A Survey of Literature on Imām Muḥammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhāb as viewed through the Western slant of history
By Kazi Zulkader Siddiqui
The Problem of Historical Distortion
Of the past fourteen centuries of the Islamic civilization, its thought, its institutions and the personalities who have contributed to its development and glory, stagnation and disintegration, the historical perspective painted by the Judaeo-Christian West has been markedly distinctive from the picture presented by the Muslim scholars, varying from outright hostile and distorted versions to the recent sympathetic (and sometimes empathetic) accounts. History is one of those branches of knowledge that can be used most effectively for the glorification and upliftment of one's own people at the expense of the traditions of others, leading eventually to a subversive imposition of one's own norms, values and way of life as the standard for others. Most, if not all of the people emanating from the Judaeo-Christian tradition who have penned their understanding of the Islamic civilization, have been prey to such underlying motives. This is not unique though since the subjective bias and assumptions of the historian in question are an integral part of the writing of history. What becomes remarkable in this case is the effective use of the historical perspective of other people for the exploitation of the same. This becomes manifest then, for example, in the notorious 'Divide and Rule' policy of the post-renaissance British Empire. The Old Testament Hebraic heritage has a lot to offer in comprehending this attitude and mentality of the Western writer. The Old Testament (in the Bible) was written primarily to identify the ancestry and heritage of the Jews and thereby declare their superiority over all other nations. The other nations mentioned in the Old Testament are merely for the sake of justification of the crimes of the Children of Israel. Likewise, the modern Western writer is not concerned about the absolute and relative truths. He is more concerned about justifying or explaining away the phenomena of other civilizations. Through this he either hopes to dominate over the other civilizations, or to convert them to his own ways. We are well aware that our foregoing remarks are heavily loaded with our own assumptions; but there are certain assumptions, which are derived through the cognitive and perceptive processes using the facts of history as the starting point. Thus, in this case, the assumptions are elevated to the level of derived facts and axioms. To prove our point, we have chosen for this paper a survey of the literature in English produced by the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the famous and controversial imām Muḥammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhāb (1703-1789). As a prominent figure in Islamic history, loved by many and hated by many others of the Muslims, he has managed to attract the attention of the Western colonialists, missionaries, and historians who were neither, right from his own lifetime to the present. Far greater than the Imām himself is the impact of his followers - the Muwaḥḥidūn or the so-called Wahhābis - on the Western literature about Islam. The schismatic element in the nature of the controversy between the followers of the Imām and other Muslims has held great interest for the very reasons we have outlined above. The analysis will become far more categorical as we proceed with the survey itself. Besides, this analysis can be made much more precise, accurate and to the point if one were to attempt a similar exercise on the survey of the Western literature about the followers of the Imām. In this paper we shall limit ourselves to the Imām only. To begin with, it would be appropriate to narrate the salient features of the Imām's life briefly.
The Problem of Historical Distortion
Muḥammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhāb: A Brief Biography: Coming from a learned family, 1...