Among the least understood of the thinkers and leaders who have shaped the modern world is Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (c. 1702–c. 1791), the founder of the fundamentalist branch of Islamic thought and practice known as Wahhabism.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's life and beliefs are a source of controversy, both within Islam and in the Western non-Islamic world. Even the term "Wahabbism" is controversial, for within Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's own lifetime it (and its Arabic equivalents) were used primarily by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's opponents; his followers called themselves Muwahiddun or Unitarians, believers in a unity. His writings and actions are susceptible to multiple interpretations. But it can be said that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was essentially a puritan—not in the contemporary sense of that word, which now tends to refer exclusively to restrictions on sexual activity and its depiction in cultural products, but in the word's older sense, used by early American colonists and indicating a return to the basic tenets of a religion, in this case Islam. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's influence was closely bound up with the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a state, and his ideas continue to flourish there, a fact of immense importance in contemporary world affairs.
The facts of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's life, transmitted to posterity mostly by a circle of close followers, are not always clear. He was born in 1702 or 1703 in the town of al-Uyaynah in the Najd region of the Arabian peninsula, now in northern Saudi Arabia. His family, at least as far back as a grandfather who was a famous judge in religious maters, contained scholars in the conservative Hanbali tradition, one of the main schools of legal thinking in Sunni Islam. By the time he was ten he had memorized the Quran, and he made the required hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca as a teenager. Soon after that he traveled to the religious center of Medina, studying with noted religious scholars in addition to his own father.
By that time he had already begun preaching in his hometown, and it had become apparent that he was controversial from the start. His teachings were based directly on the Quran itself and on the hadith tradition of teachings associated with the Prophet Muhammad. He rejected the influence of local religious scholars known as ulama , who in turn worked to minimize his influence. He was forced to leave al-Uyaynah, marking the first of several occasions in which he ran afoul of powerful figures. It was at this point that he traveled to Mecca and Medina. Among the figures with whom he studied was Muhammad Hayat al-Sindi, a figure from the Indian subcontinent who had witnessed the deterioration of the Mughal Empire, and who inculcated in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab the idea that pure forms of Islam could regenerate lost political glories.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab also studied in Basra in what is now Iraq. By this time he was considered an erudite young scholar, and his teacher, Muhammad al-Mujmui, allowed his own children to study with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In Basra Ibn Abd al-Wahhab probably encountered scholars from the rival Shia branch of Islam, which he denounced in one treatise. But his quarrel was not primarily with Shia Islam, or with the mystic Sufi sect that he sometimes denounced. Rather, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was motivated above all by the principle of tawhid or montheism, a belief in one God, called Allah in Arabic. He rejected belief in any idol, and he did not accept that any earthly object could be associated with the divine. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab made his way back to the Arabian peninsula, staying in his hometown and then in Al-Ahsa, and finally moving to Huraymila, where his father had taken up residence.
In Huraymila, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wrote the best known of his roughly 15 treatises, Kitab al-Tawhid , or The Book of Monotheism . It was at this time that he began to attract supporters in large numbers, with two local tribes joining forces to accept him as a religious leader. He also gained detractors in equal numbers, apparently stirring up anger among a group of slaves with his strict fulminations against sexual immorality. Members of this group mounted an assassination attempt against Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, but it was unsuccessful. Once more, he returned to his hometown of al-Uyaynah.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found military protection from the area's new ruler, Uthman ibn Hamid ibn Muammar. The alliance foreshadowed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's later partnership with Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and it brought Ibn Abd al-Wahhab new power and influence. It was during this period that he undertook three controversial actions designed to offer graphic demonstrations of his beliefs. These were controversial in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's own time and remain so, providing famous images of the strict form of Islam he espoused.
