The Islamic Fundamentalism of the Wahhabi Movement (part 2)

Jafar Shaikh Idris
Islamic Fundamentalism: Towards a Definition.

What, then, is Islamic fundamentalism? Let us start by seeing how it compares with Christian fundamentalism.

The Christian fundamentalist movement is said to have been characterized by the belief that every word in the Bible is the word of God, and that the Bible is therefore infallible, by a literalist interpretation of the Bible, by belief in the virgin birth of Christ, in his second coming, in eternal punishment in Hell, and in the necessity of evangelical activities.

But the belief that the Qur’an is the infallible word of God in the literal sense is common to all Muslims. Their method of interpreting its verses is mainly that which is called literalist. They all believe in the virgin birth of Christ, and, though they are not millenarians, they all believe in his second coming. No Muslim denies punishment in Hell. And though not every Muslim is evangelical, Muslims on the whole have no objection in principle to evangelism. And so, if judged by these Christian criteria of fundamentalism, all Muslims are necessarily fundamentalists.

In what sense, then, can fundamentalism be a special characteristic of some Muslim individuals, or groups or movements? Only, I think, in the sense of their militancy in advocating, as fundamentals of Islam, some beliefs which they genuinely believe to be justified by a "literal" understanding of the texts, but which many other Muslims neglect, are ignorant of, or do not believe to be either Islamic or fundamental. One merit of the definition here is that it is broad enough not to confine this phenomenon to a particular age, or make it a reaction against an external culture, but is at the same time limited enough not to include all forms of genuine adherence to religion.

Characteristics of ‘Abd Al-Wahhab's Fundamentalism

Judged by this special characterization of Islamic fundamentalism, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab, the religious founder of Saudi Arabia, was a paragon of Muslim fundamentalist leaders. Here are some of the salient features of his fundamentalism:

a. If the Christian fundamentalists were so-called because they laid down their main beliefs in tracts called The Fundamentals , ‘Abd Al-Wahhab's movement deserves that name in view of the fact that the word 'fundamental' appears in many of his influential tracts.

b. He spent most of his long life, from 1703 to 1792, concentrating on Islamic fundamentals: the fundamentals of faith, the method of obtaining religious knowledge, the necessity of establishing a strong state to propagate and defend the faith, and so on. He devoted his life to teaching those fundamentals, explaining them, arguing for them, urging people to believe in and act on them, and rebutting objections to them.

c. He started one of the strongest, if not the strongest, modern Islamic movements that ultimately even had to engage in war with its opponents.

d. Though his movement succeeded more than any other Islamic movement in modern times in achieving its goals in the land which was its field of activity, and though the movement which he started is to this day making good headway among Muslims worldwide, it is nevertheless still rejected by many as a dangerous aberration from the Islam with which they are familiar. But to be rejected by some adherents of the religion to which it belongs is a hallmark of a truly fundamentalist movement.

e. His interpretation of sacred texts, especially in relation to divine attributes, is that which is called "literal".

f. He was very much aware of the fact that he was not a mere preacher or arm-chair scholar but the leader of a movement that sought to effect a real change in society, and that, though the dissemination of knowledge was a first step and necessary condition for that change, it was not enough. Like all practical social reformers he was convinced of the necessity of power for the realization of the goals which he advocated. Though he had followers, he did not organize them in the form of modern-day activist societies or political parties. He sought that power instead in the support of tribal chiefs, who were the counterparts of today's heads of state. One of them, Muhammad Ibn Sa‘ud, the ruler of Dir‘iya, accepted his teachings and promised to implement the Shari‘ah and defend the movement, thus laying the foundation of the state that was later to be known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia..

g. Today's fundamentalism, whether Islamic or non-Islamic, is characterized, as we saw, by its rejection of Western secularism. But Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab did not face that problem. Western civilization, for him was non existent. He was not, in fact, concerned even with other parts of the Arab or Muslim world. His was a very local movement. But he nevertheless faced a secularism of another brand, which he called jahiliyyah. Jahiliyyah, literally 'ignorance', is the Islamic term for any system of social life which is based on human ideas and whims, and not on divine guidance. The governance of those tribal chiefs was jahili, or secular, because they did not implement Islamic law.

