Alana Barrington Dye: The Wahhabi-Shi’i Encounter

The Wahhabi-Shi’i encounter plays a critical role in the current politics of the Muslim world as well as the international world. With power and oil, this relationship is among the top three most important political factors in the region.[1] Vali Nasr argues that any attempts to democratize the region can only be effective if they follow a successful reconciliation of identity struggles, most importantly, the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.[2] While Nasr explicitly states that this must occur before democratization, it can be extrapolated from his argument that this reconciliation is necessary before any form of settlement of various political encounters in the region. So in order to reconcile Sunni-Shi’i, or Wahhabi-Shi’i, relations, it is crucial to understand the historical, religious, and socio-political factors that led to the current climate.

In his work Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia, Adeeb Khalid states: “Political actions of Muslims are a product of concrete historical circumstances and of conflicts and debates among human actors.”[3] That is to say, there are significant historical factors that are essential to understanding any modern political situation, such as the current Wahhabi-Shi’i encounter. The tenth century was the Shi’a Century or the Golden Age of Shi’ism. At this time, the Fatimid, Buyid, and Samanid Shi’a empires exerted religious and cultural influence over the region.[4] However, by the end of the tenth century, Baghdad was dominated by the Hanbalist ideology, which considered the Shi’a to be a greater threat than non-Muslims. Under this ideology, suppression of Shi’a populations became systemic, and by the mid-eleventh century, Shi’a persecution was fashionable in Iraq.[5] By the fourteenth century, theologian Ibn Taymiyya argued that the failure of Islam in the Mongol invasion was caused by Christian, Sufi, and Shi’i theologies. Four centuries later, Taymiyya’s teachings greatly influenced Muhammad Ibn Abdu’l Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism. Expanding on Taymiyya’s sentiment, in alliance with Muhammad Ibn Saud, Wahhab declared formal jihad on non-Wahhabis in 1746. (This alliance itself reveals the political implications of Wahhab’s theology.) The Wahhabist interpretation of jihad led to the 1802 attack on Karbala, in which the attackers killed two thousand people and stole treasures of the third imam.[6] In the twentieth century, anti-Shi’i sentiment continued as a part of Nassir’s pan-Arabism. As the century continued and authoritarian dictators fell, people looked for new ways to claim an identity. Events such as the Iranian Revolution and the 1991 uprising in Iraq led to a resurgence of the Shi’a identity across the Muslim world at the same time that the Saudi government gave generous support to the Taliban and Sunni fundamentalism.[7]

The Saudi support of Sunni fundamentalists reveals a significant connection between politics and religion, and of course in the Wahhabi-Shi’i encounter, it seems that the religious differences between these two groups must play a large role. Shi’ism praises the Qur’an because it was brought by the Prophet Muhammad, and Sunnism praises Prophet because he brought the Qur’an. This reveals a profound difference between these sects: Shi’ism places greater value on human agency while Sunnism places greater value on the text itself.[8] Wahhabism takes this textual importance further than mainstream Sunnism does, promoting a literal reading of the Qur’an.[9] Unlike in Wahhabism, the two principles of faith in Shi’ism are justice and charismatic leadership.[10] Shi’a follow the statement from Hadith that says: “A just rule by an infidel is better than unjust rule by a Muslim.” In this way, justice can be considered even more important than religion.[11] Khalid argues that there is a reason for these varying understandings: “the sense Muslims make of their tradition, and the political action they undertake, depends on their sense of their place in the world, problems they face, and the resources they have.”[12] Social, historical, political, and economic factors therefore have a great influence on religion, just as religion has a great influence on them. As a minority religious affiliation, Shi’ism is much more likely to be justice-oriented, as minority denominations tend to be.[13] The significance of justice in Shi’ism reveals that throughout history, many Shi’a have been treated in unjust ways. These historical and current political factors are what lead to differing interpretations of the text. So although “a ruler has to undertake to ‘protect the shariat,’”[14] there can be many different interpretations of what shari’a is and what must be protected. These differences can lead to, or be the justification for, political disputes such as those that stem from Wahhabi-Shi’i encounters.

