Understanding the Distinctions Between Wahhabism and Mainstream Islam

Apr 11


Weam Namou

Weam Namou

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In a world where religious ideologies often intersect with geopolitics, understanding the nuances of different Islamic movements is crucial. Wahhabism, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam, has been a topic of intense discussion due to its strict interpretation of the Quran and its alleged links to extremist activities. This article delves into the contrasts between Wahhabism and mainstream Islam, shedding light on the complexities of religious identity and the impact of these beliefs on global affairs.

The Origins and Beliefs of Wahhabism

Wahhabism emerged in the 18th century in the region of Najd,Understanding the Distinctions Between Wahhabism and Mainstream Islam Articles now part of Saudi Arabia, founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It advocates for a puritanical form of Islam, aiming to return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf. Wahhabism is characterized by its strict adherence to the Quran and the Hadiths, the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Key Tenets of Wahhabism:

  • Tawhid (Monotheism): Wahhabism emphasizes the absolute unity and uniqueness of God, rejecting any form of idolatry or polytheism.
  • Bid'ah (Innovation): It condemns religious practices not explicitly mentioned in the Quran and Hadiths as innovations that must be eliminated.
  • Takfir (Excommunication): Wahhabis are known for declaring other Muslims as non-believers for practices they consider heretical, which can include Shi'a Muslims, Sufis, and even other Sunni Muslims who do not adhere to their strict interpretations.

Wahhabism vs. Mainstream Islam: A Comparative Perspective

While Wahhabism represents a conservative and literalist approach to Islam, mainstream Islam encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices. Most Muslims around the world follow one of the four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali) or belong to the Shi'a branch of Islam. These schools offer diverse interpretations of Islamic texts, allowing for cultural and contextual considerations.

Differences in Practice:

  • Interpretation of Texts: Mainstream Islam generally allows for a more flexible and metaphorical interpretation of the Quran and Hadiths.
  • Spiritual Practices: Sufism, a mystical form of Islam embraced by many mainstream Muslims, incorporates spiritual practices like poetry, music, and dance, which Wahhabism strictly opposes.
  • Community Relations: Mainstream Islam often emphasizes community cohesion and interfaith dialogue, whereas Wahhabism tends to be more isolationist and confrontational.

The Global Impact of Wahhabism

Wahhabism has gained international attention due to its association with extremist groups and its influence on global terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics & Peace, the deadliest terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, have been linked to Wahhabi ideology. The report highlights that in 2019, the total number of deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, yet the influence of Wahhabi-inspired extremism remains a concern.

Controversial Links to Extremism:

  • Saudi Influence: Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state religion, has been accused of spreading its ideology through funding mosques and educational institutions worldwide.
  • 9/11 and Beyond: The 9/11 Commission Report noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, raising questions about the role of Wahhabi indoctrination in terrorist activities.
  • Media and Politics: Critics argue that the global influence of Saudi Arabia, including its financial ties to media and political entities, has led to a lack of scrutiny of Wahhabi practices and their impact on terrorism.

The Personal Perspective: A Shia Muslim's View on Wahhabism

Dr. Kamal Alsaedi, an Iraqi-American Shia Muslim, has been vocal about the dangers of conflating Wahhabism with Islam as a whole. He asserts that Wahhabism's narrow interpretation of who is considered a true Muslim leads to the exclusion and targeting of Shia Muslims, as well as other religious groups. Dr. Alsaedi's activism includes raising awareness about Wahhabism's influence and advocating for Saudi Arabia to be recognized as a sponsor of terrorism.

Dr. Alsaedi's Efforts:

  • Protests and Advocacy: Dr. Alsaedi has been part of protests against the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC and has engaged in discussions with political officials.
  • Petition for Action: He has initiated a petition urging the United Nations to list Saudi Arabia as a terrorist-supporting country. The petition can be found on the Avaaz website here.


The distinction between Wahhabism and mainstream Islam is significant, with far-reaching implications for interfaith relations, global security, and the understanding of Muslim communities worldwide. It is essential to recognize the diversity within Islam and to differentiate between the beliefs of the majority of Muslims and the ideologies of extremist groups. As the world navigates complex religious and political landscapes, informed dialogue and nuanced perspectives are more important than ever.

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