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It seems that there is a certain level of commonality between two particular religious movements that have proven to be highly influential upon the course of history in both the past and present - those movements being Calvinism and Wahhabism. Despite the obvious fact that the former represents a movement from within Christianity, and the latter from within Islam, there seem to be remarkable similarities in the goals of their respective progenitors - John Calvin and Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab - which seem driven by similar perspectives on the social and political experiences of their days.

When one examines the goals of these two religious leaders, one might find a remarkable degree of similitude in the ends that they seemed to be pursuing, and the historical experiences that seemed to have motivated them throughout the expression of their expansive doctrines.

The case of John Calvin was one of 16th century Geneva, during a time when a great deal of sectarian bickering divided the various Christian creeds whom found themselves both within the city-state and throughout western Europe. Calvin himself makes reference to the heated theological arguments and the political schecanerie instigated by the varying creeds, which drove him to relocate himself on more than one occasion, and whose injustices inspired his initial Commentaries:

“I left my own country and departed for Germany to enjoy there, unknown, in some corner, the quiet long denied me. But lo, while I was hidden unknown at Basel, a great fire of hatred [for France] had been kindled in Germany by the exile of many godly men from France. To quench this fire, wicked and lying rumors were spread, cruelly calling the exiles Anabaptists and seditious men, men who threatened to upset, not only religion, but the whole political order with their perverse madness. I saw that this was a trick of those in [the French] court, not only to cover up with false slanders the shedding of the innocent blood of holy martyrs, but also to enable the persecutors to continue with the pitiless slaughter. Therefore I felt that I must make a strong statement against such charges; for I could not be silent without treachery. This was why I published the Institutes — to defend against unjust slander my brothers whose death was precious in the Lord’s sight. A second reason was my desire to rouse the sympathy and concern of people outside, since the same punishment threatened many other poor people. And this volume was not a thick and laborious work like the present edition; it appeared as a brief Enchiridion. It had no other purpose than to bear witness to the faith of those whom I saw criminally libeled by wicked and false courtiers. “

By all appearances, Calvin’s experience was one of conflict over the very essentials of the Christian faith. Moreover, his stated impression of the events of his time seems to indicate that theological innovation[1] , of one sort of another, was at the center of the center of the sectarian strife of his life. Consequently, in response to this ungodly state of affairs, a considerable effort was expended by the man himself to draw the citizens of the Universal Church back to the solid-ground of the Revealed Scriptures. The surest evidence of this effort lies within the nature of the citations used throughout his work; Scriptural citations are drawn upon for rhetorical and legal authority - citation of papal bulls or scholastic philosophers is conspicuous only in its absence.

The historical circumstances of the second theologian - Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab - are of a different nature. The world of al-Wahhab was 18th century Arabia, in the region of Najd, in present-day Saudi Arabia[2] . Al-Wahhab’s was a world in which major religious schisms had largely come and gone - while Christendom was as yet still recovering from the Protestant Revolution, the Islamic world was centuries past the overt conflicts that had stemmed from the separation of the Sunni and Shi’a creeds. Though intertribal warfare was a common feature of the times, violent schism was not, and therefor not the scholar’s major source of concern; rather, al-Wahhab’s concern lied with the more subtle transformations that he perceived occurring within Dar-al-Islam.

Chiefly, al-Wahhab seems to have compared the state of affairs at the time of the Prophet Muhammed - as recorded within the Koran and the Sunnah - with those of 18th century Arabia, and found a society that was awash in legalized violence and religiously condoned superstition[3] ; in shorter words, a society deeply wanting. Institutions and practices that had once been explicitly eliminated, or at the least lambasted, by the Prophet - such as the wearing of magical charms, and the veneration of mortals past and present - had become common. Furthermore, institutionalized violence proliferated with the explicit assent - and often the encouragement - of those whom were invested with the task of interpreting holy law[4] , while such basic institutions as the zakt (Divinely mandated charitable donation) were ignored by the wealthy and powerful.

When faced with the experience of the apparent wrongness of the times in which he lived, al-Wahhab was seemingly driven to both determine the source of the inequities he perceived and to preach against them[5]. Like Calvin, al-Wahhab chose Scripture as his weapon through which to ultimately discover and formulate his doctrine, and eschewed Scriptural pontifications and philosophization - as evidenced by his consistent citation of the Koran and hadith above and before other sources, citations of interpretations are comparatively rare[6] . Moreover, al-Wahhab is said to have been remarkably conservative in his acceptance of the authority of hadith sources, having accepted the authenticity of those hadith that were not in obvious conflict with the Koran when set in proper historical context[7].

