Glimpses Into Early Wahhabi Thought, From Their Interactions With Other Ulama
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s Intellectual Milieu
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, went to Medina at a young age and studied under the hadith scholar Muhammad Hayya al-Sindi. Scholars attribute a strong influence on Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s thought by Muhammad Hayya: he encouraged him to denounce taqlid or rigid imitation of the schools of law and of medieval texts, and to practice ijtihad instead. Muhammad Hayya also taught him to reject popular religious practices related to awliya and their tombs. It is also thought that his emphasis on hadith had a strong influence on Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s rigid reforms. So let us look at who this shaykh of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was, and look at who influenced him.
Muhammad Hayya al-Sindi was a Sufi of the Naqshbandi tariqa. He had four main teachers, all of whom belonged to the same school of thought that goes back to Ahmad Muhammad Dajani al-Qushashi. Al-Qushashi was a very important Sufi and scholar whose intellectual “descendants” included many famous reformers, such as Shah Waliallah al-Dahlawi, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Ahmad ibn Idris, Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Samman, the last three of which were leaders of reform movements in the 18th and 19th centuries associated with the name Tariqa Muhammadiyya. Thus all four of Muhammad Hayya’s main teachers were students of al-Qushashi’s students, and thus all were Sufis, as was Muhammad Hayya himself. And all these scholars belonged to the same school of thought which placed a high emphasis on hadith and ijtihad and replacing the authority of other human scholars or institutions with the direct authority of the Quran and Sunna; which meant the primacy of hadiths over the madhaahib.
Now if we count all of Muhammad Hayya’s teacher and the teachers of his teachers, 27 scholars in total, we see that most of them had Sufi affiliations. Now if we look at the students of Muhammad Hayya, and thus Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s colleagues, we see 12 out of 20 mentioned explicity as being Sufis, many of whom were Sufi shaykhs themselves. Among those was Muhammad al-Samman, leader of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya that his students would spread in Yemen, North Africa and the Sudan. Ahmad ibn Idris, mentioned above as having close ties to the early Wahhabi leaders, was also the founder of a Tariqa Muhammadiyya movement very similar to that of al-Sammani and also going back to Ahmad Dajani al-Qushashi. Not only that, but Muhammad Hayya al-Sindi himself was initiated into the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, for Ahmad ibn Idris’ student Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi lists this chain among his chains of initiation into the Tariqa Muhammadiyya:
-Al Sanusi from al-Badr al-Mustaghanmi from al-Sindi from Abd al-Qadir al-Siddiqi al-Makki from Abul Baqaa al-Ujaymi.
Though Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was partly inspired by Ibn Taymiyya, it is “not at all clear that the spirit of Ibn Taymiyya was the dominant one among the Hanbalis of the eastern Arab world in the eighteenth century". It also seems that there were no Hanbalis among Muhammad Hayya’s teachers, and only two of his students were Hanbali, one of whom was a Sufi.
In conclusion, it is very possible that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideas were inspired by the Sufi reform movements in the Naqshbandi and Khalwati traditions, such as the Tariqa Muhammadiyya movements going back to the school of al-Qushashi. It is clear that many of his teachings against taqlid and popular Sufi practices came from his shaykh who was also a Naqshbandi Sufi heavily influenced by the school of al-Qushashi and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya.
Early Wahhabism and its Interactions with Other Schools of Thought
The main centers of learning at the time of the rise of Wahhabism were the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, which was too remote and will not be discussed, and Cairo, the major center of traditional scholarship in the Muslim world. After al-Azhar in Cairo, the second greatest center of learning in Africa was the Qarawiyyin Mosque in the maghrib, in what is now Morocco. And finally, the Yemen was a country that had always produced great scholars, and as the Messenger of Allah has said, “Faith is Yemeni, wisdom is Yemeni” (Sahih Muslim). Finally, there is Mecca, whch did not have any famous learning institutions but attracted Muslims from all over the world because of the Hajj, and was the best place to learn about different schools of thought. The aim of this short study is to look at some interactions between the Wahhabi movement and the scholars of these areas to get a glimpse of their early ideology and attitudes to other ways of thought.
