Wahhabism

How Google and Bing promote Wahhabism on the Arab Internet

Wahhabism is an intolerant version of Islam followed by perhaps less than 1% of the world’s Muslims. Yet a Google search for almost any Islamic topic in Arabic brings up a deluge of Wahhabi sites. Below is the first page of the Google results for the question of whether Muslim women may wear pants. I had to go to the second and third pages to find a single representative of the remaining 99% of the world’s Muslims who do not follow Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia has poured billions (with the support of Western countries) into promoting this intolerant and violent version of Islam, maybe that explains the prominence of these websites.

I looked at Bing and things weren’t any better there.

Consensual Communities and the Sanctity of Human Life: The Path to Moderate Islam between Pluralism, Authoritarianism, Conformity and Individualism

Mardin, Turkey

Except for a small minority of Western thinkers who understand the origins of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought, today when people speak of pluralism, open-mindedness and diversity of ideas what they often mean is that we should act as if there are no objective truths; a person who offers the most ridiculous interpretations of a Quranic verse has to be taken seriously if their interpretation is pleasing to the liberal Western mindset. This type of thinking is naturally abhorrent to a person who likes to think that there is such a thing as objective truth. There is a line of thinking among certain secularized Muslims that the way forward for Islam is to treat the Quran as a product of 7th century Arabia. Its commandments were designed to deal with the context of 7th century Arabia, therefore things such as the command to wear hijab may have made perfect sense then, but does not make sense anymore today in these better times. The assumption behind this type of thinking is that God was not smart enough to realize that times would change. A God who invented this universe, who waited billions of years to give us the Quran, failed to foresee that humanity would go on developing for the next few thousands of years, so He gave us commandments that were destined to expire just a measly 1400 years later. This is a rather low opinion to have about God, and in fact such a God would not be worth believing in (which may explain the rather thin faith of the secular Muslim). An all-powerful and all-knowing Creator and Inventor of the universe would have been able to send us a Quran that would not expire, that would take account of the fact that humanity may go on developing for the next 100,000 years, and this is the only type of God I can believe in.

If we are to remain conservative Muslims who hold fast to the belief that the Quran is universal both through time and space (that it does not expire and can be followed on Mars as well as Earth), how can we respect secularist Muslims who have such a different view of the Quran? Shouldn’t we attack them as misguided fools who have not really appreciated God’s power and greatness? We could, and many do just that, but how can we do that and call ourselves enlightened and pluralist? What is pluralism but to respect those who disagree with us?

It is often the case that the idea of pluralism is used by liberals and secularists to feign an attitude of open-mindedness that in reality hides their utter contempt for those who disagree with them. In the name of respecting the other side, they demand respect while reserving the right to give no respect in return where it matters. Conservatives are required to respect liberals in the name of pluralism, but the liberals often are quite incapable of realizing that these means they too should be respectful toward the conservatives. Liberals, in the name of pluralism and diversity, often belittle and demonize the “outdated mullahs” and misogynists who supposedly represent the counterpart to liberalism. Now there is nothing wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in the views of conservative scholars. But when this comes from someone who has no empathy for them, who considers them an enemy to belittle and defeat, then what we are really seeing is a closed-minded bigot who in the name of liberalism attacks his or her enemies. He or she demands respect but gives back respect only with the utmost reluctance. The Middle East is full of intellectuals who talk about democracy, freedom and pluralism all the time while, at one and the same time, having the most militant and authoritarian attitude toward conservatives. In the name of these good-sounding Western ideals, they claim to possess the moral superiority, to enforce their views on everyone who disagrees with them. That brand of secularism, the brand of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Michel Aflaq is familiar to most conservative Middle Easterners and is recognized for what it is; totalitarian, dehumanizing ideologies that think they possess the whole of the truth and are prepared to murder innocent men, women and children to get what they want.

But that closed-mindedness of the secularists should not make us dehumanize them the way they dehumanize us. This is where many Muslim intellectuals seem to be stuck, or at least were stuck in the 20th century. Conservative intellectuals belittled liberals for watering the religion. Liberals belittled conservatives for being living fossils. And what neither side is capable of seeing is that there is one and the same attitude underlying the thinking of both sides. Saying this would shock both sides since they think they couldn’t be more different from one another, and each thinks it will or should one day defeat or wipe out the other. That attitude is the anti-humanist attitude, and sadly this is where many are stuck. It is the attitude that thinks it has the right to dehumanize and belittle the inner experience of other humans. Conservative intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a liberal Muslim to where they are today. And liberal intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a conservative Muslim or an outdated mullah to be where they are today. Neither side is willing to really, truly acknowledge the humanity of the other side. Listen to a conservative and it soon comes out in his speech that he does not see liberals and secularists as really human, they are “liberals” and “secularists”, a different, non-human species that is accorded no sympathy. And listen to liberal and the exact same thing comes out; they do not see that conservatives and mullahs are really humans, they are “conservatives”, “mullahs”, different, non-human species that deserve neither respect nor sympathy.

The two sides are incapable of seeing that both of them are part of the problem and that there is a better way. That better way is… love. It is to see the other side as made up of people just like yourself, it is to treat them according to the Golden Rule: treat your neighbor the way you like to be treated yourself! Rather than discounting the inner experience of our fellow humans, the validity of their thinking and their right to independence of mind and conscience, we should respect these things that they possess as much as we respect them in ourselves.

I believe that what stops many from having such an attitude is that to them the very reason they disagree with the other side is their own superiority of intellect and upbringing that enables them to see truths the other, due to their stupidity, ignorance or corruption, cannot see. If they were to relent and give up this sense of superiority, this would be an admission of equality with other side, and an admission that the other side’s truths are just as good as their own truths. But to them history is a battle to be win, so admitting that there could be any validity in the thinking of the other side is an admission that the other side has some good things about them. When you are trying to win a battle, the last thing you want to do is admit the humanity of the other side. You want to reduce them to pests and cockroaches that have to be wiped out. You want to keep the morale of your soldiers high by telling them how infinitely superior in every conceivable way your side is compared to the other side, and how it is destiny, history, God Himself who will ensure that your side will wipe out the other.

This battle mentality prevents both sides from seeing that there is a new, unexplored territory that is far superior to the grounds they fight for.

Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

Pluralism without Relativism

The problem with real pluralism, that is, the humanist attitude, is that it seems to acknowledge that there are multiple truths; the other side can reach conclusions different from ours and yet be somehow “right”. How can that be when we believe there is only one truth that we all aim for? (Unless you are a postmodernist, but as I explain in this blog post, postmodernism has its own objective truth that it believes in, namely that there is no objective truth.)

All of us humans work toward discovering the truth. But due to our differences in talents, knowledge, circumstances and experiences, we often differ from one another in the things we observe and the conclusions we draw from them. Even though we all seek the truth, none of us can ever acquire the whole of the truth, unless we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow miraculously avoid all of the pitfalls and limitations of human understanding. Even though the truth is one, I might know only a small amount of it. And among the truths that I think I know, 80% might actually be really true and 20% might be false for all that I know. Below is a diagram to clarify this:

There is only one truth, represented by the circle, surrounded by falsehood, a sea of darkness, on all sides. The circle does not represent all of truth but important truths that we tend to disagree with others about. The green rectangle represents a human’s efforts at discovering these truths. They end up discovering some of them, but along the way they also pickup countless biases, prejudices and false beliefs and ideas that they think are true. That is the part of the rectangle that is in the gray area.

