In the early years of the 20th Century the Ikhwan (brotherhood) movement began to emerge among the beduin. The Ikhwan movement spread Wahhabi Islam among the nomads. Stressing the same strict adherence to religious law that Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab had preached, Ikhwan beduin abandoned their traditional way of life in the desert and move to an agricultural settlement called a hijra (pl., hujar). The word hijra was related to the term for the Prophet's emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622, conveying the sense that one who settles in a hijra moves from a place of unbelief to a place of belief. By moving to the hijra the Ikhwan intended to take up a new way of life and dedicate themselves to enforcing a rigid Islamic orthodoxy. Once in the hijra the Ikhwan became extremely militant in enforcing upon themselves what they believed to be correct sunna (custom) of the Prophet, enjoining public prayer, mosque attendance, and gender segregation and condemning music, smoking, alcohol, and technology unknown at the time of the Prophet. They attacked those who refused to conform to Wahhabi interpretations of correct Islamic practice and tried to convert Muslims by force to their version of Wahhabism.
The Ikhwan looked eagerly for the opportunity to fight nonWahhabi Muslims--and non-Muslims as well--and they took Abd al Aziz as their leader in this. By 1915 there were more than 200 hujar in and around Najd and nearly 100,000 Ikhwan waiting for a chance to fight. This provided Abd al Aziz with a powerful weapon, but his situation demanded that he use it carefully. In 1915 Abd al Aziz had various goals: he wanted to take Hail from the Al Rashid, to extend his control into the northern deserts in present-day Syria and Jordan, and to take over the Hijaz and the Persian Gulf coast. The British, however, had become more and more involved in Arabia because of World War I, and Abd al Aziz had to adjust his ambitions to British interests.
The British prevented the Al Saud from taking over much of the gulf coast where they had established protectorates with several ruling dynasties. They also opposed Abd al Aziz's efforts to extend his influence beyond the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi deserts because of their own imperial interests. To the west, the British were allied with the Sharif family who ruled the Hijaz from their base in Mecca. The British actually encouraged the Sharif family to revolt against the Ottomans and so open a second front against them in World War I.
In this situation, Abd al Aziz had no choice but to focus his attentions on Hail. This caused problems with the Ikhwan because, unlike Mecca and Medina, Hail had no religious significance and the Wahhabis had no particular quarrel with the Rashidi clan who controlled it. The Sharif family in Mecca, however, was another story. The Wahhabis had long borne a grudge against the Sharif because of their traditional opposition to Wahhabism. The ruler, Hussein, had made the situation worse by forbidding the Ikhwan to make the pilgrimage and then seeking non-Muslim, British help against the Muslim Ottomans.
In the end, Abd al Aziz was largely successful in balancing the Ikhwan's interests with his own limitations. In 1919 the Ikhwan completely destroyed an army that Hussein had sent against them near the town of Turabah, which lay on the border between the Hijaz and Najd. The Ikhwan so completely decimated the Sharif's troops that there were no forces left to defend the Hijaz, and the entire area cowered under the threat of a Wahhabi attack. In spite of this, Abd al Aziz restrained the Ikhwan and managed to direct them toward Hail, which they took easily in 1921. The Ikhwan went beyond Hail, however, and pushed into central Transjordan where they challenged Hussein's son, Abd Allah, whose rule the British were trying to establish after the war. At this point, Abd al Aziz again had to rein in his troops to avoid further problems with the British.
Abd al Aziz was a Wahhabi imam who held the intense loyalty of the Ikhwan. When he became the ruler of Mecca and Medina as well, Abd al Aziz took on the responsibilities of Khadim al Haramayn (servant of the two shrines) and so assumed an important position in the wider Muslim world.
The promotion of Islam as embracing every aspect of life accounted in large measure for the success of Wahhabi ideology in inspiring the zealotry of the Ikhwan movement. Beginning in 1912, agricultural communities called hujra were settled by beduin who came to believe that in settling on the land they were fulfilling the prerequisite for leading Muslim lives; they were making a hijra, "the journey from the land of unbelief to the land of belief." It is still unclear whether the Ikhwan settlements were initiated by Abd al Aziz or whether he co-opted the movement once it had begun, but the settlements became military cantonments in the service of Abd al Aziz's consolidation of power. Although the Ikhwan had very limited success in agriculture, they could rely on a variety of subsidies derived from raids under the aegis of Abd al Aziz and provisions disbursed directly from his storehouses in Riyadh.
