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The Wahhabi Myth: Debunking the Bogeyman

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“Wahhabism”—a term used by different people for different reasons. My purpose was to collect some of these uses to serve the end-goal of debunking the term itself. After all, if it means enough different things for different people, it really comes down to not meaning anything real in an absolute sense. Also, as you will see, the use of this term is almost exclusively negative or with implied negative connotations. Hence, you will hardly hear anyone proudly referring to himself as a Wahhabi or a Masjid named Masjid al-Wahhabi. It simply doesn’t occur. What this implies is that there is usually some emotional or prejudicial baggage with the term’s usage or some other sinister agenda.


As I prowled the internet, there was nearly an unlimited supply of Wahhabi-referring articles, analysis, discussions, blogs, etc. It would fill pages upon pages if I attempted at collecting many of them, let alone all of them. So, here are my top-ten reasons to drop this word from the dictionary, esp. the dictionary of Muslims:

10. Let’s start with the definition of Wahhabis from the Encyclopedia Britannica. After you finish reading the definition, ask yourself, “So how they are different from what Muslims should be?”

9. There is no doubt that the term Wahhabi has its historical derivation from the Sh. Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab. While his father’s name has formed one of the most defamatory labels in history, Abdul-Wahhab himself actually was not too excited about his son’s mission either. So, in some ways, the word itself is technically inaccurate. A more accurate label would be Muhammadis, and we all know why that wouldn’t work as a pejorative term. Doesn’t that say something about the term’s negativity?

8. Those that use the term Wahhabi as an ideological attack form their basis on the opinion that Sh. Muhammad brought something new in the religion to the Arabian Peninsula. There could be nothing further from truth. Historically, there is no doubt that the Shaykh’s mission was simply to revive lost practices of Sunnah and to remove polytheism. Whether one agrees with his style is a different issue. Since this article is not a discussion about the Shaykh’s life, I am going to just mention two important legacies that Sh. Muhammad left, and leave it to the reader to read further, if interested. The legacies: (a) Were it not for the Shaykh, tombs and structures upon graves would be widespread in the current Saudi Arabia. Consequently, grave-worship, yearly celebrations at these tombs would probably be as widespread (as they are in Indo-Pak, Iran, Egypt and other Muslim countries) (b) There would likely be still 4 congregations (one for each madhab) for each Salah at the Harram in Makkah! For further reading, see this article on his biography, misunderstandings about him, in non-Arabic sources, and articles by the Shaykh. An absolute must-read is a book by Natana DeLong-Bas, called “Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad”, excerpts here, and buy it here. In fact, why not read some of the Sheikh’s books and ask yourself if you really disagree with what he said. Get past the propaganda and go to the source yourself. Here’s his Kitab-ul-Tawheed, audio on the “Three Fundamental Principles”.

7. Having said that, Sh. Muhammad’s real influence was largely limited to the Arabian Peninsula, but his revivalism of Tawhid did extend beyond the borders of the Arab world.

6. Speaking of Sh. Muhammad’s revivalism, the point is that it was exactly that—revival of what was already established in the religion. There was nothing new that he brought, nothing that wasn’t found in the works of previous scholars. In fact, many Orientalists and detractors of the Shaykh claim that he was mostly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah. Well, if so, then why don’t we just call everyone Taymiyyans? Let’s take another example. Suppose this humble servant of Allah, me i.e. Amad, goes to Pakistan and somehow causes a revival of major proportions (of course highly improbable and nearly impossible), and rids Pakistan of the disease of innovations and polytheism. Would it be then that every person who observes the Aqeedah of the Salaf after me, whether directly affected by me or not, should then be called Amadis? How absurd is that?

