CBC In Depth
Wahhabi Islam
Back to the basics

CBC News Online | June 8, 2006

Go back about 300 years and Islam was still the new kid on the religious block. Barely 1,000 years old, the two main sects � Sunni and Shia � had been well established in the years immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the mid-18th century, Islamic cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab became discouraged by what he saw as the gradual corruption of Sunni Islam. Al-Wahhab sought to purify the religion. He argued that any changes to Islam that were made after about the middle of the 10th century should be purged.

Wahhabi tenets

Only God can be worshipped.
Holy men or women must not be used to win favours from God.
No other name other than the names of Allah may enter a prayer.
No shaving of beard.
No abusive language.
People must be dressed simply.
Women may not drive.
Mosques must be built without minarets or ornaments.
Al Wahhab was a student of the 13th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiya, who believed in an extremely literal interpretation of the Qur'an. Taymiya also believed that the first three generations of Islam - Muhammad, his companions (anyone who knew or saw Muhammad, believed in his teachings and died as a Muslim), and the children and grandchildren of the first Muslims - were the best role models for Islamic life. He viewed any deviation from the way they lived as "innovation" that must be forbidden.

Taymiya's views weren't met with a lot of enthusiasm by people in power. He was repeatedly jailed by the Egyptian government. He spent the last 15 years of his life in Damascus, where he died in 1328, in prison.

Mosque adherents live simply

Al Wahhab shared Taymiya's notion that Islam needed to get back to its roots. He saw anything that detracted from the notion that there is only one god whose name is Allah as a corruption of the faith. Among those corruptions were the mentioning of saints or prophets in prayers, visiting the graves of saints or prophets, asking for the help of the dead, celebrating Muhammad's birthday and luxurious living. Wahhabi mosques are simple and without minarets, and the adherents dress plainly and do not smoke tobacco.

In the early going, al Wahhab didn't have much success attracting people to his way of thinking. His father and brother � clerics themselves � disowned his ideas. He was expelled from his home village in central Arabia.

But his philosophical fortunes changed when he persuaded Muhammad bin Saud - an Arabian chieftain � that he had the right vision of Islam.

Al Wahhab advocated another of Taymiya's more controversial tenets - that some self-declared Muslims were really unbelievers and it was the duty of orthodox Muslims to conduct jihad against them.

In Taymiya's time, it was Mongol invaders. For al Wahhad and bin Saud, it was the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of the Arabian peninsula. Bin Saud believed that his campaign to bring pure Islam to the Arabian peninsula justified his wars with other Muslims.

Wahhabism returns to power

The first Saud state was toppled by the Ottomans in 1818, but by 1824 the House of Saud � and Wahhabism - had returned to power. The state was overthrown in 1899. But the House of Saud fought back, reconquering Riyadh in 1902 and the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1924. This time, they had the support of the West in their bid to defeat the Ottoman Turks, who had sided with Germany in the First World War.

In 1932, the kingdom of Saudia Arabia was established.

Six years later, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. Vast reserves of the resource. Money began trickling into the kingdom. The Saudi royal family was eager to modernize the kingdom, but had to move slowly to retain the support of its conservative population.

In 1973, the price of oil spiked and the trickle turned into a torrent of money.

Oil money provided the means to extend Wahhabism beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. Saudi laypeople, government officials and clerics began donating tens of millions of dollars to establish Wahhabi-oriented schools, newspapers and community organizations. Some of that money followed Muslims as they began emigrating to Europe and North America in increasing numbers.

The Wahhabis also began supporting Islamist revivalist movements in several countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Americans link Wahhabi with terrorism

In the wake of the first Gulf War, Saudi Arabia allowed the United States to build bases and station troops in the Kingdom. The move angered many fundamentalist Wahhabis and led to tensions with the House of Saud. They accused the government of getting too close to the West.

Washington has blamed Wahhabi Islam for fuelling terrorism. They note that 15 of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were Saudi nationals.

The founders of the Taliban are said to have been inspired by the Wahhabi ideal of a pure Islam � and when they took control of Afghanistan, they established a state that was more far more conservative than Saudi Arabia.

The term "Wahhabi" is rarely used by those who follow the movement's philosophy today. Most prefer the term al-Muwahhidun, which means unitarian and emphasizes the movement's monotheism.



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CBC News Sunday: The Hajj (includes glossary)

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Spanish clerics issue fatwa against bin Laden (March 11, 2005)
CBC TV's Joe Schlesinger traces the history of Islam from its peaceful roots to its painful defeats
(Real Video | Nov. 5, 2001)

CBC Radio producer Nazim Baksh about how some British Muslims have been torn between their faith and their country
(Real Audio Runs 16:56 | October 31, 2001)

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(Real Audio | Nov. 7, 2001)

CBC News Online's Bob Sudeyko talks with Amilia Buturovic, professor of Islamic Studies at York University about the holy month of Ramadan
(Real Audio | Oct. 29, 2001)

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The Canadian Society of Muslims

Young Muslims of Canada

Islamic Books Canada

Religion of Islam

Islamic Magazine


Islam Online

Saudi Arabia's government information on hajj

World Islamic Front Statement (Fatwa)

Official website of the office of Grand Ayatollah Sistani
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