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Islam : What is Salafism and Wahhabism

For years we have directly or indirectly not stopped talking about Salafism and Wahhabism. Especially after the void left by the Soviets as the great enemy of the west. The situation required a new and common enemy, and effectively, the west had just found one, Islam. Speaking quite frankly, today, Islam is exhibit as the evil in persona by the western media, it is the base of all terrorism and of all barbarity in the world. News, magazines, radio stations and TV programs, they all speak about these extremist and radical groups of Islam, Salafism and Wahhabism. But honestly speaking, is these Sunni currents of Islam really well-known and understood by the west? Do they really follow the same Islam practiced by almost 2 billion people in the world? Is Islam really responsible for terrorism in the world? In this analysis I will analyze in details and describe the differences between the two most radical and feared groups of Islam, Salafism and Wahhabism.  

Wahhabism has been labeled with many various names among which is the appellation, ”Salafiyyah”. This name is used because they believe that for the reformation of their religion and beliefs, the present Muslims must go back to the early period of Islam (”Salaf” means the past or preceding one). Ibn Taymiyyah has introduced the issue of”Salaf” and his statements are a source of Wahhabi doctrines.
By “Wahhabism” it means that Shaykh Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab must be followed in socio-political and religious issues because he has taught his followers the way to reform religion and society. - Muhammad Husayn Ibrahimi

What is Salafism ?

Salafism is a traditionalist movement that calls on Muslims to return to the Islam of the Salaf (Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam and his companions) as they felt that the rapidity spread Islam of that time was mainly due to the spiritual purity of men of that time, a purity that had been lost with passing generations due to the normal evolution of human society. 
Salafists believe that Islam has been lost due to cultural contamination caused by other societies, different regional cultural particularities, outer cultural contamination, the rise of trickery and most importantly the desconexion from the sources of Islam, the Quran, hadith and sunnah.

At the time it was considered that the reason for the decline of the Islamic world and the start growing dominance of the European powers over Islam (during the XVIII-XX centuries) was due to the deviation of Muslim societies, hence consider that Salafism is a movement of socio-religious response to issues that has been settled for centuries in the collective minds of some Muslim groups. It is perceived by many Muslim groups as the religious answer to all ills. In an elaborated view of this logic, we can without doubt conclude that the greatest enemy of Salafist Islam is the influence of the modern world, hence, the goal of this religious Islamic branch is to attain the return of the glorious beginning of Islam.

Salafism repudiates any philosophical or legal conception of Islam, considering it, the root of all imperfections and internal contamination, hence they deny the label of Muslim to any Muslim who follow other Islamic branches, such as the Shi'ism or Sufism , of have a philosophical view (as modern followers of the theories of Averroes) of modern Islam, or those who adapt Islam to their lives to live a fuller life. In fact, the Salafists are following a different religious approach to that of traditional Islamic currents and instead focuses on practicing an Islam that is based on these following points:

Aspects of Salafism

  • Follow the Quran, Hadith and Sunna giving this theological corpus the truthfulness of Islam
  • Tracking and follow all the Hadith (sayings and deeds of prophet Muhammad) and imitate the prophet of Islam in all matters related to his daily attitudes, public and private life, dress and appearance.
  • Removing any other type of cultural believe from their daily life, since culture represents another form of spiritual pollution, any different culture is strictly prohibited in salafism in order to return to the cultural system of the Salaf.
  • Building a new political project aiming to get all Muslims back to the, so called, original faith by establishing an Islamic political system, the sharia.
  • Use of preaching as a political method to raise awareness of the need to return to the true Islam, and from there, start a political process of internal cleansing and catharsis starting with education.
  • Salafism is acknowledged by other Muslim communities as the root cause of all evil in Islam. It is a cultural pollution, dictatorship and corruption established in the Islamic nations and supported by the western powers. Today, many Muslims are tired of being repressed and tyrannized and respond with a return to the days of the prophet by in-storing the sharia law to literally follow the Quran, Hadith and Sunna.  

Salafism considers elements such as democracy, modernism, capitalism or modern social systems as the root to all evil and so described as dangerous and harmful elements to Islam. Salafism is a fundamentalist belief of islam, beyond the intention of returning to the glorious past, there are other features like the literal interpretation of religious texts, mainly, the Quran, it is a theological text in which the existence of a single supreme being is affirmed and a series of rituals and laws that cover the entire life of the believer is set, also the Hadith that is used in this religious current is intercepted as the "complimentary explanation" to fill "gaps" that exist in the Quran, hence in the binomial Quran-Hadith, the hadith is used consistently to resemble the figure of the founder of the religion, Muhammad, hence that it is used as a paradigm and model of action and to justify the correct path to God. and then, we find the Sunnah which is basically the Islamic tradition derived directly from the interpretation of the Quran and Hadith, Salafism is heavily criticized among modern and moderate Muslims who see this movement ignoring the context of religious text where interpretations are partial and discriminates other currents of Islam.

Salafists consider all Islamic school with own interpretations Quran are diverted, impure and heretical currents that must be eliminated. The Salafist project consist in a re-Islamization of the Islamic world as a political project, where one of the major theoretical is Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani

Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani consider the established political action itself as not sufficient for a consistent and genuine progress of the Salafist objectives, but instead the action must be spiritual, to achieve the re-Islamization of the Muslim world. Salafist Muslims must practice the so understood, purest and native religious path.

In fact, Salafism is more complicated than we believe as it is a school of thought with a clear political aim but purely religious basis. The activity of these groups are based on the preaching of this renewed Islamic faith. Although under these premises this Islamic current is often perceived as terrorist current, although terrorism or armed struggle is not the cornerstone of Salafism contrary to the Wahhabi principles.

