Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Proliferation of the Radical Jinni : Part Two--The Rise of Wahhabism

When I was studying towards a degree in comparative law, I acquired a knowledge of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. My readings took me beyond the circle of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence to those of the Shi'ites and the four main doctrines of the Khawarij, as well as to other schools, such as the eponymous Al-Tabari and Al-Laith and many other interpretations. In short, we are dealing here not just with one single model of Islam but with a multitude of interpretations by different schools. Islamic texts are amenable to many interpretations. Some of the earliest converts to Islam admitted as much some one thousand four hundred years ago when they said "The Qur'an displays many faces." 

Having different trends, creeds and schools of thought, Islam has had its share of fanatical hardliners through the ages, from its inception to the present. As early as the first century of the Muslim calendar, Islam has known radical sects who demanded blind adherence to their rigid reading of the articles of faith, side by side with mainstream Islam, whose adherents forgo violence and extremism and do not profess to hold a monopoly on Truth. The phenomenon began with the emergence of Al-Khawarij (the Seceders) in 660 AD, the middle of the first Hijra century (their most important doctrine is the Abadeya School, still prevalent in a small region of Algeria and in most of the Sultanate of Oman). This sect preached a dogmatic interpretation of Scripture, and practiced a version of excommunication by branding those who did not adopt its teachings as heretics. This was the first such sect, but by no means the last. Throughout the history of Islam the quiet rhythm of religious life was disrupted many times by marginal groups who tried to impose their extremist views on the majority by violent means.

Among the earliest in this vein was Hamdan Ibn Qarmat, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka'bah, and the most recent Osama bin Laden. In between these two was Sayed Qutb, who came up with a theory that will continue to be a wall separating Muslims from the rest of humanity and from any hope of progress until that wall is torn down. Known as the "theory of divine dominion," Qutb's theory postulates that mortals are not ruled by mortals but by God. And who, you might ask, will make God's wishes known to humans? The answer is, of course, "we, the "ulemas"! [Religious scholars.] It is a theory that holds Muslims hostage to a theocracy overtaken by the march of human progress and places them at the mercy of a power structure dominated by a caste of clerics -- even though in most Muslim doctrines there is no such thing as a clergy in Islam and no intermediaries between Man and God.

Alongside the groups and sects whose members insist on a literal interpretation of holy texts and laid down strict rules governing all aspects of life, there is the general trend represented in the main Sunni schools, [the most important of these are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafici and Hanbali, and their offshoots, Al-Laith and Al-Tabari] as well as the Shi'ites, who are split into a number of sects. It is within this general trend that prominent proponents of deductive reasoning emerged, like the great jurist Abu Hanifah, as well as uncompromising champions of tradition, like Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal. The conservative Ibn-Hanbal served as the bulwark of orthodoxy and tradition against any intellectual endeavor and for a time exerted a considerable hold on public imagination. The two main disciples of Ibn-Hanbal were Ibn-Taymiyah and Ibn-Qaiyim Al-Jawzeya, who, like their mentor, allowed no scope for reason or independent thinking, but insisted on a dogmatic adherence to the Hadiths as authoritative sources of all matters spiritual and temporal, laying down strict guidelines to govern every aspect of daily life. 

In addition, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas between Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (Algazel), a strict traditionalist who did not believe the human mind capable of grasping the truth as ordained by God, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who championed the primacy of reason. The exponents of these two schools waged a bitter battle in which the first salvo was fired by Al-Ghazali with his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Falasifah). Ibn Rushd answered with his brilliant treatise in defense of rationality, "The Incoherence of the Incoherence" (Tahafut Al Tahafut). But despite his spirited defense, the outcome of the battle was clearly in Al-Ghazali's favor, and the great majority of Islamic jurists adopted his ideas, interpreting the precepts of Islamic law by appeal to the authority of tradition, and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. 

In the course of this journey, I developed a strong aversion for those I call "worshippers of the word" and "prisoners of tradition," and a profound admiration for the proponents of reason, most notably, of course, Ibn Rushd (Averroes). His championship of the primacy of reason, though rejected by the Muslim world, took root strongly in Europe, particularly in France, which embraced his vision wholeheartedly. Europe's gain was our loss; as in turning our backs on Ibn Rushd, we lost a historic opportunity for development. 