5. The majority of Muslims who consider Sh. Muhammad to be an esteemed scholar* do not consider him like people who consider, say Imam Abu Haneefa or Imam Malik, etc. i.e. you will not find that Sh. Muhammad left any madhab or any methodology. Thus, when you enter upon a library of a so-called “Wahhabi”, you will not find that the Shaykh’s teachings form a mainstay in either materials or practice. So, if one were to say that a Wahhabi is similar to a Hanafi in the following of Sh. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and Imam Abu Haneefa respectively, then that would be utterly inaccurate, and with no basis whatsoever, because there is no equivalency neither in their works equivalent, nor in their following. Especially since you find people attributing and calling themselves Hanafis, while you do not find hardly anyone who call himself “Wahhabi”. [*Respect for Shaykh Muhammad among Muslims varies as with any scholar. While there is a greater respect in areas where he had greater impact (i.e. Arabian peninsula), he still garnered respect in the non-Arab world, such as among the Deobandis in Pakistan, for instance Rashid Ahmed Gangohi’s praise of the Shaykh]

4. If a label is unacceptable to those to whom it is applied, it is not used by them, is almost repulsive to them, then it is a label that is unjust, inaccurate and unIslamic, as Allah says what means “…Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed…” [49:11]

3. Almost always the term “Wahhabi” is used in a pejorative sense. It is usually intended as a slur. Many times, when Muslims feel uncomfortable with the practice of other Muslims, many times when they feel that someone is more religious than he should be, and for neo-cons, whoever practices basic Islam, is called a Wahhabi.

2. The term Wahhabi was created by the enemies of Islam in order to tarnish the movement that called for a return to pure Islam. It is like the latest term “Islamo-fascism”… would Muslims adopt this term for other Muslims now, saying so and so is an Islamo-fascist? If we abhor the adoption of what our enemies have created for us today, then we should abhor the term that our enemies created for us in the past. Also, a significant reason for rejecting this term is how these terminologies are being used to “divide and rule”. If you think that is just my imagination, then you haven’t heard of the RAND report on “Civil Democratic Islam”, a lengthy report on how Muslims should be classified; to encourage and support modernists and Sufis, and to attack the what they call “fundamentalists” (this of course is our bogey-man: Wahhabi). Here is the full report, and here is a press release summarizing the intent. RAND is of course run by neo-cons (google ‘RAND and neocons’ and you’ll get the gist). See here for articles by Abdus Sattar Ghazali on Rand‘s attempts to divide Muslims: Part I and Part II. Want to join RAND‘s efforts? Keep the name-calling going and you can get yourself a seat on the modernist or the “good traditionalist” side!

1. And the top reason is that Wahhabis has different meaning to different people. The data collected here proves that Wahhabis means so many different things for different people, that in the end, it doesn’t mean anything real at all. As one example, let’s just take the Indo-Pak region: Deobandis call the Ahl-Hadith Wahhabis, and in turn Braelwis call Deobandis Wahhabis. And to top it off, the Western neo-cons or the progressives call all of them Wahhabis! With an origin inaccurate, with usage incoherent, and with connotations divisive and slanderous, is it not time to bury this term, once and for all?


Some of the blog readers I polled provided good thoughts. Here are some uses of the term Wahhabi that I was able to compile. Of course the list will fall far short of the copious use of this term (practically by everyone for everyone). As you go through it, you will likely see some common themes, and perhaps a common thread. However, the common thread and themes affirm my hypothesis that the usage is driven more by a hatred of Islam’s practice at any level, than a real ideological affront.

Muslim Usage (I use the term Muslim loosely)

· Let me preface the discussion with an old report from the dictatorship of Uzbekistan, whose president may have been more worthy of the gallows than Saddam was for his rampant human rights abuses and mass murders. According to Igor Rotar of Keston News Service, in the wake of a visit between 15 and 20 May (2002), to the Uzbek city of Bukhara, the Uzbek authorities are not simply not opposing the spr ead of the Naqshbandi order but, on the contrary, are doing all they can to support it. “In Soviet times it was even more dangerous to be a Sufi than simply to be a Muslim – the police got rid of such people right away,” the imam- hatyb of the mosque next to Naqshbandi’s mausoleum, Bobodzhon Rahmonov, told Keston on 16 May. “But now we do not have any problems with the state. For example, the chairman of the state committee for religious affairs, Fazil Sobirov, belongs to the Naqshbandi order. Moreover, we are working with the state to show people how wrong the Wahhabi outlook is. We explain that the building of mausoleums in honor of holy Muslims – something the Wahhabis oppose – is not against Islam.” The Law on the Exercise of Religion, promulgated on May 1st of 2003 states: “The wearing of prayer garments in public, such as the Islamist veil for women, is forbidden.” “There are beards and beards,” says Shoazim Minovarov, deputy chairman of the government’s Committee on Religious Affairs, who describes the more copious facial hair of Islamic fundamentalists as emblems of revolutionary zealots. According to reports by human rights groups, during the broad waves of anti-Islamic repression in 1992 and early 1998 a full beard could be enough to get a man arrested. So, for Islam Karimov, Wahhabis represent anyone that practices his religion properly.

