Islamic History

Pilgrimage to the House of Allah and the Hijaz Conflict – Part III

Pilgrimage routes to Makkah
Annual procession of the departure of the kiswah, the clothing of the Ka’bah, from Cairo, Egypt, transported in the annual ceremonial palanquin, the mahmal, before its journey to Makkah. Shutterstock | AP

This is the third and final part of the series penned by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), Second Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, in June 1925.

Translated into English for the first time by Shahzad Ahmed and Zafir Mahmood Malik for The Review of Religions translation team. The Review of Religions takes full responsibility for any error in translation.

In the second part of this treatise (the translation of which was published in August 2020), Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) concluded with the mention of Sultan Ibn Saud making great preparations to train a huge army to attack the Hijaz, while the Sharif of Makkah, the King of Hijaz, remained content, trusting in the support of the British. The third and final part of this historic treatise begins at this point in time.

Read Part I

Read Part II

The Sharif of Makkah and His Relationship With the British

During this time, there were some new developments. The British representative to Egypt had promised the Sharif of Makkah that once the Arabs were granted independence, they would be unified into one state. Hence, Sharif Hussein urged them to fulfil this promise. However, Arabia had already been divided under three powers: Syria was under French occupation (while Syria is not usually included under Arabia proper, currently, since the majority of those living in Iraq, Palestine and Syria are Arabs, and their language is Arabic, this entire region is called Arabia), Iraq and Palestine were under British occupation and Najd was under the rule of an independent Sultan Ibn Saud. Even if the British had wanted to, it would not have been possible to do so [that is, to fulfil this promise]. The Sharif was angered because the promise made to him had been broken, while the British complained that since he lacked the strength to control even his own territory, how could he desire to rule over all of the Arab lands. The Sharif was receiving a reasonable subsidy from the British, and in return for this, the British were hoping that the Sharif would extend even more concessions to them.

On the other side, the state of the Muslim world was such that they were growing ever more opposed to the Sharif because he supported the British. Sharif Hussein realised that, on the one hand, the British were reluctant to support his dream to unite all the Arabs, and in fact, in exchange for the aid he was receiving, were making such demands that would effectively end all hopes of his autonomy. And on the other hand, [he saw that] the Muslim world had become opposed to this policy of his [i.e. to support the British], and that his dream [of ruling Arabia] would never be fulfilled, and [so] he decided that he would upset the British and please the Muslims. With this change in policy, Sharif Hussein hoped to gain the sympathy of the Muslims. Owing to this decision, Sharif Hussein refused to sign a treaty with the British. The consequence of this was that he stopped receiving aid from the British, and they also stopped sending aid to Ibn Saud, which had been for the purpose of protecting the Hijaz [from attack by Ibn Saud].

Ibn Saud’s Attack Against the Sharif of Makkah

Perceiving that a better opportunity was unlikely to present itself, Sultan Ibn Saud demanded a certain territory from Sharif Hussein, which he refused to hand over, thus resulting in the current war. At the same time, Sultan Ibn Saud wished to attack Transjordan, which is ruled by Emir Abdullah, the son of Sharif Hussein. However, as it is under the protection of the British to enable easy travel between Iraq and Palestine, he failed to succeed in this attempt. Nevertheless, the war with the Hijaz ensued. Sharif Hussein had hoped that, due to old ties, the British would come to his aid; but this hope was in vain. The British refused outright, stating that unless he signed an agreement, they would not support him. Similarly, the Muslims did not extend him any sympathy and instead perceived this [attack] as a punishment for his revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Nor did he receive any support from his sons, who, assessing the circumstances, urged him to sign the agreement with the British. Consequently, he was left only with his own resources, but they were no match for Ibn Saud. The reasons for this were as follows:

  1. In order to improve governance, he had established all the formal ministries just as Western powers had done. Since the income of the Hijaz is low, the result was that he had to raise taxes. Thus, the Bedouin tribal leaders, who had always relied on income from the government, became angry with him.
  2. In order to appease other countries and gain their sympathy, he had prohibited the Bedouins from theft and would punish them if they stole anything. Consequently, the Bedouins became even more enraged.
  3. In order to assist the Bedouins with their income, he increased the rental prices for camels, etc, which proceeded to anger foreign travellers, while the Bedouins were already upset.
  4. When he stopped receiving British funding, Sharif Hussein increased the tax on the pilgrims for Hajj, which created further unrest. As a direct result of this, he lost the sympathy and support not only of the people of Makkah and of the Bedouins, but also those from other countries. Had he not increased the prices and had he kept the Bedouins busy with military activity, provided them with financial support, and not caused the pilgrims discomfort [by imposing high taxes] in the last few years; and had he instead sought other means to generate income, he would not be in such a feeble state.

