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Wahhabi or Wahhabism is an extreme sect in Salafist Islam. The movement is predominant in Saudi Arabia, and is an important element in the shaping and propagation of Islamic fundamentalism. Many Muslim terrorists are adherents, including Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist group.


Wahhabi fundamentalism originated with Syrian jurist Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), but was hounded by the more moderate leaders of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 19th century, alarmed by the increasing influence of Wahhabism in Saudi-controlled Arabia, the Ottoman Empire urged its Egyptian vassal Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849) to mount an armed attack on the movement, which was considered anti-Turkish. Muhammad Ali began operations in 1811, and bitter fighting ensued on and off, with several cease-fires and impermanent peace agreements being tried until Egypt finally seemed to have succeeded (with the help of some Bedouin tribes that also objected to the stern religious views of Wahhabism) in subduing Arabia by 1818. However, Egypt had to concentrate on insurrections at home, and the Saudi Wahhabists eventually recovered their strength in the 1830s. The were confined to Arabia but Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (1876-1953), the founder of modern Saudi Arabia in 1924, was faithful to the Wahhabi sect, as are his hundreds of sons and grandsons who still rule the country.


Once the Saudis gained oil money they used it to spread the sect. Wahhabism's explosive growth outside Arabia began in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques from Pakistan to California.

Since the Bosnian war ended in 1995, Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia have infiltrated Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo primarily to rebuild destroyed mosques in the Saudi style and to convert Balkan Muslims to Wahhabi fundamentalism - much to the displeasure of local Muslims, who are largely non-practicing, as well as American and European diplomats in the region concerned about Muslim radicalism.


It is a fundamentalist version of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Qur'an. It rejects all luxury, dancing, gambling, music, and tobacco, as well as alcohol, and punishes infractions severely, often with death. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who do not practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies.

Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to Wahhabi extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Further reading

  • Commins, David. The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (2006) 276p.
  • Allen, Charles. God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad (2006) 349p.
  • Delong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (2004) 359p.