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Wahhabi ( الوهابية) or Wahhabism is a sect attributed to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, an 18th century scholar from what is today Saudi Arabiamarker. He advocated bringing Islam back to its roots by removing what he considered innovations in Islam (Bidah). He believed that those who practice innovation in Islam are Kafir (infidels).John R Bradley, Saudi's Shi'ites walk tightrope, Asia Times, March 17, 2005

For this reason, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's sons led an army which occupied Ta’if and Mecca (Makkah). This was followed by massacres and destruction of many graves and holy sites. Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab also considered destroying the house where the Prophet Muhammad was born and tried to destroy the holy grave of the Prophet Muhammad, out of fear that it might be worshipped.

It is often referred to as a sect within Sunni Islam, although this designation is disputed. The term "Wahhabi" (Wahhābīya) was first used by opponents of ibn Abdul Wahhab. It is considered derogatory by the people it is used to describe, who prefer to be called "unitarians" (Muwahiddun).

The terms "Wahhabi" and "Salafi" are often used interchangeably, but Wahhabi has also been called "a particular orientation within Salafism", an orientation some consider ultra-conservative. Wahhabism is specifically a theological sect, while the focus of Salafism was historically confined to reinterpreting Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh. That many modern Wahhabis are also Salafis, and now refer to themselves nearly exclusively as such, has led to confusion.

Wahhabism predominantly influenced the central Arabian peninsula, known as Najd, originally advocating the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. It has developed considerable influence in the Muslim world through the funding of mosques, schools and other means from Persian Gulf oil wealth. It is interesting to note that nobody calls themselves Wahhabi; but they are called by others as Wahhabi . The name stems from following the strict interpretations of Muhammed Ibn Wahhab.The primary doctrine of Wahhabi is Tawhid, or the uniqueness and unity of God as pronounced by Ibn Abdul Wahhab and influenced by the writings of Ibn Taymiyya, a Hanbali jurist who in some of his writings considered calling on pious figures as intermediaries for one's prayers to be an innovation. Ibn Abdul Wahhab went further in considering it an act of idolatry, and despite being accepted by centuries of Muslim scholarship, his sect considered its practitioners and advocates to be outside of Islam and permissible to kill, raid, and enslave (see First Saudi Statemarker). He preached against a "perceived moral decline and political weakness" in the Arabian Peninsula and condemned what he saw as idolatry in the form of shrine and tomb visitation.


Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab

Mohammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, studied in Basramarker (in southern Iraqmarker) and is reported to have developed his ideas there. He is reported to have studied in Meccamarker and Medinamarker while there to perform Hajj before returning to his home town of 'Uyaynamarker in 1740.

After his return to 'Uyayna, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab began to attract followers there, including the ruler of the town, Uthman ibn Mu'ammar. With Ibn Mu'ammar's support, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab began to implement some of his ideas such as leveling the grave of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, one of the Sahaba (companions) of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, and ordering that an adulteress be stoned to death. These actions were disapproved of by Sulaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Ghurayr of the tribe of Bani Khalid, the chief of Al-Hasamarker and Qatifmarker, who held substantial influence in Nejd and ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was expelled from 'Uyayna.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was invited to settle in neighboring Diriyahmarker by its ruler Muhammad ibn Saud in 1740 (1157 AH), two of whose brothers had been students of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Upon arriving in Diriyya, a pact was made between Ibn Saud and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, by which Ibn Saud pledged to implement and enforce Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teachings, while Ibn Saud and his family would remain the temporal "leaders" of the movement.

Saudi sponsorship

Beginning in the last years of the 18th century Ibn Saud and his heirs would spend the next 140 years mounting various military campaigns to seize control of Arabia and its outlying regions, before being attacked and defeated by Ottoman forces. The invasions were justified as the destruction of the villages of polytheists as authorized in the Qu'ran.

One of their most famous and controversial attacks was on Karbalamarker in 1802 (1217 AH). There, according to a Wahhabi chronicler `Uthman b. `Abdullah b. Bishr:
"[Wahhabis] scaled the walls, entered the city ... and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes.
[They] destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn [and took] whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings.
.... the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels.
.... different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qur'an."

In the early 20th Century, the Wahhabist-oriented Al-Saud dynasty conquered and unified the various provinces on the Arabian peninsula, founding the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. This provided the movement with a state. Vast wealth from oil discovered in the following decades, coupled with Saudi control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have since provided a base and funding for Wahhabi missionary activity.

