Wahhabism: Understanding the Roots and Role Models of Islamic Extremism

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).

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