Who is Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Muhammad b. Abdilwahhab b. Sulayman at-Tamimi an-Najdi (d. 1206/1792) is the founder of Wahhabism.

He was born in 1115 H (1703 AD) in Uyayna, a small settlement in the Najd region of ­the Arabian Peninsula. His family belongs to the tribe of Sons of Tamim, which raised important scholars in Hanbali madhhab. His father, ­Abdulwahhab b. Sulayman, was one of the well-known scholars of the Najd region.­

After learning basic religious knowledge from his father, who was the qadi of Uyayna, Muhammad went to ­Makkah and stayed there for a while; then, he went to Madinah. He learned religious sciences from prominent scholars of the period, especially Hanbali scholar Abdullah b. Ibrahim b. Sayf an-Najdi and Muhammad Hayat as-Sindi. Then, he went to Basra, where various religious groups were located. However, he was expelled from the city together with his teacher, Muhammad al-Majmui, because he opposed some practices in the religious life of the people. The practices he opposed may have been related to the visits to the tomb of the Shadhili sheikh of Basra, Muhammad Amin al-Qawwaz (d. 953/1546), to whom he made hostile references in his later writings, and the respect shown at the level of worship there.

Due to the inadequacy of his financial means, Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab could not go to Damascus, which was one of the important ­centers of Hanbali madhhab at that time, and returned to Najd via Lahsa (Ahsa). He moved to the town of Huraymila and settled there with his father after he had a conflict with the Emir of Uyayna. Although it is stated that he visited Baghdad, Aleppo, Hamadan, Isfahan, Qom, Ray, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo before returning to Najd, this information is not confirmed by Wahhabi sources.

After arriving in Najd, Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab was expected to take up a position as a scholar, but he started a reform movement against some religious practices that he regarded as polytheism after his father’s death in 1153 H (1740 AD). However, he faced serious opposition. After his opponents resorted ­to violence and attempted to assassinate him, he left Huraymila and returned to Uyayna. He was welcomed by the Emir Uthman b. Muammar, whom he had known before, ­there and received political support for the spread of his ideas. During this period, he not only spread his ideas but also demolished the graves of the tombs of some Companions who were martyred in the war against the supporters of Musaylimatul-Kadhdhab in Jubayla, ­which led to harsh reactions.

The sheikh of Sons of Khalid, one of the mighty tribes of ­Lahsa, began to press the Emir of Uyayna to kill Muhammad or send him into exile. ­Thereupon, Muhammad had to go to Dariyya, which was ruled by the Saud family, in 1158 H (1745 AD).

Settling in Dariyya was a turning point in Muhammad b. ­Abdulwahhab‘s life. The Saud family took care of him ­and supported the spread of his ideas. This support continued during the reigns of Muhammad b. ­Saud and his son and successor, Abdulaziz. This period is regarded as the most important period in terms of the future and effectiveness of the Wahhabi movement.­

Since Muhammad called his religious opponents polytheists, his followers started ­jihad against them. After a period of slow and irregular spread that lasted for about thirty years, the Wahhabi movement gained great momentum when the Saud family dominated the whole of ­Najd. During this period, Ibrahim b. Sulayman, important opponents such as Emir Ibn Dawwas and Zyad b. Zamil Emir, who had to leave Riyad in 1187 (1773), were ruled out.

In line with his thoughts on tawhid (oneness), Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab claimed that many of the Muslims of his time should be regarded as polytheists because of their deeds and he accepted jihad against them as one of the most fundamental duties of Muslims. ­Although the basic principles that Muhammad advocated were actually Islamic, even his contemporaries, who respected him, were disturbed by his uncompromising attitude in their implementation. Yemeni Emir as-San’ani, who had an important place among his contemporary scholars, partially supported the views of Abdulwahhab in the beginning but after the incidents of killing and plundering, he accused Abdulwahhab of understanding the ideas of Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim of incompletely and wrongly; he even ­wrote a poem that criticized Abdulwahhab.

