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Wahhabism (Arabic الوهابية, Wahabism, Wahabbism) is a fundamentalist Islamic movement, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (17031792). It is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia.


Origin of the term "Wahhabi"

The term "Wahhab" (Wahhābīya) refers to the movement's founder Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. It is rarely used by members of this group today, although the Saudis did use it in the past.

The Wahhabis claim to hold to the way of the "Salaf as-Salih", the 'pious predecessors' as earlier propagated mainly by Ibn Taymiyya, his students Ibn Al Qayyim and later by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab and his followers.

The term is considered offensive by some members who prefer to call themselves al-Muwahhidun (the monotheists), or the movement Salafism.


Wahhabism accepts the Qur'an and hadith as basic texts. It also accepts various commentaries including Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's Kitab al-Tawhid ("Book of Monotheism"), and the works of the earlier scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328).

Wahhabis do not follow any specific maddhab (method or school of jurisprudence), but claim to interpret the words of the prophet Muhammad directly, using the four maddhab for reference. However, they are often associated with the Hanbali maddhab. Wahhabis hold that some Muslim groups such as Sufism and Shia Islam follow novel (and thus non-Islamic) practices.

Wahhabi theology advocates a puritanical and legalistic stance in matters of faith and religious practice.

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

  • The invoking of any prophet, saint or angel in prayer, other than God alone (Wahhabists believe these practices are polytheistic in nature)
  • Supplications at graves, whether saints' graves, or the prophet's grave
  • Celebrating annual feasts for dead saints
  • Wearing of charms, and believing in their healing power
  • Practicing magic, or going to sorcerers or witches seeking healing
  • Innovation in matters of religion (e.g. new methods of worship)
  • Erecting elaborate monuments over any grave

Wahhabis ban pictures, tobacco, photographs, and celebrating Muhammad's birthday, among many other things, based on their interpretation of the hadith. Many Wahhabi men grow long beards and wear their traditional dresses above their ankles.

Early history of Wahhabism

Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, an Arabian cleric who had come to believe that Sunni Islam had been corrupted by innovations (bidah) such as Sufism. He discovered the works of the early Muslim thinker Ibn Taymiyya and started preaching a reformation of Islam based on Ibn Taymiyya's ideas. He was repudiated by his father and brother, who were both clerics, and expelled from his home village in Najd, in central Arabia.

(His brother later wrote a book harshly criticizing al-Wahhab: Divine Thunders Refuting the Wahhabis, or in Arabic, الصواعق الإلهية في الرد على الوهابية.)

Al-Wahhab then moved to the Najdi town of Diriya and formed an alliance with the Saudi chieftain Muhammad bin Saud. Bin Saud made Wahhabism the official religion in the First Saudi State. Al Wahhab gave religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud's career of conquest. Ibn Taymiyya had been controversial in his time because he held that some self-declared Muslims (such as the Mongol conquerors of the Abbasid caliphate) were in fact unbelievers and that orthodox Muslims could conduct violent jihad against them. Ibn Saud believed that his campaign to restore a pristine Islam justified the conquest of the rest of Arabia.

In 1801, the Saudis attacked the Iraqi city of Kerbala and sacked the Shi'a shrine there. In 1803, Saudis conquered Mecca and Medina and sacked or demolished various shrines and mosques. The Saudis held the two cities until 1817, until they were retaken by Mohammed Ali Pasha, acting on behalf of the Ottomans. In 1818, the Ottoman forces invaded Najd, captured the Saudi capital of Diriya and the Saudi emir Abdullah bin Saud. He and his chief lieutenants were taken to Istanbul and beheaded. However, this did not destroy Wahhabism in Najd.

The House of Saud returned to power in the Second Saudi State in 1824. The state lasted until 1899, when it was overthrown by the Emir of Hayel, Mohammed Ibn Rasheed. However, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud reconquered Riyadh in 1902 and after a number of other conquests, founded the modern Saudi state, Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Modern spread of Wahhabism

In 1924 the Wahhabi al-Saud dynasty 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 Wahhabism. Saudi laypeople, government officials and clerics have donated many tens of millions of dollars to create Wahhabi-oriented religious schools, newspapers and outreach organizations.

Some Muslims believe that Saudi funding and Wahhabi proselytization have had a strong effect on world-wide Sunni Islam (they may differ as to whether this is a good thing, or a bad one). Other Muslims say that while the Wahhabis have bought publicity and visibility, it is not clear that they have convinced even a sizable minority of Muslims outside Saudi Arabia to adopt Wahhabi norms.

"Salafi" vs. "Wahabi" vs. "Qutbi"

See Note on Salafi vs. Wahabi vs. Qutubi at Salafi as well as the article on Qutbism.

The term Wahabbi in and of itself is similar to the term Papist that used to be a common term amongst Protestant Christians for Catholics. There is no organization or group of Muslims that exists who refer to themselves as Wahabbis. Rather Wahabbi is the term that is used by the detractors of the Salafi Dawah to describe the followers of that movement.

See also