Islamic History

Wahhabism and the Rise of the Saudis: The Persecuted Become the Persecutors

Facsimile of a folio from a nineteenth-century manuscript (Or 7718) of Ibn Bishr’s chronicle, Unwan al-majd fi taʾrikh najd [The glorious history of Najd], one of the two foremost histories of the early Wahhabi movement. The manuscript is dated between 1853-54.
British Library | Public Domain

Dr Bilal Ahmed Tahir


In eighteenth-century Najd, in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, a new revivalist and reformist movement in Islam was founded by Muslim scholar Shaykh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (rh), often considered to be Islam’s Martin Luther [1]. Convinced that the religion of his era had been utterly corrupted by idolatrous and heretical innovations alien to early Islam, he launched a campaign to return his co-religionists to a puritanical version of the faith.

From the moment he commenced his proselytism, his ideas proved to be too radical for the religious and political establishments of his time who considered them to deviate from orthodoxy. Refutations of his claims penned by the clergy of his homeland and beyond, including his contemporaries in the Holy City of Makkah, circulated rapidly. Hostilities against his movement would reach new heights and he and his followers would be excommunicated and subjected to a systematic and egregious campaign of persecution.

Despite several disheartening setbacks and attempts on his life, Muhammad bin Saud, a local chieftain of the small settlement of Dir‘iyyah granted him and his followers a haven. The Shaykh and chieftain’s alliance would usher in a new era in the history of the Arabian Peninsula with the establishment of the First Saudi State. This polity quickly rose to become the pre-eminent power in the peninsula, uniting disparate tribes and even annexing the Two Holy Cities, sending shock waves across the Islamic world. Although eventually vanquished by the Ottomans’ vassals in Egypt, the descendants of the chieftain, known as the House of Saud, founded two more polities, the Second and Third Saudi States, the latter of which endures today as the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This month, The Review of Religions proudly publishes, for the first time in the English language, the translation of the third and final part of a historic three-part treatise, penned by the late Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), the Second Successor of the Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), and then-worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, on the 1925 Hajj and Saudi-Hashimite war. In the concluding part, his Holiness charts the political history of the House of Saud until his day, their adoption of Wahhabism and conflict with regional powers such as the Hashimite Sharifs of Makkah. To fully understand its historical context, here, we provide a study on the historical background of Islamic reform movements of the eighteenth century, the origins of Wahhabism, the making of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance and the anti-Wahhabi campaign launched by the movement’s early foes. In a sequel to this study, we will chart the history of the modern political manifestation of Saudi-Wahhabism, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its reception of, and opposition to, a more recent reform movement in Islam, namely, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. In doing so, we hope to draw parallels and highlight key differences between the two reform movements which have both sparked significant controversy since their inception.

A Note on the Use of the Term Wahhabism

It must be noted here that the use of the term ‘Wahhabism’ throughout this article is not intended to be derogatory. Rather, as per academic conventions, the term has been deemed to be most apt in demarcating the reformist movement first expounded by Shaykh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab and patronised by the local chieftain, Muhammad bin Saud. The early followers of the Shaykh, referred to hereafter as ‘Wahhabis’, insisted on calling themselves muwahhidun [monotheists] [2], while early foes classified the movement as an extremist ‘Kharijite’ [3] sectarian heresy [4]. While the latter appellation is purely polemic, the former, however, is infinitely elastic as it applies to all Muslims, who unequivocally profess to uphold monotheism, and, even followers of other monotheistic religions such as Judaism. As such, it is unhelpful in demarcating the movement. More recently, there is an increasing tendency to refer to the movement as ‘Salafism’ and its adherents as ‘Salafis’. This is in order to ascribe to it the religious legitimacy of the alsalaf al-salih, the pious predecessors from the first three generations of Muslims, which include the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) and his companions (ra), their successors and the successors of the successors (rh). Notwithstanding the fact that most Muslims would claim that they emulate the paradigm of these pious early Muslims, this designation is also problematic as it has been used to denote several non-Wahhabi movements, most notably, the modernist school of Salafism associated with Islamic scholars and activists such as Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida [5]. This ‘modernist Salafism’ that surfaced in the late Ottoman period stands in stark contrast to Wahhabism which has only recently appropriated the term since the 1970s [6].

Eighteenth-Century Islamic Reformism

In the sixteenth century, the majority of the Sunni Islamic world was ruled by two Muslim imperial dynasties whose founders descended from Turkic peoples in Central Asia: the Ottomans and Mughals [7]. The Ottomans ruled over vast swathes of land, including most of the Balkans, Anatolia, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, while the Mughals ruled much of South Asia. Both dynasties had governed empires that were among the most powerful, wealthy and influential polities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Historians refer to both empires as ‘Islamic gunpowder empires’ due to their successes depending on novel firearms and cannons [8]. 

While largely tolerant of non-Muslim minorities such as Christians and Hindus who constituted a significant proportion of their citizens, the Islamic religion was inextricably associated with the political structures of both empires. The Ottoman and Mughal sovereigns upheld Sunni Islam, while their rivals, the Safavids of Persia, were staunch promoters of Shia Islam. The Ottomans and Mughals had consolidated the position of the orthodox Sunni clergy by incorporating them into the framework of the state [9]. For example, the Ottoman sultan appointed the Shaykh al-Islam, or chief mufti, the most senior religious authority in his domain, to oversee the hierarchy of the state-appointed clergy, advise him on religious matters, and legitimise government policies [10], [11].