· A young teen sister from ‘Musings of a Muslim Mouse” communicated a thought she considered un-intellectual, however, the simplicity of this thought provides deep insight: “I don’t have anything intellectual to contribute, just personal experience – my father runs an Islamic centre (well, he used to, in our old city – we moved a few months ago and now he’s running a small Madrasah for kids), and many people who didn’t like what he said and taught called him ‘Wahhabi’ – simply for saying things like, pray 5 times a day, give zakaah correctly, fast properly in Ramadan, cancel your vacation to Disneyland and go for Hajj instead, women should wear correct hijaab, men should grow their beards, everyone should follow the Sunnah!” As you can see, what Islam Karimov terms as Wahhabis is similar to what this sister’s father ran into. Well, at least he is safe in the non-Muslim Canada versus the “Muslim” land of Uzbekistan.

· Abdal-Hakim Murad is particularly vitriolic about the “Wahhabi” bogey-man. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, instead of giving a fair chance for investigations of who was responsible, etc., he did what the rest of the neo-cons did, blame “Wahhabis”. In his article here, he pointed to the great wisdom of Kabbani that was duly ignored by America. I wonder what he wanted the government to do. Arrest the leaders of 80% of America‘s mosques, which Kabbani claimed were run by Wahhabis? Abdal-Hakim’s hatred for certain Muslims is unfortunate (even if he doesn’t agree with their methodology); instead of discussing the root-cause the fanaticism and the terrorism (i.e. Israel & other injustice upon Muslims), he chose to attack Muslims. Br. Usama Hasan (son of Suhaib Hasan) tears down Abdal-Hakim’s arguments in this article.

· The Sufi Yursil commented on the blog that anyone who didn’t think the Ottoman Empire was legitimate and deserved a rebellion, is a Wahhabi. So, by this logic, a “non-Wahhabi” could technically be one who follows “Qur’an and Sunnah” without a madhab, as long as he believes that the Ottoman Empire was illegitimately removed from Arabia. In other words, Yursil claims the historical context, rather than ideological. The Sufi, Waqf Ikhlaas, books seem to agree, as seen in this article on the web. Other historical accounts of Wahhabism discuss Sh. Abdul Wahhab as the cornerstone of this movement. That may sound obvious since the term bears the Sheikh’s name, but the fact is that the ideological front is the more popular basis for the term’s usage.

· “Sheikh” Abdul-Hadi Palazzi of the Italian Muslim Embassy also considers pretty much all mainstream Muslim organizations and Sheikhs to be Wahhabi. In this article, he talks in length his love Israel, and his denunciations of Wahhabis in India (Deobandis), Saudi Wahhabis, MSAs (according to him, a student branch of Muslim Brotherhood- a Wahhabi movement). On his website, completes article devoted to Wahhabism, including one especially for Sh. Qaradawi.

· AICP, the organization run by the Habashis (Ahbaash), a recently created deviant sect in the Muslim world, has a little video speech on google, fire displayed in the background as the speaker spews hatred, and poison on the fictional “Wahhabi” group. Interesting how a group, considered deviant (see here and here) by the majority of the Muslim world, is attempting to revile other Muslims!


· LotaEnterprises blogger reports that Stephen Schwartz basically calls anyone who isn’t a follower of Hisham Kabbani or Shia, as being Wahhabi. Mr. Schwartz, a convert to Sufism (Islamic Sufism or just ‘plain-old Sufism’??) has a website, where he runs a “Wahhabi-watch” section. The list is expansive including CAIR, ISNA, ICNA, MAS, MSA… hmm, what’s left? Oh yes, the Islamic Supreme Council of Kabbani. What a joke! Here is an article where he points fingers at Yusuf Islam, Hamza Yusuf, and Siraj Wahhaj, another one here more at Hamza.111CCC

· Robert Spencer’s Jihad-watch website is mostly directed at a “Wahhabi-hunt”. Like Schwartz, there is hardly anyone that isn’t Wahhabi. Here is the CAIR-hunt, here is the ICNA, ISNA, MSA-hunts.