This person can have two attitudes about themselves: They can delude themselves into thinking that their viewpoint is entirely true, that their green rectangle is miraculously wholly within the light, or they can humbly acknowledge their limitations and say that they may be wrong about some things. Authoritarians, whether conservative or liberal, delude themselves into thinking that their viewpoint entirely captures truth and avoids falsehood, or that through proper submission to their authority this can be achieved sooner or later.

Now we can add a second person’s views to the diagram, this time represented by the yellow rectangle:

Person B knows many of the real truths that Person A knows. This is represented by the area that is shared between the two rectangles inside the circle. Person B also shares some of the prejudices and false beliefs as Person A, represented by the gray area on the right, outside the circle, that is shared between the two of them. He or she also has some prejudices and false beliefs that Person A does not have, represented by the gray areas that are only in the yellow rectangle and not in the green rectangle.

But most importantly, Person B also knows much more of the truth than Person A, represented by the new light areas covered by the yellow rectangle. Person B is closer to the truth on many things than Person A is. If Person B continues on this path, if they continue studying and discovering, their rectangle may expand downwards as follows so that it captures more of the light:

In the mean time, Person A may, though reading bad sources and reaching bad conclusions from their experiences, may actually expand their rectangle into the darkness rather than into the light:

What that means is that Person A is now sure of many new “facts” that are actually falsehoods.

The horror of recognizing our inherently limited and biased viewpoints causes some people to recoil into the delusion that by defining a narrow set of criteria, they can miraculously acquire the whole of the truth, be safe from falsehood and be the possessors of the light that gives them the right to rule over everyone that disagrees with them. This is the myth behind both Marxism and Wahhabism. They both imagine that they possess all the important truths, believe that they are so safe from falsehood that it only those who disagree with them who have prejudices and false beliefs. Wahhabis distort reality into this:

Marxists do the same:

In both ideologies, all that is outside the ideology is by definition false, evil, prejudiced, misguided. All that is inside is good, wholesome, light. Both pretend that their ideology captures the whole of the truth and is free from error. No disagreement or difference with the ideology is allowed, because any disagreement is automatically considered to be in the sea of falsehood.

Both of them offer a simplistic and naive view of reality, a “reality for dummies”, that is highly satisfactory to uncultured, authoritarian and power-hungry people.

Pluralism and Islam

Below is a diagram that represents the reality of life; it represents many people all trying to discover the truth:

It is this picture that horrifies Wahhabis and Marxists into wanting to chop off all the bits that do not fit. How can we have any form of community or progress in a world so complex and diverse? The Wahhabi and Marxist answer is that we cannot, therefore we have to force one view on everyone. Many conservative Muslims also suffer from a similar attitude. They believe that a very strong promotion of conformity is the only way to protect the integrity of the Muslim community. Disagreement is strongly discouraged and even attacked because when an intellectual disagrees with the rest, he is weakening the embattled ummah. In support of the ummah, we are supposed to keep silent when our intellects and consciences would have us speak. Cowardice becomes virtue; the cowardly who do not speak the truth fit in perfectly, while the brave who speak against falsehoods are shunned and attacked for being troublemakers and threats to the ummah.

The conformist assumption is that since “we” (the conformists) have the right ideas about religion and “they” do not, it is only right and just that “our” ideas should be forced on “them”. The question about who these people are who decide the truth for everyone else is not treated in detail, but it includes “me, my friends and everyone else who agrees with me.” We can call this the “top-down” approach to Islam; the idea that a minority should hold the reigns over the majority. They will be the benevolent dictators who tell everyone else what Islam should be. This is, of course, a self-elected priesthood by another name, and it is what Wahhabism, Marxism and radical feminism all share in common.

The numerous Islamist disasters of the past century should have been sufficient to convince most Muslims that the top-down, priesthood model is dysfunctional and impracticable, and perhaps most Muslims have been convinced. The alternative to the priesthood model is the ground-up (or grassroots) model, which is the model followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide (even though they do not talk about it), and it is also the model followed by Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The ground-up model, rather than involving a minority that seeks to force its ideas on everyone else, is a model that seeks consensus with others. The Prophet did not say “I miraculously possess the truth, so do as I say or else!” as was the attitude of Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) and Ayatollah Khomeini, even though he really was God’s prophet (as we Muslims believe) and did have divine guidance. The only person in Islamic history who could have claimed divine guidance for forcing his views on others refused to do so.

The Prophetic model was to seek to build a community through persuading other humans, while respecting their right to disagree with him, even to leave his community. His community was a consensual community in which everyone was persuaded of the truth of his message. In other words, his community functioned on the basis that humans can be persuaded of the truth without the necessity for authoritarian methods.

The experience of Muslim communities living in the West today lends the greatest support to the ground-up model. We do not have a religious authority enforcing its views on us. We do not have a morality police forcing our women to wear hijab. We listen to scholars coming from various schools of thought. People happily pray the noon prayer at one mosque and the evening prayer at another without caring much about whether the imam of the mosque follows one school or another. Most people couldn’t care less whether the imam believes in the theological views of al-Ashʿarī, al-Maturidī or ibn Ḥanbal.

We have a community of consensus in which we agree on the most important things without anyone having any authority to force his or her views on us. Any one of us could leave Islam at any time without facing any repercussions from a religious or political authority. The only way to make a member of this community do something or behave in a certain way is through persuading them. Our sheikhs do not have the power to whip men who fail to show up for the Friday prayers like the Wahhabi chief of the Shammar tribe used to do in 1840’s Arabia,1 yet our mosques are packed during those prayers.

Our community as a whole only acts communally on things upon which there is consensus (such as the obligatory nature of the Friday prayer), while leaving it to each person to act upon those things upon which there is no consensus. This freedom and lack of authority has not led to a “disintegration”, “corruption” or “decay” of our religion as conformists and authoritarians predict. Rather, it has led to a peaceful religious community that focuses on the most important things (worship and charity) while being largely free of religious strife. People eagerly read the works of classical scholars and attend lectures in which hadith narrations are explained. In an atmosphere that is free from authority, people, rather than abandoning Islam and forgetting about it, continue to hold on tightly to it.

The disagreements among the various Muslim schools of thought leads certain people to dream of the unity and political power that could be achieved if everyone agreed with everyone else. And a certain type of pathological personality takes this thinking to its extreme: unity and political power are the sole guidelines for Muslim existence; it is perfectly fine to oppress, restrict and terrorize every Muslim who disagrees with the version of Islam that Mr. Authoritarian and his friends cook up, and in this way a “unity” is achieved (that is in reality filled with hatred, fear and discontent) where no one dares to criticize the self-elected Muslim priesthood.

A shop somewhere in Morocco

Communities of Consensus

Authoritarians think Islam needs political authority to keep its integrity. The experience of the Prophet and of Muslim communities throughout history shows that it does not. A community of consensus is not one where the same views are forced on everyone. It is where the Islamic and legal practices we follow are all derived from our shared agreement on them. Everyone follows Islam in their own way and according to their own conscience, but since Islam is derived from the Quran and the Sunna, their practice of Islam ends up being very similar in most regards to other people’s practice of Islam. In this way a community organically comes into being where, by the mere fact of everyone doing their best to follow Islam, they form a strong but peaceful community. There is no authority forcing its views on anyone. Everyone is treated as a respected and honored human who is doing his or her best to make sense of Islam and life.