The Saudi government established the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a state religious police unit, to enforce Wahhabi rules of behaviour. Afghanistanmarker maintained a similar government ministry from 1992 to the downfall of the Taliban in 2001. It was revived by the Supreme Court of Afghanistan as the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs.


The Wahhabi subscribe to the understanding of primary doctrine of the uniqueness and unity of God (Tawhid). The first aspect is believing in Allah's Lordship that He alone is the believer's lord (Rabb). The second aspect is that once one affirms the existence of Allah and His Lordship, one must worship Him and Him alone.

Wahhabi theology treats the Qur'an and Hadith as the only fundamental and authoritative texts. Commentaries and "the examples of the early Muslim community (Ummah) and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (632-661 C.E.)" are used to support these texts but are not considered independently authoritative.

Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab further explains in his book Kitab-at-Tawhid (which draws on material from the Qur'an and the narrations of the prophet) that worship in Islam includes conventional acts of worship such as the five daily prayers; fasting; Dua (supplication); Istia'dha (seeking protection or refuge); Ist'ana (seeking help), and istigatha (seeking benefits). Therefore, making dua to anyone or anything other than Allah, or seeking supernatural help and protection which is only befitting of a divine being from something other than Allah are acts of shirk and contradict Tawhid. Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab further explains that Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime tried his utmost to cut all ways and roots towards shirk.

The most important of these commentaries are those by Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (even though he was not among the first three generations) including his book Kitab al-Tawhid, and the works of Ibn Taymiyyah. Abd-al-Wahhab was a follower of Ahmad ibn Hanbal's school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) like most in Nejd at the time, but "was opposed to any of the schools (Madh'hab) being taken as an absolute and unquestioned authority". Therefore, he condemned taqlid at the scholarly level.

Wahhabism also denounces the practice of blind adherence to the interpretations of scholars and the blind acceptance of practices that were passed on within the family or tribe. Of the most widely used excuse of the pagans around the time of the prophet was that they worshiped idols because they saw their forefathers engaged in that practice. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wrote in support of the responsibility of the individual Muslim to learn and obey the divine commands as they were revealed in the Quran and the Sunnah. He upheld the view that blind deference to authority eventually leads one to neglect their direct connection with Qur'an and Sunnah. Islam is not an elitist religion in which one must be bound by priests and rabbis for any recourse to religious texts. He uses as evidence an ayah of the Qur'an in which Allah condemns the children of Israel for taking their rabbis as authorities besides Allah. This was because they gave supreme authority to scholars without any critical and evaluative mindset and gave ultimate loyalty and connection to the scholars and creation rather than Allah and his revealed texts.


The Wahhabis/Salafis consider themselves to be 'non-imitators' or 'not attached to tradition' (ghayr muqallidun), and therefore answerable to no school of law at all, observing instead what they would call the practice of early Islam.
However, to do so does correspond to the ideal aimed at by Ibn Hanbal, and thus they can be said to be of his 'school'.

Criticism and controversy

Naming controversy: Wahhabism and Salafism

Among those who criticize the use of the term Wahhabi is social scientist Quintan Wiktorowicz. In a footnote of his report, Anatomy of the Salafi Movement, he said:

Opponents of Salafism frequently affix the "Wahhabi" designator to denote foreign influence.
It is intended to signify followers of Abd al-Wahhab and is most frequently used in countries where Salafis are a small minority of the Muslim community but have made recent inroads in "converting" the local population to the movement ideology.
The Salafi movement itself, however, never uses this term.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to find individuals who refer to themselves as Wahhabis or organizations that use "Wahhabi" in their title or refer to their ideology in this manner (unless they are speaking to a Western audience that is unfamiliar with Islamic terminology, and even then usage is limited and often appears as "Salafi/Wahhabi").

Indeed, to this day, the term is still used to stir up conflict between Muslims.

Other observers describe the term as "originally used derogatorily by opponents", but now commonplace and used even "by some Najdi scholars of the movement."

Criticism by other Muslims

Wahabis have also committed controversial and violent actions against Muslims who the Wahabis believed to be non-Muslims. In 1801 and 1802, the Saudi Wahhabis under Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud attacked and captured the holy Shi'a cities of Karbala and Najafmarker in Iraq, massacred parts of the Shi'a population and destroyed the tombs of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, and Ali (Ali bin Abu Talib), the son-in-law of Muhammad. (see: Saudi sponsorship mentioned previously) In 1803 and 1804 the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed historical monuments and various holy Muslim sites and shrines, such as the shrine built over the tomb of Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, and even intended to destroy the grave of Muhammad himself as idolatrous.

