Wahhabism: Understanding the Roots and Role Models of Islamic Extremism

Zubair Qamar

Condensed and Edited by ASFA staff

Introduction

The most extremist pseudo-Sunni movement today is Wahhabism (also known as Salafism). While many may think that Wahhabi terror is a recent phenomenon that has only targeted non-Muslims, it will surprise many to know that the orthodox Sunni Muslims were the first to be slaughtered in waves of Wahhabi massacres in Arabia hundreds of years ago. One only has to read the historical evolution of Saudi Arabia to know the gruesome details of the tragedy – a tragedy in which thousands of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims perished at the hands of Wahhabi militants.

The extremist interpretations of Wahhabism, although previously confined to small pockets of people in Arabia, has survived to this day under the protection, finance, and tutelage of the Saudi state religious organs. This has transformed Wahhabism – and related Salafi groups that receive inspiration and support from them – from a regional to a global threat to be reckoned with by the world community. To a Wahhabi-Salafi, all those who differ with them, including Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims, Christians, and Jews, are infidels who are fair targets.

Do the majority of Sunnis support Wahhabism? Are Sunnis and Wahhabis one and the same?

What is a Wahhabi?

Because Wahhabis claim to be “true Sunnis,” it is difficult for one who is unfamiliar with Wahhabism to distinguish it from orthodox Sunni Islam. If a Wahhabi is asked if he/she is Sunni, he/she will always reply in the affirmative. When asked if they are Wahhabis, they reply with an emphatic “no” as they consider it an insult to what they believe and stand for:  “Purity of worship and reverence to God alone. The authentic carriers of Islam from the time of the Prophet (s)[1] until now.” Calling them Wahhabis implies that they learned ideas from a man – Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab – instead of the Qur’an and Sunnah – the two great sources of Islam. Irrespective of what they think, they are not following the Islamic sources authentically, but the wrong interpretations of the founder of the Wahhabi movement who appeared in the 1700s. Sunnis and other Wahhabi detractors have labeled them as Wahhabis to differentiate them from orthodox Sunnis.

Wahhabis as Salafis: deceptive semantics

Wahhabis differentiate themselves from orthodox Sunnis by labeling themselves Salafis, which refers to the word salaf – the time period in which the early Muslims lived in the first 300 years after the Hijra, or emigration, of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622.  The Companions (Sahaba), those who followed the Companions (Tabi’een), and those who followed those who followed the Companions (Taba al-Tabi’een) who lived in the time period of the Salaf are exemplars par excellence of what Muslims should be, as Prophet Muhammad (s) had praised these Muslims as being the best of Muslims.  Therefore, it has been the aim of every Muslim since the time of Prophet Muhammad (s) to adhere to and to follow the footsteps of the adherents of the salaf.  This means that when a Wahhabi calls himself a Salafi, he claims to be a genuine follower of pristine Islam. This, however, is far from the truth.

Orthodox Sunni Muslims believe that they are the true bearers of pristine Islam since the time period of the Salaf. Because there were time gaps between the noble period of the Salaf and centuries that followed, the authentic positions of the early Muslims were passed by scholars in those times and afterwards to later generations via meticulous, systematic, and methodological means of preservation. The knowledge was passed from qualified scholars to other qualified scholars through the centuries, who passed it to the masses.  This uninterrupted chain of knowledge from the time of the Salaf until now has been authentically preserved by the orthodox Sunnis.  Orthodox Sunnis, therefore, have roots in the Salaf, and are represented today by the four surviving authentic schools of Islamic jurisprudence:  Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools (madhahib).

