What is Wahhabism?

[First published by SaudiDebate]

Wahhabism is that “hate-filled, extremist fringe of the [Muslim] religion that is the official Saudi creed1.” In the eyes of the media, it is chiefly responsible for all global terrorism – from the Balkans to Indonesia.

Though, as for any good scapegoat2, the ills for which Wahhabi Islam is held responsible vary, its representations in the international press have a number of common points. Wahhabi’s are backwards and archaic; uneducated with no interest in history3; insistent that fellow peoples of the book (Jews and Christians) are nothing more than “sorcerers and devil worshippers, fit for annihilation – a venomous dictum that Saudi mosques spew out to this day4“; sponsors of terrorism (or the terrorists themselves).

In sum, they are the “most retrograde expression of Islam5.”

Whether or not single mothers were actually responsible for the variety of ills for which they were held responsible is a moot point; such figures are so attractive precisely because whole constellations of different problems can be placed onto them. Knowing as little as possible about your enemy is a great advantage is carrying out such caricatures. Unsurprisingly then, despite all that is written condemning Wahhabi Islam, relatively little is known about its history.

What’s in a name

Wahhabism takes its name from Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, founder of an 18C reformist movement. One of the central aims of Wahhabism was to remove the heretical innovations that had crept into the religion since the time of Prophet Muhammad; the worship of saint’s tombs and sacred stones, for the Wahhabis, was idolatry that had no place in a purified Islam. Given this emphasis, it should come as no surprise that the name Wahhabi is an anathema to Wahhabis. For a movement based on eradicating the association of divine characteristics with humans (shirk), calling yourself after a man would not be the best start6.

Instead, Wahhabi’s tend to call themselves ahl al-tawhid, drawing attention to the central importance of monotheism to the movement, or Salafi7, followers of the prophetic model as understood by the companions of Muhammad. Following such a model means placing an emphasis on following the examples laid down in the Sunna, and the rejection of the use of reason in the understanding of jurisprudence (fiqh). The importance of reason, in contrast, tends to characterise the modernist schools of Islamic thought. Wahhabi Islam should also be distinguished from traditionalists, who emphasize strictly following the work of early scholars (taqlid). Salafi’s refuse any intermediaries between themselves and the Qu’ran and Sunna.

All this is lost on Wahhabism’s detractors, for whom al-Wahhab is much like Bin Laden, an unlearned rabble-rouser. Unbeknownst to most western commentators, they are joining a long line of critics who have denounced Wahhabism without knowing much about it. The alliance between Wahhabism and the house of Saud in the 18C threatened many of the local Muslim rulers, who were worried that the austere brand of Islam promoted by al-Wahhab would undermine both their authority and the rich flow of revenue they gained from controlling the Hajj. During the period the house of Saud conquered what is now Saudi Arabia, alarmist stories spread that the Wahhabis were like The Kharawarij (of whom more later): fanatical extremists at the margins of Islam.

Two centuries later, little has changed, and there is still a great deal of uncertainty over what exactly al-Wahhab stood for. This is not entirely surprising, as it is exceedingly difficult to get access to his work. Thus we should be especially grateful that DeLong-Bas has recently published an extensive analysis of the writings of al-Wahhab8, after the Saudi government gave her access to the archives of his writings in Riyadh. Her work sets out a vision of the thought of al-Wahhab quite at odds with the views of his detractors, and they have reviled her for doing so9.

Far from being a unlettered rabble-rouser, al-Wahhab was part of a vibrant and international network of scholars10. He began by writing in the classical tradition, before moving to more personal commentaries. In these writings, he reaches many positions also arrived at by modernist scholars (who allow for the role of reason), though he does so by different means.

What comes through DeLong-Bas’ analysis of his writing most strongly is both al-Wahhab’s commitment to purifying Islam, and his equally strong repudiation of the type of violent acts normally associated with Wahhabi Islam. For al-Wahhab, one should be punished for wearing a talisman, but it is the talisman that should be destroyed, not the person. His mission was to purify the religion, not to destroy the unbelievers.

DeLong-Bas’ presentation of the gap between al-Wahhab and his image is most forceful when considering the question of jihad. Holy war (jihad), has meant a lot of things over the centuries. Classically, jihad is the justification for war – a description of the relation between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. To many modernists, jihad came to mean something personal: an individual commitment to Islam that could be equally carried out with the pen or the tongue. For al-Wahhab, jihad is the war itself, and this war could only be defensive.

In the Kitab al-Jihad, he uses the famous sword verse (Qur’an 9:5)11 not to justify pro-active jihad, which is what jihadis have often used it to do, but to emphasize that during conflict women and children should not be killed. Far from believing, as some have claimed12, that all unbelievers should be put to the sword, he states the relationships that should be cultivated with unbelievers (in order of preference) are: conversion, a treaty relationship where the infidels pay poll tax to the Islamic state, and last, their slaughter. Now while none of these three options may seem particularly appealing to the unbelieving neighbour of a Wahhabi group, he is here close to modernism – the fact of unbelief is an insufficient cause to go to war.

