saudi borders.
But that changed in 1979, when the Soviet Union committed the ignoble act of invading Afghanistan. Once again, some intelligence agencies made the same mistake as the British, seeing extremism as an antidote to the influence of a geopolitical foe.
These agencies -- advised by so-called experts who viewed the local population as primitives needing a dose of extremism to keep morale high -- were facilitated by Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq -- who had come to Wahhabism with a singular lack of scholarly knowledge about Islam -- and who, with the zeal of a convert, sought to change the allegiance of his country's Muslims to the new faith.
Zia ensured that hundreds of thousands of Afghan and other resistance fighters were infected with the Wahhabi strain of thought and offered combat assistance only to those who converted to Wahhabism.
Concurrently, a drive to spread Wahhabism across the globe was begun by Zia's allies in the Middle East. They saw the doctrine as an antidote against communism, but they failed to understand that the remedy was worse than the disease. And -- even more unforgivably -- that it had nothing to do with Islam.
The anti-Soviet intelligence agencies, however, failed to appreciate that they themselves would be the next targets of international Wahhabism. It took the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the horror of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to convince these agencies that they erred in helping spread this doctrine to millions of Muslims.
After the Wahhabis aimed their sights at the rule of the Saudi royal family in the mid 1990s, it became clear that this doctrine was incompatible with the kingdom's stability.
However, in 1995, Saudi King Fahd was incapacitated by a paralytic stroke. He remained on the throne until his death in 2005, but effective control of the normally centralized Saudi system fell into the hands of a shadowy group of people who, for the most part, lacked the resolve to take on the extremist threat. Only with the enthronement of King Abdullah did the House of Saud again have an effective ruler.
Modernizing The Kingdom
The new monarch, confident in his traditions, began immediately to take steps to return Saudi Arabia to the moderate, inclusive, scientific Islam that is the only genuine version of the faith. He was helped in this by the popular support he received from Saudi citizens who appreciated the many welfare measures he introduced in the first 19 months of his reign.
The founder of the modern Saud dynasty, King Ibn Saud, was a vigorous modernizer who overcame the objection of Wahhabis to the introduction of modern inventions such as the radio by repeatedly broadcasting verses from the Koran, thus discrediting clerics who called radio sets "the invention of Satan."
However, because of poor health and other issues (not the least of which was the pro-Wahhabi policies of some of the Great Powers), it was not possible to address the problem of Wahhabi ascendance seriously within the kingdom until 2001, when the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers of September 11 were Saudi citizens acted as a wake-up call for the monarchy.
From that time onward, then-Crown Prince Abdullah took control over the Saudi administration and began the process of bringing the kingdom into sync with the modern era. Or -- in other words -- into conformity with the basic tenets of Islam, which stress the accumulation of knowledge and the need to adjust and learn from one's circumstances.
During what may be termed the Horrible Hiatus (1995-2001), those in effective command of the Saudi regime joined with certain intelligence agencies in giving support to a cadre of fanaticized fighters fresh from training camps staffed by the many Zia followers of Pakistan's openly jihadist military intelligence network, the ISI. These extremists, who began to call themselves the Taliban, were given cash sufficient to enable them to buy out much of the opposition.
As a result, they took over Kabul in 1996. They showed their contempt for international law by first torturing and castrating former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah (who was under the protection of the UN) and then hanging him. In the four weeks after the Taliban militia took control of more than 80 percent of the country, they carried out 6,000 executions, many of them after first torturing the victims. Women and children were among the victims.
Suddenly Muslims throughout the world came face to face with real Wahhabism. Afghanistan under the Taliban was a savage state where women were denied both education and occupation. Men were converted into robots, forced to obey numerous daily, mindless orders of their Taliban tormentors and denied any autonomy. All sources of information -- including the Internet, telephones, books, and television -- were denied to all except the new rulers (most of whom enjoyed a sybaritic lifestyle with funds provided for them by foreign intelligence agencies.)
However, by 1998, saner elements in most of the few countries that initially backed the Taliban pulled back, and the angry Taliban leadership encouraged elements close to Osama bin Laden to carry out the 9/11 attacks. This overreach brought down the force of the U.S. military against the Taliban.
Crown Prince Abdullah consolidated his power in Saudi Arabia in 2000-05 and quickly ended the policy of massive cash infusions for the Taliban. He assisted in the U.S.-led defeat of the Taliban in 2001. However, during this period, Abdullah mainly concentrated on domestic reforms. He created vast new employment opportunities for Saudi citizens by making the employment of locals mandatory in enterprises that previously had only expatriate staff. New schools and colleges were opened, and health facilities improved.
Crucially, for the first time since Wahhabism was promoted by British intelligence a century back, the king opened the channels of learning and some fields of employment to women. By 2005, the relaxation of the previously suffocating rule of Wahhabi clerics (whose not-so-hidden objective was to convert Saudi Arabia into a Sunni version of Iran, where the mullahs would rule) was evident. By that time, it was no longer a crime for Saudis to watch television or movies in home theaters.
Saudi Arabia, which had backed the Taliban during the Horrible Hiatus (1995-2001), was committed by King Abdullah to supporting President Hamid Karzai’s government and the new Afghan Constitution. This document reflects much more closely the gentle ethos of the Islam of the Golden Age than it does the views of the Wahhabi extremists.
The king indicated his inclusive mindset by using secular India as the forum for announcing his public backing of the new Afghan constitution. Indeed, he went so far as to say during his 2006 state visit that India was his "second home," thus disappointing those who sought to continue to tie Saudi Arabia to an extreme version of Islam.
Most importantly, he walked away from the religious supremacy of Wahhabism into the open espousal of a multifaith world. Although others before him had sought a "dialogue of faiths,” these efforts were previously restricted to the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. In contrast, King Abdullah broadened his search for consensus by bringing in faiths that were born in South and East Asia -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
Less than a year ago, scholars from all these faiths met in Geneva for three days and worked out road maps for religious reconciliation. King Abdullah's message was the same as that given in the Holy Koran, which speaks only of believers in the Almighty and not of Muslims.
Now that the Saudi king, using his title as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, has himself blessed the interfaith route, meetings similar to the one in Geneva are taking place across the world, including in India (a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world).
The more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are no less tolerant and syncretic than their Christian and other brothers and sisters. However, the static created by the artificially developed school of Wahhabism has for a time muffled the voices of the moderate majority. With his strides toward the gentle Islam of the Golden Age, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is leading the way back from the disaster into which Wahhabism (and its twin, Khomeinism) threaten to lead the world.
M. D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University, India. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL