by Hamid Algar
What follows is a modest survey of the history, the doctrines, and the contemporary significance of Wahhabism. Persons sympathetic to the teachings we call here “Wahhabism” might, of course, object to this designation, for it is a tide given to the movement by those standing outside of it, often with pejorative intent. Wahhabis themselves prefer the titles al-Muwahhidun or Ahl al-Tauhid, “the asserters of the divine unity.” But precisely this self-awarded tide springs from a desire to lay exclusive claim to the principle of tauhid that is the foundation of Islam itself; it implies a dismissal of all other Muslims as tainted by shirk. There is no reason to acquiesce in this assumption of a monopoly, and because the movement in question was ultimately the work of one man, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab, it is reasonable as well as conventional to speak of “Wahhabism” and “Wahhabis.”
Two other preliminary remarks. First, in the extremely lengthy and rich history of Islamic thought, Wahhabism does not occupy a particularly important place. Intellectually marginal, the Wahhabi movement had the good fortune to emerge in the Arabian Peninsula (albeit in Najd, a relatively remote part of the peninsula) and thus in the proximity of the Haramayn, a major geographical focus of the Muslim world; and its Saudi patrons had the good fortune, in the twentieth century, to acquire massive oil wealth, a portion of which has been used in attempts to propagate Wahhabism in the Muslim world and beyond. In the absence of these two factors, Wahhabism might well have passed into history as a marginal and shortlived sectarian movement. Those same two factors, reinforced by a partial congruity with other contemporary tendencies in the Islamic world, have endowed Wahhabism with a degree of longevity.
Second, Wahhabism is an entirely specific phenomenon, calling for recognition as a separate school of thought or even as a sect of its own. Sometimes the Wahhabis are characterized, particularly by non-Muslim observers searching for a brief description, as “extreme” or as “conservative” Sunnis, with adjectives such as “stem” or “austere” added for good measure. It has, however, been observed by knowledgeable Sunnis since the earliest times that the Wahhabis do not count as part of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a, for almost all the practices, traditions and beliefs denounced by Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab have been historically integral to Sunni Islam, enshrined in a vast body of literature and accepted by the great majority of Muslims. Precisely for that reason, many of the ‘ulama contemporary with the first emergence of Wahhabism denounced its followers as standing outside the pale of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama‘a. That Wahhabis are now counted as Sunni is one indication that the term “Sunni” has come to acquire an extraordinarily loose meaning, not extending much beyond recognition of the legitimacy of the first four caliphs (regarded by Sunnis as the Khulafa al-Rashidun [“the Righdy Guided Caliphs”]); in fact, it signifies little more than “non-Shi‘i.” Our characterization of Wahhabis as non-Sunni is therefore above all a historical clarification; it has in itself no polemical purpose, if only because for the present writer Sunnism is but one representation and interpretation of Islam.
Another general notion concerning Wahhabism fixed in the minds of many Muslims is that it stood at the origin of a series of reform movements which in some cases are still active in the Muslim world. Thus it is imagined that a direct line of descent led from the Wahhabis in Arabia first to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Rashid Rida, and from them to the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun)—in short, to the conglomeration of persons and movements known as the Salafiyya. There are, indeed, points held in common by Wahhabis and Salafis, as will be discussed later in this essay, and it was not entirely by accident that from the 1960’s onwards many activists of the Ikhwan chose Saudi Arabia as their place of refuge from persecution by ‘Abd al-Nasir. There is, however, no genetic connection between Wahhabism and movements that subsequently arose in the Muslim world. The relative prevalence of Wahhabi modes of thought now observable in various Muslim countries is a more recent phenomenon, due to a variety of contingencies unconnected with the first appearance of that sect. A related error is to think of Wahhabism as having been from the time of its origin a reform movement that found a widespread and sympathetic echo in the Muslim world, or that it conformed to a general pattern of “renewal” (tajdid) then underway in the Middle East, in South Asia, in Africa and elsewhere. All those movements were largely different in their nature from Wahhabism, which must be regarded within the specific context of its own time as an exception, an aberration, or at best an anomaly.