Please note: The answers on constitute friendly advice rather than fatwas. Where relevant, we translate the opinions and fatwas of respected scholars and present them in our answers.

Salafism, Wahhabism and Mainstream Islam

I'm wondering how you came to the conclusion that salafism isn't the true path to Islam? I'm not salaf myself and I have no idea . But I know that the greatest Islamic scholars are salafs.

Below I present my preliminary views on your question. I hope to one day write a detailed essay or even a book. But as for now, I will only present the shape of my thoughts.

Many things could be meant by Salafism, and that ends up leading to a great deal of confusion. The greatest Islamic scholars were not Salafis but Traditionalists (for a discussion of Traditionalists see the beginning of this article). Salafism actually grew out of the desire of certain intellectuals to break with the Traditionalists and renew Islam by “taking it back to its origins”. They considered the Islamic scholars of their time outdated and against progress and desired to create a new version of Islam that went back to its original aims.

Salafism Type I (Egyptian Salafi Reformism)

This is the Salafism of Azhar-educated Egyptian scholars such as Muhammad Abduh (1849 – 1905 CE) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865 – 1935). These scholars wished to go beyond the four school system of Islamic thought in order to create a new type of Islam that took its inspiration from the earliest generations of Muslims. They went against the established scholars who were entrenched within their own school camps, saying that Muslims should stop taking the schools seriously and should instead do whatever they know to be right and just according to available evidence.

I am largely in agreement with their way of thinking, and for that reason you could call me a Salafi. This form of Salafism is simply “historical empiricism”, the belief that Islam should not be based on the opinions of later scholars (if their opinions are not supported by evidence and are merely school dogma) but on the best available historical evidence from the Quran and hadith. This view is no longer limited to Salafis, it has actually become quite mainstream. Almost every major Muslim intellectual today who wishes to be taken seriously has to take account of the earliest sources as the Salafis wanted. The Salafis wanted to break down the barriers to intellectual progress caused by the fossilization of the different schools of Islamic thought, each of which attacked the others while defending its own turf and  ignoring the earliest historical evidence. What they wanted was a more empirical/scientific/scholarly practice of Islamic research, and they got what they wanted.

Today it is quite unnecessary and rather pretentious to label oneself a Salafi, and as far as I know those belonging to Type I Salafism, such as many of Egypt’s Salafi-minded intellectuals, do not use this label and do not separate themselves from society.

Salafism Type II (Saudi Wahhabism)

Type II Salafism is generally what you run into on the Internet when you see someone call themselves a Salafi. These are nearly invariably people influenced by Saudi-funded organizations, mosques and madrasas, which spread in the 1980’s with the support of Western intelligence agencies. According to the Saudi crown prince:1

The Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism began as a result of Western countries asking Riyadh to help counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the Washington Post.

Speaking to the paper, bin Salman said that Saudi Arabia's Western allies urged the country to invest in mosques and madrassas overseas during the Cold War, in an effort to prevent encroachment in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union.

Wahhabis are best known for their takfīrī tendencies, they separate the world into two sides, one side with the Wahhabis on it, and the other with the rest of humanity on it (Muslim and non-Muslim).

I should here mention that respected Salafi Saudi scholars such as Ibn Bāz and Ibn ʿUthaymīn are not the subject of my criticism here. While they had Wahhabi leanings and they are revered by Wahhabis, they were independent thinkers and did not necessarily agree with the things I describe here. The Wahhabis I speak of are Saudi-taught propagandists, especially those found on the Internet and in jihadi/terrorist organizations.

According to Wahhabis, since the Wahhabis are obviously the only people who truly follow Islam, all other Muslims have perverted and twisted minds that prevents them from embracing the truth of Wahhabism. Wahhabis use the reform-minded concepts of Salafism as a Trojan Horse to force their views on others using this line of argument:

  • The Pious Predecessors were the best generation of Muslims.
  • The only proper way to practice Islam is to follow that generation’s teachings.
  • Since Wahhabism is all about following that generation, no one will disagree with its doctrines except a corrupt and misguided person.
  • Therefore the Wahhabis, being the only true Muslims, have the right to rule over all other Muslims, and they have the right to work to wipe out all versions of Islam except Wahhabism.
  • Therefore Wahhabis are not bound by any rules of morality and ethics or any sense of fellowship with other Muslims. All actions are justifiable in the cause of Wahhabism. There can never be such a thing as peace, friendship or respect between Wahhabis and non-Wahhabis. A Muslim is either a Wahhabi or a worthless, subhuman and misguided animal.

Wahhabism is very similar to radical Marxism in that neither ideology believes in the intrinsic worth of human life. The only proper human in their views is a fellow Wahhabi/Marxist. Anyone who disagrees with them proves by their very disagreement that they are subhuman and worthless. And for this reason Wahhabis and Marxists are always associated with murder and terrorism; to them anyone who disagrees with them is not really a human anyway and killing them would make the world a better place. Anyone who criticizes Wahhabism/Marxism automatically proves that they are twisted and evil people, therefore according to them everything the person says is automatically false.

Wahhabis believe in the incredibly inhuman idea that hundreds of millions of Muslims can read the Quran, do their best to follow the Prophet’s traditions , spend their lives doing good deeds and end up in the Hellfire because they were not Wahhabis.

