Some Reflections on the Wahhabiyah Movement

The modern history of Saudi Arabia began in the eighteenth century with the alliance between Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, and Muhammad Ibn al-Sa’ud, Amir of Dariyya, son of the founder of the Saudi dynasty. When Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab was forced to leave Uyayna, he went to Dariyya where he was received by the chieftain, Muhammad Ibn al-Sa’ud, in 1745. Muhammad Ibn Al-Sa’ud accepted Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine and undertook its defence and propagation after having agreed to the conditions that the political sovereignty should rest with Ibn al-Sa’ud, whereas religious authority should belong to Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was further cemented by an intermarriage between the two families (Troeller, p. 13).

The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance seems to be a turning point through which the Wahhabi movement gained an official acceptance and confirmation from a strong dynasty that used religious authority of the Wahhabi doctrines as a binding force among the Arab tribes.

One of the significant aspects of this alliance in the formation of Saudi Arabian history was the fact that it led to an effective union of political-military organization and religious ideology which carried out Saudi-Wahhabi expansion. As ‘Abd al-Aziz b. al-Rahman states, all the desert tribes came under the control of [the] al-Sa’ud family obeying their orders and instructions. The Wahhabi doctrines and socio-political teachings of religion enabled [the] al-Sa’ud dynasty to hold their political authority firmly for ruling the nomad tribes successfully.

The Wahhabi ‘ulama’ gave explicit support and approval to the hereditary rule of the al-Sa’ud family, and the Wahhabi shaykhs utilized the concept of equality as a political tool to control the Bedouin tribes by eliminating tribal particularism (Helm, pp. 77-79, 84).

It was principally through the Wahhabi movement that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and the previous Saudi rulers had been able to transcend tribal and urban loyalties while still using their social structure as a basis for political manipulation. Membership of an Islamic community theoretically served to equalize social differentials and as the tribes embraced the Wahhabi doctrine, they came to accept the imamete of al-Sa’ud as leader of a legitimate state validated by Islam (Ibid., p. 113).

As a far-reaching effect of this cooperation, the Saudi dynasty firmly established its control in the political arena assuming certain titles indicating temporal power such as amir, haakim and malik, king.

Relations Between the Ottoman Rule and the Saudi-Wahhabi Dynasty

Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab declared that Islam protected by the Ottoman Sultan was not the true Islam, implying that the sultan was not the legitimate leader of the ummah. The Wahhabis held that the Arabs were worthier than the Turks with regard to imamete or leadership. Thus the authority of the Ottoman rule was rejected and challenged. When the rapid expansion of the Wahhabi movement was reported to Istanbul, the Ottoman Caliph, Sultan Mahmud II, urged Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt, to drive the Wahhabis out of the holy cities. Under the Caliphal instruction, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha launched a series of military attacks on Wahhabi-controlled territories. In 1818, he reached Dariyya and captured the capital of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance (Troeller, p. 14).

Although the Wahhabi movement was put down, its expansion did not fade away. After the recovery and restoration of the Saudi dynasty, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Son of ‘Abd al-Rahman, entered Riyadh in 1901 and the Saudi dynasty regained authority while regions of Najd, Hijaz, Makkah, Madina, and Jeddah were all also occupied. After an international recognition of hereditary authority or kingship of the Saudi family, new developments in the political arena facilitated the consolidation of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance as a nation-state.

Later Developments in the Wahhabi World

The Wahhabi world could not remain aloof from the changing nature of world events and patterns of international relations in the modern era. New developments in different spheres of life rapidly occurred. Today the Wahhabi doctrine is supported by the political power of the state as the official form of Islam in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it has been from the outset of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance. The members of the royal family seem to be advocates of the Wahhabi ideology. The mufti and the chief qadi come from the House of Shaykhs. The courts are largely Wahhabi in character. The spread of education and the improvement of communication systems have made it easier to transmit the Wahhabi doctrines to different segments of [the] population.

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