Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Samuel Helfont on Qutb and abd al-Wahab: Convergence

Al Qaeda Board Meeting
Wahabi Islam (Bin Laden) Meets Muslim Brotherhood (Zawahiri)
(Image from The Raw Feed)

In a couple of recent posts, I noted that Samuel Helfont, who is working on his doctorate at Princeton University in its Near Eastern Studies Department, had written an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute's E-Notes. The article, "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide," had left me with a puzzle over Helfont's division of Sunni Islamism into a Wahabist faction and a Muslim Brotherhood faction, as I noted in both posts:
One problem with Helfont's analysis, however, is that it does not very well account for the rise of Al Qaeda, which combines aspects of both types of Islamism -- as Helfont notes -- for given the stark distinction drawn between the two, one wouldn't expect to find such a combination.
Mr. Helfont noticed my original blogpost and notified me of a longer version of his article -- in monograph form at 74 pages -- that resolves the puzzle. I posted a pre-reading note on this in a recent post, "Samuel Helfont: More on the Sunni Divide," and have since had time to read much of the monograph (and skim the remainder): The Sunni Divide: Understanding Politics and Terrorism in the Arab Middle East. Here from Helfont's monograph is the resolution to my bafflement, for the passage reveals the link forged between Wahabi Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood by the person of Qutb and his reflections on Islam:
In declaring the Muslim world non-Islamic, Qutb crossed a line that few in Islamic history had dared to traverse. With few exceptions, Islamic scholars had accepted the legitimacy of a ruler as long as he declared there were no God but God and that Muhammad was the last of the Prophets. Qutb's position on this matter resembles that of abd al-Wahhab but differs from al-Banna's position in two very important ways. First, and most obviously, abd al-Wahhab and Qutb are two of only a handful of Islamic scholars to excommunicate other Muslims. In this, they were similar to, and were influenced by the important medieval theologian ibn Taymiyyah. Al-Banna, in contrast, never even approached Qutb's position on this matter.As Gilles Kepel, a prominent historian of Islamic movements, notes, al-Banna "never dreamed of accusing the Egyptian society of his day of being non-Islamic." Second and equally important was that Qutb began to make his arguments on the basis of his interpretation of Islamic sources. In prison, his isolation allowed him to put modern considerations aside. He argued for the restoration of Islam on Islamic terms. Gone were the nationalist and socialist justifications for an Islamic society. Qutb argued that the Quran and hadith had all the information a Muslim needed to organize society. Similar to abd al-Wahhab's theory that Islam had become a stranger, Qutb argued that Muslims had allowed non-Islamic ideas and practices to contaminate Islam and that living a truly Islamic life required Muslims not only to believe but to act in accordance with Islamic law. (Helfont, The Sunni Divide, page 21)
The upshot of this was that Qutb's followers have gravitated towards a politicized Wahabist Islam that tries to retain its premodern outlook, whereas those who followed al-Banna stayed within the Muslim Brotherhood's mainstream, an Islamist movement that compromises with Western Modernity.

For greater clarification on this point, see Mr. Helfont's monograph.

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At 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking for something totally different and found this, but would just like to make one major comment: there is little evidence I have seen from Ibn Abdul Wahhab's or Ibn Taymiyya's writings that implies that they excommunicated Muslims on a regular basis, and Sayyid Qutb in Milestones does not excommunicate Muslims either.

To a large extent these thinkers follow a long tradition in Islamic scholarship: that of decrying the lack of piety in their societies and reminiscing about the good old days (the fasad al-zaman argument).

The difference, I would say, is that whereas most Muslim scholars throughout history have sought to blame the masses for the lack of piety, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Abdul Wahhab blamed the scholarly establishment for not teaching "correct" Islam. Sayyid Qutb, on the other hand, developed this vague idea of fasad al-zaman into a full-blown concept that he used to explain the society that he lived in.

The convergence between Ibn Abdul Wahhab's thought and Sayyid Qutb's thought, however, can be traced back to the Brotherhood directly, for in Sayyid Qutb's time the Brotherhood included more than one book by Ibn Abdul Wahhab in their curriculum, including Kitab al-Tawhid (if I remember correctly. This is mentioned in Zaynab al-Ghazali's memoirs).

This is not surprising because Rashid Rida, mentor of Hasan al-Banna, was an avid admirer of Ibn Abdul Wahhab and defended him numerous times in his writings.

The problem with most Western analyses of wahhabism is that it understands the wahhabis through the prism of what was essentially ottoman/sufi propaganda which presented Ibn Abdul Wahhab as an extremist heretic who rebelled against legitimate rulers (as if that had ever stopped anyone in the history of Islam, from Muawiya, Husayn, the Abbasids, till now).

But for Muslim reformers Ibn Abdul Wahhab symbolised a rebellion against the established order: the rulers who used Islam as opium for the people; the backwards scholars who promoted superstitious saint-worshipping instead of resistance to colonialism; the jurists who would write supranottations of annotations of commentaries of legal manuals without reference to the teachings of the Qur'an or the Prophet... In other words, they saw Ibn Abdul Wahhab as an antidote to what they perceived as stagnation and decay in the Muslim world.

Now, whether their interpretation of Ibn Abdul Wahhab was accurate is a different issue, but seeing as Muslim reformers had many of the same common enemies (ottomans, popular superstition, anti-ijtihad clerics, etc...) it is not surprising that they viewed him with sympathy.

Wow. I didn't intend to go on for that long. But yeah, just had to say it.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. Your erudite comment gives me even more to think about.

Jeffery Hodges

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