Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703-1791)
Modern observers often consider fundamentalism to exist in the margins of power and to have no significant influence upon state policies. This claim is however incorrect if we relate it to the role of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab and his disciples whom are well-known as Wahabiyah. This movement did not merely exist in the center of power, but had a great influence upon the formation and growth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab was born in 1703 in Najdone, an important city in the history of the modern Hijaz Arab. He spent his childhood there and then studied religious science there. He deepened his understanding of Quranic science in Medina, Mecca, and several other important cities in Saudi Arabia. In his study period, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab also visited several countries, like Iran, where he observed religious practices which he considered to deviate from the real teaching of Islam.
His love for the Quran and the Hadits drove him to enliven these main sources of Islam and implement them in the modern life of Muslims. He also introduced the jargon: “return to Quran and Hadits”. His view was that the core of Islamic teaching is the Quran and Hadits, hence the call for Islamic purification should be based on these books. Abd al-Wahab did not only invite Muslims to return to the teachings of the Quran and Hadits, but advised them to oppose and annihilate the practices which are considered to be against their teachings.
Abd al-Wahab was an intelligent mana. Besides delivering religious speeches to his disciples, he also wrote many books, for example, Kitab ala-Tauhid which is the main reference for his students and disciples, as well as Al-Ushul al-Tsalatsah wa al-Qawa’id al-Arba’ah, Tafsir al-Fatihah, Tafsir Kalimat al-Tauhid, and Nasihat al-Muslimin.
Abd al-Wahab’s works have a thick theological nuance (ílm tauhid) and therefore many people consider him more as a theologian rather than a faqih (master of Islamic jurisprudence) or mufassir (master of Quranic interpretation) even though he also wrote several books on fiqh and tafsir. They all relate to the attitude and spirit of Abd al-Wahab in his drive to purify Islamic teaching. To him, Islamic purification cannot be implemented as long as the matters of aqeeda (belief) are polluted.
Purification of Islamic teaching.
As one who was raised in the milieu of the Hanbali school of thought (mazhab Hanbali), Abd al-Wahab was a puritan in religious practice. Like Ibn Hanbal (the founder of Hanbali school of thought) and his disciples (like Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jauziyyah), Abd Al-Wahhab was critical of his milieu which he considered as deviating from Islamic teaching. Based on Hanbali’s school of thought which is known to be firm, and the hard theological attitude of Ibn Taimiyyah, Abd Al-Wahhab’s resolution was to fight against all kinds of heresy within ritual and of polytheism within belief.
His firm attitude toward various form of polytheism was driven by the prevalence of deviating religious practices. Abd Al-Wahhab saw how religious practices went beyond their proscribed limit in religious centers like Mecca and Medina, for example, in the excessive glorification of the graves of the Prophet and his companions. The devotional visits to sacred places in both holy cities had become an arena for polytheism and wickedness in the name of the ritual of worship.
Ibn Abd al-Wahab never commanded his students to take apart the graves of the Prophet’s companions or to destroy other religious symbols in the holy places in Hijaz. But his disciples, especially after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established, adopted Ibn Abd al-Wahab’s teachings and took radical measures to purify religious practices of the people of Hijaz. They not only sought to purify the beliefs and the ways of thinking in Hijaz, but also sought to cleanse religious places and symbols which had been glorified, including the graves of the Prophet’s companions and other holy people in Medina.
His firm attitude to deviating religious practices, especially polytheistic practices, led Ibn Abd al-Wahab to be intolerant toward the Sufi who are considered as the source of the pervasive polytheistic practices. The antagonistic attitude toward Sufi and mysticism not only referred to the private experience of Ibn Abd al-Wahab, especially when he visited several cities in Iraq and Iran where he met many Sufi of Shi’ite performing rituals at religious figure’s graves, but also referred to the heritage of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Qayyim Al-Jauziyyah, two Hanbalian figures.
Abd al-Wahab did not only reject practices performed by the Sufi, especially those relating to the belief of wasilah (taking someone else to be a mediator between him and God), he also discarded the structure of Sufi teaching and considered it as part of bid’ah (heresy) and syirik (polytheism). This denial is a logical consequence of the theological attitude of Abd al-Wahab which was firmly based upon the doctrine of tawheed (the oneness of God), that the belief of the oneness of Allah should not be contaminated by religious practices related with syirik (polytheism). The only thing considered as good that had come from Sufi teaching was the attitude of self purification. But, to Abd al-Wahab, a man did not become a Sufi only for purposes of self purification (Al-Uthaymayn. tt, p. 125).
One of the practices Abd al-Wahab is wasilah hated was the excessive loyalty to religious figures considered as sacred. This practice, according to Abd al-Wahab, had no clear origin in the Quran and Hadits and inflicts a great loss upon the Muslim community. One of its effects is the blind following to be found among Muslims. The attitude of taqlid, to Abd al-Wahab was a key factor in the backwardness of modern Muslim’s. Although he was not suggesting the urgency of every man to be mujtahid (individual interpreter of religious texts), he suggested that Muslims should be independent and not depend upon other’s opinions.
Abd al-Wahab also criticized the ulema (religious scholars) and Muslims who depended upon classical books and consider them as the source of truth equal to that of the Quran and Hadits. The excessive acceptance of those books would keep the Muslim community from relying on the sources which should be their main references; the Quran and the hadits.
Abd al-Wahab’s attitude supporting ijtihad (individual interpretation) and denying taqlid (blind following) made him a real Islamic reformer. Although he was influenced by the thought and works of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Qayyim Al-Jauziyyah, he admitted that he did not rigidly follow both of these prominent Sunni ulemas, as he admitted in al-Hadyat al-Saniyyah. Unfortunately, his independent attitude and confidence was not followed by his disciples. The followers of Abd al-Wahab are known as the Wahabi and they tend to be exclusive and fanatic followers of their teacher’s views. In doing so, they even practice taqlid which is something that Abd al-Wahab himself despised.
Note: Abd al-Wahab’s teachings have been disseminated since Muhammad ibn Saud, a leader of the tribes in Dariyah, an area in Hijaz Arab, built up the power of Saudi Arabia as a nation-state in the beginning of 1800’s. After Ibnu Saud conquered Mecca in 1803, Abd al-Wahab’s teachings became adopted as the formal doctrine of the Kingdom.
(Translated by Lanny Octavia, edited by Jonathan Zilberg) URL: http://islamlib.com/en/page.php?page=article&id=485
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