Why Salafis Aren’t Wahhabis (And Vice Versa)

One of the things that regularly steams my potstickers (makes me mad) is the confusion of Wahhabis with Salafists. They are not the same thing. Not by a billion miles.

A couple of blog entries ago, I wrote a little bit about Brother Ahmad, an African American convert to Islam who would occasionally show up at the MSA masjid in Columbus to worship and annoy people. One of the rants Brother Ahmad went on one time was an invective against the Saudis and Wahhabis, calling them “false Muslims” who mislead and beguile.

Brother Ahmad was (and maybe still is) a salafi. That’s the rough equivalent of fundamentalist, and to be a salafi is to believe that the only part of Islamic history that is truly legitimate is the times of the Prophet Muhammad and his closest companions, and his four immediate successors, the rashindun, or the Rightly Guided leaders — Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. The rest of Islamic history after that is more or less the history or error and human invention, and there is little of value in that history to be imitated or to learn from.

In this, salafism is very similar to those strains of American Christianity that believes the best church was the aboriginal church, the church of the first few centuries, before Constantine, before Rome. Catholicism was an error, in which people who called themselves Christians created a lot of non-biblical rituals and invented a lot of beliefs that had no grounding in scripture. The Reformation put the church on a road back to authenticity, but it remained to be completed, and some confessions did “reformation” better than others.

The Christians I knew in high school believed these kinds of things, as I recall.

So, salafists look to the Qur’an and the hadith for their examples and their instruction. That the hadith literature was compiled several centuries afterwards, as part of a long fight over the nature of authority and accountability between Muslim scholars and the Caliph, is lost on them. They seek an authenticity in a restored original community of worshipers, and they take the hadith as authentic and factual reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet. Anything else is not fully faithful.

Ibn Wahhab taught some of these things, as most Muslim scholars across history have. (There is a reason we Christians look first to Acts and Paul’s letters to see what it means to be church.) Where Ibn Wahhab, living in the midst of 18th century Nejd, is not a salafist is that he invests the Al Saud with religiously legitimate authority. You could not properly be a Wahhabi without pledging allegiance to the Emir of Riyadh, now the King of Saudi Arabia. The ahl al-sheikh, Wahhab’s family and descendants, hitched their fortunes to the Al Saud. The two families even intermarried. They are tight.

This is true today. A form of wahhabism is practiced Islam of Qatar, but it really isn’t, since Qatar has it’s own emir.

There is no Christian equivalent to this, not that comes to mind readily. Maybe 1000 years ago, somewhere in Europe. Maybe.

I’ve never met a salafist of one stripe or another who didn’t hate the Saudi royal family with a hot and furious passion. The Al Sauds, for salafists, are clearly NOT morally and religiously legitimate rulers of anything. Brother Ahmad was not the only Muslim I’ve ever met to publicly — and loudly — proclaim that.

And yet, so many salafists were educated and nurtured by materials published and provided by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has been generous in supporting masjids, publishing books, and educating Muslims across the world. In fact, much of that material actually fosters salafism — to the kingdom’s own detriment.

Why the disconnect?

Something I was a told a long time ago, and I do know if it was true, is that when the Saudis became fabulously wealthy in the 1970s, and began all this Islamic education, there were some paranoid fears on the part of many Muslims that the King of Saudi Arabia might declare himself the Caliph and demand the loyalty and allegiance of all of the world’s Muslims. So, in response, the Saudis de-politicized their educational materials. They decoupled the version of Islam they peddled from the demand for loyalty to Al Saud rule. What they taught was austere, rigorous, and demanding. It arrived in the world about the same time that secular Arab nationalism had been discredited (the Six-Day War) and secular revolution was affecting how some Muslims were beginning to think about the future.

It didn’t help that Sayyed Qutub’s work was published and widely translated in the Gulf (my version of Milestones was published in English in Kuwait; one of the Saudi religious scholars in Columbus had a complete Arabic copy of Qutub’s commentary on the Qur’an, including the parts about jihad, published in Saudi Arabia) and that when the Egyptian government cracked down on Islamist groups following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Gulf gave many dissident Ikhwan al-Muslimeen teachers work. (This explains the roots of Saudi anger at the Ikhwan, and their support for General Sisi in Egypt, because the Saudis — especially elite, more secular Saudis — have long blamed those militant Egyptians for radicalizing large numbers of Saudis and for basically being very bad guests.)

I don’t get too angry at this inability on the part of the Western media to confuse these things. These are nuances only believers or serious scholars will get. But they are important.

One thought on “Why Salafis Aren’t Wahhabis (And Vice Versa)

  1. Oddly, a possible Christian parallel to Wahhabism as you describe it is the staid old Church of England, in its earlier times. Under Henry VIII, there was a strictly enforced unity of secular and church leadership, and Henry’s church was a unique entity unto itself, as uncomfortable with Luther as with the Pope. Under Elizabeth and later, diversity of opinion flourished. But the CoE had that same Caliphate quality whenever the English were actively imposing the Book of Common Prayer on all those under its rule. The group corresponding to Salafism in this comparison would be not the Scots (the Presbyterian system being too centralized) but the Congregationalists and nonconformist Puritans. Perhaps more radical groups like the Quakers and Diggers might correspond roughly to the Baha’i and Druze?

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