Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab
Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was a religious scholar and conservative reformer whose teachings were elaborated by his followers into the doctrines of Wahhabism. Ibn Abd alWahhab was born in the small town of Uyayna located in the Najd territory of north central Arabia. He came from a family of Hanbali scholars and received his early education from his father, who served as judge (qadi) and taught hadith and law at the local mosque schools. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab left Uyayna at an early age, and probably journeyed ﬁrst to Mecca for the pilgrimage and then continued to Medina, where he remained for a longer period. Here he was inﬂuenced by the lectures of Shaykh Abdallah b. Ibrahim al-Najdi on the neo Hanbali doctrines of Ibn Taymiyya.
From Medina, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab traveled to Basra, where he apparently remained for some time, and then to Isfahan. In Basra he was introduced directly to an array of mystical (Suﬁ) practices and to Shiite beliefs and rituals. This encounter undoubtedly reinforced his earlier beliefs that Islam had been corrupted by the infusion of extraneous and heretical inﬂuences. The beginning of his reformist activism may be traced to the time when he left Basra around 1739 to return to the Najd.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab rejoined his family in Huraymila, where his father had recently relocated. Here he composed the small treatise entitled Kitab al-tawhid (Book of unity), in which he most clearly outlines his religio-political mission. He castigates not only the doctrines and practices of Suﬁsm and Shiism, but also more widespread popular customs common to Sunnis as well, such as performing pilgrimages to the graves of pious personages and beseeching the deceased for intercession with God. More generally, following a line of argument developed much earlier by Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab challenged the authority of the religious scholars (ulema), not only of his own time, but also the majority of those in preceding generations. These scholars had injected unlawful innovations (bida) into Islam, he argued. In order to restore the strict monotheism (tawhid) of true Islam, it was necessary to strip the pristine Islam of human additions and speculations and implement the laws contained in the Quran as interpreted by the Prophet and his immediate companions. Thus, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab called for the reopening of ijtihad (independent legal judgment) by qualiﬁed persons to reform Islam, but the end to which his ijtihad led was a conservative, literal reading of certain parts of the Quran.
Aspects of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings, including asceticism, simplicity of faith, and emphasis on an egalitarian community, quickly drew followers to his cause. But his condemnation of the alleged moral laxity of society, his challenge to the ulema, and to the political authority that supported them estranged him from his townspeople and, some claim, even from his own family. In 1740, he returned to his native village of Uyayna, where the local ruler (amir) Uthman b. Bishr adopted his teachings and began to act on some of them, such as destroying tombs in the area. When this activity caused a popular backlash, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab moved on to Diriyya, a small town in the Najd near presentday Riyadh. Here he forged an alliance with the amir Muhammad b. Saud (d. 1765), who pledged military support on behalf of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s religious vocation. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab spent the remainder of his life in Diriyya, teaching in the local mosque, counseling ﬁrst Muhammad b. Saud and then his son Abd al-Aziz (d. 1801), and spreading his teachings through followers in the Najd and Iraq.