Wahhabi sites are very prominent on the Internet The Wahhabi site IslamQA comes up as the top result for most questions about Islamic law on Google and other search engines whether in English or Arabic due to the great amount of Saudi funding behind them.

The root problem of Takfīrī Wahhabism

There are two ways of looking at humanity, and Wahhabis (and radical Marxists and radical feminists) choose the second way:

  • Humans are worthy until proven worthless
  • Humans are worthless until proven worthy

The vast majority of humans, regardless of their religion, would agree with the first way of looking at humanity. We believe in the intrinsic worth, in the sanctity, of human life. We believe that humans should not be treated like objects, but like independent and sovereign beings honored by God, free to act in this world and free to have their independence of mind as long as they do not do evil to others.

Wahhabis and radical Marxists do not think that. They think humans are intrinsically worthless until proven worthy. To a radical Marxist, if you disagree with Marxism, you are a member of the “bourgeoisie”, a pest that has to be wiped out. This is a very, very dangerous way of thinking, because it does not accord you the right to the independence of mind and conscience. You are not allowed to disagree. Either you agree and therefore prove that you are human, or disagree and prove that you are a pest on society that has to be wiped out.

Wahhabis think the same. Its founder, Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab, made lists of opinions that everyone he met had to believe in. Someone who disagreed with any of those points was free game for slaughter. Wahhabis, similar to radical Marxists, think of humans as animals, as objects, rather than as sacred beings honored by God. It is only once you prove your humanity to them by agreeing with them that they start to treat you like a human. And if you come to disagree with them on any point, if you have some difficulty of conscience with one of their policies, that immediately proves that you are not really human, and that means you can be killed as easily as they would kill a fly. Summary executions are a constant feature of Marxist and Wahhabi-ruled states. (Note that the Saudi state itself is not a Wahhabi state. It funds, promotes and exports Wahhabism as a way of justifying its rule and extending its influence but it keeps strict control over them.)

So mainstream Islam’s disagreement with Wahhabism has nothing to do with the stuff Wahhabism claims to promote (a strong belief in the oneness of God, etc.). It has everything to do with the Wahhabi view of humanity. Wahhabis take Quranic verses out of context in order to dehumanize 99% of humanity or perhaps more. My view, and that of every human with reason and conscience who reads the Quran and studies the life of the Prophet , is that humans are sacred regardless of their beliefs. They should be free to read the Quran and reach their own conclusions about it as honored and free persons, while to a Wahhabi this is not allowed. To them there is only one conclusion you are allowed to reach (namely that you agree with Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab’s definition of what it means to be Muslim), if you reach any other conclusion, you prove you are worthless and twisted in mind.

For the details of the mainstream, pluralistic Islamic worldview see my essay: Consensual Communities and the Sanctity of Human Life

In mainstream Islam, it is the human who reads the Quran and hadith and from this creates their practice of Islam. This leads to a culturally diverse Islam where every family and community has its own practices and its own scholars that it likes and admires. People are allowed to follow Islam according to their own preferences. In Wahhabism, things are the other way around. One single person’s understanding of Islam, under the pretense that it is the only valid understanding, is forced on everyone else. In mainstream Islam, you never find two people who perfectly agree with one another, because, being humans, each has their own experiences, natures and learning to draw from. A thousand Muslims who pray at the same mosque and who live peacefully with one another in a Syrian city may all have their own particular understanding. They respect that as humans they cannot always reach the same conclusions. For them Islam is about agreeing on a very small set of things and leaving everything else largely blank for everyone to fill in according to their own learning. In Wahhabism, these thousand Muslims are reduced to one person, who, as if he is the perfect human, has the only valid understanding that has to be forced on everyone else.

To the vast majority of Muslims, the Wahhabi worldview is inhuman, even if we cannot clearly state what is wrong with them. We know they look out at the world of humans and only see animals. They are similar to a rapist who looks at women and sees only bodies to be raped. For Wahhabis, everyone around them is a body to be killed, raped, enslaved unless they prove that they are Wahhabi themselves.

Wahhabis have an instrumental worldview toward humanity; you are either part of them or you are their instrument. You either agree with them or you will have to be slaughtered or enslaved by them or reach a ceasefire with them until next time they can slaughter or enslave you.

Wahhabism might be thought of as nothing more than a reading of the Bedouin creed into Islam, in which everyone is either your beloved brother, an ally with whom you are in a cease-fire, or a stranger that can be killed and enslaved at will. All Wahhabi/terrorist organizations function like a Bedouin tribe (but rather than using blood dies, they use ideology to bond themselves); by agreeing with everything in the ideology without question, you prove your ties to the tribe. Being in the tribe gives you the right to attack and kill all outsiders, who are not considered to be really human. In the Bedouin creed “humanity” is defined as the sum of the tribe members; non-tribe members are no different from animals (when facing a non-tribe member, you are allowed to kill, enslave, loot, in short, do anything you could do an animal or insect, with zero repercussions). In the Bedouin creed there is no such thing as living peacefully side-by-side with others. Everyone who is not in the tribe is an enemy or an enemy-in-the-making. Wahhabis extend the Bedouin creed to all Islam. Islam’s teachings regarding kindness, forgiveness, and all the rest of the beautiful teachings of the Quran, actually only apply to tribe members for them. In this way, they practice rip apart the Quran’s foundations, making it a book for Bedouins rather than for humanity. They “abrogate” everything in the Quran that does not fit the Bedouin creed (of being in constant war with outsiders and dehumanizing them) to justify perpetual war and terrorism.

