January 23, 2016
By Izeth Hussain
After Islamic fundamentalism? – part 2
Before proceeding further I want to explain the title of this article, more specifically the question mark placed on it. By Islamic fundamentalism is today meant Wahabism and its clones. There are Wahabis who claim that what Wahab taught was one thing and that what Wahabism has meant in practice is quite another. That is true to some extent, but it is a question that need not detain us because it remains that at the core of what Wahab taught is the tenet that those who don’t accept what Wahab taught – including orthodox Muslims and Shias – should all be declared apostate and be killed. Another core tenet is that the veneration accorded to the shrines of saints and monuments in the holy places of Islam amounts to shirk, polytheism, which is the one unpardonable sin according to orthodox theologians. They should be killed and those monuments be destroyed.
Wahabism holds therefore that the millions and millions and millions of Muslims who led pious Islamic lives as orthodox Muslims and Shias down the centuries will all be consigned to eternal hell-fire. It is impossible to believe that so perverse a version of Islam can possibly have staying power. Unsurprisingly over the two and a half centuries of its existence Wahabism has been no more than a minority cult, and it remains so today despite all the oil billions spent to propagate it. Even within Saudi Arabia, where Wahabism is the official version of Islam, only twenty five per cent are Wahabis. Why then have I placed a question mark over the title of this article, implying that it could have staying power?
I must make some clarifications at this point. The fundamentalist drive to return to the roots in order to seek self-renewal or the renewal of a society is something that has to be respected. I have argued the case earlier, using as illustrative material two iconic American art-works, Fred Zinneman’s film High Noon and Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring. But Islamic fundamentalism in the form of Wahabism is something else: a monstrous perversion of Islam that cannot have much staying power. However it could prove to be a hardy plant in some places, like a spiky rebarbative cactus with those unIslamic black burqas and other horrors. The explanation might be found in a sage observation of the great Einstein: there are only two infinite things, the universe and human stupidity, and Einstein wasn’t sure about the universe. However in the Islamic world as a whole Wahabism will surely come to be regarded as an aberrant form of Islam with an appeal only to a tiny proportion of Muslims who are afflicted with deep psychological problems. I will add one more reason for that expectation, in addition to the ones I have touched on earlier. There are five million Muslims in France and many more million Muslims in other Western countries. How many of them wear the burqa showing they are in sympathy with Wahabism? An infinitesimal proportion of them only. I take that as proof definitive, beyond rational dispute, that Wahabism in the Afro-Asian countries is the product of social coercion backed by the petro-dollar.
However Wahabism is not going to disappear overnight. About two decades ago Olivier Roy, one of the two best-known Islamologists in France – the other is Gilles Kepel- predicted the quick demise of ‘political Islam’. Retrospectively he would seem to have been badly mistaken, but he will certainly be proved right in a slightly longer-term perspective. The violence and terrorism of Wahabism and its clones are best explained in terms of the transition to modernity – according to the theory of Karen Armstrong and Emmanuel Todd that I have already expounded. The latter predicted in his 2002 book that the fundamentalist fervor would die out both in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – the two great headquarters of Islamic fundamentalism today – by about 2022. It has to be expected that the fundamentalist drive will have nothing like its present potency without the petro-dollars backing it. It seems commonsensical therefore to say that the fundamentalist drive has reached its climacteric and will enter its phase of decline. Fundamentalism in its extreme and violent form can break out here and there in the Islamic world, but it is not going to constitute a major problem for the rest of the world.
There are two difficulties in countering Wahabism in Sri Lanka. One is that it is difficult to find a Muslim who avows Wahabism. There are two significant physical markers of Wahabism: long beards and females who are robed in black burqas. Such Muslims invariably declare either that they are Salafis, meaning that they have returned to pristine Islam, or that they practice Islam in its true form and labels such as Wahabi are completely meaningless. Most Wahabis can therefore be expected to say that articles on countering Wahabism have no relevance to them and should be just ignored. But we know that the curricula in the madrasas is Wahabi, we know that there is Saudi funding behind them, we know that Wahabi practices have come to prevail, and we know that the traditional orthodox Sufi-inspired tolerant Islam that served our Muslims so well for so long is being totally eradicated. Considering those facts we have to ask whether the Wahabis are shame-faced about Wahabism because they suspect that Wahabism is incompatible with Islam. Anyway the fact that the Wahabis themselves won’t avow Wahabism suggests that Wahabism and its clones cannot possibly be the wave of the Islamic future.
The other difficulty in countering Wahabism is that there is now wide currency for the notion that it is not for every Dick, Tom, and Harry to interpret the Koran, a task that should be left to the theologians who have years and decades of Islamic study behind them. I declare that that notion is pernicious nonsense because it is outrageously unIslamic. To whom was the Koranic revelation given? It was given not to the erudite of the time but to an impoverished member of the Meccan merchant aristocracy who was illiterate. To whom did he convey the revelation? It was to Ahmed, Yusuf, and Izeth, the hoipoloi Muslim equivalents of Dick, Tom, and Harry. We must remember that Islam is an extreme form of Protestantism which establishes a direct unmediated relationship between the individual and God. That is why there are no priests in Islam, meaning individuals who only are ordained to perform certain religious functions. Therefore the notion that Ahmed, Yusuf, and Izeth should have no say in interpreting the Koran and Islam should be branded as heresy.
I concluded the first part of this article by making two proposals to counter Wahabism, both of which would promote national integration. The first was to use the madrasas to correct the misconception that Buddhism is a form of idol worship, a point that applies also to Christianity and Hinduism. I had a strictly orthodox Islamic upbringing but I used to relish the prospect of going to see the Vesak lights. Today there are Muslim children who will have none of it because doing that would be tantamount to idol worship. Using the madrasas to correct misconceptions about the three other religions practiced in Sri Lanka would not amount to proselytisation. It would just be a counter to the idiotisation of our Muslims through Wahabism. We should not allow an aberrant form of Islam, a minority cult, which depends so much for its hold on social coercion and the petro-dollar, to become a possible contributory factor towards wrecking our ethnic relations.
My second proposal concerned the two verses in the Koran according to which Jews, Christians, and Sabians who believe in the one true God and lead virtuous lives will go to heaven. We Muslims must struggle to bring about a form of Islam in which those verses are given central importance. This is clearly a matter which requires in-depth treatment elsewhere. I will merely declare here that Islam is of all the world religions arguably the most widely ecumenical, and also that it is fully consistent with modernity. I will conclude by quoting Ernst Gellner, who in addition to his other attainments had expertise in Muslim sociology: “By various obvious criteria – universalism, scripturalism,, spiritual egalitarianism, the extension of full participation in the sacred community, not to one, or some, but to all, and the rational systematization of social life – Islam is, of the three great Western monotheisms, the one closest to modernity”.