Ibn Abdulwahhab had a great influence on future generations. Shortly after Kavalalı Mehmed Ali Pasha’s blow to the Saudis, who ­were the political supporters of Wahhabism in the region of Najd, the Saudis increased their influence in the region again. However, they gave up their old rigid and uncompromising stance about the implementation of Wahhabi principles.­

Wahhabism, which was based on the political and military support of the Saudis in its activity in Arabia, also affected non-Arab Muslims. It can be said that it is based on two main reasons. The first one of them is that there are some differences between the importance attached to the belief of oneness in Islam and the daily religious life and practices of societies. ­Wahhabism was able to spread more easily in societies where this difference was seen more. The second reason is that the principles laid down Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab, who developed his views in a region far from Western culture and influence, attracted the attention of many Muslims at a time when the cultural influence of Europe was ­beginning to take effect seriously. It is very important that Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab emphasized the principle of oneness in Islam and pointed out that religion should be ­purified from bid’ahs. In this respect, Wahhabism showed its influence also on the Salafiyya movement ­and guided today’s Islamic movements partly.

His Scientific Personality:

Born into a cultured family, Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab started his education under the guidance of his father. ­After memorizing the Quran, he read ­the Hanbali scholar Muwaffaquddin Ibn Qudama’s works on fiqh. He went to Makkah to improve his knowledge; since he could not find the scientific atmosphere he desired there, he moved to Madinah. The Hanbali ­scholar Abdullah b. Ibrahim b. Sayf an-Najdi became his most important teacher.

Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab studied and learned Imam Malik’s al-Muwatta, Shafii and Ahmed b. Hanbal‘s al-Musnads together with Kutub as-Sitta from Abdullah b. Ibrahim, who supported the new Hanbali school within the framework of Ibn Taymiyya understanding, and received his diploma. Among his other teachers in Madinah are Muhammad Hayat as-Sindi, Muhammad Sulayman al-Kurdi, Sheikh Ali Efendi ad-Daghistani and Abdullatif al-Afaliki al-Ahsai.

Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab, who went to Basra afterwards and stayed there for a long time, studied linguistics, hadith and sirah from Muhammad al-Majmui. He had the opportunity to learn about Shia and various Islamic sects in this city, where there were very different religious groups. ­Particularly, the respect shown to the saints at the level of worship by people ­and its practices incompatible with the sunnah laid the groundwork for him to put forward his thesis. Because of the ideas he put forward there, he and his teacher were expelled from the city.

Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab stayed with Abdullah b. Abdullatif ash-Shafii in Lahsa for a while and benefited from him; then, he ­moved to Huraymila. While attending his father’s tafsir and hadith lessons in this city, he also started to read the works of ­Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. These works not only broadened his horizons, but also increased his power to struggle against non-Islamic movements. Along with the lessons he gave to the students gathered around him, he wrote his first work, Kitabut-Tawhid, there.

Ibn Abdulwahhab was influenced by the first Hanbali scholars, especially the doctrine of Ibn Taymiyya, and partly by the views of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. It is understood from his writings that he nurtured hostile feelings against the sects such as Shia, Mu’tazila and Kharijites, which were determined by Hanbalis not to comply with Ahl as-Sunnah.

It is regarded as polytheism to travel with the intention of visiting the graves of people who are known as ­saints by people, to hang things on their tombs to ask something, to mention their names with expressions of honor, and to ask them for the acceptance of prayers. Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab opposes common Sufi views, rejects spiritual ranks such as ghaws, aqtab, awtad and abdal, and regards them as bid’ahs that are haram.

Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab divides visits to graves into two. He states that the aim of legitimate visits is to remember the hereafter, to prevent the dead ­from being forgotten, and to pray to Allah for them. On the other hand, he states that visits made to seek help and intercession from the dead are haram. In addition, building a mosque on the grave and gather there for the purpose of worshipping and going on a journey for such visits are not permissible even if it is the grave of the Prophet.