But the vast majority of Muslims, similar to the vast majority of all people, have a humanistic worldview. We like to treat other humans as humans by default, rather than treating them as animals.

To a Wahhabi the Christians around them are non-humans that should either be slaughtered or enslaved. Is this is a normal way of looking at humans around us? The vast majority of Muslims find such a worldview vile, a creation of Satan rather than God. We who read the Quran and study our Prophet and all the Prophets before him feel compelled by this study to love the humans around us, to treat them with respect and honor, to treat them the way we like to be treated, which is to be treated as humans not animals.

To Wahhabis the fact that every prophet of God was peace-loving and extremely kind and forgiving toward everyone around them does not matter. They erase all of that and claim that they live in a new age where they are free to do whatever they like in the name of God. And the fact that most of the world’s Muslims disagree with them does not matter; by disagreeing with them we prove to them that we are animals whose views do not count anyway.

The Wahhabi tactic of dehumanizing the majority of humans and in this way justifying enslavement and slaughter is nothing new. It is the first step of every unscrupulous and power-hungry human to dehumanize others in order to justify why they are morally superior and why no one can be allowed to disagree with them. Some Jews argued that only Jews were humans and should be treated as humans (and that belief remains today, for example in the view that even though usury is evil, against non-Jews it is alright). Some Christians argued that only those baptized were truly human. And Wahhabis believe that only those who agree with Wahhabism are truly human. There are probably Hindus and Buddhists who have similar beliefs.

That dehumanizing view of humans is not necessarily shared by every “Wahhabi”. Wahhabis are humans themselves and there are all shades of opinion among them despite their apparent outward unity. Many in Saudi who consider themselves Wahhabis are only concerned with worshiping God in the best way possible and doing charity and do not concern themselves with judging others.

The root evil of Wahhabism therefore is that they treat humans as animals by default (they can be nice when they want to influence and attract others to their side, but they always need a motive to treat non-Wahhabis like humans). Is it the command of the Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet to treat others as animals by default? No, in fact, as it is the majority view, our default assumption toward other humans is that they are sacred and intrinsically worthy and should be treated with the mercy that is continuously commanded in the Quran and that is continuously shown by all of the prophets. A person whose default assumption toward humanity is that they are to be enslaved or slaughtered has left the way of the prophets.

We do not actually need long arguments to prove that Wahhabism is wrong. We all know this intrinsically, because we are blessed with reason and conscience. I can never befriend a person who thinks a peaceful Christian priest should ideally be enslaved or slaughtered for God’s sake. A person who thinks like that is working for Satan, not for God. Thanks to the fact that most Muslims intrinsically appreciate these things, we see that Wahhabis make up perhaps less than 1% of the world’s Muslim population, and they have never organically spread in any country. The original Wahhabi expansion in Arabia happened because the Saudi family found it useful in justifying and extending their rule. A CIA program named Operation Cyclone, masterminded by the Jewish American US government strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the Taliban to help these Wahhabis spread in Afghanistan, helping kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims (see America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Professor Andrew Bacevich). It is widely recognized that the US, Israel and Saudi were very heavily involved in arming and training Wahhabi terrorists in Syria in order to topple the Syrian government.

Due to the close relationship between the Saudi and the Pakistani governments, Saudi propagandists have had some success in spreading their ideology in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis seem to be under the false impression that since Wahhabism comes out of Arabia it must be the true version of Islam.

In summary, Salafism’s original teachings have already been integrated into mainstream Islam. People are more willing than ever to go beyond school boundaries and to follow the Pious Predecessors rather than later authorities. There is no need to call yourself a Salafi. We all respect the Pious Predecessors and wish to follow their example. As for Wahhabism, it is founded upon dehumanizing humanity, considering everyone an animal fit for slaughter until proven otherwise. Wahhabism hijacked the term “Salafi” in the 1970’s according to the Kuwaiti scholar and UCLA professor Khaled Abou El Fadl to pretend to be the one true original and authentic version of Islam and in this way to help spread their dehumanizing ideology.

Wahhabis go on about appreciating the “Oneness”/Tawḥīd of God and call themselves Muwaḥiddūn (“Those who believe in Tawḥīd“) as if this is some new invention in Islam. What they really mean is that by following Wahhabism, they are the only true believers, meaning that everyone else is subhuman at best. Supposedly only they really and truly believe in God’s Oneness, the 1.5 billion non-Wahhabi Muslims, even if they believe in God, the Quran and the Sunnah, since they are not Wahhabis, are not really believers and might all be destined for the Hellfire. And this is what you run into when you make the wrong turn on the Internet and find someone’s profile who talk about God’s “Oneness” in very creepy terms. The Wahhabi doctrine of Tawḥīd (a term found in many terrorist organizations’ names) is in reality always a reference to the Wahhabi belief that they are Islam’s 1% who have the right to slaughter and/or enslave the rest of humanity, including the remaining 99% of Muslims.