The first involved a group of trees that the inhabitants of al-Uyaynah considered sacred and invested with quasi-magical powers. Much to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's dismay, they would hang various items in the branches of the trees in the hope that they would bring blessings or good luck. For Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, this was a direct violation of the tawhid principle that blessings could come only from God. He took direct action to stamp out this example of popular religious belief: he and his followers cut down the grove of sacred trees, with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself taking the ax to the most venerated tree of all.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's second well-publicized move in al-Uyaynah took aim not at popular superstition but at an icon of Islam itself: a monument built over the tomb of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, an early associate of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers destroyed the monument because it violated a central tenet of the hadith stating that Muhammad had commanded the destruction of such shrines, because they tended to promote worship of human beings rather than the unitary divine. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was worried about the strength of the local population's attachment to the monument and asked ibn Muammar for a guard of six hundred men as he destroyed it.
The third event at al-Uyaynah involved a woman who had confessed to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab that she had committed adultery. After she repeated the act several times, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab ordered that she be stoned to death. In that instance he followed the advice of the local ulama or Islamic scholars, but in many other instances he came into conflict with these figures. Natana J. Delong-Bas wrote in Wahhabi Islam that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab faced "opposition by local religious scholars and political leaders who feared a threat to their own power bases." His campaign to purify Sunni Islam was also in part an attempt to confront corruption in the secular world.
As a result of these events and of his growing influence, local Islamic scholars in al-Uyaynah mounted a campaign against Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Their allegations, which included the charge that he espoused violence against those who did not subscribe to his interpretation of Islam, reached the ears of the leader of the powerful local Bani Khalid tribe, who demanded that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's protector, Ibn Muammar, either have Ibn Abd al-Wahhab killed or exile him from the region. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab told Ibn Muammar that this situation represented a test of faith, but Ibn Muammar eventually gave in and sent Ibn Abd al-Wahhab into the desert with a pair of horsemen, who may have had instructions to kill him, but did not.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab landed in the town of al-Diriyah, near Riyadh, and once again his religious fervor attracted a powerful patron—this time one who would become the most powerful Arabian ruler of all. After preaching to small groups, he succeeded in obtaining an introduction to Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the modern House of Saud that unified the nation of Saudi Arabia and continues to rule there. In 1744 Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud formed a sort of partnership of mutual noninterference, in which Ibn Abd al-Wahhab pledged not to impede Ibn Saud's plans to conquer the Arabian peninsula, while the ruler agreed to back Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's brand of Islam. The basic outlines of the agreement persist today; although adherents of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's thinking are a minority within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the philosophy dominates Saudi life, and its more restrictive aspects are visible in everyday affairs.
Ibn Saud conquered Riyadh over a period of 27 years and consolidated his hold over other Arabian cities. The degree to which this campaign represented a holy war has been debated. Sometimes Ibn Abd al-Wahhab absented himself from Ibn Saud's more far-flung campaigns, not opposing them but also not offering them religious legitimacy. Conflict continued for much of the eighteenth century, not only on the battlefield but also on the field of religious ideas, as Islamic scholars continued to mount opposition to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. At times he directed actual warfare against his opponents, perhaps defensive in nature. Meanwhile, the power and wealth of the Saud family increased, especially under Ibn Saud's son, Abd al-Aziz. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab counseled the newly prosperous inhabitants of lands conquered by the Saud rulers to obey the Prophet's injunction that they donate 2.5 percent of their income to charity and to follow the strict tenets of his teaching, but he was disturbed by the growing atmosphere of luxury that surrounded him.
Finally, after the conquest of Riyadh in 1773, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab withdrew from public life. He even gave up the title of imam, or prayer leader, devoting his last years to prayer, reflection, teaching, and the study of religious texts. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in 1791 or 1792, just as the power of the House of Saud was reaching its long zenith. Controversy over his legacy has persisted to the present time. Some have alleged that his strict interpretation of Islam has motivated terrorist activities generally and has specifically formed the basis for the militant Islam of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, a Saudi follower of Wahhabism. During his own lifetime, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab favored debate and religious instruction over violent campaigns as methods of persuasion, and the proposed link between bin Laden and Wahhab's thought has encountered strenuous objections.
DeLong-Bas, Natana J., Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad , Oxford, 2004.
Martin, Richard C., ed., Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World , Macmillan, 2004.
Schwartz, Stephen, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror , Doubleday, 2002.
History: Review of New Books , Winter 2005.
"Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab," Jaringan Islam Liberal (Indonesia), http://www.islamlib.com (January 30, 2007).