Of the four schools of law within normative Sunni Islam—the Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Hanafi schools—the Ottomans [12] and Mughals [13] adopted the latter, presumably because this is the school that was already established in pre-Ottoman Anatolia and pre-Mughal India. Writing about the status of the Hanafi school of law in the Ottoman Empire, Joseph Schacht commented that it ‘enjoyed exclusive official recognition in the whole of the Ottoman Empire’ [14]. Nonetheless, although Anatolia was almost exclusively Hanafi, the other Sunni schools of law had continued to claim adherents in Ottoman Arab lands with all four schools being well represented in the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. Saqi Musta‘idd Khan, the official chronicler of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (1617-1708), remarked that Aurangzeb was a strict adherent of the Hanafi school [15] and ‘put all his efforts in the direction that all the Muslims should adhere to the unanimous views of the Hanafi jurists’ [16]. Moreover, he commissioned the compilation of the Fatawa Alamgiri, an encyclopaedic work of Hanafi law that served as the principal regulating body of the Mughal Empire during his reign [17].

The Ottomans and Mughals had also patronised several Sufi religious orders. The affiliation of several sultans and many members of the political elite with these orders ensured that, in general, they enjoyed political protection. For example, Mughal emperor Babur (r. 1526–30), the eponymous founder of the Mughal dynasty, was already initiated in the Naqshbandi order before conquering India in 1526 [18]. Prior to his assumption of the Ottoman sultanate, Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512) was initiated in the Khalwati order and established it in Constantinople after he became sultan [19]. Accordingly, Sufism became an important strand of mainstream Islam in both the Ottoman and Mughal Empires. 

Although these two empires had endured into the eighteenth century, they had since experienced widespread degeneration throughout their domains. The Europeans’ discovery of the ‘New World’ enabled them to divert commercial trade routes that had been in use in Muslim heartlands for centuries. Consequently, they gained military and economic superiority, leading to a significant shift in the balance of power between the Muslim world and Western Christendom [20]. As the Ottomans and Mughals began to lose control over peripheral territories, their political and socio-economic institutions crumbled. For Muslims, the political fragmentation of their society was seen as a religious problem. Their Islamic way of life was gradually adulterated by the rising tide of Westernisation, and, more importantly, by local customs and religions [21].

Increasingly deviant strands of Sufism, which had corrupted the more puritan form of Sufism based on Islam’s founding texts, the Holy Quran, and the normative conduct of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa), the Sunnah, were extensively practised within the Muslim world. This deviant Sufism had abandoned explicit Islamic injunctions, such as the compulsory prayers, and, instead, adopted certain innovative beliefs and practices from various regions of the gradually Islamised world that were alien to early Islam. These heresies included the extreme veneration of dead saints, making pilgrimages to their tombs, invoking their help directly or seeking their intercession [22].

Against this backdrop, powerful reformist impulses were stimulated in the eighteenth-century Muslim world. In Muslim tradition, mujaddids or divinely inspired reformers, appear at the turn of every century of the Islamic calendar to revive Islam [23]. It has been argued that two individuals of monumental significance, Ahmad bin Abdul Rahim (1703–1762), popularly known as Shah Wali Allah of Delhi (rh), and Shaykh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (rh) (1703–1791) of Najd, were the two most influential reformers of the eighteenth century [24]. They were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) remarked that they were both appointed by God for the rejuvenation of Islam [25]. Moreover, Maulana Dost Muhammad Shahid (rh), the foremost historian of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, had included them in his list of eighteenth-century CE/twelfth-century AH reformers [26].

Shah Wali Allah (rh) was born in the Mughal Empire during a critical juncture in the history of this polity. Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, who ruled over an empire that still reflected its past splendours, had passed away while he was still a toddler, leaving behind a mere shadow of its former glory. The Shah had received a traditional Islamic educational experience, including twelve fruitful years in the prestigious al-Rahimiyyah seminary, established by his father, Shah Abdul Rahim, who was appointed by Aurangzeb to serve as a compiler of the Fatawa Alamgiri, and fourteen months of study (1731–32) in the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah [27]. 

During his lifetime, the Shah had witnessed the breakup of the Mughal Empire and the rise of several smaller and weaker successor states. The invasion of the brutally effective Persian king Nadir Shah in 1739 and the subsequent sack of Delhi further weakened the Muslims, leaving them vulnerable to the aggression of the numerous non-Muslim communities of India [28]. Decadence engulfed the whole empire. It was against this gloomy background that the Shah took the initiative to save Islam and Muslims from further disgrace and degeneration. He saw in the political decline of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent a precursor to total religious disintegration [29].

