Wahabism and Reformation again

Bill Allison does not agree with Ikram Saeed that Wahabism is the Reformation for Islam.

Superficially, the comparison seems apt. Like Luther and Calvin and Tyndale, al-Wahhab demanded fidelity to the text, to a return to the revelation as it was understood by the first practicioners of the religion, for a rejection of innovations that occurred centuries after the revelation.

[…]At the same time it was justifying its use of force with its monopoly on religious interpretation, the Catholic Church suppressed the very book which it was interpreting. As incomprehensible as it may seem, the Church regarded the Bible as a threat to its own authority, and executed anyone brazen enough to attempt to translate it into a vernacular language. The Church sold indulgences, the clergy were poorly educated in Christian principals, etc. etc. The abuses were rampant.

Enter the reformers. Luther debated his 95 theses, and hoped to work within the Church for change. Similarly, William Tyndale sought the support of a Catholic bishop to get started on his English translation of the Bible. Luther ended up branded a heretic, and Tyndale’s Bibles were burnt in London (at the behest of that notable humanist, Sir Thomas More).

I don’t think the Islamic world found itself in the same circumstances when al-Wahhab began his proseletyzing. I do not think the Qur’an was regarded as a subversive work by the religious authorities of the day (to suggest so would be blasphemy). Compared to Latin Christendom, the realms of Islam saw few episodes like that of the Cathars or the Lollards (there were some).

Secondly, there is a vast difference between Luther or Calvin, both of whom left hundreds of thousands of words of doctrine, and al-Wahhab. Hamid Algar, who’s quite friendly to Qutb’s Islamism, wrote in Wahhabism: A Critical Essay:

A brief digression on what might be charitably termed the scholarly output of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab will be in order at this point. All of his works are extremely slight, in terms of both content and bulk. In order to justify his encomium for Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, al-Faruqi appended to his translation of each chapter of the Kitab al-Tauhid a list of “further issues” he drew up himself, implying that the author had originally discussed some fo the “issues” arising from hadith in the book; he had not. …It seems that the custodians of Wahhabism, embarrassed by the slightness of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab’s opus, have come to regard the expansion of its girth as a necessity.

There’s a lot more on Bill’s site. Go read it.

A Decent Article on Islam

Al-Muhajabah, whose blog veiled4Allah is on my blogroll, has an interesting article titled “A Field Guide to Islamic Activists”. It gives some of the background on the basic philosophies of Sunni Islam: the historic four madhabs (Hanafi, Shaafi, Maliki, Hanbali); Wahabism; modern trends; and militant ideology of Osama Bin Laden. Here is her conclusion:

The aim of the first two parts of this essay (Historical Background and Trends in Contemporary Islam) was to discuss genuine movements of revival and reform in the Muslim world, and where they come from. I want to show that these movements are distinct from “militant Islam”. “Militant Islam” is a response to the political situation in the Muslim world over the last thirty years or so. It is the selective use of certain elements of Islam to produce an ideology to support political or armed struggle. It is not a natural outgrowth of Islam, because the selection process leaves out much that is vital to Islamic civilization, but is rather a distorted vision of the religion produced to further certain very specific aims. If the Arabs and Pashtuns were not Muslims, they would have used a different religion to justify their actions. Fifty years ago, they might have used communism or another secular ideology instead. But as Muslims and in today’s political climate, they choose to use Islam.

I have argued that “militant Islam” is not part of Wahhabi Islam, but rather comes out of a reaction against the Wahhabi movement. I also mean by this that “militant Islam” and “fundamentalism” are two different things. “Fundamentalism” in the Islamic context means a reform movement that seeks to go back to the pristine earliest form of the religion. It is a reaction against religious decadence rather than against any political situation. It is very similar to Protestantism in Christianity. Wahhabi Islam (the movement most closely resembling “fundamentalism”) is concerned with purifying the entire way of life of the Muslims, their worship and their interactions with each other whether or a personal or a societal level. There is a richness and a complexity to it. And, as I argued above, it is not Wahhabi Islam itself that has given rise to “militant Islam”, but rather, “militant Islam” is (among other things) a backlash against the failure of Wahhabi Islam to live up to its own ideals. This is an important distinction to make.

There is also modernist Islam. Modernist Islam is “fundamentalist” in the sense that it is a reform movement seeking to go back to the pristine earliest form of the religion. If early Islam did not have the dynamism, egalitarianism, and flexibility that modernists are looking for, they would look somewhere else. But they do find these qualities in Islam, which confirms and strengthens their commitment to their religion. Islam is an entire way of life, and it regulates both peoples’ worship and their interactions with each other, from the personal level to the societal level. Those who are committed to improving the lives of Muslims through Islam will thus be involved in social activism and political reform. This too is similar to the Wahhabis. It comes out of the nature of Islam as a religion.

But modernists are specifically interested in bringing democracy and a concern for human rights, and women’s rights, to the Muslim world. They look for the flexibility to adapt Islam to the changing needs of people rather than wanting as the Wahhabis do to follow a single vision of Islam (in this case the early Muslim community.)

It is an interesting introductory article, though as with all such things it glosses over complexities (it still gives a much better picture than what you can get from the media or blogosphere.) She does have some errors with the part of her essay dealing with Pakistan. I’ll document those when I have some time.

Wahabis/Salafis Again

My initial post regarding the Wahabis touched very briefly on the topic. I have been thinking of blogging more on Wahabis as well as the different sects/schools of thought in Islam specifically as found in Pakistan. However, it is a tough task and work has interfered (this being the end of the semester and all.) In the meantime, a nice reader of mine, Ikram Saeed, had this to say in the comments section of the “Wahabis as born-again” post:

A lot of Wahabi (or, more accurately Salafi) bashing on the net. Let me offer an explanation of Salafism’s appeal (though not a defense).

With respect to “born-agains”:

Islam, as it is practiced in Pakistan and many other traditional areas is awfully backward. Illiterate mullahs and pirs leading an uneducated rabble.

A somewhat educated person (say 12 years of education) would be repulsed by the credulity and backwardness and (in Pakistan) Hinduness of this mullah Islam. Salafism, with its call to erase centuries of superstition, would be very appealing.

What’s more, he would right about the “modernizing” possibilities of Salafism. For example, the Salafi call to re-examine Hadith for authenticity is a modernizing impluse. (It so happens that the people re-examining are hyperconservatives, but it didn’t have to be that way.)

Salafism is very appealing to someone who is dissatisfied with traditional “village islam”, but is not swayed by western ideas. Salafism is a “modern’s” version of Islam.

With respect to converts:

Under Salafism, you don’t have to listen to preachy “born-Muslims” who tell you what to do based on their Madhab and national traditions. The convert gets to preach to the born-Muslim about the “true” Salafi Islam, as opposed to his corrupted Pakistani/African/Arab version.

I agree that Salafists are ultraconservative and rejectionist — but this is entirely compatible with being theologically modernizing (which they are). Salafis are the most successful of the many groups trying to re-interpret Islam. (Note that most Christian American commentators have it exactly backwards).

I expect that in the future, Wahabism will be seen as the beginning of an Islamic intellectual revival, ultimately leading to an Islam more compatible with modern life.

Consider that Calvin, while condemning the abuses and corruption of the catholic church (village Christianity) lauchned a profoundly bigoted and (in modern terms) conservative movement.

Five hundred years later, it resulted in Unitarians. (Though 500 years is a long time to wait)

Ikram expands on these ideas in comments (1, 2) to Aziz Poonawalla’s latest post on the silence of the media:

Excellent post Aziz. Let me first join you in mocking the ignorance of Den Beste (and other fools), then (in the following comment) offer a defence of Wahabism/Salafism. It just gets beat up too much on American web-sites.

Den Beste is a complete idiot. Your recent quotations of him make that clear. He argues for a more decentralized Islam (more “protestant”) , not realizing that Wahabism is extreme “protestantism”.

Wahbism is the reformation. Traditional Sunni Islam has four Madhabs (schools of thought), and the interpretation of religion is only permitted by religious scholars in that Madhab. To become a scholar requires many years of work, and an understanding of some 1400 years of religious thought and commentary. Traditional Sunni-ism is somewhat centralized and “Catholic” (though not nearly as mush as Shi’ism — “the fifth madhab?”).

Wahabis smash this hierarchy, and go extreme “protestant” They argue that the 1400 years of interpretation has clouded and distorted the original message of the Prophet. Muslims need to go back to the fundamentals, to Islam the way it was practiced at the time of the prophet. Each Muslim should read the Quran, and particularly the Hadiths, and reach his own, correct, understanding.

It so happens that Wahabis believe the correct understanding is one that, by the standards of America’s relaxed morality, is reactionary and repressive. Religious authority is being decentralized among hatemongers and fanatics.

And, for Christians who know their own religious history, this shouldn’t be surprising. Calvin was an intolerant religious bigot. And Luther has long been accused of being a grade ‘A’ anti-semite. Both Luther and Calvin launched Europe into 300 years of religious warfare (that still continues in N.Irelannd).

300 years of religious warfare — is that the reformation Den Beste wants? Idiot.

The Christian Reformation occurred as a reaction to corruption in the catholic church, not as a reaction to strict morals. If anthing, teetotalling moralistic protestants were more violent and more strict than Catholics. Similarly, Wahabis are more strict that “Madhabis” to coin a term.

(As an aside Aziz, why not do a post on how Wahabism is protestant, so that the dumb bloggers don’t keep raising the same issue again and again.)

I am tremendously frustrated by bloggers and pundits who propound “what needs to happen to Islam” without even knowing the vaguest thing about the religion, its history, or its followers. Idiots.

A defence of Wahabism:

It seems the American blogger and pundits has identified the enemy: Wahabism. They don’t know what it is (though a few have read Qutb), but the term sounds Arabic enough to make them feel knowledgable, and it allows them to hate Saudi Arabia.

Is there much else a blogger wants in life?

In this anti-Wahabi (or Salafi, to use the name they call themselves) fervour, they are joined by Shias, traditional (or ‘madhabi’) Sunnis, and “liberalizing” Muslims (I know that’s a term of abuse, but I can’t think of what else to call Khalid AbuFadl types). But these three groups have very different motivations, and I hope that in briefly discussing these motivations, it will become self evident that Salafism is quite a useful (and possibly good) development.

The Shia dislike is easy to explain. Salafis want to kill Shias. (Well, this may be an exxageration, though this happened in Afghanistan, and happens today in Pakistan). At minimum, Salafis see Shias as kaffirs. These extreme (and extremely violent) Sunnis generally persecute Shias where ever they can.

The Traditional Ulema (religious scholars) dislike of Salafi’s is also easy to understand. Salafi’s would put the current Ulema out of a job. Salafis see the Ulema as leading Muslims astray by placing a man (the founder of the Madhab) above the prophet. (Sunni Islam has four Madhabs — if you don’t know, go read a book and learn). Traditional Madrassas, which pride themselves on their historical links to the founder of the Madhab, are horrified by the Salafi desire to smash of religious hierarchy and discard more than a millenium of scholarship.

Liberalizing Muslim scholars (LMS?) also want to do this, but they dislike Salafis because, when Salafis smash tradition, they become more conservative, not less. LMS-ers who want to create a soft and fuzzy Islam, and participate in inter-faith councils without getting dirty looks, would probably agree with Salafi revisionist impulses, but not with Salafi outcomes (although there is a difference between Salafis and some LMS-ers desire to re-open the door to Ijtehad).

But LMS-ers, and those that agree with their intent, should be happy with Salafis. The fast growing (and intellectually appealing) Wahabism is paving the way for the LMS-ers, like the 30-years war paved the way for Unitarians. By smashing Sunni traditions from a conservative position, Salafi’s make it easier to smash Sunni traditions from a liberal perspective.

And the destruction of tradition is probably necessary. Islam, and Muslims, need to adjust to a world of mass literacy. Now that everyone can read, and mullahs are no longer the guardians of tradition, Sunni Muslims need a new way to deal with scholarship and religious practice. Salafism (or Wahabism) is one new way. There will be more.

Aziz has also posted Ikram’s comments as a post on his blog and an interesting discussion is taking place in that comment section.

I have some rudimentary knowledge of the Christian Reformation, but that is not the topic I am interested in here, so I’ll ignore Ikram’s comments about it except to note that there are some similarities with the current events in Islam and that he is simplifying the history of the Christian Reformation quite a bit.

Though I am inclined to believe that Wahabism is the Islamic Reformation, it is not the only effort to modernize/plebeian-ize (with an ultra-conservative bent) Islam. There are lesser known, less violent types as well each with a different balance of modernity and conservatism. Even some of the violent movements are not really Wahabi. We tend to simplify things a lot when our knowledge is limited.

I think this rise in religious conservatism while rejecting the traditional schools of thought is going to happen whether we like it or not. What we need to figure out is how to make it less violent and to keep it from destroying lots of lives of people everywhere.

Hopefully, I’ll write my thoughts on the matter in the next few days.

PhotoDude Gets It

PhotoDude has a great blog where he discuss politics and posts his photographs as well. He’s on my blogroll mainly because of the images, but his recent post about clearly differentiating between the extremist murderers of the Al-Qaeda variety and the general Muslim population is very good:

And we need to make that disctinction clearly not only because it is the moral position our country’s foundation requires, but because it is a major strategic point in our war on terror. There is nothing Al Qaeda would like better than for us to help them make this a “Conflict of the Civilizations,” as they themselves proclaim it. If we take the position that the entire Muslim faith is violent, and defective at its core … the position of Robertson and others … then we fall right into the Al Qaeda trap. Our rhetoric becomes a mirror image of theirs. We have become that which we hate, and we have made their task easier.

If we carefully carve them from their support, by clearly defining who we see as our enemy, and not defining them by the faith they pervert for their cause, we defuse their primary recruiting point. We give moderate Muslims more ground on which to stand with us. We show respect, backed by knowledge.

When we generalize and condemn the entire Muslim faith, we undercut our own goals, and provide our real enemy with more philosophical ammunition to use in their perversion of Islam. And by doing so, we give Osama (or his talking ghost) a whole basketful of “I told you so’s” to use in his next alleged message.

But it’s more than just a major strategic error. It’s contrary to our foundation.

Quite simply, we have a reputation to uphold. Religious freedom is at the very core of this country, and if we broadly condemn an entire religion practiced by hundreds of millions of people of many varied ethnicities, we betray that foundation. And we play into the hands of the enemy.

A Moderate Voice of Islam

Here is King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Washington Post:

Our religion calls us to live and work for justice and to promote tolerance. Daily, we share God’s blessing: Salaam Aleikum — “Peace be upon you.”

This is the true voice of Islam, but it is not the voice that Americans always hear. Instead, they hear the hatred spewed by groups mistakenly called Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, there is nothing fundamentally Islamic about these extremists. They are religious totalitarians, in a long line of extremists of various faiths who seek power by intimidation, violence and thuggery.

Among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, extremists are, of course, a tiny minority. For decades, many Muslims thought that because they had nothing to do with this criminal fringe, they could ignore it. Sept. 11, 2001, changed that kind of thinking. The idea that anyone would exploit our religion to sanction the killing of innocents outraged Muslims everywhere.

Yet we must do even more to make sure the real voice of Islam is heard. Today Muslims must speak out boldly in defense of a dynamic, moderate Islam — an Islam that upholds the sanctity of human life, reaches out to the oppressed, respects men and women alike, and insists on the fellowship of all humankind. This is the true Islam of the Prophet, and the Islam that terrorists seek to destroy.

Eid Mubarak

A Happy Eid to you, dear readers. Today is Eid-ul-Fitr here in Atlanta, the day celebrating the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting.

So I have Eid here today, while my wife in New Jersey will have hers tomorrow. What’s the deal with that? I have no idea. Eid is celebrated on the new moon of a lunar calendar. Therefore, the day of the Eid would be different in different regions of the world. However, as far as I remember, there are always differences in opinion on the date of the Eid even in the same country. In Pakistan, for example, there was a government-appointed religious body which decided the start of each lunar month. The people of the Frontier province (inhabited mainly by Pashtuns, the major ethnic group of Afghanistan) always had Eid a day earlier, even if it was astronomically impossible for the new moon to appear that day. In the US, the decision for Eid is taken by each mosque independently. This usually led to huge confusion. So three major Muslim groups (ISNA, ICNA and Warris Muhammad’s group) formed a joint committee which among other things decides on the moonsighting. (Aside: Warris Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad, converted the bulk of the Nation of Islam to orthodox Islam in the 1970s.) So, the Shura Council has decided on Dec 6, while our mosque here in Atlanta decided on Dec 5 probably to coincide with the Saudis.

History of Abrahamic Religions

I am interested in finding out more about the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not from the point of view of their followers, but from good scholarly sources which discuss independent sources for the history of the early periods of these religions as well as the history of the Bible and the Quran (based on analysis of their text as well as the history of their compilation etc.) I would like to know what events in the Bible we can confirm independently, for example. I understand that we cannot independently say anything one way or the other about quite a few of the events in the Bible as well as early Muslim history.

A couple of articles related to the Quran were in the NY Times and the Atlantic some time ago. However, one of the biggest problems I have found when searching for material on this topic is that of the author’s bias. There are usually two kinds of people writing in this area: those whose aim is to refute the religion (for example, here), and those who want to defend it (an example is here). Usually, both these groups make outrageous claims. As someone who believes in one’s religion but is not overly religious, I find both approaches highly problematic and not intellectually honest.

I suppose doing research and writing on Islam in this context has also become very difficult in recent years due to the profileration of fatwas for blasphemy that got started with Salman Rushdie. It probably is much easier to write about the history of Judaism and Christianity.

If anyone (Bill Allison, are you reading?) has any reading recommendations, please let me know.