Monday, November 24, 2008

Labels, Influences, and Religious Identities

Two MESA panels I've been to are linked together in my mind, one on "Islamic Revival and Reform in the 18th and 19th Centuries" and the other on "The Global Spread of Saudi Islamism: Wahhabi Masterplan or Accident of Globalisation?" This semester I've read a lot about modern Islamic movements for my modern Middle East history course, and I was interested in picking up more about the interesting things that are happening in that field of study, which I think is often misunderstood even within academic debates. (I've posted on this issue previously here and here.)

The first panel was chaired by Georgetown's Ahmad Dallal, and consisted of four Georgetown graduate students, Nassima Neggaz, Kifayat Ullah, Younus Mirza, and Sara Nimis. This was a broad look at reformist movements from West Africa to South Asia, and completely shot up the notion that they were influenced by the example of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula. To pick the two strongest examples, Mirza pointed out that on the matter of graves and cemeteries, which was a critical issue for the Wahhabis, Shah Waliullah, who was the forerunner of Islamic revivalism in South Asia, had an attitude that was precisely the opposite of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's. Whereas Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab saw in cemeteries an inevitable spiritual danger that respect for the dead and their burial sites would lead to veneration of something other than God (shirk), Shah Waliullah was more positive, believing respect for the dead was healthy and a means to benefit the soul, even if he did worry that it could, under certain circumstances, become shirk. The other, in Neggaz's paper, concerned the case of Uthman dan Fodio, whose writings show no awareness of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's at all.

In the background of this panel the issue of networks of influence among 19th-century Islamic communities. The textbook I use, James Gelvin's The Modern Middle East: A History, talked about turuq through which these ideas spread. I never went into this in class, because while I did notice occasional references to turuq in the secondary literature, I couldn't find any concrete examples of the phenomenon. Based on the papers and discussion, it sounds like the reason is that they never existed, and were merely a figment of scholars' imagination as a channel for influence which was assumed to have taken place. Insofar as Islamic reform of revivalist movements arose in multiple places during that time, it probably has more to do with similar challenges in different places. Kemal Karpat made a similar point in the chapter on pan-Islamism in his The Politicization of Islam, which as he notes makes the Wahhabis appear to actually be the odd movement out in the early 19th century.

Incidentally, as an aside, it's always been striking to me that the Kadizadelis never enter this discussion. Could the reason be a scholarly gulf between those who work on Arabic and Turkish sources?

The other panel was chaired by Marc Lynch, and included Harvard's Thomas Hegghammer, Norman Cigar of Marine Corps University, Stephane Lacroix of Sci-Po Paris, IREMAM's Laurent Bonnefoy, and Naveed Sheikh of Keele University. This panel seemed at times to be a contemporary echo of the other, with Hegghammer in particular arguing for a decoupling of Wahhabism from the radical militancy seen in al-Qaeda and the Afghan Arabs along lines similar to those of David Commins in his recent book on Wahhabi history. Another perspective came from Lacroix, who argued for multiple legacies of the original Wahhabi teaching in ways that remind me of discussions of the multiple legacies of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iranian politics.

The first panel was a straightforward discussion of intellectual history, involving texts, contexts, thinkers, and their connections. The second panel, however, was trying to get a something more challenging: an understanding of the relationship among different movements in a religious tradition which does not have organized faith traditions in the Christian sense. Although the Roman Catholic Church contains a range of opinions, you can still find an official Catholic interpretation of doctrine, as well as lists of members in good standing. You cannot do the same with a group like "Salafis." In addition, while an individual can, in formal terms, be either a Catholic or a Lutheran but not both, the same individual can belong to multiple overlapping trends within Islam.

My memory by now is a little sketchy on detail, but at times I felt like the discussion was even more confused by people's tendency to use problematic terms without explicitly defining what they meant by them, and that there were many different implicit definitions floating around. "Wahhabi" and "Salafi" are good examples. "Salafi" simply means one is seeking to imitate either the first generation or the first three generations of Muslims. Over time, it has come to be claimed by those advocating for strict interpretations of Islamic law, but it was also a self-description used by more liberal thinkers. "Wahhabi" is actually a term used by outsiders. The followers of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab, to whom it was originally applied, call themselves al-Muwahidun, because their central tenet is God's unity, or, confusingly enough, Salafis. It has also come to be used as a general label for Sunnis who are more conservative than those doing the labelling, much like "Fascist" in the United States.

This is getting away a bit from the unifying theme of the panel within the broad rubric of "Wahhabi Studies," which had to do specifically with the intentions and effects of Saudi religious institutions today. It seemed, however, that the discussion at times faltered on attempts to extract essences from concepts which are contested by the communities which take them as identities and ill-formed by scholars applying them to others.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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