History of Salafism

Landmarks claimed in the history of Salafi da'wah are Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died 240 AH / 855 AD), known among Salafis as Imam Ahl al-Sunnah and the three scholars commonly titled with the honorific Sheikh ul-Islam, namely, Taqi ad-Dīn Ibn Taymiyyah (died 728 AH / 1328 AD) and Ibn al-Qayyim (died 751 AH / 1350). 

Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab 

Modern Salafists consider the 18th Century scholar Muhammed bin 'Abd al-Wahhab and many of his students to have been Salafis. He started a revivalist movement in the remote, sparsely populated region of Najd, advocating a purging of practices such as the popular "cult of saints", and shrine and tomb visitation, widespread among Muslims, but which he considered idolatry, impurities and innovations in Islam. His evangelizing in the Arabian Peninsula during the 18th century was a call to return to the practices of the early Muslims. His works, especially Kitab at-Tawhid, are still widely read by Salafis around the world today and the majority of Salafi scholars still cite them frequently.

Views on extremism

In recent years, Salafi methodology has come to be associated with the jihad of extremist groups that advocate the killing of innocent civilians. The Saudi scholar, Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen considered suicide bombing to be unlawful and the scholar Abdul Muhsin al-Abbad wrote a treatise entitled: According to which intellect and Religion is Suicide bombings and destruction considered Jihad?. Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani stated that "History repeats itself. Everybody claims that the Prophet is their role model. Our Prophet spent the first half of his message making dawah, and he did not start it with jihad".

Some Salafi scholars appear to support extremism and acts of violence. The Egyptian Salafi cleric Mahmoud Shaaban "appeared on a religious television channel calling for the deaths of main opposition figures Mohammed ElBaradei – a Nobel peace prize laureate – and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi." The popular salafi preacherZakir Naik speaking of Osama bin Laden, said that he would not criticise bin Laden because he had not met him and did not know him personally. He added that, "If bin Laden is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him," and that "If he is terrorizing America – the terrorist, biggest terrorist – I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorizing the terrorist, he is following Islam. Whether he is or not, I don’t know, but you as Muslims know that, without checking up, laying allegations is also wrong."

Salafism is sponsored globally by Saudi Arabia and this ideology is used to justify the violent acts of Jihadi Salafi groups that include Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Al-Shabaab. In addition, Saudi Arabia prints textbooks for schools and universities to teach Salafisim as well as recruit international students from Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Africa and the Balkans to help spreading Salafisim in their local communities.

Some other Islamic groups, particularly some Sufis, have also complained about extremism among some Salafi. It has been noted that the Western association of Salafi ideology with violence stems from writings "through the prism of security studies" that were published in the late 20th century and that continue to persist.

As opposed to the traditionalist Salafism discussed throughout the article, academics and historians have used the term "Salafism" to denote modernists, "a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the 19th century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas" and "sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization." They are also known as Modernist Salafis. However contemporary Salafis follow "literal, traditional […] injunctions of the sacred texts", looking to Ibn Taymiyyah rather than the "somewhat freewheeling interpretation" of 19th century figures Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida.

The origins of contemporary Salafism in the modernist "Salafi Movement" of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh is noted by some, while others say Islamic Modernism only influenced contemporary Salafism. However, the former notion has been rejected by majority. According to Quintan Wiktorowicz:

“There has been some confusion in recent years because both the Islamic modernists and the contemporary Salafis refer (referred) to themselves as al-salafiyya, leading some observers to erroneously conclude a common ideological lineage. The earlier salafiyya (modernists), however, were predominantly rationalist Asharis.”

Inspired by Islamic modernists, groups like Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami etc. are called Salafis in this context. Muslim Brotherhood include the term salafi in the "About Us" section of its website.

In this context "in terms of their respective formation, Wahhabism and Salafism were quite distinct. Wahhabism was a pared-down Islam that rejected modern influences, while Salafism sought to reconcile Islam with modernism. What they had in common is that both rejected traditional teachings on Islam in favor of direct, ‘fundamentalist’ reinterpretation. Although Salafism and Wahhabismbegan as two distinct movements, Faisal's embrace of Salafi (Muslim Brotherhood) pan-Islamism resulted in cross-pollination between ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings on tawhid, shirk and bid‘ah and Salafi interpretations of ahadith (the sayings of Muhammad). Some Salafis nominated ibn Abd al-Wahhab as one of the Salaf (retrospectively bringing Wahhabism into the fold of Salafism), and the Muwahideen began calling themselves Salafis."

Salafism, in the broadest sense

In a broad sense, Salafi (follower of Salaf) means any reform movement that calls for resurrection of Islam by going back to its origin. In line with Wahhabism, Muslim Brotherhood, reformism of Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal and even the Islamism of Taliban is totally irrelevant when Salafism is considered.

What is Wahhabism ?

Wahhabism is a current or branch of Sunni Islam. It has been variously described as "orthodox", "ultraconservative", "austere", "fundamentalist", "puritanical" (or "puritan") and as an Islamic "reform movement" to restore "pure monotheistic worship" (tawhid) by scholars and advocates, and as an "extremist pseudo-Sunni movement" by opponents. Adherents often object to the term Wahhabi or Wahhabism as derogatory, and prefer to be called Salafi or muwahhid. 

Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). He started a revivalist movement in the remote, sparsely populated region of Najd, advocating a purging of practices such as the popular "cult of saints", and shrine and tomb visitation, widespread among Muslims, but which he considered idolatry, impurities and innovations in Islam. Eventually he formed a pact with a local leader Muhammad bin Saud offering political obedience and promising that protection and propagation of the Wahhabi movement would mean "power and glory" and rule of "lands and men."The movement is centered on the principle of tawhid, or the "uniqueness" and "unity" of God.

The alliance between followers of ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud's successors (the House of Saud) proved to be a rather durable alliance. The house of bin Saud continued to maintain its politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect through the waxing and waning of its own political fortunes over the next 150 years, through to its eventual proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and then afterwards, on into modern times. Today Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab's teachings are state-sponsored and are the official form of Sunni Islam in 21st century Saudi Arabia. 