In short, when this war began, Sharif Hussein’s own men fought half-heartedly. Their enemy, on the other hand, was experienced. Sharif Hussein had no outside support, and so his army suffered defeat after defeat, and eventually Taif, too, fell to Emir Najd – Ibn Saud. When Makkah came under attack, Sharif Hussein, who feared that the people of Makkah would turn against him, leaving him no chance for escape, decided to abdicate his caliphate, handing over the reins of power to his eldest son, Sharif Ali. Since Sharif Ali was much more experienced in combat than his father, he immediately organised his army and made Jeddah his headquarters. Instead of fighting in open terrain, he fortified his position in the towns along the coast and in this manner, has been able to defend himself for the past year.

This is the military situation. Now I will expound upon the political, cultural and intellectual effects this war is having or will have on Arabia. However, before I go into details about this, it is necessary to shed some light on the history of the family of Sultan Ibn Saud, because without this, it will be difficult to truly understand the relevance of this action.

The History of Sultan Ibn Saud’s Family

In 1703 CE/1115 AH, a child was born in ‘Uyaynah, a town in Najd, and was named Muhammad. God Almighty had decreed in this child’s destiny that he would spark the revival in the land of Arabia which had been lifeless for hundreds of years. This was an era in which the darkness of shirk [associating partners with God] was rampant and innovations of all sorts were taking root within Islam. The honour of God, the Exalted, was erupting. And across all the Islamic countries, the people whose hearts were filled with the love for Islam were stricken with grief and sorrow. It was at this point that God Almighty, owing to His impassioned honour, appointed various people in different countries to awaken them [from their spiritual slumber]. In India, Shah Wali Allah Sahib was born and in Arabia, God Almighty chose Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab.

In the days of his youth, bin Abdul Wahhab had a passion for knowledge and in pursuit of this, he left his homeland, initially gaining an education across various towns in Iraq. Afterwards he travelled to Damascus and Madinah for further studies. He was taught by the most eminent scholars of that time and after completing his education, he returned to his homeland of Najd. The religious condition of Najd at the time was deplorable; its inhabitants were utterly disassociated with Islam. Polytheism was so commonplace that they had even begun to worship idols or stone. Upon returning to his homeland, bin Abdul Wahhab began to preach the message of tauhid [the Oneness of God] and dedicated his life to eradicating innovations and false customs. As is customary, the people opposed him; however, Allah the Almighty granted Muhammad bin Saud, the Emir of Dir‘iyyah, the opportunity to accept his teachings. After accepting the philosophy of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, Muhammad bin Saud began propagating this ideology with such zeal, that within a short time, bin Abdul Wahhab’s ideology spread throughout the Najd. Fuelled by obsession for this new philosophy, Muhammad bin Saud began attacking nearby areas and forcibly made people abandon innovations and false practices. At the time of Muhammad bin Saud’s death in 1765, the teachings of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab had spread throughout the east of Najd and Raha.

The Attack on Wahhabis

After the death of Muhammad bin Saud, his son, Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad bin Saud took this ideology outside of Najd, to the extent that the Ottoman Turks were forced to intervene and launched an attack in 1798. However, they were defeated, which greatly increased the prominence of the Wahhabi movement. Saud [bin Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad] bin Saud, the son of Abdul Aziz, captured part of Iraq and ransacked Karbala, destroying tombs in the process. He also captured the holy city of Makkah. Eventually, Emir Abdul Aziz was assassinated by a Shia and Saud bin Saud became the king. During his rule, Madinah also fell to him.

Since the Wahhabi forces looted all the valuables contained in the holy mausoleums and also desecrated certain buildings, (as they do not believe in memorials over graves [such as tombs or mausoleums]), there was an uproar throughout the entire Islamic world. But because the Ottomans did not have the strength themselves to punish the rebellion, they instead assigned this task to the rising power of Egypt. Under orders from the Ottoman Turks, Tosun Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, marched into the Hijaz with an army of 10,000 soldiers. Initially, the Egyptian forces suffered defeat; however, they were later able to capture Makkah and Madinah from the Wahhabi forces, but failed to make further advances. (The followers of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab over time became known as Wahhabis. For this reason, I have used this name but they do not use this name for themselves.)

