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)
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.
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.