Saudi leadership of the Sunni world being challenged

A religious struggle for legitimacy along with geopolitical rivalry with Saudi-promoted Salafism as a target may be underway in the Muslim world, as evidenced by a conference of 200 Sunni scholars in Grozny, Chechnya, on August 27–29, according to reports by Abbas Kadhim (Johns Hopkins University) in the Huffington Post (September 9) and James M. Dorsey (Nanyang Technological University) in RSIS Commentary (September 30). Backed by the United Arab Emirates and Russia, the Abu Dhabi-based Tabah Foundation organized the conference, while Yemeni Sufi preacher Alhabib Ali al-Jafri sent out the invitation. Among participants, there was “a very high level delegation from Egypt,” writes Kadhim, as well as the Grand Mufti of Syria. Striking was the fact that Saudi scholars were not invited—neither were Salafis from other countries or members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dorsey mentions the fact that the Tabah Foundation is the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, which was launched not only to counter Saudi discourse but also the views of the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who is “widely viewed as a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The conference made it clear not only that Islam had been hijacked and distorted but also that Wahhabism was outside of the pale of Sunni Islam. On the opposite, it declared that Sufis—often accused by Wahhabis and Salafis of non-Islamic practices—were true Sunnis. As expected, those statements led to a wave of fiery criticism from pro-Saudi clerics and media, with some going as far as to suggest that the conference was an operation engineered by Russian and Iranian intelligence against the Saudi Kingdom. The conference is seen as being potentially a significant challenge to Saudi Wahhabism and its powerful support of Salafism at a critical time for the Kingdom. Dorsey also remarks that Saudi largesse to Egypt and its religious leadership seems not to have succeeded in buying lasting political and religious loyalty.

(RSIS,; Tabah Foundation –