In the middle of the 18th century in eastern Arabia, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab led a campaign for the renewal and purification of Islam. Charles Allen refers to him as "Wahhab" for short, but as ibn Abd al-Wahhab means "son of the slave of the generous", this is a solecism on a par with referring to MacDonald as Donald. The Wahhabi campaign was a militant one which aimed at rooting out mystical practices and enforcing an extremely strict code of morality based on the Koran and the practice of the Prophet Mohamed.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, a tribal chief in the Najd. The Saudi clan assisted by Wahhabi spiritual leaders fought a series of campaigns, mostly against rival Arab tribes, which culminated in the 1920s with the imposition of Saudi rule and the Wahhabi version of Islam over most of the Arabian Peninsula.
Though Allen's very readable book chronicles the fluctuating fortunes of the Arabian movement, he is a distinguished historian of British India, and more interested in the much less well-known story of the parallel movement of revival and jihad that got underway in the Indian subcontinent at around the same time. In India, such figures as Syed Ahmad, Wilayat Ali and Mahmood ul-Hasan led a movement, or rather series of movements, that also sought to return to a purer and uncompromising form of Islam. However, the environment in which the Indian scholars preached was quite different from Arabia.
The Saudi tribesmen were not under foreign rule and their enemies were other, less puritanical Muslims. The Arabs were untroubled by imperialism and almost totally ignorant about western culture. Indian Muslims, on the other hand, were witness to the dismantlement of Muslim rule in India after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the deposition of the last Mughal Emperor. Islamic revivalism in India, born in despair and bitterness, was a response to British empire building. The Sikhs in the Punjab were the first victims of Syed Ahmad's holy war, but thereafter the British and Indians who collaborated were the main target of the militant revivalists.
Even the English language was corrupting. According to one Muslim conspirator, it was "so closely connected with materialistic life that it is not only harmful but dangerous for the spiritual life. If a young man, before learning Quran and the traditions of the holy Prophet in detail, learns English and reads English books... he will become an unreligious, uncultured person with excessively free ideas to such an extent that it would not only be difficult but impossible to reform him".
Allen's book is part heresiography, part military history. He produces new evidence for "Wahhabi" involvement in the Mutiny of 1857 and traces Islamic resistance to British rule up to the Malakand campaign of 1897 and to the establishment of a rigorist religious college at Deoband in the late 19th century. Deoband was the model for the colleges in Pakistan where the Taliban studied before going off to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.
The Indian jihadist preachers and warriors did not call themselves "Wahhabis", a pejorative term foisted on them by British observers. Allen relies mainly, though not entirely, on British accounts of Muslim militancy. Inevitably, such accounts were unsparingly hostile and words like "fanatic" and "bigot" pepper their reports. If Urdu, Persian and Arabic sources had been used, more attention might have been paid to more benign aspects of Indian Muslim reform, spirituality and social work. There were contacts between the Indian and the Arabian movements, through pilgrimages and the studies of Indian scholars in Mecca and Medina, but it remains unclear how much the Indian reformists owed to the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
The two strains really came together only in the late 20th century. Allen shows how much Osama bin Laden owes to the Wahhabi tradition and to its theological sources. At the same time, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban and the host and protector of Bin Laden in Afghanistan, was heir to the long tradition of anti-Western jihad in north-west India. The story of God's Terrorists, a story of intransigence, hatred of modernity, millennial dreams, bloody massacres and invariably disappointed hopes, is depressing. Unfortunately, that story is not finished.
Robert Irwin's 'For Lust of Knowing' is published by Allen LaneReuse content