Authoritarians might predict that this free atmosphere will lead to a situation where 20% of the Muslims at the mosque start to think Islam is really a martial art and practice kung fu at the mosque rather than praying. Another 20% thinks Islam is about discovering the deep truths of the universe and instead of praying, they sit down and discuss philosophy. And among the various misguided sects and groups, there is a 5% minority of true Muslims whose views have been overshadowed by the corrupt majority. The authoritarian thinks the use of force, intimidation and even violence is justified to make the views of this 5% dominant over the rest.

But the question is whether that authoritarian prediction factually accurate. Does it reflect reality? It is certainly true that there have been periods in which misguided sects flourished, but to say that that happened because authoritarians weren’t there to save the day is to give preferential treatment to one explanation out of a dozen possible ones. It seems far more likely that the flourishing of misguided sects, similar to the flourishing of Marxism, came about because of authoritarianism not despite it; a small minority of authoritarians forced their corrupt views on everyone else and punished disagreement.

The ground-up model of Prophet Muhammad , the prophets before him, and mainstream Muslim communities shows the authoritarian prediction (that Islam will decay without authority) to be a fairy tale. Mosque after mosque after mosque in the West operates just like the mosques found in the East, despite our far greater freedom to change things and do whatever we like.

The reason is simple: humans are not animals. They are not sheep that need to be led by priesthood as authoritarians imagine. Humans, honored by God to the point that the angels bowed down to them, prefer guidance to misguidance once educated.

Prophet Muhammad’s attitude toward the people around him was the humanist attitude. It was to treat the people around him, Muslim and non-Muslim, as intrinsically worthy. When a person disagreed with him or even made fun of him, he did not attack and demonize them. He instead wished what is best for them. Why? An authoritarian will say the Prophet was acting like a politician, being nice, polite and forgiving not because he thought humans deserve such a treatment, but because this was the best way to manipulate them into becoming Muslim.

Authoritarians like Wahhabis do not believe in the intrinsic worth of human life as I explain in this essay, therefore that is the only way they can explain the Prophet’s behavior and the behavior of the prophets before him. Political manipulation. That is what they have reduced Islam’s beautiful moral and ethical teachings to. That is Islam according to these supposedly morally superior authoritarians who think they have the right to decide what Islam should be for everyone else.

Were the prophets nothing more than political manipulators when they were being kind to the disbelieving folk around them? Were the desperate efforts of Prophet Nūḥ (Noah) to save his people from the flood by trying to persuade them to believe in God was just him doing his job? Isn’t more accurate to say that as a human, he had love and sympathy for these fellow humans and did not wish bad things to happen to them?

Was Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham) merely doing his job as a political manipulator when he argued with God’s angels in order to protect a group of homosexual rapists from God’s punishment? Isn’t it far more likely that as a kindly and loving human he did not like the thought of these people suffering punishment, that he saw intrinsic worship in them despite being some of the worst sinners in existence? And even more importantly, God does not criticize him for arguing with His command, He praises him:

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.”2

The picture we have here is of a human who loves his fellow humans, who wishes what is best for them, and wishes to avert harm from them even when God has declared that harm should come to them. And God does not blame him for this. He praises him for having sympathy for these sinners. He dedicates an entire verse of the Quran to praising him for his sympathy.

This is the example of our Prophet Ibrāhīm , the father our religion as we call him during every prayer. Rather than being an authoritarian who gloated in destroying those who disagreed with him, he tried to protect the worst sinners from God’s punishment, going so far as to make a scene arguing with God’s angels.

If that is not one of the strongest affirmations of the humanist attitude then I do not know what can be.

Since people are intrinsically worthy, since they are honored by God, since they are sacred, since God praises our desire to protect sinners, then it logically follows that persuasion rather than force should be our method in our dealings with them. Since force is prohibited, the only way to build a Muslim community is through persuasion. Each member of the Muslim community is treated as intrinsically worthy regardless of their opinions. If that was Ibrāhīm’s attitude toward the worst sinners, it is far more imperative upon us to have a similar attitude toward those who believe in God and His Prophet .

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Organic Communities

My theory of the formation of Islamic communities is the complete opposite of the Islamist and authoritarian theories. When a group of people believe in God and His Messenger , they are naturally and organically inclined to form a moderate community that reflects the best teachings of Islam, without needing the services of authoritarians.

Authoritarians have an extremely low opinion of humanity, seeing most humans as something more akin to animals than humans who deserved the angel’s prostration. And their highness of their opinion of themselves is often in equal proportion to the lowness of their opinion of others. Such people exist everywhere, in all communities and religions. It is human nature to like to think highly of ourselves and lowly of those who disagree with us. Authoritarians are people immature and unscrupulous enough to take this to the extreme of turning themselves into demigods who miraculously possess the truth and who also possess the right to force this supposed truth on others.

My theory is that humans, by the mere virtue of being human, after accepting God and His Prophet , possess the right to read the Quran and hadith and other works and come to their own conclusions about them. This, rather than leading to disintegration in the community, leads to the formation of moderate communities, because all humans, once given the Quran and the Sunna, all slowly incline toward the same truth. Their humanity and their belief in God and the Prophet are what bind them into a community, not some authority that forces conformity on them.

This community has an inertia of its own. An ultra-liberal Muslim who comes into the community and talks about how gay marriage should be legalized, and a Wahhabi Muslim who comes into the community and talks about how Muslims should be obsessing about political power night and day, both get shunned by the community, the way an extended family shuns that annoying vegan relative who keeps lecturing everyone about his or her moral superiority. The community’s inertia is the product of human nature, the Quran, the Sunna and the opinions of respected classical and modern scholars. All of these things merge together and form of a vague set of beliefs, manners and practices that most of the community shares. There are also often some hangers-on, oddballs who differ greatly from the norm but who get tolerated since they do no harm.

Such a community has a natural inclination toward conformity, balanced by the fact that there is no authority forcing any single view on the members, so that each person differs in some ways in their views from those around them. The natural human desire to belong and fit within a community pulls the members toward conformity, while the natural human desire to have independence of mind and conscience pulls the members toward individualism. And the result is a balance between these two forces. We try to fit in as much as we can, doing our best to avoid offending others and trying to stay out of the line of sight of the community members who have a tendency to get ticked off easily. But in our private lives each person has his own favorite scholars and intellectuals. The Syrians and Egyptians at the mosque love Mohammed al-Ghazali and follow his style of Islam. The Turks love Said Nursî. The Pakistanis and Indians have their own scholars, often unknown outside of their cultures. The converts have their own style of Islam, often based in part on the thinking and ideas of high-profile converts who came before them.

Publicly, people try to fit in out of good manners and do not voice their private religious opinions to avoid useless arguments. Privately, they enjoy freedom of intellect and conscience. And out of these two things a moderate and peaceful community is created.

Authoritarians think they can do better than the above through the use of force and manipulation tactics. In the West, since they cannot use force, their favorite tactic is appealing to authority. They attack Muslims who do not follow their versions of Islam by acting as if their opinions are the only possibly valid ones. They often talk about how there is ijmāʿ (“consensus”) that everyone should do what they say. This is often a downright lie, since there is often no consensus on even the simplest and most essential things within Islam, such as how to perform the ablution. What they really mean when they talk about consensus is, “I and everyone who agrees with me has this opinion.” Whenever they claim consensus on something, all it takes is a cursory look through the classical sources to find highly respected scholars who disagree with their view. Mention that to them and they will come up with some underhanded argument for why that scholar’s opinion does not count, even if they were quoting their opinion yesterday in support of a different supposed “consensus”.

On the much-abused concept of ijmāʿ, I tend to agree with Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal when he says: “Whoever claims consensus has lied, because people may have differed on that matter without him knowing about it.” (Transmitted by his son ʿAbdullāh in his Masāʾil). Imam Aḥmad did not entirely reject the concept, he apparently believed that it could be validly applied when speaking of the Companions of the Prophet . If all the evidence we have tells us that all of the Companions agreed on the same thing, then that is a consensus. This, however, has nothing to do with the authoritarian’s appeal to consensus, which invariably refers to the opinions of a cherry-picked group of scholars in complete disregard for vast areas of Islamic intellectual history.

There is also another consensus that I have already referred to, the organic consensus of the community. There is consensus among the members of every mainstream Muslim community on a great number of things. We believe that there is only one God and that the Quran transmits His uncorrupted words, that Muhammad was His last Messenger, that murder, stealing and adultery are wrong. A person who goes against these things can rightly be said to be outside the consensus of the community.

But that is not enough for authoritarians, who are control-freaks who cannot stand the thought that someone somewhere might be having thoughts of his or her own. They demand consensus on everything big and small, and not just that, they demand that it should exactly reflect their own beliefs and prejudices.

The Delusion of the Authoritarian Utopia

Authoritarians think that the community described is not good enough. They think that it would be so much better, people would be so much more united, if they were given free reign to dictate Islam to everyone else and manufacture consensus out of thin air on every big and small issue.

But let’s say we do as they want. Let’s give them free reign. What happens next? Does our love for Islam increase? Does our sense of unity increase? Do we start to love and appreciate one another more now that we have the One True™ version of Islam forced on all of us?

Of course not. In fact, quite the opposite happens. The culture of conformity that authoritarians promote means that the most dishonest and cowardly raise to the top. They have no firm principles of their own, so they are perfectly happy to fit in with the authoritarians to get privileges in return.

And as for the rest of the community, they continue to hold on to their own individual beliefs in private, but now they will be more careful in keeping their beliefs to themselves to avoid ticking off the authoritarians.

Rather than increasing unity, the authoritarians increase division. Some people, out of ignorance or self-interest, end up siding with the authoritarians, while others, out of conscientious difficulty with authoritarian beliefs and tactics, end up staying away from them as much as possible. The community is divided into two: the “career Muslims” who side with the authorities and derive power and privilege from this (as in Saudi’s Wahhabi ideologues and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), and the ordinary Muslims who look on with dismay, keep quiet and keep following Islam in their own way in private as much as they can.

Authoritarians think they can create more unity by forcing one version of Islam on everyone. But reality has proven their thinking false again and again.

The Issue of Islamic Law (the Sharia)

Authoritarians often act as if there is an inherent conflict between living in a democratic and pluralistic society and the application of the Sharia, the implication being that 1. anyone who feels proud to be a citizen of a liberal democratic society is betraying the ummah and 2. we should submit to whatever half-baked plan they have for implementing the Sharia (which often starts with the application of the punishments prescribed in it, as if God’s law contains nothing useful or interesting). The truth is that there is no conflict between democracy and the Sharia unless one is an authoritarian, whether a secularist authoritarian who wishes to force secularism on everyone, or an Islamist authoritarian who wishes to force Islam on everyone. We do not have to submit to the views of either of these two immature sides. Rather, Muslims and non-Muslims can together create a constitution that applies to everyone in the country, Muslim and non-Muslim. Then, each city or state in the country should have the right to choose its own laws beyond the constitution, as is the case in the United States and many other countries. If there is a particular city or state that democratically chooses to implement the Sharia on its Muslim population, then I do not think most fair-minded and educated person would have a problem with that. And if there is a liberal city or state that does not want Sharia law, then the democratic process means that it will not get Sharia law.

Of course, authoritarians can derail this process, but here I’m speaking of humans acting like mature and civilized adults. Muslims, non-Muslims, conservatives and liberals can all sit down like mature humans and have an intelligent discussion on the best way to run their country that ensures the rights of everyone as much as possible. If most people’s basic assumption is that all humans are sacred and deserve protection and sympathy, then a fair and just system can be created that does not do injury to any group.

Respecting Muslims Who Disagree With Us

We can now go back to the question that this essay started with. What should be an educated and open-minded Muslim’s stance toward Muslims who disagree with them significantly?

Our stance should be the humanist, or Abrahamic, stance. They should be treated with respect and consideration regardless of their beliefs. They should not be insulted or demonized. But that does not mean that we should treat them as if their beliefs are just as valid as ours. We can point out why we disagree with them. We can politely debate them. We can politely but firmly prevent them from doing violence to our practice of Islam as discovered through the process of organic consensus. To give a dramatic example, a man who thinks he should have the right to pray naked at the mosque should be prevented from doing so. He has the right to make of Islam what he wants, and he has the right to defend his idea that prayer should be performed in nudity at the mosque, but he does not have the right to intrude upon the public manners and etiquette surrounding religion as developed through the process of organic consensus. He can start his own mosque and do that in it and see where that takes him. He does not have the right to force his religious views on others by claiming that his version of Islam is as valid as that which has been organically and democratically developed by the community over the years.

We can have a pluralistic Islamic society without becoming secularists. As long as secularism is not forced on us, our communities will naturally tend toward moderate, conservative Islam as is followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide. Human nature itself, with the help of the Quran and the Sunna, gravitates toward such an Islam.

It is not only secularists who should enjoy polite and respectful treatment. The same should apply to Muslims that we consider outdated, ignorant, or somewhat extremist and authoritarian. Whatever is wrong with them, they still deserve the same kindly attitude that Prophet Ibrāhīm had toward the People of Lūṭ (Lot). Whatever their mistakes, sins or deficiencies, they are still humans honored in the sight of God. It is not through insults and snarky attitudes that we can bring such people back to the path of moderation, it is through love, through making them feel appreciated and valued.

Authoritarians are terrified of their loss of power and authority that comes from letting every Muslim come to their own conclusions about Islam in complete freedom and independence. They want to control history so that things go exactly the way they want. They want, in short, to play God and determine humanity’s fate. But the burden of proof is on them to show that their thinking leads to a better and more pious Muslim community. It seems to me that it does not; it rather promotes dislike and hatred for Islam through their abuses of people’s rights and dignities.

Respecting Sectarian Muslims

Our attitude toward Muslims belonging to other sects can be the same as our attitude toward Muslims that do not perfectly fit in within our community (see above) and Christians (see below). They possess many of the truths we possess, and the fact of their humanity demands sympathy and respect.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia

Respecting non-Muslims

The same pluralist framework can be extended to non-Muslims. They too are sacred, even if they are engaged in worst of sins, they are still as sacred as Prophet Ibrāhīm considered the People of Lūṭ to be. Some Muslims are so distant from the Quran that they think it almost a betrayal of the ummah to have respect and sympathy for non-Muslims when Islam’s great Patriarch, Ibrāhīm, had just such an attitude. The Quran is infinitely more authoritative than the narrow-minded and prejudiced views of these Muslims in their incapacity to see non-Muslims as fellow humans, to be loved and respected.

Non-Muslims too are truth-seekers. They have the right to examine the evidence that life presents to them and come to their own conclusions. This is why the Quran is adamant that religion should not be forced on people. Rather than treating non-Muslims as misguided and twisted people, we should treat them as fellow humans, sacred and deserving of protection and sympathy. They too have some view of the truth even if we assume it is a narrower vision than ours, and there should be nothing too surprising in some non-Muslims knowing some truths that some Muslims do not know.

The above diagram represents the efforts of a Muslim (green), Christian (blue) and atheist (yellow) at discovering the truth. They all appreciate and agree on certain truths (for example, perhaps the fact that humans are sacred and should not be murdered without due cause and process). They also share some of the same false beliefs. In the diagram, the Muslim person has a better view of the truth than either. The atheist has only a small view. That is not to say that every Muslim has a superior view of the truth compared to every Christian, or that every Christian is superior to every atheist in this regard.

The atheist novelist Terry Pratchett (died in 2015) made many fair and occasionally unfair criticisms of religious people in his novels. But he believed in the sanctity of human life, saying that the objectification of humans is one of the greatest evils (or the root of all evil). This is an incredibly important truth, defended in the Quran in this way:

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.3

The above verse, as has been realized by interpreters, is telling us that human life has infinite worth. Regardless of how large the population becomes, killing a single human is as evil as killing all of humanity. This means that there is something special, sacred, about humans. Terry Pratchett, in recognizing this essential truth and defending it, is morally far superior to any Muslim who does not believe in the sanctity of human life and justifies murder in the name of Islam.

Despite our differences with non-Muslims, they are still our brothers and sisters, since we are all Children of Adam as the Quran constantly reminds us. Our attitude toward them should be the same as the attitude of the Prophets toward humanity; and attitude of respect and sympathy, not out of a desire to manipulate them, but because this the right and just way to treat humans.

Conclusion

Muslim unity will not come about through force, but through love and sympathy. Muslims, by the virtue of being humans, have a natural tendency toward creating communities of consensus that practice moderate, conservative Islam without the need for authority.

Authoritarians are mistaken in their belief that their services are needed to guide Islam. Empirical reality proves their views false; the world is full of highly faithful and devout Muslim communities that have no authority forcing any version of Islam on them.

Our appreciation for the sanctity of human life, our sympathy for our fellow humans, and the guidance of the Prophets should form the basis of how we relate to everyone around. People are to be respected regardless of their beliefs, unless they try to force their beliefs on others, in which case they are to be stopped. Our communities should be tolerant toward both ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative Muslims who do not fit in very well within the moderate Islam of the community as long as they do not try to do violence to the community.

Our attitude toward non-Muslims should be one of respect and sympathy, not one of belligerence. It is true that not all non-Muslims are nice and respectful people. I do not call for naive trust in non-Muslims or for being desperate to live up to their expectations. We treat them according to what we know to be right and just, and part of that is respect and sympathy toward those who mean us no harm.

As for those who have not fought against you for your religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not prohibit you from dealing with them kindly and equitably. God loves the equitable.

But God prohibits you from befriending those who fought against you over your religion, and expelled you from your homes, and aided in your expulsion. Whoever takes them for friends—these are the wrongdoers.4

Reader Questions

Is Islam really pluralistic? I've been wondering this for a long time. If so then why does Allah speak harsh against other religions, and the ahadith too?

God’s business with humanity is one thing, our business with humanity is another. God judges humanity and deals with them according to His justice and mercy. He does not give us the right to become judges over humanity and decide who gets to live and who to die, who gets blessings and who gets punishments. The way we deal with humanity is based on the laws and ethics He defines for us, not according to what we think God thinks about certain people. You might think your neighbor is a great sinner, but you have no right to take their judgment and punishment into your own hands. If they break the law, then the law will deal with them. If they do not break the law, then it is God’s business to judge them and deal with them.

As almost any mainstream scholar will tell you, the Quran does not forbid us from living peacefully in pluralistic societies, and this is the opinion reached by the majority of Muslims. A minority of Muslims, those with authoritarian personalities, disagree and think that their version of Islam should be forced on everyone. By what right? Because they supposedly possess truths that 99% of Muslims, including the best educated and most knowledgeable among them, do not possess.

So the first step in their thinking is to dismiss, demonize and dehumanize the majority of Muslims. This enables them to claim the right to be the ones who decide what is true and what is false and to be the juries, judges and executioners over everyone else in society.

Needless to say, it is only a very small minority of often mentally disturbed people who think like that. Islam does not have a pope or priesthood, therefore no one can ever rightly claim to possess the right to define religion for others. The practice of Islam is not based on an authority that defines religion (except in a few authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, or in Shia Islam where the Grand Ayatollahs have the authority to define religion). The practice of Islam as seen throughout the world is based on organic consensus, the fact of many people all coming to the same conclusion in complete freedom of mind and conscience. No one is forcing the mainstream mosques in London to all pray in the same way, yet that is just what happens. In Christianity, we have a situation where different groups are constantly splintering off from one another. In mainstream Islam we have quite the opposite situation: we have a vast amount of diversity throughout the Islamic world, yet we are all constantly gravitating toward that organic consensus I mentioned, where we agree with other Muslims on the most important things in our religion.

That is one of the reasons why Sunni Islam is the largest religion in the world (1.5 billion, compared to 1.2 billion for Catholic Christians). Sunni Islam cannot splinter like Christianity because it is entirely made up of splinters. Each individual makes his or her own Islam through what they learn from the Quran and the Sunna. Each person, in complete freedom of mind and conscience (except in certain authoritarian cultures) examines Islam’s texts and reaches largely the same conclusions as everyone else (with some usually unimportant differences). This gives us Sunni Muslims the incredible privilege of being able to go to almost any mosque in the world and feel at home there; we know that the people of that mosque went through the same process we went through and reached largely the same conclusions, and that regardless of what mosque we go to, there are usually some people who will largely agree with our views.

Making sense of the hadith literature is like trying to solve a puzzle, there are thousands of pieces of varying authenticity (even narrations that are considered ṣaḥīḥ themselves vary greatly in their authenticity). To make sense of things, scholars have to sit down and bring together all relevant narrations on any issue and try to make a unified system out of them. And when it comes to the issue of pluralism, every mainstream scholar who has sat down to do this work has come to the same conclusion, which is that Islam is not opposed to pluralism. The exception are those who have authoritarian personalities and wish to make a case for forcing their version of Islam on everyone, so what they do is cherry pick a dozen narrations and verses of the Quran, say that those verses of the Quran that get in their way are “abrogated” so that they can ignore them, and in this way they reach the conclusion they started with, which is that they have the right to force their version of Islam on everyone else. And to explain why most scholars disagree with them, they say that most scholars are misguided or hypocrites. Since they cannot prove their case through reasoned argument, they resort to demonizing those who disagree with them.

