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What is Wahhabism and Salafism?

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A viewer asks, “As a Sunni Muslim, I've always learned that Sunnis have four branches. Hanafi, Hanbali, Shaffi and Maliki. Where do Wahhabism and Salafism come from and are they part of Sunni Islam or recognized by the Hanafi, Hanbali, Shaffi, and Maliki schools to be part of Sunni Islam? What is the Akidah of Wahhabism and Salafism?”

Perhaps a good place to start is with the term Salafi, not as a technical term, referring to a particular following or trend within the Muslim faith known today as a particular distinctive movement. Instead, let's just think of the idea of Salafis.

It's an Arabic term and Salafi in Arabic means “those who have gone before”. Salafi means one who is connected or looking forward to the kind of faith and practice that was known in the earliest generations of Islam. It's almost like how our Christian friends say they want the apostolic faith. They want the faith that is connected to the apostles of Jesus, those whom Jesus had sent out himself, or the disciples of Jesus.

Similarly, among Muslims, there is the idea that we want to get that original faith from the earliest generation. Broadly, this means a Salafi type of following - we want to follow the Salaf. Now, how do Muslims generally try to follow the Salaf? The questioner mentioned the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence and the eponyms of those four schools were people who lived in the second century of this Islam, like Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shaffi, and Ahmed Bin Habo. There are people earlier than them, but these few people came to be known for their systematic thinking and the proliferation of their teachings through their many students who were naturally schooled well and also taught others.

These became major trends and streams and branches within Muslim thinking and practice. Although these are widespread, they were not the only ones. These are ones that became more prominent, but others have been in early history. Others have survived up until this day. For example, the Abbadia is known in Oman. All of these are looking forward and looking back to the early practice of the Muslims.

There is a hadith that says, “The best are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them, and then those who will come after them, and then after them, people will come whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness”. “Qarn” in Arabic could mean broadly a hundred years or it could mean a generation, like the lifespan of a people.

In the case of one generation, it would be the companions of the prophet, peace be upon him. The generation that follows them, would be those who came into contact with them according to Muslim definitions. Following them as well would be the next generation.

The technical terms for them would be Sahaba and Tabi'een, the one who follows the Sahaba. Also the tābi al-tabi'in, the follower of the followers of the Sahaba. These schools go back to this early period and Abu Hanifa is said to be a tābi al-tabi'in, a follower of the follower. Some might even want to classify him as a tabi’in as well, but this is more doubtful.

However, the school of thought developed. Yet, if you take a broader definition of “qarn”, meaning a hundred years, then this all developed in the first 300 years of Islam. Within the first 300 years of Islam, all of these developments have been encapsulated in various writings, books of Islamic jurisprudence, biographies of the prophet, peace be upon him, and books of commentary on the Quran. Thus, what emerged among Muslims, almost widespread, is to look back to the earlier generations.

All Muslims do that, in a way. You can have some modern movements that want to break free from all of that, yet, generally, the Muslims are content with looking back to the earliest generations. There was a man by the name of Mohamed bin Abdulwahab in Saudi Arabia who lived from the year 1703 to 1792 in the 18th century.

He developed a movement in which he was emphasizing following the Salaf. He made a pact with the ruling house of Saud in Saudi Arabia at the time (It would come to be known as Saudi Arabia from the name of the house of Saud). His pact with them was, essentially, an agreement that the ruling house of Saud would run the government and Abdulwahab would look after the religious dictates, and the two would be almost separate but symbiotically related.

That movement became very well entrenched in Saudi Arabia and comes to be known, to a large extent, as the Salafi movement today. The Salafi movement in this particular modern shape is quite recent. Mohamed bin Abdulwahablived in the 18th century and Salafism developed in the 20th century. That's quite a leap as a movement.

Part of the reason for that is the establishment of the University of Medina in which the students were being schooled from all around the globe. They were schooled in the particular ideology of Mohamed bin Abdulwahab and other thinkers besides him as well. The idea of following the Salaf is widespread among Muslims, however, it received a particular emphasis under the teachings of Mohamed bin Abdulwahab and others like him.

Eventually, that became the teaching that was delivered at the University of Medina and that students took to many parts of the world. We noticed within the last 50 years or so, in the 1970s and onwards, students coming out of the University of Medina were taking these teachings to various parts of the world and popularizing them.

The major strand within that Salafi movement teaches that as long as the government is establishing prayers, you'll respect the government and you do not seek to undermine the government.

If you have any advice for them, you advise them privately, however, there should be no public criticism of the government. This was well suited to the interests of that Saudi government and naturally, they funded this kind of movement.

