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Wahhabi or Wahhabism (Arabic - Wahabiyyah) also Wahhabi, Wahabi) is a Sunni Muslim reform movement founded in the mid-eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. Wahhabi is the English name and the name used for them by other sects. They call themselves Muwahidun (unitarians) and believe in strict asceticism. Muwahidun are the dominant religious sect of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi or Muwahidun are a branch of fundamentalist Salafi belief who reject innovation in Islam and believe in returning to Islam as practiced in the days of Muhammad. Their lifestyle results in strict suppression and separation of women, which is enforced by religious police in Saudi Arabia. Some other prohibitions and practices of this sect:

  • There is no other object for worship than God (Allaj) 
  • Holy men or women must not be used as intermediaries to win favors from God
  • No other name than the names of Allah may be used in  prayer
  • No smoking of tobacco
  • Beards must not be shaved (obviously not followed by members of the Saudi royal family)
  • Very strict prohibition of alcoholic beverages
  • Abusive language is forbidden
  • Rosaries are forbidden
  • Mosques must be without ornamental artwork or minarets
  • All men must attend Salat (prayer) in public
  • Alms (Zakat) are due from all income.
  • Butchers who perform Halal ritual slaughter must be upright persons, not only adept in the techniques of ritual slaughter.

Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab lived in Saudi Arabia. He studied in Basra, Iraq, and returned to his home town of 'Uyayna. He was expelled from there for his teachings and settled in Dirriya soon after his return from Iraq, about 1740. He was taken up as client by the clan of Muhammad ibn Saud. Saud vowed to carry on his teachings and spread them, and the Saud family were made imams of the Wahhabi movement. The Sauds mounted raids throughout the region, including a rather vicious raid on Karbala in modern Iraq in 1802, before being contained by the Ottoman Empire. Following the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, the Saud family seized the chance to conquer all of the Arabian peninsula from the clan of Sherif Hussein, which had been guardians of the Muslim holy places. The Muwahidun, Wahhabism" became, in effect, the official religion of Saudi Arabia.

About 1912, the Muwahidun had established farming communities that could also serve as a basis for proselytization, and whose members were known as Ikhwan (brothers). Mud huts and semi-permanent dwellings replaced the traditional nomadic tents.  The Ikhwan were presently dissatisfied with the nature of the new Saudi regime, which did not give a large enough role to religion and to them, in their view, and they revolted against Ibn Saud in the 1920s. Their revolt was put down with vigor, but the religious views of Saudi society remain generally in accord with Wahhabism. The Ikhwan were absorbed in part into the Saudi National Guard.

Saudi Wahhabism expresses itself in several ways. A religious "virtue patrol" police ensures that women do not venture outside their houses in improper attire or keep company with men. Wahhabism has also been the motivation for exporting Islamist education as well as terrorism, though not all interpretations of the doctrine support terror. When the price of oil began to soar in the 1970s, followers of Wahhabism used the revenues for "charity" which included the founding of militant Madrassahs (religious schools) and funding of extremist groups in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Palestine and elsewhere.

Wahhabism is criticized by other Muslims as being overly extreme, and has kindled antagonism in the west, as it is held responsible for the rise of terrorism. Osama Bin Laden, founder of Al-Qaeda is not considered to be a true follower of Wahhabi Islam. However, he was nurtured in the Wahhabi tradition and in fact developed a somewhat  independent theology that is not totally inconsistent apparently, with its tenets, based on the ideas of Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb ("Qutbism") Abul Ala Maududi, Afghani and others as transmitted by Ayman Zawahiri.   Many of his followers were originally Wahhabis and many of the Madrassahs that turn out Al-Qaeda members are financed by Wahhabis.

Though radical Islamist groups draw on Wahhabi and Salafi traditions and recruit in their Madrassahs, they are not the same ideologies. Wahhabi are  Salafi, or fundamentalists of the "old" type and should not be confused with  Islamist reformists. The two shout not be lumped together as "Salafi-Islamists" or "Salafi-Jihadists" as some do. Wahhabi and Salafists generally have no ambitions of social reform or rebellion against Muslim governments, as long as those governments adhere to Sharia law and usually oppose terror against other Muslims. The article about Salafi discusses some of the critiques leveled by Salafi against Islamists.     

Ami Isseroff

Revised, December 19, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: Salafi Islamism Qutb, Sayyid History of Islam and the Arabs Maududi, Abul ala  Al-Banna, Hassan

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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