Wahhabism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and is also popular in Kuwait and U.A.E. It is often referred to as a "sect" or "branch of Islam, though both its supporters and its opponents reject such designations. It has developed considerable influence in the Muslim world through the funding of mosques, schools and other means from Persian Gulf oil wealth.
The primary doctrine of Wahhabism is Tawhid, or the uniqueness and unity of God. Ibn Abdul Wahhab was influenced by the writings of Ibn Taymiyya and questioned medieval interpretations of Islam, claiming to rely on the Quran and the Hadith. He preached against a "perceived moral decline and political weakness" in the Arabian peninsula and condemned idolatry, the popular cult of saints, and shrine and tomb visitation.
The term "Wahhabi" (Wahhābīya) was first used by opponents of ibn Abdul Wahhab. It is considered derogatory by the people it is used to describe, who prefer to be called "unitarians" (Muwahiddun).
The terms "Wahhabism" and "Salafism" are often used interchangeably, but Wahhabism has also been called "a particular orientation within Salafism," an orientation some consider ultra-conservative.
The founder of Wahhabism, Mohammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab studied in Basra (in southern Iraq) and is reported to have developed his ideas there. He is reported to have studied in Mecca and Medina while there to perform Hajj before returning to his home town of Uyayna in 1740.
After his return to 'Uyayna, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab began to attract followers there, including the ruler of the town, Uthman ibn Mu'ammar. With Ibn Mu'ammar's support, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab began to implement some of his ideas such as leveling the grave of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, a companion of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and ordering that an adulteress be stoned to death. These actions were disapproved of by Sulaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Ghurayr of the tribe of Bani Khalid, the chief of Al-Hasa and Qatif, who held substantial influence in Najd and ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was expelled from 'Uyayna.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was invited to settle in neighboring Dir'iyya by its ruler Muhammad ibn Saud in 1740 (1157 AH), two of whose brothers had been students of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Upon arriving in Diriyya, a pact was made between Ibn Saud and , by which Ibn Saud pledged to implement and enforce Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teachings, while Ibn Saud and his family would remain the temporal "leaders" of the movement.
One of their most famous and controversial attacks was on Karbala in 1802 (1217 AH). There, according to a Wahhabi chronicler `Uthman b. `Abdullah b. Bishr, Wahhabis "scaled the walls, entered the city ... and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes." They "destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn" and took "whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings. .... the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels. .... different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qur'an."
In the early 20th Century, the Wahhabist-oriented Al-Saud dynasty conquered and unified the various provinces on the Arabian peninsula, founding the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. This provided the movement with a state. Vast wealth from oil discovered in the following decades, coupled with Saudi control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have since provided a base and funding for wahhabi missionary activity.
The Saudi government established the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a state religious police unit, to enforce Wahhabi rules of behaviour. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had a similar unit.
The most important of these commentaries are those by Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab including his book Kitab al-Tawhid, and the works of Ibn Taymiyya. Abd-al-Wahhab was a follower of Ibn Hanbal's school of jurisprudence like most in Najd at the time, but "was opposed to any of the schools (Madh'hab) being taken as an absolute and unquestioned authority," and condemned taqlid.
Wahhabism also denounces the practice of blind adherence to the interpretations of scholars and the blind acceptance of practices that were passed on within the family or tribe. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wrote in support of the responsibility of the individual Muslim to learn and obey the divine commands as they were revealed in the Quran and the Sunnah. Wahhabism does not just urge Muslims to follow the religious duties of Islam, such as salah, but compels them to do so, in Saudi Arabia with the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (mentioned above).
The label of Wahhabism is often contested by so called "Wahhabis" because they argue that their understanding of Fiqh(Islamic jurisprudence) is similar to other Sunni Muslims and does not justify a separate label.
Two key aspects define a religious group's understanding of Islam; its philosophical approach and cultural background, but most importantly, the methodology used to derive Fiqh.
Sunni Islam has four methodological schools of fiqh, or madhabs: Hanbali, Maliki, Shafei and Hanafi. Like other Sunni Muslims, so-called Wahhabis use these same different approaches. Although most so-called wahhabis are said to follow the Hanbali school of fiqh (or Madh'hab), Wahhabis are believed to follow no school of Fiqh, hence making them different and unique to classical Islamic jurisprudence.
A Madh'hab is not a source of ready answers; it is a methodological approach. These schools differ in the means (the methodology) through which they derive "the answer" to different questions within Islamic jurisprudence, and do not necessarily disagree on the end results. Even non-Hanbali Sunni scholars do not blindly imitate, since as scholars, they have a purpose to inquire and research. A Madhab is only a source of ready answers if a person is not a scholar (alemm; plural form, ulemma), then he can refer to an expert's/alemm's answer, or a madhab's answer if a consensus within exists.
