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Members of a reform movement that began in the eighteenth century to revive Orthodox Sunnism, stressing the Sunna, or the ways of the Prophet Muhammad.

The movement was started by a religious scholar from Najd (Saudi Arabia), Muhammad ibn Abd alWahhab (17031792), schooled by ulama (Islamic clergy) in what is now Iraq, Iran, and the Hijaz (western Arabia). He called for a return to the sources of Islam, stressing the absolute unity of Allah (tawhid ) and strict obedience to the Qurʾan (the sacred book of Islam) and the hadith (sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad). His understanding of tawhid was somewhat unique, following the teachings of Ahmad ibn Hanbal's (780855) school of law (madhhab ) and its later interpretation by Ibn Taymiyya (12631328). By 1736, his followersoften called the Muwahhidun (Unitarians), today known as Wahhabisrejected religious innovation (bidʿa ) that promoted polytheism (shirk ) and unbelief (kufar ), and the tradition of ziyaret, or visits to saints believed to be intercessors between humans and Allah. Muwahhidun do not necessarily consider themselves members of a sect; rather, they reject esoterism on the basis of being people of tradition (Ahl al-Hadith).

The present-day structure of the Saudi government can be traced to the religious and political alliance sealed in 1744 between Ibn al-Wahhab with his marriage to the daughter of Muhammad ibn Saʿud, ruler of the Dariyya near the modern city of Riyadh. Together they created the model of a state wherein allegiance to the shariʿa (Islamic law), not tribal customs, reigned supreme. The movement spread rapidly, perhaps due to Abd al-Wahhab's introduction of firearms among Bedouin tribes accustomed to wielding the sword and lance. After his death, the Wahhabi forces had by 1806 sacked the Shiʿite shrines of Karbala (in southwestern Iraq), occupied the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where they destroyed the tombs of revered saints, and raided the Syrian interior.

Ottoman Turkish and Egyptian garrisons in the Hijaz were not able to prevent the emergence of the Wahhabi state in the twentieth century by the Al Saʿud family in their capital, Riyadh. It began when their relations with the Al Rashid family, a Wahhabi clan governing the Shammar region, became strained and, in 1884, the Saudi family was forced to seek sanctuary with the Mubarak rulers of Kuwait. In 1901, Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Saʿud, son of the last Saudi governor of Riyadh, led a daring raid that restored his family's power.

By 1912 a renewal in Wahhabi doctrine led to a consolidation of various tribes, or the Ikhwan (the brothers). In 1912 Abd al-Aziz (ibn Saʿud) appealed to other Bedouins to join the Ikhwan and steadily enlarged his domains by creating militarized agricultural colonies (hujar ) to transcend tribal loyalties. The Bedouin tribes posed a threat to the unification of the Saudi kingdom, and the colonies were an attempt to make farmers of seminomadic warriors. The hujar were built on the sacred principle of hijra (emigration or flight, referring to the Prophet Muhammad's flight to Medina when he was forced to leave Mecca). In 1921 Abd al-Aziz entered Haʾil, the capital of Shammar, overthrowing the Rashid family in the process. In 1924 he occupied the site of Islam's holiest cities and shrines and overthrew caliph Sharif Husayn ibn Ali.

An important shift occurred in the late 1920s. Abd al-Aziz deemed the ferocity of the Ikhwan and particularly their mutawwiʿun (enforcers of obedience), Wahhabism's religious police, unfavorable to the modern Saudi state he wished to create. The Ikhwan wished to continue their advances into other areas under British protection only to be prohibited by Abd al-Aziz, who in 1926 had been proclaimed king of the Hijaz. The Ikhwan revolted in 1927 but were crushed with difficulty in 1929. However, their defeat did not mean the end of puritanical Wahhabism.

