The word ‘Wahhabi’ entered popular consciousness at the same time as ‘9/11’ and is now about as loaded as the word ‘Nazi’. But whereas ‘Nazi’ is understood by all, ‘Wahhabi’ has crept into the vocabulary of modern global terrorism with little explanation other than that it and ‘Wahhabism’ are considered part of the mindset of men like Osama bin Laden. It goes without saying that the Western world needs to know all there is to know about Wahhabis, so when a book comes along that claims to be the first serious study of the man who gave his name to this particular brand of bigotry we should take it seriously.
In about 1744 in the most backward part of Arabia a mullah named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab joined forces with a minor but ambitious Bedouin chief named Muhammad Ibn Saud. The former had already made himself hated by organising the stoning to death of a woman who had admitted to adultery and by inciting a rabble to pull down the tomb of a popular local saint. The alliance of these two as temporal and spiritual leaders was sealed by a marriage that gave rise to two inter- dependent ruling and clerical dynasties. It also laid the foundations for Saudi expansion, culminating in the formation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, ruled over by the descendants of Ibn Saud and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, with Wahhabi Islam as its state religion. Over the same period Wahhabism became a byword throughout the Muslim world for reactionary, holier-than-thou, confrontational and heartless Islam the like of which had not been seen since the days of the holy terror of Mahmud of Ghazni. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were nurtured on Wahhabism, as indeed was the young Osama.
A central element of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s theology was his redefining of jihad, the Muslim’s duty to ‘struggle in the path of God’, as sanctified terrorising of anyone who disagreed with his interpretation of holy writ. Fundamentalists are usually content to leave the punishment of those who disagree with them to God; Wahhabi fundamentalists are not — by their book, if you won’t agree to their way of thinking they have a religious duty to kill you. Add this ideology to the real and imagined grievances that many Muslims feel about the sapping of Islamic institutions by the West and you have a potent mix indeed.
So when a Western academic comes along and tells us that we have got it all wrong, that Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab has been much misunderstood and that his interpretation of jihad is not at all what we think it is, we have to sit up and listen. Natana J. Delong-Bas’s Wah-habi Islam is based on her study of al-Wahhab’s original texts in modern Riyadh — and very impressive it is, with over 50 pages of endnotes. But to call it revisionist is putting it mildly. She finds Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab innocent of all the charges laid against him, indeed a very paragon of all the Quranic values: broadminded, tolerant of other religions, not too keen on violence and, astonishingly, a keen advocate of equal rights between men and women. There is, she insists, no direct line leading from Ibn Abd al-Wahhab to bin Laden. Because she rarely cites chapter and verse, we are asked to take her word for her conclusions.
Based on what she has worked on, Miss DeLong-Bas may have a case. But it is what Wahhabi Islam omits that really matters. Along with the founder of their theology, modern Wahhabis also revere the 14th-century Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya, who broke with Sunni orthodoxy to such a degree that he was declared a heretic. Because her subject rarely cites Ibn Taymiyya, DeLong-Bas finds no link bet- ween them. She appears unaware that there are good reasons why al-Wahhab failed to acknowledge his debt to Ibn Taymiyya, relating to their differing views of Sufism. It is also well established that al-Wahhab sat at the feet of two known exponents of Ibn Tamiyya in Medina. The former’s debt to the latter is enormous, particularly in the matter of jihad. Ibn Taymiyya’s selective redefinition of jihad lies at the very core of modern Islamist revivalism — and it was first applied by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Arabia.
The issue of where and how Wah- habism’s violence and intolerance originated is crucial. By failing to address it DeLong-Bas has come perilously close to producing a whitewash. This matters, because Wahhabi Islam, for want of anything better, is going to be taken seriously.
In the wall behind my mother’s chair in the drawing-room was a little cupboard which contained half a dozen children’s books. They ranged in date from the 1890s to the 1940s, but the most important thing about them was that one never came upon these particular titles anywhere else. Squeaker’s Pyjamas, A Ride on a Rocking-Horse, Pirate Gold, Mrs Easter’s Parasol, The Witch’s Kitchen, all became firm favourites of her children and later her grandchildren. So perhaps one ought to consider children’s books as a Christmas present not only for the young but for grown-ups, particularly for new grandparents. For those who are not lucky enough to have a family treasure house of books to fall back on, the building up of a grandparent’s library is very important. Some of this is best done in second-hand bookshops, where one can find the favourite editions of one’s own childhood, but there is also a constant stream of new books worth adding to the collection, with many good examples available this Christmas.
The new grandparent will start by looking for books for the smallest children. A soothing bedtime story for anyone of 2 or over is One Ted Falls out of Bed by Julia Donaldson, creator of the Gruffalo, with charming illustrations by Anna Currey (Macmillan, £9.99.) The simple rhyming story, which includes counting up to 10, should guarantee a peaceful bedtime. For children of 3-5, Baby Bear’s Christmas Kiss by John Prater (Bodley Head, £10.99) is the latest in the popular Baby Bear series, and combines a lively text with amusing illustrations. The clear typeface would also be good for those who have just learned to read for themselves. Some publications are really toys rather than books. Dinosaurs Galore! by Paul and Henrietta Stickland, for instance, is described as ‘a roaring pop-up’, and pop up it certainly does, with dinosaurs that kick, bite, run and eat, all for £12.99. Even more dramatic in its special effects is Poppy Cat’s Christmas by Lara Jones (Campbell Books, £14.99) with lots of tempting tabs to push and pull. I nearly jumped out of my skin on opening the last page to be met by an illuminated Christmas tree, playing a loud version of ‘Silent Night’.
