Wahhabism v Shia in the Political Sphere

There is a large, ongoing conflict between Wahhabi and Shi’ite forces in the modern Muslim world due to the large theocratic political forces of Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively. Although there is no concrete ideological differences between the two practices, it is their historical baggage that carries the conflict to the present day. Their religious differences fuel their political conflict, which they use to justify their cooperation with other Western nations in the exploitation and destruction of surrounding nations and their own people.

Shi’a is a broad sect of Islam which acknowledges Ali, a descendent from the Prophet Mohammad, as the rightful successor. This sect also idealizes the varying individual interpretation of the Quran, which allows for multiple ideological perspectives of Islam. (1) Contrarily, Wahhabism is a specific variation of Sunni ideology. Abdul Wahhab was a pioneer in reshaping Islam: he believed that Shi’a was the reason for Islam’s decline in the seventeenth century. In 1744,  Wahhab established what the modern world recognizes as a Saudi state, which is Wahhabi in practice and upholds anti-Shi’a laws. (2) These conflicts are replicated in the modern world due to the theocratic rise from the ashes of the Islamic Revolution, and the progression of Saudi Arabia as a Sunni/Wahhabi political powerhouse.

In his essay Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, Hamid Albar describes the significance of the labels “Wahhabi” and “Sunni”:

“… in the extremely lengthy and rich history of Islamic thought, Wahhabism does not occupy a particularly important place. Intellectually marginal, the Wahhabi movement had the good fortune to emerge in the Arabian Peninsula (albeit in Najd, a relatively remote part of the peninsula) and thus in the proximity of the Haramayn, a major geographical focus of the Muslim world; and its Saudi patrons had the good fortune, in the twentieth century, to acquire massive oil wealth, a portion of which has been used in attempts to propagate Wahhabism in the Muslim world and beyond. In the absence of these two factors, Wahhabism might well have passed into history as a marginal and short-lived sectarian movement. Those same two factors, reinforced by a partial congruity with other contemporary tendencies in the Islamic world, have endowed Wahhabism with a degree of longevity.” (3)

Wahhabism spread throughout Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.Despite the West’s connection of Shi’ism and Iran, the ideology is present across the Muslim world with many varying interpretations. However, the slight religious differences between the two are often involved in intense state and political conflict. The Shi’ism that dominates Iran’s theocratic government is understood as a direct threat to the Sa’udi Government. This has lead to ongoing political conflict, which has been on the verge of violence and terror to many residents of both nations.

The Iranian Revolution was an immense political shock to the world, as the government shifted from a Western puppet monarchical government to an anti-western Shi’ite theocratic fundamentalist government. (4) The rise of said government sparked further Shi’ite-Wahhabi debate in the late twentieth century due to Saudi Arabia and Iran both being prominent, modernized, and fundamentalist nations in the Middle East. Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s new government, depicted the Saudis’ political regime as complicit with U.S. imperialism. He encouraged shi’ites in Saudi Arabia to demand shi’ite representation in their government, as well as requested Iranian access to Mecca and Medina.(5) His commanding presence inspired a shi’a political revival as a religious minority in the Middle East.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran accuses each other of manipulating their fundamentalist ideologies for political gain. Both accusations are blatantly true, as both States seek to maintain power over their religious constituents.  Their religious and political conflict must end in order to change Wahhabi-Shi’ite relations.

1)Mahallati Class Lecture, 10/25/17

2)Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, pg 63

3)Hamid Algar. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002. Pg 2

4)Mahallati Class Lecture, 10/23/17

5) Ibid