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Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab An Intellectual Biography (Interview)



The term "wahhabism" is an outsider's designation for the religious reformist movement within Islam founded by Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1 703-1 792). This term is given to them by their opponents and is now used by both European scholars and most Arabs. Members of the movement describe themselves as muwwahhidun, the term is an Arabic word which means ‘Unitarians’. The movement calls for renewal of Muslim spirit, the return to the original sources of Islam, namely the Qur’aan and the authentic teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and the refutation of all innovations in religion.

Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab: An Intellectual Biography

Two hundred years ago, Imam Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab led a religious reformist movement in Central Arabia. The main principles of the movement focused on fighting innovations and deviations in religion, which prevailed in Arabia in particular and in the Muslim world in general.

Musaid Al-Tayyar

The efforts of this blessed scholar met great success. He was able to promote religious awareness among Muslims and to educate them in the true principles of Islam. The Islamic movement of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab represented a real model for several scholars in Muslim world to follow in their call to the restoration of original fundamentals of Islam and reviva1 of the true Islamic faith.

Regrettably enough, this reformist movement encountered fierce attacks from opponents who fabricated many fallacies against it, especially as related to the methods of legislation it adopted and the means of action it followed. The most terrible accusation ascribed to the movement was that it adopted violence as a course of action.

Truth, however, is crystal clear for those who look for it. Several dissertations and studies have been penned at different universities and research institutes about Ibn Abdul Wahhab's call and movement. All these studies stressed the positive influence of the movement at both local and international levels.

One of the most recent studies completed in this field was the valuable dissertation under which Mrs. Natana DeLong Bas obtained a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University seven months ago. The title of the dissertation was "Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab: An Intellectual Biography".

In this regard, we feel obliged to thank Dr. Abdullah Al-Askar for introducing the author to our readers.

In order to have an in-depth analysis of the dissertation and the main themes discussed by the author, we had the following interview with Dr. DeLong Bas:

Q1. Could you please give the reader a summary of your dissertation on the call of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wabhab?

A: The dissertation is an analysis of the written works of Sheikh Muhammad. I begin with a biography of the sheikh and place him at the center of 18th century Islamic intellectual history. Many of the themes he discussed in his writings are hallmarks of the 18th century Islamic thought These include his emphasis on a return to the Qur'aan and hadeeth, the eradication of erroneous popular religious practices, like tomb and saint veneration, rejection of taqleed (blind following) in favor of ijtihaad (independent reasoning), authentication of hadeeth (prophetic traditions) on the basis of their content, rather than their isnaad (chains of transmission), focus on the intent behind actions, rather than ritual perfection.

Consequently, I argue that, rather than being the heretical innovator he is often accused of being, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab was actually very mainstream for an 18th century scholar. I then present a detailed discussion of his major theological themes tawhieed and shirk (monotheism and polytheism) - and an analysis of his methodology for interpreting Islamic law, highlighting his attention to concepts like maslahah (public interest) in order to interpret law for the benefit of society. I have devoted two chapters to the most controversial issues of his writings for Westerners - his treatment of women and gender and an analysis of his treatise on jihad.

Q2: What made you decide to write on this subject?

A: My interest in Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab began in 1991 when I entered the Master's Degree program at Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. I heard a lot of negative things about "Muslim fundamentalists" and became curious as to what they believed and why they were so "bad." As I started to read about "Islamic fundamentalism," I noticed that there were many references to "Wahhabis" and Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, but I didn't understand what the term meant and I couldn't find any books or even articles about the Sheikh and his movement. What really intrigued me was the claim that Sheikh Muhammad, was the Martin Luther of Islam. My father is a Lutheran pastor, so I understood this analogy to be a compliment, rather than an insult!

I became very interested in understanding why Sheikh Muhammad was referred to in this way. When I took a course on modern Islamic movements in 1993, the first thing we read was an English translation of his book "Kitab al-Tawhid." This was my first contact with Sheikh Muhammad's writings. I didn't see anything violent or horrible about this treatise. In fact, it seemed to me to be a very straightforward and logical discussion and explanation of the Qur'aan and hadeeth. The reforms he supported had clear scriptural support and seemed obvious. I was very disappointed to find that it was the only one of his works that had been translated into English. I even had to order it through a bookstore in Cairo! I spent the next six months collecting every Arabic work written by the Sheikh that I could find and decided to pursue the topic for a future dissertation.