Another book which is a triumph of complicated production is Egyptology by Joanna Sutherland (Templar, £17.99). This purports to be the 1926 diary of Miss Emily Sands on her quest to discover the tomb of Osiris. It is reminiscent of the whodunnits produced by Dennis Wheatley in the 1930s, which consisted of a dossier with loose letters, press cuttings and clues such as bloodstained cloth or theatre tickets inserted in little envelopes. In Egyptology the reader can discover a ‘small sample of Mummy Cloth’, the rules, board and pieces for the ancient game of Senet and many maps and postcards, as well as a great deal of interesting information. This lavish book with its jewelled cover would be an excellent present for anyone from 8-12 with an interest in the ancient world.
For children who prefer reading a proper story, Allan Ahlberg is as good as ever in Half a Pig, illustrated by his daughter Jessica (Walker Books, £10.99). Readers will love the fast-moving story of Esmerelda the disputed pig and the irreverent jokes. The pictures are delightful and this new father/ daughter collaboration should be the first of many. An excellent novel for 7-10-year-olds is Philip Pullman’s The Scarecrow and his Servant (Doubleday,
£10.99). The author’s imagination and inventiveness are as evident when writing for this younger age group as in the His Dark Materials trilogy for older readers, but the touch is light and humorous. The relationship between the vainglorious Scarecrow and Jack has echoes of Don Quixote and The Wizard of Oz, and their many adventures are enhanced by Peter Bailey’s illustrations, which have something of the feel of Lynton Lamb. The same age group will enjoy Unwitting Wisdom, a beautiful new collection of Aesop’s fables written and illustrated by Helen Ward (Templar, £14.95). The dramatic pictures reflect the text, but are also entirely satisfying in themselves, especially the fine detail of the fur and feathers of the various protagonists. The lettering and design of each page are as important and as meticulously executed as the actual illustrations.
Less familiar than Aesop are the stories from Central Asia, collected by Sally Pomme Clayton in Tales Told in Tents (Frances Lincoln, £12.99.) These folk tales from countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan throw light on a little known part of the world, but also show through the actions of the various characters that human nature is much the same wherever you find it. Sophie Herxheimer’s bright and lively illustrations help draw the reader into this exotic world.
Another worthwhile collection, but not of stories, is The Lion Treasury of Children’s Prayers, a large, well produced and colourful paperback, which is good value at £9.99. The selection by Susan Cuthbert is eclectic and often original, as are the idiosyncratic illustrations by Alison Jay, with their elongated figures, both human and animal, with an other-worldly feel about them. There are prayers in this collection to appeal to children of all ages, and to their parents too.
At the Firefly Gate by Linda Newbery (Orion, £7.99) is a novel which deals with two interlocking generations, linked by the experiences of 11-year-old Henry, who has moved from London to Suffolk. Here he learns about another Henry, ‘Henry the Navigator’, who flew in Lancaster bombers during the war. Is he the mysterious figure who waits in the evening at the orchard gate, and what is his relationship with Dotty, the old lady who is staying next door? Linda Newbery handles the transition from one generation to another skilfully, and gives a sensitive and lively account of Henry’s efforts to settle down in his new life.
Whispering to Witches by Anna Dale (£10.99) is another foray into the world of witchcraft and wizardry by Bloomsbury, publisher of Harry Potter. The magical adventures of Joe Binks among the witches, who spurn Christmas in favour of Yule, will no doubt confirm the worst fears of the American critic who wrote of the Potter books that they ‘opened the lives of countless millions of parents and their children to satanic influences’. Whispering to Witches is a fast-moving adventure which should ensure some peace and quiet for the hard-pressed parent over Christmas (or Yule).
My favourite of the novels for older children is The Star of Kazan (Macmillan, £12.99) by Eva Ibbotson, author of the award- winning Journey to the River Sea. Do not be put off by the rather dreary dustjacket; this is an enthralling evocation of life in the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1908, by a writer born in Vienna and with a real feel for the place and period. Annika is a foundling, brought up in the household of three eccentric professors in Vienna until Frau Edeltraut von Tannenburg arrives claiming to be her real mother, and sweeps her off to the crumbling castle of Spittal, in the cold Norrland of Germany. ‘There have always been von Tannenburgs at Spittal’ — family motto ‘Stand Aside, Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us!’ — but the money has run out and it begins to seem that Edeltraut has an ulterior motive in reclaiming Annika. There is a chilling description of two truly grim Teutonic institutions, St Xavier’s College for Officer Cadets and Grossenfluss School for Daughters of the Nobility, but Annika’s adventures with Zed the gypsy boy and his stallion Rocco make for a deeply satisfying book which will read as well in 20 years’ time as it does today — definitely one for Grandmother’s cupboard.
If you are looking for a paperback stocking-filler, OUP have a series, Magic in the Bedroom, Kitchen etc, £3.99 each, which gives many ideas for tricks and experiments in the home. It could keep your children occupied, if you are prepared to risk it. OUP also have the amusing and seasonal The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton, illustrated by Hilda Offen, £4.99. Finally, Christmas Poems chosen by Gaby Morgan (Macmillan, £4.99) is a delightful little book with an excellent selection of poems which grown-ups will enjoy as much as children.