Methodists and Wahhabis

March 24, 2010

Saudi Arabia and the United States are the Odd Couple of the twenty-first century. One a monarchy, the other a democracy. One founded on a restrictive faith, the other a beacon of religious freedom. One blessed by vast petroleum resources, the other cursed by a gargantuan appetite for oil. Their governments bound to each other by ties of money and armament, yet their populations distrustful of each other’s political designs, angry about violent deeds attributed to the other, and disdainful of their respective faiths.

From a longer view, however, they are strikingly similar countries whose historical trajectories may have been destined to converge.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the interior of Arabia was the wild and unsettled hinterland beyond the old and sophisticated cosmopolitan cultures of the likes of Istanbul and Cairo. The hardship, starkness, and simplicity of life in the heart of the peninsula contrasted sharply with the luxuries available in these imperial urban areas.

In the early 1700s, the interior of what would become the United States of America by century’s end was also wild and unsettled. Colonists living in the small cities on the Atlantic coast looked to London and Paris for culture and sophistication while European faces were seldom seen west of the Appalachian Mountains. The most sophisticated Bostonians and Philadelphians seemed like bumpkins when they traveled to Europe, and settlers on the frontier lived lives no less stark and simple than the bedouin of Najd.

In 1703, two men were born whose teachings would find fertile ground in these remote, scantily populated lands: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and John Wesley.

After an early upbringing in Najd, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab traveled to the rich and historic commercial city of Basra to acquire an education in Islamic law and theology. When he returned to Arabia, he called for a purification of Islamic religious practice and a return to the simple ideals and lifestyle of the early Muslim community (salaf). Political opposition to his reforms caused him to seek refuge with Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of the town of Dir‘iya.

Politically their alliance planted the seed of the Saudi kingdom just as religiously it gave rise to the Wahhabi form of Islam, and more broadly to the current of Salafism that is today often associated with Muslim militancy around the world.

Meanwhile, John Wesley was born near London and educated at Oxford where he led a revivalist “Holy Club” whose members were taunted as “Methodists.” (“Wahhabi” similarly originated as a pejorative term for believers who called themselves “Muwahhidun,” that is, believers in God’s unity or tawhid).

In 1735, John and his brother Charles traveled to the colony of Georgia, leaving their friend George Whitefield behind to advance their revivalist work in England. Though the Wesleys spent only one year in the New World, George Whitefield followed them abroad making seven trans-Atlantic voyages and delivering riveting open-air sermons that touched off the tumultuous revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening.

Wesley died in 1791, a year before Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. His Methodist followers and like-minded Protestant preachers inspired waves of popular revivalism focused on simple living and abstinence from sinful practices — like drinking alcohol and dancing — always aware that even the most pious person could deviate from the right path. Their message was enormously influential in the frontier of the American South and Middle West — and remains so today.

The doctrinal differences between Wahhabism and Methodism are immense, but their followers nevertheless shared certain traits. Both groups endured the charges of their enemies that they were preachers of fanaticism. Both stressed in their daily lives a constant and active adherence to God’s laws as they understood them and a similarly energetic avoidance of practices they considered evil. Both believed that you had to continually show your faith in your actions if you were to merit salvation. And both tirelessly spread their beliefs and practices among others of their faith, Muslims or Christians respectively, both at home and in faraway lands.

Historians of the modern Middle East usually remark that the United States played a negligible role in the region prior to World War II. At a political level (leaving aside the influence of Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of national self-determination) this is a sound judgment. But it overlooks the religious level, and the massive commitment of American Protestants to missionary work throughout the world.

Originally inspired by the periodic waves of revival that began with George Whitefield and the Great Awakening, tens of thousands of young Americans — usually educated in the best colleges — journeyed abroad to spread their faith or demonstrate to others the quality of American Protestant life. The Ottoman Empire and the Persian Gulf were especial areas of American missionary enterprise.

A similar Wahhabi zeal for reviving Islam expressed itself in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — less in missionary activities than in militant action to suppress what Wahhabi preachers deemed idolatrous practices, particularly those connected with Sufism, Shi‘ism, and the veneration of saintly tombs. But in the twentieth century, Wahhabi missionary activities expanded enormously. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the United States are today the world’s two principal exporters of religious missionaries.

