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July 20, 2004

Why Salafism and its Illegitimate Child, Wahhabism, Are Evil

(the following is an original post… some of you have asked if I copied/pasted from some website. apart from the places where i referenced people/hadith, i wrote this, for better or worse. the length of it probably indicates why i took nearly a week to post it)

The greatest achievement of Islam, throughout its 1400 years of resplendent history, has never been its grand mosques, its beautiful language, or even the books produced by its followers on any and every subject under the sun. The greatest gift that Islam bequeathed to mankind was knowledge of a Primordial Creator and a method to reach that Creator through living one’s life in an excellent manner in this world.  Buildings may crumble, Egyptians may mutilate the language, and books may be burnt, but this legacy of Islam will remain as a mercy to the worlds, brought by he who was the Mercy to the Worlds, sent by the Compassionate and Merciful. This legacy is especially important in the times we currently live in, given that the Neitzchean subscription to the “death of God” permeates human societies on a global level.

However, this most primordial of man’s needs is not something that can be satiated with just anything; just as the stomach demands food for its nourishment, the soul demands nourishment as well. There is little wonder then that virtually every traditional society, in some shape or form, had an intricate and ancient system of beliefs and practices to address this need. Modern humans are no different. This need still exists, and when the soul cannot be fed with the purest form of sustenance, it will reluctantly settle for anything that resembles it. This essentially is the “faith” in technology: the idea that with technological progress, earthly salvation–nay, even deliverance–can be attained. No wonder that ads for the latest products show people in states of faux-euphoria, as if to let potential customers know that this same bliss can be achieved with a simple purchase. Yet a consumption-based global economy has not brought about this contentment and fulfillment to the masses, as the famous adage, “Caveat Emptor“, is revealing a new realization. The power of Islam is that it offers a filling of that void, a greater threat to mankind’s earhtly and otherworldly fate than any terrorist attack or natural disaster.

If this is the power of Islam, ie, to address the oldest and most important of man’s needs, than anything that threatens that power and its dissemination must be looked at with a certain amount of scrutiny. As purveyors of this “good” that mankind needs (whether they are aware or not), Muslims must critically analyze forces, particularly from within “the corporation” that are a risk to sales amongst consumers (forgive me for the numerous economic references, this damn Martha Stewart thing has robbed me of my metaphorical imagination). Foremost amongst these threats is the Salafi/Wahhabi school of thought (and I realize using the term “school of thought” here is an oxymoron, but work with me for a minute…), which seeks to divorce the sacred marriage–sanctioned and conducted first by the Prophet, and later by a few others, foremost amongst them, my man al-Ghazali–between outward and inner worship. This unique symbiotic relationship between the inner and outer forms of worship has been the foundation that this religion has been built upon. 

Before, we continue, let us first define and understand what exactly constitutes the “Salafi movement”.  About a century ago, Jamâl al-Din Afghânî and his student, Muhammad `Abduh, sought to reform Islam with the same basic idea that the best people who understood Islam were the Companions and the early generations that came after them.  During `Abduh’s time, many innovations and deviant practices (grave worship, etc) had crept into the practice of many lay Muslims; in an effort to purify the religion, there was a call to return to the Qur’an and the Sunnah as the final criterion to base one’s actions on. They sought to do away with the Four Schools, asserting that they were established after the early communities and as such were not as “pure” as the early communities. The Salafi ideology maintained that one could easily derive all necessary principles from the Qur’an and Sunnah without any need for Schools of Thought. The Wahhabi movement began in the early 18th century by Muhammad b. `Abd al-Wahhab; he too sought to do away with practices (e.g. grave worship, ostentatious living, etc) that were antithetical and downright heretical to the early communities’ practice of Islam.  He too cast aside the Schools of Thought, even though they followed a pseudo-Hanbali way (claiming Ibn Taymiyyah as their great scholar, an insult to his legacy, if I might add commentary here).  This is probably because he did not have any contact with Islamic scholarship throughout his life (a common theme that we see with fanatics in any religion).  The Wahhabi movement then went one step further: it sought to ally its ideology with political power (a tribal chief named Muhammad b. Saud) to impose its will over the Arabian peninsula.  What ensued can only be described as religious passion gone awry: in an effort to cleanse innovation (bid`ah), the Wahhabis killed thousands of Sufis, Shi`ites, and many others who didn’t subscribe to their worldview. They destroyed hundreds of tombs, including the tombs of Imam Husayn and Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. They even tried to destroy the tomb of the Prophet, had it not been for the intervention of the Saudi king Abd al-Aziz Saud. And of course, they believed that anyone who didn’t follow their way was living in Ignorance (jahiliyyah) and wasn’t really a Muslim at all.  Finally, they established a “religious police” (still exists today in Saudi Arabia) to enforce their worldview and to stamp out Islamic spirituality, reducing Islam into rituals and practices. The irony here being, of course, that the rituals and practices were not from any of the Four Schools.