Some Muslims, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of America, and Abdul Hadi Palazzi classify Wahhabbism as pseudo-Sunni Islam.

Attitudes towards Non-Muslims

A study by the NGO Freedom House found Wahhabi publications in a number of mosques in the United States preaching that Muslims should not only "always oppose" infidels "in every way", but "hate them for their religion ... for Allah's sake", that democracy "is responsible for all the horrible wars of the 20th century", and that Shia and certain other non-Wahhabi Muslims were infidels.

The Saudi government responded by pointing out: "[It has] worked diligently during the last five years to overhaul its education system [but] [o]verhauling an educational system is a massive undertaking... As with previous reports, Freedom House continues to exhibit a disregard for presenting an accurate picture of the reality that exists in Saudi Arabia."

The anti-rightist group "rightweb" also criticized the Freedom House study. It quoted a review of the study by Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) which complained the study cited documents from only a few mosques, arguing most mosques in the US are not under Wahhabi influence. ISPU comments on the study were not entirely negative however, and concluded:

American-Muslim leaders must thoroughly scrutinize this study.
Despite its limitations, the study highlights an ugly undercurrent in modern Islamic discourse that American-Muslims must openly confront.
However, in the vigor to expose strains of extremism, we must not forget that open discussion is the best tool to debunk the extremist literature rather than a suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S.
Thus the report's findings may be open to criticism by placing it in its political context: for example, Noam Chomsky has criticised Freedom House as having "long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing."

Militant and Political Islam

What connection, if any, there is between Wahhabism and Jihadi Salafis is disputed. Among others, Daniel Pipes claims there is "a direct line between the Wahhabis and Osama bin Laden". However, Natana De Long-Bas, senior research assistant at the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown Universitymarker, argues:
The militant Islam of Osama bin Laden does not have its origins in the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and is not representative of Wahhabi Islam as it is practiced in contemporary Saudi Arabia, yet for the media it has come to define Wahhabi Islam in the contemporary era.
However "unrepresentative" bin Laden's global jihad is of Islam in general and Wahhabi Islam in particular, its prominence in headline news has taken Wahhabi Islam across the spectrum from revival and reform to global jihad.

Noah Feldman, draws a distinction between what he calls the "deeply conservative" Wahhabis and what he calls the "followers of political Islam in the 1980s and 1990s," such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and later Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While Saudi Wahhabis were "the largest funders of local Muslim Brotherhood chapters and other hard-line Islamists" during this time, they opposed jihadi resistance of Muslim governments and assassination of Muslim leaders because of their belief that "the decision to wage jihad lay with the ruler, not the individual believer".

Karen Armstrong believes that Osama bin Laden, like most extremists, follows the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, not "Wahhabism".

International influence

According to Western observers like Gilles Kepel, Wahhabism gained considerable influence in the Islamic world following a tripling in the price of oil in the mid-1970s. Having the world's largest reserves of oil but a relatively small population, Saudi Arabia began to spend tens of billions of dollars throughout the Islamic world promoting Wahhabism, which was sometimes referred to as "petro-Islam". According to the documentary called The Qur'an aired in the UK, presenter Antony Thomas suggests the figure may be "upward of $100 billion".

Its largess funded an estimated "90% of the expenses of the entire faith", throughout the Muslim world, according to journalist Dawood al-Shirian. It extended to young and old, from children's madrasas to high-level scholarship. "Books, scholarships, fellowships, mosques" (for example, "more than 1500 mosques were built from Saudi public funds over the last 50 years") were paid for. It rewarded journalists and academics who followed it; built satellite campuses around Egyptmarker for Al Azharmarker, the oldest and most influential Islamic university.

The financial power of Wahhabist advocates, according to observers like Dawood al-Shirian and Lee Kuan Yew, has done much to overwhelm less strict local interpretations of Islam and has caused the Saudi interpretation to be perceived as the "gold standard" of religion in many Muslims' minds.

Some of the hundreds of thousands of South Asians expats living in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf have been influenced by Wahhabism and preach Wahhabiism in their home country upon their return. Agencies controlled by the Ministry of Islamic, Endowments, Call (Dawa) and Guidance Affairs of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are responsible for Tableegh to the non Muslim expats and are converting hundreds of non Muslims into Islam every year.

