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Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Revisiting Wahhabism

Historical Development (Part One)

By Dr. Natana Delong-Bas

Professor - Boston College


Emir Faisal, leading the Saudi Wahhabi armies in 1926, prepares an advance.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, Saudi Arabia and its official interpretation of Islam, popularly known as Wahhabism, have been thrust into the media spotlight. Politicians, journalists, and academics alike have posited an inherent connection between Wahhabism, violence, extremism, intolerance and fanaticism that culminated in the terrorist acts undertaken by Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qaida network based on the fact that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

In such a politically and emotionally charged atmosphere, fear, denunciation, and protectionism have often trumped careful academic analysis of the origins, developments and current manifestations of Wahhabism in its varied forms.

This is an attempt to highlight the origins and contemporary trends of Wahhabism, giving particular attention to the issues of jihad and takfiri ideology and how they are being reformed [1].

Founding Principles

Takfir was not a tenet of Wahhabism as originally founded.
Wahhabism began as an Islamic revival (tajdid) and reform (islah) movement in 18th century Arabia. Founded by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a scholar and jurist from Najd, Wahhabism sought to return Muslims, both women and men, to the direct, personal study of the Qur’an and Sunnah (example of the Prophet Muhammad) in order to break away from adherence to past tradition (taqlid) in favor of renewed and refreshed interpretation (ijtihad).

Although Wahhabism today is often accused of ignoring Islam’s long history of scholarship and interpretation, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself frequently cited the rulings of the founders not only of the four extant mainstream Sunni Islamic law schools (madhahib), but also two extinct Sunni schools and one Shii school, in his discussions of legal principles prior to coming to his own conclusions.

He did not accept any interpreter, including Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya, as being authoritative. Only the Qur’an enjoyed such authoritative status. The hadith enjoyed such authoritative status only when they were in keeping with the teachings and, most importantly, values of the Qur’an.

Wahhabism’s central theme was tawhid, meaning absolute monotheism. Adherence to tawhid was reflected in the terminology used by the movement to describe itself – muwahhidun or ahl al-tawhid, meaning those dedicated to the central principle of tawhid as reflected in their insistence upon the absolute uniqueness of God so that nothing and no one should ever be associated with God, a practice known as shirk.

Tawhid vs. Shirk

The centrality of tawhid to the worldview of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab is reflected in his most widespread work, Kitab al-Tawhid, which outlined in detail the impact that belief in tawhid was intended to have in guiding one’s life and actions, particularly interactions with others.

Although Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself emphasized the need for an invitational approach to Islam, known as daw’ah, historically, the thematic focus on tawhid and shirk led to the development of a takfiri ideology by some Wahhabis in which those who disagree with Wahhabi ideology are denounced as infidels (kuffar) who are subject to jihad as holy war.

Because this practice has been controversial both historically and in the contemporary era, it is important to note that takfir was not a tenet of Wahhabism as originally founded. Indeed, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab did not declare anyone who disagreed with him to be either a kafir (infidel or unbeliever) or a mushrik (associationist).

He reserved these terms for individuals who had committed certain actions – either making the declaration of faith in Islam after studying the religion and then publicly rejecting that faith or engaging in downright idolatry (thus rendering the person a kafir), or committing an action that violated God’s tawhid, such as praying to a saint for intercession or using a talisman for good luck (thus rendering a person a mushrik).

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab did not use the terms interchangeably because he recognized that being a kafir was a deliberate act of the will that could occur only after receiving instruction in the faith, while being a mushrik was something that a person could do accidentally due to ignorance.

Consequently, he taught that the correct approach to dealing with both cases was to call the person back to the faith and instruct him or her as to why the commission of these actions was wrong. Only if the person persisted in apostasy (rejecting the faith of Islam after previously declaring oneself to be a Muslim) to the point of refusing to allow Muslims to practice their own faith might the death penalty be considered and this only in the case of an individual, not in the case of a community or collective body. In other words, being a mushrik or a kafir in and of itself was not sufficient reason to fight or kill an individual or a group of people [2].

Jihad in Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab's Worldview

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab wrote only one treatise on jihad, whose purpose was to limit, rather than to expand, the circumstances under which jihad could be declared.
As long as Muslims were free to practice and study their faith, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab permitted them to live even among the kuffar, although this was not necessarily desirable [3]. This position stands in marked contrast to extremist groups like the Kharijites and al-Qaida, who declare anyone who disagrees with them to be a kafir subject to jihad as holy war.

It also stands in marked contrast to how a more exclusivist interpretation of Wahhabism has been put into practice in certain times and places, based on adherence to a literal and selective interpretation of the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, such as by the Wahhabi adherents who sacked the shrines and massacred the Shii populations in Najaf and Karbala in 1802 and by the Ikhwan who helped to unite portions of Saudi Arabia in the late 1920s.

Unlike tawhid and shirk, jihad was not a prominent theme in Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s legal and theological writings. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab wrote only one treatise – Kitab al-Jihad – on jihad, the purpose of which was to limit, rather than to expand, the circumstances under which jihad could justifiably be declared.

The treatise details the parameters of how jihad is to be engaged, by whom and against whom, and for what purposes, with emphasis on restrictions to fighting, killing and the destruction of property, limitation of jihad to the self-defense of a geographically limited and specific Muslim community under military attack or the imminent threat of military attack, and the assertion of jihad as a collective (fard kifayah), rather than individual (fard ‘ayn), duty.

In addition, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab absolutely forbade the killing of civilians and non-combatants, whether during the conflict or afterward, prohibited rape and plunder as tools of war or reward for combatants, and denied the use of jihad for the singular purpose of expansion of political power and territory.

In his interpretation, jihad was intended to be used strictly for the defense of the Muslim community and its right to practice its faith freely [4]. He specifically stated that differences of opinion in religious interpretation were not justifications for engaging in jihad or violence. Such religious differences were to be addressed through the use of da’wah as a means of debate and education [5].

Wahhabism vs. Jihadism

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab did not assert a permanent division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War as contemporary jihadis do.
These major themes suggest a marked difference between Wahhabism and the contemporary ideology of jihadism with its focus on the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by the Sharia (by force, if necessary), consideration of multiple levels of “offensive” and “defensive” activities, including not only physical “attacks,” but also political, economic, financial, moral, religious, and cultural “attacks,” and even simple disagreement, and ongoing, unlimited global jihad that is the obligation of the individual (fard ‘ayn), rather than of the community (fard kifayah) [6].

With respect to interactions with non-Wahhabi or non-Muslim communities, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab did not assert a permanent division of the world into the House of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the House of War (dar al-harb) as contemporary jihadis do. Instead, he called for the establishment of a formal relationship via a truce or armistice (resulting in dar al-sulh) as a matter of public interest (maslahah), making it clear that a permanent state of jihad was neither desirable nor in keeping with public interest [7].

Contractual relationships could be established with Christians, Jews and other religions with a revealed Scripture [8] (referred to as either ahl al-kitab, People of the Book, or ahl al-dhimmah, People of the Covenant) to be governed by payment of the jizyah (poll tax) in exchange for security provided by the Muslims. Once made and as long as the jizyah is paid, this contract is eternally binding and cannot be broken by the Muslims, even during war.

The dhimmi have the right to retain and practice their own faith, raise their children in that faith, and be rescued or ransomed by Muslims in the event that they are taken prisoner during a war. Once ransomed, the full freedom, property and security of the dhimmi are to be restored. Based on the example of the Prophet and as a matter of public interest (maslahah), Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab further extended this contractual arrangement to the kuffar, mushrikun, and Rafidah (literally apostates, but often used to refer to Shiites).

These teachings by the founder of Wahhabism provide a basis for establishing formal relationships with non-Wahhabis, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that respect the right of non-Wahhabis to both practice their religion and be included as part of the community.

The historical record clearly contains examples both of adherence to this idea and rejection of it in favor of a more exclusivist stance. Today, there are indications that the Saudi government and religious establishment are reconsidering and reclaiming, at least in theory, this foundational stance, with some steps being taken toward putting theory into practice through reform.

[1] For more detailed analysis of the legal and theological works of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and their comparison and contrast to contemporary jihadi ideology, see Natana J. DeLong-Bas. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “Fatawa wa-masa’il al-Imam al-Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab,” in Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Vol. 3. Riyadh: Jamiat al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islamiyah, 1398H, p. 45.

[3] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “Kitab al-Jihad,” in Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Vol. 2. Riyadh: Jamiat al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islamiyah, 1398H, p. 403.

[4] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “Kitab al-Jihad.” Details of the parameters of jihad in Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s writings can be found in Chapter 5, “Jihad: Call to Islam or Call to Violence?” in DeLong-Bas. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad.

[5] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “Kitab al-Tawhid,” 22, and Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “Kitab Kashf al-Shubuhat,”both in Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Vol. 1. Riyadh: Jamiat al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islamiyah, 1398H, 160-1.

[6] This approach is based on a literal interpretation of Ibn Taymiyya’s argumentation as exemplified by Abdullah Al-Azzam, the mentor of Usama bin Ladin, in “Join the Caravan,” available at http://www.religioscope.com.

[7] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. “Kitab al-Jihad,” p. 398.

[8] He specifically includes in his definition Samaritans, Jacobites, Melchites, Nestorians, the French, the Romans, the Armenians, and the Magis, as well as Jews and Christians in general and “anyone who has borrowed from their religion” or “anyone to whom is a similar book” or “anyone who derives their origin from the law of Jesus.” “Kitab al-Jihad,” 403.

Natana DeLong-Bas is a professor in the Theology Department at Boston College. Delong-Bas worked as a senior research assistant at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. She is the author of Notable Muslims: A Biographical Dictionary (2004), Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, and co-author of Women in Muslim Family Law revised edition, with John L. Esposito (2001). She has served as editor for and contributor to The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (OUP, 2003), and contributor to The Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an (2004), and The Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (OUP, 2004). She is a frequent public speaker on Islam, Wahhabism, and Saudi Arabia.

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