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Wahhabism (Arabic: Al-Wahhābīyya الوهابية, Wahabism) (also called Salafism) is a branch of Sunni Islam practiced by those who follow the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (1703–1792 C.E.), after whom the movement is named. Wahhabism is the dominant form of Sunni Islam found in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, as well as some pockets of Somalia, Algeria, Palestine, and Mauritania.

The term "Wahhabi" (Wahhābīya) is considered derogatory and rarely used by the people it is said to describe, who prefer to call themselves followers of Salafism ("Monotheism").[1] For them, Wahhabism/Salafism is not a school of thought within Islam, but rather is Islam itself. Thus, Wahhabis see themselves as adherents of the true, authentic Islam, the so-called original Islam that existed in the time of the Prophet.[2] According to some scholars, however, Wahhabism is properly seen as a reform movement within Islam, rather than a sect.[3]

Wahhabis argue that the rest of the Muslim community should emulate their "proper" view of Islam.[4] Consequently, Wahhabism holds in contempt any deviations in belief and practice found in other Muslim communities and the movement spurns Bid’ah, which refers to any innovation separate from the doctrines and practices set out by the Qur’an.[4] Wahhabis are particularly vehement towards the Islamic mystics, the Sufis, for their attempts to experience Allah personally rather than through strict adherence to Islamic law.[5]


Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (1703–1792 C.E.) was born in the central Arabian region of Najd that would eventually become known as Saudi Arabia.[2] Little is known about his early life other than that he was clearly influenced by the works of Ibn Taymiyyah, the fourteenth century Hanbali theologian.[6] Ibn Taymiyya endorsed the Hanbali school of Sharia (Islamic law), one of four great schools in Sunni Islam. This school was named after Ibn Hanbal (780–855 C.E.), who espoused a literal interpretation of Sharia.

Ibn Taymiyyah also put great emphasis on the societal values of solidarity and justice. He condemned Islamic mystics, Sufis, for straying away from the path of doctrines and rituals set out in the Qur’an.[6] The message of Ibn Taymiyyah would become much more radicalized in the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab who was also devoted to a literal interpretation and exegesis of the Qur'an.

Following extensive 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.[2]

His preaching can be summarized into three points: Firstly, ritual action is more important than intentions; secondly, Muslims should not revere the dead; and finally, Muslims should not make intercessory prayers to God through the Prophet or saints.[2] At the heart of the issue was his virulent opposition to any thought or action that mars the oneness of God.[7]

As a result, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab condemned honoring anyone other than Allah as idolatry, including Prophet Muhammad.[2] He abhorred the practice of reciting blessings on the Prophet during congregational prayers. In fact, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab fought all forms of worship to the Prophet, such as pilgrims’ practice of making hajj to visit the Prophet’s tomb in Medina, the Muslim celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, and the inscription of the Prophet’s name in mosques.[2]

Wahhabis explain their opposition to the traditional praise of the Prophet by saying this praise renders a human to God-like status.[2] They compare Muslims’ praise of the Prophet to the Christian worship of Jesus, which is rejected by Muslims who see it as adding “partners” to God and destroying monotheistic belief in God’s unity. However, anti-Wahhabi scholars point out that one can not be a Muslim without honoring the Prophet, as the Muslim profession of faith and the call to prayer include two parts: “I affirm there is no God but Allah; and I affirm Muhammad is the Prophet of God."[2]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab proceeded to take shocking actions to reform the faith. He ordered that graves of Muslim saints be dug up and scattered or even turned into latrines.[2] He ordered the burning of books, saying the Qur'an offered more than enough reading material.[2] He also condemned music, claiming that it led people to forget God and give themselves to sin. In contrast, the Islamic mystical Sufis used music as a way of giving themselves to the consciousness of God.[6]

While some Muslims see Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as one of many Muslim reformers at the time led by a sense of duty to preach and correct what he saw as immoral and incorrect practices,[8] the majority of Islamic scholars, however, did not support him and argued that his behavior went against the Qur’an as well as the four schools of Islam. Moreover, his own brother complained that he was trying to add another pillar to the five pillars of Islam: The infallibility of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.[1][2]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab responded by denouncing his detractors as idolators and apostates, and urged people to abandon the four traditional schools to follow him.[2][6] He openly stated his belief 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.[2] He further believed the lives of Shias, Sufis, and other supposedly unorthodox Muslims should be extinguished and that all other faiths should be humiliated and destroyed. It has been suggested that Wahhabi doctrine set the stage for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.[2]

