Explaining Wahhabism and Salafism

20131021329RN66by Karim Pourhamzavi

Mainstream news media coverage suggests to us that the Middle East is full of Islamic religious fanatics. The great diversity in politics and religion in the area is erased. Moreover, the way in which the Western powers, especially the United States, has encouraged and supported the growth of conservative religious movements to undermine progressive nationalist movements is never covered. Yet the sponsorship of reactionary forms of Islam by the United States and its chief allies in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, is crucial for understanding the current strength of these movements and the expansion of conflict.

In addition, where Muslim is fighting Muslim, we are not given any background analysis of why this might be the case and what the differences are between the various strands of Islam. Now and then the term ‘Salafist’ might pop up in a news item or an interview and people are given the impression that this might be important in some way, but we are not informed how or why. At best, we might glean that it has some connection with Wahhabism, the fundamentalist doctrine which the Saudi Arabian state has been connected to since that state was established in 1932.

Given that the Islamic State, the group we are told represents an unprecedented threat to us in this country, is identified with Salafism, it might be particularly useful to explore what this means.

Wahhabism and Salafism – one doctrine

In fact, the differences between Wahhabism and Salafism are marginal; the two terms actually refer to one doctrine and therefore provide one ideological base for a similar set of actions and violence.

The Arabic term Salaf refers to a historical period in which the Prophet of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, and his companions were living in the 7th century Medina. As a theological approach, it was first suggested by a fanatical jurist, Ibn Taymiyyah, in early 14th century. Ibn Taymiyyah was born in a Hanbali family where his father was also a Hanbali jurist. The Sunni faction of Islam is divided into four theological schools (madhaheb) of Hanbali, Shafei, Maleki and Hanafi.

However, most of Ibn Taymiyyah’s works and his religious decrees, or fatwa, were outside of the Hanbali tradition. By arguing against not only the four Sunni schools but almost all of the Islamic sects and their approaches to understanding Islam, Ibn Taymiyyah suggested the notion of al salaf al saheh – following the path of righteous companions of the Prophet. This term later, in the modern era, became an exclusive title for the adherents of Salafism and Wahhabism. That is, only the above-mentioned adherents follow the righteous companions and therefore represent the true Islam while other Muslims do not.

Ibn Taymiyya’s way of dealing with other Islamic approaches, which mostly involved incorporating rationality in order to extract Islamic principles and interpret the Quran, was by way of excommunicating them. However, the word excommunication is a bad translation of the Arabic word takfir. The word takfir – in its Salafi context – considers a Muslim or a nation of Muslims to be non-believers and therefore declares jihad against them; shedding their blood is permissible. Against the rational approach of the Sunni Ashaera (consisting of about 90 percent of the global Muslim Sunni population) and the usage of rationality by Shi’ah and Sufis (20 percent of the Muslim world), Ibn Taymiyyah suggested a dogmatic approach for constructing Islamic principles from the Quran. That is, whatever is written in the Quran- which is a document of the 7th century- should be understood as it was written.

No passage of time and no rational approach or any sort of innovation and analogy can be involved to interpret the Quranic verses in a new era or new circumstances. Therefore, when Ibn Taymiyyah considered the Shi’ah and the Sufis as “people of innovation” he means that such “innovations” hurt the purity of Islam and make the innovators mere “infidels” who work against the true notion of Islam that presumably only he understood correctly.

Ibn Taymiyya’s Salafism was not taken seriously in his time in the early 14th century. It was neither able to attract other Muslims and inspire a movement, nor could it disturb the existing plurality among Muslims. It was only in the mid-18th century that a preacher who was highly inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah’s works, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, was able to turn Salafism into an actual reactionary movement which is known as the Wahhabi movement.

Ibn Abd al Wahhab’s core emphasis was on the notion of monotheism to conclude that the non-Wahhabi Muslims are “heretics” and share other subjects with god when they worship him. In fact Ibn Abd al Wahhab’s whole approach was designed to operate as a religious police machinery in order to determine who the pure Muslim is who worship the god alone and who is not. Therefore, Wahhabism is heavily obsessed with the notion of takfir and in other areas, such as juridical interpretation of Quran and Islamic jurisprudence generally, Wahhabism had little to offer; they simply adopted Ibn Taymiyyah’s, and some part of the Hanbalis’, approaches.

The founder of Wahhabism, alongside a handful of his loyalists, started to employ their doctrine by destroying sacred tombs, cutting trees and stoning women to death in small towns of the vast desert of Arabia, namely Najd. However, three crucial events helped Wahhabism not only to survive as a highly restrictive and fatal doctrine, but also, to some extent, spread internationally.

Turning points

The first turning point was the alliance between Ibn Abd al Wahhab and Ibn Saud – the founding father of House of Saud – in the village of Dari’ya where Ibn Saud was the leader of his small clan. Ibn Saud, who dreamed about ruling beyond his small village, found in Wahhabism a jihadist warfare machine by which he could conquer more territories. Ibn Abd al Wahhab, who by then was prosecuted by the Ottomans for what he and his loyalists had done in other Najdi towns, found an asylum with Ibn Saud and an opportunity to spread his doctrine by way of performing jihad against the “infidels” – the other Muslims of his time.

As a result of the alliance, various cities of Arabia such as Riyadh, Taef, Meka and Medina, and also cities with majority of Shi’ah inhabitants such as Al Ahsa in Arabia and Karbala in Iraq, were repeatedly subject to the Wahhabis’ invasions in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. Each of these invasions involved numerous massacres from which women and children were not exempt.

The second turning point for the Wahhabi movement was when the British Empire found Wahhabism a good means against their rivals, the Ottoman Empire. Accordingly, Britain supported the Wahhabi movement both financially and with weaponry during World War 1. The third crucial event also involves Great Britain. After World War 1, The British government favoured the most conservative forces in the Arabian peninsula; they preferred the House of Saud and their Wahhabi allies over the moderate Hashemite forces, who were in charge of Hejaz in Western Arabia. Britain essentially granted the House of Saud a state in 1932, namely Saudi Arabia.

Little support in mainstream Islam whom they declare ‘infidels’

The Wahhabis reject the Wahhabi title and call themselves mowahedon, the people who are monotheistic. Unsurprisingly, the title is also exclusive, to indicate that non-Wahhabis do not worship the one god and therefore are no more than “heretics”. However, they are known as Wahhabis because their founder was Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. The Salafis found no problem in accepting their title as the only Muslims who follow the path of the righteous companions of the seventh century, an era which we know very little about.

There is also little evidence regarding how the Prophet and his companions were actually living. Most of what has been written in this regard is based on a religious framework rather than reliable historical scholarship. Yet, both Salafism and Wahhabism emerged from the 18th century onward. The theological base of both above-mentioned approaches is one and, as previously mentioned, find either no or very little support in the traditional schools of Islam. For instance, no Islamic school and institution to this day exercised the vast and fatal power of takfir which gives jurisdiction to shed the blood of other Muslims or initiate a jihadi war against them by virtue of declaring them infidels. On the contrary, the traditional Islamic schools consider this judgemental power as belonging to the god.

Notwithstanding how Wahhabism was spread globally from 1932 to this day, this ideology is currently behind the ruthless jihadist groups such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Beheading Syrians and Iraqis alongside some British and American journalists and aid workers for being “infidels”, destroying sacred Islamic places such as mosques, ancient graves and tombs with historical significance, banning music and smoking and imposing highly restrictive dress codes such as burqa in Syrian and Iraqi cities which are currently under the jihadists’ control can all find justification in Wahhabi and Salafi ideology.

See also: The origins, economics and politics of Islamic State