Q3: Did you face any problems in registering this dissertation at Georgetown University?

A: When I was finishing my Master's Degree in 1993 and started talking to various professors in the History Department about my idea, I met with little enthusiasm for the topic. In fact, several professors discouraged me from pursuing this topic because it was a religious topic and they felt that it would not be "relevant." In fact, even after the 9/11 incidents, one of these professors was still telling me that she did not understand the relevance of the topic or why it was important in today’s world! It was only after the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding opened at Georgetown University that I found support for my research topic. I was very fortunate to have John Esposito on my committee and John Voll as my mentor. They were instrumental not only in providing academic and financial support for my research, but also in putting me into contact with a variety of people who provided invaluable research support.

Q4: Did you find sufficient sources and references on the subject?

A: Yes. Thanks to Faisal bin Salman and Dr. Fahd Al-Semmari at the King Abd al-Aziz Institute for Research and Archives, I gained access to the complete works of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. I had also collected a lot of material on my own, including Western travel accounts and other Arabic writings on the topic. In fact, I had so much material that I had to select only a few themes.

QS: Have you visited Saudi Arabia or any other Arab countries in order to closely understand the social and religious fabric of these countries?

A: I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia. I had planned a trip while I was working on my dissertation, but was not able to make it as I had a baby during the research phase. My familiarity with the country, its customs, and social and religious fabric comes mostly through personal contacts with Saudis, as well as through reading. I plan to visit Saudi Arabia soon, inshallah.

Q6: Steven Schwartz mentioned that he did not need to visit Riyadh to find out more about Wahhabism and that he managed to know about it in Sarajevo. What do you think of that?

A: Steven Schwartz also apparently felt that he did not need to read anything that Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab wrote in order to form an opinion about him, his teachings or the movement he inspired. There is not a single reference to any of Sheikh Muhammad's writings or to any other Arabic work in his bibliography.

This is not surprising as Mr. Schwartz neither reads nor speaks Arabic. His information about Wahhabis and Wahhabism comes from a combination of Western travel accounts and from his own personal experiences in Bosnia. If you read his book it becomes clear to you that he believes that Sufism is the only interpretation of Islam that should be tolerated because, in his opinion, it is only Sufism that has never been associated with violence, while he believes that "Wahhabism" is synonymous with violence. In making this claim, he has the very important fact that, in the 19th Century, it was the Sufi leaders and movements who led the wars of independence in North Africa and Southeast Asia! I do not consider his book to be a serious work of scholarship. It is more an expression of his own opinions than it is a serious piece of research.

Unfortunately, this and Hamid Algar's highly critical essay on Wahhabism have been the only full-length written works devoted to Wahhabism up until now and Mr. Schwartz has become the new media darling in this country because he has spoken out against Saudi Arabia and has stirred up fears that all Saudis hate Americans because 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi.

Q7: Are there any aspects that the study has not covered or have not been given due attention?

A: Yes. Sheikh Muhammad was a prolific writer and I had to be very selective about the themes I covered. I did not cover any topics related to finance, banking or business. I chose the themes that I felt were most relevant to helping Westerners in general and Americans in particular understand what Sheikh Muhammad wrote and to dispel the most important Western myths about Wahhabism.

Q8: What was your conception of the Call of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab before you embarked on this study, and what is your present position in this regard? In other words, has this study changed your preconceived ideas about the movement?

A: Before I undertook this study, my understanding of Sheikh Muhammad's teachings was fairly superficial. I expected to find a lot of material addressing his call to tawhid (monotheism) and prohibition of shirk (polytheism), which I did. Having read the Western travel accounts, I expected to find a lot of material promoting violence, calling for jihad, and labeling all non-Wahhabis as kaafirs (disbelivers), which I did not. Once I read Kitab al-Tawhid, my expectations changed. I realized that most people had misread this treatise as a manifesto for action. As a matter of fact, Kitab al-Tawhid is just a detailed discussion of the implications of tawhid. It is not a call to war. When read in the context of all of Sheikh Muhammad's writings, it clearly serves as a theological treatise addressing the responsibilities of the faithful. I also had not expected to find such rich source materials for understanding his interpretation of Islamic law. The day I found the treatises on jihad and marriage was one of the most exciting days in the research process because the contents were not at all what one would expect given current stereotypes of Wahhabis.

