Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab of Najd

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was one of those rare scholars whose ideas have continued to influence the Muslims for more than 200 years. Representing the puritanical stream in Islam, in the tradition of Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d. 855) and Shaykh Ibn Taimiyah (d. 1328), his followers continue to infuse a certain tension among Muslims, pulling them in the direction of a spartan faith, shorn of embellishments. Like the ideas of al Ashari (d. 935) in the 10th century, Wahhabi ideas have been amalgamated into modern Islamic thinking so much so that most living Muslims have consciously or unconsciously absorbed them as part of their heritage. Even those who do not agree with the positions taken by the Shaykh are forced into a continuing dialogue with his ideas. Modern Islam would not be the same without this scholar.

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was a contemporary of Shah Waliullah (d. 1763) of Delhi and Shehu Uthman dan Fuduye (d. 1817) of West Africa. He was born in the year1703 into the Banu Sinan tribe of Najd in Uiynah, located approximately 50 miles from Riyadh, capital of modern Saudi Arabia. He received his early education from his father Shaykh Abdul Wahhab bin Sulaiman, which included memorization of the Qur’an and a study of Sunnah and Fiqh. As a teenager, he performed the Hajj and stayed on in Mecca and Madina to study under reputed scholars of the age, Shaykh Abdulla bin Ibrahim of Najd and Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab Hayat of India. He studied the works of classical scholars and was influenced in particular by the writings of Ibn Taimiyah. After completing his studies, he traveled through Persia and Iraq, visiting Basra and Kufa. Returning home he started teaching his austere vision of Islam. The hinterland of Arabia, inhabited mostly by Bedouins, had very little contact with the outside world. The Bedouins who roamed the vast desert practiced a folk Islam embellished with the talisman, tomb visitation and astrology. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab found the atmosphere hostile to his teachings and had to flee his hometown.

Wandering from town to town in Najd, Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab found refuge in Uyainah whose Emir, Uthman bin Hamd, was receptive to his ideas. The Shaykh made many followers in Uyainah, but his growing popularity attracted the suspicion of neighboring emirs. Pressure was brought upon Emir Uthman to assassinate the Shaykh whose spartan vision of Islam was rapidly gaining converts in all areas of Najd. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab escaped with his life and found refuge in Dariyah where his teachings found a responsive chord in Emir Muhammed bin Saud. There developed a remarkable friendship between Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab and Emir Muhammed bin Saud that was to have a profound impact on history. The Emir became a student and patron of the shaykh and the friendship was cemented with the marriage of a daughter of the Emir to the young shaykh.

The shaykh considered all practices which were not in strict conformance with a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah to be bida’a (innovation), and he considered it his duty to eradicate such practices with force, if necessary. The religious charisma of the learned shaykh and the military-political acumen of the Emir were a powerful combination. A jihad was declared against the neighboring emirs who would not subscribe to the strict interpretations of religion offered by the Shaykh. Thus started the Wahhabi movement, which in time was to propel itself to Mecca and Madina, and spread from there over the Islamic world. In the process it thrust Saudi Arabia into modern history.

Consolidation of Wahhabi influence in the Najd continued throughout the 18th century. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab wrote to renowned scholars of the day outlining his vision of Islam cleansed of the accretions that had crept in over the centuries. It was after the Shaykh passed away in 1787, however, that major opportunities for expansion beyond the borders of Najd presented themselves. In 1799, Napoleon landed his troops in Ottoman Egypt, quickly overran the Nile Delta and advanced into Syria. The British defeated the French armies but the incursion of a European power into the heartland of the Ottoman Empire required a partial withdrawal of garrisons in the outlying provinces for the defense of Anatolia proper. Specifically, Ottoman garrisons in Jeddah and Mecca in Arabia as well as in Kufa and Basra in Iraq were depleted. Sensing a military opportunity, Emir Abdul Aziz of Najd who had succeeded his father Emir Muhammed ibn Saud captured Karbala in Iraq in 1802. He followed up this victory with the capture of Mecca in 1803,bringing a major portion of Arabia, extending from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, under Saudi control.

It was not long before the Ottomans responded. Not only was a loss of territory unacceptable to the Porte in Istanbul but also the puritanical Wahhabi vision ran counter to the Sufic Islam, which had taken root in the Empire. An expedition to Arabia was organized as soon as the threat from Napoleonic France receded. Muhammed Ali Pasha (d. 1849), an able Albanian soldier who had risen through the ranks in the Ottoman armies during the Napoleonic wars, now governed Egypt. During 1812-1813, Muhammed Ali recaptured Mecca from the Saudis. Resistance to further Ottoman advances to the interior, however, was fierce. It was not until 1818 that an Egyptian-Turkish force under Ibrahim Pasha, son of Khedive Muhammed Ali Pasha, succeeded in laying siege to Dariyah, the Saudi capital. The town was bombarded with cannon transported across the desert. Dariyah fell after a bitter fight.

