The Terrorist War against Islam: Clarifying Academic Confusions

Stephen Schwartz

Pseudo-Salafism and Wahhabism

Since the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, Westerners have been challenged to understand the ideological and theological concepts, derived from Islam, that motivated the actions of Al-Qaida on that day and in other attacks before and since. Differences in taxonomy have proven to be a major issue. In my view, it is insufficient to assign to the terrorists an “Islamist” intent.

Although “Islamism” and “political Islam” are widely used to designate radicalism in the religion, neither has been provided by scholars with a precise meaning. In the past, “Islamism” was generally applied to the religion of Islam, somewhat like the terms Judaism and Christianism (the latter used more in French and other continental European literature than in English). “Islamism” may be defined as the transmutation of religion into ideology, but except for the analytic historiography of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, relatively little has been done to explain how this process has taken place, and the history of radicalism among Sunni Muslims is markedly different from that among Iranian Shias.

One may then ask, in summarizing the taxonomy of radical Islam, several more contradictory questions: Do anti-extremist Muslims, such as Shaykha Hasina Wazed, the current prime minister of Bangladesh—and a woman—not represent a form of “political Islam?” Shaykha Hasina has acted firmly to suppress radical Islam in her country. Do opponents of radical Islam want Muslims to abstain from anti-radical politics? And, to digress, if one is intent on debating whether Islam is a “religion of peace,” do opponents of extremism in Islam wish for those fighting against the terrorists to do so only with peaceful means? Moderate Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan have fought with arms in hand alongside U.S.-led coalition troops to defeat terrorists.

But just as the terms “Islamism” and “political Islam” are imprecise, so is another urgent example of taxonomic dissonance: the difference between “Wahhabism” and “Salafism” as cognomina for the ideology that produced Al-Qaida and influenced similar radical movements, including the Taliban, allied Pakistani and Indian extremist formations, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even in academic discussions, one finds confusion over these aspects of Islam, indicating a need for clarification. Western academics, including Muslims, have frequently chosen to amalgamate the terms “Salafi” and “Wahhabi.” As I will show, the conflation of Salafism and Wahhabism is misleading—even dangerously so. Wahhabism in its original form is primarily a Saudi and Saudi-sponsored phenomenon, notwithstanding its missionary spread among the world’s Muslims. To designate all such violent, radical movements, rather than “Salafism,” I will propose (and explain) the term “takfirism.”

I will cite two examples of the method adopted in academia regarding these terms, one in Islamic studies and another in general humanities and science. Ebrahim Moosa, associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, describes a

puritan outlook, broadly characterized as salafism. Salafism is in large part the inspiration behind nineteenth- and twentieth-century Islamic revivalism. Salafism is a generic term, depicting a school of thought that takes the pious ancestors...of the patristic period of early Islam as exemplary models....Modern iterations of salafism draw largely from the fourteenth-century intellectual giant Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiya [d. 728/1328] and his student Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya (d. 751/1350). Needless to say, each of these figures has cast a long shadow on the Muslim intellectual tradition. The Arab reformist figure Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (d. 1206/1792), whose teachings, known as Wahhabism, are current in today’s Saudi Arabia, also claimed to have been inspired by the teachings of Ibn Taymiya.1

Similarly, in a study of the scientific reaction to anti-evolutionist theories, Paul F. Lurquin, a professor of genetics, and Linda Stone, a professor of cultural anthropology, both at Washington State University, write “the teaching of evolution is forbidden in the Islamic nation of Saudi Arabia. In addition, Muslim followers of Wahhabism (the dominant version of Islam in Saudi Arabia) reject evolution, holding that it is incompatible with Islam. This movement (now more often called Salafism) is named after a person who lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1700s. It has sought to restore Islam to its original form.”2