Cairo at the time was the very center of fiqh and the different schools of law, or madhahib. The scholars of al-Azhar were considered the most traditional scholars, and occupied themselves with questions of fiqh. The hadith master al-Sindi “commented on the weakness of Egypt” after having visiting it, and “that he had found nobody there who knew the hadith or were concerned with it.” While this is definitly an exaggeration, it does reflect the emphasis that the Cairene scholars put on taqlid, that is, following the legal judgements that had been established by earlier scholars within their school of law, and not using ijtihad to come up with new rulings based on the Quran and the Sunna. These traditional scholars were seen by the Wahhabis as their greatest enemies, and were singled out, as a class, “for special opprobium” The Wahhabis rejected taqlid and the schools of law, and wanted a return to the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet as the only authorities. The authority of the scholars was nothing to them, and it was forbidden to imitate a scholar or follow his rulings. The only rules are those in the Quran and the Sunna.
At about the same time, or even earlier, a very similar movement was taking place in Morocco. Fez, which housed the mosque-school of the Qarawiyyin, was dominated for a period of time by two reformers: Mawlay Muhammad (reigned 1757-90) and his son, Mawlay Sulayman (1792-1822). These two rulers opposed excessive reliance on second or third-hand texts in the study of law or theology. They revived the hadith studies in Fez, enjoining scholars to return to the original Hadith collections. The Qur’an was to be studied alone, “according to its own interpretation”, and only a few commentaries on the hadith were allowed, and a chosen number of books on law.
While the Muslim west had always been and has remained to this day primarily Maliki in fiqh, these two rulers moved the scholars of the period away from fanaticism to the Maliki school by giving interest to the three other schools of law, especially the Hanbali. Mawlay Muhammad even proclaimed that he was Maliki in fiqh and Hanbali in doctrine. They forbade the study of Kalam, or theology based on philosophy and speculation, as well as the traditional Sunni theology: Asharism. They also opposed blind taqlid, but also did not accept completely free ijtihad. All these reforms are strikingly similar to those of the Wahhabis yet were completely unrelated to them. Wahhabi forces were only able to control central Arabian areas from 1790-5, after Mulay Muhammad’s thirty years of reform. And their teachings had not left any impact before they conquered the area in 1803. In fact, a Maghrebi scholar in 1803 wrote that he had never heard of the Wahhabis.
It is also interesting to note that while these Moroccan rulers did not oppose Sufism itself, they forbade its teaching in the mosque, allowing people to “immerse in it only in the privacy of their homes.” In fact, pretty much every scholar in Morocco was to some degree a Sufi. In 1806, the Wahhabis sent a letter of exhortation to the scholars of the West, denouncing the Sufi veneration of Saints as well as divination. It is interesting to note however that they did not attack Sufism itself. The Tunisian scholars responded with a unanimous rejection of the Wahhabi ideas, while the Moroccan answers varied. One scholar and historian, al-Zayyani, called them “heretics of a dispicable doctrine”, while the two most distinguished scholars of the Qarawiyyin had more favourable replies. Al-Tayyib ibn Kiran “agreed that it was wrong to embellish tombs or circumbulate the Prophet’s grave. This, he said, was also in accordance to the prevailing Maliki madhhab in Morocco, and he noted in favour that the Wahhabis accepted all four madhhabs.” The other scholar, Hamdun b. al-Hajj, wrote a poem saying that “the Saudis had revived the unadulterated Sunna overshadowed by accretions that seemed untouched by Islam”, yet also admonished the Wahhabis’ use of violence and the killing of those of different persuasions, and reminded them of their duty to show care towards the believers.
Ibn al-Hajj was “not writing as a convert to a new way of thought, but as one who already based himself on a policy of change and purification of Islam, writing to those who had recently appeared with similar ideas in a far away land; in part as an older teacher trying to restrain youthful excess”. It is also important to note that both of these scholars were committed Sufis and wrote books on Sufism, and yet in their replies to the Wahhabis there does not seem to be any mention of a Wahhabi rejection of Sufism, which led some scholars to speculate that “the Wahhabi message was not seen as opposed to Sufism in general, but only to the worshipping of saints and tombs.”