· This list would be remiss without the addition of Daniel Pipes. He is Schwartz’s partner in crime. Here is his attack on ISNA and CAIR.

· Of course, this list is never-ending, other examples include O’Reilly, Krauthammer, Glenn Beck, Steve Emerson, etc.

· There is certainly not any certainty about who leaked the Obama-madrassa connection, but the story doesn’t end there. In fact, this “madrassa” may have been “Wahhabi”. Wow! Wahhabis are becoming a great political power, even though they don’t technically exist.

· Yasir Qadhi recounted a recent incident where during the course of a conversation with a very high ranking government official, this official mentioned ‘wahhabis’. When Yasir asked him to define this term, who did HE mean? He said, ‘Aren’t those the guys that want to establish the Sharee’ah?’ And that should give readers an idea of the ignorance of this issue even among the elites of America.

“Objective” Sources (Encyclopedias, etc.)

· Wikipedia has some interesting info. on Wahhabism. They claim this ‘movement’ is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. Interestingly, they also mention that Wahhabis are also known as Deobandis in Pakistan. Here I would like to quote an interesting note from Ingrid Mattson, who still unfortunately refers to Wahhabis as something of a real thing, but at least she makes an attempt to be reasonable:
“This is not a sect. It is the name of a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and rigid interpretation that had (been) acquired over the centuries. Because the Wahhabi scholars became integrated into the Saudi state, there has been some difficulty keeping that particular interpretation of religion from being enforced too broadly on the population as a whole. However, the Saudi scholars who are Wahhabi have denounced terrorism and denounced in particular the acts of September 11. Those statements are available publicly.” [CNN interview]

· Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition):“Members of the Wahhabi call themselves Al-Muwahhidin, ‘Unitarians’, a name derived from their emphasis on the absolute ‘oneness of God’ (tawhid). They deny all acts implying polytheism, such as visiting tombs and venerating saints; and advocate a return to the original teachings of Islam as incorporated in the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions of Muhammad), with condemnation of all innovations (bidah). Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence based respectively on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah and on the legal school of Ahmed ibn Hanbal, stress literal belief in the Qur’an and Hadith, and the establishment of a Muslim state based only on Islamic Law.”


· BBC Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, in his analysis on ‘Wahhabi Islam’ takes exception to Deobandis inclusion in Wahhabis. He reminds everyone that even Saudis don’t use the term.

· Obviously I am not the first one to take a crack at the term’s (“Wahhabism”) usage. Haneef Oliver has written a book, aptly named “The Wahhabi Myth”, and runs a website with the same name. The main theme in the book seems to be distinguishing Wahhabis (he equates them with Salafis) from the terrorists, rather than attacking the term itself. Nevertheless, there seems to be useful information in the book/website. However, Br. Oliver carries some of his own baggage with a narrow-minded “Salafi” approach, so “buyer beware”.

· PBS has a few different people talking about Wahhabism, including the Saudi Shia-dissident Ali al-Ahmed, who says that Saudi Wahhabis say that they will be the only ones entering heaven, all others are kafirs. I guess Ali got some special information that no one else has yet been privy to!

Copyright information: Feel free to distribute article as long as it is properly credited, and a link to the original article is provided.

Acknowledgements: Yasir Qadhi, Ruth Nasrullah, and Omar Usman for reviewing and providing valuable comments.

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Abu Reem is one of the founders of MuslimMatters, Inc. His identity is shaped by his religion (Islam), place of birth (Pakistan), and nationality (American). By education, he is a ChemE, topped off with an MBA from Wharton. He has been involved with Texas Dawah, Clear Lake Islamic Center and MSA. His interests include politics, cricket, and media interactions. Career-wise, Abu Reem is in management in the oil & gas industry (but one who still appreciates the "green revolution").


Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Kaaba- Video

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Every Muslim knows the Kaaba, but did you know the Kaaba has been reconstructed several times? The Kaaba that we see today is not exactly the same structure that was constructed by Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, may the peace and blessings of Allāh be upon them. From time to time, it has needed rebuilding after natural and man-made disasters.

