Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad

370 PAGES STG £14.99

Muhammad Ibn al-Wahhab gets a bad press nowadays, and for that he has his contemporary supposed follower Osama Bin Laden to blame. This 18th century Muslim theologian is linked in Western eyes with images of mindless terrorism, and women in the full Burqa` in what is assumed to be an intolerant, puritanical, and militant interpretation of Islam.

Al-Wahhab was born 1702-3 in the Arabian Province of Najd, into a prestigious family of Hanbali jurists. Najd, a broad desert expanse in central Arabia, has never been conquered, so in his avowed aim of stripping Islam back to basic principles, this austere cleric was not responding to personal experience of European colonialism or Ottoman state consolidation, as some commentators would have us believe.

This new biography, almost certainly the first, of the founder of Wahhabism, will make uncomfortable reading for those who claim that it underpins or “justifies” Al Qaeda. The writer Natana J Delong-Bas, is a serious student of Islam. She was given access to the full corpus of al- Wahhab’s work by the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Al-Wahhab focused on the intent behind a person’s actions or statements, rather than taking a literalist or ritualistic approach to dogma and observance. He was, according to DeLong “a man of intense religious conviction. He believed in the importance of living one’s religious beliefs in both private and public life. He valued education and was eager to engage in discussions and debates with others … He was a man who sought to teach and guide individuals from every walk of life, reflecting his belief in the equality of all Muslims … He was devoted to the concept of social justice, dedicating significant portions of his writings to the protection of women and the poor and respect for human life and property … He believed that there were times when violence was justified, as in the case of self-defense. However he was neither an active supporter nor a promoter of violence because he believed that it stood in the way of the ultimate goal of Muslims – the winning of converts. He believed that life was something to be not only respected but celebrated. He also had a dry sense of humour”.

Hardly the typical Mad Mullah, tabloid hate figure de nos jours. No justification there for the recent high profile case of the English teacher jailed in Sudan for allowing a child give a teddy bear the name of the prophet Muhammed.

So how did the work of a theologian working in the sands of Arabia come to be associated with the 9/11 bombings, the London tube attacks and the bombings in Madrid. Politics, and the temper of the times, is the answer.

Al-Wahhab was challenging the existing power structure, political and religious, and this set the tone for the interpretation of his message. An example was the conflict between the Ottoman empire and the growing Saudi state. To attack the Ottomans would have required Muslims fighting Muslims – something that al-Wahhab consistently opposed. “It was therefore at this critical juncture that Wahhabi scholars incorporated the writings of the medieval Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya into the main body of the Wahhabi tradition. Ibn Taymiyya provided a worldview and ideology that allowed for revolution against an unfaithful ruler by denying him his status as a Muslim on the basis of his failure to fulfill his responsibilities to Islam”, according to Delong.

Secondly in 1744 a famous alliance that led to the foundation of the first Saudi state, was formed between al-Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Saud. Although historians have assumed that the military activities undertaken by the Saudis after this alliance were Jihad activities, al-Wahhab’s teachings and actions do not support this contention. In fact Saudi power reached its height between 1792 and 1814, long after al-Wahhab withdrew from public life.

Delong recites major differences between al-Wahhab and his “follower” Bin Laden . “Bin Laden preaches a global Jihad of cosmic importance and recognizes no compromise; al-Wahhab’s Jihad was narrow in geographic focus, of localized importance, and had engagement in a treaty relationship between the fighting parties as a goal. Bin Laden preaches war against Christians and Jews; al-Wahhab called for relations with them. Bin Laden’s Jihad proclaims an ideology of the necessity of war in the face of unbelief; al-Wahhab preached the benefits of peaceful co-existence, social order, and business relationships. Bin Laden calls for the killing of all infidels and the destruction of their money and property; al-Wahhab restricted killing and the destruction of property … “

Al-Wahhab not only recognised women as individuals with rights and responsibilities, but he also asserted their capacity to serve as positive and active agents in the private and public spheres as individuals, wives, daughters, mothers, and members of the broad Muslim community. They were equals in marriage, entitled to initiate marriage and divorce.

This book leaves me in no doubt that al-Wahhab’s views on Jihad and martyrdom have been totally ignored by Bin Laden and many others. The only serious reservation I have, while waiting for further scholarship on his full papers, is his condemnation of certain practices of the Shia, Sufi and other minorities within Islam. These undoubtedly opened the door to the appalling death and destruction that Bin Laden and other extremists are inflicting on these minorities today. Sadly this useful contribution to better understanding of Islam is likely to be ignored by those who would most benefit by reading it.

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