The Wahhabi Movement

Sounds like a fundamentalist sect you know ? Hint, hint: Dobsonites... -- law

Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) joined forces in 1744 with a tribal chief, Muhammad Ibn Saud, to lead a militant reform movement in Arabia. Although known to us today as the "Wahhabi" movement, they called themselves Muwahidun: "those who advocate oneness," i.e. strict monotheists based on the Islamic doctrine of Tawhid which Abd al-Wahhab understood not merely as the "oneness" of God, but, the exclusiveness of the One God. Adherents of the movement also called themselves followers of al-salaf ("the pious ancestors"), a reference to the early companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Influenced by the thought of medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya, the Wahhabis practice a form of legalism somewhat resembling the Hanbali School of jurisprudence. An innovation of theirs, however, is the exclusion of the normal Islamic practice of ijma ("consensus") as the basis of Islamic Sharia law.

Wahhabis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries went on an uncompromising campaign against Sufis, Shiites, and all others deemed unfaithful to the Wahhabis' strict interpretation of the sunna ("custom") of the Prophet Muhammad. The ways of Muhammad and his community at Medina were the only acceptable models for the Wahhabis, and, all Muslims, in their view, should be compelled to follow them. Many practices of Muslims who came after the Prophet were labeled bida'a, "objectionable innovations." At first, these included the building of minarets (acceptable to Wahhabis today) and the use of funeral markers. Wahhabi zealots even tried to destroy the tomb of the Prophet in Medina and were narrowly prevented from doing so through the intervention of King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud. Religious police, called mutawi'oon ("enforcers of obedience") were responsible for maintaining Wahhabi moral order. Today, Wahhabi standards have moderated somewhat from what they were, but the mutawi'oon remained a pillar of the religious Saudi establishment in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab labeled all who disagreed with him heretics and apostates, which in his eyes justified the use of force in imposing both his beliefs and his political authority over neighboring tribes. This in turn led him to declare holy war (jihad) on other Muslims (neighboring Arab tribes), an act which would otherwise have been legally impossible under the rules of jihad.

In 1802, the Wahhabis captured Karbala in Iraq and destroyed the tomb of the Shiite Imam Husayn. In 1803 the Wahhabis captured Mecca. The Ottoman Turks became alarmed and dispatched Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, to challenge the Wahhabis in 1811. He succeeded in reimposing Ottoman sovereignty in 1813. Nearly a century later in 1901 with Wahhabi help, Saudi amir Abd al-Aziz al-Saud recaptured Riyadh. Saud's sovereignty over the Arabian peninsula grew steadily until 1924 when his dominance became secure. The Wahhabis went on a rampage throughout the peninsula at this time smashing the tombs of Muslim saints and imams, including the tomb of the Prophet's daughter Fatima. (see Wahhabi raid of 1924) Saudi Arabia was officially constituted as a kingdom in 1932.

The first Wahhabi missionaries to Central Asia actually arrived there in 1912 led by a resident of Medina named Sayed Shari Muhammad. They set up cells in the Fergana Valley and Tashkent. (more on radical movements in Uzbekistan) But, the big impetus for Wahhabi mission activity came in 1962 when the Muslim World League was founded in Saudi Arabia for the specific purpose of exporting Wahhabism throughout the world. (see Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 52)

The Wahhabi Movement


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