Q9: From your study, have you come to the conclusion that Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab called to violence as has been claimed in the media and by the opponents of Sheikh Ibn Abdul Wahhab?

A: Not at all. In fact, his treatise on jihad was specifically written to place limitations on violence and destruction on the few occasions when jihad was called for. I cannot emphasize enough that Sheikh Muhammad legitimated jihad only when very specific criteria were met and then only for defensive purposes. He never allowed for offensive jihad. Sheikh Muhammad believed in the sanctity of human life and taught that the preservation of human life is the most important obligation of the Muslim. He went to great lengths to detail those who should not be killed during jihad. He also believed in the need to uphold the family unit, even in the case of prisoners taken during jihad. He did not allow for children to be separated from their parents and he even required that families taken prisoner be allowed to practice their own religion and provide their children with appropriate religious instruction, provided that they were not atheists.

Many in the media today believe that Wahhabism is really just a continuation of the supposed radicalism of Ibn Taymiyya. I found it very interesting that Sheikh Muhammad's works contain very few references to Ibn Taymiyya's writings and that he did not always agree with Ibn Taymiyya on those occasions where he did quote him. Sheikh Muhammad did not lead a jihadi movement. Jihad was not one of his major themes. Much of the negative imagery of the Wahhabis comes from Sheikh Muhammad's opponents and from the practice of tomb destruction that was carried out by Sheikh Muhammad and his early followers. One final point is that analysts have not distinguished between military actions undertaken for the purpose of state consolidation and jihad. Not all military actions undertaken by Muhammad Ibn Saud could be termed as a form of jihad.

Q10: On the intellectual level, has the researcher discovered any similar intellectual roots between the extremist Islamic movements, sometimes dubbed fundamentalist movements, particularly between the Jihadi thought and the call of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab?

A: I would have to say no. The fatawa (religious verdicts) and other statements and declarations issued by jihadi organizations that I have read tend to quote Ibn Taymiyya more than Sheikh Muhammad. Sheikh Muhammad's teachings are geared toward educating believers in proper beliefs through direct study of the Qur’aan and hadeeth and encouraging them to live up to the dictates of their faith in both private and public life. He gives great attention to the issues of social, justice and social welfare. Contemporary jihadi movements do not seek to educate people or to encourage an in-depth study of the Qur’aan. They have been formed by people who are frustrated and disgruntled with their different governments and have turned to Islam to legitimate their attempts to overthrow the current regimes by revolution. The truly violent movements have offered no vision for society once they have come to power.

Sheikh Muhammad's approach was more evolutionary because his ultimate goal was educating people, not overthrowing governments. Both his writings and the historical record indicate that Islamic call, not military training, was Sheikh Muhammad's main objective. In addition, I should note that discussions of martyrdom are completely absent from Sheikh Muhammad's writings on jihad. This absence is not an accident. He always emphasized that the intent behind an action was more important than the action itself. In the case of "self-designated martyrdom," as the so-called suicide bombers refer to themselves, he would have noted that the intent behind the action was the deliberate seeking of martyrdom in order to seek Paradise.

He would not have approved of the goal or the method because suicide is prohibited by the Qur’aan ("Do not kill the life that God has prohibited to kill") and the Sunnah. Furthermore, the intent of the martyr should be the service of God, not self-glorification. It would be more appropriate to look at early 20th century reformist movements, particularly the Salafiyya movement in Egypt led by Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, for Sheikh Muhammad's intellectual influence. Sheikh Muhammad's legal thought is also apparent in many contemporary legal reforms, ironically those pertaining to women and gender.

Q11: Some people accuse the Call of Sheikh Muhammad IbnAbdul Wabhab of advocating terrorism. What do you think of that? Is the position of the Western media with regard to the call of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab based on facts and figures and a good understanding of this movement or not?

A: Sheikh Muhammad would have been appalled by the acts of terrorism some have committed in the name of Islam and he would have certainly condemned them. He condemned offensive and aggressive military actions, particularly against fellow Muslims. He absolutely forbade the killing of civilians, particularly women, children and the elderly. He also forbade the killing of the handicapped, the blind and the deaf. He forbade the killing of Christian priests and Jewish rabbis because he recognized them as servants of God. He forbade the killing of slaves and servants because he considered them to be innocent of whatever crimes their masters committed. Sheikh Muhammad taught that Allah is a god of mercy and compassion and expects Muslims to be merciful and compassionate in their interactions with other human beings. I believe that he would have strongly condemned the terrorist attacks of 9/11 because they indiscriminately killed so many people, including many of those listed above as forbidden to kill, namely civilians, women, children, the elderly, the handicapped, and Muslims.

