By Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin

Translation by Umm Jabir (

In the context of Western journalism, the word ‘Wahhabi’ has many connotations. All of them lead to an understanding that it is an Islamic movement perceived as strictly following the legal opinions and evidences (nas) from al-Quran and as-Sunnah in its literal sense, while refusing to consider the more modern or ‘western-influenced’ interpretations. Clinton Bennet grouped ‘Wahhabis’ and Deobandis under the ‘traditionalist’ school of thought, and therefore among the ‘fundamentalists’ (refer to: Muslim and Modernity 18-20, London: Continuum).

Some western writers perceive Wahhabi as a movement that deems ‘Islam as the only true religion’, or that establishing an ‘Islamic State’ is obligatory, or that ‘Jihad’ is to fight the infidels or disbelievers, and other ‘desert-related’ (such as Bedouins or Arab nomads) qualities, which they eventually attempt to associate with terrorism.

Yet in Malaysia, the word ‘Wahhabi’ is such a mysterious term. Many use the term or slander others by it, without a clue of its meaning. They merely regard it as a tool to defend themselves against criticisms. I still remember an incident involving a Tok Imam (the person who leads the congregational prayer) in one of the Northern states; when he was criticized for manipulating the religion to serve his personal interest for demanding fees for his prayer and dhikr (remembrance of Allah), he simply retorted, “Those who disagree with me are Wahhabis”. It might be the case that the person who just advised him was not exposed to a lot of information and it was the first time he encountered the word. Thus, looking perplexed, he asked back, “What is a Wahhabi?” The Tok Imam answered, “A Wahhabi is a person who criticizes his Ustaz (Islamic teacher).” Thereafter, this person i.e. the one giving advice dared not to disagree with the Tok Imam and questioned the infallibility of the Ustaz lest he would become a Wahhabi.

In some places, a person is accused as a Wahhabi for disagreeing with superstitious rituals and beliefs (khurafat). This include hanging pictures of certain individuals like the Sultan or a Sheikh believing that it brings good charm or increases their earnings, or tying black thread on a newborn’s hand believing that it will protect the baby from bad luck, and many other erroneous beliefs beleaguering/haunting part of our society. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘Ustaz’ endorses some of these practices, and furthermore, they themselves are the initiator of these practices. When people begin to criticize the practice, they will simply say, “You are Wahhabi,” acting in self-defense.
Similarly, those who disagree with the practice of ‘kenduri arwah’ (feast gathering in commemorating the deceased) are also labeled as Wahhabi. This is despite the fact that an old and traditional Malay manuscript, Bughyah al-Talab, by Shaykh Daud al-Fatani mentioned that: “[and it is disliked and] furthermore, it is an innovation (Bid’ah) for the family of the deceased to prepare food and invite people to eat, whether it be before or after the burial, as practiced by many people, [and similarly, it is] disliked and an innovation for the invitees to accept such invitation.” Even if they cannot accept their own justification why should they feel infallible, and further prohibit others from differing with them by using the “You are wahhabi” slogan as a weapon?

On the other hand, some other religious people narrate and spread rejected narrations, such as Israeliyyat, which contradict evidences and legal opinions in Islam, or fabricated Hadeeth or stories of righteous people or Sufi, which introduces confusion over the beauty and excellence of Islam. Some narrate these stories in their talks, while others use them as capital or the selling point for their business ventures. Alas, Islam is tainted with such stories and consequently, this honorable religion appears comical and absurd. If these speakers are critiqued, they would say, “You are Wahhabi”, though the critic may have never read a single book by Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab.

It is even worse when religious authorities manipulate the issue of Wahhabi. In this case, any teacher who teaches the Quran and authentic Hadeeth will be labeled as a Wahhabi and prevented from teaching at any mosques and Surau if he disagrees with the confusions introduced by many of the religious officers or their colleagues who join a Tariqah (Tarekat) sect, or those who spread fabricated and funny narrations. This is imposed under the pretext of the Sultan’s decree or order.