If we study the history of Islamic societies, we will find that mainstream Muslim societies everywhere have been extremely pluralistic. Whether you look at the Abbasid Empire, Muslim Spain, India’s Malabar coast, Java or Malaysia, you will find that for most of their histories they were extremely pluralistic. People of all kinds of beliefs and leanings lived side by side together without wanting to do violence to each other. The default attitude of Muslims toward non-Muslims has been one of “live and let live.” There has always been an authoritarian minority that has desired to force everyone to become “better” Muslims and to force non-Muslims to become Muslims. Every society, Muslim and non-Muslim, has these authoritarians who think that the world would be so much better if they could force their opinions on others. But the reality of Muslim life has always been one of pluralism except for those rare but disastrous instances when religion and politics became united, so that an authoritarian person tried to force his religious views on others. We have the example of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn’s Miḥna (Inquisition) which tried to force Muʿtazilī theology on everyone. We also have the example of Ibn Abdul Wahhab who allied himself with the Saudi family and in the name of spreading “true” Islam justified the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Muslims.

But those disasters are the exception that proves the rule. For every million Muslims who live under an authoritarian version of Islam we have 99 million who live in pluralistic Muslim societies. There is still work to be done to protect things like free speech and the rights of minorities in these societies, and there are cases of unjust persecution (or rather useless blasphemy laws). But anyone who has lived in Egypt, Iraq, Syria or Turkey knows that you run into the most atheistic and anti-religious individuals every day without anyone trying to do them harm. Almost all of the Middle East’s universities invariably have some secularist professors who show the greatest disdain for religion without anyone getting in their way or trying to harm them. The community I grew up in in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which is supposed to be 98% Muslim, is full of atheists and secularists who make anti-religion posts on Facebook on a daily basis (and get upset when no one takes them seriously) . Islam’s detractors focus on the 1% of bad cases, ignore the 99% of peaceful and pluralistic Muslim societies, then tell us that Islam promotes intolerance.

Islam’s detractors blame the problems of the Middle East on Islam, ignoring the fact that Christian Latin America suffers from almost exactly the same problems everywhere. Latin America has dysfunctional democracies, far more child marriages than the Middle East, orders of magnitude more crime than the Middle East (Brazil’s murder rate is 29, Egypt’s is 2.51), a far more serious rape problem (Brazil’s rape rate is 37, Morocco’s is somewhere between 2 and 4), and honor killings. Where is the outcry against Christianity for promoting such things? According to Islam’s detractors, Latin America’s people are humans and have human problems, while the problems of Muslim societies are invariably blamed on Islam. These detractors are in general incapable of realizing that by their type of twisted thinking Latin America’s problems could be blamed on Christianity. And when it is pointed out that Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Turkey and Malaysia are far ahead of most of Latin America’s Christian countries when it comes to scientific research and technological innovation, you will see them switch gears and explain why the good things in Muslim societies are despite Islam.

So when it comes to the issue of pluralism we have the majority of Muslim scholars and intellectuals, who have all independently come to the conclusion that there is no conflict between Islam and pluralism today, and then we have an authoritarian minority who think that Islam is anti-pluralistic, and since they do not have any convincing evidence for their opinions and know that they cannot win in a fair and open debate, they resort to personal attacks against the majority. In the pluralistic majority we have all kinds of opinions; liberals, conservatives, moderates, Salafis. What unites them all is their unwillingness to use force on others. They are all happy enough to live in relative peace and prosperity and leave matters of governance to the experts and politicians.

Who to ask?

When it comes to questions like “Is Islam pluralistic?” it is important to separate the views of the average Muslim from the views of educated Muslims who are actually familiar with the Quran and Prophetic Traditions. Uneducated Muslims might ignorantly think that it is part of their religious duty to support forcing everyone to wear hijab and making the Sharia the law of the land. Asking such people about pluralism will not lead to any useful results about the nature of Islam. It would be similar to going to the backward parts of the United States, such as West Virginia, and finding random Christians and asking them whether ideally the Christian Church should make the laws of the land and many will likely agree that this is a good idea. Or we can ask them whether the hijab should be prohibited, or whether building mosques and synagogues should be prohibited, or whether all religions besides Christianity should be prohibited, and we will probably find many who say “Yes!” to these things. It would be highly unfair to consider these opinions as representative of Christianity.

To get an accurate idea of what Christians think about these matters, we have to find educated Christians; pastors, priests, and well-educated faithful Christians (architects, doctors, others with post-graduate degrees), people who have read more than a few books in their lives. And if you ask these people about the Christian view on pluralism, then you will generally get intelligent and sophisticated answers in support of it.

We should do the same when asking Muslims about these things. I’ve never met a Muslim doctor or architect, or a Muslim with a degree in Islamic studies, who supports the authoritarian side. People capable of reading Islam’s literature and judging it for themselves almost all invariably come to the same conclusions as everyone else. Rather than asking random people on the street or listening to random keyboard jihadists on the Internet when it comes to the issue of pluralism, we should listen to well-educated and well-respected scholars and intellectuals, and it is a blindly obvious fact that throughout the Muslim world, from Malaysia to Morocco, almost all of them agree on Islam’s compatibility with pluralism. This is not because almost every Muslim who knows the Islamic tradition is corrupt or a hypocrite (as authoritarians claim). It is because when someone tries to come to terms with all of the complex and contradictory pieces of evidence that we have, we are forced to admit the limits of our knowledge and the great amount of freedom and diversity that is possible within Islam.

People like the Taliban, who were taught Wahhabism in schools founded by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan, short-circuited this process of discussion and free examination of evidence and used funding and weapons provided by the CIA to take over Afghanistan. The nice Americans knew exactly what they were doing. As admitted by the mastermind of the plan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, they wanted to use these Muslims as bait (and paid them hundreds of millions of dollars annually) to make the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan, and that is just what happened. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million innocent Afghans died in this Machiavellian plan to further US interests by weakening the Soviet Union. (See America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by professor Andrew J. Bacevich).

Pakistan’s behind-the-times Islam

I am a Muslim woman and I don't psychologically feel ready for marriage. But my mother who is Pakistani is telling me that what I'm doing is haram. She told me that apparently Bin-Baz said that every woman should get married regardless of their doubts. But Islam itself tells us that marriage isn't obligatory. How do I gently tell her to, you know stop being persistent? My parents even told me that I will become a fitnah for other men...

Majority of Pakistani ulama are pretty sexist. They make it haram for women to study rather than get married. That her parents have the right to get her married even if she doesn't feel ready, and their main excuse "you'll be safe from a haram reltionship" when in Islam, forced marriages are haram, and marriage itself isn't fard. I told my parents I don't feel ready to get married and my mom especially tells that I need to get out of my comfort zone, because she trusts sexist ulamas.

My mom says that it is haram for women to go and pray at the masjid when the Prophet (Sallilahu Alaihi Wasalam) said to not prevent women from going to the masjid. I tell my mom this all the time, but she tells me that I'm wrong.

