Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Quandary of Bernard Lewis: An Academic Life Between Saidian Orientalism & True Scholarship

He is perhaps the best known scholar of the Middle East and Islam living today. He has mastered numerous languages, from Ottoman and Modern Turkish to Arabic, Persian, French, Classical Hebrew, and German. He has written or edited several standard works in the field of Middle Eastern studies, including The Emergence of Modern Turkey (currently in its third edition), The Arabs in History (recently reprinted), and Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems. He has specialized in the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Medieval Islamic Middle East. His advice and thoughts on the region's current events are sought by the most senior current and former members of the U.S. government, including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice. He is Bernard Lewis (right) and he has worked extensively as a scholar and with several world governments. He has crossed over between the worlds of the academe and policy makers, and has been criticized for it.

Bernard Lewis, Edward W. Said, & The Debate Over 'Orientalism'
In 1978, Lewis was one of the central targets in Edward W. Said's (left) classic polemical work Orientalism, which sought to expose the biased, West-centric scholarship on peoples of the East that was common during the 19th and 20th centuries. Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, lambasted Lewis for painting a "one-size-fits-all" paradigm of both the Arab peoples and Muslims in general, exemplifying the kind of arrogant, Western scholarship of the lands and cultures east of Europe that Said bashed in Orientalism. Said repeated his criticisms of bias in Western scholarship on "the East" in his 1981 book, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, which was released in an updated edition in 1997.

Lewis responded to Said's criticisms by arguing that Orientalist scholarship on the Middle East and Islam was not necessarily tied to the European Colonial governments that ruled large swaths of the Islamic World during the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, Lewis argued that Orientalism was often opposed to the interests of the European states that ruled parts of the Islamic World. He also rejected what he saw as Said's unspoken thesis statement: that only Arabs or Muslims could write their history; Lewis dubbed this, "intellectual protectionism." Lewis also said that in his view, as long as a scholar was well equipped with the necessary academic tools (i.e. foreign language and research skills) and was curious and empathetic (and not overtly biased) toward their subject(s), they were more than qualified to study Eastern cultures.

The criticism of Said's work by Lewis' supporters (Michael Doran, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, the disgruntled former Muslim-turned-wannabe scholar Ibn Warraq) was fiery and much more blunt (and less academic) than Lewis' own response. Lewis' supporters dismissed Said's criticisms and his book as overly wordy and lacking in substance. Said was criticized for painting the majority of, if not all, scholarship on the Islamic World written by Westerns as being somehow tainted, and thus of less worth. Kramer in particular, in his recent attack on Middle Eastern studies in the United States, the nauseating Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America (right) devoted an entire chapter (and much of the rest of the book) on hammering away at Said's theories of Orientalism.


However, avowed ultra-Zionists such as Kramer and Pipes (left) were not the only ones who were critical of aspects of Said's book. Respected Middle East scholars, including the late Albert Hourani, the late Annemarie Schimmel, and Nikki Keddie, were wary of the all-encompassing nature (as they saw it) of Said's blistering critique. All warned that there was a danger that his conclusions, while valid in some cases, would be misused against all scholars of the Middle East that were not from the region themselves.

There is a point to this kind of criticism of Said's two books. In his passion for his subject, Said often blurs the lines between the group of "Orientalist" scholars that he is criticizing and the larger array of Western scholarship on Islam and the Arab peoples. In short, not all Western scholars are devoted to the maintenance of neo-Colonial/Imperial systems in the Middle East and not all Western scholars are inherently dismissive of "the East," in favor of their own, Western (i.e. European or American) cultures. Cases in point of contemporary non-Muslim scholars of Islam who are highly respectful of Islam while still showing an academic interest (and thus an element of incredulity) include Georgetown University's John O. Voll and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad; Duke University's Bruce B. Lawrence; and the University of Michigan's Juan R. I. Cole. One of the (few) major flaws in Said's books is the failure to clearly differentiate between Imperialist Orientalist scholarship and the scholarship of Western academics who approach their fields of study with a respect of the peoples involved and who have no public policy goals.

The Education of an Academic
Lewis, educated at the University of London's famed School of Oriental and African Studies, earned a B.A. and Ph.D. in the history of the Near (Middle) East and Islamic history respectively. His doctoral dissertation was on Isma'ili Shi'ism, but by 1950, he began to focus his research on the Ottoman Empire and the modern nation-state of Turkey, which emerged shortly after the end of the First World War. Since 1974, he has been a professor at Princeton University, in the Department of Near Eastern Studies; he has been retired since the early 1990s, but remains the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton.

Between Scholarship & Polemic: The Tragedy of Bernard Lewis, the Middle East Historian
Lewis' greatest achievement as an academic is surely his mastery of the major Middle Eastern source languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish), European scholarly languages (French, German, Latin, Greek), and his knowledge of the source material (archives, manuscripts, books, diaries, memoirs, etc.) relevant to Middle Eastern studies. No one really questions Lewis' scholarly abilities; he has proven his mettle and academic abilities time and time again. What many do question is his tendency to mesh his politics with his scholarship.

Although he is perhaps one of the greatest living historians of the Middle East, in terms of his academic abilities and skills, Lewis is a near-outcast in some circles within the American community of Middle East scholars, including the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), the premier academic collective of North American scholars specializing in the region. His work, while commercially successful with the general public, who by and large are not very knowledgeable about the Middle East as a region, its people, or Islam, Lewis is dismissed by some as a Zionist polemicist whose scholarship generally should not be used or relied on. On the other hand, Lewis also has his diehard acolytes, including the aforementioned Pipes and Kramer (of the Middle East Forum, an overtly political think tank, and the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy) and they reject any criticisms of their hierophant-teacher.

The truth about Lewis the scholar, however, is somewhere in between the two extremes. On the one hand, much of his past work on the Middle East, the Arab peoples, and Islamic history has been thoroughly colored by his personal biases and views, as well as his political positions on several issues, including the existence of the modern nation-state of Israel. On the other hand, he has also written some of the 20th century's classic works on the region and its history, including the aforementioned The Emergence of Modern Turkey, and he has the scholarly abilities necessary to produce more of such works. The central issue, again, is his mix of political rhetoric with his scholarship.

In many ways, Lewis resembles a kind of tragic hero, an individual blessed with numerous gifts or abilities who makes a severe error in judgment or has a fatal flaw that leads to their ultimate downfall and the downfall of those around them. Lewis' aforementioned severe error in judgment has been the kind of politicized scholarship that has made up the bulk of his work during the last several decades, from the infamous (among his critics) What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response to his post-September 11, 2001 mini-work, The Crisis of Islam (left), which was basically an enlarged and updated version of an earlier essay, "The Revolt of Islam."

Due to his connections with governments and political leaders in both the United States and Israel, Lewis' objectivity has rightfully been questioned by many of his colleagues. However, it is still possible, even this late in his life, for Lewis to again show his true scholarly abilities, to again produce a classic in the field of Middle Eastern studies in the twilight of his life. However, to do this, he must divorce his academic work from his political leanings. If this means abandoning the study of the modern Middle East, which he has favored in recent years, and moving back to his original sub-fields of study (the Ottoman Empire and Medieval Islamic History), then that is what he must do. However, this may not be necessary for Lewis to "redeem" himself, as it were.

The Re-education of Bernard Lewis?
Despite his quasi-demonization among certain circles, Lewis recently wrote a lengthy essay for the May/June 2005 issue of the influential public policy journal Foreign Affairs, "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East." In it he argues that the democratic ideal and spirit is not completely foreign to the Middle East, as some radical American Neo-Conservatives have alleged. Summarizing his article, Lewis emphatically states, "To speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in the Middle East is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and lack of concern for the Arab future." In and of itself, this is a powerful statement, one that seems to show a real concern on the part of Lewis for the future prosperity of the Middle East as a region. Through this statement, a portrait emerges of a man who, deep down, has a high sense of admiration and respect for the Arab peoples and their cultural achievements throughout history, but who has become engrossed with the fad of being a public policy wonk.

A supporter of the forcible removal of former Iraqi President Saddam Husayn al-Tikriti, Lewis failed to see the turmoil that the removal of the Iraqi Ba'th Party would result in. However, in his article, he remains optimistic about the chances of an indigenous democracy emerging in post-Ba'th Iraq: "Creating a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the region will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun."

Although one essay, however substantive, is hardly enough to "redeem" Lewis the historian, I hold onto my hope that he will move away from politicized scholarship and back to researching the world of Medieval Islam and the Ottoman Empire. The beauty of Lewis' translations of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hebrew poetry contained within Music of a Distant Drum are how I would like to remember him after he is called back by his Creator. He has the skills. He has the ability. The question that still remains is, will he use them in a non-politicized manner again? As a newcomer to the field and someone who looks up, in many ways, to him, I sincerely hope that What Went Wrong? will not be a permanent blot on the lifetime record of an old school scholar who is one of the giants in the field of Middle East studies.


For Martin Kramer's biographical sketch on Bernard Lewis, see:

For Bernard Lewis' own autobiographical sketch on the web site of Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies, see:

For Emily Yoffe's article on the life and work of Bernard Lewis in the November 13, 2001 "issue" of the online publication Slate, see:

For a severe critique of Bernard Lewis and other "Orientalist" scholars by the late Professor Edward W. Said, see:

For Edward W. Said's critique of Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong?, see:

For a critique of Bernard Lewis' work by Hugh Fitzgerald, a contributor to the anti-Muslim web site (an example of how radical Americans view him, since he has refused to review the works of radical anti-Muslim writers such as Bat Ye'or), see:

For a partial list of Bernard Lewis' books currently available in print, see:

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Elected New Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church

This afternoon in Vatican City, the administrative heart of Roman Catholicism, the College of Cardinals elected Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (right) of Germany as the 265th pope. Adopting the name Benedict XVI, Ratzinger is the first German to be elected chief prelate of the world's largest single religious sect, which claims over a billion members, in almost 1,000 years.

A staunch conservative on social, moral, and doctrinal matters, Ratzinger has his detractors. However, for the conservatives within the Church, his election is a victory for traditionalism over the creeping forces of liberalism that are being pushed forward by so-called "progressives." It would seem that under the new pope, "progressive" issues such as homosexual marriage, the ordination of female priests, and abortion will still not be allowed by the Church. Roman Catholicism and other world religions are beginning to take a stand against the so-called "progressive" agendas that liberal groups are attempting to push through. Traditionalists have had enough and the great debate between them and "progressives" is already underway. The question is, how much will traditional religion change in order to try and accomodate an increasingly demanding liberal-left?

Some media organizations and the Israeli government (through Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, have noted that Ratzinger was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth and the German military during the Second World War. However, what they often do not mention is the fact that membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory and that he was drafted into the Wermacht. There is an important difference between joining an organization of one's own volition and being required by law to participate. Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said, ""We worked closely with Cardinal Ratzinger on many issues, including the Holy See's relationship with Israel and the church's condemnation of anti-Semitism. Cardinal Ratzinger provided the theological underpinning for many of the major advances in Jewish-Catholic relations in the past quarter century."

For more on Shalom's comments, see:

My hopes are that Pope Benedict XVI will continue to engage the Church with other world religions, including Judaism and Islam. It is with Islam that Roman Catholicism has historically been in competition. This state of rivalry remains in place to this day, as both Roman Catholicism and Islam are spreading rapidly throughout Africa.

Ratzinger speaks multiple languages, is said to be a brilliant theologian, and is a staunch supporter of religious traditionalism. As long as he continues the Church's outreach to other religions and if he works at becoming the great communicator that his predecessor was, Ratzinger should have a relatively smooth run as pontiff.

For more information on the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, see:

Monday, April 18, 2005

Ariel Sharon's Real Plan

It was reported today in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (right) has hinted that his much-acclaimed "Gaza Withdrawal" plan may be delayed until mid-August. The move doesn't come as much of a surprise. Ultimately, Sharon may claim that the plan has to be nixed entirely, due to Palestinian "terror" and guerilla actions, regardless of whether or not the Israeli military provokes such actions (thus violating the informal ceasefire.)

Ha'aretz also reported that Sharon's government is planning to expand more West Bank settlements, even though U.S. President George W. Bush (with Sharon, pictured left) has called for a halt in such moves. The U.S. is said to be seeking "clarification" on why the Israelis are pursuing this belligerent path at a time when they are supposed to be rekindling the peace process with the Palestinians. However, it seems highly unlikely that President Bush will go beyond seeking "clarification," since his rabidly loyal evangelical Christian base is obsessed with the state of Israel and its role in Biblical prophecies.

To see the report in Ha'aretz, see:

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Who Defines Islam? The Battle of Definitions

An article ["SG, MSA President Assaulted and Battered," Michigan Journal, Oct. 5, 2004] recently came to my attention, and the story it told was both sad and disturbing. On Sept. 25, 2004, Farhan Latif, the president of student government and president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Michigan in Dearborn (UM-D) was jumped and badly beaten by several assailants. However, his attackers were not non-Muslims prejudiced against Islam in a post-9/11 world. No, they were bigots of another kind: in fact, Latif's attackers were Muslims, radical Muslims who had broken from the official MSA at UM-D months before.

Latif, who suffered muscular contusions, a bruised eye and cheek, fractured ribs, and head injuries, was apparently attacked because of his efforts to distance the MSA from the hate speech of radical extremists. Although the article in the Michigan Journal, the student newspaper of UM-D, was vague on the identities and/or the ideologies of his attackers, I will go out on a limb and say that they were probably radical Salafis (a.k.a. "Wahhabis.")

There is a larger issue at stake here: who is going to define Islam in the modern period? It is a question that concerns both the Muslim communities in the West and in traditional Islamic societies. Will radicals, such as the extremist followers of the various Salafi groups (such as al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid wal Jihad/al-Qaeda in Iraq) define what Islam is? If the vast majority of the world's Muslims (i.e. the non-extremists) have anything to say about it, the answer will be "no."

However, there is a long, hard road ahead in battling the extremists and it is a struggle that Muslims will have to take the lead role in. Real, substantive reform within a religion comes not from the outside, but from the inside. Reformers have to have a personal stake in the future of the religion, and it for this reason why Muslim intellectuals and everyday, "lay" Muslims have to resist the extremists. The radical Salafis have to be prevented from spreading their messages of hatred and mindless violence around the globe. Their patrons, in places such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have to be pressured to stop providing these groups with funding. Mosques, Islamic centers, and other institutions funded by Salafi organizations such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the World Muslim League have to be reformed; no longer can we as Muslims accept or turn a blind eye to the activities of our radical and misguided brethren.

The time has come to draw a line in the sand; we need to shout, "no more!" No more murders. No more terrorism. No more hate speech against "apostates" (i.e. non-Salafi Muslims). We have to shout, "no to bin Laden, no to al-Zarqawi, no to al-Zawahiri, no to al-Qaeda." Enough is enough. Violence committed by radical Muslims against other Muslims who follow different schools of legal thought or methods of practice (i.e. the Sufi mystics and the Shi'a) has reached a fever pitch in some key regions of the Islamic world, such as Pakistan (which has a large, approx. 20% Shi'a minority), Iraq, and the Arab Gulf states. Sectarian violence threatens to divide the Ummah at a time when unity is vital. Muslims are under attack in many regions of the world, both physically-militarily (i.e. in Chechnya and Palestine) and orally (i.e. Christian evangelicals in the West); only through unity can the worldwide community turn back these assaults and remain a cohesive force in global affairs. Theological differences, while important to individual belief, should not cloud our vision: ultimately, we are one Ummah, one community of believers that submit themselves to the One God, without partners, and acknowledge the prophethood of Muhammad ibn 'Abd-Allah and of 'Isa (Jesus), Ibrahim, Musa (Moses), and the other prophets of God. We believe in prayer, the Hajj to Mecca (when financially and medically possible), charity to the poor, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. These core beliefs are what ties Muslims of all legal schools and modes of practice together as one larger community, regardless of sectarian differences.

In the words of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, "You will not believe [in the One God] as long as you do not love one another." [Sahih Muslim, Hadith 19]

For the web site of the MSA at UM-D, see:

For the Michigan Journal article, see:

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ariel Sharon Ignores U.S. President, Announces Plans to Maintain Israeli Settlement Blocs in the Occupied West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (left), the hawkish former Israel Defense Forces' general and lifetime Likudnik, met with U.S President George W. Bush yesterday (4/11/05) in Crawford, Texas. The two world leaders discussed a variety of things, including Iran and the stalling Israeli-Palestinian/Arab peace process. However, perhaps the most revealing thing to come out of the meeting was Sharon's blunt statement that the Israeli state intends to maintain its control over large settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank in any final status agreement with the Palestinians. "[We intend] to keep areas that seem strategic to Israel," Sharon is quoted as saying by the Associated Press wire.

At a press conference, Bush said, "I've been very clear. Israel has an obligation under the Road Map [peace plan;" that's no expansion of settlements."

Bush's statement is welcome, but the main problem with his administration's policy (and frankly all U.S. policy historically) toward the issue of Israeli settlements is one of action. Although the official policies of every U.S. Presidential administration has been against the spread of Israeli settlements, very little action has been taken to prevent it. As a result, successive Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, have been able to continue Israeli land grabs in the West Bank and, until recently, in the Gaza Strip, with little threat that the U.S. would intervene. In the two decades, the number of Israeli settlers (pictured left abusing Palestinian woman), a substantial percentage of them Americans, in the Palestinian Territories has more than doubled and is currently hovering around a quarter million.

Without first a real freeze in Israeli settlement activity, followed by a staged withdrawal/pullback from the vast majority of these settlement blocs, there will be no peace. The Palestinian people will not accept, nor should they, continued Israeli presence on land occupied by force in June 1967. The international community, by and large, considers Israeli settlements and their continued growth to be illegal and detrimental to the peace process. Yet the U.S., Israel's main foreign patron (to the tune of over $3 billion a year in aid and another $10 billion in guaranteed loans) has thus far refused to put real pressure on any Israeli government to stop and remove settlements and their expansion.

Sharon, knowing the historical record of U.S. inaction on the issue of settlements, thus felt comfortable in dismissing Bush's comments. Sharon was clear: Israel will leave the Gaza Strip and a few settlements in the northern West Bank, but will keep the large settlement blocs such as Ariel, Itamar, and those near Hebron, as well as Ma'ale Adumim, the largest settlement (located outside of Jerusalem.)

For more on Sharon and Bush's meeting, see:

For more information on Israeli settlements, including maps, see:

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

This entry was originally published as an op-ed in the April 11, 2005 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

With the death of Pope John Paul II (shown right with Mother Teresa), chief prelate of the Roman Catholic Church and arguably one of the most influential heads of state of the last half century, the world lost one of its strongest voices for justice and inter-religious dialogue. From his stand against the brutality of Soviet Communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s to his fervent desire to see economic and social justice take root in the world, the pontiff left an indelible mark on the direction in which the world’s largest religious organization would follow in the modern world. As a defender of conservative values, John Paul II was many things to many different people: a humanitarian, a head of state, and the representative of God on Earth to many hundreds of millions of people.

During his over quarter-century as head of the largest religious sect in the world, with over a billion adherents across nearly all the continents, John Paul II made more advances toward religious pluralism than any other pope in history.

In 2001, he became the first head of the Church to enter a Muslim place of worship, going to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria that houses a shrine to St. John the Baptist, a site revered by Muslims and Christians alike. Later in his papacy, John Paul II publicly prayed for forgiveness for the wrongs that the Church committed during its long and sometimes tumultuous history, indirectly mentioning the Crusades of the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, which peaked in 1099 with the fall of Jerusalem and the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians by Christian forces, and the Medieval Spanish Inquisition, which, under the direction of Tomás de Torquemada, persecuted thousands of Iberian Jews and Muslims. All of these acts were important steps on the road to a general rapprochement between the two religious traditions, which together claim approximately one-third of the world’s six billion people as members.

During his historic visit to Damascus, John Paul II said, “It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict.” Hopefully, Christians and Muslims alike will continue to strive toward seeing his vision of hope fulfilled.

Perhaps John Paul II’s greatest act of inter-religious bridge building was his decision to begin the long process of healing between Roman Catholics, and Christianity in general, and the Jews, who historically have been the targets of religious and cultural persecution at the hands of Christians, culminating in the violent Russian pogroms in the nineteenth century and the Holocaust during the Second World War.

