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Making Sense of Wahhabism – 1: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab

By Eruditeblogger

September 5, 2016

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab

He was born in Najd, in present day Saudi Arabia in a family of scholars of the Hanbali school of Sunni law.

His grandfather: Sulayman bin Ali, was a trusted scholar and a judge

Father: Abd al-Wahhab, was a jurist and a judge for many towns

Uncle: Ibrahim, was a travelling jurist, and was also a judge in a town

Brother: Sulayman, also a religious scholar

He learned the Holy Qur’an by heart before he was ten years old, and was said to have sharp intelligence, a strong memory, and intellectual curiosity.

Once he had finished his studies under his father and uncle, he travelled to Mecca, Medina, al-Ahsa, Tihamah, Az Zubayr… to complete his studies and his visits to Basra and Bagdad exposed him to Sufism and Orientalist thought.

His education in Islamic law and the science of narration was based on the Hanbali School. In addition to his father and uncle, some of his teachers include:

Muhammad al Majmu’i

Abdillah al-Fardhi al-Hanbali

Muhammad Hayat al-Sindi

Ibn Abd al-Lateef

Abdillah ibn Salim al-Basri

Abdillah ibn Ibrahim ibn Saif

Isma’il ibn Muhammad al-‘Ajluni ash-Shami

Abdillah ibn Fayruz al-Ahsa’i

He studied the works of Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) and his faithful student ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292-1350) with ibn Abd al-Lateef and was deeply influenced by them. He would also have spent a lot of time reading about the false-prophets who appeared during or after Muhammad, such as Musaylama al-Kathab and Tulayha al-Asadi.

He was very opposed to many things he heard and saw during his travels, even from other scholars, and spent a lot of time preaching against what he considered to be deviations from “pure Islam,” and innovations and imports into it.

The main pillars of his system of beliefs and law are

True Tawhid or unicity of God. This is why his followers prefer to be called Muwahhidun.

This is in opposition to polytheism, which is rejected by Islam. However, Wahhabi Tawhid is very restrictive in what constitutes monotheism and divine unicity, as it extends polytheism to include much more than what the rest of Muslims include in it. For instance, Wahhabis consider visiting the shrines and grave of a deceased, asking for the intercession of saints, and any esoteric, mystical/Sufi beliefs or behaviours as being an evil innovation in Islam and falling squarely under polytheism. These secondary matters in Islam have been elevated by Wahhabis to such a level, that Wahhabis rely on these to judge if someone is a Muslim or a disbeliever / polytheist. This makes most of the Muslim world, in the eyes of Wahhabis, somewhere between venial sinners and polytheists, and ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers see it as their religious duty to fight them and everyone else until they return to true Tawhid.

He adhered to a school of thought known as Salafist, which insists on understanding Islam only through the interpretation of the companions of the Prophet, as well as the second and third generation of Muslim scholars (referred to as as-Salaf, meaning the predecessors) in order to avoid all subsequent imports, innovations and deviations that have come into Islam. This is why his followers refer to themselves as Salafi (or Salafist in English). Today, I would say that “Salafist” is being used in three different ways:

It designates this methodological school of referring back to the first two or three generations of scholars to understand Islam;

A reform movement with a strong activist dimension that can go as far as military intervention, seeking to change society, including governments, to fit their interpretation of Islam

Synonymous with Wahhabism

 As he started making his ideas public, his father and some of his teachers warned people against listening to him, and openly remarked that he would eventually misguide others. When he began his movement of reform, his father and his teachers opposed him directly and refuted his ideas, which were only accepted by those who had no religious education, as stated by historians of the time, including his own brother.

In the beginning of his movement, his approach was much more lenient. But as opposition to his ideas grew, so did his aggressiveness.

Ten years after the beginning of his reform movement, his father died, which opened the door for him to take a bolder stance. When he tried to renew his activities, he was forced to leave his village to al-‘Uyayna because the people of his own town wanted to kill him. In his new location, he was able to get very close to the chief of the town and married his sister, but he was forced to flee yet again because the people of al-‘Uyayna could not stand him anymore. He fled to Ad-Diriyyah, where he found the family of Saud. Interestingly enough, these towns are the same ones from which the initial movements of the false-prophets (e.g. Musaylama al-Kathab) had started centuries ago.

He always spoke, wrote and behaved as though he had reached “Ijtihad.” “Ijtihad” is the highest level of education and religious training that can be reached by students of Islamic law, and once reached which enables him to be independent in his conclusions, as opposed to relying on the opinions of previous scholars. The problem is that he was nowhere near that kind of specialization and training, but refused to accept anyone else’s views except his own.

When his family and his teachers failed to convince him to let go of his dangerous ideas, his brother wrote a book exposing him. He writes in it:

“Today, the people have to endure someone who claims to follow the Book and the Prophet’s tradition, and who is able to extract knowledge from them, and he does not care who opposes him. In fact, he considers anyone who disagrees with him as a disbeliever. And on top of everything, he does not carry a single trait from the traits of Ijtihad. No, by God, I swear that he does not even carry a tenth of a trait. And yet, his words have made their way to many ignorant people. We are to God, and to Him we return.” [It should be noted that this last sentence is uttered by Muslims when a calamity befalls them, as per the instructions of the Holy Qur’an.]

Initially, he convinced only some of the leaders of Ad-Diriyyah of his ideas. They wanted to approach their leader Muhammad ibn Saud ibn Muhammad Al-Muqrin, asking for his support, but didn’t know how, and feared him in case he disagreed. As for Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, he always presented himself as a reformer, and was in need for a political figure. Those who were convinced by his ideas talked to the wife of the Saudi ruler, Modhi bint Muhammad ibn Suylim al-‘Urayni, and convinced her of the merit of ibn Abd al-Wahhab. When her husband came, she told him that this man has been sent to you as a bounty from God, so take advantage of him. He approved of the idea, and so did his brothers. He was told by his advisors to show respect to the man by walking to him, instead of calling him to you, so that people start revering him as well. The family of Saud and their leader were very receptive to his ideas and movement. They promised him protection and security, and he told them that if they adhered to the belief in the One God, they would soon rule all the lands, and be able to cleanse Najd and the neighbouring towns from the polytheism, ignorance and disunity that they witnessed. The Saud family agreed, because it gave them the religious cover they needed to spread their rule by the sword while appearing to do so based on religious grounds in a land where religion means everything to people. So they made a pact of alliance to establish a state run according to ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam, which still serves the purposes of both families today in Saudi Arabia, as explained in the previous entry.

Many Muslims believe that, although the Wahhabi movement has Tawheed reform as its main purpose, this is only an outward appearance to attract and seduce Muslims; the real mission of the movement is the destruction of Islam from within by serving interests that are external to Islam and Muslims.