Since the inception of Islam, there had been various sects competing for prominence; many had died out, and the two major ones were Twelver Shia and the Sunni fiqh.
Then suddenly, from the start of the 19th century to the end of that century, we have the emergence of Ahmadiyya, the renewal of Ismailism and the creation of a new faith entirely, Baha ism. Go back a hundred years, and we can add Wahhabism to this list. I identify a common thread amongst all these new religions in this post.
Four religions in a couple of hundred years ... and three Knights
That's an unusually fertile period of spiritual spontaneity by any measure. Or is the explanation for such flowering of faith more mundane and perhaps guided by vested foreign interests or even stimulated by them? Because what marked that period, from the ones that preceded it was the growing recognition by countries from outside the middle eastern region that it was an important geographical location in itself and also for its proximity to the wealth of India. That latter point is important because there is little disagreement that British foreign policy towards the middle east paid due cognisance to the views and interests of the Government of India - of course, that is a pre-independence Government, so wholly controlled by Britain.
Abdul Wahhab developed what is commonly referred to as an austere interpretation of Islam, one that denounces the rituals and beliefs that he felt had accreted over the centuries. There is a rich vein of (conspiracy) theories, easily found on the internet, that in his travel to Iraq in the early 18th century, he could have come across British agents (specifically a 'Mr Hempher'). Certainly, the British East India Company had been well established at that time, and a British consulate had been established in Iraq in 1802. Less widely commented on is the fact that the famous Danish/German explorer Carsten Niebuhr travelled to Arabia in 1761.
But leaving conspiracy theories aside, it's possible to develop an argument about foreign involvement based on far less controversial ideas. Britain may not have been a midwife to Wahhabism, but I think people of all geo-political persuasions would agree that Britain was a helpful nanny.
The person with whom the British did have extensive dealings was Ibn Saud, who had entered into a pact with Abdul Wahhab in 1744. British sources said he persistently approached Britain for support and was generally rebuffed. Saud was a political leader who continued to promote the Wahhabi philosophy after the death of its founder. Saud was no cleric. But he was shrewd enough to mould the ideology as the basis for providing a motivation for conquest and a glue that would hold his fighters together. British records show that he took responsibility for hiring and firing clerics based on his political agenda.
My source for this and some other information about Wahhabism that is presented here is a PhD dissertation submitted to King's College London in 2002 by Hassan Syed Abedin, titled "Abdul Aziz Al-Saud and the great game in Arabia, 1896-1946".
Ibn Saud (who would in due course be given the British title 'Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire') was ultimately successful in his goal of receiving support from Britain in 1914 when Britain needed to have someone distracting the Ottomans so that they could devote fewer resources to World War I taking place in Europe.
Prior to that, it's argued that Ibn Saud had spent considerable efforts in achieving a status similar to the one held by Mubarak Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. This ideal status would have meant that Sauds and their territories would have been subjects of the Ottoman empire, but who would be given the protection of the British.
This version of events does not look very good for Ibn Saud, presenting him as someone who is willing to do business with non-Muslims in order to undermine a Muslim ruler, and he'd serve a useful role in helping Britain with the following objective:
What we want is not a United Arabia; but a weak and disunited Arabia, split up into little principalities so far as possible under our suzerainty-but incapable of coordinated action against us, forming a buffer against powers in the west.
Crewe private telegram to Hardinge, Viceroy of India, November 12,1914, cited in Busch Britain, India and the Arabs: 1914-1921, p. 62.
Further, east we find the rise of the modern-day Nizari Ismailis, whose Aga Khan in the mid-19th century created a new role for himself in providing services to the British Empire (Aga Khan I would receive an annual British pension of £20,000 per year). Mihir Bose (a noted writer on the subject) says that the Aga Khan had to plead his case for some time before the British took him seriously since they wanted to be sure that they were backing a local ally who'd present them with better value than the alternatives. His grandson Aga Khan III would be bestowed the title of 'Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India'. Their esoteric faith was totally at odds with the one promulgated by Wahhab, but regardless of that difference served a useful purpose.
It must be known that the Aga Khan had tried to convince Nasir Khan, the Talpur Amir of Kalat, to cede Karachi to the British. Nasir Khan refused it; therefore, the Aga Khan disclosed his battle plan to Major James Outram. As a result, the British camp was saved from a night attack. The Aga Khan had also placed his cavalry at the disposal of the British. For his valuable services in Afghanistan and Sind, the Aga Khan was granted an annual pension of 2000 pounds with an honorific title of His Highness.
Regardless of the support he gave, the British were aware of the hypocrisy of his religious position:
He is a God—his income immense. He lets none of his sect kiss his hand under twenty rupees, and is the greatest rascal possible, that is, a clever brave man, but being a God makes a virtue of any sin he likes to commit. I speak truly when saying that his followers do not and dare not refuse him any favour he asks, wives, daughters, slaves, money, houses, furniture, are all his, and he doesn’t let the privilege grow rusty. He could kill me if he pleased, he has only to say the word and one of his people would do the job in a twinkling and go straight to heaven for the same. He is too shrewd for that however, and they all have a great fear of me since the battles.
