By Momodou Lamin Yaffa
I was listening to an audio recording of Peter Gomez’s Coffee Time program on West Coast Radio during which he was interviewing both Ebrima Sillah, Minister of Communication, and Ebrima Sankareh, Gambia Government Spokesperson. The discussion centred around violent extremism and Jihadism in The Gambia. Mr. Sillah was exercising caution in his utterances and even cautioned Peter about his choice of words when talking about the issue. Mr. Sankareh on the contrary was forthcoming and called a spade a spade. He warned against incendiary statements that some imams proffer on their pulpits and called for moderation in their pronouncements particularly when referring to our Christian brethren in The Gambia.
I was thrilled by the subject-matter because they broached an issue that I consider to be so topical and fraught with dire consequences that I believe our government, intellectuals, moderate and traditional Muslim leaders as well as civil society organizations must treat it with the gravity it requires. We are all aware of the mayhem that Jihadist groups are causing in Northern Mali and Burkina Faso. We are also aware of the atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria in the name of Islam. Gambians and our government must be extremely concerned about the violent acts perpetrated by the so-called Jihadists. We have been spared so far from the terrorist scourge thanks to our geographical propinquity with Senegal, which serves as a buffer against any impending terrorist disaster.
Senegalese intelligence services, unlike their Gambian counterparts, take the Jihadist threat seriously. They have put all radical imams and preachers under their surveillance radar. They monitor their sermons and conferences at religious gatherings. They are fully aware that the brand of Islam being preached by radical imams and Islamic scholars is alien to traditional and moderate Senegalese and West African Islam. Senegambian and West African Islam likewise universal Islam, throughout its millennial and four hundred years plus history, has been predicated on Sufism, which is characterised by moderation, tolerance and religious devotion. Predominant schools of jurisprudence in the parts of the Arabian Peninsula where Mecca and Medina are situated were the Shafi and Maliki schools. The societies of those parts of the Peninsula called Hijaaz were all permeated by Sufism with Tariqas (spiritual schools) such as Qadiriyya, Shadhiliyya, Naqshabandiyya, Tijaniyya, etc. practised with devotion by the inhabitants of those regions. The same thing applies to the rest of the Muslim world until the second half of the 20th century.
However, a new brand of Islam emerged in the Middle-East, particularly in Saudi Arabia called Salafism/Wahhabism. This article cannot do justice to the phenomenon in terms of its history. We may choose another article to dwell on the matter from its historical perspective. It is nonetheless important to note that radical Islam has throughout Islam’s history been on the fringes of the religion and among religious scholars. The four schools of Islamic Sunni jurisprudence, namely, the Maliki, Shafi, Hanafi and Hanbali schools have never harboured radicals in their midst.
A radical scholar emerged within only the Hanbali school of jurisprudence in the person of Ibn Taymiyya. He was however tamed by the scholars of what is today modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan (Sham in Arabic). When Saudi Arabia was founded as a kingdom after World War I with the support of the British, Salafism/Wahhabism was predicated on the radical views of Ibn Taymiyya as expounded by Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, hence the name Wahhabism. Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahhab was a proponent of an extreme and austere form of monotheism called Tawhid in Islam. His interpretation is considered dented and extreme by the majority
of Muslim scholars all over the globe. Ibn Abdul Wahhab signed a pact with the father of King Abdul Aziz, who founded Saudi Arabia. The pact stipulates that once the Arabian Peninsula is unified, temporal authority shall exclusively belong to the House of Saud while spiritual (religious) authority shall be the preserve of the House of Sheikh Mohamed Ibn Abdul Wahhab. The provisions of the pact were applied to the letter when the reins of power shifted from the Ottomans to the House of Saud. Now that religious authority had moved into the hands of the Wahhabis, they were given the latitude to impose their own brand of Islam generally called Wahhabism. All the forms of Muslim ritual prayer based on the four schools were practised at both the Ka’aba and the Prophet’s (pbuh) mosque in Medina before the Wahhabi conquest. The Wahhabis banned all the other schools from practising their own versions except the one based on the Wahhabi interpretation, which in turn is entirely based on the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.
I crave the reader’s indulgence to narrate an anecdote that many Muslims are unaware of. An international Muslim conference was held in Mecca in 1926. The event coincided with the Hajj of that year. A group of Egyptian pilgrims approached the city with musical accompaniment (Sukuwoo in Mandinka or Qasa’id in Wollof), which was a long established custom during the Hajj. A group of Wahhabi militia called Ikhwan, which considered music a bane, were so inflamed that an exchange of gunfire occurred in which numerous persons were killed. It was a diplomatic embarrassment for the newly established Saudi government in the presence of the conference participants. From that year onward nothing of that traditional musical procession was allowed again in Mecca. The incident was a prelude to the austere form of Islam imposed on Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Many other restrictions ensued such as the appearance of women in public places let alone in the workplace, the destruction of Islamic monuments and relics of the Prophet (pbuh), destruction of tombs of companions of the Prophet and those of people believed to be saints, etc.
Another incident worth mentioning is the siege of Mecca, an event that took place on 20 November 1979. A Saudi citizen called Juhayman, who hailed from the region called Najd, the location of the current capital of Saudi Arabia. He was influenced by the series of preaching of Ibn Baz, the then Mufti of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Baz used to clamour for stricter application of Islamic precepts in society. His influence was so huge on Juhayman that the latter started recruiting and indoctrinating militants to take over the government of Saudi Arabia through an Islamist Mahdi movement. In order to implement his plan, he used to smuggle into the Ka’aba arms and ammunition in coffins and present them before the Imam for the Muslim funeral prayer. Since security measures in place then were unsophisticated, the content of the coffins used to go unchecked. The arms and ammunition so smuggled were taken down to secret locations in the basement of the Ka’aba. When he and his militants launched their attack on the premises of the Ka’aba, it came as a huge shock to the government of Saudi Arabia and the entire world. The siege continued for two weeks without a happy outcome. It was only after the intervention of a French anti-terrorism squad that a denouement was found to the standoff after many innocent lives were lost and people maimed.
The shock was so huge on the government that the then Minister of the Interior, Prince Naif Ibn Abdul Aziz, decided to allow Ibn Baz and his fellow clergymen to apply their strict Wahhabi rules. Movie theatres, which were commonplace in a city like Jeddah, were closed down, co-educational schools abolished and boys and girls started attending separate schools, women barred from taking up employment, etc.
This period coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The government explained to the clergy that they should stop criticizing it now that it had given them all the latitude to apply the Sharia according to the Wahhabi interpretation. They should rather marshal support for Jihad against atheistic communism that was rearing its ugly head in a Muslim land, Afghanistan. This is how modern-day Jihadism started and took firm root in Saudi Arabia. This was also the time young persons like Usama Ibn Laden went to Afghanistan to join the Jihadists.
The Wahhabi clergy thus became a powerful and formidable institution not only in terms of propagating the culture of Jihad but also in terms of spreading worldwide the Wahhabi brand of Islam. Official statistics indicated in 2015 that over USD 100 billion was spent on the spread of Wahhabism the world over. The Islamic University of Medina and the King Saud University of Riyadh became the citadels of radical Islamic theology. Extensions of both universities have been built in other Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Mauritania, Niger and Uganda. The readership of this article who are in their 50s and above would notice our brothers who went to the Arab world (like the author of this article) for Arabic/Islamic education from the fifties to the seventies used to go to countries like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Syria but not to Saudi Arabia simply because Saudi Arabia was then not a centre of learning. It was only in the 1980s that our Arabic students started going to that country for their Arabic/Islamic education. It is for this reason that they and their cohorts like Imam Abdullah Fatty, Omar Faba Jitteh, Chebou Cham, etc. preach and propagate a type of Islam we sometimes find antithetic to the type we inherited from our parents. Not only did they imbibe Wahhabi Islam mainly centred around Shirk and Bida’a but were also indoctrinated to repudiate and denounce the traditional Islam we inherited from our fathers and forefathers, which is based on the Maliki school of jurisprudence and Sufism.
In their attempt to justify the genuineness of their brand of Islam, they would claim it is based on the Sunna of the Prophet (pbuh). This claim is preposterous and far from the truth. All the schools are based on the Sunna; differences arise only as a result of interpretation of the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunna. Their own model of Islam is essentially derived from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. The only difference is their weird and outlandish emphasis on Shirk, Tawheed and Bida’a. Whatever claim they make to be the custodians of the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunna is misleading.
In fact, the reason the author of this piece made it a point to write about the issue at hand is the fact that the proponents of the type of Islam we have outlined above are strong advocates of the forcible application of the Sharia and would be ready to wage Jihad for its imposition. Whether you know it or not, their ardent desire is to ensure that their monolithic and parochial outlook to Islam is the only right way.
For the sake of brevity, I appeal to civil society organizations, intellectuals, our Islamic scholars who adhere to the principles of traditional Islam and political parties to sensitize the government on the danger of religious extremism. It has come to my notice that people are not equipped with the adequate knowledge of Islam to discern the Wahhabi brand from our traditional Islam. As a result, many devout Muslims would unknowingly and innocently admire their predications and believe that they are paragons of Islamic virtue. Unfortunately, this article cannot serve as a vector of the information necessary to know the real nature of Wahhabism. I believe I should author other articles on the matter for greater clarification.
Even Saudi Arabia has hearkened to the threat the Wahhabis pose as well as to the inexactitude of their ideology. It is for this reason that the government has initiated policies designed to deconstruct the entire state machinery from the claws of the Wahhabi clergy. The government has embarked on a huge campaign of “dewahhabization” by allowing women to drive and to travel without a male companion and mingle with men in restaurants and other public places, and by authorizing cultural events such music festivals and shows as well as entertainment locations such as movie theatres, etc.
It is also worth mentioning that the current tussle between the Rawdatul Majaalis and the current Supreme Islamic Council is owing to the fact that the latter is held hostage by the Wahhabis, who are hell-bent on imposing their interpretation of Islam at the expense of the interpretation of the traditional scholars of our Daaras and Majliskundas.
The government and its intelligence arm should hearken to the reality that the Sword of Damocles is hovering over our heads. It is therefore high time we took the matter seriously by engaging moderate and traditional Islamic scholars to educate people so that they know the difference. Many Muslim majority countries are doing it to stymie Wahhabis in their drive to indoctrinate their youths and transform them into uncontrolled radicals. The SIS should focus more on this type of terrorist threat. Boko Haram started as a mere movement headed by a radical imam. It has now grown into a monster pillaging villages and cities and killing and maiming innocent persons in the name of Islam.
I want this article to be the herald of a strident call to all Gambians, especially our government, to understand Wahhabism and the threat it poses. I will, In shaa Allah, come up with more pieces designed to ignite interest in the issue and enlighten people about traditional and moderate Islam devoid of novelties that distort its noble principles such as Wahhabism, which is a fertile and breeding ground for violent extremism as explained here above.
Momodou Lamin Yaffa
Retired Intl. Civil Servant
Sukuta, The Gambia