Finally, in 1813, Muhammad Ali Pasha came to finish this battle himself. Even then he could not succeed. And in fact, in 1814, Tosun Pasha suffered a crushing defeat in Taif. However, in the same year, Saud bin Saud died. His son, Abdullah, wished to enter into a truce with the Egyptians. However, Muhammad Ali Pasha refused and then launched an attack on Najd and defeated the Wahhabi forces. Abdullah bin Saud was compelled into a treaty. But as soon as the Egyptian forces had left, Abdullah refused to comply with the conditions of the treaty. Meanwhile, Tosun Pasha had been replaced by Ibrahim Pasha as the commander of the army. He managed to separate the Bedouin tribes, and ally with them, and then defeated Abdullah bin Saud. After invading many towns in Najd, he eventually conquered Dir‘iyyah, the capital of Najd, in 1818. Abdullah was captured along with 400 men and sent to Constantinople. There, despite the intercession of Ibrahim Pasha [to spare him], Abdullah was executed. The capital [Dir‘iyyiah] was destroyed brick by brick and the Egyptian forces were stationed in all the towns of the Najd. After a short while, Turki, the son of Abdullah [bin Saud], rebelled and established his own rule, but continued to pay taxes to the Egyptians. Since Turki’s son, Faisal bin Saud, refused to pay tax to the Egyptians, he was attacked and as a result, was imprisoned and sent to Cairo. In his place, one of his relatives, Khalid, was made ruler of Riyadh, which had now become the capital of Najd. In 1843, Faisal bin Saud escaped captivity in Cairo and returned to Najd. The people accepted him as their king, and Wahhabi rule was apparently established once again. However, they were unable to establish rule over Oman, Yemen and Bahrain.

Abdullah bin Rashid

During this era, a new power began to emerge in Jabal Shammar [mountainous range in the northwest of present-day Saudi Arabia] under the leadership of Abdullah bin Rashid. When Faisal bin Saud was captured by the Egyptians and sent to Cairo in 1836, Abdullah bin Rashid began to strengthen his rule in the northwest region [of Najd]. After him, his son Talal further strengthened their kingdom and in order to develop the region further, they built wells, gardens, fortresses and established schools to the point that the areas of Khaybar, Tayma and Al Jawf came under Jabal [i.e. the Rashidi emirate]. However, Ibn Rashid and his administration continued to maintain good terms with the Wahhabis in order to protect themselves from attack and did not do anything to upset them. In this way, they were able to further consolidate their power. On the other hand, Ibn Saud’s rule grew increasingly weaker and the tribes living in the west of the region became autonomous and by 1867, Najd had come under the rule of the Ottomans and formed one of its provinces.

Observing the increasing power of Ibn Rashid, [Abdul Rahman bin Faisal] Ibn Saud formed an alliance with the regions to his west and in 1891 launched a joint attack against Ibn Rashid. However, they were all defeated and subsequently Muhammad bin Rashid, who was the Emir at the time, became the king of the entire region of Najd. Since the Ottomans were on the side of Ibn Rashid and opposed Ibn Saud, therefore their rule over Najd became even stronger. Ibn Rashid continuously ruled until 1902 until the Sheikh of Kuwait, who was under the British government, along with Ibn Saud and a few other tribes, launched an attack against him. Inflicting him with continuous defeats, ibn Rashid had to retreat back to his palace of the Rashidi Emirate. The Ottomans sent an army to help Ibn Rashid, which, without engaging in any actual battle, made peace and returned. However, from that day on the Wahhabis continued to grow stronger, and by World War I, their power had significantly increased.

The Condition of Ibn Saud and Sharif of Makkah

In light of the aforementioned events, the following is evidently clear:

Firstly, the current war in the Hijaz is not something new but in fact has been ongoing for the last 150 years and is a battle between the Sunnis and Wahhabis. For the past 150 years, the Wahhabis have made continuous efforts to seize control of the entire Arab land; however, they have been met with opposition from the Sunnis. In various times, the Sunnis have received support, sometimes from the Arab tribes, sometimes from the Egyptians or the Ottomans.

Secondly, the regime of the House of Saud has opposed the Ottomans for the last 150 years and has been at war with them.