The misunderstanding and, in some instances, ignorance of Islam by his co-religionists, mainly as a result of the centuries-long cohabitation with the Hindu community, further accentuated his fears [30]. He abhorred Hindu-inspired practices amongst Muslims, deeming them to be bida‘ or illegitimate innovations, and urged them to study and ponder over the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (sa) [31]. He was highly critical of many of the leading Sufis of his age, considering them to be charlatans in the guise of saints; the Shah believed that they had abandoned the prophetic way and, in addition to engaging in un-Islamic rituals, were exploiting their status for worldly gain [32]. He was profoundly influenced by an earlier reformer, Ahmad Sirhindi (rh) (1564–1624), widely known as mujaddid al-alf al-thani [the reformer of the second millennium], who had reformed Sufism from the superstition and abuses into which it had fallen [33]. Like Sirhindi, the Shah also sought to reform Sufism by harmonising it with normative Islam [34].

The Shah was among the early Muslim scholars who translated the Arabic text of the Qur’an into other languages, an act which some elements of the orthodox clergy deemed to violate the sanctity of the holy scripture and its linguistic inimitability. The Shah argued that the linguistic inimitability was not the only miracle of the Qur’an, but its teachings too were miraculous [35]. Accordingly, he translated the Qur’an into simple Persian, the then-literary language in Mughal India, publishing it in 1743 under the title, Fath al-Rahman fi tarjamat al-Qur’an. His objective was to make it understandable to all literate Muslims and to liberate them from un-Islamic dogmas and practices [36]. His translation was so influential that more than a century after its original publication, despite the subsequent presence of numerous other translations, Hazrat Maulvi Hakeem Nooruddin (ra), the First Successor of the Promised Messiah (as), remarked that it was his favourite translation and taught it to his children [37]. Notwithstanding, it is reported that when the Shah’s translation was first published, he enraged some clerics who saw this as an affront to their monopoly over the faith, and, consequently, they issued religious edicts of excommunication (takfir) against him and even conspired to assassinate him [38].

The Shah was highly revered by the Promised Messiah (as). On one occasion, during a trip to Delhi, the Promised Messiah (as) visited his grave and prayed for him, stating that he was ‘a divinely inspired reformer of his time’ [39]. Moreover, the Promised Messiah (as) also spoke highly of some of the Shah’s disciples who continued his reformist mission. For example, he stated that Syed Ahmad Brelvi (rh) (d. 1831), a pupil of the Shah’s son, Abdul Aziz, was a divinely inspired reformer and his precursor (irhas) who laid the foundation of his advent in the same way that Hazrat Yahya (as) [John the Baptist] was the precursor of Hazrat Isa [Jesus] (as) [40]. Interestingly, some scholars have argued that Syed Ahmad’s disciple, Shah Ismail, a grandson of Shah Wali Allah himself, ‘was a proto-Ahmadi, someone who generated the conditions that made a claimant to prophecy like Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908) possible’ [41].

Commenting on the clergy’s opposition to the Shah, the Promised Messiah (as) wrote:

‘The strange thing is that none of the people of Allah who have passed away has eluded takfir [excommunication]… It has been reported that a fatwa of disbelief was also issued against Shah Wali Allah. This is the blessed [fatwa of] disbelief which the saints and the holy people of God Almighty have always partaken in.’ [42]

The very same tribulation was to befall the Shah’s Arabian analogue.

The Origins of Wahhabism

Unlike the relatively mild climate of India, Shaykh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (rh) was born in Najd, an extremely arid region in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula which is located in present-day Saudi Arabia. To its west lies the Hijaz, the Red Sea coastal region which is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Makkah and Madinah, and, to its east, the Al-Ahsa Oasis. Four natural barriers isolate the central Arabian hinterland: the Hijaz mountain range that stretches along its Western side and three deserts, al-Dahna desert to the east, al-Nafud desert to the north, and al-Rub‘ al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) desert to the south [43]. Due to these three vast deserts, the earliest known Western literary sources on Arabia by Greek and Roman writers refer to the region as ‘Arabia Deserta’ [44]. 

The Ottomans had gained suzerainty over many Arab lands in the early sixteenth century after defeating the Mamluks [45]. Their new territory included the much-prized Hijaz and Ottoman sultans were thereafter referred to as ‘Custodians of the Two Holy Sanctuaries’, bolstering their prestige throughout the Islamic world [46]. The Ottomans continued the tradition that had long been established since the ninth century of designating members of the Hashimite Sharifian clan, a dynasty claiming direct descent from the Holy Prophet (sa), to rule over the region on their behalf. This tradition would continue for four centuries [47].

Although the Hashimite Sharifs occasionally made incursions into Najd in previous centuries to extract the meagre surplus produced by its agricultural communities and impose taxes for brief periods [48], by the eighteenth century, the region remained firmly beyond Ottoman control [49]. Some historians have opined that the unforgiving geography, harsh desert climate and remote lines of communication precluded these incursions from generating permanent control [50]. Notwithstanding, Najd is not only desert; there have always been fertile, inhabited oases within its confines, which facilitated the presence of mostly self-sustained, dispersed settlements. Local emirs enjoyed relative autonomy to rule in these small settlements in a patchwork of petty principalities. The most significant and potent of these principalities was ‘Uyaynah, the birthplace of Shaykh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab.

