By Zubair Qamar
(Condensed and edited by ASFA staff”)
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) 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 Meccato 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).
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 theSalafis, 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.
Wahhabis as neo-Kharijites
The Wahhabis are especially notorious for reviving the ways of the Khawarij (or Kharijites). They originated in the time of the caliphates of Uthman and Ali, among the closest companions to Prophet Muhammad. They were the earliest group of fanatics who separated themselves from the Muslim community. They arose in opposition to Ali – Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law – because of his willingness to arbitrate with Mu’awiyah, governor of Damascus at that time, over the issue of the caliphate. The Khawarij, meaning “those who exited,” slung accusations of blasphemy against Ali and Mu’awiyah – and those who followed them – saying that the Qur’an, and not them, had the ultimate authority in the matter. Ibn al-Jawzi, an orthodox Sunni scholar, in his book Talbis Iblis (The Devil’s Deception) under the chapter heading “A Mention of the Devil’s Delusion upon the Kharijites,” says that Dhu’l-Khuwaysira al-Tamimi was the first Kharijite in Islam and that “[h]is fault was to be satisfied with his own view; had he paused he would have realized that there is no view superior to that of Allah’s Messenger…” Furthermore, the orthodox Sunni scholar Imam Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi discusses the Kharijite rebellions and their bloody massacres of tens of thousands of Muslims in one of his books. He explicitly mentions the Azariqa, one of the most atrocious Kharijite movements led by Nafi’ ibn al-Azraq from the tribe of Banu Hanifa – the same tribe where the heretic Musaylima the Prevaricator (or Liar) who claimed prophethood alongside Prophet Muhammad came from. Just as the Khawarij threw accusations of blasphemy on Ali and Mu’awiya, Wahhabis throw accusations of blasphemy against Sunnis and Shi’ites.
The Al-Sa`ud and Muhammad ibn `Abdul-Wahhab – the founder of Wahhabism
Wahhabism is named after its founder, Muhammad ibn `Abdul-Wahhab (1703-1792), and has its roots in the land now known as Saudi Arabia. Without this man, the al-Sa`ud ?, one of many clans spread over the Arabian peninsula, would not have had the inspiration, reason, and determination to consolidate the power that they did and wage "jihad" on people they perceived to be “polytheists” – those who attribute partners in worship to Almighty God. How intimately close was al-Sa`ud?’s association with Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab? Robert Lacey eloquently illustrates this association:
Until [Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s] coming the Al Sa`ud ? had been a minor sheikhly clan like many others in Nejd, townsmen and farmers, making a comfortable living from trade, dates and perhaps a little horse-breeding, combining with the desert tribes to raid outwards when they felt strong, prudently retrenching in times of weakness. Modestly independent, they were in no way empire builders, and it is not likely that the wider world would ever have heard of them without their alliance with the Teacher.
The al-Sa`ud are originally from the village of ad-Diriyah, located in Najd, in eastern Arabia situated near modern day Riyadh, the capital of Sa`ud?i Arabia. Ancestors of Sau’ud Ibn Muhammad, whom little is known about, settled in the area as agriculturists and gradually grew in number over time into the clan of al-Sa`ud ?.
Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab was raised in Uyainah, an oasis in southern Najd, and was from the Banu Tamim tribe. He came from a religious family and left Uyainah in pursuit of Islamic knowledge. He traveled to Mecca, Medina, Iraq, and Iran to acquire knowledge from different teachers. When he returned to his homeland of Uyainah, he preached what he believed to be Islam in its purity – which was, in fact, a vicious assault on traditional Sunni Islam.
The orthodox Sunni scholar Jamil Effendi al-Zahawi said that the teachers of Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab, including two teachers he had studied with in Medina – Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Sulayman al-Kurdi and Shaykh Muhammad Hayat al-Sindi – became aware of his anti-Sunni Wahhabi creed and warned Muslims from him. His shaykhs, including the two aforementioned shaykhs, used to say: “God will allow him [to] be led astray; but even unhappier will be the lot of those misled by him.”
Moreover, Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab’s own father had warned Muslims from him, as did his biological brother, Sulayman Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab, an orthodox Sunni scholar who refuted him in a book entitled al-Sawa’iq al-Ilahiyya fi al-radd `ala al-Wahhabiyya[“Divine Lightnings in Refuting the Wahhabis”]. Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab was refuted by the orthodox Sunni scholars for his many ugly innovations. Perhaps his most famous book, Kitab at-Tawheed (Book of Unity of God) is widely circulated amongst Wahhabis worldwide, including the United States. His book is popular in Wahhabi circles, although orthodox Sunni scholars have said that there is nothing scholarly about it, both in terms of its content and its style.
