Differences of Ahbash and Wahhabia on Politics

The following two sections are from a scholarly article titled “Al-Ahbash and Wahhabiyya: Interpretations of Islam”, authored by Mustafa Kabha and Haggai Erlich, published on International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Nov., 2006).


Rulers, Islam, and Politics

The relationship between religion, state, and politics is undoubtedly the most important question separating the Ahbash and the Wahhabis. This question can be divided into two categories: the nature of these relations in countries outside the “land of Islam” and their relations within it.

When it comes to citizenship in non-Islamic countries, the Ahbash approach is clear: Muslims should abide by local laws and take an active part in the politics of the host countries. The principal model, clearly, is the Prophet-najashi story. It was the Prophet himself who told the early believers that the Christian najashi was a righteous king, and he himself ordered them to seek asylum with him, live, and prosper in Christian Ethiopia. It was Jafar bin Abi Talib who negotiated with the king and befriended him. As long as the Ethiopians “left [the Muslims] alone” to live like Muslims, the sahiba supported the Ethiopian ruler. In the spirit of this precedent, Muslim communities should participate in the lives and politics of nonoppressive non-Islamic regimes. In the eyes of Shaykh ‘Abdalla, all authentic and righteous monotheistic believers are indeed Muslims. There are Jewish Muslims and Christian Muslims, he explains, and the najashi was the model of the latter. As a righteous king, he was of the closest to God, and all Muslims should learn about him and his humanity.74

The approach of the Islamic fundamentalists and the Wahhabis to cases outside the land of Islam is, needless to say, the polar opposite.75 Here again, a principal precedent often discussed is that of the early Muslims and Ethiopia. One example among many is that of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an exiled Egyptian Islamic thinker, widely regarded as the supreme religious authority of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. “Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror,” he wrote in December 2002 in a fatwa. “I maintain that the conquest this time will not be by the sword but by preaching and ideology.”76 On the one hand, al-Qaradawi prohibited Muslims’ participation in the 1996 Israeli parliamentary elections. (He thus caused a split in the Islamic Movement in Israel. The wing that did participate also relied on the Islamic-Ethiopian precedent.) On the other hand, al-Qaradawi permitted participation in American elections. In his February 2002 fatwa, he explained:

America is a nation composed of immigrant communities from all over the world … It is a young country. Its cultural patterns are still open to influence from Islam. It also provides Islam with an opportunity to contribute to its growth. It is a country that respects the freedoms of all religions to exist regardless of some shortcomings. Based on the above mentioned.., .it is incumbent upon Muslims to participate in politics effectively in America.

The Ethiopian-Islamic precedent, Shaykh al-Qaradawi continued, has a relevant lesson:

In order for Muslims to gain their rights in this country, and their positive interaction with the native people of this country, it requires from us consultation and agreement on the main principles of Islam, and we should excuse each other on the minor differences. The righteous Companions of the Prophet set up an example hundreds of years ago when they met to consult each other on the best response to the critical situation during their migration to Ethiopia… Exactly as Jacfar b. Abi Talib did in his speech in front of the Najashi, when he stated the principles of Islam and the difference between Islam and darkness. In doing so, Muslims not only gain support and sympathy of others but an encouragement to others to follow the path of Islam. Muslims in America should familiarize themselves with the art of communication and public relations. Again, Jafar’s example… when he ended his speech addressing the [Ethiopian] king saying, “we have come to your country, we have chosen you among kings, we seek your neighborhood, and seek not to be dealt with unjustly.77

Whereas the Ahbash’s emphasis is on the human friendliness of the najishi, and potentially of other non-Muslims,78 the fundamentalists’ emphasis is on unifying Islamic action for obtaining rights, spreading influence, and gaining victory. The difference is sharper when the issue is the relations with rulers within the land of Islam. In practice, we saw, the Ahbash cooperate politically with the Christians of Lebanon and with the Syrian Ba’thist and ‘Alawi regimes. They praise the latter as champions of Arab nationalism and the former as defenders of Lebanese patriotism. For that, they come under Wahhabi at-tack, accused of supporting rulers who are not Muslims and who do not make an effort to apply Islamic law. The Ahbash position is that, in so doing, they follow in the old path of ahl al-sunna wa-l-jama’a and their scholars who always preferred stability over anarchy within Islam.79 Shaykh ‘Abdalla explained this approach:

“We do not find it necessary to undermine our rulers and leaders even when they act like tyrants. We do not call to topple them or disobey them. We consider obeying them as an extension of our obeying God. It is our duty to do so as long as those rulers do not try to force us to disobey God.”

