Some Reflections on the Wahhabiyah Movement


The Muslim World witnessed the appearance of several intellectual and religious movements which emanated from different Islamic territories in the 18th and 19th centuries. A number of social, political and religious causes provided motivation for these multifaced movements. Decline of the Ottoman Empire and diminishing authority of the Caliph, growing political and cultural influence of Western powers throughout the Muslim World, moral laxity and superstitious accretions prevalent among believers for long, rising wave of nationalist trends to establish regional and nation states, all of these aforementioned factors and some others inspired new ideas and orientations that occurred in the Muslim World. Among these movements, the Wahhabiyah is of considerable importance as it has long-lasting influence on the other revivalist and puritan movements. The Wahhabi doctrine prompted some of these who had been trying for new reforms which might solve the problems of [the] Muslim World and provide a new understanding of religion.

The Wahhabi Movement

The title Wahhabi was given to the followers of Shaykh Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab by his Muslim opponents. People to whom the Wahhabi name was applied have rejected this opprobrious label. [1] Instead, the Wahhabis called themselves ahl al-tawhid (People of Unity or Muwahhidun), those who profess the doctrine of the Unity of God. [It is not that any section of Islam claims not to be a Mauwahhid (i.e., believer in the Unity/Oneness of God), but merely that the Wahhabis have appropriated to themselves this title.] – Editor

The founder, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab, was born in Uyayna in Najd in 1703. His father and grandfather were Hanbalite qadis, thus he was brought up and educated in this tradition. He studied in famous learning centres – Medina, Basra, Baghdad, Hamadan, etc. – spending many years in travel during which he perused philosophy and Sufism. After having completed his studies, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab returned to Uyayna where he publicly preached his doctrines and met both success and opposition. The governor of Uyayna was asked to expel Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab as a consequence of disputes caused by his teachings. [2]

Implications of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Views For Wahhabi Thought

Before examining the doctrines of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab, I would like to analyse the influence of Ibn Taymiyyah on Wahhabi thought. This analysis will throw light on the development of the Wahhabi movement and its doctrinal relation with the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah who seems to me as a prototype for Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

The originator of the Wahhabiyah movement had been a Sufi adept in his youth, but later came under the influence of Ibn Taymiyyah’s writings. Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings had three main implications for Wahhabi doctrines:

1. Concerning State and Religion: According to Ibn Taymiyyah, the ‘ulama’ are responsible for the protection of the Divine Law. A government is regarded as Islamic by virtue of the support it gives to Islam and to the ‘ulama’. One can accept the rule of anyone who follows the Shariah. This understanding had an important effect on the Wahhabi ideology that accepted al-Sa’ud’s dynasty as a legitimate and hereditary Islamic government after taking refuge in Dariyya, a territory controlled by [the] al-Sa’ud family.

2. Concerning the Sources of True Islam: Ibn Taymiyyah strives for the pure form of Islam in his enduring pursuit of Divine reality like Ibn Hanbal. Ibn Taymiyyah turns to the Qur’an and the Sunnah as the basis of the Divine law, refusing any accretions of later developments after the initial pristine years of the salaf, the first three generations of Islam. He insists on eliminating all the foreign elements which do not reflect the authentic core of Islam and the purity of Islamic teachings. The idea of going back to the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah with a puritanical attitude ignoring later fiqhi schools was adopted and applied by Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab as against the majority of medieval scholars and rejecting ijtihad based on the qiyas (analogy or logical reasoning).

3. Concerning Sufi Doctrines and Practices: In the light of recent scholarly works, Ibn Tayymiyyah is said to have been a Sufi of the Qadiriyyah Order. But he regards the idea of mystical unity with God and ecstatic aspects of Sufism as un-Islamic; therefore he rejects these teachings. It should be noted that he did not reject Sufism itself but denounced intercession, saint veneration and grave cults. [3] Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab, inspired from the above notion, developed his doctrine to such an extent that the Wahhabis are said to have opened the Prophet’s mausoleum and sold or distributed its relics and jewels. [4]

Nature of Wahhabi Doctrines

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