by Abu Dharr (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 3, Rajab, 1435)
There is a long history of links between the Ikhwan and the Saudi monarchy. It has not always been a happy relationship but the Ikhwan have a choice to make: which side of the fence do they want to sit on.
Where should we begin? The Ikhwani-Saudi relationship is so abstruse that it can pass as esoteric. Last month, one of the Ikhwan’s shining lights — Muhammad Qutb, brother of the late Sayyid Qutb, may Allah’s (swt) mercy and blessings be theirs — was laid to rest in the family kingdom of Saud. Some eulogies of Muhammad Qutb would have us believe that he was a semi-Salafi! This writer does not exclude the probability that during those three to four decades he spent living in a salafi kingdom, some Salafism rubbed off on him, as it did on many other Ikhwanis who relocated to Arabia, fleeing persecution and possible death sentences in their countries of origin. But back to our initial concern: the relationship of the Ikhwan with Wahhabist or Salafist Arabia. We will not delve into the sometimes silly and sometimes sophist arguments distinguishing a Wahhabi from a Salafi. For the purposes of this article, we will consider them to be the same.
…there is a coincidental similarity of names between the “Ikhwan” of Egypt and the “Ikhwan” of Arabia. The unspoken and serious distinction between the two is that Imam Hasan al-Banna was a Sufi while King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was a Salafi.
It may have all begun back in the mid-1930s when Imam Hasan al-Banna met King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Aal Saud during the Hajj. It is said that al-Banna suggested setting up a branch of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The king is reported to have answered al-Banna in a polite and punning way saying “But we are all ikhwan, and we are all muslimeen.” What may have been running through the king’s mind was a secessionist revolt in Arabia less than a decade earlier which sprang from within the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance that dated back to 1744 between Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab – the two progenitors of the present-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They worked out a relationship in which the Aal Sheikh descendants of ‘Abd al-Wahhab would be the religious custodians of the Kingdom, while the Aal Saud descendants would be the political defenders of the kingdom. This collaboration in the context of the past couple of centuries in Arabia is referred to as the Ikhwan. So there is a coincidental similarity of names between the “Ikhwan” of Egypt and the “Ikhwan” of Arabia. The unspoken and serious distinction between the two is that Imam Hasan al-Banna was a Sufi while King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was a Salafi.
The unspoken and serious distinction between the two is that Imam Hasan al-Banna was a Sufi while King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was a Salafi.
Another consideration running through the knavish knowledge of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was the fact that he had to prove himself to his British overlords. The wily Brits were playing off the Hashimis in Baghdad and Amman against the Aal Sauds in Arabia. So the internal Wahhabi challenge and confrontation to Aal Saud was a matter of “national security” to the king — rather to his British advisers as he himself could not comprehend how the British were playing him as the fool in his internal “Islamic” fight against his Wahhabi allies as well as his external “Arabian” opposition to his other rivals, the Hashimis in Iraq and Jordan.
This ostensible normalization was in response to inter-Arabian rivalry between the Cairo-Riyadh axis on one side and the Hashemite Baghdad-Amman axis on the other.
The Egyptian Ikhwan emerged as an organization in 1928; Saudi Arabia became, in an official sense, the kingdom that it is today, in 1932 after adding the region of ‘Asir to the other regions of Najd, al-Hijaz, and al-Ihsa’. Saudi officials kept a more-or-less amiable and cautious relationship with the Egyptian Ikhwan during the 1930s and 1940s because the Saudi monarchy sought to balance off the Egyptian Ikhwan against the ambitions of Egypt’s King Fu’ad who was seriously entertaining the idea of proclaiming himself the khalifah after the position was terminated by the Turkish general and strongman Mustafa Kemal in 1924. Though these jittery relations continued between two of Britain’s puppets — King Faruq of Egypt (son of King Fu’ad) and the Saudi King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz — Britain, playing both sides of the Arabian political retardation. had Cairo refrain from recognizing the Saudi kingdom for a while. It was only in 1945 after the forging of the “Arab League” (under the auspices of Britain) that relations began to normalize between the two kingdoms of Arabia and Egypt. This ostensible normalization was in response to inter-Arabian rivalry between the Cairo-Riyadh axis on one side and the Hashemite Baghdad-Amman axis on the other. And for the umpteenth time (Great) Britain was lurking behind both of these blocs. All of this was unfolding as King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz met with American President Franklin Roosevelt. This is the indelible day when the Arabian ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and the American Roosevelt are shown exchanging smiles on a ship near Suez when Roosevelt was returning from his Yalta summit with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
It would appear that Imam Hasan al-Banna looked with favor upon an Egyptian-Saudi warming of relations. During the Hajj of 1945, the Saudi king dispatched a representative, Prince Abdullah al-Faisal to meet with Imam al-Banna. And in the following year, the Saudi king himself received Imam al-Banna. A truism buried under many decades is the initial fact that there were many differences between the Sufi origins of the Ikhwan and the Wahhabi origins of the Saudi royals. Imam Hasan al-Banna cannot be encased into one particular fiqhi madhhab. With his Sufi foundation he could be called a trans-madhhabi. He in all likelihood was aware of the vast differences of opinion that stand between the two predominantly Ash‘ari madhhabs: the Shafi‘is and the Malikis on one hand and the Hanbalis on the other. Imam al-Banna was of the firm conviction that all Muslims belonging to the qiblah and reiterating their shahadatayn are bona fide Muslims. Imam al-Banna was, in this sense, a carbon copy of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Asadabadi); that is, Islam bests the “Sunni” and the “Shi‘i” labels. At the other end we have the Wahhabis/Salafis who question and distrust the Islam of Ash‘aris and Shi‘is.
