Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), a cleric from the Arabian Peninsula (present-day Saudi Arabia), founded the Wahhabi movement after concluding that innovation and interpretation had corrupted Sunni Islam. He used the works of the early Muslim thinker Ibn Taymiyya to justify his interpretation and advocated an Islamic reformation. Wahhabis claimed the way of Salaf as-Salih, or the rightly guided Muslims who sought to restore Islam to its true state. While some consider Abd al-Wahhab a great Islamic reformer, others refer to him as the father of modern Islamic terrorism.
After being expelled from his home village in the Najd, Abd al-Wahhab moved to Dir’iya and formed an alliance with the chieftain Muhammad Ibn Saud in 1795. The alliance of Wahhabism and the Saud dynasty proved a potent religious and military force that would survive several major military defeats over two centuries. Ibn Saud used Wahhabism to justify his conquests of Arabia, arguing that many Muslims had become unbelievers and that orthodox, or right guided, Muslims had the right or even the duty to conduct violent jihad (holy war) against the unbelievers. By 1795 the Wahhabis, in alliance with the Saud family, controlled most of the northern and eastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. By 1804 they had taken the Hijaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Ottoman Empire, accused of corrupt Islamic practices by the Wahhabis, opposed the movement and enlisted the support of Muhammad Ali in Egypt to crush both the Saud family and the Wahhabis and to reassert Ottoman hegemony over Arabia. From 1811–20 Muhammad Ali’s able son Ibrahim was able to defeat the Wahhabis and drive them back into the remote northern part of the Arabian Desert.
Wahhabism recognized the Qu’ran and the Hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) as the basic texts. Unlike other Muslims, Wahhabis did not adhere solely to one specific Islamic school of jurisprudence, but rather based their beliefs on direct interpretations of the words of the Prophet. Wahhabis believed that other Muslims, such as the Sufis and the Shi’i, followed non-Islamic practices. They sought to restore Islam to its true state. Wahhabi interpretations of the Hadith were austere and puritanical. The most severe Wahhabi practices were manifested in the Arabian Peninsula, In 1924 the Wahhabi Saud dynasty reconquered the two Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, giving them control of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage. Control over the hajj gave Wahhabis ample opportunity to preach to Muslim pilgrims, while subsequent revenues from vast petroleum reserves gave the Saudi dynasty the resources to fund Wahhabi-based religious schools, newspapers, and outreach organizations.
Most Muslims outside Arabia rejected Wahhabi Islam, and traditional Sunnis, while accepting the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya, rejected Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretation of his work.
- Esposito, John. Islam: The Straight Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005;
- Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999;
- Winder, R. Bailey. Saudi Arabia in the Nineteenth Century. London: Macmillan, 1965.
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