The Wahhabis Seen Through European Eyes 1772-1830: Deists and Puritans of Islam

The Wahhabis Seen Through European Eyes
  • Book Title:
 The Wahhabis Seen Through European Eyes
  • Book Author:
Giovanni Bonacina
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This book has its origins in my long familiarity with the works of the nine- teenth-century German geographer Carl Ritter and his influence on Hegel’s concept of world history.

 I read the two great volumes dating from 1846–47 which Ritter devoted to the geography and ethnography of the Arabian peninsula, while his Erdkunde provided a wealth of references to the earlier Euro- pean literature, characteristically also on the Wahhabi movement.

 My eagerness to study the subject in greater depth was thus aroused by a desire to complete and correct Ritter’s material. Although extremely well-informed for the time, it is now no more than a comprehensive repository of what was known on the subject at that moment.

The present study is intended to enrich and transform that repository, thereby creating an intelligible and cohesive ac- count of the gradual acquisition of information and the first formulation and rectification of concepts and prejudices surrounding the Wahhabis.

 Very different events have now brought the movement to public notice, to that not only of specialists but also of those who were unaware of the two hundred years of Wahhabi history and its impact on European views of Islam. With the aid of recent scholarly publications – the works of Michael A. Cook, Esther Peskes, George S. Rentz and Alexei Vassiliev have proved invaluable – and within the limits of my linguistic competence, I have tried to establish and communicate to the reader the critical distance necessary when examining those past texts juxtaposed to our more advanced knowledge.

This now also includes nineteenth-century Arabic chronicles (by Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr) which were unavailable to early eye-witnesses and writers. Acquain- tance with the later history of the Wahhabi movement, and its key contribu- tion to the creation of the present unified kingdom of Saʿudi Arabia, naturally constitute a backdrop against which to study the small group of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European observers and critics.

They actually saw the original nucleus, the rudimentary political structure usually defined by pres- ent-day historiography as the First Saʿudi State, which lasted from about 1745 to 1818. Every effort has been made to avoid imputing our own notions to men from a different period with very different preoccupations.

I have tried not to apportion blame in the name of our own critical preconceptions to any real or supposed ideology of theirs, while making no attempt to conceal their inevitably partial, albeit instructive, points of view and the unsuitability of some of their interpretative categories.

There remained two gaps to be bridged: one between those European observers of the past and the object of their observation, their acquaintance with which matured slowly and only approximately; and the other between the observers and ourselves, since we can no longer presume to identify with them at first hand. Readers will decide for themselves how far this book succeeds in meeting such demands.

Now that this book is completed I wish to thank in particular Professors Alastair Hamilton of the Warburg Institute in London and Giuseppe Ricuperati of the University of Turin, the two main advocates of this undertaking; Mau- rits van den Boogert at Brill; Jan Loop (University of Kent) and Thomas E. Burman (University of Tennessee), the two co-editors of this series; Massimo Campanini (University of Trent), Rolando Minuti (University of Florence), and Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti (University of Rome, “La Sapienza”) for their ap- preciation of my earlier work (Eretici e riformatori d’Arabia. I wahhâbiti in pro- spettiva europea 1772–1830, E.S.I., Neaples, 2011); Natana DeLong-Bas (Boston College), Sabine Mangold (Bergische Universität Wüppertal), Tilman Nagel (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen), Esther Peskes (Friedrich-Wilhelms- Universität Bonn), and Uwe Pfullmann (Gornsdorf/E.) for their encourage- ment; Stefano Poggi (University of Florence) for persuading me to read Ritter’s Geography in greater detail; and, finally, Angela Gibbon (University of Urbino) for her invaluable help with the translation. My gratitude is also due to the staff and facilities of the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göt- tingen, my favourite place of study for many summers.

My bibliography is lim- ited to the texts actually consulted and cited, without any claim to completeness or to the inclusion of the more far-reaching theme of the manifold modern analogies of Islam with Deism or with Protestant movements which have no direct bearing on the Wahhabis.


The prevalent impression among writers and travellers who have made us acquainted with the progress of the Wahaby power, has been to con- sider it as openly hostile to, and threatening the downfall of, the Mussul- man faith. (…)

Mr. Burckhardt, on the contrary, seems to have ascertained, that the sole principle of Abdul Wahab, the founder, was to restore that religion exactly to the state in which it existed under the Prophet and his immediate descendants.

Early in 1799 French troops under General Desaix, engaged in pursuing Murat Bey’s Mamluks in Upper Egypt, sustained ferocious encounters with Arab volunteers who had arrived from Mecca to help prevent the “infidel” from acced- ing to a region considered the gateway to the Muslim Holy Places. Dominique Vivant Denon, the future general director of the Napoleonic museums, sup- plied an eye-witness account of a battle at the fort of Benhut.

 His countrymen, outnumbered by adversaries armed with cannon and rifles seized from crews who had been massacred on French vessels on the Nile, won the day thanks to their assault on the enemy positions. Forced to extinguish the conflagration of a munitions depot “with their feet, hands and bodies”, the Arabs appeared “black and naked, running towards the flames”. “It was an image of devils in Hell and I could not look at them without a feeling of horror and admiration”. During the following weeks the men from Mecca, in chaos and abandoned by the Mamluks, devoted themselves to raiding and kidnapping the local “Chris- tian and Coptic” peasants.

This induced the Copts to assist the French in cap- turing survivors who were regarded as “animals harmful to society”. At this point, however, the narrator lamented the daily killing of innocent victims due to the inability of the troops to distinguish the enemies “by shape or colour” from “poor merchants in caravans” or common farmers. More generally, he de- plored the unfortunate obligation of the invaders “to punish severely whomso- ever refused to believe that we acted solely for their benefit”. The news that the sharif of Mecca, the supreme authority over the Holy Places, had taken the trouble to communicate to Desaix his disapproval of the volunteers from Mecca and his personal wish to cultivate friendly relations with Napoleon was a meagre consolation for Denon.1

As we know, similar complaints accompanied many future colonial wars, especially if they were ostensibly fought in the name of noble ideals such as those of the French Revolution.

 Despite, but perhaps also partly as a result of, the higher principles of civilisation and humanity to which the French invaders appealed, they ran the risk of endowing the French campaign in Egypt with the savage character of a divine judgement.

An ideal counterbalance to the Dantesque image of the Arab combatants in the Voyage was the resounding proclamation of the sultan protesting against the “Devil’s banner”, the “diabolical principles” and the “infernal spirit” of an “army of atheists” who had recently appeared in the Nile Delta – like locusts, as the first astonished wit- nesses of the invasion described them.

 To these European self-styled liberators from Mamluk despotism the Ottomans imputed the determination to unleash carnal concupiscence, legalise robbery and, in short, prepare the destruction of Islam in its entirety.2

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