Wahhabi Islam began in the 18th century in Arabia. The Wahhabi school of Islam is named for its founder, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, but its followers often refer to themselves as “Muwahhidun,” Unitarians or unifiers of Islamic practice, and to their teachings as “Salafi,” following the forefathers of Islam. Wahhabis practice a puritanical, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Abd al-Wahhāb lead a movement to purify Arabian society of customs and practices accumulated since the founding of Islam. The Wahhabis criticized praying to saints and other holy people, the visiting of shrines, the belief in omens and other practices seen as gateways to polytheism, arguing that there is only one God, and he is the only one who should be worshipped. Wahhabis take a strict and literal interpretation of the Quran. They reject later philosophical interpretations and juridical decisions, take a conservative view of the relationship between men and women, abstain from “decadent” behavior, such as drinking alcohol, and have been known to prohibit music and dancing.
Wahhabi Muslims took an intolerant view of other schools of Islam and other religions. Abd al-Wahhāb’s movement grew out of the Sunni sect of Islam, and was especially intolerant of the Shi’ite practice of visiting shrines to Imams. Abd al-Wahhāb saw it as his duty to eliminate these “innovations,” through force. Looked on with suspicion by the tribal rulers of the region, Abd al-Wahhāb sought refuge in Dariyah and attracted the Emir Muhammed bin Saud, who became his ally and cemented the allegiance of the Saud family to Wahhabi Islam. The two declared a jihad against the neighboring emirs who disagreed with the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The Saudi family eventually conquered and consolidated their hold in the region during the early 19th century, but were pushed back by the Ottomans, who held control of Arabia. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the ensuing civil war between Wahhabis and other factions in Arabia, that the Saud family succeeded in conquering all of Arabia, establishing Wahhabi Islam as the national religion under the monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi religious laws regarding the consumption of alcohol, social behavior and public dress, are Wahhabi laws and reflect the puritanism of this strand of Islam.
The Saudi support of the Wahhabi religion have given Wahhabis the opportunity to carry their form of Islam to all corners of the Muslim world. Wahhabi schools have spread across the world, and the religion has popped up in Africa, Pakistan, across the Middle East and Indonesia.
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images