Estimates of the number of adherents to Wahhabism vary, with one source (Michael Izady) giving a figure of fewer than 5 million Wahhabis in the Persian Gulf region (compared to 28.5 million Sunnis and 89 million Shia).  

With the help of funding from petroleum exports (and other factors), the movement underwent "explosive growth" beginning in the 1970s and now has worldwide influence. The movement is centered on the principle of Tawhid, or the "uniqueness" and "unity" of God. The movement also draws from the teachings of medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah and early jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

Wahhabism has been accused of being "a source of global terrorism", inspiring the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and for causing disunity in the Muslim community by labeling Muslims who disagreed with the Wahhabi definition of monotheism as apostates[30] (takfir), thus paving the way for their bloodshed. It has also been criticized for the destruction of historic mazaars, mausoleums, and other Muslim and non-Muslim buildings and artifacts. The "boundaries" of what make up Wahhabism have been called "difficult to pinpoint", but in contemporary usage, the terms Wahhabi and Salafi are often used interchangeably, and considered to be movements with different roots that have merged since the 1960s. But Wahhabism has also been called "a particular orientation within Salafism", or an ultra-conservative, Saudi brand of Salafism. 

The Wahhabi mission started as a revivalist movement in the remote, arid region of Najd. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Al Saud dynasty, and with it Wahhabism, spread to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. After the discovery of petroleum near the Persian Gulf in 1939, it had access to oil export revenues, revenue that grew to billions of dollars. This money—spent on books, media, schools, universities, mosques, scholarships, fellowships, lucrative jobs for journalists, academics and Islamic scholars—gave Wahhabism a "preeminent position of strength" in Islam around the world.

In the country of Wahhabism's founding—and by far the largest and most powerful country where it is the state religion—Wahhabi ulama gained control over education, law, public morality and religious institutions in the 20th century, while permitting as a "trade-off" doctrinally objectionable actions such as the import of modern technology and communications, and dealings with non-Muslims, for the sake of the consolidation of the power of its political guardian, the Al Saud dynasty.

However, in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century several crises worked to erode Wahhabi "credibility" in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world—the November 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque by militants; the deployment of US troops in Saudi during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq; and the 9/11 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

In each case the Wahhabi establishment was called on to support the dynasty's efforts to suppress religious dissent—and in each case it did—exposing its dependence on the Saudi dynasty and its often unpopular policies.

In the West, the end of the Cold War and the anti-communist alliance with conservative, religious Saudi Arabia, and the 9/11 attacks created enormous distrust towards the kingdom and especially its official religion.

Adherents to the Wahhabi movement identify as Sunni Muslims  The primary Wahhabi doctrine is the uniqueness and unity of God (Tawhid), and opposition to shirk (polytheism), "the one unforgivable sin" (according to Wahhabism).

They call for a return to the Islamic practices of the first generations of Muslims and an adherence to original texts, believing that the practice of Islam among the Islamic communities has since drifted away from its roots through various reinterpretations of the scriptures. They generally take a fundamentalist approach to Islamic religious writings. They also oppose heteredoxical doctrines held by other sects – particularly Sufis, Shiites. They place a strong emphasis on absolute monotheism and reject practices such as the veneration of graves of Muslim prophets and leaders. They also reject debate on and new interpretations of Islamic theology and practice unless verified in the original scriptures of Islam. Moreover, adherents to wahhabism are favourable of the derivation of new rulings or ijtihad so long as it is true to the essence of the Quran, Sunnah and understanding of the salafi.

According to Wahhabis, they aspire to "assimilate with the beliefs of the early Sunni Muslims", specifically the first three generations known as the Salaf. Hence, theologically Wahhabis uphold the doctrine of the athari school of divinity in matters of Aqeedah, whereby the Quran and Hadith are the only fundamental and authoritative texts taken with the understanding of the Salaf. The exegesis of the Quran and statements of the early Muslims were later codified by a number of scholars, the most well known being the 13th-century Syrian scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. Commentaries and "the examples of the early Muslim community (Ummah) and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (AD 632–661)" are used to support these texts (but are not considered independently authoritative).

As in accordance to the Athari school, Wahhabis reject the use of Hellenistic philosophical discourse "(kalam)" in favor of strict textualism in interpreting the Quran. Because of the importance placed on the Salaf generation—which include the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (Rashidun)—Ibn Abd al-Wahhab strongly opposed the basic Shia tenet of the denial of the legitimacy of the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman ibn Affan) and the designation of Ali ibn Abī Ṭālib as "the most preferred of the companions". 

One scholar (David Commins) describes the "pivotal idea" in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teaching as being that "Muslims who disagreed with his definition of monotheism were not ... misguided Muslims, but outside the pale of Islam altogether." This put Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teaching at odds with that of most Muslims through history who believed that the "shahada" profession of faith ("There is no god but God, Muhammad is his messenger") made one a Muslim, and that shortcomings in that person's behavior and performance of other obligatory rituals rendered them "a sinner", but "not an unbeliever."

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not accept that view. He argued that the criterion for one's standing as either a Muslim or an unbeliever was correct worship as an expression of belief in one God. ... any act or statement that indicates devotion to a being other than God is to associate another creature with God's power, and that is tantamount to idolatry (shirk). Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab included in the category of such acts popular religious practices that made holy men into intercessors with God. That was the core of the controversy between him and his adversaries, including his own brother. 

In Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's major work, a small book called Kitab al-Tawhid, he states that worship in Islam is limited to conventional acts of worship such as the five daily prayers (salat); fasting for Ramadan (Sawm); Dua (supplication); Istia'dha (seeking protection or refuge); Ist'ana (seeking help), and Istigatha to Allah (seeking benefits and calling upon Allah alone). Worship beyond this—making du'a or calling upon anyone or anything other than God, or seeking supernatural help and protection from something other than Allah—are acts of shirk and in violation of the tenets of Tawhid (montheism). 

