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The Wahhabiyya is a conservative reform movement launched in eighteenth-century Arabia by Muhammad b. ˓Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). It provided the ideological basis for the military conquest of the Arabian peninsula that had been undertaken by the Sa˓ud family, first in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and then again in the early twentieth century. Wahhabism is the creed upon which the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, and it has influenced Islamic movements worldwide.

Muhammad b. ˓Abd al-Wahhab began to preach a puritanical form of Islam during the 1740s in the small settlements of the Najd, the arid province of north central Arabia. His basic teachings are found in a small treatise titled Kitab altawhid (Book of unity), and from it his followers took the name Muwahiddun (Unitarians). His Muslim opponents, along with Westerners, initially used the term "Wahhabiyya" and its anglicized form, "Wahhabism," as derogatory references to what was depicted as a fanatical sectarian movement. To this day, the term is often used pejoratively by critics of the movement.

Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab wanted to restore the pristine Islam of the Qur˒an and the Prophet by cleansing it of all innovations (bid a) that challenged strict monotheism. Foremost among these was the cult of saints, which had developed over the centuries among both Sunnis and Shi ites. Such popular practices as pilgrimages to the tombs of saints, beseeching the dead for intercession with God, asking blessings upon saints following the ritual prayer, and the construction of domed mausoleums for pious personalities were strongly condemned as shirk, or associating divinity to beings other than God.

Among the "innovations" condemned by Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab was the centuries-long heritage of jurisprudence (fiqh) that coalesced into four Sunni schools of law and the many schools of Shi˓ism. The Wahhabiyya considered themselves the true Sunnis and acknowledged their affinity to the Hanbali legal tradition. Yet they rejected all jurisprudence that in their opinion did not adhere strictly to the letter of the Qur˒an and the hadith, even that of Ibn Hanbal (780–855) and his students. Consequently, Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab, along with other Muslim reformers of the eighteenth century, such as Shah Wali Allah (1703–1762) in India, was one of the most important proponents of independent legal judgment (ijtihad) of his time. His ijtihad, however, was of a very conservative type, aimed at enforcing a literal reading of the Qur˒an and hadith, especially in such matters as the punishment for adultery, theft, drunkenness, and failure to follow religious obligations like daily prayers and fasting during Ramadan.

Having been expelled from the first two towns in which he preached, Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab settled around 1744 in Dir iyya, an oasis controlled by Muhammad b. Sa˓ud (r. 1746–1765). The religious teacher and tribal chieftain concluded a pact by which Ibn Sa˓ud pledged to give military support for the propagation and enforcement of Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab's teachings. The alliance was cemented by Ibn Sa˓ud's marriage to the daughter of Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab, the beginning of frequent intermarriage between the two families that continues to the present. Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab's sons would also participate actively alongside the Sa˓ud family in the military expansion of the movement.

By 1747, Ibn Sa˓ud was at war with the neighboring ruler of Riyadh, a conflict that would continue for nearly thirty years. Conquest of territory was followed by the establishment of a fort and mosque, where Wahhabi preachers and judges were settled to propagate Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab's teachings. Control over the entire Najd was achieved by 1780 under the leadership of Muhammad b. Sa˓ud's son, ˓Abd al-˓Aziz.

Following the death of Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab in 1792, the movement advanced east toward the Persian Gulf and north into Iraq. In 1802, Wahhabi tribesmen sacked the Shi˓ite shrine city of Karbala, severely damaging a number of religious buildings, including the gold-domed tomb of the Prophet's grandson, Husayn. To avenge this destruction, a Shi˓ite from Karbala, who had infiltrated the Wahhabi camp as a convert, killed ˓Abd al-˓Aziz in November 1803.

Under Sa˓ud, ˓Abd al-˓Aziz's son and successor, the Wahhabis advanced upon the Hijaz. In 1803, they entered Mecca after the city was abandoned by its Ottoman garrison, and quickly moved to purge the sanctuary of the Ka˓ba of any offending ornamentation. Medina was not taken until the following year, when a Wahhabi force marched into the city and proceeded to level the gravestones of those members of the Prophet's family and companions who are buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Prophet's tomb.

By 1811, the Wahhabi domain extended over much of the Arabian Peninsula and north into Syria. The movement was checked only when the Ottoman sultan authorized the governor of Egypt, Muhammad ˓Ali (c. 1769–1849), to crush it. The Turco-Egyptian forces succeeded in taking Medina in 1812 and Mecca the following year. In the Najd, however, Wahhabi forces fought fiercely until the death of Sa˓ud in May 1814. Sa˓ud's successor, ˓Abdallah, tried to negotiate a settlement with Muhammad ˓Ali, but in September 1818 was forced to surrender the capital of Dir˓iyya and was later executed in Istanbul.

