By Josef Linnhoff
Editor’s Note: This post was contributed by Josef Linnhoff and is part of his doctoral research in Christian-Muslim Relations and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The title is an inversion of the title from a previous publication from Dr Joshua Ralston, Director of the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. Students interested in applying for the degree programmes offered through the Christian-Muslim Studies Network may see the website for the School of Divinity or contact Dr Ralston directly.
Few thinkers are as important to modern Islam as the 18th century Arabian reformer Muhammad b. ‘Abdul Wahhāb (d. 1792). As founder and eponym of the ‘Wahhabi’ movement, one of the most controversial movements in recent Islamic history, ‘Abdul Wahhāb has received increased scholarly interest in recent times . Throughout the prevailing scholarship, however, little attention is paid to ‘Abdul Wahhab’s attitude towards Christianity. There seems a scholarly consensus that his views on any non-Muslim tradition are not worthy of consideration.
This is hardly surprising. There were no Christian or Jewish minorities in 18th century Arabia and ‘Abdul Wahhāb focuses on those within his own religious tradition. It is well known that ‘Abdul Wahhab considered the Muslim community of his day as characterized by shirk. His many works, including Kitāb al-Tawhīd, consistently condemn a perceived rampant shirk in the community; this included the use of talismans and charms, and a number of practices linked to the cult of saints; veneration of graves, pilgrimage to shrines, seeking the intercession of saints, etc. For ‘Abdul Wahhab, this all smacked of an idolatry (shirk) reflecting excessive attachment to men, rather than God.
‘Abdul Wahhāb is not the first critic of these practices. Yet, we should note that the notion of takfīr (excommunication) becomes prominent in his works. ‘Abdul Wahhāb stresses that Muslims whom engaged in this perceived shirk are no longer Muslim . Those Muslims venerating saints may well believe in God, but they failed to worship Him properly. His frequent references to the kuffār and mushrikūn, then, apply to other, non-Wahhabi Muslims. The crux of the issue here, the central root of ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s entire theology, is that claim that merely stating the shahāda is not enough to be considered Muslim. Contrary to the dominant view in Sunni tradition, you have to act in accordance with tawhīd.
These are complex and controversial issues. The main point to note is how ‘Abdul Wahhāb closely links shirk to takfīr, and it was this controversial stress on takfīr that created so much opposition to ‘Abdul Wahhāb in his own time.
Christianity in the thought of Ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb
Turning to Christianity in ‘Abdul Wahhāb: It is true that references to Christianity are infrequent and marginal in his works. We have no record of Christians living in and around his environment of Najd, and he most probably had no personal experience with Christians. There are no Christian sources cited in his works, and no engagement with Christian doctrine. And yet, I would still argue that his writings on Christianity are of value. When we piece together the scattered references to Christianity in his works, a notable and consistent theme emerges. The category of Christianity is consistently used by ‘Abdul Wahhab as a tool to sharpen his polemics against a range of opponents within the Muslim community. The idea of his contemporaries being “in greater unbelief than the Christians” (aghlat kufran min al-nasara) is a repeated trope. This trope is usually employed through the lens of shirk – the notion that perceived Christian shirk around Jesus is somehow less serious, less severe, than that shirk found in the Muslim community of his day.
We do find this trope elsewhere in the tradition. It is not exclusive to ‘Abdul Wahhāb. Ibn Taymiyya sometimes uses it, also ibn Qayyim and even the Mu‘tazilite ‘Abd al-Jabbār. But what is interesting in ‘Abdul Wahhāb is how this seems the only way he ever speaks of Christianity. I cannot find any other use of Christianity as a category in his writings. And, as I hope to show, I think the meaning and purpose of this trope in ‘Abdul Wahhāb is distinct.
The next few sections will be broadly descriptive. I will quickly run through several examples of this trope.
The bulk of ‘Abdul Wahhab’s writings are directed against the popular piety of his day. He condemns the masses in particular for their devotion to local saints. ‘Abdul Wahhab often names some of these local saints in his works, whom appear to have acquired a cult-like following. In one of his personal letters, ‘Abdul writes:
If those who believe in Jesus, son of Maryam… are unbelievers, then what about those who believe in the devils (shayatin) like the dog Abi Hadida, Uthman…. They consume the wealth of people with falsehood and block people from the path of God?! .
