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How Wahhabism Created the Saudi State

How Wahhabism Created the Saudi State

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reforms threaten to shift the domestic balance of power between the House of Saud and the House of ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, it becomes increasingly important to understand the historical foundations of the politico-religious alliance.

One of the most important revolutionary movements in Arab and Islamic history is the Saudi-Wahhabi religious and political alliance that ultimately led to a new political order on the Arabian Peninsula, strengthened by a reformist reinterpretation of Islam. The alliance between the religious reformist leader, Mohammed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and the tribal sheikh, Mohammed bin Saud, in the middle of the 18th century allowed their forces to consolidate power and unify a fractured region within the Islamic world.

With their beginnings in the desert region of Najd in central Arabia, the “Emirate of Diriyah” or “First Saudi State” as it came to be known, would eventually take over a majority of the peninsula, with the exception of Yemen and Oman. The new political entity structured around a new brand of Islam would change the course of history in the region, challenging existing political and clerical dynasties. What produced this revolutionary movement, and how did religious ideas and political action influence one another?


The region of Najd in central Arabia in the early 18th century was a remote corner of the Islamic world. Outside the dominion of foreign empires and occupiers, the Arab tribes inhabiting Najd had largely maintained political autonomy in spite of its proximity to Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the Hejaz. The Arabian interior lacked the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coastlines that would have increased trade for its tribes, but its remoteness granted it rare political independence.

Despite being largely free from foreign powers, the region was politically fractured and unable to unite the various tribes. Tribal matters dictated many aspects of one’s life, and alliances between tribes and clans were often opportunistic in nature and changed with evolving circumstances. The region was also heavily divided between nomadic groups and oasis-dwelling communities. Conflict was not uncommon, and it served to forcefully redistribute relatively scarce resources, while also providing a much-needed break from monotonous life. The politics of the region were highly tribal, with each tribe headed by the sheikh of its most prominent clan.

Najd neighboured the Hejaz, home to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Because of its religious significance, Hejaz received pilgrims from all over the Islamic world, which produced a cosmopolitan economic environment. Najd, however, shared in few of the benefits. Most travelers would bypass the central desert region, preferring to traverse the Levant before heading south along the Red Sea coast. For some pilgrims, however, the journey across the central Arabian Peninsula was more convenient. Travelers from Iraq and Iran traversedNajd, trading with the locals as they went. Most Najdis did not have sectarian grievances against the traveling pilgrims, and the cross-cultural contact helped to transmit innovations both within Islam and in secular life.


Mohammed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was a scholar and religious leader from Najd. He was a Sunni Muslim theologian of the Hanbali school who had studied in Iraq and traveled within the Arabian Peninsula. The beginnings of his ideological mission were in his hometown of al-‘Uyayna, where he had already started to gather a following by the time he proposed his mission to the ruler of the town.

The ruler, Uthman ibn Muammar, agreed to adopt his ideological mission and spread it throughout Najd. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab began to carry out what he believed needed to be done, starting with the destruction of the tomb of a companion of the Prophet. He and his followers destroyed other sites of worship that he considered to be idolatry, and he also organized the stoning of an accused adulterer. The ruler of al-Hasa, in the eastern region of Arabia, pressured the local leader to expel ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab from al-‘Uyayna, which he was forced to do.

What happened next would produce a lasting and fruitful alliance that would overturn the religious and political order of the Arabian Peninsula. Upon hearing of the expulsion, in 1744 Mohammed bin Saud invited ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab to his oasis settlement where he would be kept safe.6 Grateful and opportunistic, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab offered his mission to the head of the House of Saud. They agreed upon a power-sharing arrangement, where the Saudi family would rule in all matters political and military, and ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers would rule on religious matters. They planned to spread their political and religious influence based on Wahhabi teachings throughout Najd and beyond.

The head of the House of Saud, the first of whom to benefit from this new arrangement was Mohammed bin Saud, took the title “imam.” The oasis settlement in which the agreement had been made, Diriyah, became the capital of the new state. Shortly after ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s arrival there, adherents began to arrive in significant numbers. Some even arrived from al-‘Uyayna, where they did not see eye-to-eye with the ruler, Uthman ibn Muammar.7 After about two years of teaching in Diriyah, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and ibn Saud began the first military incursions in 1746.

A combination of conditions had made the military option acceptable and even necessary. Firstly, the size of Diriyah’s population had surpassed its resources. Followers of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab flocked to the town to study under the sheikh, but the town’s ability to house and supply them had become strained. Secondly, the Wahhabi adherents living outside of Saudi territory were experiencing persecution from tribal chiefs who refused to accept the new movement.

According to al-Uthaymin, the teachings of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab instructed that the opponents of the movement were enemies of Islam itself. Thus, the religious teachings and political climate of Diriyah and Najd directed the Saudi power bloc to expand outward.

Together, the Saudi-Wahhabi condominium expanded the territory of the new state through military campaigns, spreading the da’wa throughout their conquered lands. They led campaigns against rival tribes and sheikhs, aiming to unite the Peninsula under Saudi political leadership and Wahhabi religious laws. After defeating several of the resisting tribes, the most powerful opponent of the new state was the Ottoman Empire, which operated against the Najdi armies primarily from its base in Egypt to the west, but it also controlled Syria to the north. The Saudi-Ottoman war would escalate decades after the establishment of the First Saudi State.

Also among the enemies of the Saudi-Wahhabi movement were the Shi’a tribes of Arabia. Various groups of Shi’a Arabs lived in areas both east and west of Najd, in al-Hasa and the Hejaz respectively. The Wahhabi movement taught that Shi’a Islam was in fact not Islam at all; rather, the Wahhabis believed that the neighbouring Shi’a Arabs adhered to polytheism and, therefore, deserved to be killed.


