December 9, 2013 No.

Article Harshly Critical Of Wahhabism Sparks Controversy Among Columnists In Saudi Al-Jazirah Daily

Dr. Hamza Al-Salem, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, argued in a September 12, 2013 article titled "Salafism Is On Its Deathbed" that Salafism, i.e. Wahhabism, [1] which was once a source of strength and power for Saudi Arabia, is now the source of the mental, social, economic and political backwardness in the kingdom. This, because as it has failed to keep pace with the development of modern global culture in recent decades. He argued that, while the state apparatuses have managed to adjust themselves to the modern era by implementing reform programs, Wahhabism has failed to do so due to the mental stagnation of its adherents, and that the only way to remedy this is by abandoning Wahhabism or at least modernizing it to conform with the zeitgeist. Al-Salem concluded by noting that Wahhabism’s founder essentially preached freeing oneself of religious imitation, but that today's Salafist movement is doing the exact opposite.

Dr. Al-Salem's article provoked many responses in the Saudi press and particularly in the daily Al-Jazirah itself, where writers defended Wahhabism and argued, inter alia, that it does not suffer from stagnation but "constantly renews itself", or that it is "fixed but simultaneously changing." They also argued that Salafism was the way practiced by the Prophet and his Companions, and that its downfall would mean the downfall of Saudi Arabia. One writer even accused Al-Salem that, by writing articles of this nature, he was increasing ideological confusion among the youth, which could lead to anarchy not easily controlled.

Below are the main points of article and the responses to it:

Dr. Hamza Al-Salem: "Wahhabi Doctrine Lags Way Behind All The Recent Decades' Expressions Of Tremendous Human Development"

In his article, Dr. Hamza Al-Salem wrote: "The Saudi state's spirit is [represented by] Sheikh Muhammad Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab's da'wa [hereafter Wahhabism[2]], and its body by the state and government institutions. When it comes to the body, reform programs act to remedy the ravages of time. As for the spirit – namely Wahhabi doctrine – the severity of the disease [afflicting it] has brought it to [such] a level of backwardness that it is akin to an untreated intensive care patient [waiting] for Allah to decree [his passing]...

"Wahhabism is a tree with robust roots and branches reaching heavenward, but its adherents wronged it by failing to nurture it, renew it or preserve it, until rot seized it, root and branch, leaving [only] leafless, fruitless branches that wait for someone to come and pitch them into oblivion – unless Allah entrusts one of the adherents [of Wahhabism] to treat it and firmly withstand the difficulty of eliminating the damage caused to it.

"After the September [11] events, or after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Americans did not require years nor generations but [merely] months or weeks in order to modify and amend many of their strategies and curricula in their political science faculties, for [the pace] of current changes is now so rapid that the strategy [that relies on] time to solve problems has become a strategy that destroys states and regimes...

"Let us face reality to avoid being surprised by the painful truth. Wahhabism, previously one of [Saudi Arabia's] sources of strength and power, is now a burden on the Saudi state. Wahhabi doctrine lags way behind all the recent decades' expressions of tremendous human development, while the state has kept pace with modern cultural [advances].

"This contrast between the spirit [Wahhabism] and the body [the state institutions] has persisted since the establishment of the Saudi state. [Although Saudi Arabia] did not collapse as rapidly as the Afghan Taliban state – which implemented Wahhabism in both spirit and body – the prolonged existence of a state based a contradiction between body and spirit has created severe internal problems in the mentality and structure of society from an administrative, economic and political standpoint. [These problems] that can only be solved by abandoning the spirit, namely Wahhabism, as many Salafist Saudis and others demand. However, how can a body long endure after it has surrendered its spirit?...

"Today's young people [are captives] of the social networks that suffer from anarchistic thought and lack of a clear direction, so that whoever controls these networks control their minds... A young Muslim is denied participation in [proper] intellectual, political, religious and administrative [activity], and therefore becomes a supporter of anyone who allows him intellectual participation...

"The essence of the da'wa of the founder of Wahhabism is liberation from religious imitation, but what the Salafist movement is doing today is the [very] opposite of this.