Born in the same year of 1703, the Shaykh was a contemporary of Shah Wali Allah. Like the Shah, he was raised in an illustrious family of religious scholars who belonged to the respected Banu Tamim tribe. The Shaykh’s father, Abdul Wahhab bin Sulayman, was the leading cleric of ‘Uyaynah, while his grandfather, Sulayman bin Ali (d. 1668/9), was recognised as the most esteemed jurist in Najd of his era [51]. Unlike the Shah, however, who came from a region where the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence was pre-eminent, the Shaykh and nearly all clerics in Najd belonged to the Hanbali school, named after the great jurist Ahmad bin Hanbal (rh) (d. 855). By the early eighteenth century, it had nearly died out elsewhere in the Islamic world, mostly due to the lack of political support and funding, leaving the inhabitants of Najd the greatest single concentration of Hanbalis worldwide [52].

The most influential Najdi scholars were those who travelled to the Ottoman Arab cosmopolitan centres as pupils in pursuit of knowledge. Heir to this tradition of learning, the Shaykh travelled widely during his youth to advance his religious knowledge. According to the Wahhabi chroniclers, his itinerary included the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah, Basra and Al-Ahsa [53], [54]. It was during his travels to the Holy Cities and Basra that he would have observed first-hand the organised presence of more deviant strands of Sufi orders which were well entrenched in these cities. His sojourn in Madinah likely corresponded with that of the Shah; although there is no direct evidence that they met, they had at least one teacher in common, namely, Muhammad Hayya al-Sindhi [55], the renowned scholar of Hadith who, despite being a Hanafi and initiate of the Sufi Naqshbandi order, was known to emphasise a return to the Qur’an and Sunnah and condemn some popular folk practices attributed to Islam [56]. Ultimately, the Shaykh’s reformist efforts would go much further than his teacher.

One of the two foremost chroniclers of the early Wahhabi movement, Ibn Ghannam (d. 1810), a disciple and contemporary of the Shaykh, drew explicit parallels of the religious conditions in Najd and the wider region at the onset of the emergence of the movement with those prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia during the age of jahiliyyah [ignorance]: 

‘…most Muslims had returned to the pre-Islamic darkness. Ignorant, at the mercy of rulers gone astray, deprived of the light of good guidance, they turned their backs on the book of God, thus imitating the custom of their ancestors. So they worshipped mystics, living and dead, venerated trees and substituted new idols for God…Such was the situation in Najd…in the Holy Cities…in Yemen…in Egypt…and in Iraq.’ [57]

The other chronicler, Ibn Bishr (d. 1873), consolidated this depiction of eighteenth-century Arabia, noting that shirk [idolatry] and the worship of sacred stones and trees had become widespread. Moreover, the veneration of the graves of saints was rampant, whereby visitors would either supplicate to them or seek their intercession with God [58].

It was these very beliefs and practices that the Shaykh witnessed in Najd and during his limited travels in the outlying Ottoman Arab world that convinced him that the religion of his era had become so corrupted by idolatry and innovation that it no longer remained true Islam. According to the Shaykh’s grandson, Abdul Rahman bin Hasan, it was during the former’s stay at the religiously and culturally diverse Gulfport city of Basra, which contained a sizeable population of Shiite Muslims, that God had revealed to him the true nature of monotheism that had become hidden from others [59]. Consequently, it was in Basra in the mid-1730s that he first began to openly preach against extraneous and heretical influences that had crept into Islam. Although his divisive preaching against Sufism, Shi‘ism and local religious customs attracted some sympathisers, he was seen as a dangerous troublemaker and ultimately expelled [60]. Thereafter, he returned to his native Najd after an educational sojourn at Al-Ahsa to relaunch his campaign.

Upon his return to Najd in the late 1730s, the Shaykh settled in the town of Huraymilah, where his father had recently relocated to serve as its judge [61]. There, he renewed his proselytism among the locals to his father’s dismay. He compelled the Shaykh to moderate his candid repudiations of local religious customs and to suspend his preaching for several years [62]. During this period, the Shaykh completed the earliest and best known of his works, Kitab al-Tawhid [The book of divine unity], a brief treatise devoted to the oneness of God which outlines his core teachings [63]. Upon his father’s death in 1741, he re-commenced public preaching, attracting followers as well as foes. The chroniclers recount that the level of hostility against him by some elements in the town had culminated in an assassination attempt which he eluded after a tip-off [64].

He subsequently resettled in his birthplace, ‘Uyaynah, which was ruled by Uthman bin Mu‘ammar. The Shaykh succeeded in enlisting Uthman to support his reformist mission, enabling him to proselytise freely without fear of repercussion. Consequently, he was able to assemble a vanguard of followers, which included notables, who assisted him in his purge of what he perceived to be idolatrous and alien manifestations of Islam. This included cutting down trees worshipped by locals, banning the exploitation of magic and superstition, and levelling tombs. One of the most controversial acts that Uthman sanctioned was the levelling of a tomb reputedly belonging to Hazrat Zaid bin al-Khattab (ra), a companion of the Holy Prophet (sa) and brother of the revered second Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Umar bin al-Khattab (ra). Chronicler Ibn Ghannam relates that the Shaykh reasoned that the tomb was erroneously attributed to this noble companion to exploit the gullibility of visiting devotees and swindle them [65].