For example, resort to deception to deprive females of their legitimate shares of inheritance, was widespread among their subjects, but none of them prohibited it or punished those who did it; the Islamic penal code was not applied. Thus, when ‘Abd Al-Wahhab ordered the Islamic punishment to be applied to a woman who confessed to committing adultery, there was an uproar among those chiefs, so much so that a powerful one of them threatened the chief in whose territory that punishment took place, to either kill the sheikh who ordered it, banish him, or face the consequences. He chose to banish him.

h. The mark of a good teacher is to pay close attention to the nature of his audience, and have the ability to address each type of them in the most appropriate manner. ‘Ali, the fourth caliph after the Prophet, is reported to have said, "Speak to people in a way they can understand. Do you want them to disbelieve God and His Prophet ?"[4] ‘Abd Al-Wahhab heeded that advice to the maximum, and had the ability to put it into practice. Thus, whenever he wrote to scholars outside his Bedouin community, in Iraq, say, he would use classical Arabic of a high quality; but when he addressed his own people, even in writing, he would use very simple language, and would not even hesitate to use colloquial words and expressions.

This persistent attention to the importance of conveying his message in a manner appropriate to his audience comes out very clearly in the fact that though he had the highest respect for a man like Ibn Taymiyyah, and though he very often quoted him extensively, his style was very different from his. Ibn Taymiyyah had lived in Damascus at a time when it was teeming with philosophers, philosophical theologians, Sufis, Christian and Jewish scholars, scientists, and so on.

But Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab lived in a simple cultural milieu where there was no such erudition. He therefore steered clear of Ibn Taymiyyah's style. While Ibn Taymiyyah resorted to elaborate, and in many cases rational, arguments to buttress and defend Qur’anic teachings on theological matters, ‘Abd Al-Wahhab was mostly content with religious evidence. He avoided the subject of philosophical theology altogether. With the exception of his personal letters, his style is legalistic, concise, and somewhat terse.

i. Leaders of social reform movements usually come with ideas with which people are not familiar, and they are therefore prone to encounter challenge, criticism and opposition. While the leader and the elite around him might be able to defend their new thinking in the face of this opposition, the rank and file of the movement cannot do so. But the movement consists mainly of these common people, and the opposition might adopt a strategy of defying and embarrassing them by asking them questions they cannot answer, in the hope of weakening their hold on those new beliefs, and thus weakening the movement. This happened to ‘Abd Al-Wahhab's followers, and he realized the importance of giving these people confidence in themselves and arming them with simple arguments they could understand and use effectively, even against people who were much more learned than they were. He encouraged them not to be intimidated by people who were known to be more learned than they because even a learned person is weak so long as he is on the side of falsehood, and a lay person is strong so long as he adheres to the truth. To this end he divided arguments for them into two categories: general arguments which even a lay person could use to answer any objection, and specific answers to the most commonly raised questions.

j. Many movements, Islamic and non-Islamic, are very short-lived. The beliefs and thoughts on which they are based do not have a strong hold even on the minds of those who join the movement. So once they face adverse circumstances, or even when the special circumstances which induced them to first join the movement change, they leave it and forget about it. But the teachings of other movements continue to have a strong hold on generation after generation of its members. Such was definitely the Wahhabi movement.

i. Twice in its history the movement, in the form of the Saudi state which was founded on it, was not only defeated by its enemies, but completely routed, its political and religious leaders killed or taken prisoner. But after each such defeat, the remaining members of the movement would come together and start all over again, advocating the same teachings with the same old conviction and zeal, and succeed once again in wielding power and forming a new Islamic state.

ii. Like Muslim scholars everywhere, the Islamic scholars of contemporary Saudi Arabia may differ in their opinions or their points of view on certain political issues, or on the proper Islamic ruling on something, but thanks to the Wahhabi movement there is a consensus among them on the fundamentals of faith and method, the like of which is nowhere to be found in any other part of the Muslim world.

iii. And thanks again to that movement, Saudi society, though not an ideal Islamic society, is the one that is more immune than any other Islamic society to the popular forms of shirk (the worshipping of other deities besides God) which the founder of the movement condemned.

iv. Far from fading, waning or shrinking, the movement, in its essentials, long ago transcended the boundaries of its homeland, and is still gaining momentum and flourishing in different parts of the world, and influencing other movements.

source: islam awekening

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