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Natana J. DeLong-Bas
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


An eighteenth-century religious revival (tajdīd) and reform (islāh) movement founded in Nejd in Saudi Arabia by the scholar and jurist Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1702/3–1791/2). Although originally founded as a religious movement designed to purify society of un-Islamic practices, it took on a political dimension in 1744 when an alliance was formed between Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and Muḥammad Ibn Saʿūd (d. 1767) that placed religious scholars in an advisory and legitimating role to political authority. This symbiotic relationship between the āl-Saʿūd and the āl āl-Shaykh (descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb) has remained intact and continues in the present Saudi state. Also known popularly and pejoratively as “Wahhābism,” this movement has been accused in the contemporary era of inspiring militant extremism and global jihād, particularly in connection with al-Qaʿida and Osama bin Laden.

Eighteenth-century adherents of the movement referred to themselves as Muwaḥḥidūn, reflecting their central belief in absolute monotheism (tawḥīd) and rejection of association of anyone or anything with God (shirk). Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb's most famous treatise, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, detailed the implications of belief in tawḥīd, outlining behaviors to be followed and avoided. Particularly prominent were the prohibition of requesting intercession from saints, veneration of saints, shrines, and tombs, and worship of or prayer to anyone or anything other than God. These issues became flashpoints for disagreement, debate, and conflict both with other Muslims, notably Shīʿīs and Ṣūfīs, and with non-Muslims historically, particularly in extreme cases where the destruction of objects considered to be sacred or to contain special blessing occurred. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb's emphasis on tawḥīd had historical precedent in the writings of the medieval Ḥanbalī jurist, Ibn Taymīyah (1263–1328), but was more nuanced in focusing on debate, dialogue and persuasion as the appropriate means of redressing incorrect behaviors, as opposed to punishment. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb's discussion was also focused on practice, rather than on the philosophical, mystical, or metaphysical debates about tawḥīd that had occurred historically among groups like the Muʿtazilī and the Ashʿarī.

Of most concern historically has been the question of appropriate treatment of mushrikūn (associationists, or those committing shirk) and kuffār (unbelievers, those committing kufr). Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb taught that the appropriate method of addressing shirk was to engage in education and discussion in order to explain why the practice was incorrect. He distinguished between shirk and kufr, noting that shirk might be committed accidentally out of ignorance, whereas kufr was a deliberate action that could only be undertaken by someone who had received proper instruction, declared belief in it, and then later made a conscious decision to reject the teaching. Consequently, while a person committing shirk was to be reprimanded, the person was nevertheless considered to remain within the Muslim community (ummah). A person committing kufr was considered to be outside the Muslim community on the basis of their deliberate rejection of Islam. However, the commission of kufr did not result in a declaration of jihād as holy war against such a person or community or in the imposition of the death penalty. Instead, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb permitted Muslims to live among kuffār (unbelievers) and engage in business relations with them, provided that the Muslims were free to practice their faith.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, many Wahhābīs no longer made this distinction between shirk and kufr, using the terms interchangeably and creating a new ideology of takfīr that justified declaring jihād as holy war against such persons. Prominent examples of this include the attacks on the Shīʿī shrines and populations of Karbala and Najaf in 1802. This ideology of takfīr is considered one of the hallmarks of Wahhābīyah in the contemporary era, particularly because of its presence in some Saudi textbooks. The practical expression of this ideology varies from hatred or disapproval within one's heart to militant opposition, raising concerns about the ability of Wahhābīs to live peacefully with non-Wahhābīs.

In contrast to the traditionalists and other regional shaykhs, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb argued against literal and decontextualized interpretations of the Qurʿān and sunnah (example of the Prophet, recorded largely in the ḥadith). Instead, he called for a multilayered interpretation that considered the historical context in which a verse was revealed or ḥadith occurred, the broader context of Qurʿānic teachings about a topic in order to determine the underlying value, and analysis of the intent of the action undertaken. His focus on intent, in particular, provided the legal structure for circumventing more literal interpretations in favor of consideration of public welfare (maṣlaḥah), such as in the case of permitting a delay in required charitable giving (zakāt) in the event of a drought so as not to overburden Muslims already suffering its economic consequences. He taught a methodology of ḥadith criticism that focused on content (matn) rather than chains of transmission (isnād) in order to assure consistency between the Qurʿān and ḥadith and attention to Qurʿānic values, with the Qurʿān holding absolute authority in the event of conflicting values or information. Although literalism and concern for ritual correctness permeated Wahhābī thought and practice in the twentieth century, attention to contextualized, nuanced, and value-oriented interpretation is apparent in some twenty-first century Saudi thought, particularly legal opinions (fatāwa) issued by the Permanent Committee of Iftaʿ.

In his legal theory, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab rejected the practice of blindly imitating past legal scholarship (taqlīd) in favor of an ongoing practice of independent reasoning (ijtihād) in the interpretation of Islamic law. His legal writings reflect broad knowledge of the four major and two extinct Sunni law schools (madhāhib), as well as of the Shīʿī legal tradition. His methodology considered the opinions of various jurists on legal matters, but concluded with his own opinion. Thus, the writings of other jurists were deemed important to study and consider but were neither authoritative nor binding. Such authority was reserved for the Qurʿān and sunnah alone. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb asserted the right and responsibility of every Muslim to personally and directly study the Qurʿān and sunnah in order to know their content and to be able to discern when a religious leader might be leading people astray. Thus, the education of both men and women in the Qurʿān and sunnah became a hallmark of the early Wahhābīyah.