Uthman’s protection proved short-lived and he eventually succumbed to direct pressure from the chief of the influential Banu Khalid tribe, the ruling dynasty in Al-Ahsa, only after two years of harbouring the Shaykh. The Banu Khalid had given him the ultimatum to either kill or expel the Shaykh or else bear the brunt of them withholding significant incomes from his tribe’s estates in Al-Ahsa or even risk war with them [66]. Being an inland and arid region, the economy of Najdi settlements depended heavily on Al-Ahsa and the Banu Khalid controlled some of ‘Uyaynah’s critical trade routes; Uthman was unwilling to relinquish these vital sources of income or go to war with the more dominant tribe [67]. Unable to bring himself to kill his guest, however, Uthman had him escorted safely to the neighbouring settlement of Dir‘iyyah, some 40 miles away, in 1744 [68]. 

The Beginning of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance 

During the Shaykh’s brief campaign in ‘Uyaynah, he attracted followers from nearby towns, especially Dir‘iyyah, including two brothers of its local ruler, Muhammad bin Saud, the son of the eponymous founder of the House of Saud [69]. It was in Dir‘iyyah that the Shaykh was to find a permanent haven after three demoralising setbacks. Although Muhammad bin Saud knew that granting the Shaykh refuge would commit him to conflict with other settlements in Najd and beyond, especially the Banu Khalid in Al-Ahsa, under the influence of his two brothers and other family members who supported the Shaykh’s mission, he decided to extend his protection to him.

The later of the two foremost Wahhabi chroniclers, Ibn Bishr, recounts a pact between Muhammad bin Saud and the Shaykh which was consummated within days of the Shaykh’s arrival. The Shaykh promised the ruler that he and his descendants would enjoy worldly success if he acted upon true tawhid [monotheism] and the commandments of the Shari’ah [70]. The much earlier chronicler Ibn Ghannam, however, relates no such agreement. His version of the encounter was that the ruler only required that the Shaykh permanently settle in Dir‘iyyah and never leave to which the Shaykh acceded [71]. No further elaborate terms were reported. 

Regardless of the true nature of the pact between the theologian and chieftain, the alliance ushered in a new era in Wahhabi-Saudi history, establishing the Emirate of Dir‘iyyah, commonly referred to as the First Saudi State, which would witness extraordinary military success and expansion in the Arabian peninsula, culminating in the capture of the Two Holy Cities. Followers of the Shaykh from other towns, including those from ‘Uyaynah who had previously sworn allegiance to him, would flock to the newly founded Wahhabi haven [72]. These Wahhabi refugees and the local inhabitants of the nascent Saudi state would form the nucleus of the movement. However, the movement would also face unprecedented levels of hostility from the religious and political establishments.

Map of the Emirate of Dir‘iyyah, a political entity commonly referred to by historians as the First Saudi State.
Wikimedia Commons

Early Anti-Wahhabi Opposition and Persecution

The Shaykh’s radical teachings on what he perceived to be true monotheism and its antithesis, idolatry, were directed at altering the religious and social status quo. They aroused fierce opposition from the clergy of his time. Initially, opponents strived to refute the Shaykh by enlisting senior clerics to wage a polemical campaign against him. This included denigrating his capacity for understanding the Qur’an and Sunnah by shedding doubt on his scholarly credentials [73]. Surprisingly, one of the earliest polemics against the Shaykh was penned by his own brother, Sulayman bin Abdul Wahhab, himself a Hanbali scholar and staunch opponent of the early Wahhabi movement. He asserted that his brother lacked the qualifications that enabled him to reach independent conclusions from Islamic scripture as he was not a mujtahid, an expert in exercising independent reasoning (ijtihad) in the interpretation of Islamic scripture. As such, Sulayman contended that his brother’s scholarly deficiencies precluded him from introducing new interpretations in Islam which contravened those upheld by the authoritative medieval scholars [74].

During the brief ‘Uyaynah period, although the early Wahhabis there were under Uthman bin Mu‘ammar’s protection, they were persecuted elsewhere in Najd. Adversaries attempted to solicit senior clerics to wield the weapon of excommunication against them. Excommunicated by the clergy, they were subject to loss of life and property. Chronicler Ibn Ghannam drew parallels of the trials and tribulations they had to endure with those experienced by the Holy Prophet (sa), Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (rh) and their followers [75].

Incidentally, beyond Najd, the three regional centres of learning that the Shaykh had visited, namely, the Hijaz, Basra, and Al-Ahsa, formed the core of early regional opposition to his teachings. Polemics were to pour from these centres effectively declaring him to be outside the pale of Islam [76]. The speed of their reaction to signs of increasing support in Najd, a region they otherwise despised and dismissed, is very telling of the level of their indignation and hostility towards the early Wahhabis [77]. 

The Najdi opponents of the Shaykh alerted the revered clerics of Makkah of the Wahhabi menace. The mufti there, an adherent of the Shafi‘i school, issued a scathing condemnation in 1743 [78]. He was supported by fellow muftis from the other three schools of Islamic jurisprudence, including the Hanbali school to which the Wahhabis belonged. Some declared the Shaykh to be of unsound mind and several urged those in authority to hunt him down and execute him [79]. It has been argued that the Sharifian clan orchestrated this fatwa [80]. Tensions between the Sharif of Makkah, Masʿud bin Saʿid (r. 1732–1752), and the Wahhabis reached a traumatic climax in 1749 when he jailed some Najdi pilgrims performing the Hajj. Ibn Bishr reported that some died in detainment [81]. Moreover, the Sharif ordered the judge of Makkah to declare them unbelievers. Thereafter, Wahhabis were prohibited from performing the Hajj [82]. 

In retaliation to the ban, some Wahhabis began obstructing pilgrims on their way across Najd, thus reducing the number of pilgrims. This struck a significant financial blow to the Sharif who was heavily dependent on the revenues of the Hajj. The Sharif was thus compelled to revise his policy and the Wahhabi pilgrimage was renewed. When Sharif Surur (r. 1772–1787) came to power, he imposed a specific fee for the Wahhabis performing the Hajj equal to or slightly less than that of the Shiites, who were charged more than other pilgrims. This enraged the Wahhabis who refused to comply and were again banned from the Hajj [83]. This discriminatory policy continued until 1799 when the then-Saudi ruler, Abdul Aziz, and Sharif Ghalib (r. 1788–1813) signed a treaty [84].

Conflict with the Ottomans 

The central government of the Ottoman Empire first received news of the nascent Wahhabi movement during the reign of Sultan Mahmud I (r. 1730-1754) from a letter penned by Sharif Mas‘ud in 1749. He apprised the Sultan of the activities of the Wahhabis who were spreading beliefs that were contrary to the four orthodox Sunni schools [85]. The Sharif even obtained a fatwa from the highest religious authorities in Makkah that he shared with the Ottoman authorities [86]. In response to the Sharif’s letter, Mahmud I instructed him to convince the Shaykh to recant his views. However, in the case that he did not, the Sharif was ordered to eliminate the Wahhabis and their leader [87].

Despite this, the Ottomans, too preoccupied with wars against European powers, remained little troubled by distant and apparently transient ructions caused by an unknown, misguided preacher which did not pose any immediate threat to them [88]. Some scholars contend that the Ottomans initially viewed Wahhabi activities as usual remote Bedouin troubles that were common in the region [89]. Even as late as 1776, when the then-Sharif of Makkah, Surur, requested aid from the Ottoman government to combat the Wahhabi threat, no such request was granted [90]. 

Up to this point, the Wahhabi movement was limited to the confines of Najd, which lay beyond Ottoman control. However, a turning point in the Ottoman perception of the gravity of the Wahhabi threat occurred in 1795 after the Shaykh’s death in 1792 when the Saudis invaded Al-Ahsa. The movement was no longer perceived to be a local problem but a tangible regional threat to their rule over neighbouring Arab lands [91]. Consequently, the central government started to pay attention to the Wahhabis. They instructed the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Sulayman Pasha, to attack the Wahhabi’s hinterland and eradicate them [92]. Reluctantly, Sulayman Pasha acceded and enlisted his steward, Ali Bey, to launch an attack in 1798. The attempt was unsuccessful, however, and Ali Bey was compelled to sign a humiliating truce in 1799 leaving the entirety of Al-Ahsa to the Wahhabis [93].

Three years later, in 1802, a dramatic turn of events would mark a watershed in Ottoman-Wahhabi relations and send shock waves across the Muslim world. To explain, a delegation of Wahhabi merchants travelled to the Shiite-majority town of Najaf in Iraq. A disagreement between the Wahhabi traders and local Shiites resulted in a skirmish and several Wahhabis were killed. The Wahhabis demanded that Sulayman Pasha punish the perpetrators. Enraged by Sulayman’s lack of action, the Wahhabis broke the truce. They retaliated against the Shiites by sacking the fabled city of Karbala, home to the tomb of the Holy Prophet’s (sa) beloved grandson, Imam Hussein (ra), which was a major pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims worldwide. During their attack, the Wahhabis had damaged the dome placed over the graveyard of the revered Imam, plundered the city and killed many of the inhabitants [94]. The outrage that the sack of Karbala had provoked across the Muslim world, especially among Shiite Muslims, further transformed the Ottoman perception of the Wahhabi movement from a local and regional threat to an international one [95].

A long, drawn-out, intermittent campaign ensued between the Saudi-Wahhabis and Ottomans, culminating in the Saudi capture of the Holy Cities in 1803–6 [96]. As the Ottoman sultan was officially custodian of these two cities, their annexation to the Wahhabis was a major blow to his religious credentials and prestige. Now, the Wahhabis posed an acute, existential threat to his empire. Ultimately, an Ottoman-instigated intervention would prove catastrophic for the Wahhabis.

The Ottoman sultan entrusted Muhammad Ali, the virtually independent viceroy of the province of Egypt, with the task of expelling the ‘heretical’ Wahhabis from the Holy Land and eliminating them once and for all. The Egyptian expeditionary force finally conquered the Hijaz in 1812. Subsequently, the Egyptians advanced into Najd and marched on Dirʿiyyah in 1818. The conflict ended in a decisive Saudi defeat [97]. Abdullah, the then-ruler of the First Saudi State and great-grandson of Muhammad bin Saud, was sent to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and beheaded. Other Wahhabi leaders were also executed. Others, including some members of the House of Saud and the Shaykh’s progeny, were exiled to Egypt. The Saudi capital of Dirʿiyyah was razed to the ground, terminating the First Saudi State [98]. Nevertheless, the Wahhabi creed managed to survive, albeit more discreetly.

