Saudi Money and the Spread of Wahhabism In South Asia

January 8, 2016

Saudi Money and the Spread of Wahhabism In South Asia

By Akhilesh Pillalamarri, Columnist

The Spread of Wahhabism

A new school of Islam from Saudi Arabia is transforming South Asia’s religious landscape. Wahhabism, a fundamental Sunni school of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia, entered South Asia in the late 1970s. With public and private Saudi funding, Wahhabism has steadily gained influence among Muslim communities throughout the region.

As a result, the nature of South Asian Islam has significantly changed in the last three decades. The result has been an increase in Islamist violence in Pakistan, Indian Kashmir, and Bangladesh. While governments in South Asia have not initially made the connection between Saudi Arabian money and the radicalization of Islam in their own countries, it is now clear that Wahhabism’s spread is increasing fundamentalism in South Asia.

Islam in South Asia has traditionally been distinct from Middle Eastern Islam. Sufism –mystical Islam – as well as elements of syncretism with Hinduism and other native religions characterize South Asian Islam. Muslim rulers throughout South Asia in the medieval period were often isolated from the rest of the Muslim world and relied upon a large number of non-Muslim subjects.[1] Consequently, South Asian Islam incorporated customs mainstream Islam frowns upon, such as visiting the shrines and graves of holy men, meditative practices influenced by yoga, and the use of music for worship.[2]

Due to the influence of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, South Asian Islam began to change as private individuals and the Saudi government poured money into South Asian mosques and madrassas.[3] As a result, many South Asians are now Wahhabis or members of related sects that practice a form of austere Islam similar to the type found in Saudi Arabia. One of these sects is a conservative movement known as the Deobandi movement, which, while indigenous to South Asia, is influenced by Wahhabism. The great rivals of the Deobandis in South Asia are adherents of the Barelvi movement, which was formed in reaction to the Deobandis and seeks to preserve the Islamic practices of South Asia, especially pilgrimages to graves and shrines.

Saudi influence entered Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent war in the 1980s, in the form of funds for madrassas and mosques in Pakistan, in order to create and train mujahedeen to fight atheistic Soviet Communism. Saudi Arabia’s government money funded both Deobandi and Wahhabi madrassas throughout Pakistan, and Saudi charities also poured money into Pakistan with the blessing of the Saudi government.[4] Initially, the mushrooming of Wahhabi and Deobandi groups worked to produce mujahedeen to fight in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Later, elements of the Pakistani government, notably the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), saw the spread of Wahhabism as useful in creating jihadist proxies to influence Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. As a result, despite the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, the influence of Wahhabism continued to grow in Pakistan. Additionally, due to the poor nature of Pakistan’s education system, Saudi-funded madrassas educated many of the most impoverished who would have otherwise not had a chance to go to school.

Today, Saudi money continues to fund Wahhabi and Deobandi groups that promote their ideology in Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government. The success of Saudi money in converting Muslim groups to Wahhabism has since been replicated in other parts of South Asia, including parts of India and Bangladesh. In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Saudi influence has led to 1.5 million people, from a population of 8 million, to affiliate with Wahhabi mosques.[5] A Saudi-funded group, Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith claims 16 percent of Kashmir’s population as its members and has built 700 mosques and 150 schools.[6] Police in Jammu and Kashmir believe this is the result of a $35 billion plan approved by Saudi Arabia’s government in 2005 to build mosques and madrassas in South Asia.[7] Additionally, Saudi Arabia distributed free religious literature and provided stipends to Wahhabi preachers.[8]

In Bangladesh, individuals radicalized in Wahhabi-funded mosques have coalesced under the fundamentalist organization Hefazat-e-Islam, which was implicated in the January 2014 incident when its members took to the streets in violent protests and demanded the implementation of Islamic law in Bangladesh.[9] In Jammu and Kashmir, the practice of visiting shrines has declined and the use of burkas among women has increased.[10] There is a general fear that the influence of Wahhabism throughout South Asia will dilute moderate interpretations of Islam in South Asia.