In terms of the defining features of Salafism, much is similar to other movements within the Islamic world. There have been others as well, such as Hasan Albane and the Jemat Ihwane Muslimian, who are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that looked back to the Salaf, they wanted to recover the way of the Salif. They wanted pure and original early Islam. People might interpret differently what is meant by “early Islam". What is known as the Salafi movement today, following the teachings of Mohamed bin Abdulwahab and others, stresses the purity of the faith a lot. They want to make sure that we are worshipping God and only God, so they're stressing monotheism, which is, of course, common to all Muslims. However, they put particular stress on it. They are thoroughly against the veneration of saints and by extension creating Mosiliams and places where the saints might be remembered and venerated.

Their movement was marked by the demolition of many sites that other Muslims considered to be sacred. A lot of Muslims had a harsh reaction to this and reacted with scorn to this whole movement. Yet, some of the teachings within the movement are very literalistic. They tend to take things very literally whether it's a report in a hadith that the prophet, peace be upon him, said or did something, they would try to follow that as a practice, literally and assiduously, in terms of verses of the Quran and speaking about God.

Thus, they will take the verses and would tend to take them fairly literally. For example, if a verse of the Quran mentions the hand of God, some Muslims in history have said that this does not literally mean a hand of God, it's referring to power. Where the Quran says that God ascends the throne, we wouldn't think of that as the way a human being goes and rides on a saddle.

However, some of the interpreters that are followed within the Salafi movement took these things literally and thought of God as having something like a human body and sitting on a throne, as a human king might sit on a throne. Yet, some others are careful to point out that we should affirm the literal wording. We should affirm the exact wording of the ancient pronouncements on these matters, but we should not think when we mention the hand of God, that we're thinking of a hand.

We should not think of a hand like our hand. We should say we don't know, or “bila kaifa”. We express these beliefs or these statements of faith without knowing how it could be so. We mentioned a hand, but we don't know what kind of hand.

We mentioned that God ascended the throne, but we say that we don't know what sort of ascension that would entail. Whereas somebody else might say, no, it only means that God controlled the throne. However, Salafi would tend to say, “No, let's say that God ascended the throne, but let's add bila kaifa, without specifying how”.

All Muslims and the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence stressed the importance of following the Sunnah or the methodology of the prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, and his practices. The Salafi movement stresses that a lot and it becomes the hallmark - we're following the Sunnah. The contradistinction to Sunna is Bidah. Technically, the word linguistically means something new within Islamic discourse. It is used to mean something that is invented and made part of the religion that wasn't there before.

This has seemed to be contrary to following the Sunnah because when you're following the Sunnah, there's nothing new for you to do. You just do the same old thing and if you're doing something new, that means you're not following the Sunnah.

Instead of doing what the Sunnah would've required of you, you're doing something new and different. Thus, bidah or something new, and innovation is shunned and highly criticised within that movement. The students who came back from the University of Medina in the 1970s, and later, went around to various mosques and saw what people were doing and started to identify what was new and what was changing.

They would even call people and they would say that you're going against Islam. “You're not following Islam in the right way”.

In the Indian subcontinent, in particular, people began to refer to these people as “Wahabis”. Giving them a derogatory sort of title, a diminutive title to express that kind of scorn to treat this as something outside of the religion.

It's not something outside of religion. It overlaps with the four schools that you mentioned. It overlaps with the four schools because while people within the Salafi movement would be looking back to the early generations of Muslims, they'll be citing the epigenomes of the four schools of Islam jurisprudence and what they said. They would incorporate all of that into their thinking.

They have their own scholars, which they refer to and who they hold very dear, who they rely on to interpret these hadith and then to come up with rulings based on those hadith.

It's not only to interpret, but also to evaluate the genuineness of the hadith. Most notable was Sheik Nasir Dinalaban, who took hadiths literally. He is the most well-known among those who will authenticate the hadith, that's a term for it. Meaning that he will take a hadith either in Sahih Bukhari or one of the classical books of hadith collections.

Then, he would weigh them one by one, looking into the chains of narrators. He followed that literalistic type of way of thinking, a hadith which may not make sense to us in scientific terms, he might tend to treat that as being authentic so long as he can see that there is a known chain of narrators who are respected persons in our history who have transmitted this hadith from one person to another without break.

That movement tends to follow these hadiths, which may not be very scientific and which may have this kind of stamp of authenticity from their known scholars. The hadiths will be further interpreted within that literalistic school, which does not use, or does not subject the narratives to too much scrutiny in terms of reason and will just follow them literally. Truly, in modern times the school has taken a hit because of the events of 9/11.

Salafism has taken a hit because some of the 9/11 hijackers are thought to have belonged to that movement and following.

Many Salafis are quietest and many would be opposed to committing acts of violence against other people.

There's good and bad in all of the various movements. Good and bad in all of the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Good and bad in various followings within the Muslim community on a whole. Good and bad within the Salafi movement in particular.

Muslims should generally keep an open mind and take what is good from the various movements and combine the best of all the worlds. If we do that, we emerge as better people and as a community of faith. We emerge as a better community that is tolerant, that is understanding, and respectful of variation and diversity within our broader movement. Even outside of the Islamic community.

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