Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab

I come across this short article by Michael Cook in 2006:


Cook, Michael. "On Islam & comparative intellectual history." Daedalus 135.4 (2006): 108+.


He was writing after a conference together with Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman - so it got to be interesting for me. In order not to violate copyrights, I just quote the paragraphs of interests:


"Last June I participated in a very unusual assignment at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden. Our task was to compare the intellectual histories of the three major non-Western literate traditions in the early modern period--alias the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, for those who find the term 'modern' tendentious in such a context. In addition to conceiving the idea and convening the class, Sheldon Pollock, a Sanskritist at Columbia, was the primary representative of the Hindu tradition. Benjamin Elman, a historian of East Asia at Princeton, performed the same role for the Chinese tradition. My corner of the field was the Islamic world. In addition, Peter Burke was there to provide the perspective of a Europeanist, and several younger scholars helped us out in a number of ways.


"Here is the general issue we addressed, even if we never came very close to resolving it. All three intellectual traditions were profoundly conservative, in the sense that they were strongly inclined to locate authority and virtue in the past. Yet during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries all three were exposed to the initial stages of a development very different from any they had experienced before: the emergence of the modern world, which was eventually to end the intellectual autonomy of each of these traditions. In the meantime, did these new circumstances generate any significant convergences among the three traditions?




"Now for what we do find. The single most arresting movement in the Islamic world of the day was undoubtedly Wahhabism. Whether or not we concede its humble pretension to be nothing but a reaffirmation of the Prophet Muhammad's monotheistic message, it represented a clear break with the immediate past: Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab claimed, after all, to know what none of his teachers had known. Moreover, the significance of Wahhabism was not just intellectual; it was also political and military, for it provided the banner under which a new state and a new order arose in eastern Arabia. But at the end of the period that concerns us the movement was still a geographically marginal one: the scattered oases of Najd were hardly the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Gangetic plain or the Yangtze delta. And beyond the frontiers of the Saudi state, the views of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab found little favor with the scholars of the day.


"Nonetheless, the rise of Wahhabism was arguably an example of a wider trend, a 'return to the sources' that was perceptible in other regions of the eighteenth-century Islamic world. The sources were the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet, in contradistinction to the doctrines of the four schools to which the Yemeni Ibn al-Amir had referred. Ibn al-Amir is in fact a good example of this trend. Another is his contemporary Shah Wali Allah of Delhi, who saw himself as laying a new foundation for Islamic jurisprudence, characterized by knowledge that no one before him had demonstrated so well (he mentions a distinguished thirteenth-century scholar as having "failed to realize even a hundredth part of this learning"). His idea was to unite the two legal schools with which he was familiar in the eastern Islamic world, and then to test their doctrines against the traditions of the Prophet, discarding anything that went against them. This was not an entirely new ambition, but it was a grand one--and unsurprisingly it went nowhere in his time.


"So the period ends with a commotion in the backlands and a sprinkling of individual thinkers elsewhere. Now add the wisdom of hindsight. Over the last two centuries, as the Islamic world has come under the relentless pressure of a global culture of Western origin, the ideas of such thinkers have come to constitute the backbone of its intellectual resistance. Ultimately, the New Logic of the Hindus contributed nothing to the Hindu revivalism of our times, and Chinese philology did more to subvert the classics than to reinstate them. Nobody in Washington has the slightest interest in either of these movements. But the return to the foundations that was stirring in eighteenth-century Islam is central to its contentious role in the world today."


Now why does this belong to this blog?

Wahhabism has the bigger political impact than Shah Wali Allah - does it makes the founder al-Wahhab's more canonical?   

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