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Wahhabism refers to a religious movement of Islam that developed in the 18th century courtesy of a Muslim theologian called Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab from Najd, Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab advocated for cleansing of Islam from what he saw as impurities and innovations (Esposito, 2003). Most Muslims in Saudi Arabia are influenced by the Wahhabi school of thought.
Moussalli (2009) observes that Wahhabism claims adherence to a correct understanding of Islamic doctrines, specifically concerning the Tawhid (p. 5). Tawhid refers to God’s uniqueness and unity. Majority of Islamic sects share this belief, but the Wahhabi emphasize it from the point of view of Abd Al-Wahhab. Al-Wahhab’s philosophy is largely influenced by the literary works of Ibn Taymiyya, who was a medieval Muslim scholar. Al-Wahhab questioned many classical interpretations of Islam, alleging that his arguments relied on the Holy Quran and the Sunna of Prophet Muhammad. He stood out in his attacks against what he thought of as political weakness and moral looseness in the Arab world. He particularly stood against the perceived idolatry, shrine and tomb visitation, and vivaciously condemned the popularized cult of saints.
As noted by Esposito (2003), other terms synonymous with Wahhabism are Wahhabi, Salami, and people of hadith (the ahl al-hadith). However, Wahhabi is sometimes used to mean a given orientation in Salafism, which is often seen as ultra-conservative and heretical. Indeed, most sheikhs of the time of Abd al-Wahhab rejected his teachings and called him an apostate (Murtad) and viewed his arguments as invalid and illegitimate (Moussalli, 2009, p. 4).
Secularism refers to the separation of government institutions and representatives from religion. The belief asserts that human activities and decisions should be independent from religious bias. Secularism posits that citizens in a country should be free from the teachings and rules of religion. Governments should thus be neutral on religious issues and desist from imposing any religious views whatsoever. In addition, secularism advocates for a clear separation between religion and governance. The belief in secularism has been argued to be based on purely human considerations (Taylor, 2007). As a result, it enjoys wide following among people who view theology as indefinite or inadequate, an entity that is unreliable or unbelievable. Taylor argues that secularism is founded on the improvement of life by material means, the fate of science and that human beings should aim at doing good.
Wahhabism has been known for its distaste of secularism (Dennis, 1996). It views secularism as its nemesis and thus all effort should be done to shun secular practices. This borrows from the Wahhabi conviction that the Quran and Hadith are the only source of rules, and that only a pure abidance of these rules is acceptable.
As already seen above, Wahhabism subscribes to the doctrine of Tawhid, the belief in god’s uniqueness and unity. This involves the acceptance of God’s Lordship, and that a believer should recognize this God as the only Lord. According to Wahhabism, the person who believes in this Lord must worship him and only him alone. This point of view is very different from what secularism stands for. Secularism rejects beliefs in the supernatural and the unknown. It emphasizes trust in an individual’s effort. It advocates for focus on a person’s energy and intelligence, including emphasis on observation and experience. Secularism shun and see as unrealistic the religious focus of the hereafter.
Wahhabism take the doctrine of Tawhid further and claim that those who do not belief in it from the perspective of its founder (Al-Wahhab) are unbelievers. According to Moussalli (2009), Al-Wahhab’s view of Tawhid is different from the traditional view in that he emphasizes that that the Tawhid must be followed by pure Islamic acts. Every believer is expected to believe in one and only God in addition to doing only acts prescribed by the Quran and Sunnah, failure to which one becomes a disbeliever. The Wahhabi advocate that believers should have nothing to do with unbelievers. This is contrary to what secularism preaches. The secularists do not have a strict belief in some doctrine and generally preach tolerance. An individual’s beliefs do not matter in any way, and a person is respected for being human, and not because of his/her beliefs. Secularism rejects commitment to one view of the world’s nature and an individual’s role in it. It advocates for pluralism, and rejects homogeneity.
The Wahhabi view the Quran and Hadith as the sole fundamental and authoritative texts. Commentaries and illustrations of early Muslim community (Ummah) and the Rightly Guided caliphs are seen as supporting the Quran and Sunna, but not as being independently authoritative. The important point to note here is that these two texts (Quran and Sunna) are considered supreme and beyond reproach whatsoever (Moussalli, 1999). This is contrary to secularist beliefs. Secularism rejects the notion that there is an ideal behavior to be followed by everyone. This is taken to include the rejection of any official symbols or images, which in this case can be taken to include books. This secularist belief is hinged on tolerance, which is a very important tenet of secularism. Secularists, as a result, see the glorification of the Quran and Sunna as uncalled for and inherently wrong. Secularists argue that the Quran, just like the Bible and the Talmud, should be treated just as any other book and nothing else.