Moosa, who teaches Islam and is himself a Muslim, is by far the more serious offender here. The Salafism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and Wahhabism, masquerading as “Salafism” today, both claim to emulate Muhammad and his Companions and Successors in the first three generations of Muslims, known as the salaf or “predecessors” (aslaf in its Arabic plural form.) The Koran, the oral commentaries of Muhammad (hadith), and the religious works of the aslaf comprise the Sunna, or exemplary foundation of Islam. Thus the term Sunnism; Shia Muslims accept the Koran as divine revelation, but do not recognize many hadith or actions of the aslaf. But the Salafism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and Wahhabism, which appeared in the mid-eighteenth century, were significantly different.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Salafis represented a modernizing movement in Islam, led by three key figures: the Iranian Sayyid Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838/9–1897), the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and the Syrian Rashid Rida (1865–1935).3 Although, as is typical in any religion, this group sought inspiration from the personal examples of Muhammad and the Companions and Successors, they were modernizers and wanted to learn from the West. They criticized aspects of Islam thirteen centuries after its appearance in terms similar to those employed by Westerners: that Muslims had become too dependent on the established rulings of clerics and had neglected the role of reason in religious discourse.

By contrast, the Saudi Wahhabis represent a violent, exclusionary, and fundamentalist “reactionary utopia” dedicated to reviving the outward forms of Muslim life as it was lived centuries ago, and claim to “reform” Islam by purging it of everything it has assimilated or contributed to world culture since then.4

The Salafi movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was, mainly, neither fundamentalist nor violently antagonistic to non-Muslims. There is no evidence that Al-Afghani had ever read or been influenced by Ibn Taymiya or Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya, two fundamentalist theologians. Abduh was guided by Ibn Taymiya to advocate separation of Islamic opinions on acts of worship from principles governing relations between people; the first were considered divinely inspired, while the second should be developed through human judgment.5 But Abduh left aside the rest of Ibn Taymiya’s rigid and intolerant legacy, which will be explained further on. These nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Salafis sought an ameliorative reform, by attempting to harmonize Islam with Western attainments in science and other intellectual endeavors; they looked back to Muhammad and the aslaf because they believed the Islamic outlook of the aslaf could encompass modern, Western attitudes, including rationalism and the scientific method.

Al-Afghani advocated pan-Islamic unity in the face of Western domination, and opposed Sufi spirituality as a diversion from the demands of daily life, but did not call Muslims to jihad against the West. Abduh absorbed Western concepts of nationalism and urged the Egyptians and other Muslim-majority nations to adopt unifying identities, but did not advocate rejection of Western intellectual gains, and even advocated continued British rule over Egypt, where he served as Grand Mufti or chief Islamic cleric, the better to educate Muslims in Western achievements. Rida was a deeply contradictory figure who, while conservative and sympathetic to Saudi Wahhabism at the end of his life, favored the training of Muslim clerics in international law, sociology, world history, and Western science, as well as Islamic law or shariah. None of the three advocated jihad against Western society, killing of non-Muslims, or other concepts visible in present-day radical Islam.

Most importantly, the Salafi movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not arrogate to itself the right to decide who was or was not a “real Muslim” or claim that Muslims as a whole had left their religion. These allegations—especially the charge that nearly all ordinary Muslims living in the past three centuries, and even before, have been apostates—are peculiar to Wahhabism and the other movements like it, including Pakistani Deobandism, which inspires the Taliban—another South Asian variety of extremism, that of the Jama’at-e Islami, founded by Abu’l Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979) and the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch.

Trends and Taxonomies

Islam is not a simple topic and does not lend itself to simplistic categories, either taxonomic or normative. In writing news accounts of immediate events, terms like “Islamist” are naturally valid, since few non-Muslim journalists (much less their more recent counterparts, bloggers and Tweeters) will be expected to know the differences between the varieties of radical Islam. But separating out the distinct trends in Muslim extremism, and applying an accurate taxonomy to them, is intellectually and practically necessary.

“Wahhabi” and “Salafi” provide a special instance of a confused taxonomy, which is manipulated by Muslim radicals and those they have beguiled in Islamic as well as non-Islamic academia. Al-Qaida, with its roots in Saudi Arabia, is an expression of the intransigent core of Wahhabism, a trend in Islam founded in the eighteenth century by an obscure figure, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (1703–1792). Saudi Arabia is often described by commentators as “ancient,” “conservative” and “traditional,” but Wahhabism is a relatively new phenomenon; it is radical rather than conservative, and it is destructive of tradition.6

Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab was born in the settlement of Uyaynah, in the desolate area of Najd in central Arabia. There, remote from the centers of Islamic learning, he introduced something new to the world’s Muslims: his personal right of takfir, or expulsion from the body of Muslims, and condemnation to death, of those whose Islam he found insufficiently rigorous, and whom he held guilty of kufr, shirk, and bidat. Kufr is usually translated as “unbelief” or “disbelief,” but its accurate meaning is “concealment of truth.” From kufr comes the word qafir, or “unbeliever/disbeliever/concealer of truth.” Shirk is polytheism, and bidat are “unacceptable innovations in Islam.”