Saudi Arabia has several motivations in spreading Wahhabism throughout South Asia. The first is a genuine zeal for spreading the movement’s teachings. It has been the policy of the Wahhabi movement to evangelize from its inception, and Saudi oil money gives it the means to do so.[11] Saudi Arabia’s initial success in Pakistan showed Saudi Arabia that South Asia, with its relatively weak governments and lack of regulation on foreign money, is fertile ground for the spread of Wahhabi influence.[12] Additionally, Saudi Arabia noticed the ease with which Wahhabis formed strong bonds with the region’s native Deobandis.[13] Another reason Saudi Arabia is spreading Wahhabism in South Asia is to counter the influence of Shia Iran. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 created an expressively Shia state, Saudi Arabia has promoted Wahhabism wherever it could in order to fight Shia Islam. This includes South Asia, where Saudi Arabia wants to counter Iran’s tendency to use Shias groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan to expand its political influence in those countries.[14]

Unless governments throughout South Asia take steps to limit the influence of Saudi money and encourage alternative sources of funding for mosques and madrassas, Saudi-funded Wahhabi influence will continue to spread throughout South Asia, radicalizing its Muslims, and hampering efforts by South Asian governments to fight radical Islam and promote modernization.

[1] John Keay, India: A History (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 279.

[2] Barbara D. Metcalf, Islam in South Asia in Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 13.

[3] Ahmad Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (London: Allen Lane, 2012), 202.

[4]Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 191; Riaz Muhammad Khan. Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity (Washington: The Woodrow Wilson Press, 2011), 185.

[5] Tariq Mir, “Kashmir: The Rise of a Hard Faith,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, December 13, 2011,

[6] Asit Jolly, “The Wahhabi Invasion,”India Today, December 23, 2011,

[7] Jolly, “The Wahhabi Invasion.”

[8] Tariq Mir, “Purifying Kashmir,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, May 8, 2012,

[9] “Anarchy at the Ballot Box: Bangladesh Rising,” Vice News, April 15, 2014,

[10] Jolly, “The Wahhabi Invasion.”

[11] Ed Husain, “Saudis Must Stop Exporting Extremism,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014,

[12] Chowdhury, “Muslim by Religiously Liberal.”

[13] Khan, 186.

[14] Abbas Nasir, “Zia’s Long Shadow,” Dawn, July 6, 2012,


13 thoughts on “Saudi Money and the Spread of Wahhabism In South Asia

  1. Well, the US will turn a blind to what Saudi Arabia, its client state, is doing in its policy pf radicalization of Islam. The Saudis have oil and is a major market for US armaments. US Policy will not change vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia will not change when a new President take over from Mr. Obama in January 2017.

  2. I put this Adam Curtis docu in earlier comment about Wahhabism in Malayia

    That meeting between Roosevelt and Saudi King in Bitter Lake in the Suez canal to secure cheap oil for the US had a huge and lasting implication
    The Americans have found themselves indvertently protecting the spread of Saudi Wahhabism.
    And then we have the Saudis trying to ounter the influence of Iran as this article explains ….

  3. Actually US policy in the Mid-East is in the midst of potentially tectonic shifts not seen since the rise of OPEC and the fall of the Shah in the 1970s. First, the US has become a net energy exporter, and this is likely to persist unless one believes that one is staying below $40/bbl for many years. It is China that is become more dependent on Mid-East oil. Second, the nuclear deal with Iran paves the way for a major improvement in US-Iranian relations, and never forget that Iran was a key US ally during the Shah’s time. The Saudis remember this all too well, and they had been vigorously opposed to any deal between the West and Iran from the beginning. Third, the major global Islamic terror groups, namely Al-Qaeda and ISIS, are Sunni outfits (as are the likes of Taliban, Boko Haram etc.), who hate the Shia as much as they do the West. Always remember the mantra that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Most American security officials are very aware of this.

  4. The Saudis don’t call it wahhabism but salafists – the followers of Prophet Mohammed & his companions. The teaching is NOT in conflict to those of the recognized Mazhabs (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafiee and Hambali). Unfortunately, this teaching has been hijacked by the Talibans, Daesh, Boko Haram etc using violence to force compliance.

  5. A few points with regards to veritas’s post.

    “It is China that is become more dependent on Mid-East oil.”

    Erica S. Downs testimony before U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, published by the Brookings Institute is worth a read :

    “Second, the nuclear deal with Iran paves the way for a major improvement in US-Iranian relations, and never forget that Iran was a key US ally during the Shah’s time.”

    This is doubtful. US relations in the ME is complicated by its relationship with Israel. And Israel has made it clear what it thinks of the nuclear deal. It remains to be seen if the nuclear deal works, for how long and if the US decides to step back from the ME.

    “Third, the major global Islamic terror groups, namely Al-Qaeda and ISIS, are Sunni outfits (as are the likes of Taliban, Boko Haram etc.), who hate the Shia as much as they do the West”

    More Muslims have killed each other in the ME for sectarian reasons than the West. But yet the rallying cry is always against US Imperialism than it is against their own brethren.

    While I doubt US hegemonic interest will subside in the ME especially in Saudi Arabia I do think that China and Russia will increase the tension in the middle east BUT since they have shown they don’t consider Israel a province of their respective countries and demonstrated that they have very little patience for Islamic nutjobs waging jihad, perhaps a tenuous kind of peaceful equilibrium could be achieved.

  6. Edit to add.

    And of course lets not forget the decades in which the US allowed the Saudis to fund all these fucked up religious schools and spread their filth to the rest of the world.

    I suppose disengagement is another word for leaving the scene of the crime.

  7. Not at all clear to me what is your objection to my point:

    “Second, the nuclear deal with Iran paves the way for a major improvement in US-Iranian relations, and never forget that Iran was a key US ally during the Shah’s time.”

    It is a fact that relations between Iran and the US has improved significantly. It is also a fact that Iran was the chief US ally in the Gulf region in the 1970s. I didn’t say they are about to re-establish their very close pre-revolution relationship. Iran and the US refused to talk openly to each other for decades, but both countries’ diplomats officially meeting face-to-face for the first time in over 30 years just last year. Kerry was reported in the press as having made severals phone calls to the Iranian foreign minister over the Iran-Saudi row over the past week. This type of direct relationship was unthinkable just two years ago. If this is not a “major improvement”, then I don’t know what is.

    It is a fact that the Saudi’s are vigorously opposed to any US-Iran deal. Not so much about the nuclear issue, but the ending of Western sanctions on Iran. Iran is by nature the dominant power in the Gulf with an ancient civilisation (Persia). So a strengthened Iran that has “normal” relations with the world will seek to reclaim its place in the region (just as China is doing in East Asia). Doesn’t matter that both are Muslim countries (just like being Christian didn’t stop England and France fighting each other regularly until the 20th Century). The geopolitical rivalry is acute.

    As for both Shias and Sunnis rallying together against US imperialism, I would say that the Syrian civil war has witnessed a major change in how they view each other in recent years. The Shia-led Hezbollah for example is now a major combatant in Syria, fighting against Sunni-led anti-Assad forces. It is no exaggeration to say that Hezbollah’s priorities have shifted from facing off against Israel to supporting the Alawite/Shia regime in Syria.

    It is now also clear to everyone that the Iranian military is fighting openly in Syria, with a high ranking Iranian general reportedly killed fighting ISIS in October.

    The Saudis are also fighting openly against the Shia-led Houthis in the Yemen civil war. So I think we have already moved on well from the claim that “the rallying cry is always against US Imperialism”. The fighting between the Sunni and Shia in the Middle East has moved on to include state actors now, and it has escalated beyond anything seen in living memory.

  8. “..tenuous kind of peaceful equilibrium could be achieved.” Conrad

    Nope, ain’t gonna happen, my friend. Equilibrium is just not possible. The Genie is outta the Lamp.

    Iraq will become a proxy of the Shia ‘Persian’ superstate – with Bahrain, a satellite colony. Saudi may break apart with the eastern and southern provinces (with Northern Yemen) rebelling in the longer term. Wahhabism is just too anachronistic to survive the new millennium and Daesh is just a flash in the pan of Radical Fundamentalist Inhumanity.

    The ‘Muslim’ World in MENA would be divided in more ‘natural’ bits and pieces with new borders by mid 21st century – after we have all gone to the Halls of Valhalla or whatever. The Colonial post WW II map drawing was just atrocious and impractical. I believe i’ve said this at the onset of the Arab Spring (now, a hell) many moons ago. I also predicted a Syrian holocaust then, although there were detractors.

    The only stable nation state would be Oman, with their more tolerant Ibadi ‘denomination’. Islam there is more a religion of peace and tolerance than the divisive exclusivist religion of the desert.

    USofA will have to admit that Russian-toting Orthodox Christianity, instead of deadbeat Protestant Dispensationalism, may be better at grasping the nuances of geopolitical tribal religiosity.

