Sunday, April 10, 2005

Is Wahhabi Islam the Source of Terror or a Demonized Reform Movement?

This article was recently reprinted in a special advertising supplement put out by Qorvis Communications and The New Republic as part of the magazine's symposium series on current events. It was originally published in the November 8, 2004 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

Since September 11, 2001, there has been an ongoing quest by those in the West to locate the ideologies that could drive those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam. The catchall phrase that has become increasingly popular when dealing with any and all Islamic militant groups is “Wahhabi,” a mode of Islamic thought that is said to pervade the official religious institutions of Saudi Arabia. Its founder, the 18th century Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab from the rural Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula, is held up as the father of modern Islamic militancy, the primary muse of al-Qaeda.

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab is held by many, journalists, analysts, and many Islamic studies scholars alike, to have been a rigid and intolerant tribal religious leader who encouraged his followers to wage war against all those Muslims who did not interpret Islam the way he did. However, in her book Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, which is based on research for her doctoral dissertation, Natana J. DeLong-Bas (left), who teaches theology at Boston College and history at Brandeis University, argues that both Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his works have been misinterpreted.

DeLong-Bas, who earned her Master of Arts in Arab Studies and Ph.D. in history, with a specialization in the Middle East and 18th century Islamic movements, at Georgetown University, argues that Wahhabism, as it was in the days of its founder, has been misinterpreted and demonized, largely due to the fact that the entire corpus of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s written works have not been studied. She also disagrees that Wahhabism is the primary influence of al-Qaeda or state Islam within Saudi Arabia today.

John O. Voll (right), professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University and DeLong-Bas’ dissertation supervisor, agrees that much of what has been said about Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab has been based on an incomplete study of his work. “A lot of people, including some very good scholars, have made generalizations about Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab on the basis of a very scattered reading of what he actually wrote. There was and continues to be a very broad sense [among] most people that they already know what [he] must have said, given [what] became of the Wahhabi movement, and therefore the actual writings he produced, and there is a huge amount of them, haven’t really been looked at,” says Voll.

“Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was representative of a number of important mainstream trends in 18th century Islamic thought,” says DeLong-Bas. “He rejected taqlid, the imitation of past scholarship simply because it was [historical], in favor of ijtihad, [the use of] independent reasoning and the fresh interpretation of Islamic law.” Far from the unwavering radical, DeLong-Bas says that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was at the core a reformer who “called for a return to a ‘purer’ interpretation of Islam based on the Qur’an and Hadith, rather than local or historical tradition.”

Hamid Algar, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California-Berkeley, disagrees with and is highly critical of much of what DeLong-Bas argues in her book. He states that although she has studied the entire corpus of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s work on Islamic law, she fails to examine them critically. “Her concentration [solely] on [his] writings results also in an excessively abstract, ahistorical presentation of [his] work. She asserts without proof or demonstration that his movement was broadly typical of 18th century Islamic [revival] movements. [However,] I affirm, as I did briefly in my book [Wahhabism: A Critical Essay] that it was on the contrary an isolated, even aberrant phenomenon.”

The primary topic of both DeLong-Bas’ dissertation and her book, however, is not on Wahhabism as it evolved and exists today but on the thought of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the original Wahhabi community. “[A] major criticism of my work has been that I have not taken on a thorough analysis of contemporary events. [However, that] was not the intent of this book,” she says. “I do not equate 20th century interpretations of Wahhabism with the teachings of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.”

“It’s important to remember that virtually all of DeLong-Bas’ book is about what Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab said. This is not a book about 21st century politics. So, what she’s saying is about him, but because of the publisher’s [Oxford University Press] interest and her interest in asking the next question, ‘does this have anything to do with contemporary ‘Wahhabism,’ she wrote a last chapter that says, ‘no, it doesn’t,” says Voll. “I think the issue of jihad is a good one, because, for example, while Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab affirmed the lesser jihad, in the broad holy war sense, was a communal obligation and not an individual one, Osama bin Laden and militant Salafis argue just the opposite, that jihad is an individual obligation and therefore each Muslim has to engage in it. That is a very different position from Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s.”

When asked about whether it is fair to compare Wahhabism as it existed originally and those who are labeled “Wahhabi” today, Voll says that it is important to keep things in their particular context. “The primary difference [between the two movements] is the most obvious and simple one: Wahhabis in the 20th century lived then and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab [was] an 18th century Muslim scholar in a pre-Industrial society, writing before European Imperialism, and so forth. What you’ve got is a hardline, hard-nosed [scholar] who wants people to live up to what he thinks are the primary values of Islam," he says. “But those values have nothing to do with anti-Imperialism or the opposition to the Christian-Zionist ‘crusade’, in the Industrial sense. So, for starts, the main themes of those [people] who get called ‘Wahhabi’ today, the anti-Americans and so forth, do not exist because it would be anachronistic in Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s writings.”

