Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 January - 1 February 2006
Issue No. 779
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A new opinion of Ibn Abdel-Wahhab

Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, Natana DeLong-Bas, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005. pp370

For many years, conservatives in the West have decried the pernicious influence of those they call "Wahhabis" throughout the Muslim world, especially amongst Muslims residing in Europe and the United States. It is likely that many such critics are pursuing an entirely different agenda from merely exercising their concern over a particularly conservative strain of Islam, that being to undermine the credibility of Saudi Arabia, whose ruling family long ago embraced the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab (1702-1791), for whom the movement he founded is often named.

Dubbed Wahhabis by their detractors, who have included Muslims as well as westerners among their number, adherents of the teachings of Ibn Abdel-Wahhab prefer to call themselves muwahhidun, or those who recognise and act upon the unique singularity of Allah and enjoin that recognition and action upon other Muslims. To critics, however, any government, organisation, or movement characterised by misogyny, literalism in the interpretation of Muslim scripture, or extremist and militant tendencies is labelled Wahhabi, even though the term actually reveals little about the groupings vilified with the label.

In an important and well-executed work about the thought of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab, entitled Wahhabi Islam, now released in paperback by the American University in Cairo Press after being banned for more than seven months by Al-Azhar, author Natana DeLong-Bas disputes the veracity of the term. A senior research assistant at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim- Christian Understanding in the United States, she has accomplished what no western critics of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab -- and eastern ones too for that matter -- have ever attempted: she has actually read his work, all 14 of his books along with his legal opinions. Contrary to the way in which he is presented in current public and scholarly discourse, the author's Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab emerges as a moderate, enormously well read, progressive expounder and interpreter of Islamic doctrine.

To convince doubters, of whom there will be many, DeLong-Bas embarks upon a detailed and methodical examination of the views of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab as recorded in his own voice and not as imputed to him by others. Her emphasis throughout is on the hot- button issues so dear to critics of all stripes, notably the principles of interpretation of the sacred texts, the rights of women, and the place of violence and jihad.

According to his own words and deeds, Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab preached and practiced flexibility in interpretation of Islamic doctrine, tolerance of different creeds alternative to it, and forbearance toward those who disagreed with his views or who committed apostasy. Accused of rigid literalism, Ibn Abdel-Wahhab to the contrary openly broke with exegetes, doctors of law, and compliers of Prophetic traditions whenever and wherever he found their pronouncements to be lacking in principled reasoning, based upon faulty interpretation, or displaying outright ignorance or dishonesty. He urged his followers and indeed all believers to practice these same principles to the furthest extent to which they were able.

Because of that, he often fell foul of the religious elites ( culama ) of his day, whose self-interest lay in their followers accepting received tradition without question. As the contemporary guardians of that tradition, the culama had the most to lose if customary understandings of Islam were questioned and undermined. At issue were two principles of Islamic praxis often juxtaposed one with the other in discussions of the interpretation of scripture and the formulation of law. Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab opposed the prevalent acceptance of taqlid (imitation of the example of past generations of believers, especially that of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad), arguing instead that believers should practice ijtihad (individual effort and reasoning in interpreting scripture in the light of current contexts).

This could seem an arcane academic point, except that Ibn Abdel-Wahhab was accused in his day of being no more than a blind copier of tradition, just as his followers are accused of being today. DeLong-Bas is at great pains to illustrate that he was far from being so. Indeed, in his insistence upon the right and duty of Muslims to interpret their religion for themselves, he was quite within the realm of most Muslim reformers, although he is derided as representing an aberrant distortion of Muslim thought. What is more, the distinction between these two principles of interpretation and action remains a topic of heated disagreement in Muslim discourse of the present day, with the more reform minded arguing along with Ibn Abdel-Wahhab (unbeknownst to them) for the exercise of ijtihad (or, in Arabic, fath bab al-ijtihad, "opening the gate of ijtihad ").

Where the rejection of blind imitation of traditional authorities and the call for individual effort in deciding upon correct belief (orthodoxy) and correct action (orthopraxis) came to matters concerning relations between the sexes, Ibn Abdel-Wahhab's inclination was always to assert the rights of women, according them more rights and less stricture in the conduct of their own affairs than he accorded to men. So, too, was he insistent upon women's right to participation in public life and access to public space. Underlying any of his judgements was his keen preoccupation with protecting and preserving human life and dignity. His written record demonstrates a consistent concern for such things.

