Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab and Ibn Taymiyya
Contextualising Islamic Thinkers
Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab are two of the most well-known Islamic idealogues in history. With the writings of both individuals consistently cited by contemporary terrorist organisations as justification for their pursuit of offensive jihad, it is essential that modern historians develop their own understanding of the ideology in question. Ibn Taymiyyah was a Sunni Islamic scholar belonging to the Hanbali school. Having spent much of his life as a director of a Damascus madrasa, Taymiyyah successfully fused his legal and intellectual background to create an ideology devoted to the propagation of the ‘correct’ meaning of Sharia’a law. Developing a strict interpretation of the boundaries of true Islamic practice, Taymiyyah was devoted to the purification of Islam based on his interpretation of Qur’anic teachings. Although Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab was born in Saudi Arabia over four centuries later (1703), much of the scholarship that surrounds him has sought to draw links to his Mesopotamian predecessor. Originating from a similar Hanbali background, Wahab soon came to promote his own notions of orthodox practice, the ‘oneness of God’ (tahweed) and criticism of polytheistic behaviours. In examination of key themes, from their stance on Islamic leadership to their interpretation of Jihad, the considerable similarity between these two ideologues is illuminated, an affinity grounded in a mutual respect for tradition.
With this foundation in mind, a three-fold argument will be proffered. First, despite their admiration for established practice and rejection of innovation (bid’ah), both Wahab and Taymiyyah can just as accurately be labelled reformist as they can traditional. Considering the specific historical moments in which they acted, their pursuit of revivalism is best understood as innovation based on convention. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the suggestion that Wahab exists as a simple replica of Taymiyyah should be disregarded. Not only does this narrative fail to recognise the specific importance of Wahab’s ideology, but such an argument also lacks comprehension of the essentially Islamic nature of continuity. When framed within the parameters of islah (reform) and tajdid (renewal), Taymiyyah’s influence on Wahab no longer relegates the latter’s work to the confines of irrelevance, but rather situates it in a longstanding tradition of Islamic practice. Finally, these ideologues must be analysed within their own historical contexts. Avoiding the projection of anachronistic standards that have labelled their ideology as inherently fundamentalist, this approach seeks instead to illuminate the abstract qualities of their writing that have lent themselves to varying interpretations for centuries.
Through a series of close readings of texts such as Wahab’s ‘Days of Ignorance’ and Taymiyyah’s ‘Enjoining Right and Forbidding Wrong’, best efforts have been made to ensure that the comparison of doctrine is based on the ideology as it was written, rather than how it has been interpreted. Considering the departure of the modern ‘Wahabist’ movement from the writings of the man himself, such an approach is an important step towards neutrality, in so far as such a notion can ever be applied to historical scholarship.
Monotheism: Shirk, Tahweed, Enjoining Right and Forbidding Wrong
According to Muhammad Ne’ma al-Semawi, the greatest influence of Ibn Taymiyyah on Wahab was his notion of what constitutes monotheistic practice. Considering the integral nature of this idea to both ideologues, such an argument has merit. Taymiyyah frames his monotheistic preoccupations through the notion of ‘enjoining right and forbidding wrong.’ Highlighting the ‘perfection of the message of the Prophet Muhmmad’ and his role in ‘completing the qualities of a good character’, Taymiyyah believed that only a traditional understanding of the Qur’an and its approach to religion would suffice. According to Taymiyyah, not only is there just one God, but his teachings (and those of his prophet Muhammad) are the only genuine example of Islamic doctrine. In accordance with this belief, Taymiyyah devoted himself to outlining the responsibility of Muslim people to act in the correct manner, in doing so outlining ‘absolute sincerity to Allah’ as the fundamental cornerstone of ‘enjoining good.’
Wahab articulates his favour of monotheism though two additional concepts; tahweed and shirk. The former is based on a simple understanding that there is only one God, and that he stands at the core of all religious experience. Promoted in his ‘Book of Tahweed’, Wahab’s ideology follows that, in order to respect this sentiment, Muslims must ‘reject all those false Gods beside Him [Allah].’ This strict interpretation continues to outline the consequences of those who refuse to acknowledge the ‘oneness of God’; ‘whoever does not sincerely serve Allah alone is destined for the hellfire.’ It is on this basis that Wahab outlines his conception of shirk, a term used to refer to the sins of polytheistic behaviour. Explored in his third nullifer (‘whoever does not hold the polytheists to be disbelievers…has committed disbelief’), Wahab argued that shirk (whether that be ‘performing sacrifices to someone other than Allah’, or simply befriending a non-Muslim), stood in fundamental opposition to true Islamic practice. Wahab and Taymiyyah’s conceptualisation of monotheism thus demonstrates two important points. First, in their shared prioritisation of the idea of one God, the similarity in their unified focus on traditional theology is demonstrated. Second, however, and in contrast to the arguments of scholars such as Henri Laoust, Wahab’s differing approach to this notion (one that is arguably more extreme than his predecessor’s in his demand for active ‘hatred’ of the polytheist), undermines suggestion that he was solely an ‘imitator not an innovator.’