Why are the Four Schools so important? The Salafi slogan of following the Qur’an and Sunnah is appealing and makes sense on the surface, but it fails to provide a method to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah.  This is like saying to someone, “Eat healthy and you will live well,” without telling him what foods are healthy, in what quantities one must eat foods, what are unhealthy foods, etc. Salafis believe that each person can figure out how to practice their religion, since the early communities did so and had no School of Thought.  Furthermore, they believe that adherence to these Schools is a form of taqlîd (servile conformism). What they fail to realize is several things:

1.     All the Four Schools of Thought have sound and unbroken chains of narration back to the Companions and the Prophet himself that they use as proofs for every single practice. This is equivalent to not only knowing that the Companions “ate healthy and lived well”, but to have chains of narration that describe in detail what/when/where/how/why the Prophet and the Companions “ate x to eat healthy and live well”. Each of the Four Schools have scrupulous narrations that are used as proofs that cannot be disproven by any scholarly method; furthermore, each of the Four Schools is basically the worldview and practice of an intimate Companion of the Prophet (e.g., the Hanafî school is that of `Abdullah b. Mas`ud, the Shâfi`î is that of `Abdullah b. `Umar, etc).

2.     The early communities already followed a “School”; the only difference was that it was not formalized until a few centuries later when the Four Imams, realizing the spread of Islam to new lands and understanding the need to codify these practices to maintain the integrity of the religion, compiled and laid them out so as to preserve them for prosperity. To use the eating healthy analogy: the early communities all knew what/how/etc to eat since they weren’t very far removed from the Prophet, and thus had no need to call their eating habits with a formal name like the “food pyramid”, even though they basically ate according to such a pyramid. The Four Imams, realizing that unless these eating habits of the Prophet and the Companions were compiled under the title of a “food pyramid”, they would be lost, did so in an effort to preserve the religion.

3.     To expect each person to have the necessary tools and knowledges to derive necessary principles and rulings from the corpus of religious texts is absurd.  One must have a sound knowledge of the religious branches of knowledge (e.g. Arabic, morphology, usûl, etc) to make rulings and derive principles. In other words, this can only be done by a trained scholar who has spent time learning these “tools”.  An ordinary person cannot be allowed to read an English translation of the Qur’an and then derive rulings from this.  This is as absurd as someone reading a “Medicine for Dummies” book and then deciding the way surgery is practiced at the Mayo Clinic is wrong so he comes up with his own methods to do so. Yet this is exactly what the Salafis (without the necessary knowledge) are doing, casting aside the meticulous scholarship of the Four Schools.

4.     If a “Salafi scholar” takes the time to study all of these necessary sciences and then derives different rulings on practices from the Four Schools and then says that Salafis should follow his rulings, isn’t this the same “taqlîd” they accuse the followers of the Four Schools?

5.     When one says, “On the authority of Abû Hanîfa/Mâlik/etc…”, this is saying, “Based on the deep understanding of this Imam who heard it from his teacher all the way back to the Prophet himself.”  When one leaves their leadership and says, “Allah and His Messenger said this…”, he has relied solely on his understanding with no chains of transmission.

6.     Finally, the strength of the Four School is their chain of narration. The Salafis have no such chain. This is like, to borrow an analogy of Shaykh Nuh Keller, telling someone that you want a car, but not a Nissan or Volvo or BMW, but simply a car, not understanding the nature of cars.  They fail to realize that a sophisticated product like a car requires a complex means of production and many efforts before such a product is finished.  Yet it is because of this scrupulousness that the car produced is so valuable and useful.  Collective human efforts will always produce something far better than what one person can produce from scratch (this is like the absurdity of Ayn Rand and her pseudo-hero Howard Roark in The Fountainhead). The Sharî`ah is more complex than any car; scrapping the understanding of the Four Schools is like “scrapping a Mercedes for a go-cart.”