In March 2000, he became the first pope to visit the state of Israel, meeting with governmental leaders and country’s two chief rabbis, the Ashkenazi Meir Lau (right) and the Sephardic Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, and visiting the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews as the only major remnant of Herod the Great’s reconstructed Second Temple. While at the Wall, the pontiff placed a written prayer asking forgiveness for the past sins committed in the name of the Church. Despite some criticisms that his actions did not go far enough, John Paul II’s powerful symbolic acts of atonement were undeniably landmarks in the often-troubled history between Christianity and Judaism.

Of course, as a human being, the pope was not without faults. This is only natural, as no human being can possibly be perfect. However, despite his missteps and errors in judgment, John Paul II led his life in accordance with the social and moral values that were instilled in him during his formative years.

He strove to uphold the will of God as he understood it. Although he had definite doctrinal and theological differences with Jews, Muslims, Protestant Christians, and members of the world’s other great religious traditions, John Paul II made great strides in reconciling these differences with an inclusive and pluralistic worldview. While we should recognize his imperfections, we should also celebrate the pontiff’s many accomplishments that bettered the lives of millions across the globe.

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:

Monday, April 04, 2005

Debating 'Progressive' Islam

This entry was substantially edited and updated. It appeared in the April 4, 2005 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

On March 18 in New York City, Amina Wadud, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies, publicly challenged centuries of entrenched orthodox Muslim tradition: women do not lead prayers when there is a group of both men and women involved. (

The event was sponsored by Muslim WakeUp! (, a Web site that serves as the mouthpiece of “progressive” Muslims, primarily in the West, and was designed to help “Muslim women [reclaim] their rightful place in Islam.”

Wadud’s (left) actions were harshly criticized by many Muslim traditionalists, including Shaykh al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi of Egypt, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Qatar-based Sunni cleric. Other intellectuals, particularly Khaled Abou El Fadl (, a professor of American constitutional and Islamic law at the University of California-Los Angeles have been much more receptive to the idea of female-led mixed congregational prayers. In The Chicago Tribune Abou El Fadl, an expert in Sunni Muslim jurisprudence and interpretations of Islamic Shari’a law, said Wadud was leading a “counter-jihad” for moderate Muslims and “upholding the true teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.”

The debate over the Wadud’s actions has brought to the forefront the issue of “progressive” Islam, which many Muslim traditionalists see as simply a manifestation of Western values, or lack there-of as the case may be, which is used to attack the “pure” form of the religion. On the other side of the debate are those to the far left in the Muslim community, including Muslim WakeUp!, who envision a modern Islam that has been transformed into a faith that is totally ingratiated with “progressive” values. However, who decides what “progressive” values are?

One professor of mine pointed out recently how groundbreaking Wadud’s challenge to the traditional religious authority of men really was. Whatever my personal views on the matter, I would certainly have to agree. However, the real question remains: is this challenge to traditionalism a good or bad thing for Islam and Muslim communities?

I agree with Wadud and Abou El Fadl that men and women are equal in terms of spirituality and their worth in the eyes of God. However, I also believe that whether or not women should lead prayer services involving mixed groups is not the most important issue that is currently facing Muslims around the world.

Instead, the issues of the voting and inheritance rights of Muslim women are much more important to the worldwide community. In addition, the current battle against the radicalism of al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups that use the banner of Islam and the nature of the defense of Muslim communities from outside aggression, whether it be from militant Israeli settlers or the Russian military, is an issue of more immediate consequence than who leads congregational prayers.

At the very least, individuals such as Wadud and Abou El Fadl, who have a solid grasp of the range of Islamic legal and theological sources, are capable in my view of spearheading the debate of women’s rights within the religion. Unlike an ignoramus like Irshad Manji, they have the requisite knowledge and understanding of Islamic history and jurisprudence that will allow them to formulate an argument. This is not to say that I agree with their conclusions, but I can at least acknowledge that they are basing their findings on the sources and not on a desire to artificially “Westernize” Islam. In stark contrast, Muslim WakeUp!, who seem to be more interested in offending traditionalists than truly working to change the face of Islam in America, Canada and Europe, base their version of “progressive” Islam on quoting sources piecemeal, which in the end results in a lot of bluster with very little substance, and does not influence the vast majority of Western Muslims.

For more background on Wadud and for insight into her understanding of Islamic traditions and jurisprudence, see: