A Scholar Comes to the Defense of Wahhabism ... Claims It's Pro-Women

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Ybarra, in the WSJ (July 20, 2004):

In the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and an army of 600 troops showed up at a tomb in the Arabian Desert, where one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad was buried under an elaborate dome. On his deathbed the prophet had cursed Jews and Christians for turning the graves of their apostles into places of worship. Yet over the 11 centuries since Muhammad founded Islam, Muslims had come to do just that, making the tombs of the religion's early disciples into pilgrimage sites.

So while the troops kept horrified onlookers at bay, al-Wahhab (whose name means "the bestower") and his followers ripped the dome down. The Wahhabis eventually went on to destroy shrines and minarets throughout Islamdom. They even attempted to raze the dome over the prophet's own tomb in Medina.

Sometimes called the Luther of Islam, Wahhab created a religious movement that insisted on a return to the first principles of the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet. Wahhab preached tawhid, or absolute monotheism, and railed against shirk, the act of associating anything with God, for example by venerating saints. He warred against fellow Muslims, whom he denounced as apostates. He wanted to tear down, sometimes literally, centuries of accretions to Islam, to rid the religion of its accumulated legal traditions, mysticism and (in his eyes) blasphemous practices.

Wahhab also made an enduring alliance with the al-Saud family, a Bedouin tribe that combined a religious mandate with a marauding army to capture most of the Arabian peninsula, including (after Wahhab's death) Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. The Wahhabis forced men into mosques at prayer time, burned books and banned smoking. They eventually ran afoul of the Ottoman Empire and were driven from Mecca in 1813 -- only to return a century later as the rulers of the new state of Saudi Arabia, where their creed became the official religion.

As a rather marginal sect of Islam, Wahhabism would be of slight interest to the world save for the fact that Saudi Arabia controls both Mecca, where every able Muslim must make a pilgrimage at least once, and the largest oil reserves in the world, the profits from which are used to spread its brand of faith around the world. That includes the U.S., where by some estimates half to three-quarters of all mosques are under Wahhabi control.

Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were nurtured on the Wahhabi creed. "The most extreme, separatist, and violent form of Islam," author Stephen Schwartz called it in a Senate hearing last year, where he described a network of interlinked Islamic foundations and associations reminiscent of the American Communist Party and its front groups during the Cold War....

Now Wahhab has found a rare defender. Natana J. Delong-Bas, a scholar at Georgetown University, has written the first extensive explication of the theology. To call "Wahhabi Islam" (Oxford University Press, 370 pages, $35) revisionist is an understatement. Ms. Delong-Bas presents Wahhab, a man who personally stoned a woman to death for adultery, as a proto-feminist. There is, she asserts, no straight line from Wahhab to al Qaeda.

"His insistence on adherence to Quranic values," she writes, "like the maximum preservation of human life even in the midst of jihad as holy war, tolerance for other religions, and support for a balance of rights between men and women, results in a very different worldview from that of contemporary militant extremists."...

Where on earth this form of Wahhabi Islam ever existed she doesn't say. Her conclusion might be more persuasive if she had chosen to discuss the development and practice of Wahhabi theology in Saudi Arabia, which she doesn't. Ms. Delong-Bas merely insists that the sect was hijacked after Wahhab's death. She is more successful in arguing that bin Laden took little from Wahhab. Still, one is left to wonder how such a purportedly humane thinker as Wahhab could do anything to inspire such crazed followers, both in his own day and ours.

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Ahmad Khalil - 11/29/2004

Wahhabis are the origin of today's terror.