It turns out that the meetings between Imam al-Banna and the Saudi royals were purely an act of politics. What consequently brought out the latent differences and disagreements between Imam al-Banna and the Saudi regime was the Yemeni coup against Imam Yahya in San‘a, the last uninterrupted monarch of Yemen, which resulted in his death, in February of 1948. Imam al-Banna supported the coup, the Saudi royals opposed it. This played out in the support that King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and King Faruq offered to Imam Yahya’s successor: his son Ahmad when he overran San‘a in March 1948. Birds of a feather flock together: the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Yemen were trying to thwart anyone who stood against hereditary rule within the member states of the “Arab League.” Within this scenario Arabian officialdom came down hard on the Egyptian Ikhwan toward the end of 1948. This sequence of events culminated in the assassination (martyrdom) of Imam Hasan al-Banna on February 11, 1949 (exactly 30 years before the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on February 11, 1979). Britain — through its agents in Arabia and Egypt — dictated this script. Evil England paid Imam Hasan al-Banna back for being on the wrong side in the Yemeni coup, among other major irritants that the Brits sensed from a grassroots and popular Islamic movement led by this trans-madhhabi Imam.
In 1954, due to the inability of the Ikhwan to “mark their time” with the Egyptian military junta, they came under a fierce governmental campaign to virtually eradicate them as an organization. This caused the Egyptian Ikhwan to sideline the issue of monarchy and find common purpose with the Saudi regime. Hasan al-Hudaibi, the new Ikhwan supreme guide, was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1954. He had just been released from prison after a grave dispute with the Egyptian strongman Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir. King Saud even offered him a private plane to fly to Damascus, Syria. The conflict between the Ikhwan and ‘Abd al-Nasir climaxed with what was called the attempted assassination of ‘Abd al-Nasir by the Ikhwan in October 1954. This is when the Ikhwan discovered that Saudi Arabia is their “true” friend as it offered many of them refuge, shelter, jobs, passports, and even in some cases full citizenship.
Several years later, the Syrian Ikhwan went the way of the Egyptian Ikhwan as they trekked into an apparently welcoming Saudi regime between 1964 and 1982. This Saudi-Ikhwani integration was taking place as a type of miniature cold war set in between Cairo and Riyadh, beginning in 1957 parallel to the lines of the global cold war between Washington and Moscow. This inter-Arabian cold war took on an ideological character when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia came out with his “Islamic Alliance” or the “Islamic Pact” (al-Hilf al-Islami) inclusive of Iran and Pakistan in 1965 against the popular Arabian nationalism of ‘Abd al-Nasir. This was unfolding while the proxy civil war in Yemen was taking its toll on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. King Faisal needed more than a political alliance; he also needed an ideological thrust against ‘Abd al-Nasir’s popularity. And wouldn’t you know it, the Ikhwan were more than willing to fill the void. Now the Ikhwan had Saudi back-channels into the Egyptian homeland. Upon ‘Abd al-Nasir’s death (September 1970), Anwar Sadat became the Egyptian president, and King Faisal brokered a deal to reintegrate the Ikhwan back into their country of origin. As a gesture of Sadat’s seriousness he virtually decimated the Nasserites on May 15, 1971 and then appeared to be running a course of conflict with the Soviet Union.