Ibn Abd al-Wahahb's justification for considering some of the self-proclaimed Muslims of Arabia to be unbelievers, and for waging war on them, can be summed up as his belief that the original pagans the prophet Muhammad fought "affirmed that God is the creator, the sustainer and the master of all affairs; they gave alms, they performed pilgrimage and they avoided forbidden things from fear of God". What made them pagans whose blood could be shed and wealth plundered was that "they sacrificed animals to other beings; they sought the help of other beings; they swore vows by other beings." Someone who does such things even if their lives are otherwise exemplary is not a Muslim but an unbeliever (as Ibn Abd al-Wahahb believed). Once such people have received the call to "true Islam", understood it and then rejected it, their blood and treasure are forfeit.

This disagreement between Wahhabis and non-Wahhabi Muslims over the definition of worship and monotheism has remained much the same since 1740, according to David Commins, although, according to Saudi writer and religious television show host Abdul Aziz Qassim, as of 2014, "there are changes happening within the [Wahhabi] doctrine and among its followers." 

Wahhabism is characterized by the following points


It is Considered chirk (idolatry) to seek any form of help from a dead saint since according to the Wahhabi concept, Allah does not share his powers also they consider this practice a bid'ah (innovation) so it would go against the purity of Islam. The tasrik is always considered haram (forbidden) but not a form of idolatry or polytheism. This concept comes from the hand of the founder of Wahhabism.


This is a purely theological concept that declares that Allah is out of the world in a nonexistent place, in this case the Wahhabism takes its own idea of Muyassima doctrine.

The Tabdī

Wahhabism in their attempt to achieve the purity of Islam and return to the simple society of the Salaf, they consider bid'a (innovation) everything connected to their own spiritual paths of own philosophical and theological characteristics, hence Sufi Muslims are their greatest enemies within Islam.


Wahhabism considers yihad as a mean to achieve their end goals, making war on Muslims and non-muslims who do not accept the wahhabi path of islam, we must take into account that the Jihad in Islam is a concept of defense and not of attack and the nature of the warrior plan proposed by Wahhabism is more focused into the Umma than abroad, the primary objective of Wahhabi jihadism is to make jihad against the wicked governments and those deviant Muslims who do not accept the return of so called, the original Islam.

After this purge and internal restructuring it is now the outer side consisting an active struggle against all infidels occupying any land that ones belonged to Islam and should again be reinstated into the Umma (The islamic state, IS). Which confronts them with those non-Muslim communities within the ummah and non-Islamic states around the Muslim and non-muslim world.

Aspects of Wahhabism

  • Strict adherence to the athari school of divinity, including the affirmation of the "clear" (i.e. zahir, apparent, exoteric or literal) meaning of the Qur'an, and especially the prophetic traditions. Atharis engage in an amodal reading of the Qur'an, as opposed to one engaged in Ta'wil (metaphorical interpretation). They do not attempt to conceptualize the meanings of the Qur'an rationally, and believe that the "real" meanings should be consigned to God alone (tafwid).
  • Opposition to the practice of grave veneration and the act of tawassul through other than Allah (i.e. to the practice of asking Allah for things using a deceased pious saint as an intermediary); for example the Saudi-based Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fataawa holds the view that Tawassul through dead persons, virtuous or not, leads to Shirk (polytheism).
  • The academic categorisation of tawhid into three parts as according to the athari school of divinity and the works of Ibn Taymiyyah, elucidated in the theological mansucript Kitab al Tawhid written by Abdul Wahhab 
  • Whether the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab included the need for social renewal and "plans for socio-religious reform of society" in the Arabian Peninsula, rather than simply a return to "ritual correctness and moral purity", is disputed.

Wahhabis have been accused of being anthropomorphic. In regard to the proper interpretation of God's attributes (as described in Quran 20:5, "the All-compassionate [God] sat Himself upon the Throne", Ar-rahmanu 3alal 3arshee istiwaa`), Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab had this to say:

And it is that we accept the aayaat [verses of the Quran] and ahaadeeth [hadiths, i.e. recorded sayings of the prophet] of the Attributes [of God] upon their apparent meanings, and we leave their true meanings, while believing in their realities, to Allaah ta'aalaa [God most high]. For Maalik, one of the greatest of the "ulamaa" of the Salaf, when asked about al-istiwaa` [rising of God] in His Saying (ta'aalaa): "Ar-Rahmaan [one of the names of God] rose over the Throne." [ Quran 20:5 ] said: "Al-istiwaa' is known, the 'how' of it is unknown, believing in it is waajib [an obligation for Muslims], and asking about it is bid‘ah [a forbidden innovation]."

(Al-istiwaa` is also translated as "established" or "sat himself")

According to Ibn Taymiyyah however, the Salaf take the middle path between the extremes of anthropomorphism and allegorical/metaphorical interpretations of the Divine Names and Attributes.

Islamic law and fiqh of the four binding sources in Islamic law for Sunni jurists

  • the Quran,
  • the Sunna,
  • "consensus" (ijma), and
  • "analogy" (qiyas) --

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's writings emphasized the Quran and Sunna. He used ijma only "in conjunction with its corroboration of the Quran and hadith" (and giving preference to the ijma of Muhammad's companions rather than the ijma of legal specialists after his time), and qiyas only in cases of extreme necessity. He rejected the unyielding imitation of past scholarship (taqlid) in favor of independent reasoning (ijtihad), opposed using local customs. He urged his followers to "return to the primary sources" of Islam in order "to determine how the Quran and Muhammad dealt with specific situations", when using ijtihad ("independent reasoning"). According to Edward Mortimer, it was at the scholarly level in the face of a clear evidence or proof from a hadeeth or Qur'anic text, that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab condemned taqlid. (According to one scholar—Natana DeLong-Bas—Wahhabi focus on failure to abide by Islamic law as grounds for declaring a Muslim an apostate is not based on the Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's preaching but an adaption of the ideology of Ibn Taymiyya, that came after the death of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.)