The people who carry the most blame for the spread of Wahhabism are not Muslims but America’s Christians, whose lazy morality and love for cheap gas makes them vote in the same utterly corrupt, war-mongering and inhuman politicians into Congress who continue supporting the Saudi agenda of spreading Wahhabism to help fight America’s and Israel’s enemies and divide the world of Islam and turn entire countries into war zones. And these same Americans have the audacity to tell us that Islam is against “Western”/”Christian” values.

The Wahhabi Saints

When speaking of Wahhabism, I refer to Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab and the second-rate thinkers that have followed him to the present day. Wahhabi ideologues are people educated in Saudi Arabia in Wahhabi doctrines and often have no knowledge of classical Islam.

Wahhabism, however, has certain “saints”, respected scholars like Ibn Taymīya, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn ʿUthaymīn, Ibn Bāz and al-Albānī. The stature and prestige of these scholars is used by Wahhabi ideologues to justify the dehumanizing Wahhabi worldview. It is likely that none of these scholars would have agreed completely with the ideology of today’s Saudi-exported Wahhabis, even though they all share certain features in common with Wahhabis, and the latter three are often considered Wahhabis.

The point to keep in mind is that these scholars were well-educated and sophisticated thinkers and unlike the average Wahhabi ideologue, did not have their obsession with dehumanization, power-seeking and killing of other humans. However, all three support a very basic version of Islam that rejects the modern world and is incapable of relating to non-Muslims. The difference is that while Wahhabi ideologues would happily slaughter all of humanity that disagrees with them or gets in their way, these scholars would have followed their basic version of Islam in their own lives while possibly, to some degree, respecting the rights of others to disagree with them and live independently of Wahhabism.

An Early Scholarly Refutation of Wahhabism from 1743

The fact that Wahhabis control Mecca and Medina gives the impression that since this ideology comes from the “source” of Islam, it must represent a true or authentic version of Islam. They do not know that the scholars of Mecca and Medina rejected this ideology until it was forced on them by sword and gun in 1925 by the Saudis with the support of the British. Churchill was responsible for paying Ibn Saud a stipend of £100,000 a year from the British government, or six million US dollars in today’s money. Churchill also described the Wahhabis at the British Parliament as follows:

they hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette.

In 1743, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, was just starting out. He gained notoriety for ordering the destruction of the tomb of the Companion Zayd b. al-Khattab . The people of Najd wrote the scholars of Mecca asking for their opinions on Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab’s views. One result was a 1743 fatwa by the Sheikh ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Ṭandatāwī, who was a scholar from the Shāfiʿī school residing in Mecca, that is preserved as manuscript at Princeton University (Garrett collection at Firestone library, MS 3788).2 He called Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab a misguided innovator, clearly “insane” and a blasphemer. The interesting part of the fatwa is that many of the most prominent scholars of Mecca added their own support to it. The Mufti of Mecca ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Ṣiddīqī adds his own paragraph at the end, praising the fatwa and supporting it. The Shāfiʿī mufti of Mecca ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Ṭabarī adds his support. The Mālikī mufti ʿAbd al-Wahhāb bin Muḥammad Tāj does the same. The Ḥanabalī mufti of Mecca Fāʾiz bin Abū Bakr adds his support (Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab himself claimed to represent the views of the Ḥanbalī school). The Ḥanafī scholars Sayyid Muḥammad al-Ḥusaynī and sheikh Muḥammad al-Madanī also add their support. Other scholars who add their support are Sayyid ʿUmar bin Aḥmad al-Saqqāf, Sheikh Muhammad al-ʿAtāqī and Sheikh Ḥusayn al-Manufī.

I believe it is safe to assume that the above represents the attitude of Mecca’s great scholars toward Wahhabism. Since 1925 scholarly criticism of Wahhabism coming out of Saudi Arabia has been nearly non-existent for the simple reason of the authoritarian rule of the Wahhabis. This enables them to use their rule over the country as an important propaganda tool for spreading their ideology. Since their authoritarian rule allows no criticism of Wahhabism, Saudi scholars who disagree with Wahhabism are forced to keep silent.

Cultural Revisionism

Similar to radical Marxists and radical feminists, Wahhabis turn culture into a war zone. To them every aspect of human life and expression should be ruled by their ideology. There is no space for human activity that is not controlled by their doctrines. For example, Wahhabis find the spring festival known as Nowruz , celebrated by Sunni and Shiite speakers of the Iranian languages (Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, Luri, Gorani) “un-Islamic” even if it does not contain anything that directly conflicts with Islamic commandments. In their view there is no difference between Islam and culture; Islam should be culture. We all believe in God and follow the Prophet , so what right do we have to have any form of cultural expression not derived from the culture of 7th century Arabia?

This is another major point of divergence between mainstream Islam and Wahhabism. In mainstream Islam humans are sacred and have the right to self-expression as long as they do not break the law. In Wahhabism humans are animals unless they act like automatons controlled by Wahhabi texts, so a Wahhabi cannot celebrate Nowruz because Nowruz is not in the Wahhabi texts.

