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Review of “Wahhabi Islam”

The following is my review of Wahhabi Islam (http://www.amazon.com/Wahhabi-Islam-Revival-Reform-ebook/dp/B000V2KING/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1280628186&sr=8-2)

Natana J. DeLong-Bas’ “Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad” (Oxford University Press, 2004) is a self-described controversial book which has received rave reviews from critics, who have labeled the book “meticulously-researched,” “comprehensive and original,” and “path-breaking.” Utilizing the original writings of Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhāb and his biographers, rendering them accessible to a broad audience through their translation into English for the first time, DeLong-Bas seeks to challenge the dominant scholarly interpretation of the founder of the Wahhabi movement and his legacy in the Muslim world. In this brief review, I will attempt to reconstruct her major arguments, analyze her methodology, and problematize many of her conclusions.

Sources and Methodology

The only sources used by the author to reconstruct the life and ideas of Wahhabism’s founder are Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s own writings, and the biographical works of his followers, namely Husayn ibn Ghannām’s “Tarīkh Najd” and ‘Uthmān ibn Bishr’s 19th-century chronicle. The bibliography consists largely of edited, published sources by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb or his later Wahhabi interpreters in Saudi Arabia (almost all the primary sources she utilizes was published in Riyadh by Muhammad b. Sa’ud Islamic University).  To justify her decision, DeLong-Bas asserts that “[these] chronicles contain the most biographical information and are considered to be the most accurate in terms of biographical information because of the proximity of the writers to their subjects” (p. 14). Hence, from the outset she declares that methodologically she sees no inherent problem in reconstructing the life and ideas of a controversial figure by uncritically employing the writings of his disciples and closest adherents. This is reflected in the narrative, as her biography of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb is clearly little more than a translation of the hagiography-like biographies of Ibn Bishr and Ibn Ghannām and their watering-down for a Western audience. When she does happen to interject her own interpretation, it is usually in an apologetic fashion or to clarify certain terms, as opposed to a critical interpretation of the text itself. At no point does the author attempt to seriously problematize the nature of her sources, a fundamental error for any work of history. Furthermore, DeLong-Bas absolutely refuses to utilize any works by Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s contemporary detractors, labeling them as “polemical” and “hostile” and thus completely discards them from her analysis. More bizarrely, she chooses to deliberately ignore the correspondence/letter exchanges between Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb and his contemporaries or any of the Western travel accounts, although many scholars have indicated that these sources are fundamental for anyone seeking to understand the reformer, his ideas and their reception. Instead, she relies heavily upon the Wahhabi chronicles and the carefully-edited Saudi-Wahhabi canon of works traditionally ascribed to Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb by his modern followers. These are merely some of the problems with the author’s methodology and utilization of source material.

Argument and Conclusions

The author’s argument is fairly easy to follow, thanks largely to her lucid writing style. She argues that Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s life and teachings have been completely misunderstood by 200 years of Muslim and non-Muslim scholarship, and that his ideas have been unfairly stigmatized as promoting violence, intolerance, and sectarianism. Far from this deeply-flawed image, argues De Long-Bas, Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was a moderate, pragmatic reformer whose ideas about women verged on feminism and emphasized social justice. She makes a strong case suggesting that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was in fact more educated than has previously been thought and has traveled widely in his pursuit of knowledge. This is perhaps one of the most effective parts of her argument. She claims that the life of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb needs to be contextualized within that of 18th-century Islamic reformism, which sought to restore Islam to its textual foundations by reducing the power of the religious elite, who sought to monopolize the interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah/hadith, and cracking down on “innovative practices” (bid‘ah). She pushes this relatively moderate argument to the extreme however in claiming that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb sought to create a society in which all people—male/female, ‘ulema/lay people—could exercise the right of ijtihād through their use of reason to interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah. More problematically, she asserts (very strongly) that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s vision was absolutely in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad and that his opponents were motivated by the selfish desire to maintain their political or social power. She focuses in particular on notions of tawḥīd, bid‘ah, and da‘wa and, following the logic of the sources she employs, sketches a biography of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb which very closely resembles that of the Prophet himself. At times, she comes very close to suggesting that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was divinely-inspired or believed himself to be so. She sums up his biography as follows:

“Like his contemporaries [Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb] called for the sociomoral reconstruction of society through greater adherence to monotheism (tawḥīd) and renewed attention to the Qur’an and the hadith. He rejected imitation of the past (taqlīd) in favor of fresh and direct interpretation (ijtihād) of the scriptures and Islamic law by contextualizing them and studying their content. He was a religious scholar. He established a protective relationship with a local leader, who agreed to implement his religious teachings. Jihād was neither the primary goal nor the purpose of the movement he inspired. And he was opposed by local religious scholars and leaders who perceived threats to their own power bases from his teachings” (pp.13-14)

In many parts of the book the author seems to suggest that it is an incontrovertible fact that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was merely “implementing” a pristine vision of Islam, exactly as preached by the Prophet Muhammad. In other words, she implies that those who are opposing Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s ideas and actions are, in fact, opposing the Prophet. DeLong-Bas continually speaks of “facts” and “realities” when discussing Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s ideas without discussing the role of interpretation and hermeneutic in his articulation of a reformist vision of the faith. She simply takes the Wahhabi sources (whom she cites far more often than the actual writings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb) at their word when they claim that their founder was doing little more than “reviving” the faith of the Prophet.

The second part of the author’s argument consists of attempting to refute the relationship between violent jihadism and Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s teachings. DeLong-Bas argues that Islamist violence and ideology are not in line with the original teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb and are due more to the influence of ideologues such as Ibn Taymīyya (d. 1328) and Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). She vehemently rejects any substantial connection between Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb teachings and Ibn Taymīyya’s, and problematizes any attempt to link Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb to Al-Qaeda’s ideology. She argues that the motives, tactics, and methods of today’s jihadists are completely different than the da‘wah advocated by Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb in 18th-century Najd. She further claims that many of today’s Salafis who claim to follow in the footsteps of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb are not faithful to the essence of his teachings, which the author claims are humane, libertarian, non-sectarian, and geared towards creating a tolerant, egalitarian society. It is one of the many ironies of the work that, in attempting to argue so vehemently against the idea that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb has been maligned and misunderstood as an intellectual, she willfully repeats and reifies the many problematic assumptions and polemics against Ibn Taymīyya as the “godfather of modern jihadism.” It would have been more worthy to explore which of Ibn Taymīyya’s ideas specifically impacted Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s teachings and how the latter transformed these ideas in important new ways rather than ascribing to the former the responsibility for all that is wrong with (Sunni) Islam in the modern age.

Criticisms

1. The author’s sources and methodology are greatly flawed. Despite her attempt to argue the contrary, her over-reliance on Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s own writings and those of his followers lead the author towards a conclusion strongly influenced by a Wahhabist bias and at odds with most of the historical record. Methodologically, it is extremely problematic, especially in light of her deliberate omission of material which may have counterbalanced the pro-Wahhabi bias. Her refusal to integrate any serious critiques of Wahhabism, including the plethora of balanced criticism from contemporary Muslim scholars, or even non-Wahhabi sources in general greatly damages the credibility of the book and the integrity of her scholarship. This has inevitably forced most academics and scholars to relegate this work to the realm of polemic or apologetic.

2. Her narrative lacks documentation and critical interpretation. DeLong-Bas’ narrative, although lucidly written and easy to follow, betrays many of her biases. Many of her assertions lack credible documentation (when she provides any at all) and the biographical information about Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb (close to 1/3 of the book) is almost entirely a rewording of the hagiographical works of his closest followers into English. This is deeply problematic and unfair to the reader who earnestly seeks to understand the Wahhabi movement and its founder. Furthermore, her failure to critically explain certain terms (such as “rāfiḍa,” “taqlīd,” “jihād,” “ijtihād,” “tawassul,” “ijmā”) by essentially validating the Wahhabi interpretation of these words without providing the opportunity for her readers to agree or disagree was troubling. These terms are absolutely central to understanding the subject, and the way she oversimplified many of them was astounding. A lay reader would assume that there was absolutely nothing controversial about 18th-century reformism or the rise of the Wahhabi movement, which was doing nothing less than reviving the Tawḥīd of Muhammad, through the use of ijtihād, and cracking down on “corruptive and deeply un-Islamic practices” such as tawassul. Any Muslim or scholar of Islam reading this book will be appalled at how uncritically these words are thrown around. The various assumptions and recycling of Wahhabi rhetoric employed within the book was extremely disappointing.

3. The author lacks a foundational understanding of Islamic history and theology. There is plenty that one can point to in this regard, but two examples will suffice. On page 84, she claims that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb did not oppose Shi’ism, but was rather opposed to “the extremist Rāfiḍah sect,” not knowing that by ‘rafidah,’ Ibn Abdul Wahab meant ALL Shi’is, as this term was an extremely derogatory way that Sunni scholars and polemicists referred to Shi’i Muslims, similar to the use of ‘nāsibī’ by some Shi’i scholars when referring to Sunnis. She then proceeds to build her argument and base her analysis of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s perspective of Shi’i Muslims on this extremely flawed assumption. Secondly, DeLong-Bas’ view of Sufism is downright hostile. Take for example her explanation of the Hanbali school of thought’s opposition to Sufism: “The opposition of the Hanbali school to certain Sufi practices developed as Sufism’s geographical spread led to the adoption of un-Islamic practices unto the devotional practices of certain orders” (p.84). Putting aside the questionable claim that Hanbalism and Sufism were/are inherently in opposition, her adoption of Wahhabi terms of reference and the validation of their worldview could not be clearer. Without any evidence or further explanation, she accepts without question that Sufism incorporated “un-Islamic practices,” based solely on the fact that this is what “Hanbali jurists” (by which she means Wahhabi) claimed. The conflation of Wahhabism with Hanbalism is another aspect of the work that is troublesome, especially in light of the fact that she ignores the body of literature that would help scholars appreciate the 18th and 19th-century Hanbali critiques of the Wahhabi movement.

Most troubling, however, is the claim that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was neither inherently anti-Sufi not anti-Shi’i but merely sought to “guide them onto the right path and convince them, through da’wa” to abandon their questionable practices, an assertion that would make even the most liberal Wahhabi blush. As such, she denies any connection between Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb ‘s teachings and violence directed at these two groups. She also seems to accept as valid the Wahhabi characterization of Sufism as its own sect (anyone with an understanding of medieval or early modern Islam knows how fundamentally interconnected Sufism was to Sunni religiosity). By accepting as legitimate the Wahhabi delegitimization the Sufi and Shi’i perspectives of Islam, DeLong-Bas does a major disservice to her academic credentials by becoming an apologist for the Wahhabi cause. She also does a major disservice to Wahhabism itself by failing to accurately and faithfully communicate the ideals and ideas of its founding figure to a modern audience.

4) Her characterization of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s mission as feminist, egalitarian, geared towards social justice, uncontroversial, and essentially non-violent are grotesque distortions of a far more complex reality. One of her chapters is even entitled “Women and Wahhabis: In Defense of Women’s Rights” and asserts that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was “concerned for gender balance and women’s rights” and sought to “empower and reempower women on the basis of their God-given rights, as spelled out in the Qur’an and hadith” (p. 191). She then goes on to state that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s teachings provide a “springboard for reform” of women’s rights in the contemporary Arab and Islamic world, a shocking proposition to say the very least.The fact that the author interprets Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s reluctant stoning to death of a woman (a story she takes out of one of the hagiographical accounts) as evidence of his concern for women’s rights (pp. 28-29) is no less discomforting. Although she extensively cites Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb ‘s views on women, drawing primarily on his fatwas and writings, her use of these legal writings in order to construct an argument that his teachings were geared towards establishing gender equality and upholding women’s rights is an appalling distortion of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s own writings, and flies in the face of the actual reality of Wahhabism, which has proven itself to be among the most reactionary social and political forces in the contemporary Islamic world, proudly establishing itself as the leading opponent of feminism and women’s empowerment in the 21st century.

5. DeLong Bas’ treatment of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s literalism, excommunication of fellow Muslims, and aggressive actions taken against non-conforming Muslims is also deeply problematic and far too detailed to be described here. It suffices to say that that nowhere is there a discussion of the concept of takfir (excommunicating other Muslims), a word that does not even appear in the book’s index. As most scholars of Wahhabism have demonstrate, the role of takfir within the movement was central and defined its relationship with other Muslims. In fact, the mass violence and atrocities associated with the early Wahhabi movement largely stemmed from the ideological use of takfir by the First Saudi-Wahhabi state. However, since addressing this question would dismantle her broader argument about Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s supposedly humanistic, reason-based and emancipatory reformist movement, she completely ignores it.

The denial that Wahhabi doctrine has led to extreme violence and strife in the Islamic world is not only dishonest, it is dangerous and detrimental especially in a Middle East in which radical terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are on the rise. Her complete silence about the Wahhabi atrocities in Arabia, the Hijaz and Karbala leaves little question about the apologetic nature of the book and its ideological premise. The final part of the work, in which the author examines the alleged connections between Wahhabism and violent jihadism, further reinforces this perception. At times, the books apologetics verge on the absurd. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, both leaders of Al-Qaeda and pioneers of global jihadism, are known to have been inspired by Sayyid Qutb, as well as by Wahhabi doctrine. The differences and distinctions between Wahhabism and Jihadism notwithstanding, the fact remains that there are many overlaps. Not so, argues DeLong Bas. What are the ideological influences motivating Al-Qaeda in the author’s opinion? As absurd as it is, her description of Ayman al-Zawahiri as a “major Sufi sheikh” (p. 274) and Bin Laden as having Sufi-like spiritual trances on the battlefield (p. 274) leaves one in little doubt that the author would actually have us believe that Sufism, not Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb, is an important influence on the most destructive religio-political force in the world today.

Final thoughts

Overall, Natana DeLong-Bas’ “Wahhabi Islam” can only be described as a well-written whitewash of Wahhabism. One has to merely read the acknowledgements to know who the author’s patrons are. While there may be some positive aspects to the work, such as challenging conventional wisdom on the subject and suggesting that Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb wasn’t merely an angry Arab waving a sword, and that jihadist violence today may have a lot more to do with political circumstances than strictly ideology. The descriptive discussion of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb’s legal rulings also reveals a very different individual than the one often portrayed. However, the book definitely fails to provide an effective response to these misconceptions and misunderstandings of the Wahhabi movement by its flawed approach and its failure to engage with any non-Wahhabi perspective or sources. She merely dismisses the primary opponents of Wahhabism, the traditonalist Sunni scholars, as a misguided elite whose status and prestige were threatened by the “revolutionary” ideas brought forth by Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb. It is the Sunni scholarly establishment–the ulama’–along with “the Sufis” and “the Shi’ites” (obviously all of which are homogenous groups in the author’s estimation) that emerge as the villains of her narrative. DeLong Bas’ contemptuous representation of non-Wahhabi Muslims and her belittling of their efforts to challenge Wahhabism also comes across as arrogant and will not endear her to Muslim readers or encourage serious debate about the book. This book is also potentially harmful to the non-specialist as its deeply sympathetic depiction and glamorization of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb may actually convince the reader that there is a 200-year old Muslim/non-Muslim conspiracy to undermine a feminist-social justice-tolerant-modernizing Islamic movement. This disappointing book has done a major disservice to many readers seeking to truly understand the social, theological and political context for the emergence of the Wahhabi movement. For those wishing to do so, I can highly recommend Alexei Vassiliev’s “The History of Saudi Arabia” (2000), a meticulously documented and balanced work on the subject.

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