The principal towns in Arabia were back in Ottoman hands, but the power of ideas cannot be stopped on the battlefield. The Wahhabi movement withdrew into the interior of Hejaz. The Saudis soon regrouped and founded a new capital in Riyadh. With increasing military pressure from the European powers, the Ottomans were content to maintain the status quo, with the towns under their military control while the Saudis controlled the hinterland. However, not everyone in the House of Saud subscribed to Wahhabi ideas. In 1891, Riyadh itself was wrested by a faction, which was opposed to the teachings of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab. The uprising was brief, and in 1901, Emir Abdul Aziz al Saud recaptured Riyadh and established the modern Saudi dynasty.

Global changes soon appeared on the horizon. The First World War saw Britain, France and the United States arrayed against Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. The Arabs under Sharif Hussain of Mecca rebelled against Ottoman authority. By 1918 both Hejaz and Iraq were in British hands. After the War, internal warfare continued between the Arab factions headed by Sharif Hussain of Mecca and Emir Abdul Aziz of Najd for the control of Hejaz. In 1923, with British support, Emir Abdul Aziz succeeded in driving out the Sharif and consolidated the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Control of Mecca and Madina gave the Wahhabi movement a global platform. No longer was it a movement confined to the desert of Arabia. The Hajj provided a mechanism for the spread of Wahhabi ideas to the far corners of the Islamic world much as it had enabled the Maliki School of jurisprudence to spread across North Africa, Spain and the Sudan a thousand years earlier. The Muslims, reeling under European colonialism and the dissolution of the Caliphate (1923), were only too eager to look to their pristine past for salvation and the puritanical Wahhabi ideas seem to provide the answers. The Wahhabi movement took root in India, Indonesia, Africa and the Middle East, often at the expense of the inclusive Islam that had grown out of Sufi movements.

The restless Bedouins, impelled by puritanical faith, were not content with the establishment of the Saudi Kingdom. They felt it was their duty to continue a jihad on neighboring territories to spread their ideas. But the world had changed since the halcyon days when Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab had taught in Dariyah. The British were now firmly in control of Iraq and would not tolerate raids into their territories. Emir Abdul Aziz tried to settle the restless Bedouins on agricultural land, but when that failed, he felt compelled to engage them in an armed struggle. In 1929, in a pitched battle at Sibilla, the Bedouins were defeated and the Wahhabi movement came under political control.

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was a prolific writer. Although he is best known for his views on Tawhid as expounded in his book Kitab at Tawhid, he also wrote on the seerat, hadith, Iman, salat and Islam. Some of his other works include Mukhtasar Seerat ar Rasool, Majmu al Ahadith, Usool al Iman and Fadayal al Islam.

To understand the power of Wahhabi ideas, and their appeal, it is helpful to understand their historical roots. The essence of Islam is the doctrine of Tawhid, which found its fullest expression in the person of the Prophet. Since the death of the Prophet, Tawhid is the central pole around which Islamic history revolves. Every generation of Muslims has struggled to understand its full importance and to give it a concrete expression in their own lives. History, however, is a process. In the process of implementing a transcendental idea like Tawhid in a multitude of cultures and historical epochs, compromises emerge. To counter these compromises, reform movements arise which are themselves a product of their geography and their times.

Two of the historical figures from whom Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab drew his inspiration were Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal of Baghdad and Ibn Taimiyah of Damascus. Imam ibn Hanbal (d. 855), after whom the Hanbali School of Fiqh is named, lived in Baghdad at a time when Mu’tazilite doctrines were the official dogma of the Abbasids. After gaining power in the court of Caliph al Mamun, the Mu’tazilites established a mehna (inquisition) to punish anyone who disagreed with them (833). They were philosophers, who over-extended their rational techniques to matters of faith, and came up with the position that the Qur’an was “created” in time. Many of the ulema of the age buckled under the physical pressure brought by the Mu’tazilites. Not so Imam ibn Hanbal. He led the resistance to the Mu’tazilites, steadfastly maintaining that the Qur’an, as the Word of God, was uncreated, transcendent and beyond time and space. For this position, he was jailed for thirty years and flogged repeatedly. But his determination carried the day. The Mu’tazilites were repudiated in the reign of Caliph al Mutawakkil (847). Although Imam ibn Hanbal had studied under Imam Shafi’i, the Hanbali Fiqh takes a much stricter position with regards to acceptable sources of jurisprudence. It insists on a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith, subjects Hadith to the strictest scrutiny and accepts qiyas and ijtihad as sources of jurisprudence only as a last resort when primal sources are silent.