Another Moroccan scholar, the qadi (judge) Ibrahim al-Zaddaghi, came back from the Hijaz with a favorable view of the Wahhabis. He engaged Ibn Sa’ud in a debate concerning the Wahhabi views and was satisfied with his answers:
“it is not forbidden to visit graves, [ibn Sa’ud] insisted, but the object must be to appreciate the nature of death and remember the life of the departed, not to associate the dead with God by asking them for favours only God can bestow. The visitor can ask for pardon for the departed, and ask for his intercession with God, posing his requests only to God.” Even more striking is that al-Zaddaghi was satisfied with Ibn Sa’ud’s answers concerning the nature of God and whether or not the Prophet was alive in his grave.
It seems that there was a large degree of agreement between the Wahhabi leaders and these Sufi scholars of the Maghreb, except in the matter of the Wahhabi excesses towards those who had different beliefs. And in all the letters exchanged between the two sides and the debates, there is nothing to indicate any Wahhabi rejection of Sufism itself, but only of certain practices related to Sufism, such as the visiting of the graves of the saints, a practice that had been seen unfavourably even by the Sufi scholars of the maghreb themselves.
In the earliest stage of Wahhabism, termed Revolutionary Wahhabism, “Sufis were not attacked as a class.” Most of the acts that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab labelled as “greater shirk” (and greater shirk automatically makes one a non-Muslim) in his Kitab al-Tawhid were in some way related to Sufism. “Revolutionary Wahhabism, then, firmly opposed certain distinctively Sufi practices which were almost universal among the orders”, but not Sufism itself. Indeed, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab himself, repeats at least four times in his different letters that that he “never accused of unbelief Ibn Arabi or Ibn al-Farid for their Sufi interpretations.”His son Abdallah is quoted as saying,
“My father and I don’t deny or criticize the Science of Sufism, but on the contrary we support it because it cleans the external and the internal of the hidden sins which are related to the heart and the outward form. Even though the individual might externally be on the right way, internally he might be on the wrong way; and for its correction tasawwuf is necessary.”
We now come to a great Sufi by the name of Ahmad ibn Idris, to study his relations with the Wahhabis. Ahmad ibn Idris studied under the most famous scholars of the Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez; these scholars who taught him were the same generation of scholars who had been influenced by the reforms of the rulers Mawlay Muhammad and Mawlay Sulayman, and thus he became an expert on the Hadith and the Qur’an. One of his teachers was Ibn Kiran, one of the two most prominent scholars of the Qarawiyyin who had sent a favorable reply to the Wahhabi letter (see above). Ahmad ibn Idris began teaching against excessive veneration of the saints, and against building anything over their tombs. He wanted to remove any authority over Muslims other than God and His Messenger, so he denounced the authority of the schools of law (the madhahib), completely rejected taqlid, and even changed the role of the Sufi shaykh. While still maintaining the importance of the Sufi shaykh and the impossibility of travelling the Sufi path without one, he had his students refer to him as a “teacher” (ustadh), rather than shaykh. For him, the role of the shaykh, or rather, the teacher, was to become obsolete. The teacher helps the student establish a direct relationship with the Prophet, so that the teacher himself is not needed anymore. He also taught his students not to place an important emphasis on karaamaat, or the “miraculous gifts” bestowed upon the Sufi by God.
As for these favours, they are as shadows that come and go. They are of no importance on the path to God Most High, except for those whose status is imperfect. For the perfect, his good fortune lies in having the Koran as his ethos (khuluquhu) as had the Messenger of God, may God bless and grant him peace.
For Ibn Idris, the most important thing for a Muslim was to learn how to pray properly and to keep God in mind, and it is to these two things that he dedicated his life.
Other than the rejection of the excessive veneration of the saints and the building over and visiting of tombs, Ibn Idris shared many other views with the Wahhabis. Like them, he also rejected kalaam. As mentioned above, he was anti-madhhab, but even more than the reformist scholars of Morocco at the time. Ibn Idris went further to reject taqlid completely. “However, his rejection of taqlid meant great emphasis not only on the individual Muslim’s own initiative but also its concomitant, a deeper education in the understanding of his religion; hence, Ibn Idris’ profound commitment to teaching and preaching.”
