Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab

From New World Encyclopedia

Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792 C.E.) (Arabic:محمد بن عبد الوهاب) was an Arab theologian born in the Najd, in present-day Saudi Arabia and the most famous scholar of what non-members refer to as the Wahhabi movement, properly the Muwahhidun, the Unifiers of Islamic practice, a puritan reformist school. Al-Wahhab operated within the context of Muslim response to the increasing influence of Europe and to the subjugation of the Arab world to the non-Arab Ottoman Turks. Al-Wahhab was convinced that Muslims had departed from pure Islam and needed to return to its original beliefs and practices. His interpretation of Islam is also referred to as salafist (the salafa were those early Muslims who were close to Muhammad). Sufism, or mystical Islam, is regarded as deviant. Wahhabi Islam dominates Saudi Arabia, whose petroleum dollars fund Islamic organizations and institutions around the world on the condition that they conform to Wahhabi ideas. Wahhabi Islam is also described as traditionalist, or conservative. It tends to support rule by the elite. It permits no separation between religion and the state, and in its interpretation of Islamic Law, and is guided by past practice. Unusually, only one of the four Sunni schools of law is recognized, that of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. On the other hand, because there are many matters on which no hadith exist, the Wahhabi legal system leaves much scope for local custom or practice especially in areas related to trade and commerce.


Al-Wahhab considered his movement an effort to purify Islam by returning Muslims to what he believed were the original principles of Islam, as typified by the as-salaf as-saliheen (the earliest converts to Islam) and rejecting what he regarded as corruptions introduced by Bida (innovation, reformation) and Shirk (idolatry).

During his life he denounced practices of various sects of Sufism as being heretical and unorthodox, such as their veneration of saints. Although all Muslims pray to one God, Abd-Al-Wahhab was keen on emphasizing that no intercession with God was possible, an idea supported by the majority of Muslims. Specific practices, such as celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad were also deemed as innovations.

He is hence considered by his followers to be a great reformer of Islam, while the Sufis regard him a deviant. In either case, al-Wahhab's impact on Islam has been considerable and significant.

Ibn Abd-Al-Wahhab also revived interest in the works of the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), whom he cites, although not excessively. The followers of this revival of Islamism are often called Wahhabis, but they reject the usage of this term on the grounds that ibn Abd-Al-Wahhab's teachings were the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, not his own. Thus, they refer to themselves as Salafists or Muwahhidun, meaning, "the monotheists."

When Ibn Abd-Al-Wahhab struck a deal with Muhammed Ibn Saud, a chief of desert raiders in Najd, Ibn Saud and his house would be the chief of political administration and Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and his house would be the chief of Islamic interpretation. Today the royal family of Saudi Arabia belongs to the House of Saud and Grand Muftis from the House of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (Aa;-Sheikh). Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab declared the rulers of Hijaz (holy Land of Arabia with holy cities like Makkah and Madinah) to be non-Muslims and therefore worthy of attack and occupation. That dynasty, of which the current ruler of Jordan is heir, advocated a more tolerant and open version of Islam.


The early life of Muhammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab remains vaguely known despite extensive studies existent on the subject. Historians at the time were not interested and few contemporary journals covered such scholars. Thus, there are only two official histories of Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab and his religious movement, Ibn Ghannam's Tarikh Najd and Ibn Bishr's Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd.

Three points should be taken into account regarding these sources for the early life of Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab. First, they rarely mention specific dates of events. Secondly, both authors were Wahhabis themselves and therefore had a political and religious agenda to consider. Finally, each was written after the death of Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab.


In the year 1744, Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab began to attract followers in the small town Al-Uyayna, within the Najd region (the central region of modern Saudi Arabia). Lacking a base of support at the time, Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab's teachings were challenged by Sulayman Ibn Muhammed al-Hamidi of the Banu Khalid, the chief of Al-Hasa and Qatif. The latter threatened the ruler of the city that he would not pay him a land tax for his properties if he did not kill Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab—which he declined to do, although Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab was forced to leave.

Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab gained attention by the following actions: firstly, after he returned to al-Uyayna, he persuaded the ruler of the town to destroy a sacred tomb revered by local Muslims, citing the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching that forbade idol-worship. Secondly, he ordered that an adulteress be stoned to death, a practice that had become uncommon in the area. Additionally, he practiced the Islamic concept of rihla fi talab al-'ilm, "traveling the land in order to seek knowledge." The full extent of such travels remains uncertain.

Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab spent some time in Basra (in modern day Iraq), and it is assumed that as a devout Muslim he traveled to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina before traveling to Basra. Official sources on Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab's life put his visits to these cities in different chronological order.

Almost all sources agree that his reformist ideas were formulated while living in Basra, where he became somewhat famous for his debates with the Islamic scholars there, and wrote the Kitab Al Tawhid ("The Book of Monotheism"). Dates are missing in a great many cases, so it would be impossible to reconstruct a chronology of his life up until 1743, when the Meccan Epistle was written.


Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab was also reacting to the Ottoman domination of the Arab world and de facto leadership of Islam. Some Arabs resented this, and wanted to restore the Arab world to a position of leadership. Once the Saudi kingdom was established, itself largely a by-product of the end of World War I, the followers of al-Wahhab have regarded themselves as occupying the center stage of the Muslim world, and uses its oil wealth to exercise a large degree of control. One British Muslim comments that petro-dollars are available in the Muslim diaspora only to those mosques that are prepared to "become the mouthpiece of foreign governments." The Saudis, he says, "finance the mosque to get their own viewpoint put across."[1]


The Egyptian Islamic scholar Abd al-Wahhab ibn Ahamd Barakat al-Shafe'i al-Azhari al-Tantawi wrote an early criticism of ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's reforms in the book, Kitab Rad` al-Dalala wa Qam` al-Jahala ("The Book of the Prevention of Error and the Suppression of Ignorance.") Oddly, Tantawi did not specifically name Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab in the text, but referred to him as 'Sheikh al-Nas' (The populist scholar). This may be seen as either an effort to not humiliate Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab or to simply not draw unwanted attention to the Wahhabi movement. Tantawi wrote that he received word of Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's teachings through word-of-mouth and letters from local "authorities." The content of Tantawi's arguments also suggest this, as they do not appear to be based on any writings of Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's, instead disputing his general ideas, quoting a considerable number of Qur'anic verses.

Another critic of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab at the time was a major Sufi theologian, Ali al-Shafe'i al-Basri al-Shahir bel-Qabbani. A historian at the time, Ibn Turki, considered Qabbani to be among the four most prolific refuters of Wahhabism, particularly because, unlike Tantawi, he had actually read Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's writings. Qabbani wrote two texts criticizing Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the Fasl al-Khitab fi Rad Dalalat Ibn Abd al-Wahhab ("the unmistakable judgement in the refutation of the delusions of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab,") and the Kashf al-Hijab an Wajh Dalalat Ibn al-Wahhab ("lifting the veil from the face of the delusions of Ibn al-Wahhab,"). Qabbani later wrote a formal, anti-Wahhabis tract, citing both sources.

Many Salafis had adverse reactions to the writings of ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the behavior of his ‘adherents’. One such interaction was between the Wahhabis and the Sunni establishment in ‘Iraq, and its Salafi leaders. In ‘Iraq there had been a long history of Salafi sheikhs and their activities and teachings. Many of the ijazas issued (teaching credentials, essentially) were from the Salafi ‘Ulema`.

However the Wahhabis had made some headway in ‘Iraq at this time, so much so that the Mamluk rulers of ‘Iraq desired that the ‘Iraqi ‘ulama` begin refutations of the Wahhabi doctrines. This culminated with the publishing of some of the correspondences in Cairo under the title al-Tawdih ‘an tawhid al-khilaq fi jawab ahl al-‘Iraq. The twentieth century saw the deeply introspective Salafi movement of ‘Iraq come into more stark contrast with the Wahhabi movement. This was spearheaded by Shaykh Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi. Al-Alusi was a teacher at the Haidarkhana College, and held both anti-Wahhabi and anti-Sufi views. The British authorities in ‘Iraq accused al-Alusi of being a Wahhabi, and spreading Wahhabi doctrine. Al-Alusi became so incensed at this assertion that he stated that he would not even accept Wahhabis as students.

