?Abd Al-Wahhab, Muhammad Ibn (1703-1792)

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Muhammad Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab was a religious scholar and conservative reformer whose teachings were elaborated by his followers into the doctrines of Wahhabism. ˓Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born in the small town of ˓Uyayna located in the Najd territory of north central Arabia. He came from a family of Hanbali scholars and received his early education from his father, who served as judge (qadi) and taught hadith and law at the local mosque schools. Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab left ˓Uyayna at an early age, and probably journeyed first to Mecca for the pilgrimage and then continued to Medina, where he remained for a longer period. Here he was influenced by the lectures of Shaykh ˓Abdallah b. Ibrahim al-Najdi on the neo-Hanbali doctrines of Ibn Taymiyya.

From Medina, Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab traveled to Basra, where he apparently remained for some time, and then to Isfahan. In Basra he was introduced directly to an array of mystical (Sufi) practices and to Shi˓ite beliefs and rituals. This encounter undoubtedly reinforced his earlier beliefs that Islam had been corrupted by the infusion of extraneous and heretical influences. The beginning of his reformist activism may be traced to the time when he left Basra around 1739 to return to the Najd.

Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab rejoined his family in Huraymila, where his father had recently relocated. Here he composed the small treatise entitled Kitab al-tawhid (Book of unity), in which he most clearly outlines his religio-political mission. He castigates not only the doctrines and practices of Sufism and Shi˓ism, but also more widespread popular customs common to Sunnis as well, such as performing pilgrimages to the graves of pious personages and beseeching the deceased for intercession with God. More generally, following a line of argument developed much earlier by Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab challenged the authority of the religious scholars (ulema), not only of his own time, but also the majority of those in preceding generations. These scholars had injected unlawful innovations (bid˓a) into Islam, he argued. In order to restore the strict monotheism (tawhid) of true Islam, it was necessary to strip the pristine Islam of human additions and speculations and implement the laws contained in the Qur˒an as interpreted by the Prophet and his immediate companions. Thus, Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab called for the reopening of ijtihad (independent legal judgment) by qualified persons to reform Islam, but the end to which his ijtihad led was a conservative, literal reading of certain parts of the Qur˒an.

Aspects of Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab's teachings, including asceticism, simplicity of faith, and emphasis on an egalitarian community, quickly drew followers to his cause. But his condemnation of the alleged moral laxity of society, his challenge to the ulema, and to the political authority that supported them estranged him from his townspeople and, some claim, even from his own family. In 1740, he returned to his native village of ˓Uyayna, where the local ruler (amir) ˓Uthman b. Bishr adopted his teachings and began to act on some of them, such as destroying tombs in the area. When this activity caused a popular backlash, Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab moved on to Dir˓iyya, a small town in the Najd near present-day Riyadh. Here he forged an alliance with the amir Muhammad b. Sa˓ud (d. 1765), who pledged military support on behalf of Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab's religious vocation. Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab spent the remainder of his life in Dir˓iyya, teaching in the local mosque, counseling first Muhammad b. Sa˓ud and then his son ˓Abd al-˓Aziz (d. 1801), and spreading his teachings through followers in the Najd and Iraq.

See alsoWahhabiyya .


Philby, Harry St. John Bridger. Arabia. New York: Scribners, 1930.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Islam in Modern History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Sohail H. Hashmi