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The Geopolitics of Deciding Who Is Sunni

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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It’s delicious to watch the Saudi outrage at being excluded from a conference in Chechnya to define who counts as a Sunni Muslim. Wahhabism, the Sunni offshoot that dominates Saudi Arabia, has done more than any other movement in Islamic history to read other Muslims out of the faith, and turnabout is fair play. Unfortunately, the conference, organized by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, is actually part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's fiendishly clever plan to weaken Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally. The entire episode shows how ideologically vulnerable the Saudis feel in the age of Islamic State -- and how good Putin is at affecting Middle Eastern politics.

The conference, which took place in the Chechen capital of Grozny in late August, was notable as much for who wasn’t invited as for who was. More than 100 Sunni clerics attended -- but none from Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed el-Tayeb, the state-appointed grand imam of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, was the event’s headliner. Although it has declined in recent decades, Al-Azhar was for centuries considered the most influential Sunni scholarly institution. Its head, known as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, is by job description alone a major figure in the Sunni world.

The punchline of the event was el-Tayeb’s proffered definition of a Sunni Muslim. Sunnis are by their own account, “the people of the Tradition (sunna) and Consensus.” El-Tayeb said this group included Muslims who adhered to either of two schools of theology  and to any of four schools of legal thought  and to Sufis of the mainstream orders.

The first two parts of the definition aren’t problematic for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is officially committed to a theology and a school of legal thought that fall within el-Tayeb’s definition.

The inclusion of Sufis, however, was a rebuke to the Saudis, who are typically anti-Sufi, considering its mystical aspects as containing elements of prohibited “innovation.”  El-Tayeb is descended from a long line of Sufis, and many Chechen Muslims, including Kadyrov himself, belong to Sufi brotherhoods.

According to some reports, el-Tayeb went further, asserting that Salafis and Wahhabis aren’t Sunnis at all. I highly doubt that he would have said either of these things, because they are not consistent with most reports of his statement. And King Salman of Saudi Arabia met el-Tayeb in April at Al-Azhar.

Much more likely, el-Tayeb simply repudiated Islamic State’s jihadism and criticized the practice of declaring other Muslims to be infidels, known as takfir.

But what really matters is that some Saudis reacted as though el-Tayeb had excluded them from the category of Sunni. One prominent Saudi imam said that “the Chechen conference should serve as a wake-up call: The world is getting ready to burn us.”

Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous father of Wahhabism, was notorious for excluding other Muslims from the reach of Islam. His followers burned Shiite shrines and destroyed grave sites that were part of ancient pilgrimage routes. In important ways, contemporary iconoclasts like Islamic State are followers of this aspect of Wahhabi teaching.

So there’s a wonderful irony to the idea that Saudis are afraid of being defined as heretics and made subject to a Muslim witch hunt.

The Muslim world badly needs a more inclusive, capacious set of answers to the question, “What is Islam?” as argued by the late scholar Shahab Ahmed.

Yet the Grozny conference can’t be taken as a cause for celebration. Kadyrov, the Chechen host, is a protege of Putin, who is himself following the thinking of his KGB mentor, the Middle East specialist Yevgeny Primakov. Putin is in the midst of a carefully calibrated, stepwise effort to re-establish Russian influence in the Middle East.

In Putin’s geostrategic vision, Saudi Arabia remains the crucial U.S. ally in the region. Putin isn’t content to be allied only with Alawite Syria and Shiite Iran. He’d like to make inroads among Sunni Muslims as well.

Criticizing Saudi exclusivism is a way for Putin to try to weaken Saudi Arabia’s regional influence -- while enhancing his own. Egypt and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar are tools to use in pursuit of the goal.

The upshot is that while undercutting Wahhabism and the practice of takfir are good things, they’re being pursued here by Putin for the most self-interested of reasons -- and against U.S. interests.

It would be nice to separate theology from politics, and embrace the Grozny conference’s version of the former while being skeptical of the latter. But when it comes to the Middle East today, that division is almost impossible.

  1. One report says that Hatem al-Awni, a well-regarded scholar who teaches at the Saudi university Umm al-Qura, was invited. It’s unclear whether he attended; but in any case he has been a critic of what he calls “fanaticism in Wahhabi thought” in recent years.

  2. Ashari and Maturidi.

  3. Specifying four schools implicitly excludes the fifth, Jafari school of legal thought adhered to by most Shiites.

  4. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab may not himself have been wholly anti-Sufi, according to the scholar Natana J. Delong-Bas, “Wahhabi Islam” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83-84.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net