Thirdly, Ibn Saud is guilty of the same crime as the Sharif of Makkah, namely that he too fought against the Ottomans with the help of non-Muslim powers. In fact, it was only until a few years ago that he was also receiving money from the British.

The Injustices of the Sunnis Against Wahhabis

After detailing the historical background, I now wish to explain the political and religious impact this war will have on the Arabs. First, I will look at the impact from a political perspective. As previously mentioned, this war is happening because of the dispute between the Sunnis and Wahhabis. Taking pride in their majority status, the Sunnis have always staked their claim to control the holy sites. On the other hand, the Wahhabis claimed that the Sunnis had sullied these sites and therefore had no right over them whatsoever. Even under Ottoman rule, the Wahhabis did not enjoy any freedom in Makkah. When I travelled there for Hajj in 1912, the Ottomans were in rule at the time. I also met some Wahhabis there, who were having to endure extremely difficult circumstances and were not even able to express their beliefs. A very prominent scholar, who was very well known in Makkah, told me that he was actually a Wahhabi but portrayed himself as a follower of the Hanbali school of thought because previously he had been accused of being a Wahhabi and put in jail. I discovered that in fact all the Wahhabis during that time referred to themselves as Hanbalis because the fiqh [jurisprudential verdicts] of the Hanbali school of thought is very similar to that of the Ahle Hadith, hence they were able to conceal their identity behind this name. They would offer their prayers individually as they were not permitted to lead the congregational prayer. Since they did not like to offer their prayers behind others, they would scatter here and there at the time of congregational prayer and then afterwards would individually offer their prayers in the vicinity of the Ka’bah, or in their homes. If someone was suspected of being a Wahhabi, his life would be in danger, because even before the authorities could intervene, members of the public would have trampled him under their feet. I observed that compared to the Sunni scholars, the Wahhabis were more knowledgeable and intelligent and were very influential. One of the tutors of Sharif Hussein’s sons was a very sagacious and intelligent man and was very close to Ahmadiyyat. Although he did not express it, I believe that he was also a Wahhabi because in almost all matters he agreed with the Wahhabi school of thought. He would say himself that one cannot openly express their belief whilst living in Makkah. I found this particular gentleman to be the most wise and tolerant amongst all the ulema [scholars] of Makkah. He advised me to only preach Ahmadiyyat to people like him and not to go to the other ulema as it would lead to disorder. However, I told him that I did not fear suffering from any harm for speaking the truth. He was very impressed by this response and said that, indeed, this was a sign of one’s true conviction in faith.

The Term ‘Wahhabi’ as a Slur

In short, even during the Ottoman rule, the Wahhabis did not enjoy complete freedom in Makkah. The term ‘Wahhabi’ was used as a derogatory term in Makkah. In fact, I believe that being called a dog would not make one as angry as being called a Wahhabi. Even when Sharif Hussein became independent [of Ottoman rule], it is reported that the persecution against the Wahhabis continued during his rule as well. In fact, Ibn Saud sought permission for his people to perform the Hajj and it was not given. Thus, it would be of no surprise if the current dire state of the Sharif family is due to these cruelties they perpetrated.

Relationship Between the People of Hijaz and the Wahhabis

In view of the aforementioned incidents, it is evident that the Sunnis have an intense hatred for the Wahhabis and since the vast majority of the Arabs are Sunnis, therefore most of the Arabs are against the people of Najd. The Wahhabis have always been rather strict and have compelled people to adopt their teaching, therefore no one had the strength to oppose them whilst under their rule. However, the hearts of the people of Makkah and the residents of Hijaz can never truly incline towards the Wahhabis, because their very blood and flesh have been nourished from the revenue of these traditions and customs which the Wahhabis are opposed to. If the Wahhabis were to rule for a prolonged period of time, the majority of the people of Makkah would die of hunger. Therefore, it is impossible to expect the people of Hijaz to support the Wahhabis with true sincerity of the heart.