Waging the defensive war

While DeLong-Bas’ analysis of these issues is masterful, it is also overly defensive. By the end of the text one wonders how it is possible such a peaceful man could have inspired a movement that managed to create a nation-state from a patchwork of tribal allegiances13. She is so committed to defending al-Wahhab against the often ridiculous allegations made against him that she is occasionally disingenuous. For instance, in her defence of al-Wahhab’s view of jihad, DeLong-Bas is to some extent fighting a straw man. As far as this author is aware, there is no tradition of fiqh that advocates going to war with a group because they are unbelievers. Even Al Qaeda justify most of their actions on the basis that ‘crusaders’ are attacking Muslims. Now while one can certainly question their grasp of the relevant political facts, it remains to be seen, if we accept their contextual political analysis as correct, they would have sufficient legal basis to go to war in al-Wahhab’s understanding of jihad.

Which is to say that DeLong-Bas’ defensiveness about her subject effaces the connections that do exist between the contemporary Wahhabi state, jihadi movements, and al-Wahhab’s teachings. She accompanies this move by shifting the blame for contemporary political developments onto Ibn Tamiyya. Every element of contemporary Wahhabism she finds distasteful is laid on his doorstep. And while her analysis of Ibn Taymiyya is excellent, is begs the question of the connections between the two thinkers.

If DeLong-Bas’ enterprise was merely academic – an exploration of the thought of an Islamic thinker in the 18C – then her failure to explore the links between al-Wahhab and later ‘Wahhabi’ movements could be justified as falling outside the scope of her investigation. It is to her credit that she attempts to do much more than this, and tries to explain contemporary developments in Wahhabi thought. Unfortunately, her defensiveness leaves an important question unanswered. What is the relation between the thought of al-Wahhab, the contemporary Saudi state, and Salafi jihadi thought?

In the eye of the beholder

Whatever distortions may have been introduced since the writings of al-Wahhab,al madhab al wahhabi is the sect and jurisprudence (fiqh) of the Saudi Arabian state14, and the link between Wahhabism and the house of Saud continues to be one of the its principle ideological justifications.

According to the ahl al-tawhid, God is the sole creator and sovereign of the universe, and only God can be worshipped. Such an idea is shared by all Muslims, however, and al-tawhid means something more extensive to the Wahhabis. Since the Qu’ran and the Sunna should govern every part of life, if it is to be in accordance with Islamic law, every act has the possibility of being an act of worship. What this establishes is a strong, and, as we shall see, ambiguous, relationship between belief and action. In such a framework, deviant behaviours are an indication of submission to something other than God’s law.

This ambiguous relationship is indicated by Sulayman, the grandson of al-Wahhab and a noted scholar. He was one of the figures involved in the first uprising of the Wahhabi’s, which was put down viciously by the Ottomans15. When he is asked if one can consort with the idolater, he replies16: “Even if he claims that he disliked it in his heart, there is no excuse because it is the outward appearance that counts, and, as he has displayed unbelief, he is an unbeliever.” Elsewhere Sulayman seems very reasonable; he allows Muslims to go to the unbeliever’s lands, provided they can practice his religion, and he emphasises that “there is no necessary relation between calling someone a hypocrite openly and him being a hypocrite inwardly.” However, in this quote about unbelief, he displays one of the central tensions in Wahhabi thought: given that every act can be an act of worship, and that we must remove the use of rationality and logic from the law, how can we properly discern if someone believes in Allah?

 Put in a more simple way: what is the relationship between belief, faith and action?

The problematic status of such a question can be seen from the path taken by the students of Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani, the well know Salafi hadith scholar who founded the al-Jamaa al-Salafiyya movement in Saudi Arabia in the 1970′s. While avowedly apolitical, it was a splinter group from the movement that stormed the Grand Mosque in the 70′s. al-Albani ended up living in Jordan, while his students took some very different paths. Ali Hasan al-Galabu, for instance, became a prominent scholar of non-violence, while Abu Qatadah became the mufti for the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria. In a fascinating essay, Wiktorowicz17 claims what this indicates is that there is no substantial theological disagreement between what he calls the purists (those who refrain from political involvement), and the jihadis: their differences lie in their understanding of the political context for action.

Are catapults weapons of mass destruction?

The first signs of open unrest from Islamic scholars outside of the Saudi state structure occurred when al-Hawali and other scholars spoke out against the fatwa allowing American troops inside Saudi Arabia in 1991. One cannot forget the historical parallel here with the accusations of misrule that preceded the initial al-Saud conquest of the holy places.

