Soldiers of the Empire

The story of Wahabbism and Al Sauds

Note: I do apologize for not having newsletters this week. I’ve grown close to the families whose sons were executed and it was pretty tough for me to emotionally handle all the devastation.

On April 23, Saudi Arabia engaged in their second largest mass-execution where they executed 37 people. Most of them were Shia dissidents and many of them minors. Unfortunately, the saddest myth peddled was from Washington Post, after the Saudis had killed one of their own journalists: Saudis Intolerance Weakens its own Islamic Leadership. Other commentators made comments that people in the region had been “beheading people for centuries.” Both of them play off of racist tropes of arabs as uncivilized savages. Unfortunately, the ahistoric and racist nature of these narratives are a boon to the Saudi Royal family, who have renamed the country after themselves to push the idea that they are the eternal Guardians of Mecca and Medina and the followers of the pious original tradition of Islam.

The Beginning

Around 1744, in Durriyah, a small town of 70 residents near Riyadh, Muhammad bin Saud, the Saudi progenitor was indeed the Emir, which is not unlike the position of Mayor. Around this time, there is a record of Muhammed Bin Saud welcoming Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahabb (the pioneer of Wahabbism) into the town and offering protection. Al Wahabb had just been kicked out of a town nearly 70km away called Umeyna for his extremist moves. They sealed the deal by marriage between Al Saud’s son Abdul-Aziz and Al Wahabb’s daughter Fatima.

In 1803, Abdul Aziz takes his band of followers and sacks Karbala, which is a Shia shrine in Iraq. A French traveller, J.B. Rosseau, in his book, describes the brutality of Karbala

We have recently seen a horrible example of the Wahhabis’ cruel fanaticism in the terrible fate of the mosque of Imam Husayn. Incredible wealth was known to have accumulated in that town. The Persian shahs have, perhaps, never had something like that in their treasury. For centuries, the mosque of Imam Husayn was known to have received donations of silver, gold, jewels, a great amount of rarities…Tamerlane even spared that place. Everybody knew that the most part of the rich spoils that Nadir Shah had brought back from his Indian campaign had been transferred to the mosques of Imam Husayn and Imam Ali together with his own wealth. Now, the enormous wealth that has accumulated in the former has been exciting the Wahhabis’ avidity for some time. They have been continuously dreaming of looting that town [Karbala] and were so sure of success that their creditors fixed the debt payment to the happy day when their hopes would come true.

That day came at last…12,000 Wahhabis suddenly attacked the mosque of Imam Husayn; after seizing more spoils than they had ever seized after their greatest victories, they put everything to fire and sword…The elderly, women, and children—everybody died by the barbarians’ sword. Besides, it is said that whenever they saw a pregnant woman, they disemboweled her and left the fetus on the mother’s bleeding corpse. Their cruelty could not be satisfied, they did not cease their murders and blood flowed like water. As a result of the bloody catastrophe, more than 4000 people perished. The Wahhabis carried off their plunder on the backs of 4000 camels. After the plunder and murders they destroyed the Imam’s shrine and converted it into a trench of abomination and blood. They inflicted the greatest damage on the minarets and the domes, believing those structures were made of gold bricks

Soon after the Sacking of Karbala, the Ottoman administration made some changes and they put Mehmet Ali Pasha, the Egyptian Viceroy, in charge of disbanding the Wahabbis. In 1817, his son Ibraham took his army and pushed the Wahabbis back to Dirriyah and captured the Abdul Aziz, who was then shipped off to Turkey and executed.

Wahabbism as Representation of Islam

Although there were no contemporary critiques of Wahhabism, the most seething is the one written by Ahmed Zayen Dahlen shortly after the death of Abdul Aziz. Here is a translation of it. Most scholars believed that the Wahhabis were a fringe cult with dangerous beliefs.

In conclusion, here is the map of Arabia from 1874. Notice how the Sauds control no part of it?

If you are wondering how they ended up coming to power, the short answer is: the British. But, later this week, I will get into the juicy details that put Saudis in charge of the land.