Perhaps the most significant socio-political factor in the Wahhabi-Shi’i encounter is the economic and political obsession with oil. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest producers of oil in the world, which grants the country a powerful position in the international world, as oil is so necessary in the modern world. Interestingly, Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia has a significant Shi’a population in the southern part of the country, a region that contains one of the most important oil reserves in the world. The Saudi government heavily oppresses this Shi’a minority, who are forbidden even to have their own schools. It is clear that a great fear exists in Saudi Arabia of the Shi’a gaining power. If the Shi’a of southern Saudi Arabia were allowed more social and economic power on their oil reserves, this minority would be wealthier than the majority Sunni population.[15] As Robert D. Lee states: “Few states in world history have been as determined as Saudi Arabia to expand their territorial base…and make the culture of that area (Wahhabism) the basis for a single virtuous society.”[16] It is the Saudi government’s promotion of Wahhabi cultural domination that leads them to so fervently repress the significant Shi’a population within their borders as well as in the surrounding region. Wahhabism is intrinsically linked to the Saudi government, and it is therefore linked to the wealth of an oil economy. The connection between Wahhabi values and the Saudi economy grants Wahhabism a certain amount of social power in the international world. The desire to preserve this cultural significance greatly influences certain military actions that the Saudi government has undertaken recently. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was an important player in suppressing, or attempting to suppress, the Bahraini and Yemeni revolutions through use of military force.[17] Seventy percent of Bahrain’s population is Shi’a, and Yemen has a significant Shi’a population as well.[18] Given the location of these countries as well as the oil reserves that they contain, control over Yemen and Bahrain, and therefore their oil, would be a significant factor in Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran. If these countries had a greater ability to exercise sovereignty and claim some power in the region, Saudi Arabia would be completely circled by the Shi’i oil crescent.[19] With the return of Iraqi and Iranian oil into the global market, Shi’a populations are contributing more to the international oil economy. Saudi Arabia has noted this shift and has deemed it necessary to re-establish a “balance of power.”[20] Claiming this necessity enabled the Saudi government to intervene in the affairs of Yemen and Bahrain and actively suppress their Shi’a populations. Despite Saudi efforts to prevent the rising influence of Shi’a communities in global markets, it is clear the impact of Shi’ism will have an effect on international politics. Soon, the United States will most likely have to make a new alliance with the Shi’a community.[21]

The current political climate in the Muslim world is greatly shaped by issues of identity, such as the Wahhabi-Shi’i encounter. The historical systemic persecution of Shi’a people, the differing interpretations of various religious elements, and the current importance of oil have created a complex political situation that is tied up in Shi’a and Wahhabi identities. It is therefore essential to understand the foundations of the relationship between Wahhabi and Shi’a communities before any outside country attempts to affect any change.



Works Cited

Khalid, Adeeb. Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Lee, Robert D. Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2014.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 10, 2016.

——-. “Interventionism in Yemen and Bahrain.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 14, 2016.

——-. “State Shiism.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 24, 2016.

——-. “Iran, Iraq and Regional Agendas.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 26, 2016.

——-. “The Post-War Iraq, Syria and the Phenomenon of Daesh.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 28, 2016.

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflict within Islam will Shape the Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.


[1] Mahallati, “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas,” 10/10/2016.

[2] Mahallati, “State Shiism,” 10/24/2016.

[3] Khalid, Islam after Communism, 48.

[4] Mahallati, “Iran, Iraq and Regional Agendas,” 10/26/2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mahallati, “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas,” 10/10/2016.

[7] Mahallati, “State Shiism,” 10/24/2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mahallati, “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas,” 10/10/2016.

[10] Mahallati, “Iran, Iraq and Regional Agendas,” 10/26/2016.

[11] Mahallati, “State Shiism,” 10/24/2016.

[12] Khalid, Islam after Communism, 48.

[13] Mahallati, “Iran, Iraq and Regional Agendas,” 10/26/2016.

[14] Khalid, Islam after Communism, 29.

[15] Mahallati, “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas,” 10/10/2016.

[16] Lee, Religion and Politics in the Middle East, 246.

[17] Mahallati, “Interventionism in Yemen and Bahrain,” 10/14/2016.

[18] Mahallati, “Iran, Iraq and Regional Agendas,” 10/26/2016.

[19] Mahallati, “Interventionism in Yemen and Bahrain,” 10/14/2016.

[20] Mahallati, “The Post-War Iraq, Syria and the Phenomenon of Daesh,” 10/28/2016.

[21] Mahallati, “Iran, Iraq and Regional Agendas,” 10/26/2016.