1741 – hard Islam stirs

Islam and the West. A Dissonant Harmony of Civilisations by Christopher J. Walker, 2005, pp 210-211

There was a stir in the depths of the Arabian peninsula. The year 1741 had seen the first preaching of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in Arabia. In 1804 his followers, the puritanical Wahhabis, had gained control of the Islamic holy places and outsted the easy-going Ottomans who had been guardians of the sacred areas hitherto. A lax regime of flexibility and non-fanaticism was expelled to make way for strict belief in the harsh Hanbalist version of Islam, which gave a central position to devout literalism and punishment. The new regime was also an act of rebellion against the Ott oman sultan, who requested Muhhammad Ali to end the revolt. In 1812, Ibrahim, the som ofMuhammad Ali, captured Medina and then Jeddah on behalf of the Ottomans. The Saudi state appeared destroyed by 1818. Briefly, Arabia returned to a less extreme version of the faith. But then Wahhabism regrouped in the interior, in Riyadh in 1846, under Faisal al-Saud. Gradually over the following decades the Wahhabis, in the form of the Saud family, extended their power. The favour shown to hard Islam by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1876-1908, was a further help to them.

The attitude of Europeans to the Wahhabi takeover in Arabia has always been puzzling. Observers have described it in terms of the return of Islam to its authentic roots. Islam has been perceived and described as becming fully itself bybeing hard and unflinching and attuned to desert life. The desert has been seen as the cradle of uncompromising monotheism, a view which is at odds with the reality of the pleasure-loving polytheism of pre-Islamic Mecca. The edge of mercilessness and uncompromisingness was always attractive to a certain kind of westerner. Westerners thrilled at the sharpened blade of tempered steel and loved the idea of blood draining cleanly into the desert sand.

But was there anything in Islam itself that demanded that the faith become uncompromising and austere? Islam had been Islam when it was the scholarly Mutazilite faith of the Abbasid court of al-Mamum, which had translated Aristotle and enforced doubt and scepticism. Islam had been equally itself when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had discussed a disbelieving theology with her Turkish host in Belgrade. The faith had, and has, been equally authentic when it had been allied to art and mysticism in Persia. It was to a great extent a western male military fantasy that it was solely its authentic self when it was harsh, uncompromising, desert-driven, blood-edged, knowledge free and lacking in the fine arts. The fantasy was driven by ignoring the parts of the Koran that talk of compromise, tolerance and peace, giving focus instead only to warlike texts. It is as though Christianity were to be described as inauthentic except for its appearance as an austere mortificatory practice among solitary hermits in the Egyptian desert; or Judaism incomplete except among those entirely observant of the minutest details of the 613 precepts of the Torah. Lord Cromer’s dictum was that ‘Islam cannot be reformed, that is to say, reformed Islam is Islam no longer; it is something else; we cannot as yet tell what it will eventually be’. This is surely an unhistorical fantasy, ignoring both the Mutazilite Abbasids, who had sponsored the translation of Aristotle, and the Sufisticf brotherhoods of popular Islam practised in Anatolia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent.

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