Watch to learn ten things that most people may not know about the Ka’aba, based on the full article Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Ka’aba.

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Emotional Intelligence: A Tool for Change

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Why do we consider emotional intelligence to be half of the Prophetic intellect? The answer lies in the word “messenger.” Messengers of Allah are tasked with the divine responsibility of conveying to humanity the keys to their salvation. They are not only tasked with passing on the message but also with being a living example of that message.

When ʿĀʾishah, the wife of the Prophet ﷺ, was asked to explain the character of the blessed Prophet ﷺ, her reply was, “His character was the Qurʾān.[1]” We are giving emotional intelligence a place of primacy in the construct of Prophetic intelligence because it seems implausible that Allah would send a messenger without providing that messenger with the means necessary to exemplify and transmit the message to others. If the Prophets of Allah did not have the necessary knowledge and skills needed to successfully pass on the message to the next generation, the argument would be incomplete. People could easily excuse themselves of all accountability because the message was never conveyed.

We also see clear examples in the Qur’ān that this knowledge was being perpetually perfected in the character of the Prophet ﷺ. Slight slips in his Emotional Intelligence were rare, but when they did occur, Allah gently addressed the mistake by means of revelation. Allah says in the Qurʾān, “If you (O Muḥammad) were harsh and hardhearted, then the people would flee from you.” This verse clearly placed the burden of keeping an audience upon the shoulders of the Prophet ﷺ. What this means is that the Prophet ﷺ had to be aware of what would push people away; he had to know what would create cognitive and emotional barriers to receptivity. When we study the shamāʾil (books about his character), we find that he was beyond exceptional in his ability to make people receptive. He took great care in studying the people around him and deeply understanding them. Only after the Prophet ﷺ had exhausted all the means of removing barriers to receptivity would the responsibility to affirm the message be shifted to those called to it.

Another example of this Prophetic responsibility can be found in the story of Prophet Mūsa when he was commissioned to call Pharaoh and the children of Israel to Allah. When Allah informed him of the task he was chosen for, he immediately attempted to excuse himself because he had a slight speech impediment. He knew that his speech impediment could potentially affect the receptivity of people to the message. He felt that this disqualified him from being a Prophet. He also felt that the act of manslaughter he committed might come between the people and guidance. All of these examples show that Allah’s Prophets understood that many factors can affect a person’s receptivity to learning something new, especially when the implications of that new information call into question almost every aspect of a person’s identity. History tells us that initially, people did not accept the message of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; they completely rejected him and accused him of being a liar.

One particular incident shows very clearly that he ﷺ understood how necessary it was for him to remove any cognitive or emotional barriers that existed between him and his community. When the people of his hometown of Makkah had almost completely rejected him, he felt that it was time to turn his attention to a neighboring town. The city of Ṭā’if was a major city and the Prophet ﷺ was hopeful that perhaps they would be receptive to the message. Unfortunately, they completely rejected him and refused to even listen to what he had to say. They chased him out of town, throwing stones at him until his injuries left him completely covered in blood. Barely making it outside the city, the Prophet ﷺ collapsed. Too weak to move, he turned his attention to his Lord and made one of the most powerful supplications made by a Prophet of Allah.

اللهم إليك أشكو ضعف قوتي، وقلة حيلتي، وهواني على الناس، يا أرحم الراحمين، أنت أنت رب المستضعفين وأنت ربي، إلى من تكلني؟ إلى عدو يتجهمني؟ أو إلى قريب ملكته أمري؟ إن لم يكن بك علي غضب فلا أبالي، غير أن عافيتك أوسع لي، أعوذ بنور وجهك الذي أشرقت له الظلمات، وصلح عليه أمر الدنيا والآخرة، من أن ينزل بي غضبك، أو يحل علي سخطك، لك العتبى حتى ترضى، ولا حول ولا قوة إلا بك”

“Oh Allah, only to You do I complain about my lack of strength, my insufficient strategies, and lowliness in the sight of the people. You are my Lord. To whom do you turn me over? Someone distant from me who will forsake me? Or have you placed my affair in the hands of my enemy? [2]

The Prophet ﷺ felt that he was the reason why the people were not accepting the message. His concern that “my low status in the eyes of the people,” informs us that he understood that people naturally judge the seriousness of a message based on the stature of the message bearer. The people of Ṭā’if were extremely ignorant, so much that they adamantly refused to enter into any dialogue. In reality, this was not due to any shortcoming of the Prophet ﷺ; he demonstrated the best of character and displayed extreme patience in the face of such ignorance. But the beginning of the supplication teaches us what he was focused on: making sure that he was not the reason why someone did not accept the message.