As newly converted Wahhabi Muslims, the Ikhwan were fanatical in imposing their zealotry for correct behavior on others. They enforced rigid separation of the sexes in their villages, for example, and strict attention to prayers, and used violence in attempting to impose Wahhabi restrictions on others. Their fanaticism forged them into a formidable fighting force, and with Ikhwan assistance, Abd al Aziz extended the borders of his kingdom into the Eastern Province, Hail, and the Hijaz.
The Ikhwan had no tolerance for the concessions to life in the twentieth century that Abd al Aziz was forced to make. They objected to machines, particularly those used for communication, such as the telegraph, as well as to the increasing presence of non-Muslim foreigners in the country. They also continued to object to some of the practices of non-Wahhabi Muslims.
Most important, the Ikhwan remained eager to force their message on whomever did not accept it. This led them to attack non-Wahhabi Muslims, and sometimes Wahhabi Muslims as well, within Saudi Arabia and to push beyond its borders into Iraq. Whereas the first sort of attack challenged Abd al Aziz's authority, the second caused him problems with the British, who would not tolerate the violation of borders that they had set up after World War I. It was largely because of this second concern that Abd al Aziz found himself obliged to take on the Ikhwan militarily.
The way that Abd al Aziz put down the Ikhwan demonstrated his ability to assemble a domestic constituency. Throughout their history, the Al Saud had no standing army; when the family had a military objective it had simply assembled coalitions of tribes and towns, or such groups as the Ikhwan.
In facing the Ikhwan Abd al Aziz did went out into the country and made his case in what resembled large and small town meetings. He talked not only to the people who would be fighting with him, but also to the religious authorities, seeking their advice and approval. If the ruler wished to battle the Ikhwan, could this be sanctioned by Islam? Or might the Ikhwan's demand to continue their jihad have greater justification? In the late 1920s the majority sided with Abd al Aziz, setting the foundation of the modern state.
In the late 1920s the majority sided with Abd al Aziz, setting the foundation of the modern state. The ruler built on this foundation by taking into account the interests of various groups. He continued to consult the ulama and, if he disagreed with them, to work to change their opinion. The best example was the battle Abd al Aziz fought to set up radio communications. Like the Ikhwan, the ulama first opposed radio as a suspect modern innovation for which there was no basis in the time of the Prophet. Only when Abd al Aziz demonstrated that the radio could be used to broadcast the Quran did the ulama give it their approval.
The zealots of the brotherhood regarded the Western-influenced modernization pursued by Abd al Aziz as a betrayal of the fundamentals of Islam that had been their raison d'ętre since the beginning of their association with the House of Saud. Renewed Ikhwan raids against defenseless groups in Iraq incensed the British, who were trying to stabilize the region, and finally compelled Abd al Aziz to force the submission of the Ikhwan.
Ultimately, the fanaticism of the Ikhwan undermined their usefulness, and they had to be reckoned with; the Ikhwan Rebellion (1928-30) marked their eclipse. When the Wahhabi forces continued to ignore his authority, he waged a pitched battle and defeated them in 1929. When the Ikhwan leadership revolted against Abd al Aziz, he took to the field to lead his army, which was now supported by four British aircraft (flown by British pilots) and a fleet of 200 military vehicles that symbolized the modernization that the Ikhwan abhorred. After being crushed at the Battle of Sabalah, the Ikhwan were eliminated as an organized military force in early 1930.
The suppression of the Ikhwan brought to an end the chronic warfare in the Arabian Peninsula except for a series of incidents between 1931 and 1934 along the poorly defined border with Yemen. Abd al Aziz placed his eldest son, Saud, at the head of an army that succeeded in occupying much Yemeni territory but could not defeat the Yemeni warriors so adept at defending their mountain passes. Pressure by European powers determined to maintain the status quo on the Arabian Peninsula finally brought peace, and much of the occupied territory was restored to Yemen.
During the 1930s, Abd al Aziz, who had made himself king, allowed the remnants of the Ikhwan to regroup as a beduin militia. They became known as the White Army because they wore traditional white robes rather than military uniforms. For Abd al Aziz, the White Army served as a counterbalance to the small regular army, thereby helping to ensure his control over internal security. In addition to the two armies, there was the Royal Guard, a lightly armed body of absolutely loyal officers and troops, whose mission consisted entirely of protecting the monarch and the growing royal family.
One concern over Islamic movements is the apprehension that they will come into power with an anti-democratic orientation. When that suppression takes place, however, the transformation leads to more radicalized groups. Banning the Ikhwan eventually produced the Islamic Group (also known as "el Gamaa Islamia" or simply "Gamaa't"), led by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and later by Ahmed Refai Taha, a/k/a "Abu Yasser al Masri." Al Qaeda functioned both on its own and through some of the terrorist organizations that operated under its umbrella, including Gamaa'a.
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