Origins and Doctrines of Wahhabism, Islam's Extremist Sect

How Wahhabi Islam differs from mainstream Islam

Ibrahim Pasha fighting the Wahabis, Saudi Arabia, 1811-1818 (1847). Artist: Jean Adolphe Beauce
Print Collector/Getty Images 

Critics of Islam fail to appreciate how diverse and varied Islam can be. You can generalize about the beliefs and actions of all or most Muslims, just as you can about any religion, but there are many concepts and beliefs that only apply to some or just a few Muslims. This is especially true when it comes to Muslim extremism, because Wahhabi Islam, the primary religious movement behind extremist Islam, includes beliefs and doctrines not found elsewhere.

You simply cannot explain or understand modern Islamic extremism and terrorism without looking at the history and influence of Wahhabi Islam. From an ethical and an academic perspective, you need to understand what Wahhabi Islam teaches, what's so dangerous about it, and why those teachings differ from other branches of Islam.

Origins of Wahhabi Islam

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) was the first modern Islamic fundamentalist and extremist. Al-Wahhab made the central point of his reform movement the principle that absolutely every idea added to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era (about 950 CE) was false and should be eliminated. Muslims, in order to be true Muslims, must adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs set forth by Muhammad.

The reason for this extremist stance and the focus of al-Wahhab's reform efforts was a number of popular practices that he believed represented a regression to pre-Islamic polytheism. These included praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, venerating trees, caves, and stones, and using votive and sacrificial offerings.

These are all practices commonly and traditionally associated with religions, but they were unacceptable to al-Wahhab. Contemporary secular behaviors are even more anathema to al-Wahhab's successors. It is against modernity, secularism, and the Enlightenment that current Wahhabists do battle—and it is this anti-secularism, anti-modernism that helps drive their extremism, even to the point of violence.

Wahhabi Doctrines

In contrast to popular superstitions, al-Wahhab emphasized the unity of God (tawhid). This focus on absolute monotheism lead to him and his followers being referred to as muwahiddun, or “unitarians.” He denounced everything else as heretical innovation, or bida. Al-Wahhab was further dismayed at the widespread laxity in adhering to traditional Islamic laws: Questionable practices like the ones above were allowed to continue, whereas the religious devotions that Islam did require were being ignored.

This created indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women. Al-Wahhab characterized all this as being typical of jahiliyya, an important term in Islam that refers to the barbarism and state of ignorance that existed prior to the coming of Islam. Al-Wahhab thus identified himself with the Prophet Muhammad and at the same time connected his society with what Muhammad worked to overthrow.

Because so many Muslims lived (so he claimed) in jahiliyya, al-Wahhab accused them of not being true Muslims. Only those who followed the strict teachings of al-Wahhab were truly Muslims because only they still followed the path laid out by Allah. Accusing someone of not being a true Muslim is significant because it is forbidden for one Muslim to kill another. But, if someone is not a true Muslim, killing them (in war or in an act of terrorism) becomes licit. 

Wahhabi religious leaders reject any reinterpretation of the Qur’an when it comes to issues settled by the earliest Muslims. Wahhabists thus oppose the 19th- and 20th-century Muslim reform movements, which reinterpreted aspects of Islamic law in order to bring it closer to standards set by the West, particularly with regards to topics like gender relations, family law, personal autonomy, and participatory democracy.

Wahhabi Islam and Extremist Islam Today

Wahhabism is the dominant Islamic tradition on the Arabian peninsula, though its influence is minor in the rest of the Middle East. Because Osama bin Laden came from Saudi Arabia and was Wahhabi himself, Wahhabi extremism and radical ideas of purity influenced him considerably. Adherents of Wahhabi Islam do not regard it as simply one school of thought out of many; rather, it is the only path of true Islam—nothing else counts.

Even though Wahhabism holds a minority position overall in the Muslim world, it has nevertheless been influential for other extremist movements throughout the Middle East. This can be seen with a couple of factors, first of which is al-Wahhab’s use of the term jahiliyya to vilify a society that he did not consider pure enough, whether they called themselves Muslim or not. Even today, Islamists use the term when referring to the West and at times even referring to their own societies. With it, they can justify overthrowing what many might regard as an Islamic state by essentially denying that it is truly Islamic at all.