We can only conclude that these are the names of local saints. He echoes this elsewhere. In his work, Kashf al-Shubuhat (Disclosing the Doubts), ‘Abdul Wahhab laments that while Christians were unbelievers for committing shirk with Jesus, one of the major prophets of God, his contemporaries were much more culpable – they were committing shirk with local charlatan saints of nowhere near the same spiritual level as Jesus .
Moving to Sufi mysticism. ‘Abdul Wahhab is respectful of the great Hanbalī Sufī ‘Abdul Qādir al-Jilānī, but not his followers. Shaykh ‘Abdul Qādir, he writes, is as free of the shirk and unbelief committed in his name as is Jesus of the unbelief of the Christians. Elsewhere he condemns the influential thought of ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1284) and the school of ‘unity of existence’ (wahdat al-wujūd). Here, the much-cited influence of ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) is most apparent. ‘Abdul Wahhāb does not go into anywhere near the same depth as ibn Taymiyya in his critique, but ‘Abdul Wahhāb does write:
The greatest of people in error are those who are Sufi’s (mutassawaf)… (in particular) those who follow the school of ibn Arabi…it has been said by the scholars that ibn Arabi and his school of unity of existence (madhhab ittihadi) is more extreme in unbelief than the Christians (aghlat kufran min al-nasara) .
Against the Shi‘a
Next, we turn to the Shi‘a. Unlike Christianity, ‘Abdul Wahhab did have direct experience of Shi Islam. His treatise on the Shi’a (ar-Risāla fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Rāfida) shows engagement with Shi’a doctrine and cites Shi’a sources. In the opening passages he explains how the Shi’a worship Ali, like Christians worship Jesus. He ultimately concludes that due to this worship of ‘Ali, belief in the infallibility of the Imams, worship around shrines, and other issues, the Shi‘a are more extreme in unbelief than the Christians. (aghlat kufran min al-nasara) .
Against the Bedouin
Our last example concerns the Bedouin. Contrary to widespread assumptions, early Wahhabism was not a Bedouin phenomena. ‘Abdul Wahhab is scathing of the Bedouin. In the biography of the Prophet he attacks them for perceived ignorance in religion, preference for tribal code over Shari‘a, depriving women of rights, and a propensity for tribal retaliations and blood feuds . He describes the Bedouin as “the greatest unbelievers and most corrupt of the People of Adam” (min akfar banu Adam wa afsaquhum). They are worse even than unbelievers like Jews and Christians, he writes elsewhere, who at least performed religious observances such as prayers and fasting. Again, the purpose here is not to praise Christians for praying – but to use this to sharpen the critique against the Bedouin .
Few people in his day or since would doubt that ‘Abdul Wahhāb was a controversial figure. Interestingly, some early opponents pick up on this trope. For critics like Sulaymān ibn Suhaym and Sulaymān b. ‘Abdul Wahhāb, this unfavorable comparison with Christians reflected the extremism and intolerance of the movement, as well its links to the Khawārij. This is a recurring theme in the early literature.
‘Abdul Wahhāb’s response to these criticisms is interesting. In a letter to his critic ibn Suhaym, he writes that he is not a Khawārij because they excommunicated Muslims for any sin; he, in contrast, excommunicates only in cases of shirk. Of course, we may suggest that ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s broad reading of what constitutes shirk, and the fact he sees shirk everywhere in the society of his day, perhaps makes this distinction inconsequential.
This post offered several examples of ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s treatment of various groups. These examples set up the discussion for Part Two of this post, when I will analyse these and draw some conclusions.
 Michael Cook. ‘On the Origins of Wahhabism’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol.2:2 (1992);191-202. Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality and Modernity (Stanford, CA: University of Stanford Press, 2002). Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2014). Natana de Long Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004),
Muhammad, ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb. ‘Risā‘il Shaksiyya’, in Mu‘allafāt al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, 5 Vols (Riyadh: Jāmiat al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islāmiyya, 1398H), 5/152. See also page 29.
 ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb, ‘Risā‘il Shaksiyya’, 54.
 Muhammad, ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb. ‘Kashf al-Shubuhat’, in Mu‘allafāt al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, 1/117. (“And know that he who believes in a pious person, or in someone who does not sin…is far superior than the one who believes in someone whose corruption (fisq) is obvious.”)
 ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb, ‘Risā‘il Shaksiyya’, 189.
 Muhammad, ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb. ‘ar-Risala fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Rāfida’, in Mu‘allafāt al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, 4/15.
 Ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab, Sīra, 39-44
 Ibid., 44.