It appears that your mother has been influenced by Saudi-exported Wahhabi propaganda, which is the ideology that drives extremists like the Taliban. Due to the close relationship between the Pakistani and Saudi governments, the Saudi government has been able to export many Wahhabi ideologues to Pakistan who pretend that their version of Islam is the only true version and that everyone who disagrees with them is worse than an animal. I discuss Wahhabism and why the majority of Muslims reject it in this essay.

The way that you could influence her is to learn about the Islam of more moderate scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Mohammed al-Ghazali (an Egyptain scholar who died in 1996, not to be confused with the medieval Persian Ghazali), Abdullah b. Bayyah, Ali Gomaa and Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti. There might be moderate Pakistani scholars that you could introduce her to (maybe they have lectures on YouTube).

Unfortunately it is going to be very difficult to convince her that her view of Islam is narrow and that Islam is far greater and more sophisticated than she imagines. If she has friends and family who think like her, and if she attends mosques with Wahhabi preachers then she is going to think she is on the right path and she will not take her child’s opinions seriously. There is generally no way to convince people that they are wrong in their religious ideas, so generally the best we can do is be patient, kind and forgiving toward them, understanding that within their limited views and their limited education, that is the best they can come up with.

It often takes many generations for cultural change to take place. In 1800, almost every religious scholar would have declared that women’s education is harmful and corruptive and that they should stay at home, just like today’s Wahhabis. But slowly, generation by generation, the society re-analyzed its beliefs and realized that Islam and women’s educations are compatible once the cultural baggage of Arab culture is abandoned. By 2006, 46% of Egyptian women were attending university, despite Egypt remaining a conservative Muslim country. Pakistan is generations behind Egypt, so we cannot expect it change any time soon. But it will change, especially as the Internet spreads and enables moderate Pakistanis to connect and exchange ideas.

As for now, the best you might be able to do is patiently put up with your parents. Maybe if they see you reading many Islamic books they will start to trust your knowledge of Islam, so this is something you could do.

Best wishes.

Why did Imam Malik forbid living in non-Muslim countries?

Question in response to The Problem with the IslamQA.info Website:

I'm wondering why did Imam Malik Say we can't live in non Muslim country? SubbhanAllah I thought that imam Malik had balanced views. isn't it the fact that westerns are converting due to the fact that we Muslims live in the West and that there are masajids etc in the west. If they are isolated from us how can they get the message? (I follow Maliki madhab)

At the time of Imam Malik the Islamic world used to be viewed as one country. A Muslim could travel from Spain to Afghanistan without needing a passport because, just by being Muslim, he was considered a citizen of the whole of the Islamic lands. Due to the fact that at the time there were no lasting international treaties or constitutions in the non-Islamic lands, living in them was often very dangerous for Muslims. Even if the present ruler of a non-Islamic country like Byzantium had a friendly attitude toward Muslims, protected them and allowed them to practice their religion, the next ruler could choose to forbid the practice of Islam, in this way forcing the Muslims to either abandon Islam or lose everything they had by making them leave the country.

Another issue was that due to the lack of a stable international order, the borders of the Islamic lands were the scenes of constant battles. A Muslim who left the land of Islam to live somewhere else could have been forced by the non-Islamic country to wage war against the Islamic lands.

It is possible those circumstances made Imam Malik prefer a certain interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah (such as verses 4:97-99) that considers it a duty to migrate to the Land of Islam (Dār al-Islām, literally “Abode of Islam”). There is, however, no conclusive evidence in favor of that view. There is nothing in the Quran or the Sunnah that forces us to adopt it. There is an authentic narration in the collection of Ibn Ḥibbān in which a recent convert to Islam comes to the Prophet saying that some people are telling him he is doomed if he does not migrate to the land of Islam, while the land he currently lives in is populated by non-Muslims who promise him that he will be safe and free to practice Islam. The Prophet tells him to stay with his people, advising him to pray and to avoid evil deeds, and to live among his own people wherever he likes.1

Today, when it comes to this issue, those who have a tribalist way of thinking continue to take the Abode of Islam vs. Abode of Unbelief idea seriously, while the majority have moved on to recognizing that that concept is outdated and that it was a human invention to begin with (neither the Quran nor authentic narrations teach us to think in such black and white terms). The sensible position, which is the position of most scholars, is that if a country guarantees a Muslim’s right to freedom of religion and certain other human rights that most countries guarantee, then a Muslim can live there without issue. Some scholars have the opinion that every Muslim should ideally do their best to move to an “Islamic” country. This is a highly debatable issue; it is not at all obvious that it is morally and spiritually superior for an Irish convert to Islam to abandon their land and culture to live in a Muslim country where they have half the human rights, safety and economic security they would have back home. It also shows a distinct lack of respect for a person’s family, culture and heritage to think that a person should just throw all that away and have no sense of duty toward them to want to sustain and reform them with their newfound spirituality. But as I explained about Wahhabis in my essay, it is a distinct feature of their type of thinking that they have no respect for human relationships and cultures, in their view it is their ideology that is supposed to replace human nature and culture (hence their famous destruction of so much of Arabia’s architectural heritage in the name of Islam).

The Problem with the IslamQA.info Website

I'm going to study in university abroad and found on islamQA that we muslims are not allowed to live in non muslim countries. Please let me know, as I've applied already but I still haven't left.

The IslamQA.info website follows the Wahhabi ideology of the Saudi government. It might be the wealthiest Islamic website on the Internet thanks to Saudi funding, and because of their wealth they have been able to dominate both the Arabic-speaking and English-speaking Internet when it comes to questions about Islam.

In Wahhabism, the Bedouin creed is above the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings and determines the framework within which they follow Islam. For more on Wahhabism see my essay: The Difference Between “Salafism” and “Wahhabism” and Why I Belong to Neither Group. On mainstream Islam’s views and how extremely different they are from Wahhabism and other authoritarian versions of Islam see my essay Consensual Communities and the Sanctity of Human Life.

Wahhabis believe that out of 1.8 billion Muslims only they and no one else really and truly believes in God, that somehow, miraculously, only they and no other group of Muslim possesses the real truth, and that by the virtue of being the only possessors of the truth, they have the right wipe out all other versions of Islam and to become the unchallenged and unquestioned rulers of the Islamic world, telling everyone else what to think.

In the early Islamic period, as is described in Sheikh Umar F. Abd-Allah’s Mālik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period, it was quite normal for Muslims to disagree with one another on most things and continue to live peacefully together and respect one another. Each scholar had the right of independent reasoning and the right of challenging the opinions of others. Wahhabis pretend that, thanks to possessing the real truth, they have the right to abolish all free thought among Muslims so that they do the thinking for everyone else. Since they define the Wahhabi tribe in terms of agreeing with Wahhabism, anyone who disagrees with it is outside the tribe, which means they are not really humans, which means their opinions do not count. In this way they ignore the opinions of almost every major scholar of Islamic history. They also attack and demonize with the most vicious hatred every respected living scholar of today who does not submit to their tribalist version of Islam.

