Wahhabi is a reform movement of Islam, seeking to return the religion to its roots. Therefore, all wahhabis are fundamentalist haters of the West. And all Wahhabis are terrorists. Hmm, perhaps not.

The movement was started by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the middle of the 18th century. Islam was already over a millennium old and the teacher thought it was time for a renewal. He wanted to raise the moral and get rid of all the additions to the religion since the third century of Islam - primarily, ostentatious worship and living among the faithful, and the veneration of saints (Does it sound familiar?).

This radicalism chased the founder out of Medina, and he saught refuge with the Saud tribe in the Nejd. Their sheikh, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, became convinced that this was the only true way of Islam, and consequently declared jihad on all other forms. Driven by this religious fervour, the Sauds were highly successful. By 1811 the followers of Abd al-Wahab had conquered all of Arabia except Yemen.

The Muslim establishment fought back, however. The Ottoman sultan joined forces with Muhammad Ali of Egypt and in 1818 forced the Wahhabis back into the desert. They rebuilt their strength and waited. A century later they were Ibn Saud emerged to capture Riyadh and finally conquer the whole country that we now know as Saudi Arabia.

This country remains the stronghold of Wahhabi Islam. The society is based on strict laws set down by the ulema, such as the ban on alcohol consumption as well as woman drivers. The movement have also spread beyond its borders, most notably to inspire extreme fundamentalist movements such as the Taleban. These are much more radical than the original teachings of Abd al-Wahhab, however.

A wahhabi must:

  • Attend public prayer if he is a man
  • Pay alms from all his income
  • Mention only the name of Allah in a prayer
  • Not worship any idol or use a rosary
  • Not use holy men or women to win favours from God
  • Not use tobacco (or any other recreational drug)
  • Not shave his beard
  • Not swear
  • Go to a mosque built without any minarets or ornaments
  • Use halal meat only from a slaughter who also has a devout lifestyle

Finally, wahhabi is only a term used among non-wahhabis, both other Moslems and Western scholars. Wahhabism implies that they worship their founder, just like the term Muhammadanism suggested that Moslems worshipped Muhammad. For themselves the followers prefer the term muwahhidun, which means unitarians. This sounds much nicer and means they believe in one undivisible deity.

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