Rather like the Naming of Cats, the classifying of Islamic sects is a difficult matter, and it’s certainly not just one of your Eid-Al-Fitr games. As we’ve witnessed the widespread vexation felt by thousands of peace-loving Muslims over the derivation of ‘Islamism’ and ‘Jihadism’ from their more metaphysical meanings, it is pardonable that devout adherents of Allah the All-Merciful and Most Merciful – those who don’t want to slit your throat when they wish you ‘salām’ – might object to the appropriation of their religion by terrorists or the denigration of their sacred doctrine by otherwise beneficent journalists.
Why should serene Sufis have their sanctified glossary desecrated by a splinter of militant Sunnis? Why should the irenic Ahmadiyya have their consecrated creed perverted by a cult of merciless Shia? After all, we don’t call the funeral-picketing Fred Phelps and his stone-throwing Westboro mob ‘extremist Baptists’ or ‘Christianists’. We don’t refer to the murderous Army of God as ‘radicalised Catechists’; or the eschatological Hutaree zealots as ‘evangelical Biblicists’ or ‘sacerdotal Salvationists’. No, it has been our custom instead to adopt a vernacular categorical approach to pietistic aberrations in order to distinguish (for the most part) violent sectarianism from the central tenets of Christianity, thereby preserving (to a large extent) the sanctity of what Christians hold dear.
Thus, out of the hallowed Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in AD325, the Church began to fragment into the unblessed Nestorians and the less-blessed non-Chalcedonians or Monophysites, and thence (to cut a long ecclesial story short) to the cavilling Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations with their immutable traditions, infallible doctrines and mutual excommunications. And thence (necessarily abridging ecclesial history further still) we arrive at everything from Lutheranism and Anglicanism to the Brethren, the Klu Klux Klan, Christadelphianism and the fraternal societies of Friends and St Pius X. Once you neglect the Patristics, disregard Christian tradition and repudiate the authority of Scripture (allegations, of course, which all of the above would refute), there is no end to the plethora of end-times-ushering, pogrom-supporting, cross-burning, pillar-of-fire-worshipping ideologies which might lay claim to a Christian foundation.
But we don’t refer to Guido Fawkes as a ‘Catholic extremist’, or call him a ‘Christianist’ suicide bomber (though, of course, he didn’t intend to blow himself to smithereens in the hope of spending eternity with the Virgin Mary). To the Protestant State his identity was suspiciously ‘Catholic’, and by that affiliation he and his co-religionists were judged to be spiritually subversive and politically radical. Fawkes was a religious terrorist, but he was not a Christian terrorist: the epithet is a Christological corruption if not a theological oxymoron. Soldiers in the Lord’s army are exhorted to make converts through patient and kind inculturation, humility and love; not coercion, subjection and barrels of gunpowder.
We are now a thousand years on from the filioque disputes of the Great Schism, and five centuries on from the sola fide anathemas of the Reformation. Denominational terms of abuse have largely yielded to a more enlightened acceptance of doctrinal difference and pluralism in ecclesiology – though ‘Protestant’, despite being woven into the fabric of the UK Constitution, is still occasionally flung around with disdain: as recently as 1998 the Catholic Herald expressed the view that it had become “the battle cry of murderers”. In the quest for ethno-nationalist Christian dominion, the fusion of tribal religious identity with political aspiration is a murky world.
And so it is with Islam. But if suicide bombing, child soldiers, beheading, kidnapping, rape, massacres, mutilation, torture and the selling of women as sex slaves are not intrinsic to Islamic spirituality, then those professing Muslims who appoint themselves as the spokesmen (for they are always men) of Allah, and who advocate and participate in such barbarism, cannot be Muslims, or at least not ‘true’ Muslims. So what might we call them? What is their creed?
The fons et origo of what we now refer to as ‘Islamic extremism’, ‘Islamism’ or ‘Jihadism’ is, in fact, the ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Sunni Islam – or ‘Wahhabism’, for those who insist that the sect is a whole Isra and Mi’raj away from Islam. It emanates from the 18th-century desert musings of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the land we now call Saudi Arabia. His followers don’t call themselves ‘Wahhabis’, for the term is considered derogatory: they prefer instead to be known as ‘Salafists’ (‘salaf’ being Arabic for ‘ancestor’, thereby signifying lineal theological descent from the time of Mohammed). Their vocation is to purge the land of decadence and purify their religion of error, idolatry and superstition. You can’t grasp the theological mission of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, the Taliban or ISIS without understanding the spiritual inspiration of the Salafists and their historical patronage by the House of Saud.
But since we’re still bowing our flags out of respect for deceased Saudi kings and dispatching our Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales to trade oil and arms with those who mourn, we’re not much inclined to point an accusatory finger at the malignant host.