Acting upon the thought of Ibn Taymiyya that religion ­is based on oneness and the principles of worship according to the principles set by Allah, Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab criticizes the science of kalam included in Sunnism in the first place and all forms of Sufism intended to be based on nass, as well as imitation, and regards them as ­bid’ah. Although he was under ­the influence of Ibn Taymiyya related to enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil, it is ­seen that he outdid Ibn Taymiyya in the implementation of his ideas. Ibn Taymiyya set principles such as knowing what is good and bad, acting kindly in practice and being patient in the face of the difficulties to be encountered to carry out this task, but it is known that Abdulwahhab did not comply with them and ­drew the hatred of those around him that were not his followers.

Although most of Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab‘s ideas ­were criticized both in his own time and later, it is known that his system of thought was influential in a wide area and played an important role in the purification of religious values ­and awakening of Islamic consciousness during the period of the West’s occupation of the Islamic world. From the beginning, Muslims from various parts of the world, especially during hajj seasons, had the opportunity to get to know Wahhabi ideas. It is accepted that Ahmad Shahid, the founder of the Tariqatu Muhammadiyya movement in India was greatly influenced by the ideas of Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab related to the elimination of bid’ahs and returning to Salaf creed when he came to hajj in 1822, and that the Sanusiyya movement, which ­was started by Muhammad b. Ali as-Sanusi in North Africa, benefited from his views in the revolutions it carried out.

Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab’s thoughts and the movement he started were not approved in the Ottoman-Turkish society; he was regarded ­a rebel, and his thoughts were ­considered within the framework of the Kharijite view. His harsh criticisms on issues such as the extreme respect and devotion he regarded as similar to worshiping the created beings in line with the understanding of the oneness of divinity, visiting the graves, the inner life resembling mysticism, the systematization of the basic provisions of religion in terms of reason and science, and the interpretation of attributes based on khabar within this framework were regarded as excessive. Concerns were expressed that such an understanding of religion would lead to negative consequences like accusing sincere ­Muslims of polytheism, and transforming Islam from being a universal religion that appeals to all humanity into a tribal religion. In addition, the necessity of removing the notions and behaviors that will harm the belief of tawhid ­in its essence and harm the appearance of religion from the life of the Muslim community was also emphasized.

After the death of Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab, his descendants continued his scientific function. Abdullah b. ­Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab, who joined Saud b. Abdulaziz when he invaded Hejaz (1805-1806) and supported his movement in Iraq, wrote refutations against the Ithnaashariyya and Zaydiyya doctrines, which he regarded as the people of bid’ah. Sulayman, who was a grandson of Abdulwahhab, who became the qadi of Dariyya, and who became involved in politics, wrote a book called Kitabut-Tawdih, ­which deals with the relations between Wahhabism and Iraq. Muhammad b. Abdulwahhab’s scientific and political views ­have continued to be influential especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

Some of his Works:

1. Kitabut-Tawhid: It ­is the main work of the author, which he wrote by building his teachings on the Hanbali doctrine in the harshest way, dealing with the issues of polytheism, things leading to polytheism, intercession, etc. Various versions of the book, on which many studies were made and which were translated into foreign languages, were published.
2. Kashfush-Shubuhat: The ­work, which is a refutation of the Muslims who do not comply with true tawhid, has been published many times.
3. Kitabul-Usulith-Thalatha: The meaning of the name Rab was dealt with, the religious principles were ­tried to be explained and the life of the Prophet was briefly mentioned in this booklet similar to a catechism written upon the request of Abdulaziz b. Saud.
4. Kitabu Usulid-Din.
5. Kitabu Fadlil-Islam. It includes the issues such as the concept of Islam, major sins, bid’ah and the principles of belief.
6. Mabadiul-Islam. It was translated into English by Ahmed Jalal and Muhammad Ghali and was published together with its Arabic text.
7. al-Kabair: The last two works were published in the Majmu’atul-Hadith with the explanations of M. Rashid Rida.

(Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslam Ansiklopedisi, Muhammed b. Abdilvehhab item)

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