Eli Hovland: Shi’i Wahhabi Encounter

Wahhabism is an ideology originating on the Arabian peninsula in the 18th Wahhabism was the creation of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab. From its orginins Wahhabism has attempted to create and enforce a narrow definition of correct Islamic practice, focused almost entirely on the practice as can be understood from the time of the Prophet. As such Wahhabism finds fault with the religious practice of the vast majority of Muslims including both mainline Sunni and in particular Shi’i Muslims. Another important fact about Wahhabism is its deep relationship with the Saud Dynasty. Due to this relationship Wahhabism was able to advance under the twin strokes of Saudi luck. The first being the families emergences as the dominate power in Arabia, with the fall of the Hashemite Dynasty, and the second being the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a dominate player in the Arab and Muslim worlds. From its origins its opposition to Shia and its close ties to the House of Saud has made Wahhabism a powerful forces in the politics of the Muslim world. This close connection can be seen in the 1747 declaration of Jihad by the Saudi state against all those who did not conform to the vision of Wahhabism, sparking conflict and blood shed across Arabia. Its continuation can be seen in the continued sponsorship of Wahhabist groups by the modern Saudi state[1].

One issue that has become a defining term in the Shi’i Wahhabi encounter in recent years has been the revival of Shi’i political power and the reaction to this revival by the Saudi’s. Sunni regional powers see Shi’ism as a threat to their security and influence. Much of this is thought to stem from the influence of the Iranian government. Which they see has launching a program of regional expansion of influence, this requires its own ideological response, which has often taken the form of support for Wahhabism. Evidence for this Iranian backed Shi’i expansion has been drawn from the growing role of Iran in promoting Shi’i groups in post-Saddam Iraq. This rise in Iranian influence reached its peak under the administration of Nouri Al-Maliki, who’s government was seen as being very strongly tied to Iran, almost to the point of Iraq becoming an Iranian client state. This relationship between post-Saddam Iraq and Iran underlies an important point about the expansion of Iran, and by extension Shi’I political power in the Middle East, that is has been contributed to by US policy. This contribution can be seen in the US decision after September 11th to remove two powers on Iran’s boarders, the Taliban to the East and the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. These events not only created a friendly Shi’i controlled state on Iran’s boarder but also removed two of the principle security threats which had acted as containing forces on the government of Iran.

A solution to the violence of the Wahhabi-Shi’i encounter will come through better understanding between the Arab powers and Iran. Cole demonstrates that the bedrock of such a relationship is present. Cole cites a poll of the populations of six Arab states taken in 2008 in which a significant majority called for a reduction of international pressure on Iran. Additionally, in the same year King Abdulla of Jordan called for Saudi Iranian cooperation to address the challenge of Sunni extremism, such as Al Qaeda, which he implied was a more significant threat than the expansion of Iranian backed Shi’i politics[2].

[1] Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: a Critical Essay. Islamic Publications International, 2002.


[2] Cole, Juan. Engaging the Muslim World (p. 193). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.