Wahhabis, similar to radical Marxists and radical feminists, “march through culture”, finding nothing intrinsically valuable or sacred; everything is to be wiped out, everything destroyed, unless it fits their ideology. According to these ideologies “the personal is political”. The way you live your life inside your house, the paintings you hang on the wall, the books you like to read, the music you enjoy, the food you like, none of these things are matters of personal preference, they are political statements. Everything you do is either in support of the ideology or against it. There is no neutral territory where you can be just you, because the ideology considers you an animal that has only been turned into a human by the virtue of the ideology, not by any virtue you intrinsically possess.

How dare you call this beautiful? Wahhabis: It was painted by a Christian/non-Muslim! Radical Marxists: It was painted by a capitalist and depicts capitalist society! Radical feminists: It was painted by a man! It supports the patriarchy!

If you hang a painting in your room because you find it beautiful, this is actually considered an attack on the ideology, because you would be claiming that there is an independent source of judgment (“beauty”) that is outside the ideology. A Wahhabi considers it a betrayal of Wahhabism for you to let your desires go so wild as to appreciate the beauty of something without considering its political meaning. Was the painting painted by a Christian? Does it depict Christian society? Does it lack a mention of God/Wahhabism? A radical Marxist thinks very much along the same dehumanizing terms; you are not allowed to appreciate beauty for its sake, you are supposed to worry about its political meaning. Does it support capitalism? Does it depict bourgeois society? And radical feminism changes the question to “Does it support the patriarchy? Is it male-centric? Was it painted by a man?”

You are not allowed to say, “It is just beautiful, stop interrogating me!” because within these ideologies the intrinsic worth and sanctity of the human is denied. You have no right to consider something beautiful if it threatens the ideology. The fact that you as a human find something beautiful is irrelevant. It is the ideology that is paramount. You as a human are worthless, it is only the ideology that gives you worth, therefore it is only the ideology that can decide what is beautiful and what is not.

All of these ideologies, wherever they gain power, create a form of hell on earth; under them you are no longer allowed to be Homo sapiens, they require you to be Homo wahhabicus, Homo marxisticus or Homo feministicus (probably not the correct Latin way to phrase them, but you get the point). And because of that, most humans find them stifling. They destroy the meaning and beauty of life through their extremely petty micromanagement of every aspect of human life and thought.

And that is the biggest reason why none of these ideologies will ever gain a widespread following. They are opposed to being human. They do not want you to be human. They want you to be a tool of the ideology. Human nature rebels against them. For this reason I am not actually worried about any of these ideologies. None of these ideologies can grow organically. They only grow when a group of power-hungry and resentful people find in them a useful tool for gaining power and enforcing their will on others.

Reader Questions

Question 1

I just read your essay about Salafism and Wahhabism. Based on my reading before, Wahhabism started bcs people started to pray at the grave of pious people (for “extra” blessings) and they’re concerned if that act would lead to shirk. That’s why they called certain acts as bida’ah. The extremism is wrong, but I think the concern is legit as the foundation for that belief is for people to be more careful about their aqidah. What is your opinion about this?'

And if possible, may I know your qualifications in talking about this matter. Do you have someone to refer to or is it based only from your references? No harm intended. I’m just being careful in gaining more knowledge 🙂

It is true that a major part of Wahhabi practice is fighting false practices like the worship of saints. But this is nothing new, it is something that scholars had been speaking against for perhaps 900 years before the Wahhabis. What was new was that while mainstream scholars had tried to reform society through peaceful and kindly advice, the Wahhabis’ thought ran like this:

  • The veneration of saints is shirk (idolatry) and should be opposed
  • Idolators are not believers
  • We can terrorize, kill and enslave idolators for the greater glory of God!

The new thing the Wahhabis brought to the table was not an appreciation of God’s Oneness and a desire for reform. This is what they constantly talk about in their propaganda, glossing over the truly new thing in Wahhabism, which was the legalization of killing and enslaving the majority of Muslims around them. Wahhabis invented the radical idea that 1. they had the right to decide what Islam should be for everyone else, 2. they had the right to kill Muslims who disagreed with them without any due process.

One of the first major acts of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance was the attack on the Iraqi city of Karbala on the 10th of Muharram of 1801 CE, led by Saud bin Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad bin Saud at the time of the First Saudi State. They killed between 2,000 and 5,000 civilians, damaged their holy places and carried away spoils.

According to Rousseau [an orientalist who was in Iraq at the time], 12,000 Wahhabis attacked the city, set fire to everything, and killed old people, women, and children. "... when ever they saw a pregnant woman, they disembowelled her and left the foetus on the mother's bleeding corpse," said Rousseau.

According to Uthman ibn Abdullah ibn Bishr, a Wahhabi chronicler:

The Muslims [a reference to the Wahhabis, since to them only they were the real 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."

The above was not a “mistake” or something done by an extremist minority within Wahhabism, it is Wahhabism as Wahhabis think it should be practiced and any true Wahhabi today will still consider the attack on Karbala a great accomplishment. The original Wahhabis were very much exact replicas of today’s ISIS and other terrorist organizations. In the name of promoting God’s Oneness they do such things to their fellow humans that no person with a conscience could even do to an animal.