In 1744, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab sought refuge in the village of Dariyah. This district was ruled by the rebel Muhammad ibn Sa’ud and his family, Al Sa’ud, which was responsible for organized banditry within Najd.[2] The family ruled Dariyah according to its own whims and the village was a place of lawlessness when Ibn Abd al-Wahhab settled there. In 1747, he made a power-sharing agreement with the family; 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.[2]

The Al Sa’ud family also benefited from the pact, as the Wahhabi movement and its extreme religious fervor helped to legitimize their rule.[4][5] The fusion of religious and political control would come to represent the modern Saudi Arabia, as well as mark the break between the Islam of the past, in which traditional Muslim scholars focused on inward contemplation as opposed to focusing on gaining global and political power.[2]

With this new power arrangement in place, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers urged a “jihad,” or the struggle to promote the faith, against other Muslims, and thus, the Wahhabis began a blood-soaked campaign for expansion and domination.[5]

Ibn Abdul-Wahhab's views were opposed to the mainstream Muslim scholars of Mecca and Medina of that time. For example, he called intermediation of Muhammad an act of polytheism. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab went so far as to declare jihad against Muslims who practiced so-called acts of polytheism. By 1788, the Wahhab-Sa’ud alliance controlled most of the Arabian peninsula.[2]

In 1801, the Wahhabis began a campaign to gain control over the two holy cities of Islam. They raided Mecca and Medina and stole holy books, works of art, and other gifts the city had accumulated over the last thousand years. While they controlled the Two Holy Places, they imposed Wahhabism upon the populace, destroyed shrines and cemeteries, closed off entrance to the holy city to Ottoman pilgrims, barred pilgrims from performing the hajj, and murdered respected citizens in both holy cities.[2]

Through the 1820s to the 1860s, the Wahhabis launched attacks upon the Ottoman Empire, urged on by Great Britain, which was eager to see the collapse of the Turkish empire and the distribution of its overseas possessions.[2]

The Wahhabis’ power grew and shrank by turns throughout the century, until in 1901, the latest representative of the Al Sa’ud and Wahhabi alliance decided to try and re-seize control over the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Abdul-Aziz Ibn Abdur-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Al Sa’ud journeyed to Riyadh, where he murdered the city’s ruler and took over control of the country.[2] Over the next twenty-five years, he went on to unify the Arabian peninsula through force.[5] Wahhabism was the only official faith sanctioned in the state that would come to be formed there. To this day, no other religious establishment is allowed in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.[5]


Did you know?
Wahhabism subscribes to the doctrine of oneness of God ("Tawhid"), rejecting aspects of contemporary Islam as polytheism

The Wahhabi subscribe to the primary doctrine of the uniqueness and unity of God. Wahhabi theology treats the Qur'an and Hadith as the supreme texts, interpreted according to the first three generations of Islam and further explained by the commentaries of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. His book called Kitab al-Tawhid (Book of Monotheism), and the works of the earlier scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) are fundamental to Wahhabism.

Wahhabis see their role as restoring Islam from what they perceive to be polytheism and innovations, superstitions, deviances, heresies and idolatries. There are many practices that they believe are contrary to Islam, such as:

  • Listening to music in praise of Muhammad
  • Praying to God while visiting tombs (praying near Muhammad's tomb is also considered polytheism by the Wahhabis)
  • Blindly following any madhhabs (schools of thought) of Islamic jurisprudence in their legal expertise, "except for one who is under necessity and can not reach the Sunnah".[9]
  • Using non-literal explanations of God's attributes exclusively in preference to literal explanations.
  • Celebrating the Mawlid (birthday of Muhammad)
  • Supposed or actual innovations (bid'ah) in matters of religion (for example, new supplementary methods of worship or laws not sanctioned by the Qur’an or Sunnah)

Wahhabism also denounces "the practice of unthinking adherence to the interpretations of scholars and the blind acceptance of practices that were passed on within the family or tribe. Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab believed in the responsibility of the individual Muslim to learn and obey the divine commands as they were revealed in the Quran and in the hadith."[10]

Wahhabism into the twentieth century and beyond

In 1924, the al-Saud dynasty (who were influenced by the teachings of Abdul Wahhab) conquered Mecca and Medina, the Muslim holy cities. This gave them control of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage, and the opportunity to preach their version of Islam to the assembled pilgrims. However, Wahhabism was a minor current within Islam until the discovery of oil in Arabia, in 1938. Vast oil revenues gave an immense impetus to the spread of conservative Islamic theology.