The political/ideological marriage of convenience between the Ikhwan and Saudi Arabia resulted in a fantastic input the former had within the Saudi educational system. Since the 1950s most of the foundations of the educational system in Saudi Arabia lead to one man: the Ikhwani Manna‘ al-Qattan. The Syrian Ikhwani leader, the late ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah, was instrumental in devising post-graduate studies in education in the University of Imam Muhammad ibn Saud. He also formulated a judiciary curriculum for Riyadh in the College of Shari‘ah at the same university. It should be pointed out that there was/is a type of rivalry between the Ikhwan and the traditionalist Salafis/Wahhabis within the Saudi judiciary. It appears that the influence of the Ikhwan in Saudi academia between 1970 and 1991 was obviously paramount — far exceeding the Salafis and liberals combined. The Ikhwan even have their private schools scattered throughout the kingdom. There are the schools of Taysir in Jeddah, founded by the Egyptian Ikhwani Ahmad Hasan al-Khuli in 1968. There are also private schools established by the late Egyptian Ikhwani Tawfiq al-Shawi.
…this “Suroori” phenomenon did gain traction among educationalist and academic Ikhwanis during the 1980s. This influence cannot be understated, especially when a well-known Saudi figure, Safar al-Hawali, hails from this mindset.
The Saudi-Ikhwani alliance of convenience was to reach new heights during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989). This strong alignment between the Saudi regime and the Ikhwan was not bothered in the least when some Ikhwan tilted emotionally toward the Islamic Revolution in Iran back in the late-1970s, early-1980s. One of the members of the Ikhwani delegation that visited the late blessed Imam Khomeini upon his triumphant return to Iran was a Saudi, Abdullah Suleiman al-‘Aqeel. In 1986 a partial Ikhwani break with Riyadh occurred, when the Syrian Ikhwan split into a faction loyal to Riyadh headed by Abu Ghuddah and another faction loyal to Baghdad headed by Adnan Sa‘d al-Din. The sting was taken out of this schism when the Egyptian Ikhwan sided with the faction favoring Riyadh. Still, with all these outward appearances the rifts between an ideological Ikhwan and a dogmatic Salafism ran very deep. When a Syrian Ikhwani residing in Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Suroor Zain al-‘Abideen, tried to bridge the gap between the thought of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and that of Sayyid Qutb, he was blackballed by the Ikhwan. Nevertheless, this “Suroori” phenomenon did gain traction among educationalist and academic Ikhwanis during the 1980s. This influence cannot be understated, especially when a well-known Saudi figure, Safar al-Hawali, hails from this mindset.
Then came the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990. This drove a significant wedge between the Ikhwan and the Saudi ruling class. During that time all the Ikhwani organizations (with the exception of those in Kuwait, the Abu Ghuddah faction in Saudi Arabia, and possibly the Ikhwani al-Jama‘ah al-Islamiyah in Lebanon) stood firmly against any Arabian solicited military support that would bring into the region the American military against the Iraqi regime. Even the “Surooris” in Saudi Arabia sided with the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan here were joined by some Salafis such as Usamah bin Laden who was very much influenced by one of his Ikhwani instructors in Saudi Arabia — ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam — an admirer of Sayyid Qutb. This was before the blending in of Bin Laden’s Salafism with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s jihadism. Ayman al-Zawahiri is another proponent of Sayyid Qutb.
During the 1990s the Ikhwani-Saudi relationship was still holding, even when the Saudi regime was in favor of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s President Zain al-Abideen bin Ali, as well as the Algerian generals, all of whom were in active and bloody conflict with the Ikhwan.
After September 11, 2001 the relationship disintegrated. The Saudi regime was by its very nature a British-American creature. And post-9/11 the American regime began to tie Wahhabism with terrorism. Then came the salafi/jihadi attacks inside Arabia which convinced the Saudi high-performing traitors and low-performing diplomats that the Saudi establishment had to break with the long and extended relationship it had nurtured in earnest with the Ikhwan since 1954. The late prince Nayef ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz said so, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind, when he spoke to the Kuwaiti al-Siyasah newspaper (November, 23, 2002), “The Ikhwan al-Muslimeen organization is at the root of this [post 9/11] tribulation. All our problems and the offshoots of these problems came from Ikhwan al-Muslimeen. They are the ones who created these [destructive] trends and proliferated these [problematic] ideas.” This tells us that the Ikhwani-Saudi relationship began to nose-dive with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York.
