Prof. Ahmad Moussalli’s purpose was simple, to clarify the distinction between the Salafi and the Wahhabi schools of thought. In essence, Wahabism is a subset of Salafism. Although very similar in nature, the basic difference can be understood in these terms, not all Salafis are Wahabis but all Wahabis are Salafis.
Reverting to what they consider the “golden age of Islam, “Salafis believe Islam was in its purest form during the time period of Muhammad and his companions and the two generations that followed. The belief is that these Muslims possessed an intuitive understanding of Islam through their direct association with the prophet.
Some points of divergence between Wahabis and Salafis occur in how the Qur’an is interpreted and the issue of jurisprudence. Wahabis believe in a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an says Allah created the earth in six days, then he created it in six 24-hour periods, not six stages. The Qur’an speaks about the face of Allah, then Allah must have a physical face whether or not we can imagine what the face looks like. The other branches of salafis believe the Qur’an can be interpreted metaphorically.
On the issue of jurisprudence, Wahabis are against theological development because it inherently contradicts their beliefs in following the companions of Muhammad. In the mind of a Wahhabi, there is no need to expand schools of thought to justify changes in society and culture.
Furthermore Wahabis believe in absolute adherence to the ruler, they are against democracy, plurality, and human rights. They do not believe in any political Islam or the division of powers. Ultimate authority controls both the religious and political aspects of the Wahabis’ ideal society.
The interpretation of text also provides a point of divergence between Salafis and Wahabis. Salafis believe in using the interpretations from the first three generations of Muslims to understand the meaning of Qur’anic verse. Wahabis take this notion a step further, speaking out against Ijma (consensus). For example, although Muslims generally understand that the earth goes around the sun but the late Saudi mufti Shaikh Bin Baz denied it in print and reputedly even once claimed in a newspaper interview that the earth is flat, an obvious misreading of the Qur’anic verses that “it is He Who spread out the earth” (e.g., 13:3).
Just as one must distinguish between Salafis in general and Wahabis in particular, it is necessary to distinguish between the Wahabis and violent extremists. As was said, the Wahabis oppose revolt against the rulers, but the willingness to label those who reject your interpretation of Islam as “kuffaar” is a first step towards the endorsement of violence against them. Thus it is ironic, but unsurprising, that the violently anti-Saudi al-Qaeda is populated by so many schooled in Wahabi thought.
Except for the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him), there is no one dogma for Islam, no single interpretation of the text of the Qur’an. By challenging over a millennium of Islamic thought, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab was engaging in an act of ijtihad (original thinking) even if his conclusion was to call for imitation of the first generations of Muslims.
Prof. Mousalli conceded that Abdul Wahab wanted Muslims to engage in ijtihad, yet he and many of his followers seem to be intolerant of those who arrive at conclusions different from theirs. The Islamic faith encourages the intellectual debate and scientific discovery that emerge simultaneously with cultural challenges. It is therefore unfortunate that an estimated $70 billion in petroleum generated revenue has been expended in effect to promote a monopoly on Islamic thought.
Imran Malik and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute