Colombo Telegraph

Countering Wahabism

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

There are several reasons why it is important, indeed crucially important, to counter Wahabism in Sri Lanka with the objective of eradicating it altogether or reducing it to no more than a tiny minority cult. I will not go into all those reasons at this point. Instead I will focus on one reason that seems to me far more important than all the others. It is that Wahabism is unIslamic. I am not referring to the clones of Wahabism such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the IS. Those who are identified as Wahabis almost invariably deny that appellation, declaring that they are Salafis or, most often, that they are practitioners of Islam in its pristine purity and nothing other than that. Therefore the malpractices and horrors for which those clones are notorious have nothing to do with the so-called Wahabis.

Consequently there is only one way of dealing with Wahabism, which is to go back to the original writings of Sheikh Wahab himself. But that poses a problem because most of his writings have not been translated. He was a redoubtable scholar and his writings were voluminous. However, it is generally accepted that the core of his teaching is to be found in just one book, the Kitab al-Thowheed (The Book of Unity). As far as I can judge from that book, Sheikh Wahab was a scholar but no philosopher or theologian, nothing like the giant intellects of the Islamic world such as Imam Ghazali or al-Farabi who is coming to be recognized as Islam’s greatest philosopher. He was essentially a preacher and his book is aimed at the Islamic common reader to make him understand and practice true Islam as he conceived of it. The book would seem to be very persuasive to the common reader because every point he makes is buttressed with citations from the Koran and the Hadiths.

I will not expound that book – it is easily accessible to the interested reader on the internet. Instead I will focus on just one point which is at the core of his message, and indeed at the core of Islam itself. It is Thowheed, Unity, which comes from the key concept of the one true God, from which all the rest of Islam follows. Hardly any Muslim will disagree with Sheikh Wahab over the central importance he places on that concept. The opposite of Thowheed is shirk, polytheism, which most Muslim theologians regard as the one unforgivable sin in Islam. It is there that controversy arises, for Sheikh Wahab had an altogether peculiar notion of shirk that contradicts the accepted beliefs and practices of most Muslims over a period of one thousand two hundred years.

According to the common sense notion of polytheism there are several Gods not just one true God, and polytheists are people who declare that belief. But according to Sheikh Wahab and his adherents people can be polytheists without explicitly declaring that belief. According to them the veneration paid to saints, more particularly asking them for favors, amounts to “saint worship” and “grave worship”, and that applies also to the veneration paid to some monuments and some of the edifices in the holy places of Islam. All that makes them polytheists even though they don’t declare it. According to the IS Wahabi clones all such polytheists should be put to the sword, and they are busily doing so wherever they have the opportunity. According to the Wahabis as a whole all such tombs and edifices should be destroyed, and the Saudi authorities and others have been busily doing so to the outrage and horror of the rest of the Islamic world. I have seen a clarification according to which Sheikh Wahab had held that the act of veneration does not by itself constitute shirk. It is the asking of favors from saints that really constitutes shirk. It was very nice of him, very humane, to save at least some of the hundreds of millions of saint venerators from eternal hell fire. A point to be noted before proceeding further is that belief in any partner or anyone associated with God would amount to shirk – a notion for which there is indeed Koranic warrant.

The refutation of the Wahab thesis requires not much more than sense and common sense, and certainly not theological arguments of a complex order. Our emphasis should be on the fact that the veneration paid to saints and to the holy sites of Islam most certainly does not amount to worshipping them, an act that all Muslims, without exception, accord to God and only to God. We can be certain, absolutely certain, that out of more than a billion Muslims who since the death of the Prophet in 632 AD have venerated saints and holy sites there has not been one, literally not even one, who declared that he was worshipping them. As for making requests to saints, not one of those venerators would have said that he was placing those saints on a par with God as partner or associate. To attribute certain posthumous powers to a saint may be mistaken, but it is absurd to assume that the venerator is thereby exalting a saint to the status of a partner or associate of God in any sense.

We must bear in mind that Islam is a transcendental religion, not an immanent one. Christianity is pre-eminently an immanent religion because God is figured as human in Christ. In the Koran God is spoken of in anthropomorphic terms only to make him seem comprehensible to humans. But every Muslim very well understands that by Allah is meant a reality that is infinitely beyond human comprehension. Consequently it is possible for Christians to say that they sometimes speak to God without suffering ill consequences, but if a Muslim does that the consequences for him will be very dire indeed. One of the greatest of the Muslim mystics, al-Hallaj, declared “I am the Truth”, and was promptly crucified. I can attest that in a characteristic Muslim home not only Allah but the names of the Prophets such as Musa Nabi and Esa Nabi (Moses and Jesus) are always uttered in tones of respect and awe. Therefore the idea that orthodox Muslims in venerating saints are actually worshipping them and making them associates of God is an utterly bizarre one.

How on earth did Sheikh Wahab, a vastly erudite scholar on Islam and therefore worthy of respect, come to have so bizarre an idea about orthodox Muslims? I will try to provide an explanation later. Here I must note that at the very core of his teaching – as I have tried to establish above – was a shocking irrationality. Together with that goes a proneness to extremism and intolerance, which can be seen in the Wahabi anathematisation of Shi’ism and Sufism. Orthodox Islam was traditionally tolerant and usually unwilling to brand dissenting sects as heresies, whose adherents had to be burnt at the stake. But for the Wahabis not only the Shias but all those – including orthodox Sunnis – who don’t abide by Wahabi tenets should be regarded as having lapsed from Islam and should suffer the consequences. As for Sufism, there are complex reasons for the Wahabi objection to it – on which I will make some observations later. Here, I will merely point out that after Imam Ghazali brought Sufism within the fold of orthodox Sunni Islam, Sufism made a glorious contribution towards the enrichment of Islamic civilisation. It is worth mentioning that the greatest Sufi poet of Islam, Jalaldin al-Rumi, has been much in vogue in the US for some time. One of the basic objections to Wahabism is that in place of Islamic civilisation it wants to substitute the desert.

My purpose in this article is to establish the grounds, or some of the grounds, for countering Wahabism in Sri Lanka. This purpose will be jeopardized if I am seen to be blindly biased, not fair-minded, reasonable, objective. I will now make some observations in favor, not of Wahabism, but of the impulse behind it. The impulse to return to the roots, to get rid of accretions and re-establish a religion in all its pristine purity, is a noble one and should be respected. It may be that the problem with Sheikh Wahab is that he was born a little ahead of his time – the opinion of Ernst Gellner – and therefore Wahabism took a wrong turning. Anyway, it seems to me that the impulse to return to the roots could be inherent in Islam. I will conclude this part of my article with an appropriate quotation from the Catholic cultural historian Christopher Dawson: “…….. that great vision of the vanity of human achievement which Mohammed saw in the cave of Mount Hira and which made civilisation and its temporal concerns as meaningless as ‘the beat of a gnat’s wing’ in comparison with the splendor of Eternal Power, burning alone like the sun over the desert”.

*To be continued

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