Takfir was previously rare in Islam. It was seldom applied to large numbers of people, and almost never over differences in doctrine or orthopraxy, except in sectarian conflicts such as those between Sunnis and Shias, and other large-scale intra-Muslim wars. There was, however, an argument for takfir among Muslims that was exceptional in Islamic history. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1258, the Mongol rulers, known as the Ilkhanids, converted to Islam, led by Hulagu’s great-grandson Mahmud Ghazan Khan (1271–1304). But the Ilkhanids, while accepting the religion of Islam, refused to abandon their Mongol customary law, or yasa, in favor of Islamic shariah as public law. For this reason, Ibn Taymiya accused them of kufr.7 But he was in no position to impose his views, and he died in prison. For centuries, he was an object of disdain, little studied by Muslim scholars or clerics.

Discovering the traces of and following Ibn Taymiya in this path, however, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab preached in the eighteenth century that the whole global Muslim community had fallen out of the religion, and were guilty of kufr, shirk, and bidat. Millions of Muslims were declared to be polytheists, heretics, and apostates worthy of death if they did not “renew their Islam” by submission to the Wahhabi paradigm. Such a sweeping criticism of existing Islam was itself a bida, or “unacceptable innovation,” and Wahhabism was originally considered both by the dominant Islamic power in the Arab lands at the time, i.e., the Ottoman imperial state, and by foreign observers who reported on the Wahhabis, as an anti-Islamic movement.8 Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab was disowned by his own family, and as his reputation spread, dozens of Islamic works were written condemning him.

Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab claimed to “reform” Islam by allegedly returning it to its original principles as enunciated in the Koran and by Muhammad and the aslaf. But the “reformer” Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab ignored some essential facts of Islamic tradition. First is that every particle of the Sunna, from the text of the Koran through the hadith and the biographies of Muhammad and his Companions and Successors, has traditionally been open to debate and commentary. In the Koran, apostasy or abandonment of Islam is said to be punished in the afterlife, rather than on earth. Muhammad himself is never said to have accused any Muslim of kufr or expelled an individual or group of Muslims based on religious differences. Muhammad is said to have forbidden takfir against any Muslim, unless an individual publicly proclaimed the nonexistence of one God, denied the foundations of religion, and rejected religious arguments in response to such declarations. And finally, Muhammad is never said to have predicted that Muslims would abandon their religion or fall into heresy. By contrast, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab accused Muslims of apostasy although they continually affirmed their belief in one God and adherence to Islamic principles, through their prayers, fasting, payment of charity, and pilgrimages. Finally, Muhammad is never said to have claimed, as Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab did, that only he knew what comprises correct Islam.

Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab usurped the standing of the established Muslim scholars of his time, whose opinions were based on intellectual deliberations through more than a millennium, in judging what might be considered apostasy, heresy, kufr, shirk, and bidat. The direct line between this position of self-assigned religious qualification and prerogative and the appropriation of the right to call Muslims to jihad by self-designated “commanders of the faithful” such as Bin Laden or Mullah Muhammad Omar of the Taliban demonstrates the Wahhabi essence of Al-Qaida, as if its origin in Saudi Arabia, in which Wahhabism is the official interpretation of Islam, was not proof enough of the role of Wahhabism in the actions of Muslim terrorists. In traditional Islam, Muslims may be called to fight in jihad only by a recognized global leader of the Islamic community known as an emir al-muminin or “commander of the faithful.” The Ottoman caliphs (Arabic sing. khalifa, pl. khulafa), whose authority was abolished in 1924, were the last individuals in modern times with the Islamic prerogative to call Muslims to jihad. Appeals to jihad made by fanatics like Bin Ladin or Mullah Omar have no Islamic legitimacy.

