Wahhabism: Principles and Criticisms

Wahhabism: Principles and Criticisms

Religious leader and theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab from the eighteenth century started a movement in the region of Najd intended to reform Sunni Islam, particularly to denounce practices concerning the veneration of saints and the visiting of their tombs and shrines, as well as the unhindered interpretation of Islamic teachings.

To propagate his teachings and provide his movement with protection, he allied with an influential local leader named Muhammad bin Saud, who later founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The teachings he developed from the movement collectively form the fundamental tenets or principles of Wahhabism.

Principles of Wahhabism: Tenets and Ideologies

Note that Wahhabism is both an Islamic doctrine and a religious movement that leans toward fundamentalism, conservatism, and a literal interpretation of established Islamic teachings, especially of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Below are the specific views or tenets and ideologies of this movement:

• The movement promotes a literal reading and interpretation of the Quran. Hence, it closely aligns with the Athari theology and Hanbali school of law, which represent a theological position centered on the “zahir” or apparent meaning of the Quran and hadith.

• However, it still differs from Athari theology because it features a zealous tendency toward takfir or excommunication of Muslims that follow a different movement, as well as a strong opposition against mysticism.

• Adherents believe that those who do not practice their view of Islam are heathens and enemies. It essentially has low tolerance over diversity in Islam, thus firmly rejecting not only Shia Islam but also other movements within Sunni Islam.

• Note that the book “Kitab At-Tawhid” or the “Book of the Oneness of God” by Abd al-Wahhab argues that any misplaced reverence is an assault to the monotheistic nature of Islam and thus, the oneness of Allah.

• The movement also follows the doctrine known as “al-wala’ wa al-bara’” or “loyalty and disassociation” that commands Muslims not to befriend or ally themselves with non-Muslims and so-called heretical Muslims.

Criticisms of Wahhabism: Oppositions and Controversies

Because of the ultraconservative nature of Wahhabism, it has been subjected to criticisms by Muslims from other sub-denomination and movements. The literal interpretations followed and promoted by adherents are too extreme.

The following ate the specific oppositions and controversies of this movement:

• The movement promotes radical or extremist Islam because it encourages its followers not only to excommunicate Muslims they deemed heretic but also to refrain from associating themselves with non-Muslims.

• It has been attributed to the rise of prominent fundamentalist and terrorist or jihadist organizations such as the al-Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, as well as other radical hardliners across the world.

• The contention against saints represents a departure from a traditional and integral part of Islam. The reverence toward saints is an integral doctrine of Sunni Islam, and contention against this practice has no basis in tradition.

• Followers of Shia Islam have asserted that the radical teachings of the Wahhabi movement have been the driving force behind their persecution, especially the sectarian violence and anti-Shia movements.

• Both traditional and mainstream Sunni Islam criticized Wahhabism for being divisive and bringing discord across the Muslim world, as well as for being a heretical and violent innovation arising from the Sunni tradition.


  • Al Jarman, M. 2017, July 7. “The Intersection of Wahhabism and Jihad.” Global Policy Journal. Available online
  • Bayram, A. 2014. “The Rise of Wahhabi Sectarianism and its Impact in Saudi Arabia.” Atatük Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi. Available online
  • Cook, M. 1992. “On the Origins of Wahhabism.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 2(2): 191-202. DOI: 1017/S1356186300002376
  • Macris, J. R. 2016. “Investigating the ties Between Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, early Wahhabism, and ISIS.” The Journal of the Middle East and Africa. 7(3): 239-255. DOI: 1080/21520844.2016.1227929
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