Explanation for influence

Khaled Abou El Fadl has attributed the appeal of Wahhabism to some Muslims as stemming from
  • Arab nationalism, which followed the Wahhabi attack on the Ottoman Empire;
  • reformism, which followed a return to Salaf ( ;)
  • Wahhabi control of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which gave Wahhabis great influence on Muslim culture and thinking;
  • the discovery of Persian Gulfmarker oil fields, which after 1975 allowed Wahhabis to promote their interpretations of Islam using billions from oil export revenue.

Contemporary Salafi scholars






Saudi Arabiamarker




Organizations in Pakistan


Social Welfare


  1. The Destruction of Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina
  2. Nibras Kazimi, A Paladin Gears Up for War, The New York Sun, November 1, 2007
  5. Ahmad Zayni Dahlan al-Makkiyy, 1304 A.H. Fitnat-ul-Wahhabiyyah: Proofs for tawassul.
  6. Hardy, Roger. Analysis: Inside Wahhabi Islam. BBC News
  7. Salafi Islam
  8. Washington Post, For Conservative Muslims, Goal of Isolation a Challenge
  9. John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, p.50
  10. Glasse, Cyril, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, Rowan & Littlefield, (2001), pp.469-472
  11. Saudi Arabia and the Rise of the Wahhabi Threat
  12. Tarikh Najd by 'Husain ibn Ghannam, Vol. 1, Pg. 76-77
  13. 'Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd, by 'Uthman ibn Bishr an-Najdi, Vol. 1, Pg. 7-8
  14. Shaikh Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, by Judge Ahmad ibn 'Hajar al-Butami, Pg. 17-19
  15. Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab: His Da'wah and Life Story, by Shaikh ibn Baaz, Pg. 21
  16. Shaikh Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, by Judge Ahmad ibn 'Hajar al-Butami, Pg. 28
  17. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, Macmillan Reference USA, (2004), p.727
  18. First edition.
  19. Mortimer, Edward, Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam, Vintage Books, 1982, p.61
  20. Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Third Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004. Page.123.
  21. Glasse, Cyril, The New Encyclopedia of Islam Altamira, 2001, p.407
  22. Wiktorowicz, Quintan. "Anatomy of the Salafi Movement" in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 29 (2006): p.235.
  23. Armstrong, Karen. The label of Catholic terror was never used about the IRA.
  24. Abdul Hadi Palazzi. Middle East Quarterly. Summer 2001
  25. "Radicalism: Its Wahhabi Roots and Current Representation", Islamic Supreme Council of America
  26. Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology
  27. quotes from a study "based on a year-long study of over two hundred original documents, all disseminated, published or otherwise generated by the government of Saudi Arabia and collected from more than a dozen mosques in the United States". New Report on Saudi Government Publications at the Internet Archive
  28. Manufacturing Consent. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, "Manufacturing Consent" Pantheon Books (1988).
  29. Natana J. Delong-Bas, "Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad", (Oxford University Press: 2004), p. 279
  30. After Jihad : American and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy by Noah Feldman, New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p.47
  31. Kepel, p.69-75
  32. The Qur'an review in The Independent
  33. Dawood al-Shirian, 'What Is Saudi Arabia Going to Do?' Al-Hayat, May 19, 2003
  34. Abou al Fadl, Khaled, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, p.48-64
  35. Kepel, p. 72
  36. (Murphy, Caryle, Passion for Islam : Shaping the Modern Middle East: the Egyptian Experience, Simon and Schuster, 2002 p. 32
  37. An interview with Minister Mentor of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew
  38. Abou El Fadl, Khaled, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Harper San Francisco, 2005, p.70-72


  • Saint-Prot, Charles. Islam. L'avenir de la tradition entre révolution et occidentalisation (Islam. The Future of Tradition between Revolution and Westernization). Paris: Le Rocher, 2008.

Additional reading

  • Holden, David and Johns, Richard, The House of Saud, Pan, 1982, ISBN 0-330-26834-1
  • Algar, Hamid, Wahhabism : A Critical Essay, Islamic Publications International, ISBN 1-889999-13-X
  • Delong-Bas, Natana J., Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-516991-3
  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi, A History of Saudi Arabia, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-521-64412-7
  • De Gaury, Gerald and Stark, Freya, Arabia Phoenix, Kegan Paul International Limited, ISBN 0-7103-0677-6, ISBN 9780710306777
  • Oliver, Haneef James, The 'Wahhabi' Myth: Dispelling Prevalent Fallacies and the Fictitious Link with Bin Laden, T.R.O.I.D. Publications, February 2004, ISBN 0-9689058-5-4
  • Quist, B. Wayne and Drake, David F., Winning the War on Terror: A Triumph of American Values, iUniverse, 2005, ISBN 0595672728

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