In late April of this year, the Wahhabi grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdullah Aal Ash-Sheikh, who controls all Sunni Muslim clerics in the desert kingdom, announced that girls could be forced into marriage at age 10 or 12, without their consent, by contractual arrangement between families.
Aal Ash-Sheikh delivered this opinion in an address to faculty at the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh – known to ordinary Saudis as "the terrorist factory." Aal Ash-Sheikh said, "Our mothers and grandmothers got married when they were barely 12. Good upbringing makes a girl ready to perform all marital duties at that age."
The Saudi chief cleric then proceeded to conflict with repeated promises of the Saudi King, Abdullah, to foster interfaith respect and dialogue, by calling, in mid-March, for the destruction of all Christian churches in the Arabian Peninsula. Responding to a query in Kuwait by Muslim clerics affiliated with the "Revival of Islamic Heritage Society," favorable to Wahhabism, Aal Ash-Sheikh based his argument on a weakly-transmitted hadith, or oral commentary on the life of Muhammad, in which the Prophet allegedly mandated that there should not be "two religions" in Arabia.
"How could the grand mufti issue a fatwa of such importance behind the back of his king? We see a contradiction between the dialogue being practiced, the efforts of the king and those of his top mufti," said leaders of the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Vienna, where, with the cooperation of Austria and Spain, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal had inaugurated the "King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue" in 2011.
Aal Ash-Sheikh owes his position to his lineal descent from the 18th century religious ideologue, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, after whom the ultra-fundamentalist, ultra-exclusivist Wahhabi sect – the official and sole recognized Islamic interpretation in Saudi Arabia – is named. The family of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab has, for generations, intermarried with the royal Al-Saud clan. Along with their claims to a "pure Islam" imitative of the Prophet Muhammad, Wahhabis are known for their violent hatred of spiritual Sufism, of Shia Muslims, and for their hostility to non-Muslims. It must be emphasized that Wahhabi shariah is new, representing a break with traditional Muslim jurisprudence and a radical innovation in Islamic law.
In Muslim lands and Muslim minority communities around the world, radical Islamist tendencies following, or imitating, Wahhabism have gained new energy in the aftermath of the faded "Arab Spring." As the pro-democracy mobilizations in Arab lands have resulted instead in victories for the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and with the increasing prominence of radical groups in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Islamist victories have coincided with a new offensive among South Asian Muslims by Deobandis, inspirers of the Taliban, and allied with the Saudi Wahhabis.
In Nigeria, a similarly extremist, Wahhabi-oriented group, the "Boko Haram" [literally, "Western Education is a Sin"] has spread terror, especially targeting Christians, across the Muslim north.
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, "Boko Haram" has murdered 1,000 people since its appearance in the country in 2009; is crossing Nigeria's borders into the neighbouring state of Chad, and threatening Niger and Cameroon – as well as having links with Al-Qaida in the regional branch of the terror-force founded by the late Osama Bin Laden, which claims the entire Islamic Maghreb, or western North Africa,
Nigerian Islamist fanatics have demonstrated two features in common with Saudi Wahhabism: hatred of Christians and contempt for women. The contempt for women is exemplified by marriages to underage females by the former governor of Zamfara State in northwestern Nigeria, and now a federal senator, known as Sani: Alhaji Ahmad Sani Yariman Bakura.
Representatives of two other Sharia states, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, appeared with Sani when he announced the imposition of a new legal system of Wahhabi law in Zamfara in 2009 [Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law, by Paul Marshall, Freedom House, Washington DC, 2005]. Following the Saudi paradigm in focusing on standards for public conduct, Sani created a religious morals militia, the "Joint Islamic Aid Group" or "yanagaji," similar to the Saudi "mutawiyin" or morals patrols. The adoption of Wahhabi Sharia law in Zamfara included a ban on trade in alcohol, movie houses and video sales, a prohibition on women riding motorcycles, and gender segregation in public conveyances – all strictures enforced by the "yanagaji," who "arrest" alleged violators and hand them over to the police.
Sani, it was disclosed in 2010 – in violation of the 2003 Nigerian Child Rights Act, which bans betrothal or marriage of girls under the age of 18 – had also apparently paid USD $100,000 to marry an unnamed 13-year old Egyptian girl, reported to be the daughter of Sani's Egyptian driver, in a wedding celebrated at the national mosque of Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
Local media noted that Sani had divorced one of his four wives to make room for the Egyptian girl in a wedding that would have been illegal in Egypt, where the "bride" would be considered a minor.
"What we are concerned with," the President of the Women's Medical Association and Nigerian women's advocate, Mma Wokocha, told the BBC, "is that our minors, the girl child, should be allowed to mature, before going into marriage…. This very evil act should not be seen to be perpetrated by one of our distinguished legislators."
Representatives of the United Nations condemned the marriage; the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) told its Nigerian office it would conduct an examination of the case, and the Nigerian Senate was charged with investigating Sani's wedding to the Egyptian 13-year old. Sani had earlier been accused, in 2006, of marrying a girl of 15, but Nigeria's National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters announced in 2010 that it lacked evidence to file a complaint against Sani, and shifted responsibility for the inquiry to the country's attorney general. No legal proceeding against the Nigerian senator has been sustained.
Although Saudi Arabia is, of course, different from Egypt or Nigeria – notwithstanding the signatures of all three to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – the Saudi chief cleric, Aal Ash-Sheikh, has apparently has had no comment on an issue raised in the case: the physiological and psychological capacity of female children to fulfill the demands of marriage. Islamic radicals simply claim that in approving such relationships they emulate Muhammad's marriage to the allegedly-underaged Aisha, although Aisha's age at the time of her marriage to Muhammad cannot be confirmed in any contemporary records. More importantly, various practices of the Arabs at the time of Islam's emergence have since been abandoned. With the coming of Islam to Arabia, the terrible habit of female infanticide was abandoned and the right of women to divorce was introduced.
Aside from condemnation by Christian representatives, Aal Ash-Sheikh's "advice" calling for the destruction of all Christian churches was rejected by the Kuwait Minister of Religious Endowments, Jamal Al-Shahab. The Kuwaiti official affirmed that "the constitution of Kuwait guarantees its citizens [freedom of] religion and worship… Demolishing churches and forbidding the members of the Christian community from worshipping [according to their belief] contravenes the state's laws and regulations." Aal Ash-Sheikh's stance was also condemned by Al-Azhar, the Sunni University in Cairo, and by Mehmet Görmez, head of the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet).
Except for the closed Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina, the Arabian Peninsula has been shared with Christians and Jews throughout most of Islamic history. A shuttered Christian church and graveyard exist in Jedda, the Saudi commercial capital, near Mecca. Jews have a long history of residence in Yemen and Hadhramawt, in southern Arabia, as well as in Bahrain, where a synagogue still functions. Christian churches, Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines are found in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen. Some 3.5 million Christians live in the Gulf countries, including indigenous Arab Christians, Catholic migrant workers from the Philippines, India, and South Korea, and Western expatriate technicians and business representatives.
Despite widespread claims that King Abdullah and Aal Ash-Sheikh are close, the Wahhabi clerical caste has always resisted even the most limited reforms. Rumors that Aal Ash-Sheikh's announcement was meant to undermine the position of King Abdullah cannot be excluded; however, to this day Aal Ash-Sheikh's opinion on Christian churches in the Arabian Peninsula has never released or publicized anywhere inside Saudi Arabia.