Sunni Radical Islam: From Wahhabism to Salafism

  July 03, 2021   Read time 4 min
Sunni Radical Islam: From Wahhabism to Salafism
How to call the movement is also a sensitive and controversial issue. For example, Bowen, in her book dedicated to the history of Islam in the UK, has entitled her chapter on Salafism ‘Don’t call us Wahhabis!’, to sum up the existing feelings of the community now going under the name of the ‘Salafis’.

However, during the course of the twentieth century, there emerged growing evidence to suggest that the Wahhabis were entering a phase where they started to accept the name ‘Wahhabi’, despite the fact that it was pejorative when it was first used. Some Western writers are of the view that the term ‘Wahhabi’ was coined by Westerners who had travelled in the area when Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was acquiring power. This theory is endorsed by some supporters of Wahhabism and has been circulated among them. However, Redissi and Nouira have mentioned that this explanation indicated a significant oversight of the very first source that we possess concerning the naming of the movement as Wahhabis: the refutation written by Sulayman ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. He was Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own brother, bearing the same family name. He used the term ‘al-Wahhabiyya’ in his title al-Sawa‘iq al-Ilahiyya fi al-radd ‘ala al-Wahhabiyya’ released between 1752 and 1753.48 This is probably the earliest mention of the name Wahhabi to refer to the teachings of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

Redissi and Nouira also show that the term has been used and endorsed by the Wahhabis themselves, at some point. To prove this point, they refer to two examples. The first one is a collection of letters published by a prominent Wahhabi, Sulayman ibn Sihman (d.1930), entitled al-Hidaya al-sunniyya wa l-tuhfa al-Wahhabiyya al-Najdiyya (The Sunni guidance and the achievement of Najdi Wahhabism) and it appears that King ‘Abd al-Aziz himself ordered the impression of this collection. Redissi and Nouira take note that Ibn Sihman presents the collection as Letters of the Imams50 of Najd and its Scholars in the Wahhabi Call to Renew Islam (Rasa’il a’imma Najd wa ulama’iha fi al-da‘wa al-wahhabiyya litajdid al-islam), thereby using the term wahhabi to refer to the trend founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The second example is the book published by Rashid Rida in 1925, who was sympathetic to the Wahhabis, and whose book is nevertheless entitled al-Wahhabiyyun wa al-Hijaz. 51 There are more recent examples, not mentioned by the quoted authors, such as a treatise by Ibn Baz (d.1999), who held the title of Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia between 1993 and 1999, where he describes the creed of his movement by explicitly utilising the term Wahhabiyya:

The Wahhabiyya, as the writer tends to put it, are not new in rejecting all such innovations. Their creed is to hold fast to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger; to follow his footsteps and those of his rightly-guided Successors; to believe and practise what was propounded by the virtuous Predecessors [Salaf] and the Imaˆms of learning and guidance who were capable to issue religious injunction [...] concerning the knowledge of Allah, and His Attributes of perfection and dignity as shown in the Glorious Book and the authentic Ahadith (traditions) of the Prophet and as wholeheartedly accepted by his Companions. The Wahhabiyya believe in them, the way they are reported without any alteration, personification, exemplifying or negation of such attributes. They stick to the way of the Successors and their followers from among the people of learning, Faith and piety. They believe that the foundation of the Faith is to bear witness that there is none to be worshipped except Allaˆh and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allaˆh. To them, this is the root of Faith and one of its most exalted branches as well.

Even though the term Wahhabi started to be somewhat accepted and somehow widespread, the Wahhabis have recently managed to rename themselves with something which has a much more positive connotation: the Salafis. Historically, it is possible that Rashid Rida was at the source of the trend of naming the Wahhabis ‘Salafis’. In his treatise entitled al-Khilafa aw al-imama al-‘uzma, which is a collection of articles from the journal al-Manar, Rashid Rida calls the inhabitants of Najd, the province of origin of Wahhabism, ‘Hanbali Salafiyya who call their Emir an Imam and not a caliph’. Laoust is of the view that, here, Rashid Rida was probably using the term to describe several reformist movements which all try to return Islam to the purity of the Salaf. Rashid Rida’s treatise was written between the end of 1922 and the first half of 1923. This is the earliest historical example we have of Wahhabism being referred to as Salafiyya. From that date onwards, it is difficult to assess to what extent the Wahhabis did reuse this term for themselves. What is well-known, rather, is that they preferred the name muwahhidun to any other name, that is, the upholders of the Unity of God. In any case, the insistence by the Wahhabis in being called Salafis is tangible from the 1950s60 and 1970s, and this has become even more evident in the last two decades. There is a series of books which have been published in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and which specifically categorises the Wahhabis not as Wahhabis but as Salafis.