High on the list of the important religious figures relevant today are three names known to most in the East, Near East, and West: Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha. But the fourth is unknown to most in the East and the West – Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In eighteenth century Saudi Arabia, he founded the fundamentalist Salafi movement of Sunni Islam, which insists on practicing Islam as it was during Muhammad’s time and seeks the implementation of sharia law. Salafists don’t shy away from politics, to the point of militant jihadism.
To further their aims, Salafis are aggressively missionary. Funded by the state of Saudi Arabia, which seeks their imprimatur, as it were, they have more or less infected Sunni Islam in Pakistan, Egypt, India, and other states. In a piece for the New York Times titled How Kosovo Was Turned Into Fertile Ground for ISIS, Carlotta Gall provides a case study on how the Saudis finance the spread of Salafism in one such state, Kosovo.
It was once a bastion of liberal, tolerant Islam. But since the United States led an intervention 17 years ago to free Kosovo from Serbia, Saudi Arabia has funded over 200 Salafi mosques there dedicated to disseminating the principles of ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Ms. Gall writes that Kosovo:
… finds itself, like the rest of Europe, fending off the threat of radical Islam. Over the last two years, the police have identified 314 Kosovars — including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children — who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe.
They were radicalized and recruited, Kosovo investigators say, by a corps of extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab gulf states using an obscure, labyrinthine network of donations from charities, private individuals and government ministries.
… Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2015 reveal a system of funding for mosques, Islamic centers and Saudi-trained clerics that spans Asia, Africa and Europe. In New Delhi alone, 140 Muslim preachers are listed as on the Saudi Consulate’s payroll.
Sure, it’s odd to mention ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the same breath as the other religious leaders mentioned above, including his prophet, Muhammad. I don’t know the figures, but the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam must approach – if not surpass – Christianity as the most proselytizing religion or sect in the world. And, though I’m not a fan of Christianity, to arguably much worse effect.