“It is an oversimplification to attribute the rise of Islamic militancy to Wahhabism. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretation [of jihad] largely respects the classical description of jihad as an act of self-defense,” says DeLong-Bas. “The rise of Islamic militancy can be more accurately explained by analyzing events of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the Colonial Era, the rise of nationalism, the existence of authoritarian regimes, and the social impact of modernization [attempts] that have largely failed throughout the Middle East. In other words, the context is the critical factor in understanding the rise of militancy because the ideologies of jihadism have been formulated in response to those contexts and experiences of powerlessness, repression, and oppression. To blame Wahhabism for the authoritarianism that plagues the entire Middle East is both absurd and reductionist.”

Voll agrees that the use of the term “Wahhabi” to describe all forms of Islamic militancy is inaccurate. “Part of the problem with that is that the term ‘Wahhabi’ has real historical baggage to it,” he says. “An example comes when one looks at Afghanistan and the madrassa schools of northwest Pakistan. By and large, the militant schools [within Islam] all tend to get thrown into this terminological grab bag called ‘Wahhabi.’ Then, for example, people did not understand the intellectual content of, say, the Taliban, because [even though] the Taliban may have been conservative and rigid, they weren’t Wahhabi, they were Deobandi. And if you mislabel, then you are misunderstanding the term because however similar they may be in a lot of things, there is a real difference between being a Deobandi and being a Wahhabi. Mindlessly using the catchall term Wahhabi not only becomes a way to make generalizations, it becomes a way to make incorrect generalizations.”

The relationship between Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the al-Sa’ud family, which led to the formation of the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was marked by acts of horrific violence has often been held up as an example of Wahhabi barbarity. However, DeLong-Bas believes that this was more the result of political maneuvering. “Much of the violence associated with the Wahhabis can be attributed to the realities of state formation,” she says. “That is not to say that the violence was unimportant or that it did not occur, but rather to say that the violence that did occur was, in large part, due to political circumstances and considerations, rather than to religious ideology.”

DeLong-Bas argues that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was primarily interested in changing what he viewed as inappropriate actions through persuasion and teaching, not through violence. She notes that there was “significant tension” between Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the al-Sa’ud family over his “refusal to legitimate all actions of state consolidation as jihad. He was quite stubborn on this account,” she says. “He refused to legitimate anything other than self-defense as jihad. His definition of self-defense was limited to the Muslim community under military attack or under the threat of imminent military attack. He did not engage in the kinds of word games that exist today that talk about ideological attacks or cultural attacks or pre-emptive strikes.”

DeLong-Bas also questions the extent to which Wahhabism influences state Islam in Saudi Arabia today. “My impression, based on my research so far, is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab has played a minimal role in the interpretation of Islam in the Kingdom today,” she says. “Scholars and jurists [there] tend to cite Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim al Jawziyyah much more than Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.”

She argues further that the method used by most Saudi Islamic scholars is not the same as that used by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “When you look at the older interpreters of Islam in the Kingdom, notably Shaykh ‘Abd al-Aziz bin Baz (left) and Muhammad al-Uthaymin, trends of ritual perfection and literal interpretation of scripture and law are present,” she says. “[But] these were not the methodologies used by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. He always interpreted the Qur’an and Hadith contextually, in terms of the historical context surrounding the verse or action and in terms of how the theme was addressed throughout the Qur’an and Hadith, rather than literally.”

In contrast, Algar believes that Wahhabism plays a significant role in Saudi Arabia today and that the country’s oil wealth has led to the propagation of Wahhabism around the globe. He also argues that the thought of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab cannot be divorced from the actions of his followers. “Given the historical record, it’s ludicrous to assert that his primary emphasis was on peaceful persuasion and preaching,” he says. “One example of [DeLong-Bas’] sanitizing of the record is [when] she mentions [in the book] the destruction of the [Shi’ite] shrine in Karbala but leaves unmentioned the massacre that accompanied it.”

“The violence that occurred against the Shi’ite populations of Najaf and Karbala have remained an important part of the historical and contemporary memory,” says DeLong-Bas. “These actions have come to define the ‘true’ nature of Wahhabism, even though Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself was not involved in them. Based on what I have read of [his] writings, I do not believe that he would have supported the massacres of those populations. I believe he would have denounced them.”

The often heated debate between DeLong-Bas and likeminded scholars who believe that the thought of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab has been unfairly demonized and those, such as Algar, who hold that Wahhabism is indeed to blame for much of what it has been blamed for in the past, shows no sign of abating. DeLong-Bas, who is currently working on a book about interpreters of Islam within Saudi Arabia, remains hopeful about the chances of reform within the Kingdom. “I believe that change is coming, but it is coming slowly.”

She notes that her book has also played a role in the ongoing discussion about the nature and proper place of Islam within the Kingdom. “It has sparked some major debates within the Kingdom about their religious heritage, where they fit into the Muslim world, and what parts of that heritage can and should be reclaimed. Not only has it opened doors to increased and serious dialogue about interpretations of Islam and relations between Saudi Arabia, the West and Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but it has also provided the necessary textual arguments for expanding women’s rights and denouncing jihadism from within their own religious tradition.”

For more on DeLong-Bas' book, see: