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Wahhabism or الوهابية, Wahabism, Wahabbism is a Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movement, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-1792). It is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Used largely by outsideers, many of its adherents object to the use of the term and prefer Salafi.


Origin of the term "Wahhabi"

The term "Wahhabi" (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. They preferred to be called the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood, which should not be confused with the "Muslim Brotherhood" of Hassan al-Banna and Sayd Qutb.

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.


Wahhabism accepts the Qur'an and hadith as fundamental texts. It also accepts various commentaries including Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's heretical book called Kitab al-Tawhid ("Book of Monotheism"), and the works of the earlier scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who was virtually unknown before he was discovered by Ibn Abdul Wahab. 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. 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:

  • Invoking of any prophet, Sufi saint, or angel in prayer, other than God alone (Wahhabists believe these practices are polytheistic in nature)
  • Visiting the graves of Sufi saints or prophets and asking the dead for help
  • Celebrating annual feasts for Sufi 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)

The "Wahhabi´s", seek to restrict the attention of Muslims to the Qur´aan, which is regarded by all of Islam as the authentic word of God as recorded by the Prophet, and to restrict their religious practices to what they deem to be the methodology of the pious predecessors. The parallels with Fundamentalism in Christianity are clear.

Note carefully the multiple references to Sufism above. In the institutional history of Islam, Sufism offered an alternative to the written word as taught and interpreted by the religious establishment. As Sufism offered an alternative approach to God, it threatened the secular power of the conventional religious leaders, of which Wahhabism is an extreme manifestation.

In many of the religions of the Middle East there is a strong claim on the part of religious leaders to their having the authority to tell people what to believe. Two paths provide alternatives: (1) The scientific tradition, the belief that there is an empirical path to true knowledge, and (2) the mystical tradition, the belief that there is an inner path to God. Authoritarians oppose people following either of those paths. Ironically, it was the Muslim world that originally kept the knowledge of the ancient Greek philosophers going through the Dark Ages of Europe and (through Sufism) may have fed the sources of many Christian mystical traditions as well. The belief that any human could learn the laws that God had imposed upon the Universe -- independent of what the Bible said -- led to the development of science. Making some initial progress with real science was like the beginning flow of water over the top of a dam. Science grew with extreme rapidity in the West, and China and the Islamic world soon found themselves so far behind that they had to choose whether to learn from the West or adhere to their old traditions and inhibit the adoption of scientific approaches. Now religious authoritarians in our own culture seeking to impose their ideological views on youths may learn how to do it from this sect of Islam.

Early history of Wahhabism

Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahab, an Arabian cleric who had come to believe that Sunni Islam was being gradually corrupted by innovations (bidah), many of which were countenanced by the Islamic mystical movement called Sufism, which was indeed the case in Arabia at the time of Ibn Abd al Wahab. Abd al Wahab 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. The scholars of that time, realizing the inherent innovation hidden in the messages of Ibn Abd al Wahab, entirely rejected his extreme and unusual interpretations of Islamic texts and the principle of Towhid.

(His brother later wrote a book harshly criticizing Abd 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 interpretation of Islam in the First Saudi State. Al Wahhab gave religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud's career of conquest. Ibn Saud was also backed up by the British Empire who sought to weaken the Ottoman Empire.

In 1801, the Saudis attacked the Iraqi city of Kerbala and sacked the shrine of Imam Hussain. In 1803, Saudis conquered Mecca and Medina and destroyed various shrines, such as the shrine built over the tomb of Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Muhammad. They also wanted to dismantle Muhammad's shrine as well but abandoned their plan. This led to a great loss of all historical locations in the Arabian Penninsula; in a matter of months, a great part of Islamic historical heritage was reduced to rubble. 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 end 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 to create religious schools, newspapers and outreach organizations.

Salafism and Qutbism

Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is said to have been influenced by the Wahhabis. The Muslim Brotherhood also claimed to be purifying and restoring original Islam. When the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in various Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia gave refuge to Brotherhood exiles. This seems to have set the stage for a mingling of Brotherhood and Wahhabi thought under the aegis of the term Salafism. Rebels against the Saudi state found justification in the thought of Sayyed Qutb, a member of the Brotherhood who spent years in Egyptian jails. Some Wahhabis, or Salafis, rejected what they call Qutbism, as a deviation from true Salafism. Thus there is now a considerable spectrum of religious opinion within Saudi Wahhabism/Salafism, to a great extent divided on the question of whether the Saudi state is to be supported, endured patiently, or violently opposed. The modern day Salafis, deny that Hassan al-Banna or Sayid Qutb where followers of the Salaf, since they upheld the view that it is allowed to overthrow the Muslim leader, and to make "Takfeer" (the act of placing a Muslim out of the fold of Islam, making him a disbeliever) on him based on Major Sins. See Salafism for further commentary.

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