Osama bin Laden has claimed that these attacks were legitimate acts of jihad because they targeted Americans and symbols of American power, which he holds responsible for the humiliation and subjugation of Muslims from Palestine to Saudi Arabia. I do not think that Sheikh Muhammad would have supported this kind of collective punishment. He would also have been appalled by the destruction of property that accompanied the horrific loss of human life that day.

Q12: What's your opinion concerning what has been written about Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, especially by Western travelers?

A: Although Western travel accounts provide some useful information and impressions about the experiences that these people had, the bottom line is that none of them ever met Sheikh Muhammad or any of his followers or read anything that he wrote. Consequently, their opinions about him and his movement are based on hearsay. They are not particularly useful source materials unless you are looking for contemporary negative opinions about Sheikh Muhammad.

Q13: Being a woman, do you think that Sheikh Muhaamad Ibn Abdul Wahhab wronged women or did justice to them?

A: Overall, I believe that he did justice to them. Although, based upon what the media tell us, one would expect to find rampant misogyny in Sheikh Muhammad's works, the reality is that one of the most remarkable aspects of his writings is his consistent respect for and protection of women. The most important themes of Sheikh Muhammad's writings with respect to women were those upholding their rights, providing justice for them, and insisting upon a balance of rights and responsibilities between men and women. Particularly where marriage and divorce - the most important personal life issue for both men and women - were concerned, he was very careful to assign women rights that balanced out the rights of men.

For example, he insisted that women have access to and judicial support for their right to khul' divorce because God granted this right to the woman in order to allow her to depart from a marriage that she feels she cannot fulfill. In his vision, the right of the woman to a khul' divorce is absolute. The only issue open to negotiation is the amount of compensation she owes to the husband and this could not be more than the mahr. He did not allow the husband to deny her the right to a khul' divorce any more than he would have allowed a woman the right to deny her husband the right of a taalaq divorce.

His protection of women is also apparent in his giving women the right to stipulate conditions in the marriage contract favorable to them, but denying men the same right. Because the man does not have to give any justification for ending a marriage, he felt that women have the right to set up their own conditions for the marriage to survive, provided that they do not contradict the Qur’aan or Sunnah or infringe upon the rights of a co-wife. He also forbade the practice of child marriage and required the woman's consent to the marriage in all cases, regardless of her age or status as a virgin or non-virgin. These teachings are very important because they redress some of the social practices that have arisen historically and culturally that deny these rights to women even to this day. Sheikh Muhammad's writings about women and gender provide some strong historical precedents for serious and needed reforms in the contemporary Muslim world.

Q14: What are the most important findings in the study? Have these findings been announced in the media and in academic circles?

A: Without a doubt, the most important findings, particularly after the 9/11 incidents, are those pertaining to jihad, women and gender. Sheikh Muhammad was neither a violent fanatic nor a misogynist. He was remarkably balanced and logical in his discussions and was a great scholar. My dissertation was only recently accepted by Georgetown University, namely on December 31, 2002. I had offers for publication of the book from two presses and one request for translation rights before the dissertation was approved! Oxford University Press will be publishing the book form in English later this year under the title "Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad". I have received numerous requests for copies of the dissertation, have been interviewed by the media to counter Stephen Schwartz's book and have presented a paper on the jihad findings. So far, the response to my work has been very positive. I expect the audience to broaden once the book form is published. "

Q15: Finally, Is there a message you would like to convey to the readers of this interview or to those who write or talk about the call of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, be they Westerners or opponents of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab?

A: Yes. It is very important to make judgments about a person or a movement based upon evidence, not hearsay. In the case of Sheikh Muhammad, the evidence portrays a scholar whose goal in life was to educate Muslims about their faith and to create a just society for both men and women, not to engage the entire non-Wahhabi world in an endless jihad. Just as not all "Wahhabis" represent a threat to the Western world, so not all Saudis are to be feared as prototypes of Osama bin Laden.

From Al-Da’wah Monthly Islamic magazine – No. 21 Jumada I 1424 H. July 2003


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