If you meet a random “Salafi”/Wahhabi on the Internet and you wonder whether they are capable of acting like the above or whether they are different (you may think that maybe the above is just history), it is quite easy to find out after observing what they say. Wahhabis believe they are infinitely morally superior to everyone else around them. Their propagandists treat you like a human if they think there is a chance you can be made to join them. But question something they say, or disagree with them, in other words, express the slightest bit of personal initiative and they will turn around and call you a misguided and mentally perverted person, worse than an animal. To them, similar to radical Marxists (like György Lukács) and radical feminists, disagreeing with their ideology means that you lose the right to live. To them human life is intrinsically worthless; you only acquire worth by the virtue of agreeing with them. This attitude comes out in their speech and behavior everywhere.

So, you see, our problem is not with Wahhabi theology or doctrine about the nature of God. It is about their methods and attitudes. Look at almost any political party and in their description of themselves, they talk about such things as promoting justice, mercy, equality and tolerance. Look at any murderous dictator’s description of his government and you’d think he is an angel who can’t sleep at night because of how much he worries about his people. All of this is propaganda and often tells you nothing about the true nature of the movement, party or individual. Wahhabis can talk about promoting the true worship of God as much as they want, but what they are actually about is dehumanizing the rest of humanity and the promotion of a sense of infinite moral superiority among themselves that gives them the right to do anything they want to their fellow humans.

For references, please see Wahhabism: A Critical Essay by Hamid Algar (2002). His analysis is not as detailed or careful as I would like, but it is a good enough starting point. For my own learning, please see my about page for a list of books and papers I have studied.

Question 2

I've read your essay on Wahabbism /Salafism , but I have got few questions. I read somewhere that Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab started his movement because he was deeply disturbed by the shirk going around him. Can we say that the Prophet's battle against the mushrik was more ethical because of the verdict of Allah? And the fact that he tried to educate people for many years before that? Also is killing people who do shirk a sin, since in Islam shirk is the absolute evil? Also I read that the Hanbali madhab is very similar to Wahhabism/Salafism. But since all four madhabs are legitimate and part of ahl sunnah wa aljama'a. But if Hanbali is similar to Wahabbism, that means that Islam is similar to Wahabism?

I do not know if you saw the fatwa mentioned above. The Hanbali mufti of Mecca signed a fatwa denouncing Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s views. And one of the main issues this fatwa had with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was that he was saying Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (who was also a Hanbali) and his followers were disbelievers. So the problem of mainstream Islam with Wahhabism is not about their being Hanbalis. Hanbali scholars have been well-respected and honored by other scholars throughout Islam’s history.

Wahhabi sources depict Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as some pious prophet and teacher who only wanted to reform things. His views and actions, and the actions of his followers, tells us very much the opposite. We actually know little about his life beyond the fact that he declared his own views to be the only possibly correct views, declared everyone around him a hypocrite or polytheist, and supported going to war with and wiping out every Muslim that did not submit to his views.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was possessed by the idea that he and his followers were the only Muslims in a sea of polytheists (despite everyone around them also being Muslims). His logic was that those who perform tawassul (supplication through someone) at the shrines of saints, thinking this improves the chances of their prayer being answered, are committing shirk (assigning partners to God) because they think that there is another power besides God that can help their prayer get answered.

The problem is that we do not have any conclusive evidence in Islam that praying at the shrine of a person considered holy has any harms or should be forbidden, and we have evidence that suggests otherwise. There are narrations that say the prophets are all “alive” in their graves, that martyrs are alive in their graves, and that Prophet Muhammad is told about anyone who mentions him and praises him (as if he is listening to us the way God is listening to us). We also have a poem by Sawad al-Azdi in which he supplicates to all the prophets and Prophet Muhammad , asking them to be his shafīʿs (intercessors) on the Day of Judgment. The Prophet liked the poem instead of denouncing it as polytheism.

When we perform the formal prayer, in it we say, “Peace be upon you O Prophet”, as if he can hear us. We have no proof that it is only the Prophet who is accorded this honor. Perhaps martyrs and God’s greatest worshipers will also be given the power to listen to what we say and do things for us, since they live in God’s presence. Scholars who have carefully studied this issue have come to the conclusion that they cannot rule that tawassul should be forbidden. Many have disliked it, and personally I would never go to a shrine or expect a saint to be a mediator between myself and God.

You are free to dislike it and to try to persuade everyone around you to avoid it. What you do not have the right to do is denounce a pious Sufi who follows the Prophet’s traditions to the letter and who also likes to visit the shrine of his beloved saint in order to feel close to him and converse with him. The majority of scholars are aware of the complexity of the available evidence so that they are left unable to say anything about it even if they personally do not like it.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not just stop at dehumanizing everyone involved with such practices and declaring them infidels, even though this in itself would be considered a major sin (to call this or that ḥarām without conclusive evidence and to declare fellow Muslims infidels despite having the support of the majority of scholars from all the different scholars, including Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s own Hanbali school). That would have been bad enough, but he then went the extra step of giving himself the right to be judge, jury and executioner over all the Muslims around him, so that he could freely slaughter anyone who did not submit to his version of Islam.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab has absolutely no right or authority within mainstream Islam to call Muslims who pray at shrines polytheists. He cherry-picks a group of Quranic verses and hadith narrations to reach this conclusion, a conclusion rejected by almost every scholar of every major school, and for this reason we have a group of Shāfiʿī, Ḥanafī, Mālikī and Ḥanbalī scholars in Mecca in 1743 all coming together to denounce him as an innovator and an ignorant and mentally disturbed person who is incapable of understanding the complexity of the issues at question.

As for dealing with actual polytheists, again in mainstream Islam we do not have the right to massacre them the way Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s followers in alliance with the Saudi family massacred the men, women and children of so many Muslim villages and towns. Prophet Muhammad did not organize looting raids to attack random polytheist tribes, massacre their populations and take their possessions back to Medina. He was required to sign treaties with them; anyone who asked for peaceful relations had to be treated peacefully:

And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon God . Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing.3

Eventually an exception was made for the pagans of Mecca. Due to their constant scheming and breaking of past treaties, they were ruled to be non-treaty-capable and so had to be subdued completely:

How can there be for the polytheists a treaty in the sight of God and with His Messenger, except for those with whom you made a treaty at al-Masjid al-Haram? So as long as they are upright toward you, be upright toward them. Indeed, God loves the righteous [who fear Him].

How [can there be a treaty] while, if they gain dominance over you, they do not observe concerning you any pact of kinship or covenant of protection? They satisfy you with their mouths, but their hearts refuse [compliance], and most of them are defiantly disobedient.

They have exchanged the signs of God for a small price and averted [people] from His way. Indeed, it was evil that they were doing.

They do not observe toward a believer any pact of kinship or covenant of protection. And it is they who are the transgressors.

But if they repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, then they are your brothers in religion; and We detail the verses for a people who know.

And if they break their oaths after their treaty and defame your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, for indeed, there are no oaths [sacred] to them; [fight them that] they might cease.

Would you not fight a people who broke their oaths and determined to expel the Messenger, and they had begun [the attack upon] you the first time? Do you fear them? But God has more right that you should fear Him, if you are [truly] believers.4

Only a very corrupt Muslim (or non-Muslim Islamophobe) will see in the above verses a blanket approval of massacring polytheists. A fair-minded person will see in it incredibly civilized protocols of foreign policy. The Muslims are required to work for peace and to sign treaties with the polytheists. But since the polytheists keep breaking their treaties and oaths, the Quran declares that they should be treated in a new way: they are given an ultimatum. If they break their treaties one more time, the Muslims are then freed from the need to submit to their calls for peace if they call for it again, because they have finally proven that they are non-treaty-capable and will only attack the Muslims again if they are given a respite.

As for the question of whether killing a polytheist is a sin, in Islamic law non-Muslims (including polytheists) are divided into three categories. These categories are somewhat outdated and we are not required to limit ourselves entirely to them, but this was the view of medieval scholars:

  • Non-Muslims who live under the protection of a Muslim state (dhimmis)
  • Non-Muslims who have a treaty with a Muslim state or society (muʿāhids)
  • Non-Muslims who are actively engaged in a war with the Muslims (muḥāribs)

The killing of non-Muslims belonging to the first two categories is strictly forbidden regardless of their religious views. The Prophet says whoever kills a muʿāhid will not smell the scent of Paradise (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 3166). Mainstream scholars are unanimously in agreement that Muslims living under constitutions and laws together with non-Muslims (as in perhaps every country in the world today) are strictly forbidden from doing any harm or injustice to the non-Muslims (let alone kill them). The Quran tells us:

God does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes - from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, God loves those who act justly.

God only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes and aid in your expulsion - [forbids] that you make allies of them. And whoever makes allies of them, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.5

Wahhabi-inspired terrorists declare everyone around them to be polytheists (including the Muslims), then declare that they are in active war with everyone around them, justifying the murder of anyone they want. This type of thinking is wholly rejected by today’s scholars. The media, of course, ignores the 999 scholars who reject this as a corruption of Islam and give prime time coverage to the one insane preacher they find who supports it.

The Prophet’s battles with the polytheists were not wars of religion in which he attacked people for being polytheists. They were matters of state politics. The polytheists felt threatened by the Prophet’s state in Medina, so they wanted to wipe it out. This forced this Prophet to respond, and in this way one thing lead to another until various battles took place and Mecca itself fell into the hands of the Muslims. Study any biography of the Prophet by a fair-minded writer (Muslim or non-Muslim) and you will find that his battles were never a matter of him wanting to wipe out polytheists. They were always about one tribe allying itself with another and attacking the state of Medina or one of its allies, in this way forcing the Muslims to respond. Polytheists were never massacred as Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s followers would have done. If they attacked, they were treated according to standard laws of war that were extremely fair and civilized. If they did not attack the Muslims and agreed to peaceful relations, then they were left alone.

On the sanctity of non-Muslim life, we have the important example of Prophet Ibrahim arguing with God’s angels to protect the People of Lot. Why did he do that? If he had been a Wahhabi he would have celebrated, saying it was about time that these infidels were wiped out. But since he was not a Wahhabi, he had sympathy for his fellow humans and considered it his duty to try to protect them (despite their being unbelievers and the greatest of sinners). And even more importantly, after arguing with God’s declared command, God does not condemn him but praises him for his kindness:

When Abraham's fear subsided, and the good news had reached him, he started pleading with Us concerning the people of Lot.

Abraham was gentle, kind, penitent.

“O Abraham, refrain from this. The command of your Lord has come; they have incurred an irreversible punishment.”6

If someone says that Prophet Ibrahim’s way of thinking is not necessarily the Islamic way of thinking, we have the Quran to prove them wrong. In a passage that talks at length about Prophet Ibrahim, the Quran finishes by saying:

Those are the ones whom God has guided, so from their guidance take an example. Say, "I ask of you for this message no payment. It is not but a reminder for the worlds."7

The Quran also tells us that our religion is the same as Ibrahim’s religion:

And strive for God with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. [It is] the religion of your father, Abraham. God named you "Muslims" before [in former scriptures] and in this [revelation] that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakah and hold fast to God . He is your protector; and excellent is the protector, and excellent is the helper.

The Quran also tells us that we are all one nation, united with the Prophets that came before:

So We responded to him, and We gave to him John, and amended for him his wife. Indeed, they used to hasten to good deeds and supplicate Us in hope and fear, and they were to Us humbly submissive.

And [mention] the one who guarded her chastity, so We blew into her [garment] through Our angel [Gabriel], and We made her and her son a sign for the worlds.

Indeed this, your ummah, is one ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship Me.8

And in another place:

[ God said], "O messengers, eat from the good foods and work righteousness. Indeed, I, of what you do, am Knowing.

And indeed this, your ummah, is one ummah, and I am your Lord, so fear Me."

But the people divided their matters among them into sects - each faction, in what it has, rejoicing.9

The Quran tells us to take an example from Prophet Ibrahim, who, as mentioned, valued human, even that of non-believers, to the point of arguing with a direct command from God in order to protect people. We know that our Prophet Muhammad was similar in his valuing of human life. He was never involved in senseless massacres of non-believers. He treat non-Muslims who visited Medina with great respect, and even allowed Christians to pray at his mosque. As mainstream Muslims, this is the tradition we follow, a tradition started by Prophet Ibrahim.

Wahhabis always have some twisted logic always prepared to bypass these principles and justify their ideology. The fact that Wahhabism has never spread organically among Muslims, that it has always spread by force, is the strongest evidence for the fact that it is foreign to Islam as it is practiced by the vast majority of Muslims. The Saudi family spread Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia with support of the British, the Taliban did it in Afghanistan with the support of Saudi Arabia, the United States and Pakistan.

Unlike the Prophet , Wahhabis, like Marxists, cannot use reasoned argument and gentle speech to spread their views. People find them and their views repulsive, so the only way they can take over is by force. For that reason I am not worried about Wahhabis taking over Islam. The only way they can get taken seriously is through force. If they ally themselves with a ruling power, they can force their views on others, as happened in Saudi Arabia. But once the power is gone, Wahhabism will collapse and mainstream Islam will become the norm again. The Saudi Crown Prince has made statements suggesting that he might be planning to stop state support for the Wahhabis. If he does that then Saudi Arabia will go back to being a relatively pluralistic and moderate Islamic country like Egypt. This is a very interesting fact that many observers are oblivious about: Wahhabism has never spread unless there was a large amount of force and money behind it. When the force is gone, Muslims revert back to the pluralistic mainstream Islam that we have, being tolerant of disagreement, respecting the sanctity of human life, and having a “live and let live” attitude toward the people around them.

As for shirk or idolatry being a great sin or an “absolute evil” as written in your question, God does not ask us to be executioners against polytheists, atheists or anyone else. It is His business what He does with them. How we deal with them is according to the teachings of the Quran and the example of the Prophet , which means to respect customs, laws and treaties. The Prophet never gave polytheists the choice of either believing or dying for being idolaters as a Wahhabi might do. To a Wahhabi a polytheist is lower than an animal and killing them would only make the world a better place. To the Prophet , the polytheists were humans who were treated on equal terms, human to human. Throughout his life, the Prophet continued to treat the polytheists as he had always done, even before becoming a prophet. His attitude was to respect Arabian customs and tribal and familial ties. Those who had a high status before Islam, like Abū Sufyān, were allowed to keep that status even after becoming Muslim (instead of being told that they were animals before and nothing they did or had is of any worth after Islam). He worked to sign treaties with them in order to have peaceful relations, and just as importantly, he never plotted against them behind their backs, saying polytheists are less than animals so we can do whatever we want in relation to them. He treated them with all of the honor, respect and seriousness that any human deserves.


  1. RT, “Spread of Wahhabism was done at request of West during Cold War – Saudi crown prince”. [archived link]
  2. Mentioned in Samer Traboulsi, “An Early Refutation of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s Reformist Views.” (2002)
  3. The Quran, verse 8:61.
  4. The Quran, verses 9:7-13.
  5. The Quran, 60:8-9.
  6. The Quran, verses 11:74-76.
  7. The Quran, verse 6:90.
  8. The Quran, verses 21:90-92.
  9. The Quran, verses 23:51-53.
And God knows best.

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