According to an expert on law in Saudi Arabia (Frank Vogel), Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself "produced no unprecedented opinions". The "Wahhabis' bitter differences with other Muslims were not over fiqh rules at all, but over aqida, or theological positions", and in fiqh. Scholar David Cummings also states that early disputes with other Muslims did not center on fiqh, (Wahhabis association with the Hanbali school notwithstanding), and that the belief that Wahhabism was borne of Hanbali thought is a "myth".

Some scholars are ambivalent as to whether Wahhabis belong to the Hanbali legal tradition (i.e. school of fiqh, or Madhhab). Just as the Salaf followed no school of fiqh (as they had not been developed), so Wahhabis—as imitators of the Salaf—are outside of any school. The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World maintains Wahhabis "rejected all jurisprudence that in their opinion did not adhere strictly to the letter of the Qur'an and the hadith". Cyril Glasse's New Encyclopedia of Islam states that "strictly speaking", Wahhabis "do not see themselves as belonging to any school," and that in doing so they correspond to the ideal aimed at by Ibn Hanbal, and thus they can be said to be of his 'school'.  According to DeLong-Bas, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab never directly claimed to be a Hanbali jurist, warned his followers about the dangers of adhering unquestionably to fiqh, and did not consider "the opinion of any law school to be binding." He did, however, follow the Hanbali methodology of extreme conservatism in interpretation of the Sharia.

At least one Wahhabi source also states that at least in some circumstance bin Abd al-Wahhaab did "not prohibit following a madhhab [school of fiqh such as Hanbali] so long as there is no clash with a clear, plain legislative text". It quotes correspondence by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in support arguing that abandoning Madhhab precedent is simply a revival of the practice of early students of the scholars of the Madh'hab (fiqh schools) who would leave their teacher's position in light of a newly found evidence. 

According to various sources—scholars,   former Saudi students,  Arabic-speaking/reading teachers who have had access to Saudi text books,  and journalists —Ibn `Abd al Wahhab and his successors preach that theirs is the one true form of Islam. According to a doctrine known as al-wala` wa al-bara` (literally, "loyalty and disassociation"), Abd al-Wahhab argued that it was "imperative for Muslims not to befriend, ally themselves with, or imitate non-Muslims or heretical Muslims", and that this "enmity and hostility of Muslims toward non-Muslims and heretical had to be visible and unequivocal". Even as late as 2003, entire pages in Saudi textbooks were devoted to explaining to undergraduates that all forms of Islam except Wahhabism were deviation, although, according to one source (Hamid Algar) Wahhabis have "discreetly concealed" this view from other Muslims outside Saudi Arabia "over the years".

In reply, the Saudi Arabian government "has strenuously denied the above allegations", including that "their government exports religious or cultural extremism or supports extremist religious education."

Politics of Wahhabism

According to ibn Abdal-Wahhab there are three objectives for Islamic government and society: "to believe in Allah, enjoin good behavior, and forbid wrongdoing." This doctrine has been sustained in missionary literature, sermons, fatwa rulings, and explications of religious doctrine by Wahhabis since the death of ibn Abdal-Wahhab. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw a role for the imam, "responsible for religious matters", and the amir, "in charge of political and military issues". (In Saudi history the imam has not been a religious preacher or scholar, but Muhammad ibn Saud and subsequent Saudi rulers.)

He also taught that the Muslim ruler is owed unquestioned allegiance as a religious obligation from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. A Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. Any counsel given to a ruler from community leaders or ulama should be private, not through public acts such as petitions, demonstrations, etc.   (This strict obedience can become problematic if a dynastic dispute arises and someone rebelling against the ruler succeeds and becomes the ruler, as happened in the late 19th century at the end of the second al-Saud state. Is the successful rebel a ruler to be obeyed, or a usurper?)

While this gives the king wide power, respecting shari'a does impose limits, such as giving qadi (Islamic judges) independence. This means not interfering in their deliberations, but also not codifying laws, following precedents or establishing a uniform system of law courts—both of which violate the qadi's independence.

Wahhabis have traditionally given their allegiance to the House of Saud, but a movement of "Salafi jihadis" has developed among those who believe Al Saud has abandoned the laws of God. According to Zubair Qamar, while the "standard view" is that "Wahhabis are apolitical and do not oppose the State", there is/was another "strain" of Wahhabism that "found prominence among a group of Wahhabis after the fall of the second Saudi State in the 1800s", and post 9/11 is associated with Jordanian/Palestinian scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and "Wahhabi scholars of the 'Shu’aybi' school".

Wahhabis share the belief of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Islamic dominion over politics and government and the importance of dawah (proselytizing or preaching of Islam) not just towards non-Muslims but towards erroring Muslims. However Wahhabi preachers are conservative and do not deal with concepts such as social justice,anticolonialism, or economic equality, expounded upon by Islamist Muslims. Ibn Abdul Wahhab's original pact promised whoever championed his message, 'will, by means of it, rule and lands and men.'"

