Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative movement of Sunni Islam that has strong roots in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The history of Wahhabism has been deeply connected to the Saudi royal family since the late 18th century. However, since 2017, the Saudi government has gradually moved the country to a more moderate Islamic country.
This article will explore the roots of the Wahhabi ideology and its relationship with the Saudi Arabian government.
What Is Wahhabism?
Wahhabism focuses on the oneness of God, rejecting any religious practices that hint at polytheism. For example, the visitation of the tombs of local saints, a practice that has been historically prevalent throughout the Middle East, is strictly forbidden in Wahhabism.
Wahhabis believe in returning to the purest form of Islam during the Prophet Muhammed and his first generation of followers. They believe in only what was spoken by the Prophet Muhammed (the Sunnah) and what is written in the Quran. All other human interpretations of Islam are view as heretical.
Some ultraconservative Muslims consider the term “Wahhabi” offensive, as this was the name historically given to them by their enemies. They instead prefer the term “Salafi,” which refers to the three first generations of Muslims who lived at the Prophet Muhammed’s time.
When Did Wahhabism Start?
Ibn Taymiyyah was a leading Muslim scholar who lived from 1263 to 1328, a tumultuous period of Middle Eastern history. Then, constant invasions from the Mongols threatened the Muslim World and led many Islamic scholars to preach that violence was the only way to defend against the Mongol threat to Islam.
This has made Taymiyyah’s name frequently mentioned in discussions about the rise of Islamic extremism. Some scholars have tied his teachings with the beliefs of terrorist groups like the Islamic State. However, many scholars have defended Taymiyyah, pointing out that his teachings of Jihad should be examined with their historical context and that he never condoned the killing of innocent civilians.
Taymiyyah believed in a strict interpretation of the Qu’ran and the words of the Prophet Muhammed. He also criticized the venerations of saints, tombs, and holy objects. These two beliefs would serve as the foundation for ultraconservative Wahhabism. Taymiyyah was also a vocal critic of Shia Muslims, who he believed should not be considered Muslims.
Mohamed ibn Abdul Wahhab built upon many of the ideas of Ibn Taymiyyah. Wahhab laid the groundwork for today’s Wahhabi ideology and tied it with the Saudi royal family.
Wahhab was born in Uyaynah, Arabia, in 1703 and attended a religious school in the holy city of Medina. After completing his education and preaching in modern-day Iraq and Iran, Wahhab traveled back to his hometown to preach his ultraconservative Islam that critiqued many Sufi Islamic doctrines.
During this period, Wahhab wrote the “Book of the Oneness of God,” which is considered the main text of Wahhabism. The emphasis of God’s oneness throughout his preaching and writing led his followers to be called the “Muwahhidun,” which translates to “unitarians,” or “those who assert oneness.” This reflects the monotheism that is the cornerstone of the Wahhabi ideology.
Leaders of Uyaynah largely accepted his teachings, as he successfully destroyed numerous tombs and statues throughout the town. Some accounts claim he also had a woman stoned to death for the crime of adultery.
In Wahhab’s teachings, more minor offenses like the veneration of tombs would result in the accused simply being asked to repent for their sin against Islam. If they chose not to repent, they could be executed. However, in Wahhab’s eyes, more major crimes like adultery could be immediately punishable by death.
As Wahhab’s teachings spread throughout Uyaynah, other local leaders saw him as a threat and expelled him from the region. Wahhab then began preaching in the Hejaz region of the Ottoman Empire, which included the Arabian holy cities of Mecca and Medina. While the local population initially criticized him, his teachings soon began to gain followers throughout the region.
Wahhab taught about a return to a pure form of Islam that was practiced by the first three generations of Muslims, called the “Salaf.” He preached that Islam should purely be derived from the exact words of the holy book, along with the Sunnah, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.
He forbade many localized folk traditions that had taken hold in much of the Arab world that was not explicitly derived from the Qu’ran. He also forbade the veneration of saints and decoration of mosques and spoke out against alcohol and tobacco usage among Muslims.
Saudi Royal Family
Wahhab then moved to the small settlement of Al-Dir’iyyah in the Central Arabian region of Najd, which Muhammad ibn Saud ruled. Saud and Wahhab formed an alliance, with Saud acting as the political force behind the movement, while Wahhab focused on spreading his puritan Islamic teachings.
While Saud encouraged that military conquest was necessary to spread the Wahhabi movement, Wahhab did not support converting nonbelievers through violence. Wahhab believed that the only way to spread his doctrine throughout Arabia was through preaching by word of mouth. He stipulated that violence could only be used as a defensive measure when Muslims were being attacked.
However, this nonviolent approach was abandoned upon Saud’s death in 1765, when his son, Abdulaziz bin Muhammad, succeeded him. Muhammad began expanding his empire throughout Arabia, and his son, Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Muhammed bin Saud, eventually captured the holy cities of Medina and Mecca in 1804 and 1806, respectively.
Saud declared that the Ottoman Empire had no right to rule over Arabia, which prompted the Ottoman government to order Egyptian leader Muhammad Ali to send his troops to fight Saud’s army. The Egyptian forces decimated Saud’s forces and sacked the capital city of Diriyah. A smaller state run by the Saud family emerged in the Nejd region after the destruction of Diriyah but stayed isolated for the rest of the 19th century.
