I am often asked to make a list of things that are different between the wahabi creed (i.e. that of their leaders) and Islam.
The core difference is that when wahabis say that Aļļaah does not resemble His creation, they mean that He is different in the same way as created things differ from one another, like in the case of fingerprints. Everybody has different fingerprints. So when they say Aļļaah has a hand, but “not like ours,” they mean that it has different physical characteristics, such as color, number of fingers, or print, or something like that. This is true, because they believe Aļļaah is something that can be pointed at in a direction and has a limit, i.e. a shape and size. For simplicity, let us call it a body, because a body is anything with a size and shape, even if many wahabis do not like this word.
All creations as observed by our eyes, have a shape, and differ only in the form of the shape, and in size. Since the wahabis believe that their god is a body, their belief is that he is only different in bodily characteristics, such as the exact form and size. This means that he would be part identical to creation, and part different; the way created things differ.
On the other hand, Sunnis say that the reality of Aļļaah’s existence absolutely does not resemble that of His creation. They do not believe that Aļļaah is different from His creation merely in the way created things differ from one another. For this reason, Sunnis say that the reality of Aļļaah’s existence is not bodily. That is, He must be without size or shape.
Another way to express the Sunni belief in Aļļaah’s non-resemblance to creation is to say that Aļļaah is clear of resemblance to whatever needs specification. The reality of Aļļaah’s existence cannot require specification. This is because requiring specification means being dependent on something else to be specified by. In other words, it means being dependent upon a creator to provide specification and existence according to the specification.
Bodily existence, which entails size and shape, is in need of specification of its size and its shape, because no shape or size has a higher priority for existence intrinsically. No size is more likely to exists than any other without influence from other than it. Likewise, no shape is more likely to exist than any other without influence from other than it. It needs therefore to have specification from other than it. Anything that has bodily existence must therefore be a creation, and cannot be the Creator. That is why the Salaf, though they did not explain in detail, always stated that Aļļaah’s attributes are without a how, that is, without specification, that is, without shape or change. Due to the closeness to the time of prophethood, they had great minds, and a profound understanding of the religion, They understood that Aļļaah is not limited or having boundaries, or less than perfect in any sense, and that He is therefore not in a direction or changing. They expressed all this with the simple phrase: “without a how,” They took this phrase from the quranic: “He absolutely does not resemble anything.” That is, the reality of His existence does not resemble that of creation.
In conclusion, the wahabi belief is that Aļļaah differs from creation the way creation differ from one another. They believe that His existence is bodily, like that of creatures. This is the most fundamental difference between Sunnis and wahabis.
The other core difference, their unique concept of shirk, is really a consequence of this. Let me explain…
When human beings worship a 3 dimensional shape, they feel a need to somehow make it different than other objects. The reason is that the essential reality of the existence of what they worship, is the same as all other things around them. After all, a 3 dimensional shape is just a 3 dimensional shape with respect to its kind of existence, i.e. bodily existence. Thus, this difference that they seek can only be in terms of:
-what is seen, i.e in appearance, i.e. in shape, size or color, or location
-some unseen characteristic claimed, or
-how one behaves towards this object.
That is why you will find a buddhist or anemist (those who worship trees and other objects found) makes sure to decorate his idol, gives it a weird shape, such as several heads, and if he is rich he’ll buy one made from gold. You will also find him putting it in a special location in his house. This takes care of appearance. He will claim that the idol has godly power, or knowledge, or the like, to attempt to rationalize its worship. Then he will behave with special ceremonial rites in its physical presence. A lot of attention is paid then to the idol’s location, ceremonial behavior related to this location, and ornamentation to distinguish it from other object. This is to contribute to the illusion that it is essentially different from other objects, and make it seem plausible that it is a god.
The wahabis are the same, because just like ordinary idol worshipers, they worship what is essentially a 3 dimensional thing. However, their object of worship is not present, so they will simply say regarding its appearance, “not like other objects, and we do not know how.” This way they leave it open, and can tell a buddhist, “our object is so much better than yours,” and when asked “how?” They will say, “we do not know, but it the best that can be.”
In the appearance aspect of location, their special location is “above the world in direction.” Here they have exceeded all other idol worshipers by choosing a really, really special location that cannot be reached by the senses.
But they are at a conceptual loss for what on earth Aļļaah’s oneness would mean, as it is not an absolute to them. After all, any single physical object is “one” in count, but not in kind, and since they believe He is an object, the meaning of “one” that would be worth being zealous about becomes quite foggy, and they have quite a dilemma. All they can do is say that only the body they call Aļļaah (but is actually not Him) deserves worship, while the other objects/bodies do not. But what would be their bases for this claim?
They cannot claim this based on the reality of the existence of their object of worship, because it is a body, and there are very many bodies around with the same mode of existence.
They cannot claim distinction based on unseen characteristics, because if omnipotence, omniscience and eternal existence could be attributes of a 3 dimensional being, then there is no way to rationally prove that one such thing could have them, while another not. That is, basing it on the claim that this object has all sorts of unseen characteristics, such as power, would not satisfy them in their search for the meaning of oneness that would make them different from other idol worshipers. After all, all idol worshipers claim their idols have all sorts of powers, so this wouldn’t make them special, or different in an essential way. This is especially when compared to religions with an identical belief regarding the reality of the creator’s existence, namely bodily existence, such as the christians, and especially the jews.
In practice, however, wahabi’s have achieved an advantage over other object worshipers, because they could break physically present idols, and claim that their (o so conveniently absent) object is unbreakable, and no competing idol worshipers would be able to prove them wrong, even if they themselves cannot prove that they are right.
In these ways, the wahabis can make themselves feel superior in the distinguishing game of idol worship (like when Hindus claim their idols are better than those of Bhuddists and vice versa). However, this is all very weak by itself, because it is based on the physical absence of their idol, and the existence of such a fantastic idol is impossible to prove. This is because physical objects cannot be proven to exist except by observation. The proofs for the existence of a creator that Muslims use do not help them, because they are all based on the idea that what has a size and shape and changes needs a creator, which means that their idol would need one also.
This is where their concept of shirk comes to play; they needed something to make them really different in their claim to be uniquely monotheist. They felt a need to make their worshiped object different than other objects in a more tangible way. After all, they are a people that do not think much of non-tangibles. They, or rather Ibn Taymiyyah, invented the concept of Aļļaah’s oneness being a matter of our behavior, a matter of who can be called for help and who cannot. This is their equivalent to the Buddhists ceremonious behavior around where the idol is placed, to their own physically absent idol, in order to distinguish it from other bodies. They made it the only body that can be called for help, regardless of whether one believes the called upon to have actual and real independent power or not.
All the other differences they argue for, such as their saying that all scripture texts must be understood literally, are inconsistent ideas that they use only when it suits their purpose. After all, if it suits their purpose they will go against all Arabic dictionaries in their understanding of a word, as is the case with (خلق) kħalaqa – to create, and (أحدث) aĥdatħa – to bring into existence. This is when they say that Aļļaah’s attribute of Speech is muĥdatħ but not makħluuq. An interpretation does not get more far-fetched than that, and yet they will cry “deviance!” if someone chooses a meaning from the dictionary, if it does not agree with their belief that Aļļaah is a body.