The Hanbali School sought to preserve the pristine nature of Islam, as it was understood in the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert. It was from this School that 400 years later there arose the well-known reformer Ibn Taimiyah (d. 1328). He lived in an age when the Muslim world was rocked by political, military, social and literary upheavals. The Mongols had ravaged much of the Islamic world (1219-1261). The Crusades (1096-1261) had left their devastation in Palestine, Syria, Egypt and North Africa. The Christians overran Spain (1212-1248). Orthodox Islam had won its internal contest with the Fatimids with the dialectic of Al Ghazzali (d. 1111), but this victory was tenuous. Al Ghazzali’s positions continued to be challenged by the philosophers who waged a valiant struggle through the great Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), and by the Al Muhaddith in the Maghrib who sought to introduce a variant of Mu’tazilite ideas into their dominions. Battered by foreign invasions, Muslims had turned inwards. Sufic Islam had taken hold and Muslims turned to the spiritual dimension of their faith for survival. Sufi Schools established by Shaykh Abdel Qader Jeelani (d. 1161) of Baghdad, Shaykh Shadhuli (d. 1258) of Cairo, Shaykh Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) of Turkey were the focus of religious instruction. The ideas of Shaykh ibn al Arabi (d. 1240) of Damascus fired the imagination of people.

Ibn Taymiyah ascribed the military misfortunes of the Muslims to what he considered was their departure from the pristine Islam of the Prophet and his Companions. He interpreted the Qur’an literally and took issue with anyone who interpreted it symbolically. Specifically, he considered the mystical teachings of Shaykh al Arabi to be bida’a. He questioned the kalam of al Ghazzali, specifically his position regarding the supremacy of tasawwuf over other forms of knowledge. He considered the zawiyas and qanqahs, which were mushrooming all over the Islamic world. to be a deviation from true religion. He also took issue with the philosophers and their rational approach to matters of faith. His strong views on religion won the admiration of many and the jealousy and enmity of some. Through his students, he influenced the course of events as far away as Delhi. The court martial of the Chishti Sufis at the court of Gayasuddin Tughlaq in 1325 was covered in the chapter on the Sufis of India and Pakistan. At the trial, a disciple of Ibn Taimiyah testified against the Sufi position on sama’a. The edict from the Emperor was in favor of the Chishtiya Sufis. Ibn Taimiyah’s teachings exerted a strong influence on Muslim thinkers of subsequent centuries, and he may be considered a spiritual forefather of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab.

The teachings of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab, and those of Ibn Taimiyah and Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, have their foundation in a specific interpretation of Tawhid. The term Tawhid is comprehensive and has been understood by Muslims in a variety of ways. In its most elementary formulation it is understood to mean the Oneness of God. The Wahhabi position is that the Oneness of God is beyond analogy, similarity or quality manifest in the created world. Carried to the extreme, this position makes the world devoid of spirituality, a position similar to that taken by secular scientists. The Wahhabis consider any practice or position that seemingly compromises the transcendence of God to be bida’a. Such a position would make religion an uncompromising series of imperatives, a strict set of do’s and don’ts. Historically, the position of Ibn Taimiyah and ibn Abdul Wahhab represents one end of the spectrum in Islamic thought.

The other end of the spectrum is occupied by the Sufis who seek the spiritual dimension of Islam. They consider creation to be a means to draw the human soul closer to God. Through constant remembrance of the Divine Name, prayer, charity, service and a conscious exercise to purge the self of all that hinders the soul from proximity to the Divine, they seek a reflection of Divine Reality in the pristine soul. In the Sufi position, observance of the Shariah is the first essential step on the road to Irfan (True Knowledge). They require additional work, through dhikr, cleansing of the soul and service to humanity, before a person attains certainty of knowledge.