"The efforts to glorify the past, and the efforts to defend Wahhabism, will not avail as long as the implementation [of Wahhabism], in practice and theory, suggests [that it merits] the very opposite. Attempts to glorify [the past] without action to reform what became flawed in Wahhabism and without renewing it to conform to the changed times and [current] realities are one form of this doctrine's backwardness and a demonstration of its adherents' mental stagnation."[3]

Responses To The Article

Al-Salem’s article provoked many intellectuals and columnists to respond; below are a few examples that were also published in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah:

True Salafism Constantly Renews Itself; We Must Defend Salafism That Is Currently The Target Of A Defamation Campaign

Dr. Rashed Bin Hussein Al-'Abd Al-Karim, a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at King Saud University and chairman of the Saudi Educational and Psychological Association, argued that one should distinguish between Salafism as an doctrine and its implementation in practice, for "true Salafism constantly renews itself" and many Muslims worldwide derive benefit from it, although its actual implementation is indeed deficient. Al-Karim warns that articles like Al-Salem's should not be published as they could intensify ideological confusion among the youth and lead to anarchy not easily controlled:

"The author's argument that Salafism [i.e. Wahhabism] is stagnant is a blatant libel that contradicts the facts, because Salafism’s response to developments and innovations in the Saudi state since its establishment, as well as during the Islamic eras that preceded [the establishment of Saudi Arabia], is well-known... It is strange that the author likens Salafist da'wa to a leafless, fruitless tree even though, like any sensible person, he beholds the spread of this da'wa and the vast benefit that many Muslims worldwide derive from it...

"I concur with the author that contemporary Salafism suffers from weakness. This is undoubtedly so, but the weakness lies in its adherents rather than its principles and path... The weakness or strength of the followers of [any] da'wa do not attest to its veracity or validity... True Salafism constantly renews itself... and its secret is that its renewal derives from its [own] principles rather than [from the influence] of an external force, as occurs with other da'was.

"We must defend the da'wa of Sheikh Muhammad Bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab – Salafism – in the conviction that it continues the path of the early [Islamic forefathers], and because it is being currently subjected to a defamation campaign by elements close to it and even by those who were educated on its knee... As for the author's argument regarding Salafism's mental stagnation: if such [stagnation] exists, it should not be treated by attacking Salafism, renouncing it, inciting against it or delivering its funeral eulogy! Instead, [Salafism should be treated] by returning to its roots and adhering to them, and removing what has possibly stuck to it [over the ages]. This [in fact] is one of Salafism’s principles, and this is the spirit of Sheikh Muhammad Bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab's da'wa...

"This article by [Al-Salem], like many of his [other] articles, increases ideological confusion amongst the youth... and induces them to oppose, rebel and devote themselves to casting doubt [on everything], even on principles, and [it is well-known that,] once the gates of anarchy and skepticism are opened and the young cross their thresholds, it is hard to control them... Shari'a texts, past and present, demonstrate that Salafism has the capacity to establish a modern state that provides a response to all the era's exigencies... and above all that it can create mechanisms for realizing the population’s interests and enable [us] to compete with other modern countries."[4]

"Salafism, As Brought Down By The Prophet Muhammad, Is The Basis Upon Which The Islamic Religion Arose; Should It Fall, The Entire Religion Will Fall... It Is Fixed But Simultaneously Changing"

Saudi Journalist Muhammad Bin 'Abd Al-Latif Aal Al-Sheikh argued that Salafism, as brought down by the Prophet Muhammad, was the basis of the Islamic religion and that its collapse would mean the collapse of Islam in its entirety. He added that Salafism is the source of authority for Saudi Arabia, and that its principles do not change from place to place or time to time. It is simultaneously fixed and changing, he said: fixed on topics pertaining to monotheism but mutable and self-renewable when it comes to contentious issues on which no explicit religious ruling exists. Al-Sheikh wrote:

"The da'wa of Sheikh Muhammad Bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab [hereafter Wahhabism] is Saudi Arabia’s source of authority... to the point that [the kingdom's] founder, King 'Abd Al'-Aziz [Bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Bin Faisal Aal Sa'ud], treated it as the key to unity, the anchor of political authority and a precondition for the state’s existence... Many foreigners, and unfortunately also a few Saudis, do not properly understand the true essence of Wahhabism, and do not comprehend the foundations upon which it arose. They refer to it as if it is a school of jurisprudence, whereas [in actuality] it is a da'wa of renewal [aimed at] purifying the bond between man and his God, based on loyalty and submission to Allah alone and not to others, and keeping a distance from all forms of polytheism... These are principles which are not replaced and do not change from place to place and time to time, [nor as the result of] calamities, because they are, simply put, the basis upon which the Islamic religion, as brought down by the Prophet Muhammad, arose, and should it [Wahhabism] fall, the religion in its entirety will fall [with it].

"Innovations on matters of faith mean returning each time to the pure source... in a manner that corresponds to the source, without adding to it or detracting from it one iota... As for [innovations in] jurisprudence... both the Sheikh ['Abd Al-Wahhab] and his followers after him, members of the Hanbali school [of Islamic jurisprudence], ruled on a number of matters where no [previous] explicit religious doctrine existed. They did so on the basis of evidence and, like their predecessors, remained within the general framework of the Hanbali school... Frequently, [religious] radicalism or moderation depends on the person himself. Occasionally one may encounter an extremely radical religious scholar... who considers his arguments [in support of] his rulings as unassailable. On the other hand, one may encounter a different [scholar] who is moderate and pragmatic when ruling on matters where no explicit religious ruling exists, seeking [a solution] that serves the state’s and the believers’ interest... Both [kinds of Scholars] belong to the school of Sheikh Muhammad bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab.

"In light of the aforesaid, one can say that Wahhabism is fixed but simultaneously also changes. It is unchanging in matters of monotheism... and it changes, updates and renews itself, [exhibits] moderation and even develops in matters that do not pertain to monotheism, provided that they are controversial matters on which no explicit religious ruling exists.[5]

Flaws In The Implementation Of Salafi Da'wa Do Not Mean That Salafism Is Finished

Dr. 'Abdallah Bin Suleiman Bin Ibrahim Al-Fahd, a lecturer at the Faculty of Religious Fundamentals at the Muhammad Bin Sa'ud Islamic University in Riyadh, argued that Salafism was the way of the Prophet and his Companions and would endure forever, and that genuine reform, success and victory were contingent on adhering to it. He wrote:

"[Dr. Hamza Al-Salem] and others should know that the da'wa of Sheikh Muhammad Bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab continues the da'wa of [Islam's] righteous forefathers, and that this Salafist da'wa is what the Prophet and his companions practiced and it will endure forever... We say to [Al-Salem]: success in contending with political and economic changes does not depend on renouncing the principles of genuine Salafist da'wa, which are the principles of Islam... On the contrary: genuine reform, success and victory are contingent upon adhering to the [Islamic] faith...

"Wahhabism [means] Islamic renewal... Islam is suitable for every era and place and is does not stand in contradiction to politics, a decent economy or proper administration. [In fact,] a balance exists between Islam and people’s actions, so that when they align themselves with it their lives are in alignment and their situation is good, but when they abandon it or violate its precepts, their condition deteriorates...

"The fact that errors and criticisms exists regarding the implementation of Salafist da'wa does not mean that it is finished... However, [Al-Salem] feels uneasy about this da'wa that is anchored in the truth and which established the [Saudi] state of truth, [so] he began to inflate what he thinks are errors in order to weaken the Muslims' power and participate in the enemies' aggression [against them]."[6]


[1] This is one of the terms Al-Salem uses for Wahhabism (see Note 2 below).

[2] In the text, Al-Salem uses numerous terms for Wahhabism, including "Da'wat Al-Imam Al-Mujadid Muhammad Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab," "Da'wat Imam Al-Tawhid," "Al-Da'wa Al-Salafiyya," "Al Madrasa Al-Salafiyya," or simply "Al-Da'wa" or "Al-Salafiyya," which are all translated here as "Wahhabism" or "Wahhabi doctrine."

[3] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), September 12, 2013.

[4] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia) September 18, 2013.

[5] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia) September 17, 2013.

[6] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), September 17, 2013.