Sir Charles Napier to Governor-General of India, Earl of Ellenborough, 1843
The period around the 1840s is interesting for the following reason, as the following letter makes clear:
“It is desirable to hold an instrument by which we may at any time throw the South of Persia into rebellion and thus paralyze any attempt at an advance from Tehran to the Eastward. . . . The Aga Khan’s residence in Indian territories will certainly be viewed with extreme jealousy by Persia.” 17
Purohit, T. (2012) The Aga Khan Case (religion and identity in colonial India). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
The writer of the letter is Major Henry Rawlinson, the military officer who worked for the commission in Persia from 1834 to 1838 and subsequently served as a political agent in Qandahar. So the British were interested in there being dislocation in Iran at around this time because of a perceived threat to their interests in Afghanistan.
This makes the genesis and development of the third religion covered here all the more interesting.
In roughly the same period, the mid-nineteenth century, we also see the rise of the Bahai faith in Iran. Mirza Ali Mohammad was born in 1820 and was executed in 1850. A focus of his attention was economic inequality in Iran. There were clear political implications, as noted by the middle eastern commentator Juan Cole:
In the nineteenth century Iran, in contrast, the Bahais were a radical-reformist group advocating banned ideas such as parliamentary elections, some of their members held high political office, and they had not been forbidden to join political groupings or (later) parties.
The socio-economic aspect of Bab's teachings are also explained here:
In the teaching of Babiism it was said: the poverty of the peasants had brought the rich to wealth. "Now, the oppressed people of Iran... arise...",32 These practical teachings gained considerable support among the impoverished masses of the rural and urban areas.
In Gillan, Mazandaran and Khorasan the peasants joined the Babi movement in large numbers. In the cities people refused to pay taxes. In Zanjan, people attacked the prisons, attempting to free those imprisoned for failing to pay their taxes.33 The wide support the Babi movement received was an indication of the alienation of both the state and the ulama from the people. Even considerable numbers of the lower-ranking ulama joined the Babi movement. The total strength of the movement was estimated by competent authorities at nearly one and a half million or about twenty percent of the total population of Iran.
Mansoor Moaddel (1986) The Shi'i Ulama and the State in Iran. Theory and Society, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Jul., 1986), pp. 519-556. This extract: p526.
This socio-religio-poliitcal impact of a new faith did not go unnoticed by the colonial powers of the time and gained ground as a result of their support as a means of destabilising the Qajar dynasty. Like Ibn Saud, Abdul Baha, eldest son of the Baha'u'llah, would also be awarded the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, ostensibly for his work in alleviating famine.
In the history of modern Iran, the Babi movement was the first manifestation of popular protest that challenged both the Qajar monarchy and the Shi’i clerical establishment. It gradually not only broke away from Shi’ism and Islam but also laid the foundations for a new religion—the Baha’i faith.
Russian diplomats tried to follow important events in Iran and informed their superiors at the so-called Persian desk or Persian section in the Asian department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thus, when the early information about the Bab, his teachings, and his movement reached the Russian embassy in Tehran, it was immediately forwarded to St. Petersburg.
Sensing this Iranian sensitivity, Russia came to see in the new faith, its exiled leaders, and the local community as a means of pressuring the Iranian government.
Shahvar, S. (2018) ‘Oppression of Religious Minority Groups in Times of Great Upheaval in Late Qajar Iran: The 1892 Persecution of Jews and Baha’is of Jewish Origin in Hamadan Based on Two Newly Discovered Letters’, The Jewish quarterly review. University of Pennsylvania Press, 108(2), pp. 225–251.
Going further east, we find the third innovation in the Muslim religion towards the end of the 19th century and one that would lead to charges of being the creation of a new religion entirely. The Ahmadis would destabilise Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. Their support for the British in India is expressed in their texts:
We acknowledge with great regret that Islam’s maulavis have focused on an improper definition of jihad and have taught the Frontier Region’s tribes to unjustly harm this friendly [British] government by spilling the blood of its honourable officers.
For example, every other day the Frontier Region’s violent tribes kill the British officers who are protecting their lives and property, as well as that of their Muslim brethren.
There is a reason for this approach; unlike the established religions of the Indian sub-continent, the leader of this new religion needed legitimacy. By acquiescing to the needs of the invaders, he sought to achieve that. For the established religions doing the same would have been challenging because they would have lost the legitimacy of their many existing followers; the new religion with far fewer followers had much less to lose in this respect but potentially a great deal more to gain.
I am not saying that the British went into the middle east with the prior notion of introducing new faiths. However, it is reasonable to say that in an environment where there were new powers in the region, for someone starting a new faith, the potential for a symbiotic relationship with these new arrivals was obvious.
For the invaders, these new religions provided a ready-made supportive constituency with which to challenge the established order, whether it be the Ottomans, the Qajars or the established religious order in India.