The practices Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab hated most were long established in Sunni Islam and had never before been condemned as heresy or apostasy. These included celebration of the birthday of Muhammad, or milad-an-nabi, a widely-observed Islamic holiday, as well as intercessory prayer through Muhammad and various later pious figures, and preservation of sacred monuments and cemeteries where Muslims addressed prayers to God based on the sanctity of the location. Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab despised the spiritual Sufi movements in Islam for their devotion to these practices, and declared the Sufis to have fallen into polytheism. He also especially attacked the Shia Muslims.

In the Wahhabi view, as it was then and as it is today, honors to the prophet of Islam, to his family and Companions, to later saintly Muslims, and to sacred monuments diluted one’s worship of the single, unitary deity, and represented a return to pre-Islamic polytheism. Western apologists for Wahhabism have at times referred to it as “Unitarian Islam,” and many Wahhabis, like other, earlier Muslim extremists, designate themselves as “muwahiddun” or “believers in the uniqueness of God.”9 But the essence of Wahhabism was not expressed in its insistence on the uniqueness of God, which is common to all Muslims, but in its claim that the world’s Muslims had all fallen away from their religion, into kufr.

Reformation and Realignment

Critics of Islam, including Muslim dissidents as well as non-Muslim commentators on the religion, often argue that Islam needs a Luther, or a Reformation along Protestant Christian lines. But Islam has had its Luther, in the form of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, and like him, Muslim radicals today claim specifically to represent the reform of Islam. Reformation movements have always had two alternative paths they may follow: the fundamentalist purge or the adaptation to the passage of history. Wahhabism and similar movements emerging from Sunni Islam—the above-mentioned Deobandi school in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which inspires the Taliban, the Pakistani extremists identified with the teachings of Mawdudi, and the Muslim Brotherhood—have followed the former road, leading them to inflict brutal atrocities on those they claim have departed from Islamic norms.

Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab’s preaching of takfir alarmed his own family as well as his neighbors, and he was forced to move from his birthplace in Uyaynah to another place in Najd, Dariyah, controlled by a war lord, Muhammad ibn Sa’ud (d. 1762). Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Sa’ud formed a compact for control over the local populace, in which the two families would marry from among one another, and in which Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and his descendants would take responsibility for religious matters, while the posterity of Muhammad ibn Sa’ud would handle state affairs. From this agreement, Wahhabism emerged as the only religious interpretation permitted open exercise in the Saudi polity. This situation continues today, and the Wahhabi clerics are the sole official religious authorities in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Since this compact was formed both the Ahl al-Sheikh (or “People of the Religious Guide”—descended from Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab) and the Ahl al-Sa’ud have experienced a series of triumphs, defeats, and recovery of power. Based on their family alliance, the Wahhabis and Saudis gained domination over much of the Arabian peninsula, and before his death, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab declared “jihad” against the Ottoman state, which he defined as ruled by kufr. The son of Muhammad ibn Sa’ud, Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Sa’ud, invaded Syria, Iraq, and the holy city of Medina in Hejaz, on the western coast of Arabia. In 1801, Wahhabi-Saudi forces raided Kerbala, despoiling the shrine of Husayn ibn Ali, and in 1805, for the first time, they took Mecca itself.

The Wahhabis barred the entry of hajj pilgrims to the two holy cities, and looted the historical legacy of Muhammad, destroying and stealing objects deposited as expressions of honor in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina as well in the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They were driven from their areas of ascendancy between 1811 and 1818 by the Ottoman leader Mehmed Ali Pasha (1769–1849), an ethnic Albanian by birth. The “first Saudi state” collapsed as the Wahhabis and Saudis withdrew to Riyadh, near the former Dariyah; the Ottoman armies had left Dariyah in ruins. A “second Saudi state” erupted in Arabia later in the nineteenth century, and was again suppressed, with the Wahhabis and Saudis expelled to Kuwait.

The third, last, and enduring Wahhabi power to dominate the peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was established between 1901 and 1932 under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Abd ur-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Al-Sa’ud (1880?–1953), known to the West as King Ibn Sa’ud. Ibn Sa’ud reconquered Mecca in 1924 and Medina and Jeddah the following year, and his Wahhabi followers again launched an orgy of destruction, leveling the cemetery known as Jannat al-Baqi in Medina, where the family of Muhammad and his Companions were buried.