Map of the extent of the Emirate of Najd, the Second Saudi State, in 1850.
Wikimedia Commons

Six years later, in 1824, another member of the House of Saud, Turki bin Abdullah, who had managed to evade capture by the Egyptians, reconquered Riyadh and expelled the Egyptians from the city and its environs [99]. This ushered in the Emirate of Najd, a polity referred to by historians as the Second Saudi State. Over the following decades, this state was characterised by internal disputes between members of the House of Saud and was eventually defeated by new foes closer to home. The pro-Ottoman Rashidi dynasty ruled the Emirate of Jabal Shammar centred in northwestern Najd. They vanquished the last Saudi ruler of the Second Saudi State, Abdul Rahman bin Faisal, at the Battle of Mulayda in 1891, terminating the Saudi polity. Abdul Rahman escaped with his family to take refuge in Kuwait as the guest of its rulers [100].


Anti-Wahhabi opposition was to endure into the early twentieth century, including in the Holy Cities under Sharifian rule. During his pilgrimage to Makkah in the Hajj season of 1912, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood (ra) witnessed first-hand the manifestations of anti-Wahhabism in the Hijaz. He remarked how Wahhabis were unable to openly profess their beliefs out of fear of imprisonment or risk to their lives. The appellation ‘Wahhabi’ had become a highly offensive slur. As they generally did not pray behind a non-Wahhabi imam, he also recalled how they would purposely avoid congregational prayers and, instead, pray individually or in their residences so as not to attract the suspicions of the authorities and the masses who were vehemently opposed to them [101].

Such clandestine expressions of Wahhabi faith were not limited to Najdi pilgrims but extended to Hijazi notables who secretly upheld Wahhabi beliefs. A prominent example was the renowned Makkan scholar, Abdul Sattar Al-Katbi, who was known to deliver daily religious classes open to the public in the Grand Mosque of Makkah and private classes with select pupils [102], including the sons of the Sharif of Makkah [103]. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood (ra) describes a fascinating encounter with this individual whom he regarded to be a closet Wahhabi. His Holiness had requested a private meeting with him, to preach to him about the doctrines of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. After hearing the arguments presented, Abdul Sattar told him that ‘you have preached to me and your words are reasonable but do not preach to anyone but me; otherwise, your life is in danger. People are very zealous. If you preach, you run the risk of being attacked or the government will imprison you.’

Interestingly, Abdul Sattar had relayed to him that another cleric who was a Wahhabi and staunch opponent of Ahmadiyya had been in town and wanted to debate Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood (ra) publicly. Abdul Sattar warned this scholar to avoid this debate at all costs, stating that, ‘there is not as much opposition to Ahmadis here as there is to Wahhabis. So why do you incite the people against you? Whether there is any provocation against the Ahmadis or not, people will definitely be hostile to you.’ Consequently, that Wahhabi cleric refused to engage in the debate [104].

Such anti-Wahhabi discrimination also occurred at a state level. In 1902, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, commonly known as Ibn Saud, had reconquered his family’s ancestral capital of Riyadh in 1902, establishing the Third Saudi State. Eventually, he would conquer all of Najd. History would repeat itself in 1919 when the then-Sharif of Makkah, Hussein bin Ali, decided to ban the Saudi-Wahhabis from performing the Hajj for several years [105]. This eventually sparked the 1924-25 Saudi-Hashimite war, culminating in a decisive Saudi victory, forever ending Hashimite rule in the Hijaz [106]. As the new rulers of the Hijaz, the House of Saud now found themselves once again managers of the Hajj. Although they would spend huge sums, exceeding $100 billion since the 1950s, to modernise and expand pilgrimage facilities [107], as we will see in the sequel, in their treatment of the new reformist movement in Islam, the persecuted will become the persecutors.

Simplified tree diagram of key members of the House of Saud, including rulers of the First, Second and Third Saudi States.
Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author: Dr Bilal Ahmed Tahir is currently an Assistant Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, specialising in the field of medical physics. He serves as the Head of the Arabic Desk for the Northern UK regions and is a member of the International Arabic Desk of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He has translated and reviewed several publications both from and into the Arabic language. He also serves as the International Head of the newly formed The Review of Religions Research Desk.