Because his message was not geographically restricted like that of other Prophets, those who inherited the message would have the extra burden of transferring the message to a people with whom they were unfamiliar. The intelligence needed to pass the message of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ around the world included an understanding of the cultural differences that occur between people. Without this understanding effective communication and passing on of his message would be impossible.

A sharp Emotional Intelligence is built upon the development of both intra- and interpersonal intelligence. These intelligences are the backbone of EQ and they provide a person with emotional awareness and understanding of his or her own self, an empathic understanding of others, and the ability needed to communicate effectively and cause change. Emotional Intelligence by itself is not sufficient for individual reform or societal reform; instead, it is only one part of the puzzle. The ʿaql or intellect that is referenced repeatedly in the Qurʾān is a more comprehensive tool that not only recognizes how to understand the psychological and emotional aspects of people but recognizes morally upright and sound behavior. After that this intellect, if healthy and mature, forces a person to conform to that standard. Therefore, we understand the ʿaql to be a comprehensive collection of intelligences analogous to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory.

Taking into consideration the extreme diversity found within Western Muslim communities, we see how both Moral Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence are needed. Fostering and nurturing healthy communities requires that we understand how people receive our messages. This is the interpersonal intelligence aspect of EQ. Without grounding the moral component of our community, diversity can lead to what some contemporary moral theorists call moral plasticity, a phenomenon where concrete understandings of good and evil, right and wrong, are lost. Moral Education (Moral Education, which will be discussed throughout the book, is the process of building a Morally Intelligent heart) focuses on correcting the message that we are communicating to the world; in other words, Moral Intelligence helps us maintain our ideals and live by them, while Emotional Intelligence ensures that the message is effectively communicated to others.

My father would often tell me, “It’s not what you say, son; it’s what they hear.”

Interpersonal understanding is the core of emotional intelligence. My father would often tell me, “It’s not what you say, son; it’s what they hear.” From the perspective of Emotional Intelligence, this statement is very accurate. The way we interpret words, body language, verbal inflections, and facial expressions is based on many different factors. The subtle power of this book lies in the simple fact that your emotional intelligence is the primary agent of change and thus the most powerful force you have. You must understand how people perceive what you are communicating to them. What is missing from my father’s statement is the primacy of Moral Intelligence. Throughout this book, I attempt to show how the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ demonstrated a level of perfection of both of these intelligences.

*With the Heart in Mind is available for pre-order at

[1]Bayhaqī, Shuʿb al-ʾĪmān, vol. 3, p. 23.

[2] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah, vol. 3, p. 136.


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The Languages of the Sahaba

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Arabs – during the time of the revelation- were known as an illiterate nation for whom the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent from among themselves. Yet, there are instances in the prophetic hadiths that draw attention to some literate companions who were even able to speak and write in more than one tongue. In this article, we shed light at samples of the companions who were multilingual.

The Prophetic stand towards foreign languages:

One hadith is well known among current Muslims in which the Prophet ﷺ says: “Whoever learns a language of a people (other than Arabic), he becomes safe from their wickedness”. Although this saying is well known among Muslims, the fact is that it is not a hadith of the Prophet ﷺ. Hadith scholars say it is root-less, fabricated, but its meaning is sound. Another fabricated hadith is the one that goes “Seek knowledge even in China”. Some people deduce that one cannot seek knowledge in China without being able to communicate with the Chinse in their own language.

Although these two fabricated hadiths are well known, there is no real need for them to establish the importance of learning a foreign language as perceived by the Prophet ﷺ and the companions in their dealings. After all, the Prophet’s tradition (Sunnah) is not just verbal hadiths; it includes his dealings and actions. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is known to have used messengers to carry his messages to kings and emperors after the 6th year of Hijra. He sent Hatib ibn Abi Baltaa to Egypt because he was knowledgeable about Greek that was spoken by the rulers in Egypt at that time. He also sent Jaafar Ibn Abi Talib to the king of Abyssinia, because Jaafaar learned their tongue while he was there in the first Hijra, where he spent more than 10 years there. The Prophet ﷺ even ordered some of his companions to learn the tongue of the Jews so as to translate for him the messages they used to send to him.