Wahhabism exhibits a frenzied, persecutory spirit against Muslim religious exaltation (which is not “worship”) of human personages, including Muhammad, whom they treat as an ordinary man among men, as well as against respect for sacred places and things. Their description of such practices as shirk, i.e., polytheism, or, in Islamic idiom “creating partners for God,” has been interpreted as a repudiation of the Christian conception, in which God is defined as “three-personed,” to borrow the poet John Donne’s famous phrase. The Wahhabis claim they demand nothing more than “revival” of the Islam of the first three Muslim generations, the aslaf. They argue for emulation of the aslaf but at the same time forbid prayers and monuments honoring them. This concept is self-contradictory and such a violation of human nature that it has been a major factor in alienating ordinary, commonsense Muslims from following the Wahhabis.

This incongruity in Wahhabi doctrine is not unique. The Wahhabis further called for repudiation of all developments in Islam and borrowings from other cultures since the time of the aslaf, except, notably, firearms. By contrast, the Koran praises the Christians, as monotheists, in their war against the Persians, who were then mainly Zoroastrians, and Muhammad himself is said to have remarked, “For knowledge, one should go all the way to China.” A typical male Wahhabi, then and now, grows an untrimmed beard, wears short breeches that do not touch the ground, and perpetually scrubs his teeth with a cleaning stick or mishwak, all because “that was the way of the Prophet.” But these were peninsular Arabic cultural artifacts also shared by the enemies of Muhammad.

In addition, the form of the Koran as it is now written and read did not exist in the time of Muhammad. As all Muslims are aware, Muhammad was illiterate, and the text of the Koran was typically recited in his lifetime. Chapters (surat) and verses (ayat) were written down at his direction on dried bones and other media, and, only after his death, assembled in a series of redactions. The first was probably a collection without definitive authority, created at the order of the original successor to Muhammad, or caliph, Abubakr (c. 570–634). The canonical version that has survived was, according to tradition, compiled twenty years after Muhammad’s death, by the third of the caliphs to succeed him, Uthman ibn Affan (d. 656). The “Uthmanic codex” was produced in five copies, with the original stored in Medina and four others sent to Mecca, Damascus, Basra, and the town of Kufa in modern-day Iraq.

But later Islamic scholars detected errors by the copyists, and “non-canonical readings” survived. In addition, other Companions of the Prophet possessed and preserved their own copies. Variant recitations or readings of the “Uthmanic codex” retained legitimacy; in the eleventh century C.E. fourteen readings were accepted, and three readings are still in use. The main reading is the standard Egyptian text, published in 1923, but two variants continue to be used in Sudan and some parts of West Africa.10 Nor did the schools of interpretation of shariah, a word denoting Islamic divine law that does not appear in the Koran, exist during the life of Muhammad. Nor did many other modern inventions in addition to weapons, which is why Saudi Arabia to this day, under Wahhabi rule, has no cinema houses or film industry.

The Saudi Wahhabis proclaimed as “Islamic” peninsular Arab cultural traits associated with the subordination of women, of a kind that did not exist among Muslims during the lives of Muhammad, his Companions, and his Successors. In the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as in Jeddah, women did not habitually wear face veils (niqab) or the black, all-covering garment known as the abaya, before the triumph of Wahhabism in the twentieth century. Saudi women today may own automobiles but, except for a recent exemption at the campus of the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), cannot drive them. In Saudi Arabia, women driving cars is considered something like a scientific experiment in human behavior rather than a normal public exercise!

The Wahhabis in the Saudi kingdom after 1932 were more or less compelled to accept the Koran as it was redacted after Muhammad. But once they had again seized Mecca the Wahhabis abolished the four standard Sunni traditions of shariah interpretation or fiqh, known as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali schools (mazahib in Arabic). Each of these had been represented in a particular structure in the precincts of the Grand Mosque, or Haram, in Mecca. In place of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, the Wahhabis and Saudis established a public order based on arbitrary and excessive punishments by judicial officials, backed by the depredations of morals patrols, the mutawiyin, above all in the area of gender mixing between unrelated men and women. The Wahhabis claim to follow Hanbalism, the most fundamentalist and restrictive of the traditional legal schools, but their practice of takfir and avidity for punishment of alleged sin far exceeds the doctrines of the Hanbalis. A milder form of Wahhabism also exists in Qatar, where the practicalities of maritime and international commerce have imposed restraint on its local adherents. Qatari Wahhabism, however, is merely a footnote to Muslim history, whereas Saudi Wahhabism has forced its attentions on the world through terrorism.