Ibn Idris left to the Hijaz, where he stayed in Mecca, and was opposed by the “establishment scholars” of Mecca for his view on the madhahib and usul al-fiqh. And while he seems to have passed by Cairo and given lessons at al-Azhar, he seems to have avoided it because it was the center of “madhhabism”. When the Wahhabis were coming to conquer Mecca, most scholars wanted to flee, but Ibn Idris insisted on staying and reassured them that no harm will come to them. When Sa’ud b. Abd al-Aziz and the Wahhabi forces entered Mecca, two of the scholars of Mecca went to Sa’ud and were told that all the men of Mecca will be allowed a peace settlement, or aman, except three renegade Wahhabis, who will be killed. One of these men attached himself to Ibn Idris, and Ibn Idris went to Sa’ud and demanded pardon for that man. Ibn Sa’ud sat Ibn Idris next to him, granted pardon to the renegade Wahhabi, and according to one source, personally covered Ibn Idris with a costly robe. Ibn Idris’ student al-Mirghani notes that the Wahhabis were amazed at Ibn Idris’ fearlessness, “Despite the fact that they denied the karaamat of the saints.”
Because Ibn Idris was “uncompromisingly strict in his adherence to the Sharia”, the Wahhabis were content to let him live in Mecca for 10 years under their rule. As was stated earlier, he refused to leave Mecca when they came, and he only left it 10 years later when the Wahhabis were defeated and kicked out of Mecca by the Egyptian forces of Muhammad Ali Pasha. He seems to have been “on friendly terms with the Wahhabis,” and “made the personal acquaintance of Saud b. Abd al-Aziz and the sons of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, and had respect for them.” In fact, they were “united by a radical anti-madhhabism….What seperated them was the Sufi element.”
After leaving Mecca, Ibn Idris went to Sabya in the south, which became “a focus for the seekers” and became full of his students. There, some Wahhabi scholars complained about the “reprehensible actions” of some of Ahmad Ibn Idris’ students, and Ali b. al-Mujaththal, ruler of the area, arranged for a debate between Ibn Idris and his two Wahhabi accusers, Nasir al-Kubaybi and Abd Allah b. Surur al-Yami.
The debate was witnessed by many great scholars of the region, and before it began, the two Wahhabi accusers were humiliated by the scholars, who described Ibn Idris as “one of the greatest religious scholars in all the Islamic lands,” unrivaled in “his knowledge of the legal sciences and the sciences of higher reality”. A scholar to whom the greatest scholars of the lands of Islam lowered their heads in respect and submitted to him; “then who are Nasir al-Kubaybi and Abd Allah b. Surur al-Yami whose relation to Ibn Idris is like the relation of schoolboys to brilliant scholars…?”
Another scholar compared Ibn Idris’ status among the descendants of the Prophet as equal to that of Jaafar al-Sadiq and Muhammad al-Baqir, who honored the accusers’ lands by coming to them, while a third scholar asked permission to test the Wahhabi accusers in simple external aspects of the legal sciences like ritual purity and the times of prayer, and only if they were able to answer him could they be deemed scholars and have the right to question Ibn Idris, “who is an inexhaustible sea.”
The debate itself highlights how different were the views of these young Wahhabi scholars from the original beliefs of the founders of the movement. When al-Kubaybi said that Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was the restorer of Islam, Ibn Idris’ reply was similar to that of the above-mentioned Moroccan scholar Hamdun b. al-Hajj who had welcomed the Wahhabi eradication of accretions to Islam yet denounced their killing of those who held different beliefs:
We do not deny his virtue and his noble intentions in what he undertook. Indeed, he eliminated reprehensible innovations and new practices. But he spoiled his missionary activity by exceeding the proper bounds: he declared Muslims who believe in God Most High to be infidels and allowed their blood to be shed and their property to be confiscated without any legal proof.
Then Ibn Idris goes on to criticize the Wahhabis for imitating Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and accepting all his mistakes, thus committing the wrongful practice of taqlid that he himself so vehemently denounced, and then spoke of the huge gap in knowledge between Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and these young scholars who imitate him.
He was one religious scholar among others, and no one enjoys infallibility but the prophets. At times he was mistaken and at times he was right…. His mistakes are pardonable, but following him as an authority in his mistakes is not permitted. For that is what God Most High assigned to him in accordance with the extent of his knowledge, whereas you, because of your ignorance, are cut off from adopting his proof and from awareness of the highroad he proceeded along.