At the same time, countless obvious sinful and evil practices are left undisturbed while they busy themselves with the revivalists who pose no absolute threat to the society. If there is, it will only be a threat to the rigid and archaic mindset, not the society. To justify their obsession with this group to the extent that obvious evils are abandoned, they would argue: “This is much more threatening, this is Wahhabi”. What is Wahhabi? They say, “Wahhabi is Wahhabi!” This attitude is aggravated by the emergence of the Ahbash sect, which is a group of people whom haphazardly accuse some Muslims as disbelievers and collaborate with certain religious groups [hence influencing these groups].

At a more advanced level, the term Wahhabi is targeted at those who free themselves from the Shafi’i school of thought. They claim that people who do not follow any school of thought are Wahhabis. I have explained the evidences and legal opinions from Muslim scholars pertaining to this issue in previous articles.

As mentioned by Dr al-Qardhawi precisely:
“Those who are infatuated [with subscribing to a specific school of thought] do not allow its followers to exit from it, even when it is clear to its adherents that the evidences used are inauthentic. This is then extended to conclude that those who leave a school of thought are weak-hearted. In essence, this is making obligatory something that Allah does not make obligatory. (Dr. Yusuf al-Qardhawi, Al-Sahwah al-Islamiyyah bain al-Ikhtilaf al-Masyru’ wa al-Tafarruq al-Mazmum, p. 202, Cairo: Dar al-Sahwah).

Interestingly in Malaysia, these same people would actually give consent to rulings and opinions that are not affiliated with any school of thought, as bank ‘advisors’, to enable the bank to operate as an Islamic bank. Rather, many of Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taimiyyah’s (rahimahullah) opinions are accepted in the matter of financial transactions, as his opinions are extensively employed in advancing the Muslim societies all over the world. Ironically, outside of these paid-bank-meetings, they would accuse Ibn Taimiyyah and those who subscribe to his views as Wahhabis. In addition, they even collaborate with those who accuse Ibn Taimiyyah of disbelief or deviant.

Such is the situation when I was a Mufti. When I gave my opinions such as the prohibition of spying (Tajassus), the permissibility to reply to the greeting of Salaam from a non-Muslim, the obligation to name a child after the father even if the father is a non-Muslim, or building a mosque for the Chinese, being tolerant in accepting different views, and others, they are labeled as Wahhabi-like or ideologies by certain religious groups. In contrast, these opinions would be considered as modernist or rationalist views, in which the opponents may be grouped as Wahhabi.

The opposite is seen in Malaysia. That which is open or tolerant is Wahhabi and deviated, while that which is narrow or constricted is the absolute truth. Such is the mindset of the religious authorities within the government, which swiftly weakens the existing strength within the government. This is also the mindset of certain religious groups within the opposition parties. In effect, throughout the 50 years of independence, Muslims have become stagnant in their religious understanding; on the contrary, Muslims have become increasingly confused and intolerant when it comes to Islam.

Their actions remind me of an article by David Brubaker, ‘Fundamentalism vs. Modernism: A Consideration of Causal Conditions’, which mentioned that the move against reformation mainly refers to the survival of a particular group. For them to remain alive and secure within the society and government, the reformers shall be totally opposed. For me, the issue is not Wahhabi, but the insecurity over losing support and status. On the other hand, whenever they feel that there is opportunity to increase in status, like in the Islamic banking scenario, they are able to accept differences without accusing the bank that pays for their monthly and meeting allowances as a ‘Wahhabi bank’.

David Brubaker said, in order to survive, they are forced to choose between two options, accommodation or resistance. Consequently, many are accused as Wahhabis in Malaysia, although in reality, it is a mysterious accusation. I am not denying that some of those accused as Wahhabis may have to be more broadminded in certain matters. Nevertheless, to label others as Wahhabi merely due to differences in opinions is indeed a full-blown backward mentality for someone living in the globalize world.