'Is Muslim Civilisation Set on a Fixed Course to Decline?' Wahhabism, the Saudis' Brand of Islam, Negates the Very Idea of Evolution in Human Thought and Morality. Ziauddin Sardar Recalls His Own Experiences of a Faith That Shuns Unbelievers

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), June 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

'Is Muslim Civilisation Set on a Fixed Course to Decline?' Wahhabism, the Saudis' Brand of Islam, Negates the Very Idea of Evolution in Human Thought and Morality. Ziauddin Sardar Recalls His Own Experiences of a Faith That Shuns Unbelievers


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


Auniquely lax notion of time has become integral to Wahhabism, the revivalist movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab that has become the state creed of Saudi Arabia. Abd al-Wahhab was born in 1703 in a small town in Najd, in the northern part of the kingdom, and brought up in the Hanbali sect, the most severe of the four schools of Islamic thought. Abd al-Wahhab advocated "the return to Koran and Sunnah" (the practice of the Prophet). His call was for a return to the purity and simple profundity of the origin of Islam. He rejected practices that had accreted and become permitted in traditional Islam, such as celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad or visiting the graves and shrines of saints and divines.

Rather like the Reformation thinkers in European Christianity, Abd al-Wahhab set himself against the abuses by which religion pandered to the gullible masses, rather than educated or ministered to them. His reforming zeal sent many back to the elegant purity of Islam as a message of humility, unity, morality and ethics motivated by equality and justice. If one needed a parallel, one could think of the elegant refinement and simplicity of Shaker furniture.

The contemporary Saudi creed owes as much, or possibly as little, to Abd al-Wahhab as it does to the 13th-century Muslim political scientist Ibn Taymiyya, who belongs in a long and heroic tradition of intellectual zealots. Ibn Taymiyya was concerned with the strength and survival of the Muslim community at a time when Islam, recovering from the onslaught of the Crusades, was under siege from the Mongols. He saw dissension among Muslims as their main weakness and sought to ban plurality of interpretations. Everything had to be found in the Koran and the Sunnah. The Koran had to be interpreted literally. When the Koran, for example, says God sits on His throne, He sits on His throne, period. No discussion can be entertained on the nature of the throne or its purpose. Nothing can be read metaphorically or symbolically.

Ilearned a great deal about modern Wahhabism from students at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. When I worked at a research centre at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah the late 1970s, we would hire these students by the hundred to help us with our surveys and studies. A few of them were Saudis, but most were from other parts of the Muslim world. Without exception, they were on scholarships and were guaranteed badly paid employment from the Saudi treasury on finishing their course. All were being trained as dias--preachers who would, on graduation, go out to Asia and Africa, as well as Europe and America, to do dawa: run mosques, madrasas and Islamic centres, teach and preach.

What did they learn? And what were they going to preach? From the dias, I discovered that in modern Wahhabism, there is only the constant present. There is no real past and there is no real notion of an alternative, different future. Their perpetual present exists in the ontological shadow of the past--or rather, a specific, constructed period of early Islamic history, the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The history/culture of Muslim civilisation, in all its greatness, complexity and plurality, is totally irrelevant; indeed, it is rejected as deviancy and degeneration.

So it is hardly surprising that Saudis had no feelings for the cultural property and sacred topology of Mecca.

The students from the University of Medina were fiercely loyal, both to their Saudi mentors and to their particular school of thought. The Wahhabism they learned was manufactured on the basis of tribal loyalty--but the place of traditional tribal allegiance was now taken by Islam. Everyone outside this territory was, by definition, a hostile dweller in the domain of unbelief. Those who stood outside their domain were not limited to non-Muslims; it included all those Muslims who have not given allegiance to Wahhabism.

The ranks of unbelief were swollen by the Shias, the Sufis and followers of other Islamic schools of thought.

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'Is Muslim Civilisation Set on a Fixed Course to Decline?' Wahhabism, the Saudis' Brand of Islam, Negates the Very Idea of Evolution in Human Thought and Morality. Ziauddin Sardar Recalls His Own Experiences of a Faith That Shuns Unbelievers
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