The real Wahhab
A new book argues that the founder of Wahhabi Islam was really a tolerant, peace-loving reformer. Some scholars are crying foul.
By John Kearney | August 8, 2004
SINCE 9/11, THERE HAS been no shortage of calls for an "Islamic reformation" to counter religious extremism in Muslim societies and lift them out of economic and political stagnation. Reform boosters often target Saudi Arabia's state-sponsored creed, known as Wahhabi Islam, claiming that Wahhabism's alleged repression of women, its rigid, literalist readings of the Koran, and its belligerence towards other Muslims and non-Muslims have impeded development and fostered the rise of groups like Al Qaeda.
But according to the author of a new book published by Oxford University Press, Islam already has its Martin Luther -- none other than Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabi Islam.
In "Wahhabi Islam: From Revival to Global Jihad" -- billed by its publisher as the first book-length study of the 18th-century Muslim reformer -- Natana DeLong-Bas argues that the vilification of Wahhabism and its founder gets it all wrong. "The militant Islam of Osama bin Laden does not have its origins in the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and is not representative of Wahhabi Islam. . .," she writes.
In fact, DeLong-Bas argues, Abd al-Wahhab's writings display "an absence of the xenophobia, militantism, misogyny, extremism, and literalism typically associated with Wahhabism." She describes Abd al-Wahhab's embrace of reason alongside divine revelation, and writes of his commitment to "placing women on a balanced footing with men." Far from being a how-to manual for violent jihad, DeLong-Bas concludes, Abd al-Wahhab's writings provide "a vision that offers hope for the future."
DeLong-Bas's critics aren't letting such startling statements pass unchallenged. "I'm sad this piece of scholarly trash was published by Oxford," says Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of law at UCLA who writes frequently on Islamic jurisprudence. "This doesn't qualify as scholarship -- it falls within the general phenomenon of Saudi apologetics."
"DeLong-Bas never challenges the propriety of Abd al-Wahhab's claim to absolute authority -- the authority to declare the believer and the unbeliever (authority God reserves to himself in the Koran) and to impose the most severe sanctions on those he disagrees with," says Michael Sells, author of "Approaching the Qu'ran" and professor of religion at Haverford College. And novelist Michael J. Ybarra, reviewing DeLong-Bas's book in The Wall Street Journal, points out that "where on earth this [tolerant] form of Wahhabi Islam ever existed she doesn't say."
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DeLong-Bas, a self-described "Lutheran pastor's kid," says her interest in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab dates from 1992, when as a graduate student in history at Georgetown she came upon a late 19th-century Orientalist scholar who referred to him as "the Martin Luther of Islam."
While today she's quick to note the two reformers were operating in radically different contexts, DeLong-Bas says there are some important similarities: Both Luther and Abd al-Wahhab distrusted the clerical elite, and each called for a return to a direct reading of scripture as the source of religious authority.
But in those pre-9/11 days Abd al-Wahhab initially remained just a vague reference on DeLong-Bas' reading list. "I would come across negative references to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism, but no one seemed to be defining what it was," she says. And so in 1997 she requested collections of his writings in Arabic from a Saudi research institute -- she received 14 volumes -- and got to work.
Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born around 1703 in Najd, the remote north-central Arabian desert. As a young man he traveled to Medina and to Basra, in today's southern Iraq, but soon returned to Najd to preach. At some point he had the epiphany that "not one of my teachers" knew the true meaning of "there is no god but God."
Abd al-Wahhab believed that the doctrine of tawhid -- absolute monotheism, upholding the unity and uniqueness of God- was diluted by such popular Muslim practices as requests for intercession by saints and prophets, and worship at holy tombs and shrines. Such practices, he believed, amounted to idolatry, and made one an unbeliever and an apostate -- a crime punishable by death.
Abd al-Wahhab's missionary zeal got him kicked out of a number of oasis towns, including his home village. Eventually, he found a patron in Muhammad bin Saud, a leader of the town of Diriyya with expansionist ambition. The two men sealed a mutually-beneficial arrangement: Abd al-Wahhab would be granted protection, sponsorship, and control of Islamic practice in lands within bin Saud's dominion, while Abd al-Wahhab would grant religious legitimacy to bin Saud's worldly rule. The alliance eventually became the cornerstone of the present Saudi kingdom, established in 1932.