But while this may have been the first explicit sign of dissent, the roots of the problem were laid a long time before. In the 60′s, the Muslim Brotherhood were forced to flee Nasser’s Egypt, and were welcomed with open arms in Saudi Arabia. While the brotherhood did not acquire a significant following in the country, their political awareness affected a whole generation of religious scholars, as people like Mohammad Qutb (brother of the more famous Sayyid Qutb) taught a generation of preachers, including al-Hawali.

Their anger with the religious establishment, Wiktorowicz argues, is not a matter of theology, but is due to the Saudi preachers reluctance to play a political role and intervene in world affairs.

A contemporary example of such a debate is about whether one can justify the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In order to support their use, jihadi’s turn18 to a hadith about the siege of Taif. During this siege, Muhammad sanctioned the use of a catapult to attack the city walls, though one could not discriminate between civilians and enemy fighters on the other side. He justified this on the grounds that the enemy fighters were responsible for civilians deaths because they choose to mix among them. Here, the questions are principally one’s of political context: there is no further information the hadith can give you about determining the relevance of the catapult to the nuclear bomb.

Now such a debate may seem miles away from the sober positions adopted by al-Wahhab. However, at heart of the debate is the same set of concerns: the refusal to allow reason to play a role in questions of jurisprudence and the ensuing ambiguity about political interpretation.


This debate is played out most intensely in the arguments about Takfir (declaring someone an apostate). Historically, one end of the debate has been represented by The Khawarij. In the seventh century, after the death of Uthman, the third caliph, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad defeated most of his rivals. Mu’awiya ibn abu Sufyan, a close relative of Uthman, accused Ali of hiding his killers. Eventually, Ali conceded to place the matter before an arbitration. Some of his followers were appalled by his decision and turned against him, feeling only God has the right to judge such matters. They became known at The Kharawarij, declared Ali an apostate, killing him in 660.

Whereas mainstream Islam separate out questions of belief and faith, and their relationship to action, according to Wiktorowicz, The Khawarij conflate them: performing sinful actions for them did not simply mean a lack of faith: from such sinful actions could also be intuited a lack a belief. This extreme understandings of Takfir has marginalised The Khawarij in the Muslim world.

Now Salafi’s reject these principles and agree one cannot base a judgement of Takfir on bad behaviour. Bad behaviour could be simply a result of lack of faith, rather than a lack of belief. There are three categories that could excuse people who are acting badly. People could be acting in an ignorant fashion, they could be coerced, or they could simply be acting out of greed. If any of these conditions are met, then one cannot be declared an apostate. These conditions are equally supported by Al Qaeda19. Following an attack in Riyadh in which Muslims were killed, some argued one of the victims was an advocate of obscenity. Al Qaeda20responded by saying21: “the debauchery and sins mentioned in connection with that victim does not justify his killing.”

However, how these categories are applied is extremely ambiguous. How does one gain access to the someone’s psychology in a fashion that allows one to know whether someone acts out of greed or not? al-Albani, the Saudi religious leader, has a limited definition, claiming that one cannot know what is in the heart of a sinner unless he himself gives an explicit renouncement of the faith. Al-Hawali responded by criticising him as separating thought and action (irja). Many jihadis then claim that if a ruler persists in legislating sinful acts, despite warnings from scholars, then there is sufficient evidence to conclude he is an unbeliever; and thus to kill him. How, here, one judges what duration of time and types of action qualify as “persists” seems, again entirely open to political interpretation. In these debates, we see the same tensions that also characterise the writing of al-Wahhab.

The limits of discourse

Despite general theological agreement, there are vast difference of political interpretation over such matters as whether America is waging a war against Muslims (justifying a defensive war), or whether the house of Saud are still truly believers. Wiktorowicz uses this division to argue that what we need is to improve the political awareness of the purist scholars (those connected to the house of Saud, in this case). “A purist scholar with a Ph.D in the Islamic sciences as well as advanced education in international relations would be well situated to deconstruct and rebut Al Qaeda’s worldview (though there is obviously the danger that purists might arrive at similar conclusions about politics).22

One must note the implicit conservatism in his argument: that what we – as the United States – wants is the Saudi Arabian government. This thesis, which runs through his essay, can be seen in his characterisation of the Saudi state religious apparatus as purist and “non-political.” This characterisation allows him to set up the purists as the force for good in Wahhabism. But though their politics might not be explicit, that is often a luxury afforded to those who have the power of the state behind them. Wiktorowicz argument essentially comes down to a support for the Saudi religious establishment and the state that supports it (and is supported by it).

This dichotomisation means Wiktorowicz fails to see the links between purist and jihadi – how the contradictions in the power base of the purists has produced the jihadi movement as its necessary correlate23. This is one of the reasons trying to support a purist worldview is doomed to fail.

