Wahhabism is not the cause of Muslim extremism
say studies of Saudi belief

Joshua Craze

Certain figures take hold of the public imagination; they become scapegoats for all society’s ills. If there is a figure that takes up all the problems of international politics today, it would be Wahhabi Islam.

Wahhabism is that “hate-filled, extremist fringe of the [Muslim] religion that is the official Saudi creed”(1). In the eyes of the media, it is chiefly responsible for all global terrorism – from the Balkans to Indonesia.

Though, as for any good scapegoat (2), the ills for which Wahhabi Islam is held responsible vary, its representations in the international press have a number of common points. Wahhabi’s are backwards and archaic; uneducated with no interest in history (3); insistent that fellow peoples of the book (Jews and Christians) are nothing more than “sorcerers and devil worshippers, fit for annihilation – a venomous dictum that Saudi mosques spew out to this day”(4); sponsors of terrorism (or the terrorists themselves).

In sum, they are the “most retrograde expression of Islam.”(5)

Whether or not other of history’s scapegoats were actually responsible for the variety of ills for which they were held responsible is a moot point; such figures are so attractive precisely because whole constellations of different problems can be placed onto them. Knowing as little as possible about your scapegoat is necessary to carry out such a caricature. Unsurprisingly then, despite all that is written condemning Wahhabi Islam, relatively little is known about its history.

An excellent essay appearing at Saudi Debate on how that what some see as an evil force within Islam is far from it. Craze does a good job of differentiating between what Abdul Wahhab actually wrote and preached on how (and why) outsiders tended to think otherwise. He does a good job, too, in critiquing the strengths and weaknesses of Natana DeLong-Bas’ book Wahhabi Islam. Craze points out that ‘Wahhabism’ is not a static concept, engraved in stone on the death of Abdul Wahhab, but continues through his descendants. Pay attention, too, to the footnotes to the essay.

Definitely worth reading if you’ve interest in facts about Wahhabism rather than the stereotypes.


January:24:2007 - 17:13 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink
8 Responses to “History of ‘Wahhabism’”
  1. 1
    Aya Said:
    January:25:2007 - 12:06 

    Hi John, have you had the chance to read DeLong-Bas’s book? Is it any good?

  2. 2
    John Said:
    January:25:2007 - 12:56 

    The book was good in that it introduced a lot of what Abdul Wahhab said to public attention. Not surprisingly, he and his teachings are far more complicated than the stereotypes. For instance, he was well-traveled and learned, having studied in several different countries.

    The book demonstrates that his ideas about women were actually on the progressive side.

    I think DeLong-Bas is a little too defensive about him, though, and prefers to downplay the more negative aspects of his teachings, like his strongly negative views toward the Shi’a.

    The book is certainly worth reading; not necessarily worth buying.

  3. 3
    Aya Said:
    January:25:2007 - 21:03 

    Thanks John. I am trying to find a scholarly book in English on modern/current wahhabi ideology. Haven’t found anything that isn’t either apologetic or vindictive. Is there any book that you would recommend?

  4. 4
    John Said:
    January:25:2007 - 23:12 

    Unfortunately, that’s the best one I know of at present. There are a handful in Arabic, but I haven’t read them.

  5. 5
    Aya Said:
    January:26:2007 - 13:01 

    Thanks. I will check this one out!

  6. 6
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    January:26:2007 - 16:18 

    I think part of the problem for modern Wah’habism has been the confusion between it and Salafism. As discussed in earlier posts, this has largely come about because of a) the influx of Salafist teachers from Egypt during the Nasser era who became part of the Saudi educational system, and b) the funding by the Saudis of some madrassas and operations in various countries that were labeled by observers as “Wah’habist” when they were properly speaking more accurately describable as “Salafist.”

    At a minimum, given the long identification between the Saudi royal family and Wah’habism, one would have to say that there are factions in Wah’habism today if one wishes to identify the more radical groups within Saudi Arabia that seek the overthrow of the royal family as being Wah’habist.

  7. 7
    John Said:
    January:26:2007 - 17:08 

    I think ‘Wahhabi’ and the other forms of the word, have very limited utility today. It has become a catch-all for any and every form of strict fundamentalism, for terroristic interpretations of Islam, as well as for anything funded by the Saudi government.

    None of these words actually have much of anything to do with what ‘Wahhabi’ means, i.e., the set of emphases on Islamic belief and practices put forth by Abdul Wahhab. None has much to do with how those emphases have evolved since his death.

    Mostly, the word is just used for its negative connotation, regardless of accuracy.

  8. 8
    svend Said:
    February:04:2007 - 01:39 

    Don’t remember the specifics, but my impression is that the claim that he traveled and studied is not clearly attested by the historical evidence.

    I respect Delong-Bas’ desire to deal with this controversial topic in an evenhanded manner, but the scholars I’ve talked to (well known observers on Islamic revivalism movements) on this say the book was very seriously flawed. Haven’t read it myself, but I must confess that I find it hard to take seriously a work that purports to uncover the misunderstood pluralist in a Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab. I think he’s been painted as intolerant because he was, both by the standards of his day and ours.

    As for books, I realize it’s partisan, but I think As`ad Abu Khalil’s THE BATTLE FOR SAUDI ARABIA is quite useful. It may go for the jugular, but its not uncritical of its sources (e.g., it questions fellow Wahhabi critic Hamid Algar on some points) and it provides a lot of insight that you don’t find in other accounts.

    For a less opinionated intro, you might try David Commins.

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