Islamic Worship and Defining the Enemy
Monotheism provides a solid foundation for two other elements of these idealogues’ thinking – defining the correct approach to religious worship and identifying the enemy. With regards to the former, Taymiyyah and Wahab are united on three fronts. First, both reject iconoclasm. With monistic Sufism increasing in popularity in the 13th century, Taymiyyah was forced to address what he saw as heretical practices. From the veneration of saints, to taking ‘the graves of their prophets and righteous as places of worship’, it was this polytheistic approach to Islam that inspired Wahab’s admiration for his Mesopotamian predecessor. Second, both recognise the collective ‘obligation’ of religious practice. While explicit discussion of this concept is notably absent in the writings of Wahab (at least in comparison to Taymiyyah), his references to ‘community’ offer a similar perspective. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both idealogues build upon this collectivism to advocate for a decidedly active approach to the Islamic faith. Connecting orthodoxy to orthopraxy, Taymiyyah and Wahab call for both submission to, and love for, Allah. Outlining a methodology based on ‘tongue, heart and hand’, Islam is portrayed as something that requires total devotion. Although Taymiyyah adopts a flexible approach in his recognition of the importance of ‘net benefit’ (‘it is essential that benefit therein outweighs its negative consequences’), and Wahab is perhaps more extreme in his demand for ‘hatred’ of those who do not conform, both recognise the need for a dynamic approach to faith.
Having outlined the correct interpretation of God and the right approach to worshipping him, Taymiyyah and Wahab turn their attention to defining the enemy. It is in this area that divisions between these ideologues become more succinct. Although both were quick to highlight the difference between a true believer and a partial convert and, indeed, set a precedent for inter-Muslim disagreements (Taymiyyah issued fatwas against the Mongols based on their ‘distorted’ interpretation of Islam), the severity of their categorisations varied. While Wahab was convinced that Ottoman hypocrisy constituted the greatest threat to the survival of Islam (in doing so leaving Jewish people to their own devices and suggesting that Christians might one day be turned onto the right path), Taymiyyah’s conception of the enemy was both more expansive and more extreme. Offering no concessions even for those Muslim soldiers coerced into Mongol co-operation, Taymiyyah’s approach to ‘non-believers’ was decidedly inflexible. Arguing that ‘the Jews belittled their prophets until they killed them, whereas the Christians were so excessive in their admiration as to worship them’, and splitting the kuffar into four distinct categories, while he maintained that false Muslims were indeed the ‘most evil of all groups’, Taymiyyah’s understanding of the enemy was severe. Although the activities of contemporary terrorist organisations cannot be entirely attributed to the writings of Wahab and Taymiyyah (regardless of their suggestion otherwise), their role in legitimising aggression within the Muslim community is thus indisputable.
The Matter of Jihad
From an ideological perspective, the teachings of Wahab and his supremacist approach to Islam appear to provide a solid foundation for modern conceptions of offensive Jihad. Writing that it is on the grounds of ‘enmity’ between Muslims and disbelievers that ‘Jihaad was legislated’, Wahab offers Qur’anic verses such as ‘And fight them until there is no more fitnah left, and the religion is for Allah alone’, in his discussion of this key Islamic practice. Although such phrasing might appear to demand a coercive approach to conversion, however, closer examination of his work reveals this is not the case. Consider the complexities of linguistic translation (in this case, the fact that ‘fight’ references something far more expansive than physical aggression) alongside the notable absence of violent imagery in Wahab’s writings, and it seems that his conception of Jihad was in fact grounded in defensive action. Stressing the equal importance of piety and devotion, Wahab favoured educational means of spreading the faith long before recommending resorting to the sword.