Having contended with the circumstances with which they were presented, both Calvin, and ibn Abd al-Wahhab, by all appearances seem to have reasoned that a handful of errors of theology, practice, and faith were at the heart of the troubles facing his community. First among the errors committed - both within Christendom and the ummah respectively - was the crime of associationism. Second was the error of explicit or implicit denial of the Will of God. Third - and most pernicious as it was the chief error of the religious authorities - was the error of innovation.

For Calvin, associationism and denial of the primacy of the Will of God was made apparent, for instance, in every sacrament performed by the Catholic Church. Through the perceived implication that the rituals of sacrament have salvific power in and of themselves, the sacraments might thereby be said to be elevated in the hearts of Christians to a status of divinity. Moreover, they might also be perceived by the naive to serve as a check on the Will of God, who might be construed by these individuals as helpless to deny the Resurrection to those whom had partaken in the proper oblations.

Innovation was also a going concern for the Genevan, particularly as it was seen as an error committed by the nominal leaders of the Church and community. The “innovation” of several sacraments, the sale of indulgences, the assignment of overweening respect to the edicts and philosophical musings of Church leaders - whose works might very well contradict divine revelation; these were charges layed-out most famously by Martin Luther in the 16th century, but echoed strenuously by Calvin, and by other Protestant leaders. Religious innovation was no minor concern either, for through it lay the path to other errors and other crimes of faith. By “innovating” rituals of a quasi-magical or gnostic quality, Church leaders risked misleading the laity into a functional trust in the power of ritual, rather than faith in God; and by elevating the status of the philosophical musings of mortals to something similar to the veneration owed to the divine Word, one both risked overindulging the human ego, and leading the laity to love human ingenuity before God.

For Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, associationism (shirk) and human, willful denial of the Will of God was present in the many superstitious rituals that he encountered during his travels. In these, he saw the ignorant faithful paying respect to lifeless idols, venerating jinn and spirits, and bargaining for the intercession of Muslim saints with God. Not only did these acts constitute shirk, by elevating empty rituals, spirits, and mortals to a status coeval with divinity, but for some, they implicitly represented attempts to deny God’s Will through magical or interventionary means.

Both men formulated complex doctrinal responses to the perceived troubles of their day. For John Calvin’s part, his doctrine is most succinctly outlined in the Westminster Confession of 1646 as composed by the Westminster Committee of the Churches of Scotland and England; for Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it is within the Kitaab At-Tawheed (“Regarding Monotheism”). While the means of one’s argument may vary greatly from the other’s, both appear to flow invariably to the same end - that being the elimination of the three religious errors of associationism, willfulness, and innovation.

In the case of the Confessions, the authour underlines the nature of the errors through a strenuous and nearly overbearing demonstration of three truths derived directly from Scripture. The first doctrinal truth is the predestination of either salvation or damnation (chIII, #3,5); the second, the supremacy of the Will of God (chIII#5,7; chV#6); and the third, the nature of human works and the sacraments as means towards the Glorification of God (chIII#3, chXVII#3). On occasion however, the authour also seems to take the occasion to remove himself from the strict, logical flow of this doctrinal argument and its implications, to attack the aforementioned errors in more direct fashion - as in chapter XVII, point four, of the Confessions, in which he chooses to re-air an original grievance and accusation of the Protestant creeds - the innovation of sacraments by the Catholic Church.

By comparison, the Kitaab At-Tawheed is structured in such a way as to demonstrate the errors of the community under the light of a single, inexorable polemic against associationism (shirk). Tomb-worship, thus, is an instance of shirk in which the spirits of the dead are elevated to a divine status (ch.xviii). Sorcery, divination, and magical rituals are acts of shirk that seek to elevate the willful acts of the living to a status rivaling that of the Divine (ch.v-vii, xxii-xxiv). Any assertion by qadi or mufti (judges or authoritative legal scholars) of the permanently binding nature of quiyas (scholastic interpretations of the Revelations), ijma’ (legal consensus), fiqh or fatawa (legal rulings and interpretations issued by mufti) are acts of shirk by implication that human wisdom and guidance is thereby being elevated to an eternal status that is the sole providence of God (ch.xiii, xvi, xxxvi).