Al-Alusi wrote a book titled Kitab ghayat al-amani fi al-radd ‘ala al-Nabhani (The Book of the Extremities of Hopes in the Reply to al-Nabhani). In this work al-Alusi replies to (refutes) a treatise he had received from a Palestinian Sufi Shaykh named Yusuf al-Nabhani. Al-Alusi considered this book ‘a great slander’. Al-Alusi assaults Nabhani for belonging to a Sufi order in which was practiced. He labeled these types of people ‘false Muslims’. Al-Alusi then states that this abhorrent practice was often employed by the Wahhabis. [2]

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own brother, Suleiman Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab wrote a refutation of him. It was entitled al-Sawa’iq al-Uluhiyya (The Divine Lightning Bolts). In this work Suleiman Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab compares his brother’s ideas to those of the Khawarij (also Kharijites, an early sect of Islam which believed in declaring certain Muslims as disbelievers then shedding their blood). This is in addition to the fact that Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own father had repudiated him for his ideas.

Amongst his supporters are the late Ibn Baz and Ibn Uthaymeen of Saudi Arabia.

From Death to the Present

During his life, Muhammed Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab forged a pact with Najd chieftain Muhammad bin Saud, ensuring that regions conquered by the Saudi tribe would be ruled according to Ibn 'Abd Al-Wahhab's teachings on Islam. Bin Saud and his heirs would spend the next 140 years mounting various military campaigns to seize control of Arabia and its outlying regions. The most successful of these would establish the present-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, providing the Wahhabi movement with a state. Vast wealth from oil discovered in the following decades, coupled with Saudi, and thus Wahhabi, control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have since fueled Wahhabi missionary activity.


Perceptions of Muhammed Abd Al-Wahhab are varied. To many Muslims who reside in Saudi Arabia or whose Islamic education came from Saudi Arabian instructors (of which there are many abroad, especially in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and other Islamic countries which have prominent Saudis), Abd-al-Wahhab is a leading luminary in the proud tradition of Islamic scholarship. A great number of Sunni Muslims regard him as a pious scholar whose interpretations of Qur'an and Hadith were nevertheless out of step with the mainstream of Islamic thought, and thus discredited.

Wahhabi Islam

Wahhabi Islam stresses the importance of exact conformity to the rituals of Islam and a literal interpretation of the Qur'an. For example, while modernist Muslims regard a Qur'anic penalty such as amputation for theft as appropriate in the seventh century but inappropriate for today, when an alternative penalty—albeit a severe alternative—can be substituted, Wahhabis insist on amputation once certain conditions have been met. Modernists do not believe that the Qur'an permits men to marry more than one wife except in extraordinary circumstances; Wahhabis regard this as an absolute right. Modernists interpret the Qur'an as prescribing modest dress for both sexes; Wahhabis insist that women cover their whole bodies. Modernists believe that democracy is consistent with what the Qur'an says about how Muslims should govern themselves; Wahhabis believe that those who possess knowledge should exercise power. However, Saudi Arabia is not, as people often claim, an absolute monarchy since the descendants of ibn Abd-al-Wahhab exercise considerable authority including the ability to dismiss the king. The monarchy is accepted as a pragmatic necessity, since apart from the very early period of Islamic history, this institution has solved the question 'who should rule?', although succession in Saudi Arabia is not automatic. While the Wahhabis finance many Muslim organizations around the world, traditionally they are conservative politically and rarely advocate open rebellion against government. Osama bin Laden, however, while sharing Wahhabi views on legal matters, opposes monarchy. Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab emphasized the oneness of God and denounced anything that appeared to compromise this, including over enthusiastic veneration of the prophet and of other religious figures, such as Sufi saints and teachers. He opposed the common practice of visiting the Prophet's tomb, although this remains popular. Some Liberal Muslims think that ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's own followers are actually more rigid than their teacher, who encouraged all Muslims to reach their own conclusions about the meaning of Qur'anic texts not simply to blindly follow some self-proclaimed authority. One of the pioneers of modernist Islam, Syed Ahmed Khan:

