A Dialogue with a Saudi Muslim (1)

James M. Arlandson

On April 3, 2005 Mr. Soliman al-Buthe (aka AlBut’hi), a Saudi Wahabi, wrote me a letter in order to open a dialogue. Included was An Open Letter to Congress, in which he explained a gentler and kinder Wahabi movement that began in the eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul al-Wahab, a Hanbalist scholar. Mr. al-Buthe says that Wahabism is a fundamentalist reform movement that that seeks to return to a purer Islam. This movement is no threat to America or the world.

After a series of email in which he said that he is in contact with Saudi scholars and that I should respond to his ideas, we decided to correspond in the following format:

1. The basis of our dialogue is his Open Letter to Congress (in bold font). The endnotes can be read at the links to the Letter, provided at the fourth step, just below.

2. I (JA) will ask questions and seek explanations in each section of his Open Letter to Congress.

3. Mr. al-But’he (SaB) will respond.

4. Finally, I provide a comment, where relevant. I have also asked some scholars and colleagues to contribute their ideas, at this stage.

JA: For links to the Letter without our comments and dialogue, the readers can go here or here.


We are pleased to engage in this kind of dialogue with people like you. We believe that this kind of exchange of ideas has become a necessity in a world in which relations among peoples are becoming manifold and getting stronger. Only values which are truly universal -- in the sense of being acceptable to human beings as human beings -- will come to survive.

We also believe that that kind of exchange of ideas is possible, and becomes more fruitful if it is based on standards shared by all of humanity. We all believe in reason, in moral values like truthfulness and honesty, in empirical facts, and in preferring what is more beneficial and useful. With people like you we share something more: a belief in God.

It is on shared grounds like these that our dialogue should be based. We will not be able to argue with each other if each of us takes for granted some standards that the other does not accept. On our side, we are Arabs and Muslims with an intellectual history that is different from yours, a history in which your European Enlightenment played no role. We believe in reason and emphatically do not believe that one must be a product of the Enlightenment to be rational or to scrutinize claims that are offered for belief. Humankind has been exercising this skepticism throughout history; if Europeans did do so prior to the Enlightenment perhaps that was because of some situation peculiar to Western religious or intellectual history. In any event, we do not believe that Islam should be judged by Enlightenment or any other standards that are peculiar to a certain civilization at a particular time in its history. If one must resort to Enlightenment standards, one should select only those in which it is sincerely believed that all rational humans will accept.

An Open Letter From a Saudi Wahabi To Members of the 109th U.S. Congress

Author: Soliman AlBut’hi

Dated: 02/03/2005

Dear Members of the 109th U.S. Congress:

With God’s Name, Who is the Most Merciful, the Dispenser of Mercy.

Since September 11, 2001, your distinguished body on many occasions has discussed the issue of "Wahabiism" and the threat it perceives to pose to the United States. The desire to ensure the security of one’s nation is understood and admirable; however, I believe (along with many of my fellow countrymen) that in pursuing this noble objective, both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its religious teachings and practices have been unfairly misrepresented and maligned. It is in this spirit that I humbly submit this Open Letter to the Members of the 109th Congress.

I believe that in the interest of sound policymaking, I must provide you with our perspective on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and our religious practices in as concise and helpful means possible. My particular concern is that those who have testified before the various committees have included many whose opposition to so-called "Wahabi" doctrines is purely ideological and, more important, not grounded in fact. This only deepens our suspicion that, in attempting to achieve your aim of national security, Congress is being manipulated by those who seek to further their own agendas even at the expense of the United States’ true national interest. And the attacks are not limited to the halls of Congress; unjustified attacks on both the Kingdom and its religion are now being published in your most prestigious media with the purpose that long-term public opinion be turned against Kingdom, its peoples, and religion.

I believe that people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should engage in an honest and candid dialogue with the citizens of the United States and their representatives. In this spirit I have written this letter. I hope to inform its readers and clear up any misunderstandings that they might have regarding the religious teachings in today’s Saudi Arabia.

Although I have addressed this letter from a Saudi "Wahabi," I first must point out that nobody in this country’s religious mainstream would refer to themselves by this name. Indeed, such a term is often used as a pejorative and is considered offensive; instead, we refer to ourselves simply as Muslims. In the end, I hope that this open letter will be the start of a continuing and fruitful dialogue between our people.

JA: I start off with my own explanation and response to this section of the Open Letter. You write that "unjustified attacks on the Kingdom and on its religion are now being published in your most prestigious media with the purpose that long-term public opinion be turned against Kingdom, its peoples, and religion." You indicated in your email to me that you have read my articles online. I admit that I have critiqued Islam as a religious system, but I do not hold a grudge against the people of Saudi Arabia.

Here is my more specific explanation as to why I critique Islam as a religious system. First, I am a product of the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800), and personally I have been trained in it. So I am merely following my training. If Islam is to survive in the West, it must undergo close scrutiny and analysis.

SaB: We agree; but the same must apply to Christianity and all other beliefs and ideologies currently advocated in the West.

Second, my own religion, Christianity, has been placed under the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment microscope for the past four hundred years, and Christianity has survived remarkably intact. Therefore, I still have my own religious convictions, and your religion ultimately conflicts with mine, as we shall see below. Hence, I am responding to Muhammad’s challenge that he has perfected religion (Sura 5:3) and that the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) have walked in darkness until your prophet came (Sura 5:15-16). I do not believe that his claims are true for these top ten reasons and for simple logic. So following Enlightenment principles, I will continue my hard-hitting critique of your religion in a fact-based way, not in a mean-spirited way.