Definitions of Wahhabism

  • "a corpus of doctrines", and "a set of attitudes and behavior, derived from the teachings of a particularly severe religious reformist who lived in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century" (Gilles Kepel)
  • "pure Islam" (David Commins, paraphrasing supporters' definition), that does not deviate from Sharia law in any way and should be called Islam and not Wahhabism. (King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the King of the Saudi Arabia)
  • "a misguided creed that fosters intolerance, promotes simplistic theology, and restricts Islam's capacity for adaption to diverse and shifting circumstances" (David Commins, paraphrasing opponents' definition)
  • "a conservative reform movement ... the creed upon which the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, and [which] has influenced Islamic movements worldwide" (Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world)
  • "a sect dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar" with footholds in "India, Africa, and elsewhere", with a "steadfastly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the tradition of Ibn Hanbal" (Cyril Glasse)
  • an "eighteenth-century reformist/revivalist movement for sociomoral reconstruction of society", "founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab" (Oxford Dictionary of Islam).
  • originally a "literal revivification" of Islamic principles that ignored the spiritual side of Islam, that "rose on the wings of enthusiasm апd longing and then sank down into the lowlands of pharisaic self-righteousness" after gaining power and losing its "longing and humility" (Muhammad Asad)
  • "a political trend" within Islam that "has been adopted for power-sharing purposes", but cannot be called a sect because "It has no special practices, nor special rites, and no special interpretation of religion that differ from the main body of Sunni Islam" (Abdallah Al Obeid, the former dean of the Islamic University of Medina and member of the Saudi Consultative Council)
  • "the true salafist movement". Starting out as a theological reform movement, it had "the goal of calling (da'wa) people to restore the 'real' meaning of tawhid (oneness of God or monotheism) and to disregard and deconstruct 'traditional' disciplines and practices that evolved in Islamic history such as theology and jurisprudence and the traditions of visiting tombs and shrines of venerated individuals." (Ahmad Moussalli)
  • a term used by opponents of Salafism in hopes of besmirching that movement by suggesting foreign influence and "conjuring up images of Saudi Arabia". The term is "most frequently used in countries where Salafis are a small minority" of the Muslim community but "have made recent inroads" in "converting" the local population to Salafism. (Quintan Wiktorowicz)
  • a blanket term used inaccurately to refer to "any Islamic movement that has an apparent tendency toward misogyny, militantism, extremism, or strict and literal interpretation of the Quran and hadith" (Natana J. DeLong-Bas)

Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab 

The founder of Wahhabism, Mohammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, was born around 1700 in a small oasis town in the Najd region, in what is now central Saudi Arabia. He studied in Basra (in what is now Iraq) and possibly Mecca and Medina while there to perform Hajj, before returning to his home town of 'Uyayna in 1740. There he worked to spread (what he believed to be) the call (da'wa) for a restoration of true monotheistic worship, purified of innovations, such as invoking or making vows to "holy men" or "saints". The "pivotal idea" of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teaching was that people who called themselves Muslims but who participated in such innovations were not just misguided or committing a sin, but were "outside the pale of Islam altogether," as were Muslims who disagreed with his definition. 

This included not just lax, unlettered, nomadic Bedu, but Shia, Sufi, and Ottomans. Such infidels were not to be killed outright, but to be given a chance to repent first.

With the support of the ruler of the town—Uthman ibn Mu'ammar—he carried out some of his religious reforms in 'Uyayna, including the demolition of the tomb of Zayd ibn al-Khattab (one of the Sahaba (companions) of the prophet Muhammad), and the stoning to death of an adulterous woman. However, a more powerful chief (Sulaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Ghurayr) pressured Uthman ibn Mu'ammar to expel him from 'Uyayna.

Alliance with the House of Saud

The ruler of nearby town, Muhammad ibn Saud, invited ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab to join him, and in 1744 a pact was made between the two.  Ibn Saud would protect and propagate the doctrines of the Wahhabi mission, while ibn Abdul Wahhab "would support the ruler, supplying him with 'glory and power.'" Whoever championed his message, ibn Abdul Wahhab promised, "will, by means of it, rule the lands and men."  Ibn Saud would abandon un-Sharia taxation of local harvests, and in return God might compensate him with booty from conquest and sharia compliant taxes that would exceed what he gave up. The alliance between the Wahhabi mission and Al Saud family has "endured for more than two and half centuries," surviving defeat and collapse. The two families have intermarried multiple times over the years and in today's Saudi Arabia, the minister of religion is always a member of the Al ash-Sheikh family (i.e. a descendent of Ibn Abdul Wahhab).

According to most sources, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab declared jihad against neighboring tribes, whose practices of praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, he believed to be the work of idolaters/unbelievers.  (One academic disputes this. According to Natana DeLong-Bas, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was restrained in urging fighting with perceived unbelievers, preferring to preach and persuade rather than attack.  It was only after the death of Muhammad bin Saud in 1765 that, according to DeLong-Bas, Muhammad bin Saud's son and successor, Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad, used a "convert or die" approach to expand his domain, and when Wahhabis adopted the takfirideas of Ibn Taymiyya.)

However, various scholars, including Simon Ross Valentine have strongly rejected such a view of Wahhab, arguing that "the image of Abd’al-Wahhab presented by DeLong-Bas is to be seen for what it is, namely a re-writing of history that flies in the face of historical fact". Conquest expanded through the Arabian Peninsula until it conquered Mecca and Medina the early 19th century.  (It was at this time, according to DeLong-Bas, that Wahhabis embraced the ideas of Ibn Taymiyya, which allow self-professed Muslim who do not follow Islamic law to be declared non-Muslims—to justify their warring and conquering the Muslim Sharifs of Hijaz.)

One of their most noteworthy and controversial attacks was on Karbala in 1802. There, according to a Wahhabi chronicler `Uthman b. `Abdullah b. Bishr: "The Muslims"—as the Wahhabis referred to themselves, not feeling the need to distinguish themselves from other Muslims, since they did not believe them to be Muslims --

scaled the walls, entered the city ... and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes. [They] destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn [and took] whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings ... the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels ... different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qur'an."

Wahhabis also massacred the male population and enslaved the women and children of the city of Ta'if in Hejaz in 1803.

