By Izeth Hussain –
The impulse to return to the roots – which could often lead to a bleak and bare puritanism – is not of course all that there is to Islam. It can be held that Islam is of all the great world religions pre-eminently a this-wordly religion – as distinct from the pre-eminently other-worldly religion of Buddhism – and that it is even more this-worldly than Christianity. It is a noteworthy fact that the varieties of puritanism engendered by Calvinism have endured for centuries in the West on a wide scale while nothing comparable has been seen in the Islamic world. Islam has been famously recalcitrant about branding dissentient sects as heresies, but it was quick to do so in the case of the early puritanical sect of the Kharijites. The record of Wahabism itself is significant in being unimpressive: though it is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, its adherents there are no more than 25%, and it will surely have nothing like its present salience elsewhere if not for the might of the petro-dollar. Perhaps a religion that promises solace and more than solace through gorgeous females in the next world cannot expect its adherents to stay buttoned up in this. The prospect for Puritanical versions of Islam is not bright.
Anyway the impulse to return to the roots to seek self-renewal is a profoundly human one, and in so far as Wahabism is a manifestation of that impulse it has to be respected. Furthermore there was a deep need in the Arabia of Wahab’s time to get rid of unIslamic accretions that were stifling Islam. Ernst Gellner in his book Muslim Society quotes a Muslim writer as stating that when ibn Saud decided in 1744 to champion the religious revival preached by Sheikh Wahab: “Orthodox Islam, especially among the bedouin of Najd, had degenerated into a multitude of superstitious practices, cults of tree and stone worship; tribal and customary law, for the most part, prevailed among the bedouin and sedentary population.. .. and had eroded the influence and primacy of Islamic Law …”.
Outside Arabia also the situation was not dissimilar in a good part of the Islamic world. To understand this we have to take count of an overwhelmingly important fact: Islam was spread for the most part not by the sword, which would have enabled the imposition of a rigid orthodoxy, but by the Sufi orders, the tariqas. Sufism, Islamic mysticism, itself represented a move away from rigid orthodoxy, and it took a long period before Imam Ghazali brought it within the fold of orthodoxy. We can suppose that evangelical Sufi orders showed a disposition to compromise with forms of local religiosity as that could facilitate conversions – a process seen also, I believe, in the spread of Christianity. The process of conversion by preaching, not by the sword, had in it an in-built tendency to move towards the heterodox, and tolerance towards unIslamic practices. There was a need therefore for a reformist purifying movement in a wide swath of the Islamic world during Sheikh Wahab’s time.
Honestly I cannot find much more to say in favor of Sheikh Wahab than that he represented an impulse to return to the roots for renewal and the conditions of the times in which he lived certainly warranted that. Perhaps something might be made of Gellner’s point that his reform movement came ahead of its time. It could have fared much better had it come at a propitious time when the movements to resist the West really got going in the Middle East. In that context his project for renewal through a return to the roots could have become a preparatory stage in a forward-looking movement to cope with the modernity represented by the West. But after the horrendous sacking of Kerbela in 1802 – in which one of the holiest sites of Islam was looted by the Wahabis and around 5000 innocent men, women, and children were indiscriminately butchered – the name of Wahab became mud in the wider Islamic world. It remained so, I can attest, in the orthodox Islamic Colombo household in which I was brought up in the first half of the twentieth century. That has changed in recent times, mainly it would appear, because of the might of the petro-dollar.
The sacking of Kerbela came ten years after the death of Sheikh Wahab, and furthermore there is no doubt that he would have disapproved of it. Here I have to make some observations on the point that what Sheikh Wahab preached was one thing and Wahabism is quite another thing. An important fact is that the Kerbela sacking was carried out by self-styled Wahabis, and it is also an important fact that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the IS are all seen very widely as Wahabi clones. What is the explanation for this widespread perception of a nexus between Wahab and Wahabism? I think that the correct explanation was provided by Karen Armstrong in a 2014 article in the New Statesman.
The common factor between Sheikh Wahab and the clones is the insistence that their version of Islam, and theirs alone, is valid, which means that not only non-Muslims but Shias and also Sunni orthodox Muslims who don’t abide by the tenets of Wahab, will all be consigned to eternal hell-fire. At this point I must acknowledge that there is after all a distinction to be made between the Sheikh and his clones. He consigns all non-Wahabis to eternal hell-fire in the next world while his clones, particularly the IS, will put them to the sword in this world. I suppose that on the ground of that distinction Wahabi apologists like John Esposito and Natana de BasLong, big shots in the field of American Islamic studies, will hold that the Sheikh was a humane man. My conception of the humane, and that of all non-Wahabi Muslims, is a very different one. Anyway, Sheikh Wahab’s ferocious intolerance negated a well-established Islamic tradition – a tradition that held sway for 1200 years – of tolerance towards a wide variety of Islam, a tolerance that accords well with the conception of Islam as the most widely ecumenical of all the world religions.
I would give much importance to the common factor of irrationality between Sheikh Wahab and his clones. It is irrationality of an extreme order. Beliefs and practices that were hallowed in the Islamic world for 1200 years were declared unIslamic by him, after which declaration all those who failed to jettison those beliefs and practices would have to face eternal hell-fire. The plain fact is that the Sheikh and his followers were so much in the grip of irrationality that they were unable to distinguish between the veneration that Muslims accord to saints and edifices in the holy sites of Islam and the worship that they accord only to Allah. I must cite the instructive case of one of my antagonists. He knows Arabic, he has a sound command of the English language, he seems to be wellup in maths, he is very erudite on Islam – just the kind of person from whom we have to expect reasoned argument at the most sophisticated level. Instead, as proof that saint worsip is going on, he cites the fact that he saw with his own eyes an ex-Minister prostrate himself before the saint’s tomb at Devatagaha mosque. Obviously he cannot understand the simple distinction between veneration and worship. The extreme irrationality set off by the Sheikh can be very dangerous, as shown by the fact that it has led by a direct trajectory to the savage unIslamic idiocy of the IS. The nexus between Wahab and Wahabism is undeniable.
I can think of one argument why Wahabism should be countered and destroyed to the fullest extent that might be possible. It is an argument that should be irrefutable and irresistible to all Muslims like me who want Islam to make a major contribution towards the evolution of a humane universalist civilisation stretching across the globe. That contribution will not be possible if Wahabism comes to prevail as the Islamic norm instead of being the aberrant and abhorrent cult that it is at present. That would mean that every Muslim society accepts stoning to death as punishment for adultery because Sheikh Wahab sanctioned that. True, he did so reluctantly, but he did not advance the argument, the irrefutable argument, that such punishment has no sanction in the Koran, and no contradictory hadith can be allowed to override the word of Allah as revealed in the Koran. At present Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. If Wahabism becomes the Islamic norm, together with stoning to death as punishment, potential converts to Islam will wonder whether a religion that insists on so inhumanly gruesome a form of punishment can possibly be authentic. Almost certainly thereafter conversions to Islam will sink to zero.
*To be continued..