Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab (Arabic: محمد بن عبد الوهاب; 1703 – 22 June 1792) was an Arabian Islamic theologian and founder of the Salafi movement whose pact with Muhammad bin Saud helped to establish the first Saudi state and began a dynastic alliance and power-sharing arrangement between their families which continues to the present day. The descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, the Al ash-Sheikh, have historically led the ulama in the Saudi state, dominating the state’s clerical institutions.
Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab spent some time studying with Muslim scholars in Basra (in southern Iraq) and it is reported that he traveled to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca andMedina to perform Hajj and study with the scholars there.
In Mecca, the Hanbali mufti, Ibn Humaydi, perceived Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab to be a poor student, and arrogant and defiant with his teachers, which upset his father. Consequently, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab did not complete his studies, but whether he was expelled or dropped out is unknown.
In Medina, he studied under Mohammad Hayya Al-Sindhi, to whom he was introduced by an earlier tutor. According to Voll, it was Muhammad Hayya who taught Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab to reject the popular veneration of saints and their tombs. Nonetheless, almost all sources agree that his reformist ideas were formulated while living in Basra. He returned to ‘Uyayna in 1740.
Following his early education in Medina, Abdul Wahhab traveled outside of the peninsula, venturing first to Basra. He then went to Baghdad, where he married a wealthy bride and settled down for five years. According to Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, in his book “The Two Faces of Islam”, “some say that during this vagabondage Ibn Abdul Wahhab came into contact with certain Englishmen who encouraged him to personal ambition as well as to a critical attitude about Islam.” Specifically, Mir’at al Harramin, a Turkish work by Ayyub Sabri Pasha, written in 1888, states that in Basra, Abdul Wahhab had come into contact with a British spy by the name of Hempher, who “inspired in him the tricks and lies that he had learned from the British Ministry of the Commonwealth.”
After his return home, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab began to attract followers, including the ruler of ‘Uyayna, Uthman ibn Mu’ammar. With Ibn Mu’ammar’s support, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab began to implement some of his ideas for reform. First, citing Islamic teachings forbidding grave worship, he persuaded Ibn Mu’ammar to level the grave of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, acompanion of Muhammad, whose grave was revered by locals. Secondly, he ordered that all adulterors be stoned to death, a practice that had become uncommon in the area. Indeed, he personally organised the stoning of a woman who confessed that she had committed adultery.
These actions gained the attention of Sulaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Ghurayr of the tribe of Bani Khalid, the chief of Al-Hasa and Qatif, who held substantial influence in Najd. Ibn Ghurayr threatened Ibn Mu’ammar that he would not allow him to collect a land tax for some properties that he owned in Al-Hasa if he did not kill Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab. Although Ibn Mu’ammar declined to do so, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab was still forced to leave.
Pact with Muhammad bin Saud
Upon his expulsion from ‘Uyayna, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab was invited to settle in neighboring Diriyah by its ruler Muhammad bin Saud. Upon arriving in Diriyah, Muhammad bin Saud and Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab concluded an agreement that, together, they would bring the Arabs of the peninsula back to the “true” principles of Islam as they saw it. According to one source, when they first met, bin Saud declared:
“This oasis is yours, do not fear your enemies. By the name of God, if all Nejd was summoned to throw you out, we will never agree to expel you.” Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab replied, “You are the settlement’s chief and wise man. I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad (holy war) against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters”.—Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia: 16
The agreement was confirmed with an oath in 1744. This agreement became a “mutual support pact” and power-sharing arrangement between the Al Saud and the Al ash-Sheikh, which has remained in place for nearly 300 years, providing the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion.[
Emirate of Diriyah
Muhammad bin Saud died in 1765 but his son, Abd al Aziz, continued the Salafi cause. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab in turn died in 1792
Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab considered his movement an effort to purify Islam by returning Muslims to what he believed were the original principles of that religion, as typified by the Salaf and rejecting what he regarded as corruptions introduced by Bid’ah andShirk.
Although all Muslims pray to one God, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab was keen on emphasising that no intercession with God was possible without God’s permission, which God only grants to whom He wills and only to benefit those whom He wills, certainly not the ones who invoke anything or anyone except Him, as these would never be forgiven.
While in Baghdad, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab married an affluent woman. When she died, he inherited her property and wealth. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab had six sons; Hussain, Abdullah, Hassan, Ali and Ibrahim and Abdul-Aziz who died in his youth. All his surviving sons established religious schools close to their homes and taught the young students from Diriyah and other places.
The descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, the Al ash-Sheikh, have historically led the ulama in the Saudi state, dominating the state’s religious institutions. Within Saudi Arabia, the family is held in prestige similar to the Saudi royal family, with whom they share power, and has included several religious scholars and officials. The arrangement between the two families, which persists to this day, is based on the Al Saud maintaining the Al ash-Sheikh’s authority in religious matters and upholding and propagating Salafi doctrine. In return, the Al ash-Sheikh support the Al Saud’s political authority thereby using its religious-moral authority to legitimise the royal family’s rule. Consequently, each legitimises the other.
As with the early Salafi’s, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab was criticised for disregarding Islamic history, monuments, traditions and the sanctity of Muslim life. His own brother, Sulayman, was particularly critical, claiming he was ill-educated and intolerant, classing Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab’s views as fringe and fanatical. Sulayman ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab also suggested his brother was selective with the juristic predecessors, to the point of being ignorantly dismissive towards some and treating others as divinely infallible. Both Sulayman and Ibn Humaydi (the Hanbali mufti in Mecca) suggested Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab was even selective with the works of Ibn Taymiyyah, whose views otherwise closely influenced the Salafi. Despite this, after sometime, his brother (Sulayman) eventually joined him in spreading his teachings.