What is Wahhabism?

Wahhabism is the most debated and perhaps vilified terminology among the commentators since 9/11. This ideology is blamed for producing and inspiring most of the jihadi elements that have been wrecking havocs in different parts of the world with terrorist attacks. But what is Wahhabism? Is this movement really behind this growing phenomenon of what…

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Wahhabism is the most debated and perhaps vilified terminology among the commentators since 9/11. This ideology is blamed for producing and inspiring most of the jihadi elements that have been wrecking havocs in different parts of the world with terrorist attacks. But what is Wahhabism? Is this movement really behind this growing phenomenon of what is called “Islamic Terrorism” today?

Two hundred years ago, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) led a religious reformist movement in Central Arabia. This movement focused mainly on fighting innovations and deviations that had crept into Islam at that time in the region of Najd in Central Arabia in particular and in the Muslim world in general. The movement calls for renewal of Muslim spirit, return to the original sources of Islam, namely the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be with him).

Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab stressed that Tawheed (monotheism) was at the top of basic fundamentals of Islam, and is in fact the thread that runs through the entire body of the Islamic system of beliefs and worships. He, therefore, called upon his followers to abstain from erroneous and unauthentic religious practices and follow the original Shariah that was embraced and followed by the first righteous generation of Islam.

Since this reformist movement was against superstitions, fables, innovations and deviations, it attracted opposition from some sections in the Muslim society, particularly the “saint-worshippers”, “grave-worshippers” and “Sufis”. When the followers of this movement began to cleanse the region of improper practices and shrines, they uprooted some so-called sacred trees and demolished domes over some tombs where people made pilgrimages and offered animal sacrifices. The local tribal rulers fearing backlash, withdrew protection to Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab who along with his supporters kept moving from one city to another, until he met Muhammad bind Saud, the then ruler of Dir’iyyah, who welcomed the religious preacher and promised to extend full support and protection to him and his reformist movement.  Thus was born a religious political pact between the two Muhammads which was known as the Dir’iyyah Pact of 1745. Dir’iyyah became the centre of this new movement that was later to change the course of not only the Arabian but to some extent the Muslim history.

Some contemporary European observers such as Niebuhr, Bredges AliBey and Buckhardt studied this reformist movement of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab and described it as consistent with the fundamental teachings of Islam. Mrs. Natana Delong Bas, who did her PhD from Georgetown University in 2002, on “Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab: An intellectual Biography” says: The most important findings in the study, particularly after the 9/11 incidents, are those pertaining to jihad, women and gender. Sheikh Muhammad was neither a violent fanatic nor a misogynist. He was remarkably balanced and logical in his discussions and was a great scholar. His main goal in life was to educate Muslims about their faith through direct study of the Qur’an and Sunnah. He gives great attention to the issues of social justice and welfare. His approach was more evolutionary because his ultimate goal was educating Muslims, not overthrowing governments. Both his writings and the historical records indicate that Islamic call, not military training was Sheikh Muhammad’s main objective. He hardly discusses martyrdom. As for “self-designated martyrdom” by suicide bombers, he would have never approved their goal or the method, because suicide is prohibited by the Qur’an (Don’t kill the life that God has prohibited to kill.) and Sunnah.

The fact is that the way in which this reformist movement chose to spread its message gave rise to some misunderstandings. As a result, opponents of the movement portrayed it as a dangerous and heretical movement. This propaganda then reached Europe and from there spread to the rest of the world.

A review of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab’s writings, particularly on the concepts of Jihad and Dawah suggests that political expansion was not his goal, nor did his teachings support this concept. He did not teach hatred towards other communities nor did he justify use of force against them. In fact, his teachings are in stark contrast with the contemporary doctrines of Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in the world who strongly believe in political Islam and are considered to be upholders of extremist’s ideologies.

Religious scholars and establishments in Saudi Arabia are the upholders of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab’s movement today. They too have been very vocal against acts and ideologies of terror and extremism. In fact, well known contemporary Saudi scholars, such as late Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz and Sheikh Muhammad bin Othaymeen were among the few scholars in the Muslim world to denounce suicide bombers while some others had justified these acts if carried out by helpless people against ruthless oppressors in a desperate condition such as in Palestine.

Replying to a question on terrorist attacks, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz said: Those who kill people on the pretext of eliminating wrong acts are real terrorists who spread corruption and mischief in the land and create instability and insecurity in the society. Only authorised rulers have the right to change anything they consider wrong by force.

Sheikh Muhammad bin Othaymeen, one of the most popular and revered religious scholars in Saudi Arabia besides Sheikh Abdul bib Baz, says: These (terrorist) acts are undoubtedly unacceptable to any sensible person, let alone the believers. They are not acceptable because they violate the provisions of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah. They also damage the image of Islam locally and internationally. All those who hear the news of such bombings immediately accuse Muslims as terrorists and spread fallacies that the principles of Islam are behind such acts. It is wrong to associate Islam with these acts. In fact the perpetrators of such acts insult Islam before anything else. We pray to Allah to punish them for these acts, for He is the Most Just.

The Senior Ulama Commission in Saudi Arabia, in its 49th session held in Taif 2/2/1419H discussed acts of terrorists and extremists. In view of the Commission, the problem was very grave and resulted in murdering innocent people, destroying properties, terrifying people and destabilising their lives. Therefore, the Commission considered issuing a statement explaining the ruling on such acts with the aim of advising all Muslims and removing any conceptual confusion. The statement is very lengthy and deals with all sorts of extremism and terrorism. The statement says: Any acts committed as a result of such a wrong belief including murdering people and insulting their honour, robbing public and private resources, exploding houses and vehicles and destroying facilities are unanimously prohibited by Muslims, because they represent an aggression against the lives of people and their properties and against security and stability of people in their houses and living activities. They are an aggression against public facilities which are indispensable for people. This is not allowed by Islam.[email protected]

During its sixteenth session held between 5-10 January 2002, the Islamic Fiqh  Council of Saudi based Muslim World League laid emphasis on the fact that extremism, violence and terrorism have no connection whatsoever with Islam. In fact, they are manifestations of perilous acts with dangerous consequences, and an aggression and inequity against the individual.

Contrary to the prevailing notion that the Salafis and Wahhabis are responsible for producing today’s blood thirsty jihadists, Algerian government which has been fighting Islamists for the last 15 years after the authorities cancelled the result of the elections which the Islamists were poised to win, thinks the other way. To fight the terrorists, the Algerian authorities are using the fatwas of Gulf based Salafi religious scholars who have stated clearly that what the militant groups are doing is not Jihad. These fatwas were conveyed by special envoys to the warlords of militant groups in the mountains and had a considerable impact on them. The militants all of a sudden discovered that the killings they have been doing over the years are not sanctioned by the Shariah. The officials in the Algerian governments admit that these fatwas by salafi scholars, helped in a very short period, convince a number of warlords, realise their mistakes and come down from the mountains to surrender to the authorities.

It is high time to realise that Wahhabism or Salfism is not the principal ideological force behind what is called Islamic terrorism today. On the contrary, the fatwas issued by Saudi and Gulf based religious scholars could help correcting wrong concepts, as they are trying to protect Islam from deviated elements by calling Muslims to moderation in compliance with the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.