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The Wahabi Version of Islam: But We Do Nothing But Good!
A label tells you what is in the box.
When I entered the Qur’anic religious traditions I did not know there was a Wahabi version of Islam. My first real encounter was soon after I declared my belief that there was only one God and that Muhammad was a messenger from God. A study circle had been set up for converts. People were very friendly until a certain someone made the mistake of saying he had problems with the way women were being treated. (You can guess who that was.) Lesson learned... sort of. The next big mistake was calling Jews our cousins—our cousins in faith. Bad move.
First, a couple dirty little secrets that are completely true.
1. Both Muslims and non-Muslims speak of Islam as if it is some huge, monolithic, one-size-for-all religion. It isn’t. There isn’t even anything resembling an official teaching center. There is nothing like a pope. No teaching magisterium. No central office of official and correct dogma and belief. There is no such thing as a “Muslim cleric” in spite of what one reads in the newspapers all the time, or the way Muslims may act towards people who have read some books. The fact is Muslims beg the question of authority in their religious traditions. Muslim-American Khaled Abou El Fadl discusses this extensively in his academic writings.
2. Muslims often drone on and on about “Shari’ah”—Muslim Law. But the fact is, there is no Shari’ah. You will find no book, no tome, no historical text called “Shari’ah.” Rather, you will find shari’ahs—plural—because what Muslims call Muslim Law is nothing more than one type of interpretation of the Qur’an, and there are a lot of different types, and vast possibilities for even more. Its not just Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam, and it most certainly is not just “Islam.” This is true in spite of the fact that Muslims themselves, out of a misunderstanding of “unity” (and a bit of self-delusion), often seem to pretend otherwise, and often give that impression to non-Muslims. A result of that misunderstanding and bit of delusion is that Muslims tend to “close ranks” in a manner that can make them complicit with evil-- our own version of the clearly unethical statement “my country: right or wrong.”
Obviously, I’m breaking ranks. I’ve never ascribed to the idea of “my country... or ummah... right or wrong.”
Given these secret truths, and based on my experience, what are some of the identifying characteristics of the Wahabi version of Islam? Well first, let’s be clear. There is no Muslim who admits to being a “Wahabi” Muslim. There is no one who is going to say they follow the Wahabi version of Islam. It is probably more accurate, and helpful, to understand Wahabism as a continuum of beliefs and attitudes that may be present to a greater or lesser degree in any one individual. On one end of the continuum is someone we would call a full-blown Wahabi, at the other end, someone who is Wahabiesque.
Here are eight attitudes or beliefs or behaviors that seem to me to be symptomatic of the Wahabi version of Islam:
1. A willingness to practice compulsion in matters of religion. Islam simply cannot be imposed upon people, nor can they feel pressured to accept Islam, nor punished for not accepting Islam. This is very, very clear in the Qur’an. Almost all Americans are actually more in line with the Qur’an on this point than are Wahabi or Wahabiesque Muslims. Basically, we are talking about tolerance and intolerance. A Wahabi or Wahabiesque Muslim simply cannot, will not accept other versions of Islam as having any possible validity (much less anything non-Muslim). It is the expression of closed minds that cannot or will not entertain the possibility of possibilities, nor tolerate those who explore possibilities.
2. An inability, or unwillingness to distinguish an idol from an archeological treasure, or from a work of art, or from just a plain old statue. These are not difficult distinctions to make, and so one must question the intelligence—or honesty—of those who are unable or unwilling to do so.
3. A willingness to engage in religious fratricide needs no additional explanation. However, I assume that anyone and everyone who publicly declares belief in one God, and that Muhammad was a messenger from God, is in that religious fraternity. That includes people who continue to practice within other religious traditions. They exist, and have for a while. Indeed, they may be growing.
4. Denial of, or ignorance of, or dismissal of what are called “sunnat Allah”—the patterns God has put in creation, often called “laws of nature.” In other words: science. The Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims ignore, or are unaware, or do not acknowledge the importance of advances in the specifically human sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. that may illuminate or effect theology, communications with others, gender relationships, politics, social activism, da’wah, etc. This results in a theology—an understanding of the Qur’an-- that is woefully out of date, unable to effectively communicate with vast populations of contemporary humanity, and ill-equipped to address contemporary issues in a healthy and appropriate manner. Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims are often ignorant of the breadth of their own intellectual history—centuries of commentary, thought and reflection on the meaning of the Qur’an. What is worse, they deny the relevance of much of that history. In addition, this ignorance of the human sciences prevents them from recognizing the role of culture in religious thought such that, for instance, men and women shaking hands cannot, will not, be understood as an expression of social courtesy, but only as an expression of potentially illicit sexuality.
5. Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims, both male and female, display an egregious sexism and advocate the use of compulsion to restrict women’s choices in life. They cannot comprehend—cannot even imagine-- a platonic friendship between members of the opposite sex. Gender relations are viewed primarily in terms of genital behaviors and myths about human sexuality, thereby dehumanizing both men and women.
6. Black and white, simplistic, reductionistic and literal thinking-- Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims seem unable to see shades of gray. People are divided into us and them, good and bad, friend and foe. There is a conspicuous lack of symbolic abstraction in their thinking. There does not seem to be an awareness of belonging to the family of humanity. There is a tendency to reduce complex human issues down to a simple slogan or down to one arena of human expression such as the political. It is, at heart, a mechanistic (not tawheedian) world-view combined with a lack of imagination. A rather banal bumper-sticker approach to the challenges of the times.
7. Wahabi and Wahabiesque moral thought is that of a child. That is, what is right and wrong is determined not by moral-ethical principles that are right and good in and of themselves, but by the possibility of reward and the threat of punishment for particular behaviors. They often like to count how many rewards God will give them for this or that behavior, as if storing up pieces of candy.
8. They have perfected the use of the “hadith bomb.” A McCarthyistic technique used to shut down all discussion or exploration of possibility and cast aspersion on the person with whom they are discussing. All Muslims know perfectly well what I’m talking about.
Even non-Muslims can be Wahabiesque, albeit in their own unique way.
Full-blown Wahabi Muslims may be a minority, but the influence and spread of their beliefs and attitudes and obnoxious behaviors is wide-ranging, prevalent, and has been a negative influence on the establishment and development of healthy Islamic communities in the United States.
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