As cited in Commins (2006), Ibn Abd al-Wahhab explains in the book Kitab al-Tawhid (which heavily borrows from the Quran and hadith) that Islam worship consists of the five daily prayers (Salat), supplication (the Dua), fasting (Saum), seeking God’s protection or refuge (Istiadha), seeking help (Ist’ana) and seeking benefits (referred to as Istigatha). The Wahhabi conclude that seeking any supernatural help other than Allah’s or praying to any other entity is superstition (shirk) and is not acceptable. They argue that such acts contradict the Tawhid, which is fundamental in the Islamic faith. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab explains that Prophet Muhammad spent most of his lifetime trying to isolate and reject acts that contravened the above fundamental principles. The Wahhabi thus see a moral obligation to stump out such contradictions and ask people to desist from them. As already discussed, secularists refuse to adopt one view of the world and wholesome beliefs in a supernatural being. They thus have no business questioning an individual’s beliefs. Secularists do not label acts as superstition or against a particular religious perspective. Rather, they preach tolerance to all beliefs. This has translated to the acceptance of controversial issues by secular societies, like the celebration of Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and a freedom of expressing religious opinions without fear of reproach whatsoever.
Moussalli (2009) notes that Wahhabism has always been associated with violence (p. 7). In the year 1801 and 1802, the Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia under the command of Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud laid an attack and seized two Iraqi holy cities, Karbala and Najaf. They killed a large number of Muslims and destroyed many tombs, including that of Husayn ibn Ali- who was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. The tomb of Ali bin Abu Talib (who was Muhammad’s son-in-law) was also destroyed. In the following years of 1803 and 1804, these same Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia captured the cities of Makkah and Medina and went ahead to destroy historical monuments and many Muslim sites and shrines, like the shrine that had been built over Fatimah’ tomb (Fatimah was the daughter to Muhammad). They even threatened to destroy Prophet Muhammad’s grave terming it as idolatrous. Further violent actions of the Wahhabi include bulldozing and pouring gasoline on the grave of Prophet Muhammad’s mother (Aminah bint Wahl), an act that led to widespread resentment in the Muslim world.
The violent streaks of Wahhabism have continued even to modern day. Today’s Islamic groups termed as terrorist by the United States of America are strongly influenced by the Wahhabi faith. It is of important mention that the late Osama bin Laden prophesied the Wahhabi school of thought. The Al Qaeda, the Hamas, the Al Shabaab and the recently active Nigerian Boko Haram outfit are largely followers of Wahhabism. The September 9- 11 bombing of the United States of America has been blamed on Wahhabi education (Moussalli, 2009). The Wahhabi are thus notorious for their violence and extremism. They justify the use of violence to propagate their faith. Such tendencies have been very widely criticized by secularists, like the government of the United States of America.
The criticisms and detests for terrorist groups have led to the declaration of wars against the powers behind such groupings. The most recent is the tracking and killing of Osama bin laden by American troops. In 2003, Afghanistan was attacked by America in order to do away with the strict imposition of Islamic governance by the Taliban- a group largely Wahhabi. The war on terror by the United States of America has been seen by most Wahhabi adherents as having the goal of spreading secularism. This has led to the Wahhabi to declare Fatwas against the United States of America and other Western countries, like Osama bin Laden’s Fatwa demanding the extermination of the American nation.
Muslims generally favor Shariah law, but the Wahhabi stand out in the pursuit for it (Moussalli, 2009). The Wahhabi push for implementation of Shariah law and adoption of an Islamic state has led to conflicting stand offs with advocates for secular and democratic states. The Wahhabi see as faulty the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a pursuit that enjoys immense international support. Dennis (1996) notes that the Wahhabi (and most Islamists) view of the individual, the society and the state are divergent and at odds with Western perspectives. The Wahhabi view the Shariah as the only legitimate law to be followed, and as a result, all other human laws are flawed. They further declare that only a strict adherence to the Shariah law is accepted, failure to which one ceases to be a Muslim. Indeed, Fatwas have been issued against Muslims who support the suspension or amendments of the Shariah. According to the Fatwas, Such Muslims are accused of apostasy and killing them is justified. On the other hand, secularists maintain that the Shariah has no place in the modern world (Taylor, 2007).
