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A Sufi Muslim Takes on Wahhabism

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Almost from the moment he sits down, Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani goes on a sustained frontal attack on Wahhabism, the strain of Islamic thought that is currently and widely believed to be the ideological well-spring of Islamic extremism.

If Wahhabism had been an object standing right before him, it would have been reduced to pulp by the end of the hour-long interview.

But Shaykh Kabbani will tell you that it is not because he hates the Wahhabis. The chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, a religious organisation based in Washington DC whose mission, among others, is to 'educate government officials on the religion, culture and history of the Muslim world', says he is worried because Wahhabism is like an an octopus.

'Its tentacles are reaching everywhere.'

Concerted efforts must now be made to stop them, he says. 'You have to hit the head; the head is the teachings, the teachings of radical Wahhabism,' says the 59-year-old.

Back in 1990, arriving for his first Friday prayers in an American mosque in Jersey City, he was shocked to hear Wahhabism being preached. 'What I heard there, I had never heard in my native Lebanon. I asked myself: Is Wahhabism active in America? So I started my research. Whichever mosque I went to, it was Wahhabi, Wahhabi, Wahhabi, Wahhabi.'

The pervasive presence of Wahhabi teachings in American mosques appalled him.

With a long white beard that reaches the chest, a flowing robe and white headgear, Shaykh Kabbani can easily be mistaken for one of those Islamic scholars more at ease with Quranic verses than the chemical properties of oil or the anatomy of the human body.

But the Lebanon-born scholar graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the American University of Beirut before continuing his medical studies in Belgium. Today, he also has a degree in Islamic law.

Shaykh Kabbani is one of the organisers of the four-day International Conference of Islamic Scholars to be held in Jakarta from Dec 21 which features some world-renowned Muslim scholars.

Among them are Dr Husain Haqqani of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dr Khaled M. Abou El Fadl of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, Dr Abdul Ghani Le Joyeux of the Muslim World League of France, and Dr Rahma Bourqia, president of the Universite Hassan II Mohammedia-Casablanca in Morocco.

The conference is meant to provide a forum for Islamic leaders to discuss strategies, programmes and plans to 'elucidate a modern vision for civil society institutions in Muslim societies everywhere'. One highlight is the publication of 'A Declaration of Universal Human Rights In Islam'.

Shaykh Kabbani moved to the United States in 1990 as an emissary of his 'guru', Shaykh Muhammad Nazim al-Haqqani, the grand shaykh ('shaykh' is a Sufi mystical leader) of the Naqshbandi Order, a modern Sufi group, to make inroads into the US. Since then, he has opened scores of Sufi centres in the US and Canada.

Sufism is generally believed to have grown out of early Islamic asceticism that began as a counterweight to the worldliness of the expanding Muslim community of the early Umayyad period (AD 661-749). There are different variants of Sufism but core beliefs include spirituality, acts of piety and a strong emphasis on prayer and meditation.

Hostility between Sufis and Wahhabis dates back to the very founding of Wahhabism itself in the 18th century when it emerged as the most famous and militant anti-Sufi movement in the Arabian peninsula. Wahhabis considered Sufism a degenerate form of Islam and urged a return to the 'fundamentals' of Islam, as opposed to the 'traditions' that had accrued over the centuries.

Today, Wahhabism is associated with the Saudi government, which funds many Wahhabi missionary activities overseas, including in the US.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is also believed to be a Wahhabi.

Shaykh Kabbani's fame in the US pre-dates the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, however. In 1999, during a forum organised by the US State Department, he charged that '80 per cent' of the mosques in the US were run by extremists. Following that claim, more than 100 Islamic centres and groups issued a statement condemning his remarks.

In 2002, on a visit to Malaysia, he raised an alarm when he revealed that a former Malaysian Cabinet minister had allegedly funded a Muslim organisation in the US which has possible links with extremist groups. He has not changed his view.

More recently, he has been a guest at the White House Iftar (breaking of the Muslim fast) hosted by US President George W. Bush, and has met world leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He travels regularly to this region, Britain and elsewhere.

He has written a number of books, the latest being The Approach Of Armageddon - An Islamic Perspective.

It has been described as an 'unprecedented work' and touted as a 'must read' for religious scholars and lay persons interested in broadening their understanding of centuries-old religious traditions pertaining to the Last Days.

His other books include The Naqshbandi Sufi Way, Angels Unveiled, Encyclopaedia Of Islamic Doctrine (seven volumes), and Women Companions Of The Prophet Muhammad (with Dr L. Bakhtiar).

His garb and forceful views on the Wahhabis notwithstanding, the jet-set Sufi is not without a sense of humour.

When told that I had requested the interview to be brought forward by an hour to 9.30am, he quipped: 'I was told you were coming at 7.30am, so I have been ready since 7.30am.'

Introduced to my colleague, photojournalist Aziz Hussin, as 'the great shaykh from the US', he countered: 'No, no. The small shaykh from the US.'

Whether great or small, the shaykh is quite controversial, something that he unabashedly admitted during the interview.

He has his share of critics. In 2001, Professor John Voll of Georgetown University in Washington DC said that Shaykh Kabbani was overstating his case against Wahhabism.

'Wahhabism itself is subject to moderate and extreme strains,' said Prof Voll, adding: 'The Saudis have given millions to Harvard Law School. Does that make it a Wahhabi institution too?'

But questions like this, however, have not stopped, and are not likely going to stop, the shaykh from slamming the Wahhabis.

Giving moderate Muslim speakers a platform

Q What is the purpose of the International Conference of Islamic Scholars to be held in Jakarta?

A It is to establish, once and for all, the proper image of Islam and to empower moderate speakers or scholars to speak up.