Ibn Taymiyah: the Wahhabi founder’s role model
It is worth giving an overview of a man named Ahmed Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) who lived a few hundred years before Muhammad ibn `Abdul-Wahhab. The Wahhabi founder admired him as a role model and embraced many of his pseudo-Sunni positions. Who exactly was Ibn Taymiyah and what did orthodox Sunni scholars say about him? Muslim scholars had mixed opinions about him depending on his interpretation of various issues. His straying from mainstream Sunni Islam on particular issues of creed (`aqeedah)and worship (`ibadat) made him an extremely controversial figure in the Muslim community.
Ibn Taymiya has won the reputation of being the true bearer of the early pious Muslims, especially among reformist revolutionaries, while the majority of orthodox Sunnis have accused him of reprehensible bid’ah (reprehenisible innovation), some accusing him of kufr (unbelief).
It behooves one to ask why Ibn Taymiyah had received so much opposition from reputable Sunni scholars who were known for their asceticism, trustworthiness, and piety. Some of Ibn Taymiyah’s anti-Sunni and controversial positions include:
(1) His claim that Allah’s Attributes are “literal”, thereby attributing God with created attributes and becoming an anthropomorphist;
(2) His claim that created things existed eternally with Allah;
(3) His opposition to the scholarly consensus on the divorce issue;
(4) His opposition to the orthodox Sunni practice of tawassul (asking Allah for things using a deceased pious individual as an intermediary);
(5) His saying that starting a trip to visit the Prophet Muhammad’s (s) invalidates the shortening of prayer;
(6) His saying that the torture of the people of Hell stops and doesn’t last forever;
(7) His saying that Allah has a limit (hadd) that only He Knows;
(8) His saying that Allah literally sits on the Throne (al-Kursi) and has left space for Prophet Muhammad (s) to sit next to Him;
(9) His claim that touching the grave of Prophet Muhammad (s) is polytheism (shirk);
(10) His claim that that making supplication at the Prophet Muhammad’s grave to seek a better status from Allah is a reprehensible innovation;
(11) His claim that Allah descends and comparing Allah’s “descent” with his, as he stepped down from a minbar while giving a sermon (khutba) to Muslims;
(12) His classifying of oneness in worship of Allah (tawheed) into two parts: Tawhid al-rububiyya and Tawhid al-uluhiyya, which was never done by pious adherents of the salaf.
Although Ibn Taymiyah’s unorthodox, pseudo-Sunni positions were kept away from the public in Syria and Egypt due to the consensus of orthodox Sunni scholars of his deviance, his teachings were nevertheless circulating in hiding. An orthodox Sunni scholar says:
Indeed, when a wealthy trader from Jeddah brought to life the long-dead ‘aqida [creed] of Ibn Taymiya at the beginning of this century by financing the printing in Egypt of Ibn Taymiya’s Minhaj al-sunna al-nabawiyya [italics mine] and other works, the Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti‘i, faced with new questions about the validity of anthropomorphism, wrote: "It was a fitna (strife) that was sleeping; may Allah curse him who awakened it."
It is important to emphasize that although many of the positions of Ibn Taymiyah and Wahhabis are identical, they nonetheless contradict each other in some positions. While Ibn Taymiyah accepts Sufism (Tasawwuf) as a legitimate science of Islam (as all orthodox Sunni Muslims do), Wahhabis reject it wholesale as an ugly innovation in the religion. While Ibn Taymiyah accepts the legitimacy of commemorating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (Mawlid) – accepted by orthodox Sunni Muslims as legitimate – Wahhabisreject it as a reprehensible innovation that is to be repudiated.
Ibn Taymiyah is an inspiration to Islamist groups that call for revolution. Kepel says, “Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1323) – a primary reference for the Sunni Islamist movement – would be abundantly quoted to justify the assassination of Sadat in 1981…and even to condemn the Saudi leadership and call for its overthrow in the mid-1990s”.
Sivan says that only six months before Sadat was assassinated, the weekly Mayo singled out Ibn Taymiyya as “the most pervasive and deleterious influence upon Egyptian youth.” Sivan further says that Mayo concluded that “the proliferating Muslim associations at the [Egyptian] universities, where Ibn Taymiyya’s views prevail, have been spawning various terrorist groups.” Indeed, a book entitled The Absent Precept, by `Abd al-Salam Faraj – the "spiritual" leader of Sadat’s assassins who was tried and executed by the Egyptian government – strongly refers to Ibn Taymiyya’s and some of his disciples’ writings. Three of four of Sadat’s assassins willingly read a lot of Ibn Taymiyya’s works on their own.
Ibn Taymiyah is also noted to be a favorite of other Salafi extremists, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syed Qutb. Ibn Taymiyyah’s student, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, is also frequently cited by Salafis of all colors.