IslamQA.info is a Wahhabi mouthpiece. When it comes to matters of jurisprudence (things like performing ablution), they often give sensible and balanced answers based on the opinions of the Ḥanbalī school. Scholars like Ibn Bāz, al-Albānī and Ibn ʿUthaymīn who are revered and often quoted by the Wahhabis are also highly respected by other Muslims. So on these issues they can sound quite normal, since they largely follow traditional Islam when it comes to the parts of Islam that have to do with day to day life among Muslims. But when it comes to issues having to do with interactions between Wahhabis and non-Wahhabis, that is where their creepy tribalism comes out. Since to them non-Wahhabis are not humans but something more like demons or animals, Wahhabis are not allowed to befriend them, treat them like humans, have sympathy for them, live alongside them, or follow any of the Quran’s ethics in relation to them. In their highly twisted interpretation of Islam, everything the Quran says about being kind, forgiving and just toward others only applies to tribe members, i.e. fellow Wahhabis. When it comes to outsiders, they are treated not according to the Islamic creed, but according to the Bedouin creed. Since the Bedouin creed requires that all humans outside the tribe should be treated as non-humans and should be enslaved or killed unless there is something to be gained by not doing these things to them, that is exactly how they think the normal Muslim relationship to those around them should be. Here I am speaking of the thinking of Saudi-taught Wahhabi ideologues, not necessarily the scholars they claim to respect and quote.

As for your question regarding living in a non-Muslim country, you can get sensible answers from almost any mainstream scholar coming from any of the schools of Islamic thought outside the Wahhabi tribalist insanity. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the world’s most renowned mainstream scholars, says Muslims may live in non-Muslim lands if they are allowed to practice Islam there within reasonable criteria. Wahbah al-Zuhayli (d. 2015), a Syrian scholar and professor, has the same opinion.1 This is also the opinion of Dr. Shawki Allam, Egypt’s Grand Mufti.2

According to the Mauritanian Mālikī scholar Abdallah Bin Bayyah (professor of Islamic studies at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah), the Shāfiʿī, Ḥanbalī and Ḥanafī all permit residing in non-Muslim countries (with some internal disagreement among their scholars). Imam Mālik (founder of the Mālikī school which professor Bin Bayyah follows) was of the opinion that Muslims are not permitted to live in non-Muslim countries. But Abdallah Bin Bayyah, himself a Mālikī, has a softer Mālikī position and says that if a Muslim suffers injustice in the Muslim lands then he/she has the right of living in non-Muslim lands provided that they can practice Islam freely and bring up their children according to Islamic principles.3

The sensible answer is that there is no issue with living in a non-Muslim-majority country. Regardless of where we live, the country will be involved with certain unethical things. There is no such thing as a perfectly or even entirely Islamic government or legal system, and there is no conclusive evidence that we cannot live in a country that guarantees our rights and religious freedoms in return for obeying its constitution. I would much rather live in a Western country whose constitution guarantees my life and freedom rather than a “Muslim” country ruled by tyrants, war criminals and princes who think they have the right to imprison and kill anyone who gets in their way. A Western country that respects human rights and religious freedom can be argued to be far more Islamic in spirit than a “Muslim” country that has no respect for the lives and freedoms of its citizens.

How do you feel about ISIS?

How do you feel about ISIS? They claim to be Sunni, follow hadith, Sunnah and Qur'an yet are deemed as terrorists and true enemies of modern day Islam. I just wondered if they are right in some ways but wrong in others.. or are they completely wrong and will face Hellfire?

ISIS as an organization, like the Taliban, is almost certainly a creation of Western and Saudi intelligence, as many Iraqi and Russian analysts and politicians believe. For more on this see this previous essay.

As for the ISIS ideology, like almost every terrorist organization with ties and funding from Western and Saudi intelligence, it follows Wahhabism. In the name of fighting bidʿa (false innovations in religious matters), such as the worship of saints, they are guilty of the greatest false innovations of modern times: the belief that they are the possessors of the absolute truth and that they have a God-given right and mission to wipe out all Muslims that disagree with them and that refuse to bow down to their rule. For more on this see my recent essay: The Difference Between “Salafism” and “Wahhabism” and Why I Belong to Neither Group.

As for their fate, only God knows. Its ordinary members may really believe they are serving God.

The Differences Between 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 Salafi myself and I have no idea . But I know that the greatest Islamic scholars are Salafis.

It is quite wrong to say that the greatest Islamic scholars were Salafis. A primary driver behind Salafism is the rejection of the authority of the four schools of Islamic thought (although Salafis are generally very friendly toward the Ḥanbalī school or belong to it implicitly). According to the Salafis, almost every great Shāfiʿī, Mālikī and Ḥanafī scholar you can name was, at best, somewhat misguided, and at worst a hypocrite and a heretic. Salafis have an extremely restricted view that rejects the majority of the greatest Islamic scholars admired in the Sunni Muslim world.

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.

The greatest Islamic scholars were not Salafis in the modern sense. Salafism is a new creation that only took shape in the 1930’s as I will describe below. In classical Islamic literature, traditionalist hadith scholars like al-Dhahabi used the phrase “follower of the creed of the Salaf (Pious Predecessors)” to refer to anyone who belonged to their camp, which is more commonly known as Ahl al-Ḥadith (The People of Hadith). This camp was opposed to Muʿtazilism and Ashʿarism and was largely limited to the Ḥanbalī and Shāfiʿī schools.1 The Shāfiʿī school, however, also had many great scholars that were not part of Ahl al-Hadith, such as al-Juwayni and his student al-Ghazali, both of whom were Ashʿarīs. I cannot give a full history of these groups in this essay, but suffice it to say, describing a historical scholar as a “Salafi” does not make any sense, it is like calling an intellectual from 1200 a Marxist (when Marx lived in the 19th century). There certainly are scholars who were close to today’s Salafis in their thinking or who are admired by the Salafis, but they cannot be correctly labelled “Salafi” in its modern sense.

Early “Salafism”

This section, once I am able to write it, will inshaAllah contain a description of the way Salafism was formulated by a number of intellectuals and scholars in the 1920’s.

Today’s Salafism (Saudi Wahhabism and Similar Movements)

This Salafism is generally what you run into on the Internet when you see someone call themselves a Salafi. These are often people influenced by Saudi-funded organizations, mosques and madrasas, which spread in the 1980’s with the support of the Western powers. According to the Saudi crown prince:2

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.

In this essay I will focus on the Wahhabis (a label that they do not use for themselves). There are many Salafi groups that differ from them or disagree with them on some things, but they all almost invariably share the negative attributes I will discuss below.

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). 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. Here is how the Wahhabi line of thought works:

  • The Pious Predecessors (actually only the ones admired by the Ḥanbalī school) were the best generations 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, who follow that generation, are the only true Muslims and have the right to rule over all other Muslims and to work to wipe out all versions of Islam other than their own.
  • 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 view 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. Non-Wahhabis and non-Marxists are pests that have to wiped out. Anyone who criticizes Wahhabism/Marxism automatically proves that they are twisted and evil people, not only is everything they say and think entirely worthless, their very right to exist is under serious doubt.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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 no 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 of 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 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 to justify perpetual war and terrorism.

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.

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 Arabia 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.

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.

An Early Scholarly Refutation of Wahhabism from 1743

 

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).3 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 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 might be construed to threaten the ideology in any way. 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 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. One of the first books published by the Meccan branch of the Salafiyya Bookstore in the 1920’s was Ibn Bishr’s chronicle. 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 every last bit of worth you could have possibly possessed. 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 cannot 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.4

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.5

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.6

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.”7

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."8

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.9

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.10

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 in the world of 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.