Q The conference flier here says that 'the moderates are struggling for access to the public square'. Why?

A In my humble opinion, moderate scholars have no access to anything. The dominating voice today is the voice of the Wahhabi sect. They dominate everything: publishing, books, money. Everything is in their hands.

If one moderate scholar speaks up, the Wahhabis will bring hundreds of speakers from their side to speak. That is why there is no public square for the moderates. We are trying to establish a structure for these moderates to stand up and it is a challenge. But we are trying.

Q You say Wahhabism is the primary source of extremism.

A Of course, Islam is peaceful in its history. Islam does not allow aggression.

But the Wahhabi sect spreads a radical ideology, financed by oil money. Today Wahhabism is everywhere, not just in Saudi Arabia. You go to any mosque, you will find literature from Saudi Arabia about Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism). You will find on the shelves only books by scholars from Saudi Arabia. You cannot find books by other scholars in these mosques.

Q Are Muslims ready to say that the Saudis are behind this extremism?

A Ask the 19 hijackers (who flew the planes in the suicide attacks on the United States in 2001, several of whom were Saudi-born), do not ask me. That will give you a clear answer. Q Is that one reason why moderates are not speaking up? Because they are not willing to say openly who is behind the extremism?

A That is true in a sense...(But) they are also being threatened. They are afraid. No one will protect them.

Q Who are these moderates?

A I give you one example. Mohd Maliki (Muhammad Ibn Alawi Abbas Ibn Al Aziz Al Maliki, a scholar) from Mecca. He was a moderate and tried to stand up against the Wahhabis in Mecca and Medina. Around 1980, he was exiled because he wanted to debate (a fatwa issued by the Saudi religious authorities). After intervention from many Arab Muslims, he was allowed to return, but his movements were curbed. Recently, he died. But to allow his jenazah (funeral) prayers to be done in the Kaabah, they had to declare publicly that he had repented before he died.

Q What about the moderates in the United States?

A Most of the mosques in the US are influenced by Saudi teachings. Check the mosques, you'll find Saudi books, Saudi curriculum for the schools. If you speak against Wahhabism, your mosque will not get more funds. The people in the mosques have been brainwashed.

Q The conference statement also says that 'the struggle for ideological primacy within Islam is a fight that only Muslims themselves can wage'. Is this the position of the conference organiser?

A Muslims have to come together and discuss these differences and put an end to what is going on, because if the Muslims cannot do that, no one can do it.

Q Do you see this as a clash of civilisations instead?

A I do not see a clash of civilisations. Sept 11 caused a clash of civilisation. But I say the clash of civilisation is among Muslims themselves. Muslims are fighting each other; they are killing each other. There are no human rights in Islamic countries. People are thrown in prisons, beaten to death.

Q One American Muslim writer said that this talk that only Muslims themselves can solve this problem is actually divisive. It is dividing the ummah (community).

A The Muslim community is already divided. You are telling me there is unity among the Muslims? The Prophet said: 'My ummah will be divided into 73 different groups.' It already exists. It has existed since the time of the Prophet.

Today, there is one hegemony in the Muslim world, the hegemony of the Wahhabi sect that makes all Muslims look bad. Maybe the writer you mention is getting oil money. Many writers get oil money.

Q I do not mean to be rude, but the same could also be said of those who espouse a line similar to what comes out of Washington. That they are being paid by the CIA.

A I am not receiving anything from the US government. I practise the Sufi tradition - the purification of the self; to be peaceful at all times and not to create confusion. Obey God, obey the Prophet, obey the authorities. We do not incite confusion. If we do not like something, we say it in a nice, diplomatic way. We debate. Today, there is no room for debate.

Q How to stop the Wahhabis?

A They have been around 40 years, so there is no quick fix. You have to plan for the next 40 years. But the first thing to do is stop sending your students to Saudi Arabia to study. Unfortunately, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, America, Arab countries are still doing that.

Send your students to where there are established mainstream Muslim ways that are currently eliminated from Wahhabi books. Bring back the traditions - the (Indian) subcontinental traditions, the South-east Asian traditions.

Teach them Sufism, spirituality. They have to be taught to be peace-loving, to integrate and be part of the bigger community.

Wahhabism tells you, do not be part of a kafir (disbeliever) community. (But) you have to integrate with the system wherever you are; as in Singapore, you have to be part of this unique system that you have. You cannot say I am a Muslim, he is a Chinese. Both of you are subjects, citizens of one system. Your religion is between you and Allah. That is Islam.

I would also suggest humbly that you do not import scholars. They come from the Middle East and Africa and have a Middle Eastern and African mentality. My suggestion is to build in the universities an Islamic studies curriculum approved by modern, moderate scholars. These graduates can later teach others.

Q Is this not something personal, the antagonism between your Sufism and Wahhabism?

A This is the message we are sending if you want to change. We do not care much really. We live peacefully, live our own lives. But today, we see things are getting out of hand. Even the government has lost control. So we are giving a suggestion: To solve this problem, you have to go back to cultivating a love for the arts, the sciences, poetry, music - the essence of Sufism.

There is no poetry of love today. Only the poetry of vengeance... against the West, Europe, Muslims, Palestine. They are instilling in small kids the sense of hate; we have to change that hate to love.

If you think this is a problem you can solve through diplomacy, in 70 years, they will conquer you and finish you completely. People think there is one (Osama) bin Laden. Who says there is one bin Laden? Every extremist will become a bin Laden.

Q The way you put it, they seem like a cancer...

A They are not a cancer. They are an octopus, reaching everywhere.

Published December 12, 2004,  Defend Democracy