The year 1744 AD is not given enough importance when chronicling the contemporary history of the Islamic world. In the first half of the eighteenth century, Western Europe was experiencing relative peace following the Treaty of Westphalia and the age of enlightenment was in the offing. In China, the Qing dynasty was prospering and the Indian subcontinent was in turmoil following the death of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The Ottoman Empire ruled over vast swathes of northern Africa and Middle East but its hold over the territories was decreasing due to wars with the European kingdoms. The westward expansion of the Ottomans had ended following the botched attempt to conquer Vienna in 1683.

It was the year 1744 AD when a previously unknown hardliner preacher from a town named Uyaynah met a tribal chief in the outskirts of modern-day Riyadh. The preacher was named Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab and the tribal chief was Muhammad Ibn Saud. Abdul Wahab had been previously expelled from the town of Huraimala, due to his stringent views towards religion (later titled “Salafism”). Ibn Saud was impressed with Wahab’s message and allied with him in a quest for dominance over the Arabian Peninsula. Nejad was semi-autonomous at that time, while its surrounding area was controlled by the Ottomans. Ibn Saud’s Bedouin army conquered Nejad, and Wahab was endowed with the title Sheikh-ul-Islam. Ibn Saud was the ‘political head’ of the government while Abdul Wahab was the ‘religious leader.’

As Sheikh ul-Islam, Wahhab labeled all Muslims who disagreed with his view of Islam as apostates, justifying “Jihad” on Nejad’s Arab neighbors. Such proclamations were politically expedient for Ibn Saud, as they suited his expansionist agendas. A vast majority of Muslims living in the Arabian peninsula during that era belonged to the Hanafi school of Islamic Jurisprudence. The Salafi ideology propounded by Wahab had no room for these ‘nuances’ and Hanafis were given the choice between conversion to ‘Salafism’ or death.

This attitude was nothing compared to the treatment meted out by Salafi armies to Shias. In 1802, Saud Ibn Saud, grandson of Ibn Saud, attacked the city of Karbala, considered holy by Shias. After capturing the city, the tomb of Hussain bin Ali (Prophet Muhammad’s grandson) was destroyed and four thousand people were killed in the city. In the grand tradition of marauding armies from the north (such as the ones led by the Ghaznavis), Saud and his followers plundered the city and took the spoils on the backs of thousands of camels. In 1804, Saud attacked the Hejaz region, taking control of Islam’s holiest cities: Makkah and Madina. Following this triumph, the Salafis restricted access to the holy sites during Hajj, accusing pilgrims from other countries to be idolaters.

In 1815, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, defeated the Salafi army and took back control of Holy Cities from Ibn Saud’s clan. The leader of the clan was arrested and taken to Constantinople where he refused to debate with the Hanafi scholars regarding the pros and cons of Salafist ideology and was ultimately beheaded.

At the dawn of 20th century, the Ottoman empire had weakened considerably. Taking advantage of the situation, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud- the then-leader of Ibn Saud clan-followed the path trodden upon by his predecessors and went on a rampage through the Arabian Peninsula. During the first world war, he allied with the British army against the Ottoman rulers. Abdul Aziz succeeded in gaining control of Holy Cities by the year 1925. In 1932; Nejad and Hejaz were merged to form the ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ (KSA). In 1947, Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to recognize the Independence of Pakistan. KSA’s king came to Pakistan on an official visit in 1954. Pakistan sent engineers and skilled technicians to KSA during the construction of its electricity and transport infrastructure in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Bilateral relations between the two countries soared to new heights during the 1970s, due to efforts of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto and KSA’s King Faisal. Manual workers from Pakistan were sent in droves to work in KSA during the next two decades. According to social scientist, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, “The Arab influence in Pakistan’s society and state seems to have gradually and systemically grown. The first glimpse of such influence dates back to the end of the ‘70s, as a result of the proliferation of Pakistani manpower going to the Middle East. It was not only money that returned with these people, but social influence as well”.

Along with Saudi riyals, the puritanical Wahabbi version of Islam also entered Pakistan’s social milieu. Majority of Pakistan’s population believes in the ‘low-church’ Barlevi Islam but there were always people here who believed in the ‘high-church’ Deobandi version. The Wahabbi variant is more puritanical and literalist than either of the two. Wahabbi Islam shuns local customs that have worked their way into culture. This clash of ideologies has disrupted the previously fragile bond between variants of Sunni Islam. Wahhabi influence has also stoked antipathy towards the significant Shia population of Pakistan especially after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Since then, a proxy war amongst the two foes has plagued Pakistan. Ironically, sectarian clashes are kept under strict tabs in both Iran and KSA. A recent report tabled in Pakistan’s senate mentioned that KSA has spent millions of rupees on constructing madrassahs in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan.

Due to these image-building measures, 95% of the people in Pakistan express a favorable opinion of the Saudi Kingdom, stated a Pew survey report in 2013. Amongst KSA’s neighbors, only 51% people in Lebanon and 52% in Palestine had any favourable views about the country.

In the spring of 2012, Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced that they would bankroll armed opposition to the Shia dominated Alavi Regime in Syria. In March 2014, Pakistan received $1.5 billion as a ‘gift’ from the KSA. In February 2014, Pakistan’s Army Chief made his first official foreign visit: to Saudi Arabia. He visited again in April this year. It seems the ever-living spectre of Abdul Wahab looms large over Al-Bakistan.

    The writer is a freelance columnist.