On Muslim Reformer Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab “Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad”- I

Natana de Long Bass

                            On Muslim Reformer Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab
“Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad”- I
Good Muslims, Bad Muslims

In the post 9/11 period there was an intense focus on Muslims and Islam itself. A simplistic approach to Islam in the context of the war on terror sought to classify/pigeonhole Muslims into good Muslims and bad Muslims. This was not new but a permutation of the attitude toward Islam that prevailed in the post- Ayatollah Khomeini revolution.  The new Iranian regime’s “students,” violating long- held norms of diplomatic dealings, stormed the American embassy and took embassy employees hostages. This was followed by attempts to export the revolution to the rest of the Middle East disturbing the stability of American allies in the Arab Gulf region. In the West there were important voices that divided Islam into good Islam and bad Islam. Shia Islam was seen as bad, the Shia were seen as having a “penchant for martyrdom.” The 9/11 attacks inverted that model- Sunni Muslims became bad and Shia Muslims good. This simplistic thinking was partially responsible for the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and turn it over to the Shia “majority.”

9/11 and Demonization of Sunni Muslims

In the post 9/11 world there is no group of Muslims that faced as harsh of a backlash as the Salafi Muslims followers of the Sunni Hanbali School, one of the 4 Sunni schools of jurisprudence. The segment of the Salafis that came under the harshest criticism was the Wahhabis who constitute the majority in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar.  But who are the Wahhabis? What do they believe? What explains the tensions between them and the Shia and the Sufis? Boston University’s Natana de Long- Bas, using the writings of Imam Abdel Wahhab, wrote Wahhabi Islam to help demystify the man and his ideas and challenge the unsubstantiated claims, driven by ignorance and/or sectarian animus, that demonized an important segment of the Muslim population. Over a number of columns excerpts from her book will be published.

Below are excerpts from her book. The headings are mine:

Post 9/11 period: Fear and Loathing of the Salafi Wahhabis

Post-9/11, Wahhabism has been identified by government, political analysts, and the media as the major “Islamic threat” facing Western civilization and the inspiration for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. It has become infamous for its negative influence on Islam, mosques, and madrasas globally. It is described as extremist, radical, puritanical, contemptuous of modernity, misogynist, and militant in nature. It has been characterized as Islamo-facism following in the traditions of communism and Nazism. It is accused of inspiring militant religious extremism in movements ranging from the Taliban of Afghanistan to the so-called Wahhabis of Central Asia and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. It is targeted as the most intolerant of all interpretations of Islam, seeking to impose itself alone as the expression of “true” Islam. Wahhabi teachings are often referred to as “fanatical discourse” and Wahhabism itself has been called “the most retrograde expression of Islam” and “one of the most xenophobous radical Islamic movements that can be.”

Osama Bin Laden and the teachings of Imam Ibn Abd al- Wahhab: Historically Accurate Connection?

In response to the demands for answer, many have asserted that the militant extremism of Osama bin Laden has its origins in the religious teaching of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who is believed to have legitimated jihad against non-Wahhabis and encouraged the forcible spread of the Wahhabi creed. According to this interpretation, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab is the godfather of modern terrorism and Islamic militance. Like his contemporaries, he is accused of being opposed to modernity, an extreme literalists in his interpretation of Muslim scriptures, a misogynist, and an admirer and imitator of past militant radicals, particularly the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya. Like Obama bin Laden, is believed to have had littler formal religious training, and his written works are generally dismissed as mere compilations of Quranic verses and hadith without any accompanying commentary or interpretation. Finally, both Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the Wahhabis are often accused of being outside of the Sunni tradition due to their position as “heretical innovators” and extremists. Although this comparison makes for a simple and clean analysis, it is not faithful to the historical record.

Who was Imam Abd al-Wahhab?

The real Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as revealed in his written works, was a well-trained and widely traveled scholar and jurists, as well as a prolific writer. His extant written works fill fourteen large volumes, including a collection of hadith; a biography of the Prophet Muhammad; a collection of fatawa (judicial opinions); a series of exegetical commentaries on the Quran; several volumes of Islamic jurisprudence (figh), numerous theological treatises; and other varied works, including detailed discussions of jihad and the status of women. The scope of his scholarship stands in marked contrast to the few legal rulings (fatawa) issued by Osama bin Laden. More importantly, his insistence on adherence to Quranic values, like the maximum preservation of human life even in the midst of jihad as holy war, tolerance for other religions, and support for a balance of rights between men and women, results in a very different worldview from that of contemporary militant extremists. The absence of the xenophobia, militantism, misogyny, extremism, and literalism typically associated with Wahhabism raises serious questions about whether such themes are “inherited” to Wahhabism and whether extremists like Osama bin Laden are truly “representative” of Wahhabism and Wahhabi beliefs.

Delong- Bas’s  Nuanced view versus the Media and the Biased Caricature of the Man
Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad presents for the first time in a Western language the theme of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s writings that are of the greatest concern post-9/11: Wahhabi theology and worldview, Islamic law, women and gender, and jihad. Rather than reinforcing the standard image of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as “an unsophisticated, narrow-minded wanderer” and a “disconnected, footloose son of the remote oases” who became “the archetype for all the famous and infamous  Islamic  extremists  of modern times,” it reveals a more moderate, sophisticated, and nuanced interpretation of Islam that emphasizes limitations on violence, killing, and destruction and calls for dialogue and debate as the appropriate means of prosetylization and statecraft. This new understanding is then compared to the writings of other scholars and activists, both past and present, on the controversial topic of jihad in order to assess Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s influence, or lack thereof, on contemporary Islamic militants, most notably Osama bin Laden, and to explore the roots of the militant extremism inherent in their visions of global jihad.

Wahhabism and the Historical Context

Wahhabism was neither a historical aberration nor an isolated phenomenon. It did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, Wahhabism reflects some of the most important trends in eighteenth-century Islamic thought, underscoring the interactions and exchanges that took place between Muslims in cosmopolitan regions like the Hijaz. The fact that Wahhabism so clearly reflects major trends of thought apparent in other contemporary reform movements suggests that it was neither “innovative” nor “heretical.” Rather, it can more appropriately be viewed as part of mainstream eighteenth-century Islamic thought, although somewhat tailored to its specific context.


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