According to commentators such as Stephen Schwartz, a Muslim convert and author of "The Two Faces of Islam," Abd al-Wahhab's zealous excommunication of alleged idolaters lies at the root of Al Qaeda's militancy. But DeLong-Bas argues that there are only tenuous links between the 18th-century religious leader and the 21st-century militants.
"Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's overwhelming concern was the winning of adherents through faith of the heart -- a goal that he believed could be best achieved through dialogue rather than destruction," she writes. According to DeLong-Bas, Abd al-Wahhab's "emphasis on the importance of the preservation of life, human, plant, and animal, and property, both human and material," led him put severe restrictions on jihad.
Wahhabis -- who reject the term "Wahhabism," seeing themselves as simply the true Muslims -- are often associated with literal readings of the Koran that attempt to duplicate the exact modes of life during the life of Mohammed. DeLong-Bas counters in her book that Abd al-Wahhab wasn't focused on ritual exactitude. She writes: "He was not so much concerned with ritual perfection as he was with the more critical matter of the heart -- intent -- behind that perfection."
But some scholars say DeLong-Bas downplays the dark side of Abd al-Wahhab. "She's right in the sense that he doesn't talk a lot about rituals," says Ahmad Dallal, a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University and a specialist in 18th-century Islamic movements. "The problem is that she makes it sound benign."
"If you visit a shrine of a saint, even if you don't believe the saint is God, and you say, `Of course we don't worship the saint, we're worshipping God,' the punishment for this is death," notes Dallal. "The `intent' is irrelevant."
UCLA's Abou El Fadl agrees. "Ibn Abd al-Wahhab doesn't teach love and peace. He gives permission to kill."
David Commins, a historian at Dickinson College who is writing a history of the Wahhabi movement (and who contributed a blurb to DeLong-Bas's book), shares DeLong-Bas's belief that it's simplistic to pin the current jihadi movements on Abd al-Wahhab. According to Commins, Al Qaeda's rhetorical goal of reestablishing a single, pan-national caliphate and their discourse of "Crusaders and Jews" are borrowed from the Muslim Brotherhood, the 20th-century Egyptian Islamist group that emerged in response to the rise of European colonialism.
Abou El Fadl agrees, rather acidly, that Abd al-Wahhab's "true focus is on Muslim apostates who should be killed." (This includes adherents of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, who, according to Abou El Fadl, are clearly identified by Abd al-Wahhab as apostates who deserve death, another point he accuses DeLong-Bas of soft-pedaling.)
But Abd al-Wahhab, he says, did weigh in on the proper relations with non-Muslims. He points to the following Abd al-Wahhab proclamation: "If a person believes that a non-Muslim might go to heaven, he has become an apostate; if someone believes that it is all right to befriend or support or assist or ally oneself with infidels, he has become an apostate."
And then there's the question of Abd al-Wahhab's attitude toward scripture. DeLong-Bas claims that while he privileged revelation in divine scripture over the use of reason to interpret it, he "acknowledged parts of divine scripture are unclear," she says. "He talks about using reason in scripture, as in cases where scripture can be overridden due to consideration of public welfare. For example, payment of zakat, or almsgiving, can be delayed if there is an overriding public need."
Abou El Fadl rejects this example as a commonplace position of jurists in Abd al-Wahhab's own legal school. Instead, he quotes Abd al-Wahhab's stark declaration: "All those who use opinion or reason in legal interpretation are apostates, including the rationalist sect, and all those who, implicitly or explicitly, use Greek philosophy have become apostates."
Despite DeLong-Bas's championing of Abd al-Wahhab, the Saudis haven't been entirely pleased with the book. "I actually just got a letter from Prince Turki al-Faisal [former Saudi director of intelligence, and now the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom], expressing dismay that there was a chapter exploring relations between Osama bin Laden and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab," DeLong-Bas says. She says she was surprised, as the chapter argues that the connection is quite limited.
DeLong-Bas acknowledges that Abd al-Wahhab was hardly a liberal secular humanist. But she concludes her book by writing that his writings offer a key "for the revival and reinterpretation of Islam in the twenty-first century as Muslims seek methodologies for the rejuvenation of Islamic practice."
Whatever its flaws, some scholars say, DeLong-Bas's book provokes an important debate. "At its heart, Wahhabism is an intolerant form of Islam," says Dickinson's Commins. "But without Natana's book we'd still be stuck with the bogeyman view of Abd al-Wahhab. I think Natana overstates the case, so someone else will have to come along and take her book on."
John Kearney is a journalist based in New York.