More importantly, the Salafi movement—particularly the Wahhabi movement—seek to remove traditional Islamic spirituality from Islam by over-emphasizing the outward practices. Granted that the movements were meant to “clean up” deviant practices, but to completely discredit spirituality is just as dangerous as misusing it.  This is like saying one will not take medicine when one is sick because he saw others overdosing/misusing the drug. Islamic spirituality is the road that one travels to better appreciate God, to make sense of one’s place in the world, to understand the ephemeral nature of this world, and to reaffirm one’s faith and commitment to God’s pleasure in this world and in the next.  We must admit that there were/are (historically and present-day, respectively) wacko Sufis out there as well; al-Hallaj historically, and perhaps Hisham Kabbani in present-day. However, when one studies Sufism and understands its methods, one will clearly see that all of this had been practiced by the Prophet, the early communities, and the great scholars (especially my man al-Ghazali) in the proper way.

Thus, it is extremely frightening that the Salafi movement threatens to remove spirituality by its over-emphasis on the Law of the religion to the extent that the Spirit is forgotten. Amongst the two communities that received revelation before us (Jews and Christians), we can see that the Salafi movement is quite similar to the Jewish experience: a sacrifice of the Spirit for the Letter, ie, making laws, which were meant to be pathways to God if followed properly, as sovereign, to the extent that the end purpose of such laws is forgotten. I recall a time when speaking to a rabbi, he told me that he doesn’t believe in God; rather, he believes in the 613 laws of the Torah. To me, he had become so enamored with his laws that he forgot the Lawmaker himself. It is as if someone is travelling on a brass road to a land of diamonds, only to become so enamored with the road that he decides to sit in the road forever, admiring his own reflection in the brass. Yet, the brass road has been the obsession of the Salafis: the focus has been a near-fanatical concern with rules that the spirit is forgotten. We understand that rules are important, but only in that they lead to the spirit. The Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be on him) said in a hadith from Bukhari and Muslim (in case any Salafs are reading this), “No one shall enter the Garden by his works”. The Companions asked him, “Not even you, O Messenger of God?”. He answered: “Not, not even me, unless God covers me with grace and mercy…”

Thus, our scholars understood the necessity of spirituality and stressed the co-dominance works and inner devotion as keys to the Hereafter.  Even Ibn Taymiyyah, who has unwillingly found himself as the patron saint of the Wahhabi movement, was a staunch advocate of tasawwuf, particularly the path of Shaykh `Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî.  The Wahhabi movement, with its rigid enforcement of outward practices, essentially seeks to do away with spirituality as a useless and deviant practice. Given that this spirituality is Islam’s greatest boon to mankind, it is no wonder that the Wahhabi movement is such a threat to the future of Islam.  While I can say much more about this topic, I think a hadîth (the aptly named “Hadîth of Najd”) will better explain my point (and again, this hadîth is from Bukhârî, for all you Salafs out there). Interestingly enough, this hadîth was cited by many of the scholars who were present during the time of Muhammad b. `Abd al-Wahhab to describe his movement:

`Abdullah b. `Umar reported the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace) as saying: “Oh God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said: “And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!” but he said, “O God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said, “And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!”. Ibn `Umar said that he thought that he said on the third occasion: “Earthquakes and dissensions (fitna) are there, and there shall arise the horn of the devil.”

Certainly, the modern era has made people very insecure about their place in the cosmic order of things.  This identity crisis has led to an array of ideologies and worldviews that have developed in recent years throughout the world, not just within the Muslim world. This “hunger” has led many to subscribe to ideologies that seemingly address this hunger, but fail to offer any lasting satisfaction. The Salafi failure here is that in seeking to re-establish an identity in the modern world, they have taken one that is removed from the continuous Muslim tradition, and that has “made all the difference”, obviously in a negative way.  The identity they champion, which claims to adhere to the “right way” of the past, is ironically influenced by and is a product of the modern era.  The same Muhammad `Abduh who sought to return to the past and do away with tasawwuf was heavily influenced by Orientalists like Louis Massignon; it is interesting to note here that early Orientalists doubted, in their feeling of superiority, that Islam could produce something as beautiful and fulfilling as Sufism, and thus sought to discredit it in their works. In other words, Orientalists were baffled and amazed by the power—and even existence—of Islamic spirituality and its effect on human civilizations and attempted to do whatever they could to remove this achievement from the Islam’s curriculum vitae such it could not be “employed” by the denizens of the modern world.