The Wahhabi state was restored in the new capital of Riyadh under Turki, a cousin of Sa˓ud's, following the departure of Egyptian troops from the Najd in 1822. By the time of Turki's death in 1834, most of the tribes in northeastern Arabia acknowledged Wahhabi rule. A power struggle within Wahhabism began after Turki's death, when the Rashid clan of Ha˒il began increasingly to challenge Sa˒udi control. In 1891, Muhammad b. Rashid (r. 1872–1897) won a decisive victory over the Sa˓udis and occupied Riyadh as the head of the Sa˓ud family, ˓Abd al-Rahman (r. 1889–1902), fled to Kuwait.

The Sa˓ud clan, now led by the young son of ˓Abd al-Rahman, ˓Abd al-'Aziz (1880–1953), reclaimed control of Riyadh in 1902. In 1912 ˓Abd al-˓Aziz founded the first of the agricultural colonies known as dar al-hijra (abode of migration). These colonies would produce the Ikhwan, a group of devoted Wahhabi loyalists who were prepared to fight for the Sa˓ud family at short notice. The Wahhabi expansion in Arabia was curtailed under British pressures during the First World War, but immediately afterward ˓Abd al-˓Aziz began to advance beyond the Najd. The Hijaz was conquered by the end of 1925.

Wahhabi doctrines have governed much of the legal and cultural life of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932, even though followers of Wahhabism may be a minority within the country. A Supreme Council of Ulema advises and oversees the government on the application of Islamic law (shari˓a), which from the period of Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab has been based largely on Hanbali jurisprudence. While legal reform has taken place in certain areas—slavery and concubinage were officially outlawed in 1962, for example—the ulema have resisted reform in such fields as personal, economic, and penal law. The courts enforce a largely unwritten legal code that permits capital punishment for murder, rape, drug smuggling and adultery, amputation of the hands for theft, and flogging for drunkenness. The mutawwa˓in, a sort of religious police officially charged with "commanding the right and forbidding the wrong," enforce Wahhabi societal mores, including "modest dress" for both sexes and a ban on public displays by Muslims or non-Muslims of heterodox religious beliefs.

The rapid modernization of Saudi society has often led to clashes between the Sa˓udi family and clerical establishment and the most zealous Wahhabi loyalists. The first major crisis came in the late 1920s, when ˓Abd al-˓Aziz crushed his own Ikhwan militias when they revolted against some of his modernization efforts. Later, dissident ulema challenged the government over such matters as the introduction of radios, television, and automobiles into the country. Social reforms involving greater rights for women have provoked particularly severe reactions. The opening up of higher education to women in the 1970s led to riots in some cities; and at the start of the twenty-first century, women were still unable to drive their own automobiles, despite domestic pressure to lift this ban. In 1992, more than one hundred scholars circulated a petition criticizing the government for, among other things, not adhering strictly to shari˓a and for wasting billions of dollars of the country's wealth. By 2003, the presence of American military bases in the kingdom had become the major source of conflict between Wahhabi activists and the royal family. Although the government has not taken any concerted steps to shut down or curb private Wahhabi organizations, it has jailed or exiled a number of dissident scholars and activists.

Saudi Arabia's tremendous oil wealth has made possible the dissemination of Wahhabi ideas and influence throughout the world, through religious propaganda and financial assistance to mosques and schools. During the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, many wealthy Saudis financed charities that educated and cared for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The religious schools (madrasas) where poor Afghan boys were educated produced the foot soldiers for the Taliban, who seized control of much of Afghanistan during the 1990s and established a state grounded in Wahhabi doctrine. One wealthy Saudi, Usama bin Ladin, personally directed the recruitment, training, and fighting of Arabs coming to Afghanistan to wage jihad against Soviet occupiers. This was the basis for the terrorist organization that developed in the 1990s into al-Qa˓ida. Wahhabi groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf emirates are allegedly funding other militant and terrorist organizations in such diverse parts of the Muslim world as Algeria, Sudan, Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and the Philippines.


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Layish, Aharon. "Saudi Arabian Legal Reform as a Mechanism to Moderate Wahhabi Doctrine." Journal of the American Oriental Society 107, no. 2 (April-June 1987): 279–292.

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Sohail H. Hashmi