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Islam compared with Wahhabiyah

2003-09-06

Category: politics

Recent events in American and world history have made many people feel there is something extra evil about Islam and its adherents. At the same time, there are those who defend Muslims in general while acknowledging that there are a few radicals claiming to be Muslims. Which group is right? Are both groups Muslim? For that we must look at a comparison between the peace-loving Muslims and those who present a more aggressive viewpoint.

Islam, as a religion, is an offshoot of the Judeo-Christian line of belief. It varied from that path at the birth of Muhammad, the Prophet for this religion, in 570 C.E. As described by Campbell (423-430), the first forty years of Muhammad's life were fairly mundane. He worked as a merchant, married his boss, and had several children, the only two boys dying young. It was not till his fortieth year that he felt the call of the divine.

While meditating in a cave, an angel visited Muhammad and ordered him to recite the Word of God to all people. He continued to have such visitations till he died at the age of 63 (Schwartz 63). Though his followers were small in number, being his immediate family and a few others, he upset the local polytheistic establishment with his monotheistic teachings. In 622, he and his followers immigrated to Medina, also called Yathrib, at the request of the population there (Campbell 429).

This is an important point for understanding Muslim relations with non-Muslims because the people of Medina were Jews, Christians and others. Under Muhammad's rule, the entire population enjoyed the benefit of the law regardless of religion. (Schwartz 14) The leaders in Mecca still didn't like the example being set by Muhammad and his followers so they engaged in open warfare against Medina. Eventually the Muslims won the war and reassumed Mecca. All the idols in the Ka'bah temple were destroyed and the temple was rededicated to the One God. The enemies of Muhammad were not slaughtered or forced to convert but were generally allowed to go about their business peaceably (Schwartz 25). This is reflected in the holy book of the Muslims, the Qur'an, in verse 2:256 "There should be no compulsion in religion. Normal Behavior stands out clearly from error; so anyone who rejects the Arrogant ones and believes in God has grasped the firmest Handle which will never break. God is Alert, Aware." These seems to imply that conversion is God's business and that Muslims should busy themselves with their own personal faith.

During the centuries after Muhammad, Islam spread through a great portion of the world. From Moorish Spain, across northern Africa to India and somewhat beyond, Muslims ruled with their law based on scripture (Campbell 453). Though there may have been occasional disputes, like anywhere else in the world, the Muslims were pluralistic in their acceptance of other religions, particularly Jews and Christians (Schwartz 43). The Qur'an supports tolerance for Jews and Christians, "People of the Book" as they were called. Verse 2:62 reads: "Those who believe and those who are Jews, Christians, and Sabeans, [in fact] anyone who believes in God and the Last Day, and acts honorably will receive their earnings from their Lord: no fear will lie upon them nor need to feel saddened."

This tolerance continued in Eastern Europe (Schwartz xvi, 198) where Jews were welcomed into Muslim controlled territories after being driven out of Christian lands. After the fall of Communism in those areas, in the late twentieth century, most Muslims reasserted themselves in a decidedly modern, European fashion. Though there have been inroads by extremist Islamic groups, they have been mostly rejected. (Schwartz 189-195)

The leads to the question: Who are these extremists and what do they believe? Though there may be any number of smaller groups, the one we'll focus on here is the Wahhabiyah. Based on the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (Schwartz 66), this group sees itself as the reformer of Islam with the intent of returning Islam to its purest form.

Al-Wahhab was born in an area of Arabia called Najd in 1703. He traveled extensively and was influence greatly by the writings of an earlier reformer named Ibn Taymiyyah (Schwartz 73). He saw the world, Muslims included, as having fallen away from God and the true path. So he set out to fix things.

In his teachings, he asserted several basic precepts (Eliade 315). First, the idea of the tawhid or Oneness with God. This isn't much of a deviation from typical Islamic thought, though his interpretation may have been a more literal. He saw that God should be involved with every aspect of life, not just religious practice. This meant that politics and economic ventures should reflect a Oneness with God. Secondly, al-Wahhab believed in ijtihad or independent reasoning about the Qur'an. This meant that believers should not be bound to the interpretations or writings of earlier scholars. Even this isn't too far from the mainstream.

The points where al-Wahhab differed to a greater degree came in his rejection of innovation, idolatry/polytheism, and sinful ignorance. Though not opposed to all forms of innovation, he claimed that any innovation must be justified directly by the Qur'an. Any innovation not supported by the Qur'an was supported by something else. That meant something other than God was at the center of the innovation making it idolatry or polytheism.

Other forms of polytheism and idolatry included decorations on mosques and the use of icons. Visits to the graves of ancestors, saints, or even that of the Prophet were seen as polytheistic.

Sinful ignorance included such activities as saint worship, veneration of nature, and violating Qur'anic laws. Saint worship led away from direct calls to God. Likewise, prayers to Muhammad were polytheistic.

At the time, some Muslims engaged in local traditions that gave importance to natural phenomena such as rivers, trees, or notable stones. Al-Wahhab saw this as idolatry and polytheism and was wrong.

With a literalist belief in the Qur'an, al-Wahhab insisted on the strictest implementation of Qur'anic law. This left little room for interpretation or attempts to infer meaning from a passage fit them better to a new situation. He saw no conflict between this belief and his support for ijtihad.