With the exception of Saudi Arabia, no Muslim country today is ruled by an interpretation of shariah alone. Even the Iranian Islamic Republic has retained elements of Western law adopted during that country’s unsuccessful revolution of 1906. An attempt to institute shariah as the sole form of law in Sudan has failed, and a similar effort by Muam’mar al-Ghaddafi in Libya seems not to have been substantial. Shariah-only enclaves exist in Nigeria, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and most Muslim countries define shariah as “a source of law” along with Western legal standards inherited from the colonial era. Soviet-style law is perpetuated in former-communist states with Muslim majorities, such as those in the Balkans and Central Asia, but the latter are generally secular and have reduced the area of shariah to strictly individual matters such as diet, male circumcision, burial, payment of charity, and forms of prayer. In most other Muslim countries, shariah may be more broadly applied to “personal” or “family” law, a topic of vigorous debate, especially among Muslims living in the West.

The Old, the New—and Takfirism

The taxonomic issue of concern about Wahhabism, for non-Muslim academia, should be the incorrect use of the term “Salafi” rather than “Wahhabi” to denote Saudi-backed or Saudi-imitating radical Islam. In some cases, there appears to be a will on the part of Muslim and non-Muslim commentators to proclaim a “difference” between Saudi Wahhabis, on one hand, and the Taliban, other South Asian jihadists, and the Muslim Brotherhood, similar to the claims made during the Cold War about Vietnamese Communism, in relation to Soviet Communism. They were “not the same”—Vietnamese Communists were nationalist rebels, not Russian agents. And it is true that Vietnamese Communists did not impose the Russian language on their subjects or force them to eat Russian-style food. Similar claims are made about, for example, the Taliban—that they are “not the same” as the Saudi-Wahhabi Al-Qaida, since the former speak Pashto as their native tongue while the latter speak peninsular Arabic, the former eat South Asian curries and the latter Arab-style cuisine, etc. The Taliban are said to be “Pashto insurgents,” not fundamentalist inquisitors. But the Russian and Vietnamese Communists were the same in terrorizing those over whom they gained control, and in liquidating the existing elites, and the Saudi Wahhabis and Taliban are equally the same in terrorizing those they control, and liquidating “ordinary Islam” as it is practiced by those they despise. The difference between the Wahhabis and the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Salafis should not be used to exaggerate differences between Al-Qaida and the Taliban.11

But the term “Wahhabi” has a curious life. Certain of its followers reject it in favor of “Salafi,” but outspoken Wahhabis and their defenders hew to it. Recently, another self-descriptive has been observed among Wahhabis and their friends: designation of traditional Muslims as “old Muslims” and Wahhabi followers as “new Muslims.”12 “Salafi” is the marker Wahhabis generally prefer, for two reasons, neither of which appears to have penetrated the collective consciousness of non-Muslim opinion leaders, but which are known to every informed Muslim in the world.

First, the Wahhabis have earned a reputation for such unrestrained bloodshed against Muslims that they are feared and execrated by ordinary believers throughout the Muslim lands. For this reason, they prefer to be called “Salafis” in the same way that in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s Stalinist Communists took on the camouflage of “liberals” and “progressives.” Similar taxonomic traps, common in media and academia alike, consist of calling terrorists “militants,” and Islamic radicals (especially Wahhabis) “austere” rather than “fundamentalist.” This masking of an extremist phenomenon as a “unitarian” reform movement began long before the term “Wahhabi” acquired a negative reputation in the West, which took place after the atrocities of September 11, 2001.

Second, traditional Muslims object to the Wahhabi claim of so thoroughly emulating Muhammad and his Companions and Successors that they deserve the term “Salafi” even though they live twelve hundred years after the original aslaf. Moderate Muslims argue that no person living today can be compared in religious wisdom with the Islamic forerunners, and that to so closely associate one’s self with them is to show disrespect for the outstanding early personalities in the Islamic faith. But such disregard is at the core of Wahhabi doctrine.