One can also note here if Wiktorowicz is correct, and the main way of overcoming jihadi thought is through fighting the interpretation of context – then surely the best way to do so is to change American military policy so the context itself changes. This is not a conclusion he would endorse, nor is it one that is entirely correct.

Indeed, the absurdity of such postulations point to the limit of the method employed in both this article and the main texts (DeLong-Bas and Wiktorowicz) under discussion. Discursive restrictions on action are important: to act without an explicit base for action that one’s supporters consider reasonable would mean losing legitimacy. But it is incorrect to deal simply with these discursive arguments outside of the social, political and economic worlds in which they are produced.

Context is not produced in a vacuum, but from a particular perspective. Likewise, discourse may justify action or condemn it, but it should not be seen as identical with the action itself. Winning the unobtainable battle of discourse would not make Bin Laden put down arms, nor would his support suddenly dry up. To solve the latter problem would require attending to the unemployment and alienation in Saudi Arabia that proves such fertile ground for the Wahhabi ideology. A study of Wahhabi Islam that had a strong degree of explanatory power would have to explain the interconnections between the social organisation in Saudi Arabia, the economic and political situation of the jihadis, and the way these elements interact with discourse.

Such a study is yet to be written.



1Alexiev, A. 2003: Among the Wahhabis. Commentary. May 2003; 115, 5. p.70.


2See, among others: Girard, R. 2005: Violence and the Sacred. London: Continuum.


3The claim that al-Wahhab’s Islam is literalist is one of the most common errors made by commentators. For instance: El Fadl. K. A. 2001: Islam and the Theology of Power. Middle East Report. No. 221, pp. 28-31.


4Alexiev. p.30.


5Schwartz, S. 2004: The two faces of Islam: the house of Saud from Tradition to Terror. New York: Random House.


6Wahhabism tends to be a name used only by the movements detractors, and normally in order to impute a foreign influence in another country. It is thus an irony that it is Wahhabism’s emphasis on the deculturation of Islam, stripping it from impute local practices, that make it such an ideal agent of globalised Islam. See, Roy. O. 2004: Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. London: Hurst Publishing.


7Though Salafism refers to a much wider range of positions than is normally associated with Wahhabi Islam. Furthermore, Salafism should not be confused with the salafiyya, the Islamic modernists influenced by people like Rashid Rida.


8Delong-Bas, N. 2004: Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. London: Oxford University Press.




10See Voll, J. 1975: Muhammad Hayya al-Sindi and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab: An Analysis of an Intellectual Group in Eighteenth-Century Madina.Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.Vol. 38, No. 1. pp. 32-39.


11“Then, when the sacred months are over, kill the idolaters wherever you find them, take them [as captives], besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every point of observation. If they repent afterwards, perform the prayer and pay the alms, then release them. God is truly All-Forgiving, Merciful.”


12Alexiev, A. 2003: Among the Wahhabis. Commentary. May 2003; 115, 5.


13There are of course a whole series of reasons aside from Wahhabism that led the house of Saud to be successful. Some of the most interesting theories are to be found in Kostiner, J. 1993: The Making of Saudi Arabia 1916-1936: From Chieftancy to Monarchical State. Oxford: OUP.


14See, among others. p. 166. Okruhlik, G. 2005: The Irony of Islah (Reform).The Washington Quarterly. 28:4. pp. 153-170.


15Sirriych. E. 1989: Wahhabis, Unbelievers, and the Problems of Exclusivism.Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 123-132.


16ibid. p.130. My italics.


17For much of the following analysis the author is relying on the account given in Wiktorowicz, Q. 2006: Anatomy of the Salafi Movement. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. 29: 207-239.


18Nasser ibn Hamed. http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=subjects&Area=jihad&ID=SR2504. Quoted, Wiktorowicz. p. 215-216.


19This points marks a distinction between Al Qaeda and Qutb, whose ideas allowed the condemnation of entire continents.


20Given Al Qaeda’s evident flouting of these conditions, in could be asked if such discursive structures have any real import. Yet despite the theological justifications being severely strained by Al Qaeda actions, they are nonetheless a constraint on the types of action jihadi groups will consider. Equally, a reticence about judging Takfir from external actions is part of the reason the Saudi religious establishment has refrained from declaring Bin Laden an apostate, a decision that would have large reverberations.


21“The Operation of 11 Rabi al-Awwal: The East Riyadh Operation and Our War with the

United States and its Agents,” FBIS translated text, 1 August 2003. Available at (http://www.whywar.

com/files/qaeda_east_riyadh_operation.txt). Quoted, Wiktorowicz, p. 230.

22ibid. p.234

23For instance, the way a combination of ideological austerity with the decadence of the ruling class has systematically eroded both bases of power, and produced a movement that criticises one on the basis of the other.