Wahhabism is a Sunni Islamic doctrine and religious movement that originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th Century. Religious scholars have described Wahhabism as an “ultraconservative,” “austere,” “fundamentalist,” and “puritanical” form of Islam meant to restore pure monotheistic worship (tawhid) by devotees. Additionally, opponents of Wahabism have characterized the movement as a distortion of Islamic doctrine and as a deviant sectarian movement that goes directly against the teachings of Muhammed. The term Wahhabism is generally used in a critical tone, and its adherents commonly reject its use, preferring to be called Salafi or muwahhid. Wahhabism follows the Ibn Taymiyyah and Hanbali schools of thought, though Hanbali leaders renounced Abd al-Wahhab’s views. In recent years, opposition to Wahhabism has grown exponentially due to the growing alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, human rights abuses (on the scale of genocide) committed against Shi’a Muslims in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan by followers of Wahhabism, and American support for Middle Eastern governments that support extremist groups who justify their actions through Wahhabi theology.
The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (1703–1792 C.E.) was born in Najd, a city located in central Saudi Arabia, and was influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, a fourteenth-century Hanbali theologian. Ibn Taymiyya endorsed the Hanbali school of thought, one of four schools in Sunni Islam. The school was named after Ibn Hanbal (780–855 C.E.), who espoused a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Ibn Taymiyyah emphasized the values of solidarity and justice, and condemned both Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, claiming that both sects strayed away from the path of doctrines and rituals set out in the Qur’an.
Following travels through the Middle East in his early adulthood, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab returned to Najd to announce that Muslims everywhere should surrender to his vision of the authentic Islam as practiced during Prophet Muhammad’s time. Wahhab’s teachings are summarized into three points:
- Ritual action is more important than intentions
- Muslims should not revere the dead
- Muslims should not make intercessory prayers to God through the Prophet or saints.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab condemned honoring anyone other than God as idolatry, including Prophet Muhammad. He opposed the practice of reciting blessings on the Prophet during congregational prayers. Additionally, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab fought all forms of worship to the Prophet, ranging from the Hajj pilgrimage, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, and the inscription of the Prophet’s name in mosques.
While some Muslim scholars see Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as one of many Muslim reformers who sought to clarify the teachings of Islam, the vast majority of Islamic scholars (in both the Sunni and Shi’a sects) do not support his views and note that his behavior went directly against the teachings of the Qur’an. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab responded to critics by urging his followers to abandon the four traditional schools. He stated that all Muslims had fallen into unbelief and that if they did not follow the path of redemption he had laid out, they should be killed, their women kin beaten, and their possessions taken from them. He further believed the lives of Shia’s, Sufis, and other less mainstream Muslims should be extinguished and that all other faiths should be eliminated.
In 1744, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab sought refuge in the village of Dariyah, which was ruled by Muhammad ibn Sa’ud and his family, Al Sa’ud, which was responsible for organized banditry in Najd. The family ruled Dariyah according to its own whims and the village had a reputation as a lawless place. In 1747, Wahhab made a power-sharing agreement with the family, in which Ibn Abd al-Wahhab would become Dariyah’s religious authority, while the Al Sa’ud family would be responsible for the village’s political leadership. The Al Sa’ud family benefited immensely from the pact, as the Wahhabi movement and its extreme religious fervor helped to legitimize their rule. With this new power arrangement, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers began a campaign of expansion and domination in Saudi Arabia
In 1801, followers of Wahhabism began a campaign to gain control over the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. During their campaign, they raided both cities and stole numerous holy books, works of arts, and cultural artifacts that the cities accumulated over the past millennia. During their control of the two holy cities, they imposed Wahhabism upon the populace, destroyed shrines and cemeteries, closed off the entrance to the holy city to Shi’a and Sufi pilgrims, barred pilgrims from performing the hajj, and murdered respected citizens. From the 1820s until the 1860s, the Wahhabis launched attacks upon both the Ottoman and Qajar Empires, urged on by Great Britain, which was eager to see the collapse of both the Turkish and Iranian empires.
The Wahhabis’ power and influence shrank throughout the 19th Century, culminating with the Ottoman recapture of Mecca and Medina in 1891. Despite the decline in Wahhabi influence, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 encouraged the growth and spread of the movement once again. By 1924, the al-Saud dynasty was able to gain full and lasting control over Mecca and Medina. This gave them control over the Hajj pilgrimage and the opportunity to preach their version of Islam to the assembled pilgrims. Wahhabism remained a minor current within Islam until the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938. Vast oil revenues gave the government of Saudi Arabia much wealth and international support, which encouraged the spread of their conservative Islamic theology. Wahhabi doctrine continues to be firmly rooted within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia today. All students are taught religion from the beginning of primary school, with the curriculum based only on Wahhabism, and libraries consist exclusively of Wahhabi texts. The Wahhabi clerics issue strict guidelines for sex, prohibit the ownership of certain pets such as dogs and cats, and place limits on women’s rights.
Wahhabi ideas began to spread to other countries through pilgrims who came to the Hajj and returned to their countries of origin. Wahhabi theology first spread into Oman during the eighteenth century where it played a role in the internal disputes and succession struggles of the country. Eventually, Wahhabi ideology spread to other countries in the Middle East such as Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Despite the growing support for Wahhabism, many traditional clerics have expressed opposition to Wahabism. These clerics defend the tribal Islam deeply rooted in their respective communities and argue that Wahhabis are little more than foreigners who sacrificed the true vision of Islam for wealth and acceptance by Western imperialist powers. Additionally, many traditional clerics take issue with the misinterpretation of the meaning of “Jihad” by Wahhabi followers. Even though Wahhabis view Jihad as a forceful struggle against those who threaten Islamic tradition, a vast majority of clerics note that Jihad instead refers to the struggle to come closer with God through devotion and piety.
In addition to the criticism by Islamic scholars and clerics, many observers argue that Wahhabism ideology is the root cause of many of the human rights abuses and conflicts that are currently underway in the Middle East, and that Wahhabi ideology is used by governments such as the United States, Israel, and Great Britain to assert their influence and power in the Middle East. For example, groups that are sympathetic to Wahabism are currently taking part in massacres of Shi’a Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities in countries such as Syria, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Many of the oppressed groups (particularly Shi’a Muslims) have been highly critical of Wahhabism and note the hypocrisy of Western powers who claim to support human rights reform, but continually support violent extremist groups. In addition, the government of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi groups in recent years have sought to form an alliance with Israel by discouraging Palestinian calls for autonomy, as well as investigations into the crimes committed by the Israeli government to their community. Most notably, critics point out that the ideology of violent extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS has been heavily influenced by Wahhabism. In response to these claims, the Saudi government has sought to distance itself from these groups, especially after the 9/11 Attacks and the 2003 attack on the Saudi capital Riyadh.