One More on Salafis and Wahhabis

My friend Sean Foley pointed out to me there is one other major difference between Salafis and Wahhabis.

Wahhabism is a hierarchy with something akin to clergy (to say Sunni Islam has no clergy is both simultaneously true and false; it’s complicated and I won’t go into it here), and Muslims within the Wahhabi system are bound (on some level) to hear and obey to decisions of the scholars who are properly educated and themselves situated in the tradition. Ijtihad (إجتهاد), the ability of Muslims to engage in independent reasoning on religious or ethical matters (this comes from the same root جهد JHD, which means “to struggle” — yes, that kind of struggle) is limited in the Wahhabi system scholars.

So, for example, an individual Muslim by himself (or herself) is not free to determine that the security of the faith or of the ummah — the community of believers — is at risk and that violent struggle is an option. That requires a scholar, someone properly educated and vetted and appointed to a position of legitimate religious authority. If the scholar approves such a thing, then it is acceptable. But only then.

The beauty of hierarchy, rightly done, is that it allows for a nice diversity of opinions and rulings. I tell in my book, The Love That Matters, of the difference between two Saudi religious scholars I got to know when I was at Ohio State, Dr. Hamdan and Dr. abd al-Mohsin, who differed — rather profoundly — on the matter of whether or not a Muslim man could be limited in a marriage contract to one wife. Dr. Hamdan said this was perfectly acceptable, and Dr. abd al-Mohsin said no, four wives was an inalienable and God-given right.

The matter was never resolved in the conversation, which meant an observant Muslim man could opt for either. And unless the Saudi ulema rule conclusively on this matter, this is where it will stand.

A stable and confident hierarchy allows for this kind of pluralism.

Salaifists, on the other hand, are very democratic and egalitarian in their understanding of ijtihad. Any adult Muslim can study the Qur’an, the hadith, the previous rulings, and come to a conclusion. Any adult Muslim can engage in legitimate religious reason.

At first, this sounds like a really good and noble idea. But the result of this kind of freewheeling democracy in religious decision making is twofold: first, because anyone can have an opinion, virtually everyone does. Because there are no final authorities above the individual believer, every opinion theoretically has the same value. And there’s no way to solve disputes. Which can get ugly.

Second, however, one important result of this democracy is a demand for uniformity. The freedom to choose becomes the freedom to choose the right opinion, especially since there must be one (I rarely saw these disputes end with “we’ll agree to disagree”) and only one true conclusion. Now, an appeal could be made to the historic diversity of Islamic opinions IF such diversity itself existed in the sunnah. But usually, on significant matters, uniformity is imposed, not by hierarchy, but by something akin to acclamation. In the end, salafists aren’t really free to make their own decisions, since anything other than the correct decisions excludes them from the community.

This isn’t all that different from the more militant approaches to sola scripture among Protestants. The more the Bible is claimed as THE authority (instead of church, tradition, and custom), the less diversity is possible because no legitimate external authority allows for divergent views. I once found the freewheeling freedom of salafism (and protestantism) intoxicating, but as I get older, I am learning to appreciate why hierarchy — especially in a confessional church — is important. Because not everyone is capable of making good or informed decisions on faith and practice, and there is something to be said about a thoughtful, educated group of scholars who can freely and openly discuss matters, and even hold divergent views, and yet remain bound to the same tradition, custom, and institutional arrangements.

One thought on “One More on Salafis and Wahhabis

  1. Hierarchies can protect diverse opinions, but they can also contract to more limited ‘orthodoxies’ when threatened; consider the Council of Trent and Vatican I on the one hand and the purge of biblical conservatives from the protestant main-line churches in the 20th century.

    Tom Wright has said that the authority of the Bible is the authority of Christ (I think that’s fairly close, relying on memory). I’m still not quite sure what he meant himself by that, but to me it suggests the truism that Christ leads the church through the Spirit – either by guiding a Pope or a learned elite, or by direct inspiration to humbler souls. Reliance on the latter has resulted in some monumental errors, but so has the former. So what to do? At some point, on at least some occasions, the spirit must overrule the letter. Perhaps that means that those whom God wishes to guide in the still moments of the subtle turning points of life are sufficiently guided, whereas others are left to expound error as they will. It is certain that the latter happens. I like to think the former happens as well.


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