Openly declared that acceptance by the Wahhabis of the 'right of every individual to interpret the Qur'an according to his own light and rational judgement and not to be bound by the interpretation put on it by any former jurists' as a matter of principle was most important.[3]


-Adab al-Mashy Ila as-Salaa (Manners of Walking to the Prayer)

-Usul al-Iman (Foundations of Faith)

-Fada`il al-Islam (Excellent Virtues of Islam)

-Fada`il al-Qur’an (Excellent Virtues of the Qur’an)

-Kitab at-Tauhid (The Book of the Unity of God)

-Kitab Kashf as-Shubuhat (The Book of Clarification of Uncertainties)

-Majmu’a al-Hadith ‘Ala Abwab al-Fiqh (Compendium of the Hadith on the Main Topics of the Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence))

-Mukhtasar al-Iman (Literally Abridgement of the Faith, means the summarized version of a work on Faith)

-Mukhtasar al-Insaf wa`l-Sharh al-Kabir (Abridgement of the Equity and the Great Explanation)

-Mukhtasar Seerat ar-Rasul (Summarized Biography of the Prophet)

-Mukhtasar al-Sawa`iq (Literally Summary of the Lightning bolt, it is a summary of a criticism of Shi’as written in Palestine by Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani).

-Mukhtasar Fath al-Bari (Fath al-Bari is a commentary on the Sahih al-Bukhari by Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani).

-Mukhtasar al-Minhaj (Summary of the Path, most likely referring to Minhaj al-Sunna by Ibn Taymiyya)

  • It should be noted that many of these works have been visited by 'expanders'. It is sometimes difficult to know where bin 'Abd al-Wahhab has left off and an expander has picked up. This was no doubt done to rehabilitate his ideas and show them as more comprehensive and thoughful than they really are.


  1. Mohamed S. Raza. Islam in Britain: past, present and future (Leiceister, Volcano Press, 1991, ISBN 9781870127356), 26.
  2. Takfir is the practice of declaring people to be non-Muslim, and therefore justifying killing them as apostates. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination was justified by a popular jurist on the grounds that he was an enemy of true Islam.
  3. B. A Dar, Religious Thought of Sayyid Ahmed Khan, 2nd ed. (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1971).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abualrub, Jalal. Biography and Mission of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. Orlando, FL: Madina Publishers and Distributors, 2003. ISBN 9780970376657
  • Algar, Hamid. "Wahhabism: a Critical Essay.” Oneonta, New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana. Wahhabi Islam From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. Oxford & NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780195169911
  • Gold, Dore. Hatred's Kingdom. New York: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2003. ISBN 9780895261359
  • Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Inside Jihad U.: The Education of a Holy Warrior," The New York Times Magazine. June 25, 2000.
  • Haneef, James Oliver. The Wahhabi Myth, Dispelling Prevalent Fallacies and the Fictitious Link with Bin Laden. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2002. ISBN 9781553953975
  • Holden, David and Richard Johns. The House of Saud. London: Pan, 1982. ISBN 0-330-26834-1
  • Olivier de Corancez, Alexandre. The History of the Wahhabis from their Origin until the End of 1809, Middle Eastern Studies. 33, no. 1, (1997): 189 ISSN 0026-3206
  • Qadhi, Yasir. A Critical Study of Shirk: Being a Translation and Commentary of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab's Kashf al-Shubuhat. Birmingham, UK: al-Hidaayah Publications, 2002. ISBN 9781898649625
  • Qadhi, Yasir. The Four Principles of Shirk of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab. Birmingham, UK: al-Hidaayah Publications, 2002. ISBN 9781898649526
  • Traboulsi, Samer. Die Welt des Islams, Nov 2002, Vol. 42 Issue 3, p373, 43p, (AN 9117682)


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