The techniques, training, and political involvement of the two sorts of missionaries differ in various ways. But both movements draw strength from almost unlimited private financial donations, and from the reluctance of the American and Saudi governments to put limits on such donations. That many Wahhabi and Protestant missionaries see nothing but evil and political subversion in the actions of their counterparts serves to conceal the fundamental similarity of their social and religious roots.

Comparison with what became the cultural heartlands of desert Arabia and frontier America makes this similarity clear. Europe is largely post-Christian, and Europeans are often dismayed by the importance of evangelical Christianity in American social and political life. In return, evangelical Americans see sinful Europe as a land that is in need of religious revival. In the same way, once great Islamic cities like Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus, Tunis, and Fez are seen by Salafi Muslims as fields for missionary revival more than as sites of original religious inspiration.

This shared history of religious revival and puritanism on the peripheries of the old cultural and imperial centers of Europe and the Middle East sometimes serves as an excuse to ignore imperial history. The United States rejects any connection with British and French imperialism and thus acts as though it has nothing to learn from their historical experiences. Saudi Arabia similarly regards the histories under imperialism of other Middle Eastern states as being irrelevant to its own standing in the region. Neither government wastes much time studying history.

Yet their parallel religious pasts pose problems. No one doubts the depth, sincerity, and political influence of the evangelical communities of the American South and Middle West, though many more-or-less secular Americans on the East and West Coasts complain bitterly about them. No American president can make foreign, much less domestic, policy without taking their views and potential opposition into account. Yet as a country constitutionally committed to separating religion from government, the United States government will never formally endorse or condemn the private and church activities of overseas missionaries and their legion of financial backers at home. Despite its constitution, the United States has been and continues to be a religiously expansive country. Just not at the level of government.

The ruling family of Saudi Arabia is unconstrained by any constitution, but its history of identification with Wahhabism exerts similar constraints. No matter how vocal the complaints that Wahhabi missionaries and Wahhabi-supported institutions coerce fellow Muslims and engage in unsavory political activities, a Saudi king can no more curtail the his subjects’ private financial support for the propagation of their faith than an American president can stop evangelical radio and television ministers from collecting donations to support missionary activity.

Independence from imported oil, the non-stop call of the recent American presidential campaign, was a barely disguised plea to curtail relations with Saudi Arabia, which is indelibly linked in many American minds to the terrorists who carried out the attacks of 9/11. And there is a parallel yearning on the part of many Saudis to see the end of the heavy-handed American imperialism that scared the kingdom into a war with Iraq in 1991, imposed twelve years of fruitless and murderous sanctions on the Iraqi people, invaded a neighboring state at great loss of life, and now supports an Iraqi political system that has little place for the country’s once dominant Sunni minority.

In sum, private Americans — some but not all — express suspicion, and even hatred, for Saudi Arabia. Private Saudis – again, some but not all — feel the same about the United States. Yet their respective governments do not even dream of getting along without one another. America needs Saudi oil, Saudi money, and Saudi influence in the Muslim world. So say the policy makers. Likewise, Saudi Arabia cannot survive without American arms and American military protection. Religion focuses much of the mutual bad will. But neither government — given their complex histories of involvement and compromise with their citizens’ faith traditions — can forthrightly address this painful source of discord.

Is it possible to visualize evangelical ministers and Wahhabi ulama sitting down together and searching for common ground on the basis of a shared reverence for Jesus Christ? Probably not.

Is it conceivable that a forthright acknowledgement of the religion problem by both governments could lead to an American commitment to reducing Islamophobia in the United States and a modest Saudi relaxation of the existing restrictions on Christian religious observances in the kingdom? This may be within the realm of the possible.

In the meantime, it would well behoove the political and diplomatic community to recognize that the similarities between the United States and Saudi Arabia — while by no means outweighing their differences — are significant and deeply rooted in their respective political and religious histories.

by Richard Bulliet at

One Response to “Methodists and Wahhabis”

  1. Pat Says:

    Methodists, in many events in history, appear to have been central to a great many religious/political controversies that are not considered favorable by most Americans. Whether due to their roots as itinerant ministers, capable of evangelical agitation, or impassioned christian principles, their primary utility is by moving people to action – whether the cause is considered just or unjust.

    For political motivation, tax advantages meant to fuel what otherwise would be mere political activism is a particular flaw within the American-style religious freedom that tends to cross the lines between Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, and the opposite of what was intended by the founders of America.

    Though not the first, nor the only, religious fervor appears to be a unique method in the Methodist Church of conferring social privilege while giving the pretense of Christian philosophy as a preferred mode of deception.

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