27 April 2005

Brands of Islam

I've not had time to comment on a very interesting article from U.S. News and World Report entitled "Hearts, Minds and Dollars." Hopefully I'll get to the article in general soon, but I did want to write about one issue that it brings up:

Fueled by its vast oil wealth, the Saudis are estimated to have spent up to $75 billion since 1975 to expand their fundamentalist sect, Wahhabism, worldwide. The kingdom has funded hundreds of mosques, schools and Islamic centers abroad, spreading a once obscure sect of Islam.

I've mentioned before that there are a variety of different styles of Islam. Wahhabism is part of the Hanbali "school" of Sunni Islamic thought (madhab). There are four madhabs: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali. Egypt uses all four schools, but most countries are dominated by one madhab.

Since the Ottoman and Moghul Empires were Hanafi, today the Hanafi school is followed in Turkey, Central Asia, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Jordan, Syria, and Palestine also have some Hanafi influence but are generally considered to be Shafi'i. The Maliki school is followed in Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Shafi'i school is mostly found in SE Asia- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other Muslim areas of SE Asia. There are also Shafi'is in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen.

The Hanbali school is followed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, part of Oman and the United Arab Emirates (except Abu Dhabi and Dubai). The Wahhabis are part of the Hanbali school. Clearly they are a small minority, yet, as the article states, Saudi Arabia has spent a significant amount of money to spread its brand of Islam. As a result, many non-Muslims are most familiar with this Saudi style- even though it is only practiced by a small number of Muslims. Most Muslims don't have religious prescriptions on a woman going to the grocery store by herself or many of the other things I see as problems in Wahhabism.

The United States has a vested interest in supporting less restrictive and more reasonable types of Islam- and there are lots out there to choose from. Islam is much more than what it is portrayed on the news.


  1. My wife's cousin, a faithful member of the church, married a palestinian man, a devout muslim. He and I have become good friends as he's struggle to acclimatize himself to America and to English. It's been fascinating for me to read your posts. You speak of Islam as a mormon, but one who has great respect for Islam. I learn a lot from reading your blog. Thanks!


  2. Thank you Mark. I appreciate hearing this.

  3. Thanks Amira--I didn't realize Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were in the same school.

    My ideas of Afghan Islam really comes from the Iranian movie "Baran," I think of Uzbek women as more able to participate in public life and to not wear be completely covered, and certainly not wearing a burqa with a net window to look through.

    But when I took a dances of Central Asia seminar, besides the familiar multicolored ikat silk dress, we did have the one dance traditional to be done in that type of burqa.

    So I thought Central Asian Islam was its own thing. I thought the Taliban was Wahhabi.

  4. Johnna,

    The Taliban was heavily influenced by the Wahhabis, but Afghanistan itself has traditionally been Hanafi. The Taliban was an aberration.

    Here's another source for the Hanafi school in Central Asia:

    The Sunni Hanafi school is dominant in the Arab Middle East, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The followers of Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 767) are found in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, China, North Africa, Egypt, and in the Malay Archipelago. The school is followed by the majority of the Muslim population of Turkey, Albania, the Balkans, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India and Iraq. Most of the Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute approximately one half of the national population, historically are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School. Ethnic Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tatars, comprising less than 10 percent of the population, also largely are Sunni Hanafi. Other Islamic groups, which account for less than 1 percent of the population of Kazakhstan, include Shafit Sunni (traditionally practiced by Chechens), Shiite, Sufi, and Akhmadi.

    Sunni are found throughout Afghanistan. An estimated 84% of Afghanistan's population is Sunni, following the Hanafi school of jurisprudence; the remainder is predominantly Shi'a, mainly Hazara. In March 2003 Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, leader of the predominantly Shia Harakat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan, proposed that, along with the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, the Shia Ja'fari school of jurisprudence be included in the new constitution as an official sect.


  5. Oh, and thanks Johnna for the info and site about Uzbek dance. I'm looking forward to celebrating Nowruz in Central Asia next year.

    You'll just have to come visit us in Bishkek and you can travel to Uzbekistan from there. :)