Hashemite Discourse on Wahhabi Islam as Anti-Saudi Propaganda during the Arab Revolt

By Sami Sweis
Submitted to Session P4913 (Politics of Religion During WWI as lived and remembered in the Ottoman Empire, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
19th-21st Centuries;
This project explores the ways the Hashemites portrayed Wahhabi Islam to British officials during the 1916 Arab Revolt in an attempt to undermine emerging British-Saudi relations. For Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, the Amir of Mecca and preeminent Hashemite, the Arab Revolt provided an opportunity to assert a bid for leadership over the Arab world. The British, despite backing the Hashemites, held different strategic interests. They considered the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as an opening to stake claim on strategic areas in the Middle East that would ensure their Muslim subjects’ pilgrimage to Mecca and their control over the critical waterways to India, namely, the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf. British policy had thus been divided between the Cairo-based Arab Bureau that sought to elevate Sharif Husayn, the most powerful figure in Mecca, and the India Office that had a history of bolstering different Arabian tribal leaders, including the Hashemite archrival, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Ibn Saud headed a confederacy that included tribesmen who had adopted Wahhabism, a sect Islam that emerged in Central Arabia in the 18th century that sought to rid Islam of what its eponymous founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, considered as unlaw innovations. An alliance struck between Abdul al-Wahhab and the House of Saud established the ideological basis for Saudi expansion by and leadership over the tribes who adopted Wahhabism. Histories of the Hashemite and Saudi rivalry have focused almost entirely on the disputes between British policy makers and the tribal conflicts that resulted as Sharif Husayn and Ibn Saud sought to consolidate their respective authority over the region’s tribesmen. This project, while recognizing the role of tribal politics, analyzes the propaganda campaign the Hashemites launched against the Saudis that specifically targeted Wahhabi Islam in an attempt to convince the British to abandon support for Ibn Saud. The Hashemites claimed to represent orthodox Islam and based their religious critique of Wahhabism on a discourse of modernity and Orientalism. As such, the Hashemites portrayed themselves, and their expression of Islam, as moderate, modern, and compatible with European global interests, and they depicted the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance as a threat to not only the “civilized” Islamic world but also to the Christian world. Ultimately, Hashemite critiques against Wahhabi doctrine suggests that this rivalry was more than a tribal conflict. It was an ideological one between competing visions of Islam and those who claimed to represent it.