Saudi Arabia is frequently mentioned today, not only because of the wealth shown by the ruling family, but also and above all because of its investments scattered around the world. As a rentier state, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a flourishing economy based on oil and gas exports for almost 70 years now. This enormous wealth has translated into both an expansion in terms of trade and influence not only in the Middle East, but also in the rest of the world. The first form of influence, and perhaps the most persistent, has been precisely in terms of funding mosques and madrasas scattered globally across all continents. However, the form of Islam that it has allowed to expand through funding, far from being a form entirely related to the Sunni Islamic tradition, refers to a movement born in modern times in the Arabian Peninsula: Wahhabism.
Founded in the mid-18th century, Wahhabism takes its name from the founder of the movement, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who, after various vicissitudes, took refuge in the Emirate of Dir’iyyah, which was controlled by the Emir of the Saudi House, Muhammad Ibn Saud.
At that time, the Emir was in a weak political position and, lacking commercial and fiscal revenues, had little chance of imposing himself on the neighbouring tribal confederations. On the arrival of Wahhab, Ibn Saud, seizing both a religious and political opportunity to expand his dominion, tied his destiny to that of the growing Wahhabite movement. In fact, this alliance was profitable for both, since the Saudi crown, from then on, expanded both its dominions and its forces, while, regarding the movement, it was not only protected by the Emir, but was also actively supported by him.
But in what does Wahhabism consist? It is a literalist current with puritanical traits, whose main objective is to restore the true meaning of the oneness of God by purging Islam of all forms considered ‘deviant’, which in their view have contributed to corrupting society. Therefore, not only is no veneration tolerated other than that towards God, but also all the other practices forbidden by the Qur’an and the Hadith, just as it is forbidden for any Wahhabite to adhere to juridical schools that stray from the original sources, considered by Wahhabism to be the only repositories of the original purity of Islam. Furthermore, the Wahhabites consider as ‘unbelievers’, not only the adherents of other cults, but also the many Muslims who are not adherents of their movement and are accused of spreading ‘corruption’ in the community of the faithful.
Precisely because of its extremism, and above all, because of the possibility of declaring a ‘holy war’ also towards all the other Muslims not adhering to the movement, Wahhabism proved to be of fundamental importance for the Saudis, who violently extended their power in a large part of the Arabian Peninsula.
However, to date, Wahhabism has lost that straightforwardly bellicose vocation that distinguished it until the first half of the 20th Century. Saudi Arabia, after a rather opaque past, characterized by support to Jihadism in the Soviet-Afghan war and, above all, by the scandal of the Charities tied to Jihadist groups, has changed its policies: it has shown, in the last two decades, an ardent will to fight terrorism in all its forms, and with the ascent to the throne of Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been quite active in stopping corruption and terrorism by every means.
Yet, despite the change of course, the fact remains that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is inextricably linked to Wahhabi thought, that is, a rather fundamentalist and radical thought, characterised by a rather negative and intolerant attitude towards all other faiths.
This ‘extremism’ was recognised at the 2016 conference in Grozny, Chechnya, as a movement outside the Sunni tradition: Muslim clerics gathered in the Chechen Republic not only stated that it was outside the Sunni tradition, but also that it was a dangerous sect and guilty of expanding Jihadism internationally.
In fact, the Wahhabite thought, which has spread also in Europe and America, shares a large part of the theological, ethical and moral thought with the more violent and warlike movements of the global Jihadism; nevertheless, it is necessary to state that they differ politically and militarily, since Wahhabism, tied to the Saudi crown, has abandoned the “revolutionary” scheme for the restoration of the Caliphate and the Jihad to expand Islam.
Therefore, in its essence, Wahhabism does not proclaim any kind of holy war against anyone, but its diffusion has allowed the spread of radical ideas, which have contributed to the creation of a context in which it has been easier to spread extreme visions, both with regard to the co-existence with other religions and with regard to the relations between Muslims of different denominations. Consequently, it can be admitted that the alliance between Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia is indeed a ‘dangerous’ alliance, not because it is the creator of Jihadism, but because the thought propounded within the mosques and Koranic schools financed by them, is full of intolerance and hatred.