Of course, it isn’t just the Saudi strain of fundamentalist Islam which lives by the sword: there is persuasive historical evidence for frequent pan-Islamic jihadist military revivals, and the written testaments to Mohammed’s propensity to massacre merchants and execute annoying poets is not really in dispute. But it is a fruitless pursuit of applied theology to argue endlessly over what constitutes ‘authentic’ Islam; to discern which parts of the Qur’an and Hadith are doctrinally literal and which are culturally allegorical. As in all mainstream religions, and in all denominations within those religions, there are liberals, progressives, conservatives and ultra-conservatives. And they’re all busy excoriating and excommunicating one another. You cannot discern theological authenticity from unknowable reason.
But what we do know is the identity of the principal contemporary ultra-conservative doctrine of Mohammed. It is Wahhabism that seeks to conquer and subdue. It is Salafism that outlaws Western education; denies freedom of expression; enforces conversion on pain of death; blows up ancient tombs; burns down temples and churches; beheads apostates; flogs infidels; stones raped women and hangs gay men and boys.
It is Wahhabism that is infiltrating our schools and university campuses. It is Salafism that teaches intolerance of other beliefs and religions; that radicalises our youth; prohibits religious satire; bans all representations of Mohammed; enforces ‘sharia law’ in Tower Hamlets; insists on the mandatory wearing of the veil, and orchestrates endless campaigns for cultural supremacy, agitating for the biggest mosque, the tallest minaret and the loudest call to prayer.
Wahhabism is a fanatical creed of political poison and religious intolerance which the devout House of Saud has been promoting with alacrity, courtesy of our tolerant multiculturalism, religious relativism and benign democratic liberalism. They train their imams at the taxpayers’ expense, and freely harness our airwaves for their missiological outreach.
Wahhabism doesn’t laugh: its Allah doesn’t get jokes; its Mohammed doesn’t smile; its adherents don’t watch Coronation Street or study Voltaire. There is no freedom of conscience, no advancement of equality and no acceptance of either the Universal Declaration or European Convention of Human Rights. The oppression is being propagated by Saudi arms deals, Saudi oil, Saudi charities and Saudi diplomatic handshakes. Against this nuclear surge of charm and religio-political zealotry, all enlightened and progressive expressions of Islam are drowned out by a theocratic narrative of apartheid, misogyny and enmity.
Jews and Christians might be “people of the Book” and there may be “no compulsion in religion”, but Wahhabism isn’t overly concerned with the glyphs of abrogation – the belief that the later commands and prohibitions of the Prophet nullify his earlier actions and pronouncements (quaranic or hadithic). Wherever and whoever Mohammed smited, tormented and beheaded, his example is to be emulated with zeal. Since there is no scholarly agreement on canonical chronology, we arrive at a bleak Prophetology: whatever Mohammed did that was murderous and whatever he said that was belligerent renders void everything he ever did or said that was charitable, benevolent and humane. This is the Wahhabi religious paradigm: it is an ideology of perpetual hostility directed towards all who do not subscribe to its immutable precepts – certainly Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Hindus and atheists, but also all those wishy-washy Shi’ite, Sunni, Sufi and Ahmadiyya who are not Muslims in the ‘proper’ sense.
Yet if we are not prepared to entertain a cherry-picked Christology which portrays the ‘authentic’ Jesus as a vandal, an advocate of physical abuse, an exponent of violent extremism and a fomenter of hate and division, we might reconsider the pervasive Prophetology which interprets Mohammed only by his bloodiest atrocities and most brutal injustices. The Hadith tells us that Mohammed certainly did these things, but the Bible tells us that Jesus drove the people from the temple courts ‘with a whip made of cords‘. In a violent frenzy he ‘scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables‘. In his own words we learn: ‘I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.‘ Further still, he came to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother‘.
This is fragmentary theological apprehension and flawed scriptural exegesis. Indeed, it is no exegesis at all. But it cannot be dismissed as the primordial ‘fire and brimstone’ Old Testament doctrine of the cult of YHWH: it is the character of the Son of God as revealed by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. If comprehension of these divine tantrums requires consideration of their Sitz im Leben – what biblical scholars call their ‘setting in life’ – in order to discern why the Prince of Peace occasionally behaved like a turbulent priest, we might do Muslims the courtesy of applying the same depth of historical exposition to the simplistic and often anachronistic dogmatism which teaches that beheading is Islamic and that Mohammed was a terrorist. All applied theology is contextually bound and sociologically corrupted: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’
Let us therefore drop the vernacular ‘Islamism’ and engender instead a knowledge of ‘Wahhabism’ or, better still, ‘Saudi Salafism’, so that by the time we come to mourn the passing of King Salman of the House of Saud, we might think twice before we lower our national flags as “a mark of respect” for an absolute monarch whose country is the cradle of brutal theological corruption, and whose political brand propagates a creed of intolerant indoctrination, violence and hate.