In addition, he ﷺ used very few non-Arabic words in his hadiths that were known to his interlocutors. In Al Bukhari, Um Khalid (the daughter of Khalid bin Sa`id) who was a very young child narrated “I went to Allah’s Messenger ﷺ with my father and I was wearing a yellow shirt. Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “Sanah, Sanah!” (`Abdullah, the narrator, said that ‘Sanah’ meant ‘good’ in the Ethiopian language). I then started playing with the seal of Prophethood (in between the Prophet’s shoulders) and my father rebuked me harshly for that. Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said. “Leave her,” and then Allah’s Messenger ﷺ (invoked Allah to grant me a long life) by saying (thrice), “Wear this dress till it is worn out and then wear it till it is worn out, and then wear it till it is worn out.” (The narrator adds, “It is said that she lived for a long period, wearing that (yellow) dress till its color became dark because of long wear.”)

In another hadith, The Prophet ﷺ said, “Near the establishment of the Hour, there will be the days of Al-Harj, and the religious knowledge will be taken away (vanish i.e. by the death of Religious scholars) and general ignorance will spread.” Abu Musa raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) said, “Al-Harj, in the Ethiopian language, means killing.”

These rare instances of using non-Arabic words in the Prophet’s speech do not mean that he knew foreign languages. Rather, it means that he knew a few words that were known to most people to whom he spoke. He used them for recreation purposes (the case of Um Khalid), or for drawing attention to the importance of the idea (the case of Abu Musa).

Bilingual Sahaba:

  1. Abu Huraira:

There different instances where Abu Huraira raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) spoke Faris (Persian). In Al Bukhari, Hilal ibn Usamah quoted Abu Maimunah Salma, a client of the people of Madinah, as saying:

While I was sitting with Abu Huraira, a Persian woman came to him along with a son of hers. She had been divorced by her husband and they both wanted custody. She said: Abu Huraira, speaking to him in Persian, my husband wishes to take my son away. Abu Huraira said: Cast lots for him, saying it to her in a foreign language. Her husband came and asked: Who is disputing with me about my son?

Abu Huraira said: O Allah, I do not say this, except that I heard a woman who came to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ while I was sitting with him, and she said: My husband wishes to take away my son, Messenger of Allah, and he draws water for me from the well of Abu Anabah, and he has been good to me. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: Cast lots for him. Her husband said: Who is disputing with me about my son?

The Prophet ﷺ said to the boy: This is your father and this your mother, so take whichever of them you wish by the hand. So he took his mother’s hand and she went away with him.

In addition to Persian, Abu Huraira is reported to have spoken in Abyssinian. In Al Bukhari, Abu Salama narrated that ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Auf raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger ﷺ as saying:

There is no transitive disease, but he is also reported to have said: A sick person should not be taken to one who is healthy. Abu Salama said that Abu Huraira used to narrate these two (different hadiths) from Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, but afterwards Abu Huraira became silent on these words:” There is no transitive disease,” but he stuck to this that the sick person should not be taken to one who is healthy. Harith b. Abu Dhubab (and he was the first cousin of Abu Huraira) said: Abu Huraira, I used to hear from you that you narrated to us along with this hadith and the other one also (there is no transitive disease), but now you observe silence about it. You used to say that Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said: There is no transitive disease. Abu Huraira denied having any knowledge of that, but he said that the sick camel should not be taken to the healthy one. Harith, however, did not agree with him, which irritated Abu Huraira and he said to him some words in the Abyssinian language. He said to Harith: Do you know what I said to you? He said: No. Abu Huraira said: I simply denied having said it. Abu Salama said: By my life, Abu Huraira in fact used to report Allah’s Messenger ﷺ having said: There is no transitive disease. I do not know whether Abu Huraira has forgotten it or he deemed it an abrogated statement in the light of the other one.