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  2.  Natana Delong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 339.
  3. The Kharijites were members of an extremist sect that emerged in the first century of Islam. They became notorious for their proclamation of excommunication and violence against Muslims who did not follow their teachings.
  4.  David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), 27.
  5.  Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2016), 4.
  6.  David Commins, “From Wahhabi to Salafi,” in Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, ed. Bernard Haykel, et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 152.
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  9.  Willow Berridge, Islamism in the Modern World: A Historical Approach (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 30.
  10.  Ibid.
  11.  James Broucek, “Mufti/Grand Mufti,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, ed. Patricia Crone (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 365-6.
  12.  Rudolph Peters “What does it mean to be an official madhhab: Hanafism and the Ottoman Empire,” in The Islamic School of Law: Evolution, Devolution, and Progress, ed. P. Bearman, R. Peters, F. Vogel (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2005), 147-58.
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  16.  Ibid, 529.
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  35.  Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim, “Shaykh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and Shāh Walī Allāh: A Preliminary Comparison of Some Aspects of their Lives and Careers,” Asian Journal of Social Science 34, no. 1 (2006): 103-119.
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  41.  Sherali Tareen, Defending Muhammad in Modernity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 139.
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  45.  Sir William Muir, The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt: 1260-1517 A. D. (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1896), 199.
  46.  Suraiya Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans, 1517-1683 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994), 7.
  47.  Joshua Teitelbaum, The Rise and Fall of the Hashimite Kingdom of Arabia (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2001).
  48.  Hala Fattah, The Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq, Arabia and the Gulf 1745–1900 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 47.
  49.  Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 13.
  50.  Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), Kindle Location 387. 
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  52.  Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), Kindle Location 401-402. 
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  65.  Ibn Ghannam, 1949, 1:123.
  66.  Ibn Bishr, 1982–3, 1:39–41.
  67.  Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), Kindle Location 511. 
  68.  Ibn Bishr, 1982–3, 1:40–41.
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  71.  Ibn Ghannam, 1949, 2:3.
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  74.  Sulayman bin Abdul Wahhab, Al-Sawaiq al-Ilahiyyah fi al-Radd ‘ala al-Wahhabiyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Insan, 1987), 22-8.
  75.  Ibn Ghannam, 1949, 1:33-4, 37-8.
  76.  Ibn Ghannam, 1949, 1:33.
  77.  Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), Kindle Location 521-522.
  78.  Samer Traboulsi, “An Early Refutation Of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhāb’s Reformist Views,” Die Welt Des Islams 42, no. 3 (2002): 373-415.
  79.  Ibid, 408–15.
  80.  Michael Crawford, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhab (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), Kindle Location 522.
  81.  Ibn Bishr, 1982–3, 1:59–60.
  82.  Ibn ʿAbd al Shakur, Tarikh ashraf wa umaraʾ Makkah al-Mukarramah (Manuscript, Topkapi Saray, no. 1/44), 349.
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  84.  Ibn ʿAbd al Shakur, Tarikh ashraf wa umaraʾ Makka al Mukarrama (Manuscript, Topkapi Saray, no. 1/44), 388-9.
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  86.  Emine Ö. Evered, “Rereading Ottoman Accounts of Wahhabism as Alternative Narratives: Ahmed Cevdet Paşa’s Historical Survey of the Movement,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 3 (2012): 625.
  87.  Ibid, 625-6.
  88.  Elif Ayşenur Conker, The Transformation Of The Ottoman Perception of The Wahhabi Movement: From Negotiation To Confrontation (1745-1818) (unpublished MA dissertation, Sabancı University, 2018), 38.
  89.  Selda Güner, Osmanlı Arabistanı’nda Kıyam ve Tenkil: Vehhâbi-Suûdiler (1744-1819) (İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012), 121.
  90.  Emine Ö. Evered, “Rereading Ottoman Accounts of Wahhabism as Alternative Narratives: Ahmed Cevdet Paşa’s Historical Survey of the Movement,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 3 (2012): 626-7.
  91.  Elif Ayşenur Conker, The Transformation Of The Ottoman Perception of The Wahhabi Movement: From Negotiation To Confrontation (1745-1818) (unpublished MA dissertation, Sabancı University, 2018), 40.
  92.  Emine Ö. Evered, “Rereading Ottoman Accounts of Wahhabism as Alternative Narratives: Ahmed Cevdet Paşa’s Historical Survey of the Movement,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 3 (2012): 627-8.
  93.  Zekeriya Kurşun, Necid ve Ahsa’da Osmanlı Hakimiyeti: Vehhabi Hareketi ve Suud Devleti’nin Ortaya Çıkışı (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1998), 32.
  94.  Selda Güner, Osmanlı Arabistanı’nda Kıyam ve Tenkil: Vehhâbi-Suûdiler (1744-1819) (Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2012), 136-7.
  95.  Zekeriya Kurşun, Necid ve Ahsa’da Osmanlı Hakimiyeti: Vehhabi Hareketi ve Suud Devleti’nin Ortaya Çıkışı (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1998), 34-5.
  96.  Alexei Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi Books, 2000), 195-203.
  97.  Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 22.
  98. Ibid.
  99.  Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 22.
  100.  Ibid, 22-24.
  101.  Al-Fazl, 20 June 1925.
  102.  Abdul Sattar Al-Katbi, Fayd al-Malik al-Muta‘ali, vol. 1 (Makkah: Maktabat al-Asadi,2009), 35.
  103.  Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, Tafsir-e kabir, vol. 8 (Qadian: Nazarat-e Nashr-o-Isha’at, 2004), 452-3.
  104.  Ibid.
  105.  Amin Sa‘id, Ta’rikh al-dawlah al-Sa‘udiyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-’Arabi, 1964), 1149.
  106.  Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 44.
  107.  Juan E. Campo, “Hajj,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. Juan E. Campo (New York: Facts on Files, 2009), 283.