The Middle East · Understanding Islam

Wahhabism: What it is and how it differs from Mainstream Islam

One of the big mistakes made by individuals who do not understand Islam is that there is no solid definition which defines a “Muslim Country.” As expressed by Reza Aslan in my first post on this page, each country in the Middle East and parts of Asia practice various form of Shari’ah which are based on different mindsets or categories that branch from either Sunni or Shi’a Islam. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the strictest countries in the Middle East due to its adherence to the religious movement known as Wahhabism.

Wahhabism stems from the Hanbali school of Shari’ah and is distinct from the other Sunni schools in that it favors independent reasoning, i.e. the process of understanding the primary sources and extracting from them guidance and ruling in a systematic manner (Ijtihad), over the act of following the legal decisions formulated by Mujtahids (legal scholars who use foundational texts and legal reasoning to derive legal rulings), rather than deriving them on one’s own (taqlid). The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia works well with Wahhabism primarily due to the fact that Wahhabism calls for obedience to a just Muslim ruler, and requires an oath of allegiance to the just Muslim ruler who is in consultation with Islamic religious scholars (Ulama) and holds primary political power, which Wahhabis believe is an important aspect of a real Islamic government. This differs from the basic principles over governing set forth in Sunni Islam, which believes in a ruler elected by a majority of believers, and is reflective of the Sunni belief that the successor of the Prophet Muhammad should be elected by the Muslim community based on how pious the individual was, and that individuals relationship with the Prophet at the time of his death.

Wahhabism was introduced by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a Sunni Muslim scholar born in the early 1700s, who believed that Muslims had drifted away from the pure form of Islam and the principles set out by the first three generations of Muslims following the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Wahhab emphasized the importance of strictly adhering to the laws set forth by the Qur’an and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, with its ultimate goal set to have every Muslim act as a living embodiment of God’s laws on earth. Al-Wahhab introduced his ideology to Muhammad ibn Saud, a Muslim ruler whose descendants are now the present day rulers of Saudi Arabia, and a pact was formed by the two men. The pact gave ibn Saud political and military authority over their combined followers, while al-Wahhab was given religious authority. Al-Wahhab’s teachings stemmed from the original form of Salafism, with most Islamic scholars referring to Wahhabism as Saudi Arabia’s form of Salafism.

Wahhabis understand the Qur’an through a literalist interpretation of each verse, generally without consulting Sunni Qur’anic Commentary (Tafsīr) or consulting the Occasions of Revelation (Asbāb al-Nūzul), with both forms of the supplementary sources of the Qur’an considered vital for proper interpretation with main stream Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, as well as the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism.

There are a number of major ideas that Saudi Wahhabis believe that differ from what I would called “mainstream Islam.” For instance, Wahhabis are allowed to accuse someone of being a non-Muslim who claims to be Muslim (the action in Arabic is known as Mukaffir), which is considered a bad practice in the Qur’an. Some Examples from the Islamic Prophetic tradition which explains that it is not good to call a believer a disbeliever can be seen in the Qur’an. In the chapter (surah) or the Qur’an entitled The Women (al-Nisā’), verse ninety-four states:

(4:94) O you who believe! When you go forth in the way of God, be discerning, and say not unto him who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the ephemeralities of the life of this world, for with God are abundant spoils. Thus were you yourselves beforehand, but God has been gracious to you. Therefore be discerning. Truly God is Aware of whatsoever you do.[1]

           The concept is further strengthened through the Hadith tradition. Examples of this can be found in the Hadith collection of Sunan Abi Dawud’s “Book of Model Behavior of the Prophet” which states:

“Ibn ‘Umar reported the Messenger of Allah () as saying: If any believing man calls another believing man an unbeliever, if he is actually an infidel, it is all right ; if not, he will become an infidel.”[2]

As well as in Sunan Abi Dawud’s  “Book of Jihad”:

“The Prophet () said: Three things are the roots of faith: to refrain from (killing) a person who utters, “There is no god but God” and not to declare him unbeliever whatever sin he commits, and not to excommunicate him from Islam for his any action…”[3]

             Other ideas which greatly vary from mainstream Islam is the rights of women. Women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia must have a male chaperon when traveling and it is generally the male head of household’s decision whether or not a woman within his family should receive an education. In mainstream Islam, a male chaperon is not required and women are allowed to be educated at any level as the Qur’an emphasizes the importance of seeking knowledge for both men and women. In Saudi Arabia divorce is allowed under certain circumstances but must be approved by the husband before it can be brought before a Saudi court. A woman can also be imprisoned or put through trial for suspected infidelity, even if there is a lack of proof and a man is able to have multiple wives. This differs from the mainstream view greatly as divorce is allowed for both men and women and can be brought to a court by either party. A man is allowed to take more than one wife however, marriage in Islam is considered a contractual obligation, so if the wife states in the marriage contract that her husband cannot take any additional wives, her husband will be unable to take additional wives without renegotiating the marriage contract or filing for divorce.

The final difference I will address is the view of Wahhabism to with regard to cultural and historical artifacts and sites. Archaeology and historic remains are outlawed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to the idea that historical and cultural object and sites could eventually lead to idol worship that was common during the “Time of Ignorance” (Jahiliyyah). The only historical sites considered to be sacred and not to be destroyed are the Well of Zam Zam (where God provided water for the Prophet Ishmael), the Kaaba (the cube shaped sanctuary in Mecca), the stone devils outside Mecca, early mosques, and the site of battles during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. There was major outrage in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s when a site said to be the house of the Prophet Muhammad’s was bulldozed and replaced with a Starbucks in the city of Mecca. Mainstream Islam on the other hand, does not promote the destruction of cultural and historical artifacts and sites, especially since cultural heritage and family histories are considered an important aspect of Middle Eastern Culture, with many Middle Eastern families able to trace their family trees back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad and with some being able to trace their families back even further.

[1]Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E. B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds., The Study Quran (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), Pp. 235-236

[2] Sunan Abi Dawud <>

[3] Sunan Abi Dawud <>


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