With the help of the local tribal leader named Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud (Eliade 312), Wahhabiyah spread through Arabia. Though they were driven back on several occasions, the victory was complete in 1925 with the capture of Medina (Schwartz 92). The Wahhabiyah went on to destroy cemeteries, and decorated mosques. Anything that might lead to idolatry was destroyed. The only book needed was the Qur'an so other books were burned. Music was prohibited (it distracted one from God) and anything not part of Wahhabi belief was prohibited.

Starting in 1932 (Schwartz 111), American oil companies began making deals with the Saudi government. These deals were very profitable for all involved. The Saudi rulers grew very powerful and wealthy from the oil revenue. Their citizens were still poor and being schooled in Wahhabi religion.

During conflicts with the Soviet army in Afghanistan, starting in 1979 (Schwartz 152) a general call went out for Muslims to defend their Islamic brethren from the atheistic, communist invaders. Among those who went to help were the Wahhabiyah. In the struggle, the Wahhabi were able to convert a group of students studying in Pakistan (Schwartz 162). This group, called the Taliban, would soon take over most of Afghanistan and implement a purely Wahhabi style government. The world would see this group as a totalitarian regime rife with human rights abuses.

A wealthy Saudi called Osama bin Laden led another group, based out of Afghanistan, called al-Qaida. They claimed that they pushed the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan on their own and would defeat Israel, the United States, and all the nonbelievers of the world (Schwartz 165). From embassy bombings to two attempts to destroy the World Trade Center in New York, the second being successful, and many other attacks around the globe, this group brought much attention on Wahhabism. Unfortunately, much of this attention has been addressed to Islam in general (Schwartz 287).

So, what are the differences between these two groups? What separates mainstream Islam from Wahhabiyah? Both claim to be based on the Qur'an. Both claim to be following the Word of God. The differences show themselves in the expression of their faith. When the Wahhabis conquered Mecca (Schwartz 92), they destroyed decorated things and burned them for fuel. They claimed that decorated things led to idolatry. The fact that these decorated things existed seems to suggest that the Muslims living in Mecca didn't oppose their existence. In fact, Ottoman Muslims left a wonderful legacy of art and architecture.

The conquest of Jeddah and Medina saw the destruction of cemeteries, tombs, and mosques. The graveyards in Mecca held the remains of many of Muhammad's Companions and relatives and were visited regularly by pilgrims (Schwartz 93). The Wahhabiyah saw this as polytheism. For that reason, the cemeteries were destroyed. After the destruction, the Wahhabi soldiers looted the sites.

These cemeteries were in existence because the Muslims who lived in those parts tended them. An obvious sense of care and devotion is shown by the fact that the graves of Muhammad's grandparents were still maintained after all those centuries. To the mainstream Muslims, this did not appear to cause a religious dilemma.

As mentioned earlier, Wahhabis hate music, though other Muslims don't seem to mind it. This was exemplified in the Muslim conference in Mecca in 1926 (Schwartz 106). A group of Egyptian Muslims came to the city playing music. The Wahhabi soldiers initiated violence with gunfire. Many people were killed.

Throughout the rest of the Muslim world, such as North Africa, Turkey, or Bosnia, music is a major part of the culture (Schwartz 71-72). The sevdahlinke, or romantic song is an important part of Bosnian Islamic culture.

Also in the Bosnia area, there have been recent conflicts, after the military ones, over the proper way to be a Muslim (Schwartz 187-195). With help from Wahhabi and Saudi charities, attempts were made to restore mosques, schools and other structures needed by the local Muslims. The Wahhabi idea of architecture tended toward drab. The locals preferred a more Ottoman look to their mosques. When the Wahhabi began tearing down old, highly decorated mosques to build new unadorned ones, the locals became quite upset.

In addition to the attempts to change the architecture, there were also attempts to change behavior. The Wahhabi saw the Bosnians as far too European in habit. In some cases, an aggressive effort was made to force more Wahhabi like behavior (Schwartz 192). This was met with extreme resistance. Eventually, the Wahhabi left.

Mainstream Islam doesn't seem to have much in common with Wahhabiyah. Given that al-Wahhab's own father and brother warned against his teachings (Schwartz 73), one might think he deviated a bit much from the Islam of his homeland. There is even a Hadith in which Muhammad is supposed to have claimed that only natural disasters and Satan would come from the area of Najd (Schwartz 72). With the Prophet seeming to come out against Wahhabiyah centuries before it popped up, it is a wonder there are any followers at all.

So, what does all of this mean? That is difficult to tell. From the point of view of an outsider like myself, it seems as though the mainstream Muslims are keeping to the path set by God through Muhammad, or at least the path I prefer they see. Why the Wahhabi would follow the path they choose may always be a mystery to me. Why did the people of Jonestown kill themselves? Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much? Questions about beliefs are always too difficult to understand without getting into the mind of the believer. I'm can only look at the actions from the outside and interpret them in relation to me.

In the end, it is important that we realize that there are differences and that we recognize what those differences are. Only by knowing more about the larger world can we function as its citizens.

Works Cited
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology: New York NY: Penguin Books USA Inc. 1991.
  • Eliade, Mircea, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion Volume 15: New York NY: MacMillan Publishing 1987.
  • Irving, T.B., transl. The Qur'an: Cedar Rapids IA: The Mother Mosque Foundation 1991
  • Schwartz, Stephen: The Two Faces of Islam: New York NY: Doubleday 2002

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