SaB: Has it? Many people in the West, even in the US, state otherwise.

  1. Your Biblical scholars admit that there are many contradictions in your New Testament, contradictions among the four Gospels as well as within each one of them.
  2. They also tell us of the existence of factual mistakes in the Gospels. It is because of this that only a few, called the fundamentalists, still believe that the Bible is the word of God in the literal sense. The majority of "Christians" concede that the Bible was written by ordinary people who were influenced by the prevailing culture of their time. It is because of this that the West does not, as we do, take its holy book’s statements seriously.
  3. Westerners throw much doubt on the historical authenticity of the Bible. It is certainly not the literal word of Jesus Christ. There is no Bible in the original language of Jesus, and Westerners do not even know who made the first translation of the four Gospels. Indeed, Westerners know almost nothing about the writers of those gospels.
  4. The central idea of what is called Christianity today is that Jesus is the son of God. But many Westerners now admit that this concept is full of contradictions (please see The Nicene Creed and Truth about the Trinity); in those admissions they repeat a premise that the Qur’an posited a long time ago. It is because of this problem that many Christians now reject the idea of Jesus being the son of God. And it appears that it is precisely because of this situation, among other things, that many former Christians are coming into the fold of Islam.
  5. Here are a few examples of such contradictions:

    1. You describe God as being the Father of Jesus, but if a Westerner is told that He cannot be a father since He has no spouse (as the Qur'an argues), some retort by saying that, since God can do any thing, why can't He create a child without a mother? Indeed He can; He created Adam without father or mother. But we are not talking here about God as creator; we are talking about Him as being father, and about Jesus as being His only begotten son according to mainstream Christianity. If, then, God a father of Jesus He cannot be his creator, for one does not create rather; a son is begotten by a mother and not created by her or His father.
    2. Some Westerners reply by saying: "But you are taking the words father and son literally. We don't mean them to be literal." When, however, the same Westerners are asked to give their non-literal meaning they fall into another contradiction. "… a spiritual in which Jesus was submissive and obedient to God as His Heavenly Father." It is important to understand that through this careful definition of son-ship that Christians agree with the statements in the Qur’an that God has no partners (a physical wife or physical son); rather, Jesus was the Son of God in the sense that the Qur'an refers to Him as the Word of God and the Spirit of God -- in the sense of a spiritual relationship. Son of God is a title reflecting this relationship." (Please see Why do Christians Call Jesus the Son of God). But Word of God in the Qur'an refers to the word "Be!," as the result of which something comes into existence. The Qur'an emphasizes that fact that Jesus, like any one and any thing else, was created by God, that he is not his child, Qur'an 019: 35-36 "It befits not (the Majesty of God) that He should take to Himself a son. Glory be to Him. When He decrees a thing, He only says to it; Be! And it becomes".
    3. In this sense everything is the Word of God. It is not something peculiar to Jesus. One of our great and famous scholars put it succinctly by saying, "Jesus is not the Be!, but it was by the Be! that he came to be"

    4. Western dictionaries tell us that, "In modern English usage, the Son of God is almost always a reference to Jesus Christ, whom Christianity holds to be the son of the Christian God, eternally begotten of God the Father and coeternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit" Does that make any sense to you? If something is begotten, it has a beginning. How can something be eternally beginning?
    5. "The virginal conception, by excluding human fatherhood, affirms that Jesus' only father is the heavenly Father and that the Son's being born in time reflects his eternal birth: the Father, who begot the Son in eternity, also begets him in time as a man." (Please see Pope John Paul II, Eternal Son of God is also Born of Mary). Again, does this make any sense at all?
    6. Jesus, the son of God, was according to your belief crucified by some human beings. How can some one who is even half-divine be killed?
    7. Also, if something has no beginning, is eternal, it cannot have an end, even for seconds. This is a matter of logic.

  6. In reviewing Bernard Lewis’s book, the Crisis of Islam, Robert Louis Wilken has this advice for Christians and Jews:
  7. … but as Western societies abandon traditional patterns of religious life—for example, Sunday as a holy day—and dismantle such traditional institutions as marriage, one wonders whether Christians (and Jews) should join the chorus of those urging Muslims to set out on the path taken by Western Civilization since the Enlightenment. (Please see Robert Louis Wilken, Roots of Jihad, First Things 136 (October 2003): 671.)

  8. In a recent article Albert Mohler tells us about some of the things that happened to Christianity after the Enlightenment:
  9. As the 20th century began, this accommodation became increasingly evident as the church acquiesced to a culture of moral individualism.

    … In the wake of the Enlightenment, criticism of the Bible and the doctrines of evangelical orthodoxy was widespread. Even the most conservative denominations began to show evidence of decreased attention to theological orthodoxy. … …

    The theological category of sin has been replaced, in many circles, with the psychological concept of therapy… Sex is on the loose. Shame days are over… … Homosexuality is not condemned, even though it is clearly condemned in the Bible. To the contrary, homosexuals get a special caucus at the denominational assembly and their own publications and special rights. (Please see The Disappearance of Church Discipline--How Can We Recover? Part One.)

Continue with James Arlandson's response to the above.

Articles by James Arlandson
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