Sunni Islam and Wahhabi / Salafi sect compared

Sunni Islam and Wahhabi / Salafi sect compared

/By (Imām) Syed B. Soharwardy/

1. Introduction

Due to the division among Muslims, it can be very confusing for many western people who want to convert/revert to Islam to know which version of Islam is the true Islam.

Moreover, the recent escalation in the radicalization of Muslim converts and their exploitation by extremist groups is alarming and dangerous:

Therefore, it is important to understand what Islam is and what is NOT Islam.

In this article I am not going to discuss why someone would convert to Islam?

I am assuming that (hypothetical) person has acquired some basic understanding of Islam and now is willing to become a Muslim.

When a person wants to convert / revert to Islam he / she must consider the following 2 most important criteria for deciding which Imām or group can guide this individual towards the true Islam:

1. What interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah has been followed by the greatest majority of Muslim scholars throughout the 14 centuries of Islam?

Does this Imām or group follow the same interpretation, or do they follow something different?

2. What traditions of Islam have been followed by the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout the 14 centuries of Islam?

Does this Imām or group follow the same traditions or do they advocate something completely different?

2. Background and Confusion

Starting from the 1st century of Islam, Muslims were divided into 2 denominations:

1) A Small minority separated themselves from the majority and between 10% to 15% of these Muslims identified themselves as Shia

2) while the rest of the Muslims identified themselves as Sunni (ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jamā’ah).

I am not going to discuss the reasons of this division. Moreover, the Shia-Sunni divide has not been known to create a major confusion for potential converts.

The major source of confusion and/or misguidance for many converts is the existence of several groups (sects) within Sunni denomination. Therefore, I am going to discuss the historical Sunni understanding and interpretation of Islam. 

Over the years several sects/groups have emerged from the Sunni denomination – each one identifying itself as “Sunni Muslim” – but mostly embracing interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah that the majority of Sunni scholars have never accepted.

3. The First Deviants

During the 1st century of Islam a group emerged from the region now identified as Syria and Iraq:

The followers of this group claimed they understood Qur’an and Sunnah better than the thousands of Companions of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ):

This group refused to accept the authority of the government:

They refused to follow the laws of the country and created rebellion against the 3rd Caliph of Islam Uthmān ibn Affān (May Allah be pleased with him). They murdered him.

When the 4th Caliph Imām Alī Ibn Abi Tālib (Allah be pleased with him), who was also the cousin and the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), took over the power, they refused to accept him as the ruler. They also murdered him.

This group had a very strange interpretation of Qur’an:

Their interpretation was completely new and far from the understanding of thousands of Muslims who had accepted Islam right in front of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ):

This latter group, known as “the companions” (Sahāba) had learnt Qur’an and Islam directly from the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), but the followers of the breakaway group refused to accept the interpretation of the Sahāba and murdered thousands of the companions.

This deviant group were extremist, very violent people. Although they were a small minority, their terrorism was huge and caused irreparable damage to Muslims:

In history they are recognized as Khawārij (outsiders of Islam).

The vast majority of Muslims have NEVER agreed with their interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah.  With the passing of time the Khawārij group diminished and slowly ended.

4. The Division

Although the Khawārij were isolated, and finally ended, Muslims have remained divided into Sunni and Shia schools of thoughts. 

Over the several centuries, the Shia denomination was further divided into several groups:

Ismaili, Ithnā Ashari, Bohra, Alavi, Zaidi, etc.

The followers of these Shia sects have identified themselves with their sects, for example,

- Ismaili Shia Muslims, Ithnā Ashari Shia Muslim, etc.

Similarly, Sunnis became divided into 4 major groups:

Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Mālikī and Hanbali

but the followers of these 4 Sunni groups never identified themselves as sects:

They still considered themselves Sunnis (ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jamā’ah). 

The source of this division among Sunnis was the difference in the interpretation of the jurisprudence of Islam called the Sharia Law.

The followers of these 4 Sunni groups (Madhab) remained united on traditions and beliefs (Aqīdah) based upon the Imām Māturidī and Imām Ash’ari’s understanding / interpretation of Islam. 

Even with all these divisions, the Sunni scholars have never called each other “wrong”:

They tended to be extremely tolerant and accepting of their differences. They still prayed together and lived together in peace and harmony with each other.

5. The Dangerous Division

Up to the 1700s, Sunni Muslims, worldwide, had much the same beliefs and traditions but were divided on Fiqh (Sharia law).

During the 1700s and 1800s, when European powers invaded Asian and African countries to colonize them, the Khawārij beliefs were revived once again in Muslim countries in order to destroy the Ottoman Empire.

Arab Nationalism and the violent ideology of Khawārij were useful tools in aiding the European powers to divide Muslims and to pit them against each other.  This strategy worked very well, and European powers were successful in colonizing almost all Muslim countries.

The formation of Saudi Arabia took place during the same time.

Ottoman Turkish rulers were the custodians of the two holy sites of Islam, but an alliance between a radical clergyman and a tribal chief of Najd area, with the backing from Britain, defeated the Ottomans.

Thus, Saudi Arabia was formed.  The man of the clergy of Najd was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792):

He revived the Khawārij beliefs and justified the killings of thousands of Muslims just as the Khawārij  had done when they killed thousands of Sahāba and the family members of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), and “rationalized” their acts by using their own interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah.

Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab demolished hundreds of Islamic heritage sites Muslims had lovingly preserved over the centuries as a part of Islam’s history:

He demolished thousands of tombs of various Sahāba and family members of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), which Muslims had built and protected throughout the history of Islam. 

He destroyed hundreds of historic archaeological sites of Islam that had been preserved right from the period of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), by all Muslim governments and by all Muslims, until those sites were destroyed just less than a century ago. 

In fact, Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab even wanted to demolish the tomb of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) where he was buried inside Masjid An-Nabawi in Medina city.

At that time the entire community of Muslim scholars, Shia and Sunni, condemned Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab and his followers. No one accepted his interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah.

6. The Revival of Khawārij

Today Muslims are struggling once again with similar challenges; however, the current challenges are more serious and more impactful upon Muslims and on their faith, Islam:

Today, the majority of Muslims are struggling with economic challenges. Nearly all Muslim countries are classed as under-developed – facing poverty, illiteracy and corrupt dictators. 

Also, Saudi Arabia has become a strong economy in the world. Saudi Arabia is a member of G20 countries, and one the closest allies of United States, Canada and other western countries. 

Saudi Arabia also gives aid to a number of Muslim countries:

Millions of Muslims and non-Muslims work in Saudi Arabia. The country has helped in rebuilding several countries after wars or natural disasters. It has also helped build thousands of mosques in the western world and in the Muslim world.

However, the Saudi help does not come without attachments:

The economic and financial help from Saudi Arabia always has a price tag and that price tag is the importation and adoption of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam, known as Wahhabism or Salafism:

Wherever a mosque has been built with Saudi money, the Imām has had to be either imported from Saudi Arabia, educated in Saudi Arabia, or a follower of the Wahhabi/Salafi version of Islam.

7. Some Important Facts

Before the civil war in Bosnia Herzegovina, there were hardly any mosques that could be considered Wahhabi/Salafi Mosques.

After the civil war ended, Saudi Arabia helped in rebuilding mosques and universities in Bosnia Herzegovina.

Before the Afghan Jihad against the former Soviet Union, less than 20% of the mosques in Pakistan were Wahhabi/Salafi/Deobandi mosques.

Saudi Arabia has provided lots of money and activists through the government of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1924-1988) in Pakistan. Lots of money and Saudi clergy came to Pakistan.

