Apologetic Islam

29 November 2004

Natana J. Delong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad(New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Reviewed by Adam Becker

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” 

This statement by George W. Bush, made September 17, 2001, demonstrates his subtle understanding of the etymology of the word “Islam” — that it is cognate with “salām,” the Arabic word for peace. It was part of the president’s plea to the American public not to attack Muslim Americans out of prejudice and anger over the terrorist attacks which had occurred the week before. According to this statement as well as others Bush made at the time, the terrorists were not really Muslims since “Islam means peace.” Such statements declare the limits of what is and is not Islam and function to maintain the assumption held by many, especially in this time of faith-based initiatives, that religion (or faith, spirituality, etc.) is always something good; otherwise, it is not religion at all.

Natana J. Delong-Bas’s new Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad(Oxford, 2004) engages in a similar form of apologetic. The majority of this book consists of close readings of the writings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of the loosely defined and rarely understood modern Islamic movement called Wahhabism. The first chapter sets the eighteenth century context for Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, arguing that in contrast to the predominant view that holds him to be an innovating radical he was a typical reformist of his day. The sixth and last chapter explains how Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideas have been equated with intolerance, violence, and misogyny, the author often laying the blame on others (the medieval Ibn Taymiyya and influential Egyptian radical and martyr Sayyid Qutb). The chapters in between draw out the original meaning and significance of his writings through a close analysis of his arguments. I am not qualified in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) to judge the quality of her reading of these understudied texts. The fact that she has devoted so much time to them is one of the great virtues of the book.

The tone and interest of this book fit with the environment in which it was written. Delong-Bas’s work was produced at the Center for Muslim-Christian Relations at Georgetown University,

Sayyid Qutb

which is headed by John L. Esposito. Esposito’s numerous works, particularly his writing on Islamic Revivalism (a.k.a. Islamism, a.k.a. Islamic Fundamentalism) have for some time employed the radical idea that in writing about other people we should think about their perspective and provide some context. His provocatively titled The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, first published by Oxford in 1992, is an excellent introduction to Islamist organizations and thinking, written long before such knowledge was seen as wholly instrumental to protecting ourselves from “those who hate us” (i.e. maintaining American hegemony). This appreciation of the circumstances and voice of those under scholarly analysis has opened his work up to accusations of apologizing for terrorism. Delong-Bas has clearly learned from her mentors at CMCR, writing a book that closely engages with the ideas and arguments of texts, while trying to understand their internal logic within their original context.

However, the apologetic tone of the book goes beyond a sympathetic, interpretive approach and enters the realm of theological polemic. Delong-Bas constructs her definition of true Wahhabism to show that Osama bin Laden and those of his ilk not only give a bad name to this religious movement but in the end are not even Wahhabis at all. This is silly. Religious communities and identities are often contested, with the views of the insiders of a community often jarring with those of outsiders. Examples abound. Jews for Jesus anger many Jews, who think that if members of the group like Jesus, that’s fine: they should just call themselves Christians. To be sure, such Messianic Jewish groups may not sufficiently come to terms with the Christian background to modern anti-semitism and thus don’t understand why so many Jews resent Jesus and his friends for some of the more bitter moments in Jewish history, but at the end of the seder, Jews for Jesus can call themselves whatever they like. Or take the issue of Ethiopian Jews: There was disagreement within the Rabbinic establishment of Israel as to whether the Ethiopians could be defined at Jews and permitted to make ‘aliyah to Israel. The Ethiopians certainly considered themselves Jews, whether a bunch of Sephardic and Ashkenazic rabbis in Jerusalem thought so or not.

Things become more difficult for Wahhabism because “Wahhabi” is in fact not even the term that most Wahhabis would use for themselves in the first place. Nevertheless if bin Laden identifies with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, then Delong-Bas needs to account for that whether she agrees with him or not.

Is It Islam?

The loaded ignorance about Islam that has become even more prominent in the media since that woeful, generative moment three years ago is astounding and Delong-Bas shows a legitimate concern in desiring to set the record straight about “Wahhabism,” which along with “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” are often used simply to refer to supposed religious fanatics we prefer not to associate with. However, her main point is an apologetic one and is therefore of little use to anyone except for those people who care about what Ibn Abd al-Wahhab really said about an issue. To clarify what I mean, suppose we agree for argument’s sake with all the claims in her book, that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was good for women, he was a reformist not an innovator, and he did not advocate violence but rather tolerance. The problem is that Wahhabism as it exists is obviously not necessarily so pleasant.

Delong-Bas’s project is Protestant in its prioritization of origins, succumbing to the genetic fallacy that holds that contradiction between founder and later followers somehow suggests a lack of authenticity on the part of posterity. But, as the work of the annoyingly liberal life-of-Jesus-scholarship demonstrates, the fact that you can prove the real Jesus to have been a nice guy who liked women, foreigners, and cats, does not remove all the terrible violent Christians from the world and is only relevant if you care who Jesus was, i.e. if you are a Christian.

My suspicions were confirmed in a telling statement I found by Delong-Bas in an onlineinterview. About her first acquaintance with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, she states: “What really intrigued me was the claim that Sheikh Muhammad, was the Martin Luther of Islam. My father is a Lutheran pastor, so I understood this analogy to be a compliment, rather than an insult!”

Adam Becker is an Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at New York University. He is the author of Devotional Study: The School of Nisibis and the Development of “Scholastic” Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia and last wrote for The Revealer about “Imam Ali in Sadr City” and Dawn of the Dead.