A Primer on Salafism II


Abdel Wahhab Ibn Taymiyya
Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab (L) and Ibn Taymiyya (R)

If you have been introduced to Salafism in the news or in often critical analysis, two figures are generally named. The first is Ibn Taymiyya, who you won’t likely know much about but may understand he is the source of all Muslim things violent.

The second is Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab, and you may well have heard that his ‘Wahhabism’ is the state interpretation of Saudi Arabia, which funds conservative and perhaps violent Islam around the world.

We would do well to know a bit more about individuals often pilloried, and ‘Understanding Ibn Taymiyya as a Man of His Time’ is a good starting place.

Born in the city of Harran (then Upper Mesopotamia, now modern Turkey) in 1263, Ibn Taymiyyah was already a refugee in Damascus by the age of seven. His family had been forced to flee from their home, in order to avoid the encroaching Mongol invasion, which had overtaken Baghdad in 1258.

The common theme of much of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was relatively straightforward: the desire to achieve freedom for Muslims, both physically and metaphysically. For example, he famously lamented over the manner in which Muslims were enamored and distracted by Greek philosophy.

Ibn Taymiyyah was acutely disturbed by the Mongolian invaders, whom he believed were physically and intellectually colonizing Muslims. The underlying message and purpose of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was, therefore, to free the Muslim community from its foreign conquerors. In order to accomplish this, he argued, it was critical to first free the Muslim mind from the distractions of non-Muslim philosophy.

This is precisely why Ibn Taymiyyah dedicated significant portions of his work to opposing the use of external sources (i.e. sources outside the Quran and Hadith) in theology and law.

To Ibn Taymiyyah, the Quran and Hadith alone effectively addressed issues previous Muslim scholars (and many of his contemporaries) were attempting, but ultimately failing, to resolve through Greek philosophy. In a way, then, Ibn Taymiyyah was engaged in a momentous project of rebuilding Muslim intellectual independence.

As posted yesterday, much of Salafism is about rejection. But perhaps Christians can sympathize – there have been many a ‘Back to the Bible’ with some similarity.

But in his rejection of the Mongols he took a step that has plagued Muslims ever since, though in ways the author thinks he likely didn’t intend:

Unlike many other scholars, he not only saw the Mongols as hostile invaders, but also refused to accept them as legitimate rulers, even after they converted to Islam. He went as far as to issue a fatwa mandating that Muslims fight them.

Much of the Islamic heritage was dedicated to keeping popular obedience to rulers who may not have been upright, but at least were Muslims. And once you start calling some Muslims ‘non-Muslims’, it opens up all sorts of doors.

Extremist groups to distort Ibn Taymiyyah’s views, for their own benefit. For example, ISIS commonly cites the scholar to justify its sectarian crimes. Its members claim that his diatribes against the Shia, Sufis, and Druze clearly sanction their murder.

Ibn Taymiyyah was, however, both sharply aware of this and vehemently against sectarian splits, as evidenced by one of his fatwas: It is not permissible for teachers to sectarianize people and sow enmity and hatred between them. Rather, they must be like brethren supporting each other in goodness and piety.

Certainly we see many Muslims today not ‘like brethren’. In fact we find two actual brethren not like brethren in the story of Abna (the sons of) Abdel Wahhab.

From ‘Ibn Taymiyya and the ibn Abdel Wahhab Brothers’:

Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab—Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s lesser-known older brother [was a] major critic of the early Wahhabi movement. Sulayman wrote a significant refutation of his brother’s work, called The Divine Lightning in Refutation of the Wahhabis (al-Sawa‘iq al-Uluhiyya fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Wahabiyya).

I left the Arabic there for those who like that sort of thing (like me). But here’s the historical context:

Wahhabism first emerged in Arabia, as a localized reform movement aimed at correcting the deviances and errors that Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab perceived to be widespread in the Muslim community.

For Abdul Wahhab, many of the popular religious practices of the day—such as the veneration of saints’ graves, pilgrimage to their shrines, pleading for intercession with God from holy figures, or attachment to relics—smacked of a blatant idolatry (shirk) that reflected an excessive attachment to fellow men, rather than God.

His writings consistently stressed the absolute sovereignty of God, and emphasized the need to perform all acts of worship (ibada), broadly conceived, toward God alone.

At issue between the brothers was a divergent reading of Ibn Taymiyya. But on the following point all three agreed:

Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal rulings never tired of condemning the rampant shirk being practiced by many Muslims of the time, particularly their excessive devotion toward saints and Sufi-oriented mystics.

But remember what he did to the Mongols? Abdel Wahhab the younger took it a step further:

This strict emphasis on shirk is not the most controversial aspect of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s writings, however. That is reserved for his takfīr (excommunication) of those Muslims engaging in acts of idolatry.

Throughout his writings, Ibn Abdul Wahhab declared that Muslims who engage in such idolatrous practices are no longer Muslim—despite their testimony of the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith).

Abdel Wahhab the senior quoted Ibn Taymiyya to show he wouldn’t approve:

It is not permissible to call a Muslim an “unbeliever,” neither for a sin which he has committed nor for anything about which he was in error, such as questions about which the People of the Qiblah (i.e Muslims) dispute.

The following could get a little complex again, like that section yesterday. Skip over briefly, or follow along if you want to see an example of how Muslims dispute among themselves:

A key pillar of Sulayman’s argument against his brother rested on the important distinction between greater and lesser idolatry. This distinction was not found in the Quran, but rather was alluded to in the Hadith traditions, and became a key construct in later Islamic thought.

An act of “greater idolatry” (shirk al-akbar) is typically viewed as something so manifestly idolatrous as to directly contradict Islamic monotheism, taking the person outside of Islam. An example of this would be praying to a stone or wooden idol; one cannot seriously claim to be Muslim and perform this act. An act of “lesser idolatry” (shirk al-asghar) would be an act that is disapproved of, but considerably less serious.

According to Sulayman, the popular violations his brother railed against were shirk al-asghar—crucially falling short of apostasy.

Fascinating. Here’s how it was resolved, as you could likely guess:

As history tells us, however, this debate between the brothers would not be settled by strength of argument, but rather by force of arms, as the early Wahhabi movement gradually spread its influence through conquest across the Arabian Peninsula in the late 18th century.

Two very good essays, showing how Salafism is often mischaracterized and its originators distorted.

But don’t let that get too far. I said in the introduction yesterday that there is still quite enough room for judgment. Sulayman channels Ibn Taymiyya:

From where did you get that a Muslim…if he calls out to a living or dead (saint), or makes vows to him or sacrifices to him or touches his tomb… that all this is greater idolatry (constituting apostasy) … and that he who commits it may have his good deeds wasted, wealth plundered and blood spilt (as an apostate)?

Good. An erring Muslim should not be killed as an apostate. But an apostate can be killed as an apostate.

It is important to nuance and sympathize. But it is more important to stand on principles and not the proper desire to prevent demonization result in unwarranted approbation.

I think the final two essays in the series cross that line, the final one horribly. See you tomorrow.

Please click here to review part one of this primer on Salafism, and here for part three.





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