In 1932 Hijaz and Najd became a single country, which was officially named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and fortunes of the Wahhabis became inextricably linked to it. King Abd al-Aziz strove to consolidate his power in those areas of the Arabian peninsula where he ruled. In alliance with the ulama, he strictly imposed the shariʿa and paid careful attention to the services accorded to the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). He placated Hijazi opinion by allowing ijtihad (learned opinion) in the cases brought against the government before the mazalim courts. In dire financial straits, he signed a petroleum concession with a U.S. company in 1932, and oil was discovered in 1936. His famous 1945 meeting with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt on the U.S. destroyer on the Suez Canal stressed the growing international importance of Saudi Arabia, and by the end of World War II, oil production began.

The Wahhabi model appealed to other Islamic reform movements, such as the Salafiyya movement in Egypt in the late nineteenth century and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan alMuslimun) founded by Shaykh Hasan al-Banna in 1928. Like other Arab potentates, King Abd al-Aziz was greatly preoccupied with Palestine, and he sent a military contingent to participate in the ArabIsrael War of 1948, when Israel became a state. Wary of Western influence, Saudi Arabia joined Egypt and Syria in the 1950s in resisting a regional Middle East defense organization. The threat of a Nasser-type military coup brought Saudi Arabia's defection from that alliance and placed it more in line with the Hashimites.

As oil wealth began to permeate Saudi society in the early 1960s, the Wahhabi movement retained a profound influence on the social and economic development of Saudi Arabia. The mutawwiʿun, a carryover from the Ikhwan, oversaw strict observancechallenging the melodious recitation of the Qurʾan, excessive veneration at saints' tombs, desegregation of the sexes, and the appearance of the full (unveiled) female form on television.

In 1953, King Abd al-Aziz died. By the 1960s, King Faisal's call for an Islamic pact politically split the Arab world. It put him in hostile ideological conflict with the Egyptian Gamel Abdel Nasser's revolutionary, socialist and secular brand of nationalism. Egypt's swift defeat by Israel in the ArabIsrael War of 1967 seemed to vindicate King Faisal's position. Conversely, he successfully coordinated with Egypt's new president, Anwar al-Sadat, to achieve more attention to Islamic symbolism in the ArabIsrael War of 1973.

The 1973 Arab oil embargo and rise in OPEC's (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil prices brought riches to Saudi Arabia. This wealth aided a Pan Islamic "revival" and the Wahhabi kingdom built mosques and provided aid throughout Muslim countries, contributing to the strengthening of Islamist fundamentalist political groups and parties worldwide. Different local varieties of Wahhabi philosophy exist today in such varied places as Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Mali, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Uzbekistan, as well as some mosques in the United States.

The Islamic revolution in Iran (1979) and Israel's pursuit of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) into Lebanon (1982), however, ushered in a new radical wave of politically motivated Islamic neo-fundamentalism that does not share either the Wahhabi doctrinal approach to Islam or Saudi Arabia's pro-American policy. In 1988, Saudi Arabia broke relations with Iran when Iranian pilgrims to Mecca rioted and the Iranian navy fired on Saudi vessels in the Gulf. Saudi aid given to anticommunist Mojahedin (holy warriors) in Afghanistan may be seen as keeping in line with the martial spirit of the early Wahhabi movement. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported the Mojahedin in an attempt to help Afghanistan overthrow Russian control. This support inadvertantly strengthened Mojahedin and Taliban forces in the area. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the ensuing Gulf Crisis caused Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to align themselves with the U.S.led United Nations Coalition.

Wahhabism has softened a great deal since its emergence in the eighteenth century. If Islamic neo-fundamentalism and Islamist political parties are perceived as anti-Western, it will be left to see how much the Wahhabiyya will influence the direction taken by the Islamic reformist movements.

see also muslim brotherhood; saudi arabia.


Bourne, Kenneth, and Watt, D. Cameron, eds. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print; Part 2: From the First to the Second World War; Series B: Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East, 19181939; Vol. 4: The Expansion of Ibn Saud, 19221925. Betheseda, MD: University Publications of America, 1986.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Shaikh, Farzana. Islam and Islamic Groups: A Worldwide Guide. Essex: Longman Group, 1992.

Vitalis, Robert. "The Closing of the Arabian Oil Frontier and the Future of Saudi-America Relations." In Middle East Research & Information Project, no. 204, vol. 27. no. 3 (1997): 1521.

bassam namani
updated by maria f. curtis