Blinged-up Wahhabism: Building the Temple of Permitted Consumption

October 4, 2014

Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.

Henry Ford My Life and Work 1922

The worship of the One God, codified in standardised texts which allow the extension of monotheism to a variety of contexts, has proved amenable to the reproduction of a society of commodity production and consumption which itself relies on a standardised measure of equivalence. The coextension of the homogeneity of capitalist social relations with Christian missionary activity, particularly that aligned with evangelical protestantism, is a commonplace. In Central Asia, even the historical spread of Buddhism – not a religion usually associated with the institution of capitalist social relations – homogenised a variety of distinct, earth-based spiritual biographies, linked to particular places which were associated with pre-existing shamanic or animistic practices.

Now, with the ascendence of a militant asceticism which is driving the destruction of the lives and communities of those labelled ‘heretics’, ‘non-believers’ and ‘devil-worshippers’, as well as the destruction of places and things deemed as the focus for idolatry – including the tomb of the Biblical prophet, Jonah, in Mosul – some commentators perceive the conspicuous brutality and imperial ambitions of those who propagate the austere, Wahhabised version of Sunni Islam as a mere throwback to ‘mediæval barbarism’, mediated only by the modern technical means at its disposal.

an illustration in a 14th century manuscript by Rachid al-Din Tabib, a Persian physician and historian of Jewish descent.

A depiction of Jonah and the Whale in a 14th century manuscript by Rachid al-Din Tabib, a Persian physician and historian of Jewish descent.

On the contrary, I wonder whether this ‘so-long-as-it-is-black’ tendency of militarised Wahhabism in Iraq and Syria (whose acronym takes in vain the name of the great Egyptian goddess), with its disavowal of and hostility to the idolatrous particularities of local colour, isn’t in fact an expression of the same process of capitalist development identified by Max Weber in northern Europe:

Puritans upheld their decisive characteristic, the principle of ascetic conduct… Sport was accepted if it served a rational purpose, that of recreation necessary for physical efficiency. But as a means for the spontaneous expression of undisciplined impulses, it was under suspicion; and in so far as it became purely a means of enjoyment, or awakened pride, raw instincts or the irrational gambling instinct, it was of course strictly condemned. Impulsive enjoyment of life, which leads away both from work in a calling and from religion, was as such the enemy of rational asceticism, whether in the form of seigneurial sports, or the enjoyment of the dance-hall or the public-house of the common man.

Max Weber (from here).

Faced with the methodically-recorded and shameless propagation of the evidence of their crimes – the mass executions, beheadings, the abduction, rape and trafficking of women – it is easy to resort to the language of visceral disgust to describe the perpetrators, as ‘scum’ and ‘filth’. Yet given their obvious contempt for the ‘unclean’, lived human body, I feel that to level these terms of disgust at ‘the self-righteous brothers and sisters’ obscures the fact that these takfiri – as they are termed by many of their Muslim critics – seem truly to believe they are doing God’s work, characterised as acts of purification and cleansing, as they raise aloft their index finger to declare there is only One God, a gesture which looks like moralistic finger-wagging to anyone unfamiliar with the body language. In these purifying acts of extreme violence the metaphor of ‘bleach’ seems more fitting to the sterile zealotry of those who characterise as ‘filth’ the heterodox, earthy aspects of human life which support a fertile imagination, an ensouled spiritual ecology inhabited by diverse spirits of place, be those places springs, trees or mountains. Likewise, to respect the living human body as a ‘temple’ is surely haram, surely idolatrous, or shirk to the purists who follow the letter not the spirit.


So, three hundred-odd years on from the industrial revolution, driven in part by the asceticism of the protestant work ethic, the rational asceticism of Wahhabised capitalism continues the work of ‘disenchanting the world’ with its destruction of shrines, the banning of the idolatrous practices endemic to ‘folk Islam’, and the repression of the undisciplined impulse to enjoyment. While protestant asceticism was individualised, in keeping with a Cartesian subject/object dichotomy, Wahhabi asceticism is propagated in the context of the Umma, the global Muslim community. Yet it pursues its mission in the novel context of a spectacular society where the image of consumption is, bizarrely, the  dream-to-be-realised-in-this-world promised to those who ‘buy into’ their ideology, transforming the community of believers into the false community of consumers. It is bizarre because it actually appears to promote the capitalist dream of abundance – the bright lights, the glitz, the conspicuously displayed wealth – so long identified as ‘the American dream’. Early publicity pictures for Mosul under the rule of the so-called Islamic State presented it as if it was the new Dubai.

In this aesthetics of capitalism they follow the lead of Saudi Arabia which has overseen the Disneyfication of the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina through the destruction of tombs of prophets and their families and their replacement by shopping malls and luxury hotels to service the needs of pilgrims who are now deemed indistinguishable from tourists. In reproach, residents of Mecca have even taken to referring to their city as Las Vegas, a Mecca for the rich. As one architect has put it:

It’s not Makkah. It’s Makkah-hattan…The truth of the history of Makkah is wiped out … with bulldozers and dynamite. Is this development?

From here


One wonders how long before the Black Stone itself, tolerated with suspicion in Wahhabi scholarship, will become the target of the iconoclast’s sledgehammer. Already scholars have recommended the destruction of the prophet Mohammed’s tomb and the removal of his remains to an anonymous grave.

Old Mecca is a microcosm of a world being engulfed, progressively, by the glass, steel and concrete of “The same bourgeois magic everywhere” (Rimbaud). How apt that there is another theology to facilitate and justify the ultimate divorce from earthly life, in which respect for mother nature and history is nothing but idolatry.

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