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  • Radical Islam, Tolerance, and the Enlightenment
  • Fayçal Falaky (bio)

Although our principal subject is Voltaire and the shadow cast by his legacy following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I would like to begin by addressing another eighteenth-century author whose legacy also happens to loom over the massacre that took place in Paris on 7 January 2015. This author is Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a man who lived from 1703 to 1792, and was pretty much contemporaneous with the siècle des Lumières, yet whose philosophy can be traced to the fundamentalist ideology of contemporary groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

A native of the province of Najd in central Arabia, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab left his homeland in the late 1720s to study in Basra, and it was during his time in the Iraqi city that he started his religious mission, preaching against bid’a (innovations or cultural accretions), shirk (the act of ascribing partners to God) and any other practices that he believed were foreign to the original purity of Islam. His ideas were dismissed in Basra, and he was eventually expelled at the urging of the city’s clerics for being too extremist; but ibn Abd al-Wahhab made his way back to Najd where a more fortunate fate awaited his crusade. In 1744, Muhammad bin Saud, the tribal ruler of the town of Diriyah, endorsed ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s mission and the two swore an oath to establish together a state run according to true Islamic principles. For the next seventy years, until the dismantlement of the first Saudi State in 1818, the Wahhabis struck terror into people from [End Page 265] Damascus to Baghdad. In keeping with their belief that the veneration of saints and prophets is a form of idolatry, they destroyed various historical monuments, mausoleums, and shrines. They also prescribed upon the people they conquered a strict observance of their version of Sharia law, forbidding alcohol, tobacco, music, and chess, flogging men who shaved their beards or who failed to attend daily prayers, and stoning couples accused of adultery. Homosexuality, which had been largely tolerated in the Ottoman Empire, also became criminalized, and those found guilty were thrown to their deaths from the top of the city’s minarets.

If all of these actions sound sadly familiar, it is because they are no different than those staged or spectacularized today by ISIS, or those still performed, under a veil of silence, by the current kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As Kamel Daoud recently noted in a New York Times article, Saudi Arabia is an ISIS that has made it: “one slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, the other is better dressed and neater but does the same things.”1 It is for this reason that the presence of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to France at the Republican march on Boulevard Voltaire seemed hypocritical. While he was honoring the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, back home, the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was being ceremoniously and publicly flogged for “insulting the religious authorities.”2 The whole absurdity of the situation seemed straight from an episode of Candide.

Although most Enlightenment thinkers never heard or wrote a single word about Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a few authors learned of the existence of the Wahhabis thanks to Carsten Niebuhr’s Beschreibung von Arabien (1772). In his travel account, Niebuhr acknowledges the cruelty of the Wahhabis and the bloodshed they had caused, yet he depicts Wahhabism in a surprisingly positive light, as a revival movement that adhered to the Quran’s principles more than the ersatz Islam of the so-called Muslims. Wahhabism, in other words, was a new religion seeking to revive the real spirit of Muhammad’s message and set on reconverting “Sunni Muslims” to the faith from which they had strayed. Whereas the Muslim religion, as practiced by Sunnis, writes Niebuhr, “is surely far different from when it was instituted by Mahomet [and] has gradually adopted many pieces of superstition, which are condemned in the Alcoran,” Wahhabism, he adds, deserves “to be regarded as a reformation Mahometism reducing it back to its original simplicity.”3 If the Danish Niebuhr looked...


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