In contrast to the notable absence of Jihad in Wahab’s writings, for Ibn Taymiyyah, this was arguably the most important element of Islamic teaching. Elevating its position to one of superiority in his text ‘The Religious and Moral Jihad’, (and in doing so, ‘innovating’ far beyond a simple return to the doctrines of tradition), Taymiyyah believed that the pursuit of Jihad was more important even than the other pillars of Islam; ‘the head of the affair is al-Islam, and it’s pillar is the Prayers, and it’s upper most part is al-Jihad.’ Understood as an integral part of his devotion to enjoining right and forbidding wrong, Taymiyyah saw Jihad as a collective obligation that every Muslim must aspire to. With regards to the form this should take, scholars have disagreed over the extent to which Taymiyyah advocates for physical aggression. Although his writing states that all ‘those who stand in the way of [Allah and Islam] must be fought’, and he appears to recognise the value of violence when employed in a defensive manner, Taymiyyah advocated firmly that killing on the grounds of disbelief alone was wrong. Instead, his work recognises ‘lawful warfare’, ‘ibaadat’ (acts of worship), ‘ikhlaas’ (sincerity) and complete submission to Allah as important elements of Jihad. Considering this expansive definition alongside Wahab’s advocation for moderacy, the extremist manipulation of their ideology by self-serving by modern groups is evident.
Leadership and the State
Both Taymiyyah and Wahab expressed opinions on the nature of Muslim community and its leadership. For Taymiyyah, authority was essential and legitimate power depended on the fulfilment of responsibilities stated in the Qur’anic doctrine of trusteeship. Based on a firm belief in the application of Shari’a law as the ‘only criterion’ for measuring correct behaviour, he recognised the need for stability and the guiding hand of an imam for the ‘nation’ (a term that appears frequently in his writing), and Islam to thrive. Linking closely to the context in which he wrote (with Mongol invasions of Damascus causing a crisis in leadership), this prioritisation of authority meant an advocation for ‘patience’ when faced with an unjust ruler, communication with leaders like the King of Cyprus to spread the message of Islam within the highest offices, and on his part, the issuing of fatwas designed to guide Muslim behaviour. Although Wahab was less convinced of the need for ideologue participation (he rejected the notion that a mujtahid was required to interpret largely unambiguous verses of the Qur’an – a testament to his traditional mentality), he too operated in a similar moment of crisis. Under the chaos of 18th century Arabian politics, Wahhab offered stability and his doctrine of tahweed became a rare constant in times of upheaval. Although less explicit than Taymiyyah in his discussion of political authority, Wahab also recognised the need for strong leadership to ensure the longevity of Islam. It was on the basis of this realisation that the connection between Wahab and the House of Sa’ud in Dar’iya was formed, giving rise to the first Saudi dynasty in the Arabian Peninsula. In both instances, the ideologues’ approach to questions of leadership demonstrates a pragmatism often unidentified in modern scholarship on their works.
Summating the Ideology: Style and Appropriation
Considering that it is a combination of both their ideology and its presentation that has contributed to the longevity of Wahab and Taymiyyah, it is important to consider their stylistic approach. Although his work was not without its contradictions, Taymiyyah’s scholarly background enabled a methodical tone that drew on both legal and historical precedent to dictate the boundaries of Muslim behaviour, in doing so providing clear accessible to the masses. Similarly, and in opposition to criticisms of his writing as ‘devoid of coherent methodology’, Wahab’s approach was decidedly logical. Framed within the traditional Islamic practice of islah and tajdid, whether in division of his doctrine into 128 treatises, or provision of simple categorisations and supporting religious text, Wahab’s work is best considered a handbook for the ordinary Muslim. Although his tone differed from Taymiyyah in the abandonment of a legal framework and adoption of a specifically theological tone, his use of a ’question-answer’ format instilled a human and utilitarian quality to his writings that ensured the same ease of consumption.
The unavoidable issue with Islamic ideologues and their writings is the degree to which they lend themselves to interpretation. In the wake of 9/11, the legacy of both Wahab and Taymiyyah is almost entirely negative, their doctrines now misinterpreted by western scholars and misused by terrorist organisations. Although examination of their writings indicates a strong foundation of intolerance towards disbelievers and sets the precedent for inter-Muslim violence, to attribute phenomena like suicide bombings, or Saudi Arabian fundamentalism to these men alone is a failure to recognise the evolution of their ideology. Exemplified most clearly in the emergence of a Wahabist movement devoid of many of its namesake’s key beliefs (Wahab would have opposed the very notion of Muslim people following anyone other than Allah), this article has sought to demonstrate the importance of contextualising the ideologues within their own histories. In accordance with a focus on context, and in examination of their desire to return to a traditional conception of Islam grounded in monotheistic practice, the decidedly reformist (or more accurately, revivalist) nature of both Wahab and Taymiyyah is demonstrated. Although both men prioritised ‘tradition’, they did so in a time where the polytheistic behaviours they criticised had become commonplace, in doing so encouraging their own form of innovation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this article has sought to illuminate the relationship between two of Islam’s most infamous ideologues. While their similarities are numerous (and offer evidence of the Muslim process of critique and reform), Taymiyyah and Wahab are not without their differences, a fact that stands in direct opposition to those arguments that dismiss the latter as a simple replica of his Mesopotamian predecessor.
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