Today more than 60% of the mosques in Pakistan are either Wahhabi/Salafi or Deobandi mosques. (Deobandi is another version of Wahhabi/Salafi sect in South Asia). 

In other parts of the world such as central Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, North Africa, Middle East the Wahhabi / Salafi influence is on the rise exponentially.

An overwhelming majority of Mosques in the United States and Canada have also received funding from Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the Wahhabi/Salafi influence in North American mosques is huge. 

Millions of Sunni Muslims who migrated from the various Muslim countries to North America were the followers of non-Wahhabi Sunni schools of thoughts in their country of birth, but when they settled in the US or Canada they converted to the Wahhabi/Salafi sect.

The reasons are obvious, the majority of mosques in North America are controlled and run and managed by Wahhabi / Salafi Imāms and their followers.  No other Sunni group has the kind of resources and the funding that Wahhabis have.

Moreover, since the Islam’s 2 holy sites, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia, millions of Muslims visit Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage (Hajj & Umrah):

The majority of Muslims do not know the history of Islam and the history of the Wahhabi beliefs. The perception of most Muslims is that the clergy, which controls the 2 holy sites, must be correct. 

I wish they had been born 150 years ago:  They would have seen a very different view of Islam and Islamic heritage sites in Mecca and Medina when Ottomans were ruling these cities.

Millions of Muslims work in Saudi Arabia, and they certainly learn Islam from the Saudi clergy. They believe they are learning from the source. They do not know that the source has been contaminated.

8. Comparison

Let us compare some of the key differences between the beliefs of Sunni Muslims with the Wahhabi / Salafi beliefs:

=> Sunni Muslim Beliefs:

Practiced by ALL Sunni Muslims for 1400 years of Islam.

=> Wahhabi / Salafi Beliefs:

Started after the Wahhabi revolution in Saudi Arabia less than 200 years ago.

=> Sunni Muslims: have existed since the start of Islam more than 1400 years ago.

=> Wahhabis / Salafis (Khawārij):

emerged for a short period of time during the Khilāfah of Uthmān ibn Affān and Imām Alī (May Allah be pleased with them). At that time they used to be called Khawārij.

They re-emerged in mid 1700s in the Arabian peninsula.

=> All Sunni Muslim must follow one of the 4 Jurist Imāms (Fiqh); Hanafi, Shafi’i, Mālikī &Hanbali

=> Wahhabis / Salafis do not follow any of the four Imāms of Fiqh.

=> All Sunni Muslims believe in the intercession of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) on the Judgement Day.

=> Wahhabis / Salafis do not believe in the intercession (Shifā’ah) of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ)

=> All Sunni Muslims believe in Tawassul (mediation) to Allah

=> Wahhabis / Salafis do not believe in Tawassul (Mediation) to Allah.

=> All Sunni Muslims believe in celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) called Eid Milad un-Nabi.

The formal celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s (ﷺ) birthday started 250 -300 years after he passed away.

Since then All Muslims, Shia and Sunni, both celebrate Eid Milad un-Nabi (ﷺ).  No single scholar of Islam ever objected to this celebration.

All Muslim countries celebrate this day as a national holiday except Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

=> Wahhabis / Salafis do not believe in celebrating Eid Milad un-Nabi (ﷺ).  They consider this a Bid‘ah (innovation in Islam).

If anyone ever tries to celebrate Eid Milad un-Nabi (ﷺ) in Saudi Arabia publicly the person will prosecuted, jailed and deported.

It’s a crime in Saudi Arabia. That is why Wahhabis /Salafis consider a person an infidel if he/she celebrates Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (ﷺ).

=> All Sunni Muslims praise and honour Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) by singing poems and rhymes (Na’at & Nashīd)

=> Praising and honouring Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) pains Wahhabis / Salafis.

=> All Sunni Muslims respect and accept differences of opinions:

For Sunni Muslims the followers of all 4 Fiqh Imāms: Hanafi, Mālikī, Shafi’i and Hanbali were correct and must be respected although they differ from each other on many rulings of Islamic law.

