Ashley Belohlavek: The Nature of Wahhabism

Wahabbism, Saudi Arabia’s on-and-off most widely recognized religion for the past few centuries, has had an extremely troubling history, particularly due to its treatment of basically every other religion in existence, especially Shi’i Islam and its neighboring sects. In order to understand Wahhabism’s relationship with and effect on Shi’ism, it is important to study Wahhabism’s birth and origins, its ideology and the actions it has taken against Shi’ites in particular.

The truly ironic aspect of Wahhabism is that not once in Islamic history did its ideals ever achieve clear footing until the rise of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a new political icon in Najd, or Central Arabia in the Saudi province.[1] The only real connection that Wahhabi ideals share with past Islamic opinions is that rebellious Kharijites had at one time in early Islamic history been so against varied doctrine that they vowed to rage obligatory war against anyone who disagreed with their dogma, as well as the unpopular teachings of Hanbali thinker Ibn Taymiyya who died in prison over his extreme ideas.[2] While certainly extreme interpretations of every religion have always appeared and will continue to, it is most surprising that Wahhabism could turn into such a popular movement when none like it had made waves of such magnitude before. Abd al-Wahhab was first perceived by locals as a man shouting extremist ideas into the wind that had no place within their Sunni society. After only a few years, however, Abd al-Wahhab finally found someone who would listen to him, the king of the continuously growing Saudi province.[3]

Next, it is important to consider how Wahhabism came to be accepted and began accumulating support as a movement and a legitimate ideology. Wahhabis and the Saudi family would pervert jihad into its most violent and merciless interpretation possible and used its Qur’anic origin as a means of legitimizing the brutal suppression of non-Wahhabis.[4] The royal family of Saudi Arabia also held similar views as Abd al-Wahhab on the disintegration of Muslim values. Both thought modern day Sunni Muslims had completely lost their way and that Shi’ites, Sufis and all other sects were simply pretending to be Muslim while performing inappropriate rituals and disgracing the Muslim name.[5] They believed this because they regarded 7th century Meccan and Medinan society to be the ideal society, and that in order to reclaim the Islamic religion, Sunni Islam in particular, all true Muslims must strive to return to the customs and lifestyles of Islamic society in that medieval time period. Based on this idea, Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud believed in strict and archaic interpretation of scripture in a way that did not take modern day thought or obstacles into consideration, making it a truly narrow-minded and unrealistic expectation of modern Muslims.

Wahhabism, down to its core, is a fundamentalist ideology. One of its most striking positions is that any variation of its perception of tawhid, or unity with God, is blasphemous and must be snuffed out by violence.[6] Wahhabism is widely considered to be a branch of Sunni Islam, though it is undeniable that its extremism completely violates the entire basis of the Islamic religion in any sect, so saying it stems from Sunni Islam is an incredible stretch. However, because it considers itself related to Sunnism, it poses massive intolerance towards Shi’ites, Sufis and any other group “parading” around as Muslims, as Wahhabis see followers of these sects as heretics and fakers.[7] Wahhabis consider jihad to be so significant to Islam that it should even be a pillar, but their interpretation of jihad is much more violent and strict than most Muslims view jihad to be, so much that they demand immediate persecution of anyone violating Wahhabi doctrine.[8] They even condemn innovation and consider the creation of new ideas to be inappropriate, which is why they seek to demolish any symbol of post-Prophet events, ideas, and traditions. They regard post-revelation ideas and any development beyond the Prophet’s lifetime to be heretical and therefore anti-Islamic, because scripture does not directly authorize them, even though these ideas make up much of Islamic culture and tradition in various sects of the religion.[9]

After this backstory and analysis of ideology, the most disturbing aspect of Wahhabism that should be considered is what has actually been done to Shi’ites in the name of the religion. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab authorized the complete destruction of the remains of the life and martyrdom of Hussayn at Karbala, a hero in Shi’i Islam who is celebrated every year to this day.[10] Not only does this act show a complete disrespect for another religious group’s culture and tradition but it is beyond deplorable to destroy an incredibly sacred historical reminder that cannot be replaced. This act, however, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the violence perpetuated towards non-Wahhabis. From 1805 till 1812, Saudi forces seized Mecca and Medina, forcing all those currently occupying the space to convert to Wahhabism or face brutal persecution.[11] While this is an extreme example of the carnage perpetuated by Wahhabis, a more modern day act of suppression is placing unfair sanctions upon Shi’a communities living on important oil reserves in current day Saudi Arabia, not even allowing them to conduct their own schools the way they would like.[12] Across the board in Wahhabi history, Wahhabis can be seen starting fights with non-threatening Shi’ites and using their power over them in order to suppress their influence and diminish the meaning of their history, culture and beliefs.

While Wahhabism is an extremely popular sect of “Sunni Islam” in Saudi Arabia to this day, the belief system has had some truly catastrophic impacts on Muslims of other sects, particularly Shi’ites. The founder of Wahhabism was initially brushed off as a heretical nobody spewing hatred, but somehow that same person formed a powerful relationship with a man with the means of making their fundamentalist ideals a reality. In the wake of this development, Shi’ites have lost countless historical landmarks, had their traditions and beliefs slandered and also have been threatened with death or even had their lives brutally taken for the sake of a perverted sense of jihad, a concept meant to be sacred and nonviolent. When contemplating the overall impact of Wahhabism and how it has morphed into the incredible danger it has produced in its history, its origin and relationship with different Islamic sects are incredibly important factors to consider.


Works cited:

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction To Islam. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print

Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002.

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

Crooke, Alastair. “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.” Huffington Post, June 3, 2016.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 7a Lecture. 10-10-16

Cole, Juan. Engaging the Muslim World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.



[1] Brown, pg 245-246

[2] Algar, pg 21

[3] Brown, pg 245

[4] Brown, pg 246

[5] Lee, pg 226

[6] Algar, pg 19

[7] Crooke

[8] Mahallati, lecture week 7a

[9] Cole, pg 85

[10] Mahallati, lecture week 7a

[11] Mahallati, lecture week 7a

[12] Mahallati, lecture week 7a