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Christianity in the works of Muhammad b. ‘Abdul Wahhab

By Josef Linnhoff

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a series of posts contributed by Josef Linnhoff. These posts represent part of his doctoral research in Christian-Muslim Relations and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh and include creative interpretation of a previous publication from Dr Joshua Ralston. 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.

My previous post, Part One of this series, set up an overview of how Christianity and other groups become a trope in the writings of ‘Abdul Wahhāb. References to Christianity are scattered and marginal, yet piecing them together uncovers this recurring trope. So what is happening here? How are we to understand this in ‘Abdul Wahhāb? More specifically, is ‘Abdul Wahhāb employing this merely for polemics, as a rhetorical way of critiquing the behaviour of fellows Muslims (which, I think, is how we find it elsewhere in the tradition), or does he really mean what he says?

The answer, I think, is both. ‘Abdul Wahhāb is obviously engaging in polemics. He uses Christianity solely to disparage other, non-Wahhābī Muslims. His writings have nothing to do with actual Christians, their beliefs and practices, and nor is he interested in such. His interest, when citing Christianity, is solely in condemning those who claim to be Muslim.

And yet, this is not just polemics. There is something deeper happening here. I think ‘Abdul Wahhāb is being sincere on this point; he does consider Christians above those claiming to be Muslim. We need to remember the depth of ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s critique, his stress on takfīr. For ‘Abdul Wahhāb, his contemporaries were not fellow Muslims, they were not even monotheists – they were mushrikūn.

In his treatise On the Four Bases of Shirk (fi ‘Arba’ Qawa’id as-Shirk), ‘Abdul Wahhab makes the – I think unprecedented – claim that his own society was in a worse state of shirk than that of the pre-Islamic Arabs [1]. The Wahhabi historian, ibn Ghannām, also condemns the Muslims of the day for living in a state of jāhiliyya [2]. Now, for ‘Abdul Wahhab this is not just hyperbole or polemics; to all intents and purposes the Muslim society around him had become so sunken in shirk, it had effectively ceased to exist.

Of course, we may see this from another angle. ‘Abdul Wahhāb simply states that Christians are superior to mushrikūn. This is, of course, the mainstream, traditional Muslim view. The key question, then, is what is the nature of shirk or unbelief, and what does it mean to be a mushrik? ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s reading of the term ‘mushrik’ includes a great many non-Wahhābī Muslims.

Further Questions

Briefly, it is worth considering if and how this trope was received in later Wahhabī tradition. After ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s death the Wahhābī movement did, finally, come into contact with real Christians, via the British and French in the 19th century. Did Wahhābī scholars continue this trope? The evidence is mixed.

There is no doubt that later Wahhābī tradition significantly moderated, and eventually abandoned, the stress on takfīr of other Muslims. At the same time, we do find several epistles by Sulaymān b.‘Abdullah, ‘Abdul Wahhāb’s grandson and a preeminent Wahhābī scholar, describing the Ottomans as the greatest unbelievers and a bigger enemy of Islam than the British, which follows in his grandfather’s vein, albeit now in a different context, an ‘age of Empire’.

Conclusion

Ultimately, allusions to Christianity are hardly a major theme in ‘Abdul Wahhāb, but they are still of value and should not be entirely overlooked. We see in ‘Abdul Wahhab a clear example of the use of another religious tradition to reflect on one’s own. In other words, we see  in ‘Abdul Wahhāb how an external religion can be used purely to serve internal theological polemics.

And, of course, this works both ways. We find this also in the Christian tradition. Christian theologians have long engaged Islam as a trope for intra-Christian polemic. Martin Luther, for example, famously interprets Islam as an example of the Catholic trait of works equal righteousness. John Calvin laments how Christians have more freedom under Turks (Islam) than the Pope. And even when the 17th century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin praises Muslim iconoclasm, the aim here – as Dr Joshua Ralston has shown – is not really to praise Muslims, but rather to condemn the Catholic use of images in worship.

There are lessons here for how we think of inter-faith engagement more broadly. How often do we engage with the religious ‘other’ not as a genuine theological interlocutor, but really as a tool for an internal conversation with our own religious tradition? In ‘Abdul Wahhāb, we find perhaps the clearest and most consistent example of this in the Islamic tradition.

Finally, ‘Abdul Wahhab’s reading of shirk requires some comments. After all, this lies at the heart of the matter. While the notion of shirk can be understood various ways, throughout Islamic theology the issue of shirk has been essentially doctrinal. It relates to a doctrinal understanding of monotheism and worship.

In ‘Abdul Wahhab, however, there seems a shift away from this. The concept of shirk seems to have moved from a doctrinal, to a more sociological category. Put differently, across his works we cannot escape the impression that shirk is used as a kind of blanket condemnation – enveloping anything that goes against his vision for Muslim society. There no complex, systematic discussions of theology here, and shirk is used more as a broad label or a catchphrase, covering any perceived aspect of ‘non-Islam’. The emphasis is not on scholastics, but on tangible, social reform.

So in ‘Abdul Wahhab we see not only one of the greatest polemicists inside of Islam, but also a profound expansion and shift in the use of the concept of shirk to express this concern.

References

[1] This is expressed in several places but mainly his short treatise entitled ‘On the Four Principles of Shirk’ (fī ‘Arbā’ Qawāid al-Shirk).

[2] For more references relevant to this post, please see Part One.

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