Salafism, and its illegitimate child, Wahhabism, have only furthered their goals of debunking Islam’s greatest achivement by casting aside the Four Schools and dismissing Islamic spirituality.  It is for these reasons that they pose an internal threat to the viability of Islam in the modern global arena.  And it is for these reasons that Muslims of conscience must critically examine these in-house perils lest they overcome us while we are unaware. At the same time, it is crucial for Muslims to subscribe to the same product they are trying to sell–otherwise, we should not expect people to adopt it if we ourselves cannot make use of it.  Most importantly, as purveyors of this unique commodity, Muslims must give this product freely to a global civilization that is obsessed with consumption, for Islamic spirituality offers the only way to worldly contentment and otherworldly deliverance.


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  1. Anonymous permalink

    i would not normally post on a an unknown xanga, but your post was interesting, aside from the bashing on Egyptains.  It would be interesting to expand more upon the implications of extemist thought on the conditions of women with those communities of muslims, and how such practices impaired the freedoms and rights of people.  I find it particularly frightening that such forms of practice are present today, but i also find it disturbing at times when the imams clearly stated that they were human and subject to mistakes.  Yet, Muslims still gravitate towards issues of consistency within one particular school of though knowing that certain technicalities were in fact, not forbidden or practiced by the Prophet(S).  I’m presently just referring to one particular technicality, but it illustrates the point. 

  2. salam alaikum
    i must say..that was very interesting.. there a difference between a wahabi and a salafi..or are they the same?

  3. Mr. Kamran.  Very good post, mashallah.  Yet, I have heard that the Wahabis draw mostly from the Hanbali school of thought.  To my knowledge, both the Wahabi and the Hanbali ways of thinking purport to go back to the original community, and say that they only follow the Quran and Sunnah.  Both of them are distrustful of independent thinking, especially precedents set by judges.  Imam Hanbal himself was distrustful of wild thinking, particularly of the Mutazila who tortured and killed him.  Is it really fair to say that the Wahabis threw away all four schools (I say he threw away merely three, and perhaps mutilated the fourth).  Could you share your thoughts on the relationship between Wahabism and its distinction from the Hanbali school of thought. 

  4. MashAllah, great post! :). Salafis are definitely a strain on the Ummah as are people from the other extreme like Irshad Manji and all the other liberal lunatics out there. You should post something on sufism as well because people these days seem to think all it involves is making zikr and potentially floating, as Kabbani and Salafis, for that matter, would assert. Sufism, or tasawwuf, is part of our tradition going all the way back to our Rasool (s). It is an essential part of Islam and it is bringing our hearts closer to Allah (swt) through following the Shariah of Allah as set forth by the Sunnah of the Prophet (s). People seem to think that we can sidetrack from following the Sunnah and Shariah, and suddenly become spiritual human beings. Our spirituality comes from following the Sunnah and Shariah and I think we should all try to remember that inshAllah.
    Once again, great article ‘champ’! 🙂

  5. answers to comments (thanks to the random people for epropping and commenting):
    1. wahhabis are basically militant salafis
    2. distinction between wahhabis and hanbali school of thought… that’s gonna take time, possibly another post
    3. hmmm an anti-liberal post… i like the thought of that. irshad manji and asma gul hasan (the female gog and magog) have pissed me off long enough.

  6. Anonymous permalink

    Can i get a summary? I want to read i swear, but youre tendancy to go on and on and on.. I cant find the courage to sit through it and read it.
    I’m asked Saudi for a summary on his pro salafi post:
    “Basically Salafi’s are cool”

  7. Summary of my post: Salafis need to follow mainstream tasawwuf and stop bashing on Sufis

  8. I hate salafis

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