Wahhabi ideas began to spread to other countries through pilgrims who came to the Hajj and returned to their countries of origin. This theology spread into Oman during the eighteenth century where it played a role in the internal disputes and succession struggles of the country. Howeve, many of the traditional mullahs are not quietly accepting the Wahhabi foray into their countries; they are fiercely defending the tribal Islam rooted in their communities. Deference for elders is of utmost importance in tribal communities and traditional mullahs point out that Wahhabis are guilty of the utmost disrespect because they do not follow the commentaries of the faith’s learned scholars. These mullahs paint the Wahhabis as foreigners who sacrificed the true vision of Islam for money.[2][7]

These mullahs and other Muslim preachers urge their followers to accept the path of the “Greater Jihad.” Wahhabi clerics may preach the lesser jihad of war, death and blood, citing the Qur’an’s description of war against unbelievers to justify the killing of less observant Muslims and to an even greater extent, non-Muslims.[5] However, this path of jihad has long been abandoned by the majority of Muslims in favor of the “Greater Jihad,” the struggle to come closer to Allah through piety and devotion.[5]

While all of Islam accepts the unity of God and monotheism, not all of Islam recognizes the need for the religion to become one monolithic, static force, preserving the same beliefs and practices throughout its history.[11] Muslim preachers and followers across the world, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to Afghanistan to America, accept in their religion a diversity of interpretations and expression of faith; this diversity should continue to hold in the face of opposition, murder and terror in the cloak of orthodoxy.

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.[2] The Wahhabi clerics issue strict guidelines for sex, prohibit keeping pet dogs, prohibit women’s attendance at funerals, and insist that women veil themselves.[12]

Influence on other groups

The formation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was likely influenced by the Wahhabis, since they also claimed to be purifying and restoring Islam. Indeed, when the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in various Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia gave refuge to Brotherhood exiles.[13] However, Salafis in Saudi Arabia reject the Muslim Brotherhood and other ideas they believe contravene Salafist theology.

There are also those who argue that Saudi promotion of Wahhabism as part of a Sunni-Shi'a rivalry contributed to the development of the religious ideology of al-Qaeda. Islamist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been heavily influenced by Wahhabi.[1][5][8] However, Mattson points out that Saudi scholars of Wahhabism have denounced terrorism.[14] Ultimately, however, its influence lessened over time despite early success. Its alliance with the House of Saud became strained after the September 11, 2001 attacks and suicide bombings in Riyadh in May, 2003.[15]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 K. Abou El Fadl, "The ugly modern and the modern ugly." In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism edited by Omid Safi (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror (New York: Doubleday, 2002, ISBN 978-0385506922).
  3. CNN, Ingrid Mattson: What is Islam? Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 G. Bahgat, "Saudi Arabia and the war on terrorism." Arab Studies Quarterly, (2004) 26.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Patrick Lang, Wahhabism and jihad America, March 10, 2003. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 David Waines, An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 978-8175961890).
  7. 7.0 7.1 S. Robinson, "Infallible preachers" Christian Century, 123, (2006): 10–11.
  8. 8.0 8.1 S. Haj, "Reordering Islamic Orthodoxy: Muhhamad ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab" Muslim World (2002): 92.
  9. Muhammad Nassir ad-Deen al-Albaanee in the Jumaad al-Oola issue of al-Muslimoon magazine, 1415 A.H
  10. William L.A. Cleveland, History of the Modern Middle East (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004), pg. 123.
  11. John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0195396003).
  12. F. Foer, "Moral hazard" New Republic (2002), 227.
  13. Carl Hammer, Tide of Terror: America, Extremism, and the War on Terror (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 2003), 18.
  14. CNN, Ingrid Mattson: What is Islam? Retrieved April 8, 2008.
  15. Mike Shuster, npr.org Rift Seen Between Saudis, Wahhabis. Retrieved April 8, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bahgat, G. Saudi Arabia and the war on terrorism. Arab Studies Quarterly, (2004) 26.
  • Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0813340487
  • Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0195396003
  • Foer, F. "Moral hazard." New Republic, (2002), 227.
  • Haj, S. Reordering Islamic Orthodoxy: Muhhamad ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab. Muslim World, (2002) 92.
  • Hammer, Carl. Tide of Terror: America, Extremism, and the War on Terror. Paladin Press, Boulder, 2003. ISBN 978-1581604122
  • Lang, Patrick. Wahhabism and jihad America, March 10, 2003. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
  • Madawi, Al-Rasheed. A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521644127
  • Natana, J. Delong-Bas. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195169913
  • Safi, Omid (ed.). Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003. ISBN 978-1851683161
  • Schwartz, Stephen. The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror. New York: Doubleday, 2002. ISBN 978-0385506922
  • Robinson, S. Infallible preachers. Christian Century, 123, (2006): 10–11.
  • Waines, David. An Introduction to Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-8175961890


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