Wahhabi Perspectives on Pluralism and Gender

The CSC has released a new white paper by Inayah Rohmaniyah and Mark Woodward entitled Wahhabi Perspectives on Pluralism and Gender: A Saudi – Indonesian Contrast.  The paper is available here and the executive summary follows:

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.

3 Responses to “Wahhabi Perspectives on Pluralism and Gender”

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  1. Visitor says:

    This article reminds us that the diffusion of Wahhabi ideas BEFORE the establishment of the Saudi state and its control of the Holy Cities to Asian countries has been insufficiently studied. The ultimate cultural assimilation of reformist ideas into the local religious milieu after they were brought back from Arabia by a Chinese scholar seems to be similar to this one in Java. In China, they identified themselves as “ikhwan” as borrowed from the name of the Wahhabi warriors of Saudi expansionism.

    It would be helpful to clarify the way in which this school is identified as “Wahhabi” since this term is not used by its participants.

    A related analytical question is that given the rhetoric and actions of this school’s leadership, which are clearly heretical by “Wahhabi” standards, how is it categorized as “Wahhabi?” Reading the description in the article, it seems that what was embraced by this Javanese was the list of beliefs that are common to all the reform movements.

    Beyond the works of Abdel Wahab, what else from the body of Wahhabi writings is included in the curriculum? Why is the academic educational reference Al Azhar, rather than a Wahhabi university in Saudi Arabia?

    Finally, how can one separate Abdel-Wahab’s writings from the vicious and bloody way that he enforced their content in order to contrast two culturally different applications of Wahhabism? Many scholars see that the impact of the Nejdi culture is embedded not just in subsequent implementation of Abdel-Wahab’s message, but in Abdel-Wahab’s own thoughts and actions.

    One thing is certain, that this Javanese example, like the Chinese one, clearly contrasts the application of a set of reformist ideas by an indigenous community with the more recent Saudi-funded and influenced institutions across the globe.

    One can only hope that over time, these “Saudi” institutions will acculturate into their local intellectual and social environment. It will be difficult, though, due to the global nature of the contemporary Salafi movement which is mutually reinforcing in everything from fashion to intolerance.

    • Bacchus says:

      No matter what training the founder of this school may have had in the basics of Wahhabi thought, nothing in the description of the current school’s principles and teachings could possibly classify it as adhering to that school of thought. Moreover, it stands at odds with the teachings of Abdel Wahab and his intolerant and murderous rampage across Arabia and beyond….that’s in the history books. What has been described in this piece is, in fact, an educational institution in the best tradition of Indonesian Islam, one that stands in contrast to “Wahhabi” funded schools around the globe, and most certainly those in Saudi Arabia itself.


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