To strengthen this argument, the shaykh quotes a saying attributed to the Prophet:” He who did not like his ruler’s deeds, let him restrain himself.” The best the believers can do is “pray to God to amend their ways.”80

The Wahhabi doctrine recognizes no separation of religion and state. Abu Talal al- Qasimi, one of the important Wahhabi preachers, delivered one of the many sermons against the Ahbash support for rulers who themselves had abandoned Islam. He quoted Shaykh Ahmad Shakir, a well-known mufti:

In many Islamic communities there are those who have faith in leaders who deviated from Islam and who do not follow the sharia . These leaders undermine Islamic law explaining that they seek modernity and progress. No true Muslim can support such action or ally himself with such rulers. Anyone who does so, plainly, clearly and unequivocally, is committing a blunt and an absolute heresy.81


Lebanon and Ethiopia bear some historical similarities. They are mountainous citadels in which Christians managed to retain their political identity: “Christian islands” in an “Islamic sea.” In Lebanon, as it was reconstructed in 1861, the Christians enjoyed hegemony within a multi-religious arrangement. For over a hundred years, Lebanon existed as a model of religious coexistence. This structure and atmosphere came to an end in the 1970s. The internal inter-religious politic and the culture of moderation that maintained it were both shattered. The land that used to be a source of inspiration for Islamic-Christian dialogue became itself an unstable home for various radicals. The Ahbash, we have seen, occasionally add to the fire. Their message, however, is one of flexible Islam, able to redefine various cultural, social, and theological issues, and able to coexist peacefully with non-Muslims.

Ethiopia’s Christian hegemony was more solid and more ancient. Ethiopia was a Christian state for over sixteen centuries, perhaps the last political entity to integrally combine the Cross and the Crown, and did so until 1974. Muslims comprised a good half of the population, but their communities were marginalized and disunited along linguistic and ethnic lines. Their Islam was only rarely revitalized to inspire political action, and very seldom did it seek victory over Christianity. Most Muslims, especially since the 1880s, conceived themselves first as Ethiopians. Their Islam had vivid Sufi dimensions, often combined with the flexible, sober rationality needed for interreligious coexistence.

Ethiopia’s Christian hegemony collapsed at roughly the same time as Lebanon’s. The Communist regime of Mangistu HaileMariam, 1974-91, systematically undermined the Ethiopian church. Although it declared religious equality, it also alienated the Muslims. The new regime that came to power in Addis Ababa in 1991 has redefined Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic federation and, for the first time in history, energized processes that enable Muslims to make it into the very core of culture, society, economy, and politics. The Muslims in today’s Ethiopia are in fact quite divided in coping with their own new momentum. The majority continue to conceive themselves as Ethiopians first. Like their fellow “Ethiopians” in Lebanon, they aspire to an Ethiopia of open dialogue on equal footing. Their minority, strong enough to be a rising factor, consider the land of the najashi an integral part of the land of Islam. The more activist cells, popularly known as Wahhabiyya, aspire and work toward an Islamic victory. Indirectly at least, they do benefit from intensive Saudi economic involvement in Ethiopia’s young market economy. Thus, the struggle between Shaykh Yusuf al-Harari and Shaykh cAbdalla al- Harari that began in Ethiopia of the 1930s has gone full circle through Arabia, Lebanon, and back. In fact, in 2003, Shaykh ‘Abdalla paid another visit to Harar during which he distributed an Amharic translation of his anti-Wahhabi text Mukhtasar sharh kitab al-‘Aqida.82 In 2004, Shaykh Yusuf also returned to Harar. Both aging rivals are doing their very best to energize an already heated struggle in Harar-radiating strongly to other Muslim communities in the country-between Habashis and Wahhabis, as each party stigmatizes the other as infidels.

The story of these two old rivals reflects Islam’s globalization and its discourse today. Until recently, the town of Harar was a remote microcosmos in Africa, seldom connected to the major centers of Middle Eastern Islam. Ethiopia, as both a Christian land and a country of large Islamic communities, was “left alone” for centuries, mostly ignored by the greater Islamic world. Western scholars, following separate African and Middle Eastern specializations, tended to overlook what contact there was across the Red Sea and up the Nile basin. As exemplified here, this is no longer the case. What began in the 1930s as a local quarrel in a forgotten walled city in Ethiopia has developed into a prism that reflects a transcontinental, all-Islamic debate. Readdressing the formative dichotomies stemming from the initial episode of Christian Ethiopia as the first foreign relations case of Islam, the struggle between Shaykh Yusuf and Shaykh ‘Abdalla helps to define some of today’s major dilemmas. It helps to clarify the different conceptualizations of the non-Islamic “other” and of the Islamic “self.” The debates between Ahbash and Wahhabis delve into questions such as the nature of politics, the legitimacy of the nation-state and of ethnic nationalism, the place of women in society, the significance of race and color, the essence of God and how to reach Him, the legacies of history, the role of law, and the messages of morality.

What we have reconstructed here is indeed one dimension of the struggle within Islam. The confrontation between the Ahbash and the Wahhabiyya is arguably harsher than the clash between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Ahbash represents a moderate interpretation that developed in countries where Muslims experienced lengthy dialogs with Christians. The Wahhabis developed their puritan concepts in the desert and recently have combined with branches of the Muslim Brothers to reemerge as leaders of transnational fundamentalism. The latter, needless to say, should not be identified automatically with today’s wave of violent radicalism. Militant, terrorist Islam is a different set of concepts whose story is outside our scope here. Yet, if we had to deal with this aspect, we would also return to Harar. The “Ethiopian Islamic” messages of Shaykh CAbdallaa nd the Wahhabi fundamentalism of Shaykh Yusuf are not the only voices in town. In 1991, young Hamdi Ishaq left his native Harar and, together with many of his generation, moved to Europe. He changed his name to Hussein Uthman and, on 21 July 2005, attempted to blow up a London Underground station in protest of Western aggression and in the service of Islam’s global victory.


You may download “Al-Ahbash and Wahhabiyya: Interpretations of Islam” (link)

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