The Magazine

Murderous Monotheists

From the October 11, 2004 issue: What Zarqawi believes.

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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FACED WITH the series of beheadings and other grisly crimes committed in Iraq by the followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Westerners may wonder why this gang should call itself "Monotheism and Jihad." The group's Arabic name, Tawhid wa'al-Jihad, is often misleadingly translated "Unity and Jihad," which could lead English-speakers to suppose that Zarqawi and company are acting in the name of a united Iraqi nation, or of Arab unity, or of solidarity among jihadists or Muslims generally.

But Tawhid does not mean "unity," much less "unification"; it means "uniqueness," as in the uniqueness of God the Creator. To understand the theology behind this word is to appreciate the identity of the "foreign fighters" around Zarqawi--himself born in Jordan--and the purpose of their kidnappings and beheadings.

All Muslims, of course, are monotheists. Islam rejects the multiple gods and goddesses of the pagan religions, and proclaims the creation of the universe by a single God. But in the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi sect, asserted that Muslims had fallen away from true monotheism back into pagan unbelief: worship of multiple gods, or polytheism. Wahhabism, now the state religion of Saudi Arabia, continues to assert that Islam as practiced in nearly the whole of the global Muslim community outside the Saudi kingdom is actually apostasy.

The Arabic term for polytheism is shirk, or "assigning partners to Allah." According to the Wahhabi creed, in recent centuries, only the followers of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and their descendants have been true monotheists. All non-Wahhabis--whether nominally Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist--are steeped in shirk and deserve to be killed so that pure Wahhabi monotheism can reign supreme.

In this twisted view, the majority of Iraqis are guilty of shirk. Up to 70 percent of Iraqis belong to the Shia sect of Islam, and as such follow the guidance of their imams and ayatollahs, wise theologians recognized for their study and insight. According to the Wahhabis, to follow a supreme cleric or marja like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Iraqi Shias, is to place him on an equal level with God. Shias should therefore be killed as polytheists, their property confiscated, and their women dishonored.

Wahhabis also hate Shias because they erect elaborate tombs for their martyrs and outstanding clerics and pray at these graves. Wahhabis believe that the very existence of graveyards and tombs is a kind of double polytheism, in which the person memorialized in the grave is elevated to equality with God, and the gravestone or tomb becomes an idol; to pray in cemeteries is, in Wahhabi eyes, to commit an abomination. Thus, once the Shias are killed, their holy sites must be torn down and their graveyards desecrated.

For this reason, the beheadings carried out in the name of "monotheism" in Iraq are aimed not only at terrorizing Westerners, but equally at intimidating Shias. We must understand that Iraqi Shias know this, and will help us in the struggle to extirpate Zarqawi and his gangsters.

Wahhabis equally accuse Sufis of polytheism. Sufism is a spiritual Islamic tradition influenced by Christianity and Eastern religions that is the dominant form of Islam in much of the world, notably French West Africa, much of North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, India, and Indonesia. Once again, the Wahhabis' virulent hatred is excited by the Sufi practice of discipleship, with sheikhs as teachers, and the Sufi devotion to praying at graves and maintaining the tombs of saints. Westerners sometimes believe that saints are absent from Islam. But they are not; in Kazakhstan, a country dominated by Sufism, a common, traditional prayer runs: "Thousands of saints in Turkestan / Thousands of saints in Turkestan / I pray for your aid."

Prayers to saints and to the Prophet Muhammad for intercession with the Creator, along with obedience to sheikhs and preservation of burial sites, make the Sufis, from the Wahhabi viewpoint, deserving of slaughter and pillage. Since Sufism is the dominant form of Islam among Iraqi Kurds, each beheading by the Zarqawi conspiracy threatens them.

Obviously, Jews and Christians do not fare well in the Wahhabi scheme. As the historian Bernard Lewis pointed out in his authoritative volume The Jews of Islam, the Ottoman caliphate recognized and honored the "unflawed monotheism" of the Jews. But the Wahhabis hated the Ottomans as patrons of Sufism and friends of Shiism. Indeed, the Wahhabis loathe the Jews for treating rabbis as religious authorities, and considered them fit only for beheading even before the state of Israel existed. They also deride the Jews for their love of life. Wahhabis brag that they love death.