The Wahhabis, by calling themselves Salafis, not only claim to follow the footsteps of the early Muslims, but also use semantics to fool and allure less informed Muslims into accepting Wahhabism. Wahhabis say, “You must follow the Muslims of the Salaf.” (This is undoubtedly true.) Then the Wahhabi semantics: “Therefore you must be a Salafi and nothing else. Following anything else means you’re following a path that is different from the Muslims of the Salaf.” By such deceptive semantics, the less informed Muslims believe that Salafis must truly represent the pristine interpretations of the early Muslims of the Salaf.  After all, the word Salafi sounds like Salaf, so it must truly be representative of it. Far from it.  When the less informed goes beyond semantics and blind faith and investigates what a Salafi believes, the truth unveiled is that the understanding of Salafis (Wahhabis) is different and contradictory to the understanding and positions of the pious Muslims who lived in the Salaf – and the majority of Muslims who have ever lived (Sunnis).

Wahhabi-Salafi variety

The Wahhabi-Salafis believe that Sunnis have been vehemently wrong for the past 1,000+ years and aim to bring the Muslims out of a state of ignorance (jahilliyya) that has existed, in their minds, since the time of the pious adherents of the Salaf.  Even if the majority of orthodox Sunni Muslims were strong today, indeed if they ruled an empire that stretched far to every corner of the globe, it would still be a failure to Salafis because to them the foundations of such a political system would have been based on reprehensible innovation (bid’a) and blasphemy (kufr).

To the Salafi, the presence and power of Sunni orthodoxy, in all of its manifestations as illustrated throughout Islamic history, is just as impure as the rising European hegemony in all of its manifestations since the demise of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. To the Salafis, a minority in this world, the world is an abode of blasphemy, ruled and occupied by infidels that demands reformation through both non-violent and violent means to bring about a supposedly pure Islamic world system.

Wahhabi-Salafis come in various strains, some being more extreme than others. The variety in strains is due to differences in approach of bringing the Muslims back to a state of strengthened belief based on the example of the pious ancestors. It must be emphasized that although all Wahhabis are called Salafis, all Salafis are not purely Wahhabi.  “Salafi Muslims” include those like Syed Qutb who wish to eradicate the supposed current state of ignorance (jahiliyya) and bring Muslims back to a state of purity – a purity reminiscent of the purity of Muslims who lived in the time period of the Salaf.  However, all Salafi Muslims, whether they are Wahhabi or Qutbi, admire with exaggeration the role models Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab and Ahmad Ibn Taymiyah, whose hard-line interpretations have inspired revolutionaries today. Therefore, although all Salafis are not Wahhabis, they admire many of the same role models  – role models who have been rejected and condemned by masses of orthodox Sunni scholars for their unauthentic representations of pristine Islam. It can also be said that all Wahhabis consider themselves to be Salafis and prefer to be called by this name (instead of Wahhabi), even though differences exist between Salafi groups.

Although there are differences in approach among Salafis, they have nonetheless allied themselves in an attempt to make the Salafi vision a reality by both non-violent and violent means.

An example of this are the Salafi-oriented Deobandis and their alliance with the Wahhabis.   The alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood (and its various factions and offshoots) and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia was strengthened during the 1950s and 1960s in the struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood against Egypt’s Nasserist regime. Saudis had provided refuge for some leaders of the Brotherhood, and also provided assistance to them in other Arab States. The Wahhabi-Salafi alliance was further strengthened as a response to the growing threat of Shi’ah power when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran revolted and overthrew the U.S.-allied Shah in 1979.

Lastly, the alliance made itself manifest in the holy struggle (jihad) against the atheist/Communist Soviets in Afghanistan.  Salafis of all strains worked together as the “righteous Sunnis” to counter the Shi’ah-Communist threat, from proselytizing to killing to make their Salafism prevail. Indeed, Salafis have used both proselytizing and revolutionary means to express their message using both political and apolitical approaches. So-called “Sunni terrorism” today is perpetrated by radical Salafis who desire to replace “infidel” governments with myopic “scholars” who adhere to their fanatical interpretations and ideologies. Their tentacles are spread to all corners of the globe, including Bosnia, Albania, Indonesia, Philippines, Uzbekistan, England, Malaysia, South Africa, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.   Salafis have demonstrated the havoc they are capable of wreaking in recent decades.

Peace and Blessings upon the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions


© 2012 As-Sunnah Foundation of America

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