As DeLong-Bas points out, "Throughout his writings, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab emphasised the themes of respect, protection, and justice for women." Characteristically, he hewed closely to the "clear teachings of the Quran," indicating that contemporary practice did not, instead holding more with tribal custom. As such, his "was an important contribution to the construction of gender in eighteenth-century Arabia." This hardly conforms to the image of Wahhabism that is bandied about nowadays, in which Wahhabis are portrayed as misogynists. While there may be such types amongst Muslims, they cannot be called adherents of the thought of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab.

Neither can those who call for the indiscriminate killing of innocents and non-combatants, justifying this in the name of jihad. Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab was very careful in his use of this term and set out clear guidelines for the proper conduct of armed struggle, largely employing the Arabic term qitaal 'fighting' rather than jihad. The reason for that was that while there may be many good reasons for fighting, there are only a few situations in which fighting can be declared jihad. In those, and indeed in any other form of combat, strict parameters were to be observed as to how the fighting is to be conducted. One was that killing itself was to be kept to the absolute minimum.

Indeed, Ibn Abdel-Wahhab specified only three situations in which jihad can legitimately be carried out, those being (1) when two groups of combatants (clearly, one Muslim and one not) meet face to face, (2) when an enemy leaves its own territory (intending aggression), and then (3) only if the spiritual leader of the community actually declares jihad (the imam, as distinguished from the amir, who is the political leader -- an important distinction, as many latter-day jihadis swear their allegiance to an amir ). When declared, jihad is only to be prosecuted until the enemy retreats. Women, children, the aged, and others who are incapable of fighting by means of infirmity or social status are not to be killed. Even more telling are the cases in which jihad is not called for.

DeLong-Bas writes that "these...involve the personal habits or practices that Muslims may find inappropriate or offensive but do not result in aggression against Muslims....In other words, jihad is not appropriate when conducted as an offensive or pre-emptive action or to strike down a group whose personal habits or practices may not be in keeping with one's own interpretation of Islam. This is significant because one of the charges typically wielded against the Wahhabis is their supposedly intense opposition to anyone who disagrees with them in any way about a religious matter. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab clearly did not sanction such a position and in fact deplored it."

So, too, would he surely have deplored the abuse of the term jihad by contemporary extremists who endorse the use of violence against all and sundry, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, whose beliefs and ways of life are different from their own.

In the face of all this, the inapt question, What went wrong? aimed scattershot at the entire Muslim world, might profitably be redirected to the much narrower range of central Arabia. The answer would still be satisfying to those inclined to bash the Saudis. Neither the House of Saud nor the angry-eyed global Islamist radicals come out well in the author's portrayal of them. Both groups have perverted the nature of true Wahhabi doctrine (i.e., that propounded by Ibn Abdel-Wahhab himself) into narrow, literalistic interpretations of Islamic texts recruited to advance their own political agendas; for the Saudis, this was the conquest and consolidation of political rule in the Arabian peninsula and for the global jihadis it is purported to be the conquest of the world (although no-one knows for sure).

After the work of DeLong-Bas, it will simply be incorrect to tar Muslim conservatives with the brush of Wahhabism, or indeed to condemn militants by branding them jihadis, as what they are endorsing is not jihad. The hidebound conservatism of some Muslim literalists or the ravings and horrendous deeds of violent Islamists who happen to call themselves Muslims must now be awarded some other pejorative term, as they are entirely inconsistent with the thought of the broad- minded reformer who was Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab.

A flatter contradiction of conventional opinion could scarcely be imagined. The founder of the Wahhabis was anything but the wild-eyed, puritanical naïf hailing from some remote sand-locked province of Arabia he is painted to be. The weight of the evidence is on the author's side. DeLong-Bas has simply read her subject's own works and the historical record of his passing and reported what she found there. In so doing, she has rendered an invaluable service by distilling the works of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab, which are difficult to obtain outside of Saudi Arabia, for readers who may in any case not be able to read the Arabic.

Her book will certainly be a boon to scholars, but it is to be hoped that it will also attract the attention of critics of Islam (whose arguments can now be debunked for their not having read it) or indeed that of the wider public.

Reviewed by David Wilmsen

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 779 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Features | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map