Hoover Fellow Profile: Cole Bunzel On The Past, Present And Future Of Wahhabism

Tuesday, March 17, 2020
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel is a Hoover fellow at the Hoover Institution. A historian and Arabist, he studies the history and contemporary affairs of the Islamic Middle East, with a particular focus on violent Islamism and the Arabian Peninsula. He is currently writing a book about the origins and history of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam.

In this interview, Bunzel discussed his work on the origins and evolution of Wahhabism, how the ideology animates modern jihadist movements, and its role in the political life of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

What inspired your career as an expert on Islam and the Middle East?

To be frank, my interest in the Middle East was largely driven by the news cycle during and after 9/11, and the Iraq War. When I went to Princeton University in 2004, studying Arabic was all the rage. I was one of few students who stuck with it for all four years. I majored in Near Eastern Studies and spent summers in Syria and Egypt. After graduation I returned to Damascus for a year-long fellowship with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad. It was a challenge, but I fell in love with the language. I then went to Washington, DC, to work at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as a research assistant for David Schenker, now assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Next I pursued a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where one of my professors was the late Hoover senior fellow Fouad Ajami.

While at SAIS, I worked as a part-time analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. I considered pursuing a career in intelligence but decided it was not for me. Instead, I decided to go back to Princeton and pursue a PhD in Near Eastern Studies.

What was the subject of your doctoral thesis?

After some consideration, I chose to focus on Saudi Arabia. In part this was because there is not nearly as much work on Saudi Arabia as there is on countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. In part, it was because of my interest in jihadism, the ideological movement associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

At the time, I was developing an interest in jihadism and writing for the website Jihadica, which tracks the developments of that movement. One thing that stood out to me was the influence on the jihadis of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Sunni Islamic movement that began in Arabia in the mid-18th century.

Wahhabism is both the founding religious ideology of Saudi Arabia and the ideological centerpiece of contemporary jihadism. The jihadis see themselves as heirs to the Wahhabi mission, which made me want to get to the bottom of Wahhabism. Fortunately, there was a lot of work left to do here and lots of sources yet to be exploited by scholars. I amassed a great deal of source material, including rare manuscripts in Arabic, all with the goal of reconstructing early Wahhabi history and doctrine.

What went into the effort of studying rare 18th-century Wahhabi manuscripts?

There is a small group of scholars who have studied the early Wahhabi movement, including one my professors at Princeton, Michael Cook. In Princeton’s library he came upon a rare manuscript from the 1740s that was a refutation of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. It was one of the earliest dated records about Wahhabism. I was able to find a number of other manuscripts, also early refutations of the Wahhabi movement, in different places around the world, from Germany and the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Some of these are really fascinating, because they quote the founder of Wahhabism and allow you to see exactly what he was writing and preaching at a particular moment. When you piece it all together, you can see how his movement developed over time and became increasingly more radical, to the point where the Wahhabis were not just declaring takfir (excommunication) on people but were also fighting them as part of a jihad. In all phases of his preaching, however, he was insistent that true believers must show hatred and enmity to non-Wahhabi Muslims.

What do Wahhabis believe?

Wahhabis adhere to a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that involves a strict interpretation of Islam’s foundational texts, the Quran and Hadith. The most important element of their doctrine is tawhid (God’s oneness), which they understand as the requirement that all forms of worship be directed to God alone.

When Wahhabism began, its adherents dismissed the vast majority of nominal Muslims as polytheists. This is because they were seen to be worshiping at the grave sites of saints and prophets. It was a duty for Wahhabis to pronounce takfir on these so-called polytheists and to show them enmity and hatred.

For more than 150 years, Wahhabism was perceived by most of the world’s Muslims as a radical heresy. Only in the early 20th century did the Wahhabis come to an accommodation with mainstream Sunni Islam.

What are the factors that led to the creation of Wahhabism?

One of the mysteries about Wahhabism is why it began in the first place. The scholars who were ideological influences on Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab date back to the 14th century. There is a 400-year gap between these early influences and the formation of the movement.

There isn’t a very compelling material explanation for Wahhabism’s rise. In the 1740s, the House of Saud and the Wahhabis forged an alliance and together created an empire that stretched across the entire Arabian Peninsula, including the important cities of Mecca and Medina. This was a remarkable turn of events, as central Arabia had not seen significant state formation in centuries. 

I put a lot of stock in the view that it was the ideas behind Wahhabism that made it such a formidable movement.

The growth of ISIS in the past decade resembles early Wahhabism in many ways, except back then there was no superpower like the United States to step in immediately and curb its activities. Consequently, Wahhabism was able to grow, develop, and persist for a very long time.

Is the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia more or less devoted to Wahhabism?

The first Saudi state, which reigned in the first 60 years of the 18th century, adhered to militant Wahhabi doctrine. The second Saudi state maintained this identity in the 19th century. The third Saudi state, which was established in 1902 by King Abdulaziz Al Saud [Ibn Saud], began as a militant Wahhabi state but gradually shed this character. Ibn Saud deployed Wahhabi warriors to conquer the Arabian Peninsula in the first decades of his rule, but he later fought a war against the most radical of these militants. The kind of Wahhabism that prevailed thereafter was more restrained and subdued.

The Saudi leadership’s support for this kind of Wahhabism continued until just a few years ago, when Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, started more forcefully to put Wahhabi clerics in their place. MbS’s vision is to create a Saudi Arabia less wedded to the religious establishment.

Does Wahhabism continue to be influential today?

Saudi Arabia is certainly less of a Wahhabi state then it used to be. MbS’s talk about moderate Islam is very much at odds with the foundational principles of Wahhabism. Most Muslim scholars in Saudi Arabia are faithful to the Wahhabi heritage, but that may change in the near future.

However, the jihadis still remain committed to Wahhabism. The former mufti of ISIS, for instance, was fond of quoting Wahhabi sources, particularly scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, because they espoused a radical and exclusionary vision of Islam.

Essentially, there are two competing interpretations of Wahhabism today: a toned-down moderate Wahhabism espoused by quietist scholars, and a militant Wahhabism espoused by the jihadis. The latter, in my opinion, is more faithful to the historical tradition, though there are certainly differences between today’s jihadis and the early Wahhabis, such as the jihadis’ emphasis on the caliphate.

Could the Sunni world’s tension with Iran, which represents a radicalized version of Shiism, cause a resurgence in militant Wahhabism?

For anyone who subscribes to Wahhabism, Shiism is a horrible polytheist heresy that ought to be eradicated. Anti-Shiism is endemic in Wahhabism. For today’s jihadis, as for traditional Wahhabis, Shiism is a much greater threat to true Islam than Christianity, Judaism, or the values of the West in general.

Only just a few years ago, the top Wahhabi scholars in Saudi Arabia were publicly attacking Shiism with the permission of the rulers. They have been made to tone that down recently. However, for the jihadis, it remains a paramount feature of their ideology that they are at war with the Shia.

The early Wahhabis fought the Shia as well, massacring them in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia in the 1790s. The jihadis are well aware of this history and see themselves as continuing this great struggle against the forces of polytheism.

The growing influence of Iran in countries with disenfranchised Sunni populations (particularly Iraq and Syria) feeds into this ideological worldview.

What do you believe is the future of jihadi groups like ISIS?

The future is brighter for groups like ISIS than one might think. The conditions that led to the rise of ISIS, namely political turmoil in Iraq and Syria, persist, and the jihadi movement is by no means a spent force. This is an ideological movement that has grown tremendously over the past two decades. It may well continue to do so.

This is not to understate the crushing military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which is significant. However, ISIS continues to be a powerful movement and carries out attacks pretty much every day in Iraq and Syria, as well in places like Afghanistan and Central Africa.