The History of a Militant Islamic Movement
- ISBN: 9780691241593
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: May 2023
The violent acts of terror that took place on September 11, 2001, were neither the first nor the last in the long history of religiously motivated violence. In fact, the particular ideology informing this violence originates in the 1750s in al-’Uyaynah, located in the historically barren, remote province of Najd, Saudi Arabia. Despite the usage of Wahhābi and Wahhābiyya as identifiers of “self” or “other” as early as the 19th century, and as noted in Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement, Wahhābism is neither consistently defined nor understood, resulting in at least five different uses of the term. Author Cole M. Bunzel writes that the term is used as: (a) an eponymous movement, (b) a particular manifestation of Islam, (c) a pejorative weaponized by those with even marginally oppositional interpretations, (d) a counterreligion, and (e) a historically violent but contemporaneously quietistic approach to Islam (6-11). It is this last interpretation that is consistently reinforced, as the earliest message and adherents of this movement promoted “hatred and enmity” among the disbelievers, especially the polytheists, with this animosity softening over time. This rich detail is all from the first few pages of Wahhābism, a remarkably detailed, robust, and cohesive account of the historical development and spread of Wahhābism in Saudi Arabia, which is all enriched through Bunzel’s consultation of Arabic-language primary sources.
Bunzel delineates his book into nine chapters, which are generally thirty- to thirty-five pages in length. Only two of these chapters—the first and third—deviate in length from the others, extending to approximately sixty pages each, but this does not detract from the readerly experience, as these two chapters contextualize the primary thematic strands addressed throughout the book, namely the theological, historical, and sociocultural underpinnings of Wahhābism, and its geopolitical development and spread through what would become Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, a variety of invaluable ancillary materials are provided, including historical maps; a family tree for al-Wahhāb; notes on the orthographic conventions used in rendering Arabic-language text and translations, which are prevalent throughout the book; a three-page tabular representation of published works that opposed early Wahhābism; a glossary of common Arabic words and phrases used in theological discussions; and an incredibly extensive bibliography and index for the readers’ consultation.
In pursuit of his central objective of explicating Wahhābism, broadly construed, Bunzel investigates the upbringing and training of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, highlighting how his views were influenced by the scholarship and beliefs of Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. that Wahhāb’s theology faced repudiation almost from its inception, particularly by those who insisted that the recognizable Taymiyyan influence in Wahhābism was inherently problematic—Wahhāb was accused of rhetorical imitation and of misunderstanding the earlier theological concerns and positions of Taymiyya. Additionally, through consultation of a variety of primary and secondary sources in Arabic and other languages, Bunzel suggests that Wahhāb’s early history is itself characterized inconsistently or even incorrectly, with sources noting or omitting valuable demographic information and others enumerating as influences upon Wahhāb a number of scholars whose views were in stark contrast. This leads to Bunzel’s assertion that this may have been deliberately undertaken as a way of establishing a degree of authority or credibility to Wahhāb that was, perhaps, undeserved.
Although early Wahhābi-led military efforts—in the name of jihād—were launched in the 1760s and would culminate in utter embarrassment for the Ottomans upon the former’s occupation of both Makkah and Madinah, the spread of Wahhābism was also confronted by occupation, civil war, and anti-Wahhābi activism, even in Wahhāb’s own Najd Province. Such a detailed account of refutation and opposition might lead one to wonder how Wahhābism gained such a stronghold throughout the Arabian Peninsula, but Bunzel provides both a two-century account of nation-building in what would become Saudi Arabia and also describes the Wahhābi belief that their actions were analogous to the struggles of Prophet Muhammad and early Muslims more generally.Little could be more convincing than following in the footsteps of the prophetic tradition.
Furthermore, this remarkable book is punctuated not only by pointed references to the historical timeline, but also by the creative integration of literary exemplars from works of poetry, which are employed to illustrate more clearly—with a central focus upon tawḥīd and shirk (‘the oneness of God’ and (‘polytheism and idolatry’), takfīr (‘the pronouncement of disbelief’), al-walāʾ wa-l-barā’ (‘loyalty and disavowal’), and jihād (‘an effort or striving’)—the religiously-informed ideology of the earliest Wahhābis. This was particularly effective in framing the early goals and struggles of Wahhābism. With reference to the former, Sulaymān ibn Siḥmān remarked that “manifesting this religion is clearly pronouncing to them / that they are unbelievers, for indeed they are an unbelieving people, / And evident enmity and manifest hatred, / this is manifesting [the religion] and [proper] condemnation” (4). The latter is evinced through ‘Abd al-Laṭīf’s pronouncement in poetry that “[the Rejectionists and polytheists have acquired power, / and by them the market of wickedness and wrong has been erected” (248). Such masterful incorporation of this material is uncommon in scholarly texts, yet this does not reduce the academic complexity of Wahhābism.
To this end, experienced academics from a variety of disciplines will find significant topics of interest to expand their own knowledge and will also be able to identify points where Bunzel has departed from extant scholarship. It should be noted, however, that the comprehensibility in this book comes at the expense of accessibility, as those without a firm, extensive grasp of Islamic theology will struggle, perhaps necessarily so, to comprehend the breadth of Bunzel’s contribution. This is because a great deal of prerequisite knowledge is taken for granted (e.g. the tacit references to the relationship between Sufism and acts of innovation, or bid’ah), which stands in contrast to Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (DeLong-Bas, 2004) or to Wahhabism and the World: Understanding Saudi Arabia's Global Influence on Islam (Mandaville, 2022). As a result, despite being a challenging book, this is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in either Islamic history and/or the lasting impact of Wahhābism.
Troy E. Spier is an assistant professor of English and linguistics at Florida A&M University.Troy E. SpierDate Of Review:August 23, 2023