=> Wahhabi / Salafi cannot tolerate any disagreement or difference of opinions:

They believe they are the only right Muslims and all other Muslims are pagans, non-believers or hell bound.

=> All Sunni Muslims love Awliyā Allah (Sufis of Islam) and visit their graves.

=> Wahhabis / Salafis hate Sufis. Visiting graves of Awliyā Allah is shirk (paganism) for them.

=> It is every Muslim’s life time desire to visit the Tomb (grave) of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in Masjid Al Nabawi in Medina city.

=> Wahhabis / Salafis consider this as shirk:

They say one can go to Masjid an-Nabawi to pray there and should not have the intention to visit the Tomb of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ)

=> All Sunni Muslims believe in the sanctity of life, whether Muslim or non-Muslim:

Killing innocent men, women and children (Muslim or non-Muslim) is a major sin and crime in Islam.

=> Wahhabis / Salafi believe in the forceful conversion of non-Muslims:

Anyone who refuses their authority and judgement is subject to death, Muslim or non-Muslim.

9. So what must New Converts do?

The problem is confusing and serious:

When a person goes to a mosque or meets an Imām to convert to Islam, the person often does not know the beliefs and the sect of the Imām.

A Wahhabi / Salafi NEVER calls himself/herself a WAHHABI / SALAFI. They call themselves “true Muslims.”

Khawārij never considered themselves as outsiders of Islam, either. In fact, they kicked out every Muslim from the Islamic fold and took over the ownership of Islam.

Wahhabis / Salafis call themselves true Muslims, and consider all other Muslims are either pagans or damned.

So, how can a person who wants to embrace Islam ensure that he/she is really embracing Islam, and not WAHHABISM / SALAFISM disguised as Islam?

The answer is very simple:

Check the Imām or the person who is going to teach you Islam as to whether he/she believes according to the Sunni beliefs, or the beliefs of Wahhabi/Salafi sect.

You should not be misguided by the Wahhabis / Salafis and later get recruited to fight for that most dangerous terrorist, and the WAHHABI/SALAFI organization called ISIS/ISIL.

10. The checklist

Please ask the following questions to the Imām or the person helping you to understand Islam:

1) Do you agree Islam protects the sanctity of life of all human beings including Christians, Jews and others?

2) Do you believe Muslims can live in peace and harmony with Christians and Jews?

3) Do you stand up to protect the rights of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries?

4) Do you agree Muslims who were recruited by ISIL/ISIS were misled and radicalized?

5) Do you write and speak against the ideology of ISIS/ISIL, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc.? Do you agree their ideology, beliefs and actions are criminal and completely un-Islamic?

6) Do you agree in Islam no individual or a group can declare armed Jihad against anyone?

7) Do you agree Muslims must be loyal law-abiding citizens of the countries they live in?

8) Do you believe in Islam men and women have equal rights?

9) Do you believe honour killings are un-Islamic and major crime in Islam?

10) Do you consider forced and underage marriages to be un-Islamic?

11) Do you believe non-Muslims in Muslim countries should be forced to become Muslims?

12) Do you believe Muslims of other sects will go to hell unless they follow your beliefs?

13) Do you call other Muslims who may disagree with your beliefs and traditions “Kāfir (non-believer)”, “Mushrik (pagans)” OR Bid’ah (innovators)?

The expected answers for questions 1 -10 = YES.  Answers for questions 11-13 = NO.

11. Conclusion

I also request that the media, law enforcement agencies, government officials NOT refer to ISIS/ISIL, Al Qaeda, Taliban, ash-Shabāb, Boko Haram, al-Nusra Front etc. as “Sunni Muslims.” 

All these terrorist organizations, their members and sympathizers, are the followers of Wahhabism / Salafism. They must be identified with their correct affiliation. They are not Sunni Muslims.