Non-Muslims who grant the atavistic violence of Saudi Wahhabism the title “Salafism” do not assist in the struggle against terrorism; rather, they give the Wahhabis legitimacy as representatives of a “pristine” Islam as well as usurpers of the modernist ideals advanced by Al-Afghani and Abduh. “Salafism” as a euphemism for violent, radical Islam has been extended to other fundamentalist groups that claim the right to expel and kill Muslims with whom they disagree. Again, these include the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who derive from a fundamentalist trend, Deobandism, that, in one of many paradoxes of Islamic history, began as a nonviolent movement in the aftermath of the failed Indian Mutiny of 1857. The founders of the Deobandi school argued that violence had proven useless in attempting to remove the British from rule over India, and that, instead, the Muslims should concentrate on fundamentalist revivalism within their community. In the 1990s, Muslim religious students (talib is Arabic for student; thus, the Taliban) were encouraged by the Saudi Wahhabis and their supporters in the Pakistani military and intelligence services to take over Afghanistan in an attempt to impose a Saudi-style ideological state there. Pakistan is rife with aggressive fundamentalist organizations, the most famous of which, the Jamaat-e Islami (Community of Islam) was founded by an Indian Muslim, Abu’l-Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi also called for emulating the early Muslims, by preaching that their political and juridical institutions, as he viewed them through a distorted context, were sufficient for those living centuries later.

And finally, there is the much-discussed Muslim Brotherhood, created in the 1920s by the Egyptian Hasan Al-Banna (1906–1949). The Brotherhood similarly projects the ideal of an Islamic state in which shariah would be the sole basis of law, and accuses ordinary Muslims of falling into kufr. The Brotherhood became a terrorist organization, with Hamas as its Palestinian branch, and although today claims to have renounced violence inside Egypt in favor of political organization and voting, its goal remains that of a polity in which fundamentalist Islam will confront, by intellectual as well as violent means, everything of which it disapproves, and which it characterizes as kufr. Hasan Al-Banna’s most famous acolyte, the writer Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) propagandized the notion that Muslims today live as they would have before the coming of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood also emerged as the most consequential enemy of the Soviet-leaning “Arab unity movement” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, and in 1962 joined the Saudi state, the Wahhabi clerics, and the followers of Mawdudi in founding the Muslim World League (MWL), an international alliance of radical fundamentalists. The MWL was a financial source in the creation of Al-Qaida.13

All of these groups may be placed under a single heading as takfiris, who believe existing Islam is equivalent to pre-Islamic ignorance, and that ordinary Muslims who follow a moderate and traditional interpretation of their religion are “unbelievers”/“disbelievers”/“concealers of truth.” I believe it is a mistake to equate the terrorism of Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Pakistani Jama’atis, or the Muslim Brotherhood with nostalgia for past Islamic wealth and power. The unifying thread that binds these groups together is rather different—it is the takfiri accusation that Muslims have lost their religion, rather than their riches. For the Wahhabis, pseudo-Salafis, and other takfiris, the West is a secondary enemy after those Muslims—traditionalists, Sufis, and Shias—who the Wahhabis claim have fallen away from Islam. In their perspective, the West is an enemy because it has lured the Muslims away from fundamentalism. After all, who can exceed the Saudi royal family in wealth?

As a wise man once said, the art of politics is that of making distinctions, not confusing them.

  • Share
Most Commented

August 23, 2021


Testing the Tests for Racism

What is the veracity of "audit" studies, conducted primarily by sociologists, that appear to demonstrate that people of color confront intense bias at every level of society?...

April 16, 2021


Social Justice 101: Intro. to Cancel Culture

Understanding the illogical origin of cancel culture, we can more easily accept mistakes, flaws, and errors in history, and in ourselves, as part of our fallen nature....

April 19, 2021


Critical Race Theory and the Will to Power

A review of "1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project" by NAS President Peter W. Wood....

Most Read

May 30, 2018


The Case for Colonialism

From the summer issue of Academic Questions, we reprint the controversial article, "The Case for Colonialism." ...

March 20, 2019


Remembering Columbus: Blinded by Politics

American colleges and universities have long dispensed with efforts to honor or commemorate Christopher Columbus. But according to Robert Carle, “most Americans know very little about......

March 29, 2019


Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty

A study on the partisanship of liberal arts professors at America's top universities. ...