Ibn al Arabi, considered by many to be a Master of tasawwuf, articulated the position of the Sufis in his treatise Risalat al Ahadiya. In common terminology it came incorrectly to be known as Wahdat al Wajud (Unity of Being). Summarily, this position holds that through observation of the Shariah, constant remembrance of God, self-cleansing, strenuous spiritual exercises and selfless service, the individual soul is lost (fana) and becomes a vehicle for the Will of God. Ibn al Arabi spoke of “Union with God”. One can easily see how this position can be misunderstood. And misunderstood it was through the centuries. Many a Sufi went to the gallows at the hands of the less informed and the less initiated. The best-known example is Shaykh Hallaj ibn Mansoor who was tortured and hanged in Baghdad in 922 for saying “An al Haq” (I am the Truth). To guard against error, and to clarify the Sufi position on Tawhid, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (d. 1625), the great mujaddid from India, presented the idea of Wahdat ash Shahada (Unity of Witness). In this position, the human soul does not seek “union” with God but only becomes a witness to Divine Unity.

Between these two poles, representing the positions taken by the Wahhabis and the Sufis, lies the vast spectrum of Islamic thought. Whether or not they are aware of it, most Muslims alive today have absorbed elements of Wahhabi and Sufi thinking, along with the assumptions made by al Ashari and the positions elucidated by Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi. The debate between the Wahhabi and Sufi schools of thought continues, however, often with great intensity and occasional animosity. Both sides quote from the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet to support their positions.

The contribution of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was that he reasserted the pristine and uncompromising Islam, characteristic of the desert dweller. He provided a counterbalance to the excesses of esoteric doctrines and reasserted the central importance of Tawhid. History and geography were on the side of the Shaykh. Several factors helped the Wahhabi movement in its initial growth. The location of the Najd in the harsh and empty womb of the Arabian Desert protected it from changes sweeping across the world. The good fortune of the Shaykh in forming an alliance with the Saud family and the political consolidation of Saudi Arabia in the 20th century to include the cities of Mecca and Madina were also important factors. Muslims have always looked to Mecca and Madina as a source for the purity of faith. The Wahhabi movement, centered in these two pre-eminent cities, enjoyed an acceptance among Muslims that would have been impossible if it was based elsewhere.

The failure of the Wahhabi movement, however, was its extreme rigidity and its compulsive character. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab waged a jihad against fellow Muslims in Najd who did not agree with his views. His example, and the logic of compulsion, made the Arab Bedouins carry the Wahhabi jihad into British Iraq after the First World War, and it had to be put down by Emir Abdul Aziz. The Shaykh overlooked the important contributions made by the Sufis in India, Pakistan, southeastern Europe, Central Asia, Indonesia and Africa. It was the Sufis who won the contest for the soul of Asia from the Mongols and the Crusaders. They were also the decisive element in some of the most important battles of the world, such as the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578).

As the 20th century wore on, the Wahhabi movement itself had to be compromised, and its strictures modified, to suit the inexorable onslaught of an increasingly global civilization. Some teachings of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab proved to be unworkable as technology pulled the desert of Arabia into its universal fold. For instance, in his book Kitab at Tawhid, the Shaykh condemned the making of pictures. With the advent of television, however, pictures became an indispensable tool for communication, and the Shaykh’s position was abandoned in Arabia as well as in other parts of the Islamic world. Similarly, the Shaykh considered it bida’a to build tombs. As a result of this stricture, all the graves in Jannat ul Baqi in Madina, where lay buried many of the Companions of the Prophet, were leveled. The tomb of the Prophet was spared only after intense lobbying by Muslims around the world. For these and other similar acts, the Wahhabi movement has opened itself to the charge that it has deliberately destroyed Islamic history and has obliterated traditional culture. Must religion necessarily destroy history and culture to express itself in human affairs? Conversely, is not religion itself compromised when it is stripped of history and culture? More importantly, isn’t a religion stripped of its spiritual content, a husk without a kernel? The Wahhabi movement offers no guidance in these matters.

The stark simplicity of the Shaykh’s message, and its lasting impact on Muslims, guarantees him a place in Islamic history. Thanks to the legacy of the Shaykh, the term “Wahhabi” became a part of languages spoken by Muslims and it came to personify excessive doctrinal rigidity and puritanical leanings. The excesses of the Wahhabi movement are conspicuous precisely because of its global reach. They would not be noticeable if it was only a local or regional movement. Some of the rigid positions espoused by this movement are evident in the teachings of the Shaykh. Some were evolved by his followers, as often happens when ideas find their expression in the matrix of human affairs.

The vision of the Shaykh, like the vision of his contemporaries Shah Waliullah and Shehu Uthman dan Fuduye, was turned inwards, towards a reform of Muslim practices. In the context of their times, perhaps it could not be otherwise. None of them, however, offered comprehensive guidance on how Muslims can relate to an overbearing and expansive European (and now global) civilization. This work was left to thinkers of the 20th century.