– Critical Book Review: Wahhabi Islam (by Natana DeLong-Bas).

Wahhabi Islam2

(© Zubair Qamar 2014)

Natana J. Delong-Bas’s book, “Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad,” which purportedly explains Wahhabism “accurately” and dispels “myths” propagated by “polemics” of all colors, media pundits and all, is a rather welcome contribution – or so it seems, at first glance.

The three-page Introduction portrayed several people – including Stephen Schwartz (footnote 1,7,9,11), Khaled Abou El Fadl (footnote 3), and myself (footnote 6) — as examples of misinformed individuals, in the least, who portrayed Wahhabism inaccurately in their works. To the author, their anti-Wahhabi rhetoric, like many others, flew in the face of the facts that she allegedly gathered in her more than 300 pages of research, much of it translated into English for the first time. Delong-Bas’s point: Wahhabism just isn’t the scary monster it is said to be. Maybe it really was a “pathbreaking” (Oxford Press), “groundbreaking” (John L. Esposito), endeavor, I thought.

Could the portrayal of Wahhabism as intolerant and fanatical by hundreds, maybe thousands, of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, authors, activists, students, etc. in 200+ years past be flawed? Should their positions be construed merely as a load of sophisticated/polemical gobbledygook? Does the author really open “the way for historians to reconsider and revise the standard, perhaps mistaken, notions about it” (David Commins)? One need not go to far into the book to answer such questions. Because of the author’s main sources, the book fails miserably as a work of diligent scholarship.

In the Preface, Delong-Bas says:

“Thanks are due to Faisal bin Salman, Abd Allah S. al-Uthaymin, and Dr. Fahd al-Semmari, Director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for making the full corpus of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s works available to me […].”

This same research foundation was also one of three sources that provided “financial support” for her book. What follows is a brief description of who the author is thanking.

The Foundation is named after King Abd al-Aziz (1902-1953), the Wahhabi founder of Saudi Arabia who slaughtered non-Wahhabi Muslims (and even Wahhabi Muslims of the Ikhwan) in his path to “victory.”

Abd Allah S. al-Uthaymin, a Wahhabi, is the author of “History of Saudi Arabia: From the Movement Reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to King Abd al-Aziz.”

Faisal bin Salman, known as “H.R.H. (His Royal Highness)” in Saudi Arabia, is one of the princes of the Wahhabi Al-Sa’ud monarchy. Somehow, Delong-Bas (Oxford Press?) did not add the “H.R.H.” acronym before the prince’s name in the Preface – obviously a part of the book read by many. However, she remembered to add the acronym in a tiny-lettered footnote #8 (Introduction) hidden well in the back of the book that few readers would perhaps bother to read. Why did Delong-Bas/Oxford Press do this? Were they trying to hide something?

Dr. Fahd al-Semmari, a Wahhabi, was deputy secretary of the Kingdom’s 100th Anniversary Committee, in addition to his role as general director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives. The foundation’s mandate is to glorify the heritage of Saudi Arabia, including Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who is a part of this heritage.

Delong-Bas is thanking Wahhabis who obviously support Wahhabism.

On page 14, Delong-Bas states the four main sources of biographical information of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab:

(1) contemporary chronicles written by his supporters, the most important of whom were Husayn Ibn Ghannam and Uthman Ibn Bishr; (2) polemical works written by his opponents, the most important of whom was Ahmad bin Zayni Dahlan; (3) accounts written by Western travelers to Arabia; and (4) Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s own written works.

She then says,

“Of all of these accounts, the chronicles contain the most biographical information and are considered to be the most accurate in terms of biographical information because of the proximity of the writers to their subjects.”

Does close proximity to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab/”subjects” necessarily mean the sources will be the “most accurate in terms of biographical information”? Common sense says no because Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr are clearly stated to be Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s “supporters.” It is like contacting a pro-Nazi foundation for a biography of Adolph Hitler, and portraying sources by Hitler’s admirers as the “most accurate” because they were among the closest in “proximity” to him. Is there not a high possibility that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s “supporters” mainly focused on his peaceful biographical aspects, and concealed his more extremist/jihadist aspects? Is it not possible that they, like any other supporter, would care to cast the biography of a man they like in a positive manner than in a negative manner? Common sense, again, says: In all likelihood.

There is, in fact, a high probability of inaccuracy from those sources, though this somehow escapes Delong-Bas’s mind. Moreover, according to my count, the author has footnoted Ibn Ghannam only 4 times, but Ibn Bishr no less than 45 times, meaning that the bulk of “most accurate” biographical information of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab comes almost entirely from one source – again, from a pro-Wahhabi.

Understanding history requires responsibility and bias must be reduced to the maximum extent possible. In Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code historian and religion scholar Bart Ehrman said,

“Our only access to the past is through sources that can tell us about it, yet our sources cannot simply be taken at face value  because they often contradict one another and always represent their authors’ perspectives, biases, and world views. And so the best way to try to reconstruct the past is by using our sources critically — that is, by doing critical history” (p.xxi)

De-Long Bas failed to be “critical” in understanding the Wahhabism founder’s history because almost all of her information comes from only one pro-Wahhabi source.

