Understanding the Attraction of Salafi and Wahhabi Movements

24 Nov, 2014    ·   4755

Saneya Arif explains why various Islamic movements rose and fell, and compares it to the rise of Wahhabism and the Islamic State

Saneya Arif
Saneya Arif
Research Intern
This year, 17 October 2014, celebrated as Sir Syed Day in the memory of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), refreshed memories and raised questions related to various Islamic movements till date and their relevance in today’s world. Why have traditional Islamic movements failed today? Why have the Salafi and Wahhabi movements gained traction among the Muslim populations? 

Aligarh, Deoband and Barelvi Movements
The Aligarh movement, like other movements, was initiated for a cherished goal. Aggrieved by the decimation of his community in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt, Khan saw modern scientific education to be the only ray of hope for restoring the lost glory of his people. Notwithstanding the opposition from his co-religionists, Khan succeeded in bringing modern education to Muslims. However, the fulfillment of the goal put a halt on the movement. Although a pioneering institution for imparting modern education, the AMU rarely occupies a space in the minds of Muslims today in the same sense. It is instead viewed as a hub where political dogma convert themselves into propaganda against the status quo. 

Reasons more or less similar led to the loss of traction in the Deobandi and Barelvi movements – both of which are different from each other for an array of reasons. The Sunni groups, the Deobandis and the Barelvis are the two major groups of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent apart from the Shia Muslims. Barelvis consider the Deobandis as kafir (infidels). The latter accuse the Barelvis of being ignorant shrine and grave-worshippers. Both impart traditional education that is not much in fashion today due to the growing numbers of liberal and modern Muslims. Fatwas (legal opinion or learned interpretation) issued by madrassas affiliated to both movements, e.g. the Madrasa Manzar-e-Islam and Darul Uloom Deoband, have little following. The world view of the expanding Muslim moderates are in complete contrast with those of these institutions. 

Contrary to popular perceptions, Muslims in India wish to keep themselves out of any trap of radicalisation today. Their affinity to modern ideas is a contrast to the paradigms propagated by these institutions. Today, the role of madrassas is confined to being mediums of imparting the knowledge of Quran only, and not centres of higher education. As a result, the Deoband and the Barelvi movements stand somewhat unwanted and irrelevant, as their preaching borders on the margins of intolerance and radicalism. 

Salafi and Wahhabi Movements 
Today, the Salafi and Wahhabi movements, now a pivot of Islamic movements, dominate the global panorama. Salafi in traditional Islamic scholarship means someone who died within the first four hundred years after Prophet Mohammed. It was revived as a slogan and movement among latter-day Muslims by the followers of Muhammad Abduh to propagate the view that Islam, subject to several interpretations and explanations, had not been properly understood by anyone since the Prophet. It was here the Salafi school of thought gained importance among Muslims, claiming the power of rightful interpretation of the religion and serving as a beacon for the ignorant and easily-swayed Muslims. 

The Wahhabi movement, on the other hand, is regarded as the central movement by most Muslims, due to its teachings regarding state and religion. According to this school of thought, the Ulema are responsible for the protection of the divine law and one can accept the rule of anyone who follows Shariah. Based on the principle of pure monotheistic worship, this movement also advocated purging of practices such as popularising cults of saints, and shrine visitation, widespread among Muslims since the spread of Sufi Islam. The movement considered these as impurities and innovations in Islam, an extreme form of which they believe may lead the believers to shirk (by practising idolatry or polytheism). 

Such attempts to project a puritan form of Islam bereft of impurities and innovations have further benefited from and have been influenced by the rapidly transforming geopolitical scenarios in the modern era, resulting in Wahhabim becoming more open and inclusive – by targeting not just Sunni Muslims, but also non-Sunnis and non-Muslims in their preachings – and thereby attracting more audiences. Additionally, the spread of education and advancements in communication systems have made it easier to transmit Wahhabi doctrines to different segments of Muslim populations across the globe. 

In the early years of the Wahhabi movement, there were instances where the press in Saudi Arabia was not allowed to publish photographs, illustrations and imagery of human faces as it was considered a taboo among the Wahhabis. That is no longer the case today. Noticeable positive changes such as education for girls and changing attitudes towards smoking, among others – that are no longer considered moral negligence deserving punishment – result in the movement being perceived as relatively open and therefore, acceptable. Lastly, the rise of terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS) has given much assemblage to the Wahhabi movement. While the IS practices an extreme interpretation of the sharia, at a fundamental level, it follows Wahhabism. 

Once considered to be an extremist pseudo-Sunni movement, Wahhabism has a different face in India. Although the seeds of polarisation continue to be sown from the outside world, Shias and Sunnis co-exist peacefully in India.