Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Wahhabis and the rise of the Saudi state

In the middle of the eighteenth century, a religious scholar named Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab began preaching reform of Islam in the Nejd, the central part of the Arabian Peninsula. He and his followers called themselves al-Muwahhidun “those who profess the unity of God,” although outsiders referred to the movement as al-Wahhabiya and its followers as Wahhabis.

Map of the Ottoman Empire and Arabian Peninsula. Drawn by Robert de Vaugondy in 1753 and published in the 1757 issue of his Atlas Universal. Vaugondy employs all the latest geographical information of the time incorporating both French and transliterations of Arabic place names. A highly decorative title cartouche showing an Ottoman prince appears in the lower left quadrant. Five distance scales are in the lower right. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Geographicus Rare Antique Maps


Ibn Abd al-Wahhab radically criticised the religious behaviour of Muslims at the time. He contrasted the concept of tawhid, the profession of the unity of God, with shirk, the association of human qualities with God, which was forbidden in Islam.

Tawhid, he said, went far beyond simply the public assertion that God is the sole almighty creator. He believed that Muslims should build their belief and lives only around him, which meant avoiding anything that could lead to devotion to human beings.

This included the veneration of tombs or giving places supernatural significance; swearing oaths in the name of a saint was anathema. The Wahhabis even condemned the veneration of the Prophet and making special visits to his grave. All such things were shirk. Because most Muslims did these things, he said, their lives resembled the Jahiliya, the period before Islam was revealed.

According to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, this was the fault of generations of religious scholars, whose teachings he regarded as simply wrong. While Ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not broach political ideas, the reaction to his religious ideas was so furious that he could not continue teaching without protection from some sort of state structure.

The first Wahhabi-Saudi state (1744-1818)

In 1744 or 1745 Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found refuge in al-Diriya, ruled by Muhammad bin Saud. His descendants, the Al Saud, (family of Saud) have been linked to the Wahhabis ever since. The Al Saud provided protection, and in return the Wahhabis gave them religious and political legitimacy.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab gathered a small community around him. He sent out propagandists and encouraged bin Saud to attack neighbouring oases so that neighbouring tribes and oases were incorporated into a new state, centred on al-Diriyya.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was the supreme religious authority in this state, acting as both teacher and judge. For their part, the Al Saud acted as amirs, governors, forcing people into obedience and raising taxes. By the time Ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in 1792, the Wahhabi-Saudi state had spread from Nejd into the neighbouring region of al-Hasa, and was threatening to take over Qatar and Oman.

This expansion brought the Saudi state into conflict with the only powerful political unit in the peninsula. In the Hijaz, the Sharif of Mecca, Ghalib bin Musaid, marshalled support from his scholars and then in 1791 began military attacks against the young state. There was a brief peace treaty in 1798 but that broke down. The Wahhabis took Mecca briefly in 1803 and more securely in 1806.

Map of the First Saudi State and the Emirate of al-Diriya. Source: Fanack, after Wikimedia Commons

Wahhabi rule of the Hijaz

The Wahhabis ruled the Hijaz between 1806 and 1813. During this period, they imposed heavy controls on religious and economic life. Tombs of saints were demolished, along with the domes over the Prophet’s birthplace.

They banned annual pilgrimage caravans from Syria and Egypt, abolished taxes they called “unlawful”, and prohibited smoking tobacco. Scholars were only allowed to study the works of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. While Sufism was not prohibited, it was strictly controlled. They also confiscated the treasures at the Prophet’s tomb in Medina.

Worse still, from the point of view of the Ottomans, Wahhabi propagandists spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula. They seized political control of the Asir region, south of the Hijaz, attacked Yemen, occupied Qatar, Bahrain and parts of what is now the United Arab Emirates. They also attacked Shia centres in Iraq.

The Ottomans turned to Muhammad Ali, the governor of Egypt, for assistance. He had set up a new modernised army, and in 1812 he sent it to invade the Hijaz. Egyptian forces expelled the Wahhabis from Madina and Mecca in 1812. They went on to take al-Diriya in September. Soon afterwards they destroyed it. Abdullah bin Saud, the ruler of the first Saudi state, was captured and executed in Istanbul.

Wahhabis in saudi arabia
Ruins of Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Riyadh. Michael Runkel / Robert Harding Premium / robertharding via AFP

For the moment, the Wahhabis were broken. When the Egyptian troops left Nejd in 1819 most of its territory was retaken by its pre-Wahhabi local rulers.

The Revival of Wahhabism: The Second Saudi State (1824-1891)

The one member of the Al Saud who survived, Turki bin Abdallah bin Muhammad bin Saud made himself a new capital at Riyadh, and slowly rebuilt the Wahhabi-Saudi state. By the 1830s it had retaken some of its former territory in al-Hasa, Oman, and the east of the peninsula.

However, the state was very insecure before the mid-1840s, when Faysal, Turki’s son, took over. He stabilised control over some of the old Wahhabi heartland in the Nejd. But this came at a price: he had to recognise, at least formally, the authority of the Ottoman Empire and pay an annual tribute.

As an added indignity, he had to send it through the Sharif of Mecca. Even worse, the security of the Saudi state was at risk from the neighbouring Al Rashid family who, in 1894 seized Riyad, destroyed its fortifications and in the same year made Faysal’s son, Muhammad a subordinate governor.

Map of Second Saudi State (around 1850). Source: Fanack, after Wikimedia Commons