So, while Abu Huraira used Persian in the first Hadith for communication purposes, he used Abyssinian in the second for expressing his anger. Did he try to conceal his anger by holding his tongue in Arabic, and releasing it in a foreign language? This may be the case.

  1. Zaid ibn Thabit:

Zaid is known as on the geniuses of the companions. He was the one entitled with the responsibility of collecting the Quran during the time of Abi Bakr and the time of Othman Ibn Affan. He tells us about how the Prophet (ﷺ) ordered him to learn a foreign language.

Narrated Zayd ibn Thabit: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) ordered me (to learn the writing of the Jews), so I learned for him the writing of the Jews. He said: I swear by Allah, I do not trust Jews in respect of writing for me. So I learned it, and only a fortnight passed before I mastered it. I would write for him when he wrote (to them), and read to him when something was written to him.

The hadith indicates that Zaid learnt Syriac/ Aramaic which the Jews used in their writings. Zaid states that only 15 days were enough for him to master the language. It seems that Zaid focused more on the orthographic system rather than the phonic system because he does not tell us about instances where he used Syriac/ Aramaic in speaking.

  1. Salman The Persian:

As Salman was a native speaker of Persian, he was the first choice for the companions when they wanted to communicate with Persians. Narrated Abu Al-Bakhtari: “An Army from the armies of the Muslims, whose commander was Salman Al-Farisi, besieged one of the Persian castles. They said: ‘O Abu ‘Abdullah! Should we charge them?’ He said: ‘Leave me to call them (to Islam) as I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ call them.’

So Salman went to them and said: ‘I am only a man from among you, a Persian, and you see that the Arabs obey me. If you become Muslims then you will have the likes of what we have, and from you will be required that which is required from us. If you refuse and keep your religion, then we will leave you to it, and you will give us the Jizyah from your hands while you are submissive.’ He said to them in Persian: ‘And you are other than praiseworthy and if you refuse then we will equally resist you.’ They said: ‘We will not give you the Jizyah, we will fight you instead.’ So they said: ‘O Abu ‘Abdullah! Should we charge them?’ He said: ‘No.'” He said: “So for three days he called them to the same (things), and then he said: ‘Charge them.'” He said: “So we charged them, and we conquered the castle.”

We can deduce from the story of Salman that in seeking the last prophet, he knew some other languages, especially Syriac/ Aramaic as he used to serve Jewish and Christian monks and read their books. It is also narrated that a group of Persians asked Salman to translate the opening chapter of the Quran (Al Fatiha) for them to be able to understand its meaning. It is reported that he translated it or part of it. If this is true, then Salman would be the first translator of the meanings of the Quran –or part of it- in history.

  1. ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Hatib

Although we know very little about ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Hatib raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), he is reported in Al Bukhari to have saved a non-Arab woman from the punishment for adultery. It was during the reign of Uman Ibn Al Khattab that a Persian woman was forced to commit adultery. She came to Umar, and ‘Umar said in the presence of ‘Ali, ‘Abdur-Rahman, and ‘Uthman, “What is this woman saying?” (the woman was non-Arab) ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Hatib said: “She is informing you about her companion who has committed illegal sexual intercourse with her.” Umar realized that she didn’t know that adultery was prohibited in Islam and that she was complaining from her companion who forced her to commit it. So Umar released her.

  1. Abu Jamra Al Basri

Abu Jamra is not one of the companions. He is one of the Tabieen (followers). He used to keep the company of Ibn Abbas, and while Ibn Abbas is known as the turjuman (interpreter) of the Quran, Abu Jamra was the inter-lingual interpreter of Ibn Abbas. Abu Jamar said – as narrated in Al Bukhari, “I was an interpreter between Ibn ‘Abbas and the people.” Based on four instances of using translators (The Roman translator at the palace of Heraclius in Abu Sufian’s account, the hadith by Zaid ibn Thabit, the account of Abdur-Rahman ibn Hatib and the account of Abu Jamara), Al-Bukhari commented that “a ruler should have two interpreters.”


These are just some instances of companions and followers who are narrated to have spoken or written in foreign languages. It is strongly believed that there were numerous cases of other bilingual transactions in the early Muslim community, but they were not recorded as they were not relevant to religious matters. Learning foreign languages then is deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition, and we do not need to go to China to prove this.

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