Ibn Taymiyah’s “fatwa” of jihad against Muslims
What is also well-known about Ibn Taymiyah is that he lived in turbulent times when the Mongols had sacked Baghdad and conquered the Abassid Empire in 1258. In 1303, he was ordered by the Mamluk Sultan to give a fatwa (religious edict) legalizing jihad against the Mongols. Waging a holy war on the Mongols for the purpose of eliminating any threat to Mamluk power was no easy matter. The Mongol Khan Mahmoud Ghazan had converted to Islam in 1295. Although they were Muslims who did not adhere to Islamic Law in practice, and also supported the Yasa Mongol of code of law, they were deemed apostates by the edict of Ibn Taymiyah. To Ibn Taymiyah, Islamic Law was not only rejected by Mongols because of their lack of wholesale adherence, but the “infidel” Yasa code of law made them legal targets of extermination. The so-called jihad ensued and the Mongol threat to Syria was exterminated. Wahhabis and other Salafis to this day brand the Mongol Mahmoud Ghazan as a kafir (disbeliever). Orthodox Sunni Muslims, however, have praised Mahmoud Ghazan as a Muslim. Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani writes:
In fact, Ghazan Khan was a firm believer in Islam. Al-Dhahabi relates that he became a Muslim at the hands of the Sufi shaykh Sadr al-Din Abu al-Majami’ Ibrahim al-Juwayni (d.720), one of Dhahabi’s own shaykhs of hadith….During his rule he had a huge mosque built in Tabriz in addition to twelve Islamic schools (madrasa), numerous hostels (khaniqa), forts (ribat), a school for the secular sciences, and an observatory. He supplied Mecca and Medina with many gifts. He followed one of the schools (madhahib) of the Ahl al-Sunna [who are the orthodox Sunnis] and was respectful of religious scholars. He had the descendants of the Prophet mentioned before the princes and princesses of his house in the state records, and he introduced the turban as the court headgear.
Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab would later follow Ibn Taymiyah’s footsteps and slaughter thousands of Muslims in Arabia.
Orthodox Sunni scholars who refuted Ibn Taymiyah’s pseudo-Sunni positions
Ibn Taymiyah was imprisoned by a fatwa (religious edict) signed by four orthodox Sunni judges in the year 726 A.H for his deviant and unorthodox positions. Note that each of the four judges represents the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence that Sunni Muslims belong to today. This illustrates that Ibn Taymiyah did not adhere to the authentic teachings of orthodox Sunni Islam as represented by the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. There is no evidence to indicate that there was a “conspiracy” against Ibn Taymiyyah to condemn him, as Wahhabis and other Salafis purport in his defense. The names of the four judges are: Qadi [Judge] Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Jama’ah, ash-Shafi’i, Qadi [Judge] Muhammad Ibn al-Hariri, al-`Ansari, al-Hanafi, Qadi [Judge] Muhammad Ibn Abi Bakr, al-Maliki, and Qadi [Judge] Ahmad Ibn `Umar, al-Maqdisi, al-Hanbali.
Some orthodox Sunni scholars who refuted Ibn Taymiyya for his deviances and opposition to the positions of orthodox Sunni Islam include: Taqiyy-ud-Din as-Subkiyy, Faqih Muhammad Ibn `Umar Ibn Makkiyy, Hafiz Salah-ud-Din al-`Ala’i, Qadi, Mufassir Badr-ud-Din Ibn Jama’ah, Shaykh Ahmad Ibn Yahya al-Kilabi al-Halabi, Hafiz Ibn Daqiq al-`Id, Qadi Kamal-ud-Din az-Zamalkani, Qadi Safi-ud-Din al-Hindi, Faqih and Muhaddith `Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Baji ash-Shafi’i, the historian al-Fakhr Ibn al-Mu`allim al-Qurashi, Hafiz Dhahabi, Mufassir Abu Hayyan al-`Andalusi, and Faqih and voyager Ibn Batutah.
 Throughout the article, (s) means “peace be upon him,” and (ra) means “may Allah (swt) be pleased them.”
 Lacy, Robert. The Kingdom: Arabia & the House of Sa`ud ?. p. 59.
 Zahawi, Jamal E (1996) The Doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna Versus the ‘Salafi’ Movement. Translated by Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani. As-Sunnah Foundation of America.
 For example, orthodox Sunni scholar Abu Ala Bukhari accused people of unbelief (kufr) if they called Ibn Taymiyah “Shaykh”. Imam Zahid al-Kawthari accused Ibn Taymiyah’s positions on the creed to be tantamount to apostasy.
 Gilles, Kepel. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, p. 72.
 Sivan, Emmanuel. Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. pg. 102-103.
 Kabbani, Hisham M (1996). Islamic Beliefs & Doctrine According to Ahl al-Sunna A Repudiation of “Salafi” Innovations. Volume I. As-Sunna Foundation of America.