Over time, Wahhābī scholars came to consider certain jurists to be particularly authoritative, most notably Ibn Taymīyah. The incorporation of Ibn Taymīyah's writings into the Wahhābī tradition is evident by the nineteenth century. Ibn Taymīyah's justifications for the overthrow of a political leader deemed to have failed in his responsibilities as a Muslim ruler, whether by failure to implement Islamic law as the only law of the land, to protect Muslims from physical harm, or to abide personally by the Islamic code of conduct, were particularly important in the Wahhābī declaration of jihād against the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth century and subsequent conquest of the Hejaz. Some contemporary Wahhābīs have used similar justifications to protest the rule of the Saudi royal family, arguing that secular or Western laws have been used to circumvent Islamic law, that the personal lifestyles of certain members of the royal family are objectionable, or that the kingdom has failed to provide effective defense for itself, despite the expenditure of millions of dollars for defense. Osama bin Laden raised these concerns during the 1990s through his Advice and Reform Committee, particularly with respect to the invitation to 500,000 American troops to defend the kingdom following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. When the king repeatedly refused to make the requested reforms, Bin Laden called for the overthrow of the royal family, using Ibn Taymīyah's writings as support.

Although contemporary concerns about Wahhābīyah tend to focus on terrorism and extremism, the theme of jihād is not prominent in Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb's writings. He dedicated only one treatise to jihād, outlining restrictions and limitations and focusing on the ending of the conflict, preferably through the establishment of a treaty relationship between the previously warring parties. Following the classical interpretation of jihād, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb specified that jihād as armed conflict was to be purely defensive in nature: only if a geographically specific Muslim community was attacked or faced with the threat of an imminent attack by an armed group was jihād justified. The purpose of jihād was to end conflict, not to annihilate the enemy. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb specified that civilians were never to be attacked or killed, abject destruction of life and property were prohibited, military actions undertaken had to be proportionate in nature and focused on specific strategic objectives, and jihād was to be undertaken as a communal duty (farḍ kifāyah), not as an individual duty (farḍ ʿayn). These teachings stand in marked contrast to the ideology of global jihādī organizations like al-Qaʿida that do not limit their jihād geographically or in terms of the destruction of life and property, particularly where civilians are concerned. Additionally, al-Qaʿida has declared the carrying out of jihād to be an individual, rather than communal, duty and cites broad categories of people, such as “Christian Crusaders” and “Zionist Jews” to be subject to jihād, rather than limiting the conflict to parties directly involved in an attack against a particular geographic community. Al-Qaʿida has also expanded the definition of “defense” to include nonmilitary “aggressions,” such as economic sanctions, and has declared its right to engage in aggressive jihād, raising questions about its purported connection to Wahhābism.

In contemporary Saudi Arabia, debate has revived over the legacy of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and the teachings of Wahhābism as it developed historically as the realities of living in a global political system and economy have required re-examination of issues such as takfīr and appropriate relations with non-Wahhābī Muslims, Christians, and Jews, among others. Distinctions are increasingly being made between religion and politics, so that commonalities of belief can be acknowledged between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, while particular political issues, such as the existence of Israel, remain contested.




  • Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2002. A critique of Wahhābīyah as it developed historically, written by a prominent Shīʿī scholar.
  • Commins, David. The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. A comprehensive analysis of the nineteenth-century Wahhābīyah and the homogenization of religious scholarship in Saudi Arabia.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J.Jihad for Islam: The Struggle for the Future of Saudi Arabia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Analysis of contemporary Saudi thought and practice related to theology, Islamic law, women and gender, jihād, and relations with non-Muslims and non-Wahhābī Muslims.
  • Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. “Saudi Arabia: From ‘Wahhabi’ Roots to Contemporary Revisionism.” In Teaching Islam: Textbooks and Religion in the Middle East, edited by Eleanor Abdella Doumato and Gregory Starrett. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007. Addresses the teaching of Islam in Saudi Arabia's school system, including changes that have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11.
  • Rasheed, Madawi al-. Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Examination of the political uses of religion in Saudi Arabia, including the increasingly contested labels of Wahhābī and Salafī.
  • Yassini, Ayman al-. Religion and State in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1985. Outlines the relationship between religion and state in Saudi Arabia.

Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb

  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J.Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Analysis of the writings of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb on theology, Islamic law, women and gender, and jihād and outlining the differences between Wahhābīyah as originally founded and global jihadism.
  • Muʿallafāt al-Shaykh al-Imām Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. 5 vols. Riyadh: Jāmʿiat al-Imām Muḥammad bin Saʿūd al-Islāmīyah, 1398 a.h.
  • Muʿamalāt al-Shaykh al-Imām Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb: Mulḥaq al-Musnifāt. Riyadh: Jāmʿiat al-Imām Muḥammad bin Saʿūd al-Islāmīyah, 1398 a.h.
  • Muʿamalāt al-Shaykh al-Imām Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb: Qism al-Ḥadith. 4 vols. Riyadh: Jāmʿiat al-Imām Muḥammad bin Saʿūd al-Islāmīyah, 1398 a.h.
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