Why had the Muslims chosen to follow the line advocated by Al-Ghazali, the proponent of orthodoxy and tradition -- for whom knowledge meant only knowledge of religion, and who cancelled the role of the mind altogether by denying the possibility of acquiring knowledge through intuition -- over the line advocated by Ibn Rushd -- who upheld the primacy of reason and sowed the seeds of a renaissance we chose not to reap? Why were Al-Ghazali's ideas so readily accepted while Ibn Rushd's were rejected? The answer, I believe, can be summed up in one word: Despotism.

It is also amazing how historians of Islamic thought concealed the fact that Al-Ghazali was unfailingly supportive of despotic rulers, contrary to Ibn Rushd, who was a constant source of irritation for tyrants who were determined to keep their subjects in a state of intellectual inertia, thereby guaranteeing the perpetuation of the status quo and their continued authority unchallenged. If an active mind is the source of questions, and questions lead to accountability, questions have eyes and answers are blind. At a time when despotism in the Arab and Muslim world was at its height, therefore, it is not surprising that Muslim rulers should have found Al-Ghazali's ideas more appealing than those of Ibn Rushd.

The orthodox line was also more appealing to their subjects who, under the yoke of tyranny, found it safer and less demanding to go along with the views of those who required nothing more from them than a suspension of their critical faculties. In Europe, where the forces of enlightenment were locked in a confrontation with the clericalism that stifled intellectual initiative and rational thought, despotism was in retreat. This could be why, in the thirteenth century, a prestigious center of learning such as the University of Paris supported the ideas of the Arab Muslim Ibn Rushd over those of the European Christian Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher famous for his two-swords doctrine.

The Muslim world continued to be ruled by despots who brooked no challenge to their authority, and an equally despotic religious establishment which decried the use of reason and demanded blind adherence to the authority of tradition. Closely linked in methods, motivations and goals, these two factors created an atmosphere inimical to the unhindered pursuit of knowledge.

Matters, however, were not just black or white. True, the Muslims lost a historic opportunity to use Ibn Rushd's ideas as a springboard that could have placed them on a path similar to the one which took Europe from the obscurantist thinking of the thirteenth century to the vigorous intellectual climate encouraging debate, free thinking, general freedoms and creativity in literature, art and science. But Muslims also have known both an Islam which allowed for the acceptance of the "Other," and another Islam --rigid, doctrinaire, and violently repressing free thought. The first took hold in the more intellectually vibrant climate that prevailed among the peoples descended from ancient civilizations in places like Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Levant, which I call the "Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam." The second, best described as the Bedouin model, was espoused by the secret sects (limited in number and influence) who emerged in remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula together with the rise of Wahhabism, a puritan revival launched by Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab, born in Najd in 1703.
Although the first model of Islam can in no way be described as secular, it adopted an enlightened approach to religion, dealing with it as a system of spiritual beliefs rather than as a system that ruled all aspects of life and governed the affairs of society. Even if it cannot claim to have attained the level of enlightenment, progressive thinking and freedom that characterizes the ideas of Ibn Rushd, it was nevertheless a gentle and tolerant Islam that could -- and did -- coexist with others.

Meanwhile, the altogether different Bedouin model of Islam was taking shape among geographically isolated communities living far from coastlines and hence from exposure to the outside world. Their insularity provided an ideal breeding ground for the ideas of Ibn Taymiyah, Ibn Qaiyim Al-Jawzeya and, towards the end of the eighteenth century, those of Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab.

This was the model that produced the Saudi Brotherhood who waged war on King Abdul Aziz Ibn-Saud (1870-1953) in the nineteen twenties. It has since metamorphosed into a powerful ideology thanks to the combination of the ideas of Sayed Qutb, petrodollars, and a series of blunders on the part of international, regional and local players. 

The Growth of Wahhabism

The man who founded Wahhabism was not a theologian but a proselytizer who was determined to convert the faithful to his harsh brand of Islam. Intellectually close to the dialectical Islamic theologians who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql) over reason ('aql), Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab was a disciple of Ibn-Taymiyah, the strict traditionalist who allowed little scope for reason or independent thinking. He was also a product of his geographical environment, a remote outpost of history. Unlike Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where ancient civilizations had flourished and left their mark on human history, or places like al-Hijaz and a number of the Gulf coastal line cities, which lay on trade routes and dealt extensively with the outside world, the desert of Najd in the Eastern Province of what is now Saudi Arabia had no civilization to speak of before Islam. Nor did it ever become a cultural center like the various capitals of the Caliphate: Medina, Damascus and Baghdad. Thanks to its arid, barren landscape, Najd remained a cultural backwater, its sole contribution to the arts a traditional form of poetry that spoke of narrow tribal matters.

