Since the rise of Wahhabism: a consensus on the position of the Salaf

  July 03, 2021   Read time 3 min
Since the rise of Wahhabism: a consensus on the position of the Salaf
Until Wahhabism arrived, a consensus had been established by Sunni scholars surrounding the idea that the scholars of the Salaf did not take the ambiguous religious texts about God in a literal fashion, as this would necessitate suggesting that God resembles His creations.

We will see that after the rise of Wahhabism, the traditional Sunni scholars continued to define the position of the Salaf regarding those Attributes as they always had. The only difference, if one is to compare both periods, is that their works are very much centered on attempting to refute the works of the Salafists. The works have grown even more numerous in the last 50 years, which coincides with the rise of their insistence on being called Salafis. It appears that it was the reimpression and re-edition, in the 1940s, of long-forgotten anthropomorphic works under the name of ‘Aqa’id al-Salaf that triggered a new wave of works by traditional Sunni scholars to explain why the elements mentioned in those newly edited books were, in their view, incorrect. To understand why the positions of those scholars are more defensive than those in the previous section, one can note the works of al-Kawthari (d.1951). He was the assistant of the last caliph of the Ottoman Empire and was considered a mujaddid (i.e., renewer of the religion, a title which can only be granted to one scholar every century because of his efforts and works to clarify and spread the religion of Islam for his contemporaries) by the historian Abu Zahrah (d.1974). Al-Kawthari was an Ash‘ari Hanafi scholar who wrote, among other works, several articles against the trend of anthropomorphism being spread in Egypt at that time.

Al-Kawthari also wrote an article entitled ‘Tahdhir al-Umma min da’at al-wathniyya’ (‘Warning to the Umma against Polytheistic Preachers’), in which he denounces the reimpression of those books. He ends this article with a recommendation: Now it is up to al-Azhar al-Sharif not to delay standing up to its duty towards this book by al-Darimi and what is similar to it, to protect the creed of the masses, and to stop its distribution within their own frontiers [i.e., in Egypt]. And God says the truth and He is the one who guides.

He clearly calls the creed of the claimants of the Salaf ‘polytheism’, which means that he believes the one who holds this creed is not a Muslim. He is denouncing the creed that they offer to people: believing that God rested on a rock while writing the Torah with a pen, believing that God created Moses by ‘touching Adam with His hand’ and other narrations inconsistent with the existing accepted definition of God and His Attributes in Ash‘ari and Maturidi theology. Al-Kawthari had foresight in his warnings: it appears that these books are now more widely available than they were at the time he wrote this article.

Al-Kawthari also retraces the history of anthropomorphism in Islamic history in another article entitled ‘The Tribulations of the anthropomorphists’ where he links the current callers to the Salafi movement to Ibn Taymiyya, and then Ibn Taymiyya to ‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id al-Darimi (d.894). This is the trend of the latest writings on this issue: there is an emphasis on retracing the history of this creed to demonstrate to people the fact that almost none of the arguments of today’s Salafists are new, that they were never accepted in the past, and that they never will be. As al-Kawthari puts it: Blasphemy is blasphemy regardless of whoever said it, and misguidance is misguidance whatever its sources. There is not, in Islam, a belief which should change with the change of people. Indeed, Faith is faith absolutely, and unbelief is unbelief absolutely.

So, for this reason, the main argument of al-Kawthari, but also of the authors of the books that will be mentioned in this section, is that this creed was and still is incorrect, and that the Salaf never understood the ambiguous verses in the literal fashion proposed by the Salafists. After a chronological presentation of the books used to collect the opinions of a selection of various scholars and writers defending the traditional Sunni position on this issue, their positions will be explained.