Wahhabi Perspectives on Pluralism and Gender: A Saudi – Indonesian Contrast

by Inayah Rohmaniyah & Mark Woodward

In public discourse about Islam, “Wahhabi” is usually a synonym for intolerance, misogyny, and extremism. Though this is sometimes true it is an over-generalization. In this paper we contrast two very different forms of Wahhabi Islam focusing on education, religious pluralism and gender relations. The first is the Wahhabism of the Saudi state. Saudi Wahhabism couples this theological orientation with intolerance of all other forms of religion and a vision of moral order that includes severe restrictions on the role of women in public life, with gender segregation and discrimination being a central part of the Saudi Wahhabi moral vision.

The second is that of a mid-sized Wahhabi oriented pesantren (Islamic school) in Indonesia. Though it is as firmly rooted in al-Wahab’s theological vision as any Saudi school, its brand of Wahhabism could not be more different from that practiced in Saudi Arabia. It allows for diversity in ritual practice on controversial issues, readily interacts with other Muslim and non-Muslim religious communities, and teaches that the state does not have the right to establish one religion or a single interpretation of Islam as “official.” It also is equally progressive on gender issues and does not define rigid gender segregation as a component of moral order.

We show that core Wahhabi religious teachings are as compatible with religious tolerance and gender equity as they are with religious exclusivism and misogyny. Our larger purpose is to question conventional wisdom linking religious doctrine with specific modes of cultural, social and political practice.

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