While pro-Wahhabis are used as “most accurate” sources, information from Wahhabi opponents “has not been used extensively” because they:

(1) are “extremely polemical in style rather than factual or straightforward”;

(2) they address “later developments” of the Wahhabi movement; and

(3) “because of their polemical nature, these accounts tend to be more useful in reconstructing impressions of the movement than in recounting events or teachings.” And that’s why “polemical works have been largely discarded” in giving the biography of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the “early teachings of the movement.”

But what makes Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s and his supporters’ writings less polemical when espousing the interpretations they do? And what makes the statements against Ibn Abd al-Wahhab by some teachers he had less credible? What makes the sources of two Wahhabi supporters more accurate than the works of Wahhabi opponents? While the former are closer in time to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, they are his biased supporters. The latter, however, though further away in time from the Wahhabi founder’s period of existence, may –  and indeed, do – have accurate information, especially on how Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings contradicted the teachings that orthodox Sunni Muslims had been following for over 1,000 years. DeLong-Bas seems to impugn Wahhabism’s followers by denying or watering down what they were taught by Ibn Abd-al Wahhab’s teachings, as well as the teachings of senior Wahhabi scholars like Ibn Atiq.

Delong-Bas provides Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretations of intercession (tawassul) in his “Kitab al-Tawhid” without stating that he contradicted many verses of the Qur’an, hadeeth, and interpretations provided by orthodox Sunni scholars (ulema) throughout the history of Islam (except Ibn Taymiyah and his followers who were the first to deviate from mainstream Sunni Islam on the issue).

With an unorthodox interpretation of a genuinely valid Islamic practice, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab accused the vast lot of Muslims who did ‘tawassul’ of committing polytheism (shirk) — the only unforgivable sin in Islam. He then allowed his followers to massacre them, believing that they were doing a very noble deed and following the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad when, in fact, they were doing exactly the opposite. The professor and scholar, Khaled Abou El Fadl said,

“Ibn Abd al-Wahhab doesn’t teach love and peace. He gives permission to kill.”

Describing Wahhabism’s extreme teachings that contradict Sunni Islam, professor and author Ahmad Dallal, a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, said,

“If you visit a shrine of a saint, even if you don’t believe the saint is God, and you say, `Of course we don’t worship the saint, we’re worshipping God,’ the punishment for this is death.”

Similarly, professor and author Michael Sells said,

“DeLong-Bas never challenges the propriety of Abd al-Wahhab’s claim to absolute authority — the authority to declare the believer and the unbeliever (authority God reserves to himself in the Koran) and to impose the most severe sanctions on those he disagrees with.”

Michael J. Ybarra in a Wall Street Journal review of Delong-Bas’s book said,

“where on earth this [tolerant] form of Wahhabi Islam ever existed she doesn’t say.”

It seems DeLong-Bas is subjective about the evidence she chooses to accept. Similar to Wahhabis, DeLong Bas seems to believe all history books, encyclopedias, statements of Sunni scholars against Wahhabism, and other studies by academia are wrong and biased, while her scholarship is sound. De-Long Bas glosses over serious historical facts, including the Wahhabi assault against Muslims and tombs in Karbala in 1801 by an army of more than 10,000 men in which an estimated 5,000 non-Wahhabi Muslims were massacred. De-Long Bas’s odd views contradict the facts and insult the memory of the thousands who perished by their zealotry.

Yet DeLong-Bas insists on distancing Wahhabism’s teachings from terrorism, even when Osama bin Laden, for example, was born and raised in Wahhabi surroundings. DeLong-Bas also contradicts the fact that after the fall of the second Saudi State, a branch of political Wahhabism that was largely suppressed was brought to life by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, as well as by a group of Wahhabi scholars of the Shu’yabi school. DeLong-Bas displays a superficial grasp of a more complex subject by ignoring the political Wahhabi group and describing Wahhabism as only apolitical. This allows her to disingenuously distance Wahhabism wholesale from all aspects of terrorism.

How, then, can Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s biography, as presented in Delong Bas’s book, be taken seriously by any objective scholar? It cannot. DeLong-Bas not only explains a distorted view of Wahhabi teachings, but also shows a seemingly uncaring validation for almost every Wahhabi interpretation over more moderate Sunni teachings.

This book is both surprising and disappointing coming from the reputable Oxford Press. Khaled Abou El Fadl echoed a similar concern:

“I’m sad this piece of scholarly trash was published by Oxford.”

How, to any basic researcher, can this book be called a “pathbreaking” and “groundbreaking” work when sources for a book on Wahhabism are provided by Wahhabis, when the sources themselves are written by Wahhabis, and when the research endeavor is partially financed by Wahhabis? It behooves one to wonder how the research would have looked like had an orthodox Sunni foundation financed the endeavor instead. This book not only reduces DeLong-Bas’s credibility as an objective scholar, but also skews the history of a critically important subject and misleads many.