Muslims belatedly turn a critical eye to Wahhabism

Well, better late than never, I suppose. Here, Sadik H. Kassim discusses “Wahhabism: A Critical Essay” by Hamid Algar.

“After September 11, when their utility had expired, the Wahhabists and the offshoots they produced were discarded into history’s waste bin of American allies gone bad (see Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, etc.). It was now proper to write about them. Even the fashion magazine Interior Design got into the game, scoring a hit for a December 1, 2001 article making a snide reference to Wahhabism.

Despite the upsurge in the number of articles, the topic is still treated very superficially. Wahhabis are often described in clichéd terms as being the “Puritans” of the Muslim world. An analogy I have never liked. True the Puritans espoused a literal interpretation of scriptural texts; beyond that, however the similarities are minimal. The Puritans were intellectual heavyweights coupling Renaissance humanism with knowledge of scriptures and divinity. They complemented their religious readings with the Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Ovid. In addition to writing the first children books, they emphasized public schooling for all and founded Harvard, the first American university. For them, religion provided a stimulus and prelude for scientific thought. Among their members, they could count numerous fellows of the Royal Society of London. Most importantly, the Puritans were political and religious outcasts.

The Wahhabis certainly are not Puritans in any true sense of the word. The more apt comparison, I believe, is the evangelical Christian movement in modern times. Both the Wahhabis and the Evangelicals champion an ultra-literalist interpretation of the holy texts, casting them both at odds with the precedents set by their ancestors and with their co-religionists in modern times. Both Evangelicals and Wahhabis shun scientific/rational thought and treat the idea of a renewed interpretation of religious texts as anathema. Both groups have tremendous financial resources enabling the rapid spread of their beliefs. Most importantly, both have disproportionate access to the corridors of power—the Evangelicals and their incestuous relationship with the Bush administration, the Wahhabis and the Saudi royal family, although the latter is in a state of flux.”