The case of the people of Madinah is the same as those of the Makkans – because every fibre of their being is also filled with love for the Holy Prophet (sa). No matter how sinful they may be, respect and reverence for the tomb of the Holy Prophet (sa) permeate through every fibre of their being. Thus, they would rather die than see the Holy Prophet’s (sa) tomb be kept in such a simple and ordinary state. They may lower their heads out of fear for the sword, but deep in their hearts they cannot accept such a practice. So too is the case of the Arabs of Palestine because they also look after and protect their tombs; thus they can never sympathise with the Wahhabis. The Syrians bitterly oppose the Wahhabis and have great love for Sharif Hussein and his family. And since the Syrians and Palestinians are under the protection of France, therefore, the Wahhabis can wield no power over them. Therefore, it is impossible to imagine that they will change their ways. The people of Iraq are famous for honouring their graves and their land is filled with these holy shrines. Moreover, its ruler is Sharif Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein, so it is impossible to expect that they will support the Wahhabis. Although the people of Yemen are against the Wahhabis in terms of their religious views, they oppose Sharif Hussein and thus, it would be of no surprise if they politically align themselves with Ibn Saud. But they are also split into two groups; therefore, even if one of them were to offer support to Ibn Saud, the other group would certainly oppose him.

The Current War and Its Political Impact on the Arabs

In light of the current circumstances, the following seems to be the case:

Firstly, even if Ibn Saud defeats Sharif [Ali bin] Hussein, it would be difficult for him to rule over the Hijaz for any significantly extended period.

Secondly, even if Ibn Saud takes control of Hijaz, he would have to end all hopes of the Arabs uniting under one government and being able to defend for themselves. This is because the other Arab states would not want to live with Najd and the Hijaz even in a state of peace, let alone unite with them. And even though their current condition is weak, their unified strength is far superior and therefore, there will always be the possibility of disorder breaking out in the Arab land.

The second difficulty they will face is that for the future progress of the Arabs, it is essential that the Syrians play a more significant role in its administrative affairs as they are more educated and wise. This is because in this current age, education and educational progress are of real benefit as opposed to the sword. However, it is impossible for this to happen in a Wahhabi government.

The third difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to rule the country from the eastern region of Arabia. The known history of the Arabs shows that it has always been ruled from its western, northwestern or southwestern parts. This is not just a coincidence but rather because of natural geographical factors. Hence, if the Wahhabi government was to remain in Riyadh, then the Hijaz region would completely weaken and it is possible that other powers may even seize control of it which would be a day of great mourning for Islam. However, for the Wahhabis to relocate from Riyadh to Makkah or Madinah will be against their own interests because their Emir will be further away from this highly significant area from where he would strengthen his army. In fact, he will be deprived of the only centre which he could fully trust.

How Can the Arabs Unite?

In light of the current circumstances, if the Wahhabis were to take control of Hijaz, it would only bring temporary benefit. However, ultimately it will be detrimental for not only the Arabs but the entire Muslim world, and the Wahhabis themselves will also suffer. The aspiration of the Arabs to become united will become just a fantasy and the Arabs will never again be able to unite in the form of an organised government.

Allah Alone knows best the reality of the matter.

The government of Sharif [Ali bin] Hussein’s family presents certain challenges of its own but if the Sharif family resolves to reform themselves; maintains a good relationship with the Turks; stops committing injustices against the Wahhabis and in fact grants them complete religious freedom; wins the sympathy of the entire Muslim world – and the Muslim world should also refrain from presenting uncivilised demands – then it is relatively easier for the Arabs to unite under them. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges in both instances, but in my opinion there are relatively fewer if the Arabs were under the rule of the Sharif family.

Wahhabism and Ahmadiyyat

I will now answer this question from a religious perspective. From a religious point of view, there is no doubt that in the instance of a Wahhabi government being established they may well be overly strict in certain issues, but even then, the people of Najd are more devoted to their faith. They are very regular in their observance of prayers, they abstain from shirk [idolatrous practices] as much as they can, and from past experience, no other sect of the Muslims readily accepts Ahmadiyyat as those from the Wahhabi sect.

Thus, keeping view of the interests of the Ahmadiyya Community, it can be said that even though it would pose many difficulties for us if the Wahhabis were to govern the region of Hijaz since they greatly oppose Ahmadiyyat, God-willing, it would ultimately prove beneficial for our Community. Moreover, taking into view all the various factors, it can be said that if the Wahhabis ruled over the Hijaz for even a short duration, it would nonetheless have a lasting impact which would prove beneficial for the propagation of our Community.

In the end, I conclude this treatise with the prayer that even in these circumstances of evil and disorder, may Allah the Almighty produce such positive results whereby Islam shall triumph and the Hijaz remains completely pure from any Christian influence and the hearts of those who dwell in the land of God never be overawed by the Dajjal [Antichrist].

Allahumma Ameen!

Mirza Mahmud Ahmad
Al-Fazl, 20 June 1925