Is Wahhabism responsible for atheism in the Arab World?6 min read
Wahhabism is an Islamic doctrine named after author Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) in Najd, Saudi Arabia.
Incidentally, ibn Abd al-Wahhab began a reformist movement that sought a return to the purity of the first reading of Islam as practised by the first three generations of Muslims: the Salaf. His teachings strained the absolute sovereignty of God, and prohibited widespread Sufi practices such as the worship of or through saints (bay’ah) and pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines.
Rejecting rationalism, Shiism, and other ‘corruptions’ of Islam, Wahhabism’s rigidity labels those who do not practice their interpretation of Islam as apostates. Non-Muslims and Muslims who do not adhere to Wahhabism’s standards are considered deviants. In a consistent reading of ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings, such a judgement means that they could face death.
Among other things, Wahhabists also forbid shaving and smoking tobacco, and enforce compulsory public attendance at prayers.
Today, because of ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s religio-political pact with Muhammad bin Saud in the eighteenth century (the former promising the latter political obedience in return for the propagation of the Wahhabi movement, helping bin Saud establish the first Saudi State), Wahhabism is the official state-sponsored religion of Saudi Arabia.
The reach of Wahhabism is therefore hard to pinpoint. On the one hand they reject a dialectal, more progressive reading of the Quran (known as the science of kalam), yet on the other hand, Wahhabism is itself born of a political context.
However, what is certain is that, with the help of Saudi funded Wahhabi schools and mosques across the globe, Wahhabism now holds a worldwide influence.
The US State Department estimated that, over the past 50 years, Riyadh has invested more than £6 billion in attempts to replace more mainstream readings of Islam with the doctrine of Wahhabism. Of course, we should view any State Department statistic with suspicion given the political contexts and motives of the United States. However, shockingly, EU intelligence reports confirms that 15-20% of these funds have been diverted to jihadist and fundamentalist Islamic groups.
Indeed, the exclusivism and violence perpetuated by Wahhabist teachings have often acted as the source of inspiration for extremist groups, including Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and ISIS.
Yet, while attracting some Muslims to fight, Wahhabism may also be driving other Muslims away from Islam altogether.
Wahhabism and atheism
Though exact figures are hard to find, the number of atheists in the Arab World is certainly on the rise. However, the number of Muslims is also rising. It is hard to tell if there is therefore a genuine trend towards atheism or if this is the natural manifestation of population growth.
In Saudi Arabia, a country often synonymous with its religious uniformity, a recent Gallup International poll found that 5% of Saudi citizens identify as ‘Convinced Atheists’ – the same percentage as in the United States, another religious country where atheism seems to be on the rise.
The harsh orthodoxy of ISIS and other Wahhabi-inspired movements has contributed to the disbelief in God and religion. Conducting a study on atheism for a religious body, Ali Abdulkareem Majeed, a Theist sociology student, said:
For youths, who are the majority of new Atheists, the savagery of the Islamic Caliphate established by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2014 created a reaction that [has] shaken religion’s image.
The horrors that ISIS and other Wahhabi Jihadist-inspired groups have committed in the name of Islam have supposedly driven many young Muslims to disassociate themselves from the religion, and invited renewed criticisms towards the religion from far right activists like Geert Wilders, Tommy Robinson and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times writes that an online backlash against ISIS led to many young Muslims proudly declaring their atheism. In particular, these Muslims feel that ‘[t]heir government-backed preachers and religious hierarchies have handed them a brand of Islam that does not speak to them.’
Denied the religio-political space to conjure new interpretations in-line with Islam true intellectual heritage, these Muslims chose to detach from religion and Islam entirely as the seemingly easier option.
Be this as it may, to claim that Wahhabism alone is responsible for atheism in the Arab World would be tenuous at best.
Atheists, after all, reject religion and God in general, not just the more outlandish, more ‘fundamentalist’ forms of it.
Rather than Wahhabism, Muslims who abandon Islam cite their qualms with basic tenets of the faith and their disbelief in God as the main explanatory factors behind their turning to atheism. This is consistent with the findings that Brian Whitaker made when researching his book, Arabs Without God.
When conducting interviews to find out why some Arabs turn to atheism, not a single person Whitaker spoke to mentioned Wahhabism or terrorism as a major factor. Instead, Whitaker writes that the journey to atheism usually begins with questioning a particular aspect of the religion, which then leads to personal doubts preceding the withdrawal from Islam.
Whitaker noted that ‘[t]he issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice’.
Egyptian Mohammed Ramadan illustrated this point when describing his path to Atheism:
The idea of eternal hell was very disturbing to me. I was nine when I asked my parents why would God punish us for ever [sic] when we live for an average of only 70 years.
Just as the Irish Republican Army did not steer Catholics towards atheism, and just as the Irgun and Gush Emunim did not convert Jews to atheism; Wahhabism too has no direct causality link to atheism according to this narrative. Though, it likely certainly contributes to its rise in the Arab World.
In the Arab World, the God question does not stand alone. As politics is far from secular, matters of religion are often at one with matters of politics.
As such, some Muslims – instead of breaking away from Islam completely – present themselves as secular or progressive Muslims. This allows them to challenge certain religious practices within the realm of politics whilst receiving less push-back from Muslims. Their role is very important; arguably more important than the ex-Muslim role who are often seen as less likely to mobilise grassroots change (though evidence is yet to confirm this suspicion).
Here, we can see glimpses of a stronger causal relationship with Wahhabism.
In Egypt, for example, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi banned the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014. More recently, he has also denounced al-Azhar University in Cairo for practicing intolerance.
The biggest moves, however, have happened within Saudi Arabia itself. Perhaps these moves hold more gravitas because of the religious significance of Saudi Arabia.
In attempts to show his opposition to intolerance in Islam, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has curbed the religious police, launched a Centre for Moderation to censor extremism, and downgraded his family’s alliance with the Wahhabist clergy. Whether this is part of a concession deal with Trump or Theresa May is unclear.
In these instances, Wahhabism (or, more specifically, challenges to Wahhabism and its exclusive intolerance) is at least partly responsible for the emergence of more progressive Muslims and reformist movements which may sometimes result in atheism.