Secularists oppose many aspects of the Shariah. For instance, they reject any form of religious police. They argue that democracy, reason and science should advice the laws adopted by nations and not any religious entity (Moussalli, 2001). Secularists cherish the proposition that an individual is free to act according to his/her will so long as he/she does not hurt anyone else. On the other hand, the Wahhabi propose a strict abidance to the Shariah law.
Another issue of controversy between the Wahhabi and the secularists is the idea of equality between men and women. Whereas other Islamist groupings may favor the inclusion of women in social and political affairs, the Wahhabi advocate that women should return to the home (Moussalli, 1992). Women are restricted from freely intermingling with men and are asked to stick to the traditional role of submitting to their husbands. On the contrary, secularists are outspoken in their pursuit for gender equality. They demand that women must be allowed to participate in all spheres of life without restriction whatsoever. Secularists do not spare particular professions for men and women. They hold that any subjugation of an individual because of sexual orientation is unacceptable.
One fundamental principle of secularists is the separation of religion and state. Secularists advocate for a clear line between religion and governance. They claim that religion (in this case Islam) should be limited to an individual’s relation with God, and should have nothing to do with daily affairs of life. This supposition is vehemently rejected by the Wahhabi, who insist that Islam does not draw a line between religion, governance and individual life (Moussalli, 2009). The Wahhabi argue that Islam is a complete way of life and the Shariah should guide all dwellings in the world. Every aspect in the world should thus be pursued according to the Shariah, failure to which one becomes a non-believer (Kaffir). As a result, all governments not based on the Shariah are seen as flawed and Muslims are asked not to associate with them.
The Saudi scholars who are mostly Wahhabi have denounced secularism and issued fatwas to the extent that whoever pursues guidance (Huda) other than that of the Shariah and the Hadith, or believes that another system of guidance is better than that of the Quran and the Sunnah is a Kaffir. Such arguments have been used to by many a Wahhabi scholar to challenge the imposition of Western backed democracy to Islamic nations (Moussalli, 2009, pp. 8-9). The Saudi kingdom has indeed been very reluctant to adopt the form of democracy defined by the United States of America, a trait that can be traced to the influence of the Wahhabi religious establishment and the royal family (Moussalli, 2009, p. 11). Even the so far successful Arab spring is viewed with suspicion as some of the revolutionaries argue that Shariah law, and not democracy, should be the basis of the new governance. This is against secularism, for it advocates for doing away with laws that have a religious basis such as the Shariah. Secularists want governance to be divorced from religion. Thus, on the issue of governance, Wahhabism and secularism do not concur with each other.
Another contentious issue between the Wahhabi and secularists is the issue of punishment as prescribed by the Shariah. Secularists hold that all punishment in law should be in consonant with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For instance, they argue that the death sentence is unjustifiable assigned in the Shariah, and that Shariah law is generally very harsh. Punishments ascribed to thievery are also criticized as undeserving. Other arguments point at the failure of the Shariah to welcome amendments and move with time. An example that comes to mind here is the issue of gay rights. Secular states continue to embrace same sex relationships and adopt gay rights, something that the Wahhabi cannot even give a thought. The Wahhabi argue that the Shariah prohibits same sex marriages, and that such relationships are punishable. They hold that the Shariah is not subject to questioning. This is against the stand of secularists who reject dogmatic following of creed.
In the Middle East, secularism is viewed with suspicion, as it is normally associated with oppression. Islamic fundamentalism, of which Wahhabism is part of, enjoys widespread popularisim in the Arab World (Moussalli, 1992), and rulers who adopt secularism are forced to be more repressive and dictatorial to protect their secular convictions. Such authoritarian tendencies lead the public to dislike secularism and as a result to seek refuge in strict forms of Islam like Wahhabism. Taking an example of Libya, Gaddafi’s regime was widely seen as a secular. Gaddaffi was known to move around the world with unveiled female bodyguards, a practice which the Wahhabi cannot tolerate. Among other reasons, Gaddafi was labeled a dictator because of using an iron fist in his pursuit for a moderate (secular) Islamic state. Such was the resentment among the Libyan public that they rebelled against him.
In conclusion, the differences in perspectives between Wahhabism and secularism are astounding. However, an effort to reconcile the two schools of thought should be encouraged. It should be noted that even prophet Muhammad consulted with others in making decisions. As a result, the world should accept consultative processes and change. Besides, Islam itself is a progressive, intellectual and scientific endeavor. Decision-making should be informed by facts rather than by dogma.