The Ottoman Empire eventually succeeded in counterattacking. In 1818 they defeated Al Saud, leveling the capital Diriyah, executing the Al-Saud emir, exiling the emirate's political and religious leadership, and otherwise unsuccessfully attempted to stamp out not just the House of Saud but the Wahhabi mission. A second, smaller Saudi state (Emirate of Nejd) lasted from 1819-1891. Its borders being within Najd, Wahhabism was protected from further Ottoman or Egyptian campaigns by the Najd's isolation, lack of valuable resources, and that era's limited communication and transportation.

By the 1880s, at least among townsmen if not Bedouin, Wahhabi strict monotheistic doctrine had become the native religious culture of the Najd.


In the 1950s and 60s within Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi ulama maintained their hold on religious law courts, presided over the creation of Islamic universities, and a public school system which gave students "a heavy dose of religious instruction". Outside of Saudi the Wahhabi ulama became "less combative" toward the rest of the Muslim world. In confronting the challenge of the West, Wahhabi doctrine "served well" for many Muslims as a "platform" and "gained converts beyond the peninsula."

A number of reasons have been given for this success. The growth in popularity and strength of both Arab nationalism (although Wahhabis opposed any form of nationalism as an ideology, Saudis were Arabs, and their enemy the Ottoman caliphate was ethnically Turkish), and Islamic reform (specifically reform by following the example of those first three generations of Muslims known as the Salaf); the destruction of the Ottoman Empire which sponsored their most effective critics; the destruction of another rival, the Khilafa in Hejaz, in 1925. Not least in importance was the money Saudi Arabia earned from exporting oil.

Petroleum export era

The pumping and export of oil from Saudi Arabia started during World War II, and its earnings helped fund religious activities in the 1950s and 60. But it was the 1973 oil crisisand quadrupling in the price of oil that both increased the kingdom's wealth astronomically and enhanced its prestige by demonstrating its international power as a leader of OPEC. By 1980, Saudi Arabia was earning every three days the income from oil it had taken a year to earn before the embargo. Tens of billions of dollars of this money were spent on books, media, schools, scholarships for students (from primary to post-graduate), fellowships and subsidies to reward journalists, academics and Islamic scholars, the building of hundreds of Islamic centers and universities, and over one thousand schools and one thousand mosques. During this time, Wahhabism attained what Gilles Kepel called a "preeminent position of strength in the global expression of Islam."

As a religious revivalist movement that works to bring Muslims back from what it believes are foreign accretions that have corrupted Islam, and believes that Islam is a complete way of life and so has prescriptions for all aspects of life, Wahhabism is quite strict in what it considers Islamic behavior.

This does not mean however, that all adherents agree on what is required or forbidden, or that rules have not varied by area or changed over time. In Saudi Arabia the strict religious atmosphere of Wahhabi doctrine is visible in the conformity in dress, public deportment, and public prayer, and makes its presence felt by the wide freedom of action of the "religious police", clerics in mosques, teachers in schools, and judges (who are religious legal scholars) in Saudi courts.

Commanding right and forbidding wrong

Wahhabism is noted for its policy of "compelling its own followers and other Muslims strictly to observe the religious duties of Islam, such as the five prayers", and for "enforcement of public morals to a degree not found elsewhere".

While other Muslims might urge abstention from alcohol, modest dress, and salat prayer, for Wahhabis prayer "that is punctual, ritually correct, and communally performed not only is urged but publicly required of men." Not only is wine forbidden, but so are "all intoxicating drinks and other stimulants, including tobacco." Not only is modest dress prescribed, but the type of clothing that should be worn, especially by women (a black abaya, covering all but the eyes and hands) is specified.

Following the preaching and practice of Abdul Wahhab that coercion should be used to enforce following of sharia, an official committee has been empowered to "Command the Good and Forbid the Evil" (the so-called "religious police") in Saudi Arabia—the one country founded with the help of Wahhabi warriors and whose scholars and pious[citation needed] dominate many aspects of the Kingdom's life. Committee "field officers" enforce strict closing of shops at prayer time, segregation of the sexes, prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol, driving of motor vehicles by women, and other social restrictions.

A large number of practices have been reported forbidden by Saudi Wahhabi officials, preachers or religious police. Practices that have been forbidden as Bida'a (innovation) or shirk and sometimes "punished by flogging" during Wahhabi history include performing or listening to music, dancing, fortune telling, amulets, television programs (unless religious), smoking, playing backgammon, chess, or cards, drawing human or animal figures, acting in a play or writing fiction (both are considered forms of lying), dissecting cadavers (even in criminal investigations and for the purposes of medical research), recorded music played over telephones on hold or the sending of flowers to friends or relatives who are in the hospital. Common Muslim practices Wahhabis believe are contrary to Islam include listening to music in praise of Muhammad, praying to God while visiting tombs (including the tomb of Muhammad), celebrating mawlid (birthday of the Prophet), the use of ornamentation on or in mosques. The driving of motor vehicles by women is allowed in every country but Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia  and the famously strict Taliban practiced dream interpretation is discouraged by Wahhabis.

Wahhabism emphasizes "Thaqafah Islamiyyah" or Islamic culture and the importance of avoiding non-Islamic cultural practices and non-Muslim friendship no matter how innocent these may appear, on the grounds that the Sunna forbids imitating non-Muslims. Foreign practices sometimes punished and sometimes simply condemned by Wahhabi preachers as unIslamic, include celebrating foreign days (such as Valentine's Day or Mothers Day) shaving, cutting or trimming of beards, giving of flowers, standing up in honor of someone, celebrating birthdays (including the Prophet's), keeping or petting dogs. Wahhabi scholars have warned against taking non-Muslims as friends, smiling at or wishing them well on their holidays.

