On 25-27 August 2016, some 200 Sunni scholars from around the world accepted the invitation of Yemeni Sufi preacher, Alhabib Ali al-Jafri, to attend a conference in Grozny, the capital city of the Chechen Republic, Russia. The aim of the conference was to define the term “Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘ah”, which is often used to describe an umbrella under which an assortment of Muslim sects stand and each claims a legitimacy to represent the true interpretation of Islam via the following of the sunna (tradition) of Prophet Muhammad. Among the notable personalities in the conference was a very high level delegation from Egypt, headed by the Grand Imam of al-Azher, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyib, who gave a speech on the first day of the conference. The Egyptian delegation also included the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gum‘a, The current Grand Mufti, Shaykh Shawqi Allam, and, to make it even more official, a high government religious affairs representative, Shaykh Ousama al-Azhari. There was also the Grand Mufti of Syria, and a number of popular intellectuals such as Dr. Adnan Ibrahim.
There are many controversial observations to point out about the conference in relation to timing, place, and finances. But the mother of all controversies was the deliberate exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the conference. The conveners of the conference on identifying who the true Sunnis are made it clear that Saudi scholars and their Wahhabi version of Islam were not invited and not welcome to attend. Also excluded were all Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all terrorist groups that use violence in the name of Islam. To add insult to the injury, the conference, having excluded the Wahhabis and Salafis from the Sunni community, declared in its final communiqué the inclusion of Sufis, Ash‘aris and Maturidis – all of whom are disputed by Wahhabis and Salafis as true Sunnis.
Naturally, thin-skinned Saudi Arabia reacted with multidimensional rage. For it has been customary throughout the many past decades that Saudi Arabia is placed in the front and center of every stage where Sunni Islam is discussed. This time, Saudi Arabia and its founding doctrine, Wahhabism, were not only sidelined, but essentially ex-communicated. In response, Saudi writers and the well-financed media machine were given full freedom to unload their wrath on the conference, both the conveners and the participants, and the host nation. But the greatest share of fury was directed at Egypt and al-Azher, the world’s highest Sunni institution. Articles, television commentaries, and social media comments went beyond religion, into politics and economics. As Saudis often do, they reminded the Egyptians about every dollar they gave them in the past. Saudi writer Muhammad Al al-Shaykh, a descendent of the founder of Wahhabism, put is so succinctly in one of his angry tweets: “The participation of Shaykh al-Azhar in the Grozny conference which excluded the Kingdom from the term Ahl al-Sunna dictates that we change our dealing with Egypt, for our homeland is more important, and let Sisi’s Egypt go to ruin.” This concept was put more blatantly by Shaykh Adel al-Kalbani, former Imam of Mecca Grand Mosque, in a tweet stating, “The conference of Chechnya revealed that the mouths we feed bite us, but we do not take lessons.”
The Saudi Academic, Abdulaziz al-Tuwajri, wrote a scathing article in al-Hayat, a Saudi-owned London-based daily paper, calling the conference “suspect” and suggested that “it plays in the hands of Iran and its sectarian plans against Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘ah.” He also pointed at an inconvenient fact about the conference, the role of the Tabah Foundation in organizing and financing the conference, which is based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a Saudi ally in the war on Yemen and fellow GCC nation. Saudi officials and their media surrogates have mostly refrained, so far, from mentioning any direct involvement of the UAE, a country that is not for the close involvement of its intelligence service in the work of every think-tank. It is simply inconceivable that Tabah Foundation would organize a conference with such a clear anti-Saudi agenda without consulting with the proper authorities in the UAE.
The angry mob of pro-Wahhabi writers and commentators went beyond the participants and their countries, including the host, Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov, to include Russian President, Vladimir Putin and, oddly, America and Iran. Saudi writer Muhammad Al al-Shaykh wrote, “The conference of Chechnya was held under supervision of Russian and Iranian intelligence to exclude the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] from Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘ah and the Shaykh of al-Azher put his thumbprint stupidly.” This claim is opposed, or maybe augmented, by pro-Saudi Egyptian newspaper editor, Gamal Sultan, who pointed blatantly at the elephant in the room. In a reply to prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Sultan wrote, “Tabah Foundation, founded by young Yemeni Ali al-Jafri in Abu Dhabi with support and sponsorship from the UAE intelligence.” He then asked rhetorically in a follow-up tweet, “What does it mean when a foundation based in the UAE and supported by its institutions organizes the Chechnya conference that accused the theology of Saudi state of extremism and deviation from the school of Ahl al-Sunna?”
In the midst of all this back and forth debate, the conference at Grozny crossed a firewall that was kept burning for decades to protect the Saudi claims of leadership in the Sunni Muslim world, which constitutes more than 75% of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. All of the petrodollars Saudi Arabia spends to advance this claim of leadership and the monopolistic use of Islam’s greatest holy sites to manufacture a claim of entitlement to Muslim leadership were shattered by this collective revolt from leading Sunni Muslim scholars and institutions who refused to allow extremism, takfir, and terror ideology to be legitimized in their name by a fringe they decided that it is even not part of their community. This is the beginning of a new era of Muslim awakening the Wahhabis spared no efforts and no precious resources to ensure it will never arrive.
Abbas Kadhim is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University. He can be followed on Twitter @DrAbbasKadhim