Wahhabi Wrangles

Paul Vallely, one of the more thoughtful commentators on British Muslim life, has written a background piece called “Wahhabism: A deadly scripture” in response to all the botheration over King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s recent state visit to Britain and the release of a recent report on hate literature found in mosques (which I haven’t yet read), probably timed to coincide with his visit, which lays a large part of the blame for this literature on the influence of Wahhabism in the UK. However I would like to clarify a few matters in Vallely’s piece that don’t exactly reflect my current view. This is a matter of interpretation and inference rather than willful misquoting or anything pernicious like that (as Vallely is one of the straight journalists.) Vallely is quoting from an old piece I referred him to, the heart of which was written straight after 9/11, although it was only published four years later. Such is the pace of academic publishing. So for the record:

1. A lot of Saudi funding was pretty benign: it went into infrastructural projects. They rarely looked to control mosques they funded or part-funded. They funded the mosques of preferred sectarian allies. They also funded the mosques of sectarian rivals too, including Sufi mosques in the UK. After 9/11 a lot of this funding has dried up due to internal and external political pressures.

2. More pertinent in my view at the time was, and still is, the impact in the UK of Salafi preachers trained in Saudi Arabia and their mass investment in the dissemination of Salafi teaching through publishing and the internet. This had a negative impact at the time because of the promotion of religious exclusivism and intolerance.

3. Yet British Salafis were among the first to combat the takfiri jihadis and, as I’ve written before, that needs to be recognised.

4. It might be inferred from one quote from me that I think textual literalism opens up the possibility of terrorism. I don’t believe that. But theological intolerance is another matter.

5. As Vallely’s piece rightly argues, mixing up conservative law-abiding Muslims with the few genuinely violent extremists is a big mistake that many are prone to. Of course some ultra-conservative values have implications for cultural integration, but this is an issue that needs to be calmly considered. Preaching hatred and intolerance is no small matter, but neither is the wish of some to forcibly assimilate religious conservatives to secular progressive values. Finding the right balance between preserving diversity and promoting tolerance and solidarity firstly in law and secondly in public culture is essential.

6. As I’ve written before, Wahhabi and Islamist bashing has become a viable career option, and blanket stereotypes can have serious consequences for these people’s basic rights. We need to reach out and work with British Salafis, one reason why I supported the recent Sunni unity pledge. It’s awful to see this kind of material reposted on a website of the execrable BNP for their own pernicious reasons.

7. I used to be comfortable with the use of the term “Wahhabism” but have subsequently changed my mind. There is the self-designation as “Salafi”, but various strands need to be distinguished. Of course that self-designation is contested: most Muslims see the Salaf as comprising the first three generations of the Muhammadan umma, those who come after are the khalaf. But, more in the sociological sense, the term “Salafi” can be used. But there are caveats. The nineteenth century liberal reformers like Afghani and Abduh saw themselves as Salafis. They influenced the Islamist movements. From the sixties onwards this current has merged with “Wahhabism” properly speaking that originated with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This merged form was politicised and puritan and was spread globally with the windfall of oil revenues. There have been political differences since the 1990s after the First Gulf War, and global Salafism/Wahhabism has become very divided on political issues since then. Vallely’s article reflects these subtleties.

8. In Britain since 9/11, some Salafis have sought to move towards Hanbalism, explored the spiritual dimension of the faith, the resources for national belonging and identity and a recognition of our pluralist society and democratic context. Others are doing very serious work on civil liberties. All this should be recognised too.



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8 responses to “Wahhabi Wrangles

  1. Well said Yahya – I have been trying to make some of these points for an awfully long time.

    Zareen from http://www.freewriters.wordpress.com

  2. Khalil

    As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatullah…

    Jazakallahu Khayran Sidi Yahya. Yet another useful and insightful post.

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on why you feel that “textual literalism” does *not* open up the possibility for terrorism. I understanding the point about “theological intolerance”, and I agree, but why not “textual literalism” as well?

    May Allah open the hearts, free the souls of their vain desires, and guide the ways of those who seek…

    Khalil Moore, http://www.ReflectOnThis.com

  3. Yahya Birt

    As-salamu alaykum, Dear Sidi Khalil,

    I pray and hope you are well. I’m not scholar or student of knowledge, but textual literalism in and of itself does not seem to create one meaning out of the text, probably because those who think they can access the meaning of the text directly probably have not theorised clearly enough what hermeneutical methods they are actually employing. Hence the occurence of subjectivism, and therefore multiplicity in the interpretive acts done under the assumption that interpretation is an easy matter of discerning the surface meaning. There is reconciling and joining between texts. There is the recognition of the priority of the literal sense unless some other logical or evidential matter takes priority, or the Ghazalian position, which I take to be the Sunni mainstream. So none of these complications would appear to lead ipso facto to interpretations condoning violence unanchored in law and ethics. The relationship between textual literalism, or the claim that only the literal meaning of the text is valid, does not seem to produce only one interpretation of that text.

    On the other hand the assumption of religious bigotry and intolerance as a frame for reading the text seems to open up the greater possibility, if not the logical or causal necessity, of violence.

    And Allah knows best.

    Wa s-salam, Yahya

  4. Ameen Kamlana

    Thankyou Yahya for your balanced article.
    I too have issues with the label ‘wahabi’. Dr. Usama Hasan said some years ago; “The fact remains that no Muslim calls themselves “Wahhâbî”, a label employed as a term of abuse by many ignorant Sûfîs; and using it in this way is disrespectful to the Generosity of al-Wahhâb Himself, the Bestower of Endless Gifts’.

  5. Salam Br Yahya,

    Good points…on point 6, I think you should expand a little more.


    Azad Ali [me old mucker from Tower Hamlets]

  6. Pingback: A week in blogs ‘n’ media « Muslim Recovery

  7. Bismillah.

    Your comments above make my question even more relevant now… What about “textual literalism” without recourse to “reconciling and joining between texts”? Isn’t that what is happening when people read a verse such as “..fight the idolators WHEREVER YOU FIND THEM..” (and many other verses of this nature), without looking at the circumstances of the revelation, the context, how the Prophet, peace be upon him, lived his life and dealt with friends, allies, opponents, harassers, detractors, and enemies, and without joining those texts together with other ones in order to come out with a comprehensive “fiqh” of the issues (which of course we know is only done properly by qualified and traditionally grounded scholars)? They take those texts quite literally, and then that literalism helps to engender the “theological intolerance” that you speak of.

    And Allah knows best.

  8. Yahya Birt

    As-salamu alaykum,

    Dear Khalil,

    I suppose then that this is a definitional issue, i.e. is a failure to join between texts a core part of textual literalism or not? I thought it would mean, at bottom, the idea that the literal meaning of any text is the literal one. Even if one were to take one verse of the Qur’an as abrogating all other verses or textual evidences on the subject, rightly or wrongly, then that would then imply some theory of abrogation (even if it was a swinging one that would not be recognised by the standard authorities in tafsir and fiqh)? In other words, wouldn’t it be a separate but allied issue to textual literalism? After all there may be some other theoretical lens, e.g. the presumption of ongoing civilisational conflict, being invoked here that would determine the idea that this verse would be assumed to abrogate all the others? I’m not asserting this here, but just asking? Would you therefore define “textual literalism” to include a number of hermeneutical assumptions beyond the idea of the sole validity of the ostensive sense of a proof-text?

    wa s-salam, Yahya

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