Wahhabi Islam: From Revival to Global Jihad
by Natana J. Delong-Bas
New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 359 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Stephen Schwartz
Middle East Quarterly
Even in the topsy-turvy world of the American academy, and particularly its Middle East studies branch, Wahhabi Islam is an oddity. A short time after September 11, 2001, Delong-Bas surfaced as an outspoken defender of the Wahhabi cult. (Full disclosure: her detractors included me, author of The Two Faces of Islam, and I am not spared Delong-Bas's condemnation as, explicitly, her leading opponent.)
Delong-Bas was a graduate student at Georgetown University and disciple of John L. Esposito, with whom she coauthored a second edition of one of Esposito's earlier volumes. Revealingly, she thanks not just Esposito in the acknowledgments but also several prominent figures in the Saudi kingdom (where Wahhabism is the official religion), including Faisal bin Salman, whose status as a Saudi prince she omits mention; Abd Allah S. al-Uthaymin, son of a notorious member of the Wahhabi ulema; and Fahd as-Semmari, director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, in Riyadh. She thanks the latter foundation for financial support.
There is much evidence that this volume was rushed into print as a response to the questions about Wahhabism asked by Westerners after September 11. That was entirely predictable; what was not is the markedly inferior quality of the effort.
Publication of a whitewash of Wahhabism cannot come as much of a surprise in the Middle East studies intellectual environment where apologetics for Islamism are rife. Even so, Delong-Bas's work is extraordinarily poor. She knows so little of basic Islamic history that she believes "the Rafidah" [Rejectors], execrated by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth century founder of the eponymous phenomenon, are an "extremist sect" of Shi‘ite Muslims. This is not an error; it deliberately indicates the author's acceptance of the Saudi-Wahhabi version of Islam. In a perverse howler, Delong-Bas falsely identifies Ayman al-Zawahiri, the bloodthirsty Egyptian Islamist and recent mentor of bin Laden, as a "major Sufi shaykh." (This bizarre assertion is footnoted in her book to … my book, another mistake.)
Delong-Bas expends considerable energy arguing—somewhat in the manner of Saudi state ulema trying to distance the kingdom from terrorism— that much evil has been done by the later followers of Wahhabism that would not have been sanctioned by the founder. This echoes the arguments heard in academic studies of Marxism, claiming that Marx or Lenin would not have condoned the atrocities of Stalin. But it is historical fact that Marxism-Leninism produced Stalinism, and it is equally incontrovertible that Wahhabism has produced the violence of Al-Qaeda and groups like it.
Nevertheless, the author argues that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab would not have encouraged "jihad as an offensive or preemptive action or to strike down a person whose personal habits or practices may not be in keeping with one's own interpretation of Islam." Once again, she reveals her gross superficiality because preemption in "enjoining good and forbidding evil," has been the hallmark of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, from which both Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his great mentor, the thirteenth century C.E. Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiya, emerged, and almost since the time of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855 C.E.) himself.
The absurd purpose of this book is to convince the West that Wahhabism is peaceful, traditional, spiritual, and even feminist. But even her Saudi and Wahhabi patrons will likely find this volume wanting.
 Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002).
Related Topics: Radical Islam, Saudi Arabia | Stephen Schwartz | Winter 2005 MEQ
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