In 1744, Abdul Wahhab forged an alliance with the ruler of Al-Dir'iyah, a tribal chieftain by the name of Mohamed Ibn-Saud, who became his son-in-law. The alliance led to the first incarnation of the Saudi state, which, by 1804, had expanded to control nearly one million square meters of the Arabian Peninsula.

A collision between these two models of Islam was inevitable and in the second decade of the nineteenth century, they confronted one another on the battlefield. Mohamed Ali, who introduced Egypt and the entire region to the modern age, sent a huge army to the Arabian Peninsula. Led first by the Egyptian ruler's son, Tousson, then by Tousson's younger brother, Ibrahim, the army had as its objective the destruction of the newly established state in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula. Based in Najd, that state was governed according to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. In 1818, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, arguably the greatest of the Egyptian ruler's sons, the Egyptian army, and with it, the more enlightened Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, emerged victorious. They defeated the enemy, destroyed their capital, Al-Dir'iyah, and captured its leader, later executed in Istanbul.

Mohamed Ali's decision to first send his son Tousson followed by his son Ibrahim Pasha, known for his military skills, to destroy the first Saudi state, had implications going far beyond the political or military ambitions of one man. It was in fact an expression of a "cultural and civilizational" confrontation between the two models of Islam -- a confrontation the enlightened Turkish-Egyptian model decided to take to the heartland of the obscurantist, extremist and fanatical Wahhabi model.

Mohamed Ali, who was extremely impressed by the European model of development -- and saw no contradiction between the mechanisms by which it had come about and his Islamic beliefs -- believed the Wahhabi understanding of Islam stood as a major obstacle in the way of the dream he had nurtured since coming to power in 1805 (and until he abdicated in favour of his son Ibrahim in 1848) to place Egypt on a similar road to development. However, although the moderate, tolerant, mainstream version of Islam, which accepted coexistence in peace in with others and was not pathologically opposed to progress and modernity, emerged victorious in that particular round of its confrontation with the forces of obscurantism, it was later forced to retreat before the internal factors mentioned before: oppression, absence of social mobility, spread of incompetence, despair, outdated educational systems and corruption.

The years that followed were not kind to Turkey and Egypt. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I brought an end to Turkey's ascendancy, while Egypt's influence receded as its economy and educational system declined. At the same time, the proponents of the model of Islam -- which demanded a strict adherence to the letter of scripture and had slammed the door shut in the face of rationality --suddenly found themselves in control of vast wealth unprecedented in history. This gave the Saudis an enormous edge over their moderate rivals and allowed them to extend their influence into the traditional strongholds of the Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, where they waged a systematic campaign to co-opt the establishment elite and institutions. The success of this campaign found its most salient expression in the emergence of fanatical movements like the Taliban. This other stricter version of Islam found, therefore, for the first time, opportunities to spread its uncompromising message to every corner of the world, aided by international conditions (and lack of vision) which allowed what had once been an obscure sect confined behind the sand dunes of Najd to impose itself on the world stage and boldly proclaim its brand of Islam as the one and only true Islam.

The harsh and unforgiving environment in which the Najdis lived explains why Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab found a receptive audience for his equally harsh and unforgiving brand of Islam. It is a vision that can only be understood by studying what is known as the secret sects of Islam, as well as the message of Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab, who was the product of many factors, including the sociological and geopolitical environment of the deserts of Najd. However, with the richest oil fields and the oil price boom that turned the desert kingdom into a major financial power, it was inevitable that this part of the world should try to market its ideas.

This it did with missionary zeal in the second half of the twentieth century. With a virtually endless supply of funds at their disposal, the Wahhabis were able to successfully propagate their model of Islam throughout the Arab and Muslim world and start to instill it in the West. Disillusioned populations, facing massive internal problems caused by political oppression and its consequences were easy prey, and mainstream Islam gradually lost ground to the austere, puritanical Wahhabi model that was now presenting itself as the one and only true Islam.

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