The Wahhabis consider themselves to be 'non-imitators' or 'not attached to tradition' (ghayr muqallidun), and therefore answerable to no school of law at all, observing instead what they would call the practice of early Islam. However, to do so does correspond to the ideal aimed at by Ibn Hanbal, and thus they can be said to be of his 'school'.
Opponents of Salafism frequently affix the “Wahhabi” designator to denote foreign influence. It is intended to signify followers of Abd al-Wahhab and is most frequently used in countries where Salafis are a small minority of the Muslim community but have made recent inroads in “converting” the local population to the movement ideology. In these countries, local religious authorities have responded to the growing influence of Salafi thought by describing Salafis as Wahhabis, a term that for most non-Salafis conjures up images of Saudi Arabia. The foreign nature of the “Wahhabis” is juxtaposed to locally authentic forms of indigenous Islam. In this manner, opponents of Salafism inject nationalism into religious discourse by raising the specter of foreign influence. The Salafi movement itself, however, never uses this term. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find individuals who refer to themselves as Wahhabis or organizations that use “Wahhabi” in their title or refer to their ideology in this manner (unless they are speaking to a Western audience that is unfamiliar with Islamic terminology, and even then usage is limited and often appears as “Salafi/Wahhabi”).
Wahabis have also committed controversial and violent actions against self proclaimed Muslims, that the Wahabis believed to be non-Muslims. In 1801 and 1802, the Saudi wahhabis under Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud attacked and captured the holy Shi'a cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, massacred parts of the Shi'a population and destroyed the tombs of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, and Ali bin Abu Talib, the son-in-law of Muhammad. (see:Wahhabism#Saudi_sponsorship above) In 1802 they occupied Taif where they also massacred the population. In 1803 and 1804 the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed historical monuments and various holy Muslim sites and shrines, such as the shrine built over the tomb of Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Muhammad, and even intended to destroy the grave of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
The Saudi government responded with criticism of Freedom House, saying it has "worked diligently during the last five years to overhaul its education system" but "[o]verhauling an educational system is a massive undertaking... As with previous reports, Freedom House continues to exhibit a disregard for presenting an accurate picture of the reality that exists in Saudi Arabia. The group rightweb.org also has criticized Freedom House as being funded by conservative foundations, quoting two academics expressing "concern that the Freedom House indicators are biased in the direction of U.S. foreign policy preferences." The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) has criticized the study for citing documents from only a few mosques, and argues that most mosques in the US are not under Wahhabi influence. ISPU comments on the study were not entirely negative however, and concluded:
American-Muslim leaders must thoroughly scrutinize this study. Despite its limitations, the study highlights an ugly undercurrent in modern Islamic discourse that American-Muslims must openly confront. However, in the vigor to expose strains of extremism, we must not forget that open discussion is the best tool to debunk the extremist literature rather than a suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The militant Islam of Osama bin Laden does not have its origins in the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and is not representative of Wahhabi Islam as it is practiced in contemporary Saudi Arabia, yet for the media it has come to define Wahhabi Islam in the contemporary era. However "unrepresentative" bin Laden's global jihad is of Islam in general and Wahhabi Islam in particular, its prominence in headline news has taken Wahhabi Islam across the spectrum from revival and reform to global jihad.
Noah Feldman, draws a distinction between what he calls the "deeply conservative" Wahhabis and what he calls the "followers of political Islam in the 1980s and 1990s," such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and later Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While Saudi Wahhabis were "the largest funders of local Muslim Brotherhood chapters and other hard-line Islamists" during this time, they opposed jihadi resistance of Muslims governments and assassination of Muslim leaders because of their belief that "the decision to wage jihad lay with the ruler, not the individual believer.
Its largess funded an estimated "90% of the expenses of the entire faith," throughout the Muslim world, according to journalist Dawood al-Shirian It extended to young and old, from children's maddrassas to high-level scholarship. "Books, scholarships, fellowships, mosques" (for example, "more than 1500 mosques were built from Saudi public funds over the last 50 years") were paid for. It rewarded journalists and academics who followed it; built satellite campuses around Egypt for Al Azhar, the oldest and very influential Islamic university.
The financial power of Wahhabist advocates, according to observers like Dawood al-Shirian and Lee Kuan Yew, has done much to overwhelm less strict local interpretations of Islam and has caused the Saudi interpretation to be perceived as the "gold standard" of religion in many Muslims' minds.