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Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about Islam

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John Esposito

From What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam
© 2002 John L. Esposito
Used by permission of Oxford University Press

What is Wahhabi Islam?


Until recently, most Westerners had never heard of Wahhabi Islam, but we have now repeatedly heard this term with respect to Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia. There are many interpretations of Islam, many schools of theology and law.

Among the most ultraconservative is Wahhabi Islam, the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi movement takes its name from Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), a scholar of Islamic law and theology in Mecca and Medina. Disillusioned by the decline and moral laxity of his society, Abd al-Wahhab denounced many popular beliefs and practices as un-Islamic idolatry and a return to the paganism of pre-Islamic Arabia. He rejected blind imitation or following ( taqlid ) of past scholarship. He regarded the medieval law of the ulama (religious scholars) as fallible and, at times, unwarranted innovations ( bida ) or heresy. Abd al-Wahhab called for a fresh interpretation of Islam that returned to the "fundamentals" of Islam, the Quran and the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet Muhammad.

Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab joined with Muhammad Ibn Saud, a local tribal chief, to form a religious-political movement. Ibn Saud used Wahhabism to legitimate his jihad to subdue and unite the tribes of Arabia, converting them to this puritanical version of Islam. Like the Kharijites, Wahhabi theology saw the world in white and black categories - Muslim and non-Muslim, belief and unbelief, the realm of Islam and that of warfare. They regarded all Muslims who did not agree with them as unbelievers to be subdued (that is, fought and killed) in the name of Islam. Central to Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's theology was the doctrine of God's unity ( tawhid ), an absolute monotheism reflected in the Wahhabis' self-designation as "Unitarians" ( muwahiddun ) those who uphold the unity of God. In imitation of Muhammad's destruction of the pantheon of pre-Islamic tribal gods in Mecca's sacred shrine (Kaaba) and its restoration to worship of the one true God (Allah), Wahhabi puritanism spared neither the sacred tombs of Muhammad and his Companions in Mecca and Medina nor the Shiite pilgrimage site at Karbala (in modern Iraq) that housed the tomb of Hussein. The destruction of this venerated site has never been forgotten by Shii Muslims and contributed to the historic antipathy between the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia and Shii Islam both in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Centuries later, many would point to Wahhabi-inspired iconoclasm as the source behind the Taliban's wanton destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan, an action condemned by Muslim leaders worldwide.

In the early nineteenth century, Muhammad Ali of Egypt defeated the Saudis, but the Wahhabi movement and the House of Saud proved resilient. By the early twentieth century, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud recaptured Riyadh, united the tribes of Arabia, restored the Saudi kingdom, and spread the Wahhabi movement. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia melded the political and religious in a self-declared Islamic state, using the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as the official basis for state and society.

Internationally, the Saudis, both government-sponsored organizations and wealthy individuals, have exported their ultraconservative version of Wahhabi Islam to other countries and communities in the Muslim world and the West. They have offered development aid, built mosques, libraries, and other institutions, funded and distributed religious tracts, and commissioned imams and religious scholars. Wahhabi puritanism and financial support have been exported to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Central Asian Republics, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the United States, and Europe. At the same time, some wealthy businessmen in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have provided financial support to extremist groups who follow a militant "fundamentalist" brand of Islam (commonly referred to as Wahhabi or Salafi) with its jihad culture.

The challenge is to distinguish between the export of an ultraconservative theology on the one hand and militant extremism on the other. This difficulty is compounded by the propensity of authoritarian governments in Central Asia and China, especially since 9/11, to use the label "Wahhabi extremism" for all opposition, legitimate and illegitimate, and thus justify widespread repression of all opposition to their rule and policies.

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