In 1902 Wahhabism was rejuvenated by Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who began his military conquest of the Arabian Peninsula with the capture of the city of Riyadh. After years of fighting against Ottoman and Rashidi forces, Saud captured all of the Nejd region and the eastern Arabian coast by 1912. After that, Saud steadily spread his territory westward, eventually capturing Medina and Mecca in 1925.
While many of the conservative religious scholars and theologists of Saud’s regime advocated for strict religious law and the conversion of Shia Muslims, it was only strictly enforced in the Najd region. As a ruler, Saud advocated for relaxed religious laws elsewhere, including in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. Most people living under Saud’s regime could openly smoke and drink, listen to music, or even worship as Shia Muslims openly.
There were few violent rebellions against the Saud regime, with the most prominent rebels being the Ikhwan, who were conservative Wahhabi Bedouin tribesmen that began to launch raids on Saudi settlements for not adhering to pure Wahhabi beliefs. These tribesmen believed that inventions new to the 20th century, such as the automobile and the telephone, were heretical to Islam. Saud quickly put down the Ikhwan rebels, who surrendered in 1930.
Post-World War II Wahhabism
Secular Pan-Arab nationalism began to be promoted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser during the 1950s and ’60s, which caused many Saudi Wahhabis to feel threatened by the prospect of an increasingly secular Middle East.
The World Muslim League was formed in 1962 to spread conservative Islam doctrines throughout the Arab world. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt increasingly moved to Saudi Arabia to escape persecution by President Nasser.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, beginning with the 1973 oil crisis, Saudi oil revenues soared at an all-time high. As a result, the spreading of Wahhabism enjoyed a golden age, where Wahhabi mosques, schools, and materials were funded to be spread throughout the Middle East.
In the 1980s, the Saudi government printed millions of Qur’ans and sent them around the world. Al-Madinah University, a religious school that teaches conservative Islam, was created during this period and became the most prominent educational institution of Wahhabi Islam.
In 1979, the Saudi government used the movement to attract new Muslim fighters to fight in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thousands of Saudi fighters traveled to Afghanistan to fight in the conflict, and the Saudi government paid millions in aid to the Afghani Mujahideen fighters. Many of these volunteers, including Osama bin Laden, returned from the conflict much more radicalized in puritan Islam than when they volunteered.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution brought intense fear to the Saudi royal family, as they grew increasingly worried about the threat of a revolution in their own country. The Shia leader of Iran that emerged, Ruhollah Khomeini, denounced the Saudi government as an American-puppet regime that was heretical to Islam.
The same year Islamic extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, declaring that the Saudi regime was blasphemous to Islam. Hundreds were killed and wounded during the recapturing of the mosque by the Saudi military.
Instead of cracking down on puritan Islamists, the tumultuous year of 1979 caused the Saudi government to spread strict Wahhabism throughout its population further. This was used to quell criticism and condemnation from ultraconservative Muslims for being too relaxed and transforming the country into a sterner Muslim society where widespread unrest and revolution would be impossible.
Since 1979 Saudi Arabia has been widely considered one of the most conservative Muslim countries in the Middle East. A state-run religious police force enforced ultraconservative Wahhabism throughout Saudi Arabian society. This enforcement included the separation of genders and strict observance of Islamic practices.
The relationship between the Saud and Wahhab families is still alive today as the Al ash-Sheikh family, who are direct descendants of Wahhab, serve as the primary religious advisors for the Saudi king.
However, since 2017 these strict religious laws have been relaxed. Women now have the right to drive automobiles, the religious police are stripped of much of their power, and many movie theatres and amusement parks were opened to the public. In addition, Prince Muhammad bin Salman has pledged to return the country to moderate Islam, effectively dismantling the close relationship that Wahhabism has had with the Saudi royalty since the 18th century.
Wahhabism and Terrorism
The ascension of the Saud family to power through the military conquest of the Arabian Peninsula has undoubtedly influenced Wahhabi extremists.
Wahhabism today is often identified with connotations of terrorism, as it influences the ideologies of many Islamic extremists. Defenders of Wahhabism claim that violence against innocent civilians is expressly condemned by Wahhabi teachings. They claim that Al Qaeda and the Taliban follow different conservative Islamic movements that condone violence to spread Islam.
A common misconception relayed in Western media throughout the 2010s was that the Saudi Wahhabis were the prime source of funding for the Islamic State. This myth has been repeatedly proven untrue by experts, who point out that the organization is largely self-funding. Furthermore, the financial support of extremist groups is closely investigated and harshly punished by the Saudi government.
The Islamic State has attacked Saudi Arabia on multiple occasions because the Saudi government has deviated from the teachings of Wahhab, and the Saudi government has provided both soldiers and considerable funds to the fight against the extremist group.
We have learned about many different aspects of the ultraconservative Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam.
Let’s review the main ideas:
- Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative movement of Islam that adheres to the strict interpretation of the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet Mohammed.
- Wahhabism revolves around the oneness of god and expressly condemns the veneration of saints and tombs.
- The movement was created by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who allied with Muhammad bin Saud to spread Wahhabism throughout Arabia. This relationship between the two families still exists today.
- Saudi Arabia is the central force of Wahhabism in the Middle East, though religious reform since 2017 has made the country move towards a more moderate form of Islam.
Wahhabism has undoubtedly been the most powerful religious force in the Arabian Peninsula since the early 20th century. Only time will tell if this ultraconservative movement gradually dies away due to more relaxed reforms or stays strongly rooted in Saudi Arabian society.