Wahhabis are not in unanimous agreement on what is forbidden as sin. Some Wahhabi preachers or activists go further than the official Saudi Arabian Council of Senior Scholarsin forbidding (what they believe to be) sin. Several wahhabis have declared Football (Soccer) forbidden for a variety of reasons (because it is a non-Muslim, foreign practice—because of the revealing uniforms, or because of the foreign non-Muslim language (foul, penalty kick) used in matches. ) The Saudi Grand Mufti, on the other hand has declared football permissible (halal). 

Senior Wahhabi leaders in Saudi Arabia have determined that Islam forbids the traveling or working outside the home by a woman without their husband's permission—permission which may be revoked at any time—on the grounds that the different physiological structures and biological functions of the different genders mean that each sex is assigned a different role to play in the family. As mentioned before, Wahhabism also forbids the driving of motor vehicles by women. Sexual intercourse out of wedlock may be punished with beheading although sex out of wedlock is permissible with a slave women (Prince Bandar bin Sultan was the product of "a brief encounter" between his father Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz -- the Saudi defense minister for many years -- and "his slave, a black servingwoman"), or was before slavery was banned in Saudi Arabia in 1962.

Despite this strictness, senior Wahhabi scholars of Islam in the Saudi kingdom have made exceptions in ruling on what is haram. Foreign non-Muslim troops are forbidden in Arabia, except when the king needed them to confront Saddam Hussein in 1990; gender mixing of men and women is forbidden, and fraternization with non-Muslims is discouraged, but not at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Movie theaters and driving by women are forbidden, except at the ARAMCO compound in eastern Saudi, populated by workers for the company that provides almost all the government's revenue. (The exceptions made at KAUST are also in effect at ARAMCO.)

And more general rules of what is permissible have changed over time. Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud imposed Wahhabi doctrines and practices "in a progressively gentler form" as his early 20th-century conquests expanded his state into urban areas, especially the Hejab. After vigorous debate Wahhabi religious authorities in Saudi Arabia allowed the use of paper money (in 1951), the abolition of slavery (in 1962), education of females (1964), and use of television (1965). Music, the sound of which once might have led to summary execution, is now commonly heard on Saudi radios.  Minarets for mosques and use of funeral markers, which were once forbidden, are now allowed. Prayer attendance which was once enforced by flogging, is no longer. 

Wahhabi Appearance

The uniformity of dress among men and women in Saudi Arabia (compared to other Muslim countries in the Middle East) has been called a "striking example of Wahhabism's outward influence on Saudi society", and an example of the Wahhabi belief that "outward appearances and expressions are directly connected to one's inward state." The "long, white flowing thobe" worn by men of Saudi Arabia has been called the "Wahhabi national dress". Red-and-white checkered or white head scarves known as Ghutrahare worn. In public women are required to wear a black abaya or other black clothing that covers every part of their body other than hands and eyes.

A "badge" of a particularly pious Salafi or Wahhabi man is a robe too short to cover the ankle, an untrimmed beard, and no cord (Agal) to hold the head scarf in place.The warriors of the Ikhwan Wahhabi religious militia wore a white turban in place of an agal.

Wahhabiyya mission 

Wahhabi mission, or Dawah Wahhabiyya, is to spread purified Islam through the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  Tens of billions of dollars have been spent by the Saudi government and charities on mosques, schools, education materials, scholarships, throughout the world to promote Islam and the Wahhabi interpretation of it. Tens of thousands of volunteers and several billion dollars also went in support of the jihad against the atheist communist regime governing Muslim Afghanistan.

Origins of Wahhabism

Wahhabism originated in the Najd region, and its conservative practices have stronger support there than in regions in the kingdom to the east or west of it. Glasse credits the softening of some Wahhabi doctrines and practices on the conquest of the Hejaz region "with its more cosmopolitan traditions and the traffic of pilgrims which the new rulers could not afford to alienate".

The only other country "whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed", is the small gulf monarchy of Qatar, whose version of Wahhabism is notably less strict. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar made significant changes in the 1990s. Women are now allowed to drive and travel independently; non-Muslims are permitted to consume alcohol and pork. The country sponsors a film festival, has "world-class art museums", hosts Al Jazeera news service, will hold the 2022 football World Cup, and has no religious force that polices public morality. Qatari's attribute its different interpretation of Islam to the absence of an indigenous clerical class and autonomous bureaucracy (religious affairs authority, endowments, Grand Mufti), the fact that Qatari rulers do not derive their legitimacy from such a class.

Notable leaders

There has traditionally been a recognized head of the Wahhabi "religious estate", often a member of Al ash-Sheikh (a decedent of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) or related to another religious head. For example, Abd al-Latif was the son of Abd al-Rahman ibn Hasan.

  • Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) was the founder of the Wahhabi movement.
  • Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1752-1826) was the head of Wahhabism after his father retired from public life in 1773. After the fall of the first Saudi emirate, Abd Allah went into exile in Cairo where he died.
  • Sulayman ibn Abd Allah (1780-1818) was a grandson of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and author of an influential treatise that restricted travel to and residing in land of idolaters (i.e. land outside of the Wahhabi area).
  • Abd al-Rahman ibn Hasan (1780-1869) was head of the religious estate in the second Saudi emirate.
  • Abd al-Latif ibn Abd al-Rahman (1810-1876) Head of religious estate in 1860 and early 1870s.
  • Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Latif Al ash-Sheikh (1848-1921) was the head of religious estate during period of Rashidi rule and the early years of King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud.
  • Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al ash-Sheikh (1893-1969) was the head of Wahhabism in mid twentieth century. He has been said to have "dominated the Wahhabi religious estate and enjoyed unrivaled religious authority."

In more recent times, a couple of Wahhabi clerics have risen to prominence that have no relation to ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, has been called "the most prominent proponent" of Wahhabism during his time. He died in 1999.
Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymeen, another "giant" died in 2001. According to David Dean Commins, no one "has emerged" with the same "degree of authority in the Saudi religious establishment" since their deaths. 

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