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Glossary: Wahhabism, or Wahhabiyah


Definition: Wahhabism is the anglicized word for Wahhabiyah, the religious movement founded in the 18th century as a reformist, revivalist movement. It is one of the most rigid and socially repressive expressions of Islam. It is the only form of Islam acceptable in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), who was born in Najd, in present-day Saudi Arabia, and who made an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud in 1747—thus making Wahhabism synonymous with Saudi Arabia.

Wahhab’s teachings were strongly influenced by a desire to return Islam to an idealized past in response to what Wahhab perceived as moral decline in the umma, or community of Islam. The way back to that past was through a rejection of ijtihad, or “independent reasoning, as Islam had come to be interpreted by scholars and jurists since medieval times. While Sunni clerics had declared the “gates of ijtihad” closed as far back as the 14th century, Wahhab believed Islam still to be prone to too much interpretation and influence from idol worship or innovation that diverges from Quranic teaching.

Paradoxically, Wahhabis reject the notion that the doors of ijtihad are closed—but only to the extent that some interpretations of Islamic doctrine must be reevaluated in order to be proven wrong and rejected. In that sense, Wahhabism is a relentless hunt of a perfect ideal by means of sometimes violent reaction and rejection of anything that diverges from that ideal.

Central to Wahhabi doctrine is the theme of tawhid, or the unitary nature of God. God alone created the universe, God alone provides and disposes of all creatures in the universe. Worshiping anyone or anything but God, including the Prophet Muhammad, is forbidden.

Also Known As: Wahhabiyah
Alternate Spellings: Wahhabis
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