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History and Seerah

The Wahhabi Myth: Debunking the Bogeyman



“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.

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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.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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").

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