In the decade preceding what is called the “Arab Spring of 2011,” the Saudi official class was at odds with the Ikhwan concerning the American occupation of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq, the legitimacy of Arabian governments, the Israeli summer war against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, and then the issue of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Saudi regime felt very uneasy — indeed very nervous — about the Islamic turn of governance in Turkey. What is driving the Saudi decision makers nuts is the American administration’s toying with the idea of “moderate Islam” replacing jihadist Islam. The Saudi royals nervously watched the Egyptian Ikhwan’s overtures to Washington that resulted in America’s inactive role toward Egyptian president Mubarak. This led to the Ikhwan gaining — through elections — a fifth of the parliamentary seats in Egypt in 2005. The Saudis also watched in al-Hizb al-Islami al-Iraqi entered into the government of Nouri al-Maliki in 2006. Then came the Islamically-celebrated fall of Tunisia’s president Zain al-Abideen bin Ali followed by the toppling of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in February 2011. Then — as if in quick succession — came the Syrian opposition’s sponsorship by both Qatar and Turkey, with the blessings of Washington. The Saudi royals were scared stiff to see an ascendant Ikhwan passively and actively endorsed by the Washington-Ankara-Doha axis. Eventually the Saudi aristocratic monarchy looked on as the Ikhwan became the de facto rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. The Saudis felt excluded when the Syrian opposition in Istanbul was acting without referring to the Saudis in their tactics and strategies. These lightening speed developments in the world of politics and governments caused the Saudis to take the side that was anti-Ikhwani in all these countries — be they civilian or military. Since mid-2013, Saudi Arabia has managed to co-opt the bulk of the political Syrian opposition. During that summer, the Saudi regime made its most dramatic public statement against the Ikhwan when it backed the coup against Egypt’s first-ever elected president, Mohamed Mursi. One can detect a Saudi hand in the internal disturbances against the Ikhwani al-Nahdah Party in Tunisia.
For decades, the Ikhwan and Saudi Arabia had common interests and common enemies that in a sense kept them together. This era extends from around 1954 to 1990. The first jolt to the relationship was the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. What ruptured it beyond repair was 9/11. Then came the Islamic Awakening in 2011 and the cordial friends of yesteryear became the mortal enemies of today. The American-British Saudi proxy rulers could not see an Islamic movement power bloc beginning with the Cairo-Istanbul relationship, then developing into a much broader Islamic alliance that would eventually join the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut anti-Zionist axis. If that were to happen, Washington and London would have no use for Saudi flunkies. The Saudi desert dwellers are survivalists. They haven’t forgotten the relationship between the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul and Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha — the early-19th-century ruler in Egypt — when the latter in coordination with the former leveled the Wahhabi enclave of al-Dir‘iyyah in Najd in 1818. This amounted to the first demolition of a Saudi ruling entity. The Saudi regime feels genuinely threatened as it knows how deep and how prevalent Ikhwani influence is inside its kingdom. The educational, intellectual, and academic institutional influence of the Ikhwan in Saudi Arabian society cannot be dismissed lightly. If there were to be any social instability and upheaval inside Saudi Arabia as happened in Tunisia and Egypt, it is a foregone conclusion that the Ikhwan will carry the day.
The Saudi royal family was terrified to hear President Mursi say in Tehran that there should be a convergence of sorts between Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia! This is not good company for the Saudis. This would degrade Saudi Arabia in the eyes of its American-British managers. And it would place the Saudi regime at the tail-end of this convergence were it to occur. Should this come to pass, the Saudi regime would feel that the time is quickly approaching, if it does not take action against the Ikhwan, when it will be surrounded by Islamic governments of political and economic self-determination as opposed to the Saudi style of governance: a Zionist-imperialist imposed order camouflaged by Islamic rituals.
The Saudi royal regime has reached the end of its line. It feels deep down inside the recesses of its shallow mind that it has become a spent force of imperialism and Zionism. The imperialists and Zionists themselves have no more use for a Saudi Arabia that can no longer fool the Muslims of the world into believing that it is the mainstay and the reference of two billion awakening Muslims.
The question that remains to be answered is: will the Ikhwan reclaim the trans-madhhabi prospect and orientation of their founding imam, Hasan al-Banna, or will they continue to hold on to Mu‘awiyah’s thread with the woebegone and weather-beaten House of Saud? More importantly, will the Ikhwan replace the Saudi regime as the American interlocutor with the rest of the Muslims? Or will they prove that they are truly independent and join forces with the only independent Islamic state in the world today: the Islamic State in Iran?
[But], behold, as for those who say, “Our Sustainer is Allah,” and then steadfastly [and unequivocally] move forward — upon them do angels descend, [saying], “Fear not and grieve not, but receive the glad tiding of that paradise which has been promised to you. We are your prime allies in the life of this world and [will be so] in the life to come; and in that [life to come] you shall have all that your souls may desire, and in it you shall have all that you prayed for…” (41:30–31).