    PRC? They will support whoever or whatever ensures their energy needs. This may come from Central Asia, thru’ the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. If they don’t collapse or end up incapacitated economically first. Who needs MENA?

    Israel will remain until Armageddon. Threats of Lobbing a couple of Nukes at Mecca and Medina is but one way of ransom. Can Islam survive on 4 Pillars? The Star (Shield) of David will still have 6 points no matter what.

    Hope i don’t touch on raw nerves folks.. But that’s the ‘Reality’ as i see it.

  9. Were the United States to counter the spread of a religion sect such as Wahabism, it would not be the task of the government of the United States. The USA Constitution has clearly stated that the Congress shall pass no law to honor a religion or limit the free exercise of religions. In simpler terms, US government is prohibited by its own constitution from banning books or preaching or schools of Wahabism.

    Within the boundary of USA, only privates citizens can counter the spread Wahabism by mainly promoting alternative beliefs and criticizing certain beliefs, as what is guaranteed under the freedom of expression of the First Amendment.

    That is more or less the main reason the US government dances around Islamism problem by addressing only physical violence either in the form of “war on terror” (Bush) or “violence extremism” (Obama). As to people to be influenced by Wahabism as a sect, the US government cannot do much – you are on your own.

    This situation will not change until there are substantial number of people in USA come to realize Islamism is not just a religion, but a religio-political system a la communism, and US government is under imminent subversive threat of a rival political system.

  10. “Not at all clear to me what is your objection to my point:”

    Not really objections, veritas, more like invitations for more dialogue.

    “This type of direct relationship was unthinkable just two years ago. If this is not a “major improvement”, then I don’t know what is.”

    Whatever appears in the press is not reflective of a direct relationship but rather the public relations gambits of the power brokers in Iran and the United States. The US relationship with Iran and indeed with countries in the ME has always been a complex one. The Iran-contra scandal for example is lesson in real politik and the relationships between clandestine organizations.

    “Doesn’t matter that both are Muslim countries (just like being Christian didn’t stop England and France fighting each other regularly until the 20th Century). The geopolitical rivalry is acute.”

    Actually it does matter that both countries are Muslims countries. The very fact that the Saudis choose to export their brand of Islam around the world and suppressing the kind of Islam practised by Iran is unlike the European geopoliticalreligio rivalry of the past. Choosing to ignore the schisms within Islam and generalizing this faith is one of the main contributors to the failure of US foreign policy stratagems.

    “As for both Shias and Sunnis rallying together against US imperialism,…”

    Rallying together too simplistic a term as it implies some sort of official cooperation. US Muslim allies have always found a way to screw their benefactor over be it the Saudis who fund groups hostile to US security and interests, the Iraqis, who gave birth to ISIS and the other numerous allies who have found a way from profiting from US Imperialism but also striking back at it.

    “So I think we have already moved on well from the claim that “the rallying cry is always against US Imperialism”.

    Really ? The attacks on European cities and the promise of more attacks on the West says otherwise. This kind of coordination on soft targets always is a prelude to bigger attacks on hard targets. It also exposes the lie that if Muslims are killing themselves on their own lands, the West(US) is safe from an external Muslim threats. And yes, I’m saying that any attacks on the West are in reality attacks against US Imperialism by any other means.

  11. “But that’s the ‘Reality’ as i see it.”

    Not at all CLF, I think I agree with you.

    But seeing how China handles it business in the African continent , I think we are in for interesting times. Or maybe not.

  12. I was a Christian boy growing up with Muslim kids in a Malay kampong. I chose to be an atheist after studying all religions only to find them full of palpable absurdities. But one thing I found common is their teaching followers to be good through universal love. It’s true Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia is the kernel of evil which has spread like a cancer onto the Islamic world and now threatens to destroy all religions. But Wahhabism isn’t Islam, Islam will never be Wahhabism — it’s folly to conceive Islam would ever sanction murder, looting and atrocious barbarism. Like Christianity, Islam opposes despotism, injustice, infamy, greeds, deceits, extremism, ascetism — everything which is not balanced and good, fair and merciful, kind and compassionate. Wahhabism is the very negation of Islam. It is the misguided expression of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab’s political ambition. He was recruited by the British Empire to erode the fabric of Islam and crack the unity of its ummah.

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