Mohammed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab was a reformist scholar whose main preoccupation was with the ways in which Islam had, in his view, deviated from its roots. In his initial agreement with Mohammed bin Saud, he implored ibn Saud to perform jihad against the unbelievers of the region. He also believed that the established Islamic scholars relied too heavily on previous interpretations of the Qur’an and the hadith, rather than on the original texts themselves. He believed that ijtihad, the interpretation of the holy texts for oneself, was the path to a more correct interpretation and practice of the religion.

Within the context of 18th century Arabia, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab believed that outside cultural and spiritual traditions, such as spitting to ward off the evil eye, had corrupted the Islamic values, beliefs, and practices in Najd. Traveling merchants, primarily from Iraq and Iran on their way to the Hejaz, spread goods and ideas from their own lands and beyond, including India.

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s strong opposition to any practices that recognized forces other than the oneness of God led him to promote an austere, fundamentalist, and puritanical version of Islam, forsaking religious innovations adopted since the time of the Prophet. While his teachings gave individuals the right to interpret the texts for themselves, he also enforced a strict interpretation of the Shari’a, which gave the political elite great power over their subjects. The religious ideas promoted by ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab gave the House of Saud a legitimacy that had been lacking in the region. The ruler did not carry the title of caliph, but he, along with the Wahhabi clergy, derived power and legitimacy through enforcement of puritanical interpretations of Islamic texts.

One major way in which Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers deviated from Sunni orthodoxy was their challenge to the existing body of Hadiths. He was relatively skeptical with regard to the recognized Hadiths and their respective isnads. He voiced the possibility that any given Hadith could be falsified, along with the corresponding chain of transmission. It was, therefore, a mission of the Wahhabis to search out copies of the various Hadiths where they found them across the Islamic world and to determine their validity. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s criteria for deciding whether or not a Hadith was in fact true relied less on the chain of transmission; rather, he compared it to the values conveyed through the Qur’an. If a particular Hadith contradicted the Qur’an in its message, he determined that it could not possibly be a genuine Hadith. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab believed the Qur’an and the body of Hadiths were not only complimentary to one another, but they should be symmetrical in the values and teachings conveyed.

The Wahhabi movement was congruent with the reformist attitudes not uncommon in the 18th century. It promoted elements of what would now be considered Salafism (a term that did not arise until much later, but emphasized a return to the lifestyle of the Salaf, or the generations immediately after the Prophet Mohammed). Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s near complete rejection of eleven centuries of Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence in order to revert to a more “pure” and “correct” form of Islam was, in effect, a return to the Prophet’s words, deeds, and teachings, albeit the strict Wahhabi interpretation of them. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab recognized the influence of a millennia of political history on Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence, including the inherent corruption of some scholarly offices, which were sometimes held by wealthy individuals or family members of the appointers. However, his version of “pure” Islam was equally useful for consolidating power and enforcing the religious and political legitimacy of the new state.

It is important to note the zeal with which ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab strived to prevent idolatry in all its forms. Mouline notes that ibn Abd al-Wahhab went so far as to forbid any descendant of the Prophet to lay claim to any special status, religious or otherwise. He forbade the descendants from wearing any distinctive clothing to indicate their status, and he outlawed Muslims showing any undue respect to the descendants of the Prophet that could be considered worship or prostration, like kissing their hands.

Another important grievance of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers against the practices of many Sunni Muslims was the veneration of the companions of the Prophet and other saintly figures. The tomb he destroyed in his hometown belonged to Zayd ibn al-Khattab, brother of Caliph Umar and companion of Mohammed. The destruction of idols would become an important theme for the descendants of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab partly as a way of likening their cause to the Prophet Mohammed’s destruction of idols when he took Mecca. Wahhabi incursions into Iraq decades later would continue the practice, destroying Shi’a shrines in Karbala.

By the time the Wahhabi movement began, the Sunni-Shi’a divide had seen violent disagreement. However, it was the Wahhabis’ condemnation of many Sunnis and Sunni practices as idolaters and idolatry that earned them resentment from a large segment of the population. According to Commins, the killings of Sunni Muslims who didn’t follow the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam were the cause of hostility even within the Sunni Najdi community.


The alliance between the Wahhabis and the Saudis was inherently religious and political. The political aspirations and religious beliefs of the movement were reflected and influenced by each other in profound ways, deepening the societal control the new government was able to exert on the people of the Arabian Peninsula. Grievances against the perceived idolatry and deviation from the true Islam drove Mohammed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab to preach against the Peninsula’s ruling elite, and his popularity among many Najdis evidences the widespread nature of these grievances.

The reformist religious movement became popular among some Sunni Arab Muslims who sympathized with ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s mission to revert to a “true” form of the religion centred on the values derived from a literalist interpretation of the Qur’anic passages and corresponding Hadiths.

Others, however, detested the overzealousness that would often result in the killings of Sunni Muslims who disagreed with the Wahhabis’ point of view. From a political perspective, the movement also served to provide an Arab political union and fight foreign influence, both political and religious. The religious elements of the movement served to strengthen and legitimize the political and military leadership, and vice versa. Strong emphasis on purging idolatry (and a loose definition of idolatry) led the Saudi-Wahhabi condominium to enforce the puritanical beliefs of the sheikh The Wahhabi mission proved to be a lasting and influential movement, and with the political backing of the House of Saud, has continued to exist into the modern era.

The descendants of Mohammed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, known as the Al ash-Sheikh (the house of the Sheikh), continue to serve as the clerical class in modern Saudi Arabia.

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