Despite the different tacts that they may have charted, both men seem to have put strenuous effort into the task of educating the people around them. By the mere act of doing so, however, both ran a hazardous path through the shoals of the political orders in which they lived; Calvin by challenging both Catholic and Protestant Churches, their authority and doctrines, al-Wahhab by clipping the authority of the qadi, mufti, and imams, as well as by launching broadside attacks on the orthopraxy of certain Shi’a and Sufi creeds. By their acts of prostelatizing and polemics, both men threatened to upset the secular authorities of their communities by capsizing the religious authorities that granted them legitimacy. And indeed, the political impact of each man’s actions were tremendous within their own lifetimes, and even greater after their passings - one need only refer to the Civil War in England (1642-49AD) and the creation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for immediate examples.

What is most serendipitously common between these two, apparently, very different men is that they chose similar manners through which to make war with the religious and political troubles which surrounded them. Most obviously, they resorted to writing and prostelization rather than to ascetic retreat or war. Less obviously, they both engaged in a return to Revealed Truth and Divine Law as the preeminent means by which to bring political and spiritual peace to their communities. While such a response to their experiences might seem to be an obvious choice - or even an unreflective reaction to the circumstances - it is worth noting that, in both cases, such a choice was atypical. Why, after all, resort to the complexities of Scriptural interpretation when quasi-philosophical theologizing was a common and respected tradition in both the ummah and Christendom? Such a choice was not certainly the obvious nor the easiest path, and one can surmise that both men had faith only in a path with a clear and unambiguous connection to Revelation. To some degree then, one might term them to be fundamentalists, though not in the manner with which the pejorative is commonly used; for the two men seem clearly not to be scriptual literalists. Rather, their fundamentalism is not manifest in a literal-minded reading-out of all Scriptual meaning or nuance, but rather in a sharp break with the philosophizing of humankind; a tendency made clear in their respective dismissal of even the scholastic musings of their peers. For Calvin and al-Wahhab, it seems, the fundamentals of their religions are not literal-mindedness, but rather faith and trust in the Revelations given by God, over and above the philosophical speculations of humankind.

Endnotes

1. In Chapter XXVII of the Calvinistic Westminster Confessions, in particular, the old debate regarding innovation and the sacraments is reopened, by asserting that only two sacraments exist within the Scriptures, and thereby implying that all others are human creations.

2. Biographical points on the life of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab have been taken from chapter 1 of “Wahhabi Islam:From Revival to Reform to Global Jihad”, by Natana J. Delong-Bas; Oxford University Press 2004

3. Al-Wahhab found the veneration of saints to be particularly disturbing example of condoned superstition, and dedicated chapters XII and XIV of his Kitaab At-Tawheed to the subject.

4. Al-Wahhab reputedly ignored calls by the ulama for an immediate resort to violence in two cases. In the first, a woman of the ummah is said to have repeatedly approached the scholar and confessed to committing zina’ (adultery or fornication) as well as her intent to continue doing so; her life was eventually taken when the violations of the sharia continued inspite of al-Wahhab’s warnings. In the second case, the scholar reportedly condemned the ulama in a fatwa when the later issued edicts calling for the death of an individual charged with having acted sinfully. (Source: Chapter 1 of “Wahhabi Islam:From Revival to Reform to Global Jihad”, by Natana J. Delong-Bas; Oxford University Press 2004)

5. Al-Wahhab seems to have traveled widely in the region now known as Saudi Arabia, both as part of his Scriptural research - particularly on the matter of finding authoritative hadith - and as a result of his being repeatedly asked to leave places where his prostelization and legal opinions had caused him to fall afoul of the religious or secular authorities.

6. A rough count of the type of citations made by Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in his book “Kitaab at-Tawheed” is available in Chapter 2, page 51 of “Wahhabi Islam:From Revival to Reform to Global Jihad”, by Natana J. Delong-Bas; Oxford University Press 2004

7. Chapter 1 , page 30 of “Wahhabi Islam:From Revival to Reform to Global Jihad”, by Natana J. Delong-Bas; Oxford University Press 2004

Bibliography

Calvin, John; Joseph Haroutunian (Editor/Translator) ; “Confessions”; Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1958

Calvin, John; “The Westminster Confession of Faith”; Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

DeLong-Bas, Natana J; “Wahhabi Islam : from revival and reform to global Jihad”; Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2004

Wahhab, Muhammed ibn Abd al-; Sameh Strauch (Translator); “Kitaab At-Tawheed”; International Islamic Publishing House, http://islamicweb.com/beliefs/creed/abdulwahab/index.htm

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