The difference between the beliefs of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers is further highlited in the next passage of the debate when al-Kubaybi said that “The greatest idolatry (al shirk al-akbar) had spread over all the lands, and all the people had forsaken the faith of Islam in the east and in the west, in the south and in the north. If Shaykh Muhammad had not renewed Islam, the people would be lost in the darkness of unbelief!”
Ibn Idris replied,
God Most High protect us from such a thought! That was not at all what Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab believed! You are a young man, whereas I met Sa’ud b. Abd al-Aziz in Mecca as well as the religious scholars of his entourage, the offspring of Shaykh Muhammad b. Abdl a-Wahhab: Abd Allah b. Muhammad and his brother Husayn, and Sulayman [Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's grandson]. They are religious scholars who understand what a proof is and they adhere to the requisites of a clear procedure. However, their belief is not what you believe in, and they are free from what you attribute to them.
After this, al-Kubaybi presented his accusations against Ibn Idris and his followers, and Ibn Idris “was to dispose of them in a dazzling display of arguments, not to say casuistry, that totally flattened his opponents”. The day after the debate, the Wahhabi leader of the area who had arranged for the debate, Ibn Mujaththal, requested a private meeting with Ibn Idris in which he “apologized profusely, claiming that he had been misled by his ulama” .
As you can see from the debate, it is clear that there was a difference between the original teachings of the founders of Wahhabism and their younger followers who had different beliefs from those of the founders. While Ibn Idris had a favourable view of the former, he had a negative view of the latter. Even his main student, al-Sanusi, was thought by one Western scholar to have been a “closet Wahhabi”. This highlights how similar the views were between these Sufi scholars of the Western Islamic lands and the founders of the Wahhabi movement.
Another important scholar to mention was Muhammad b. Ali al-Shawkani, the greatest religious scholar of the Yemen at the time. Al-Shawkani went even further than Ibn Idris and the Wahhabis in his position on ijtihad, holding that no special qualifications are required for practicing ijtihad, and that “anyone with a modicum of knowledge and understanding is capable of doing so. Moreover, taqlid is absolutely forbidden.”
Al-Shawkani, other than being respected as one of the greatest scholars of Islam at the time, is interesting for praising both Ibn Idris, the Sufi, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This is important to note because today, al-Shawkani is classified as a “Salafi” and some Saudi shaykhs claim that he was anti-Sufi.
Al-Shawkani corresponded with Ibn Idris, “lavished praise on him,” and “advised people to obtain as much of his learning as possible. He asserted that this knowledge [taught by Ibn Idris] is new and not something anyone possessed before.”
Al-Shawkani was at the same time in agreement with “the puritanical tendencies of the Wahhabiyya” but rejected their extremism. Like Ibn Idris and the Wahhabis, he condemned the erection of buildings over the tombs of saints, but whereas Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab saw this as renunciation of Islam, Shawkani and Ibn Idris saw it as a sin. Al-Shawkani also condemned Wahhabi takfir.
In praise of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, al-Shawkani wrote in verse,
Wake up, blamer of the shaykh! What do you blame him for?
You have blamed the true and contrived what is false.
Yes, his sin was to have cut the rope of taqlid
and blunted madhhab-partisanship with shining swords.
When he called to God shouting among the people,
you shouted slander against him like thunderers.
Wake up! Wake up! He called not to a religion
which your forefathers and the tribes practiced
but to the Book of God and to the Sunna
which Taha the Prophet, the best ever to speak, brought us.
Yet criticizing the excesses of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, much like Ibn Idris, he said:
How can it be said people have become infidels
because their graves display stone and wood.
And if they say it is proper that the graves
have been levelled, one cannot deny this.
Yet this is a sin, not infidelity or depravity.
Can there be any doubt in this matter?
Scholars have identified three stages in the Wahhabi movement: a revolutionary stage, a reform stage, and a mature stage. This does not include the difference in ideology and beliefs between the very founders of the movement (Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, his two sons and grandson, Sa’ud ibn Abd al-Aziz, and the scholars of their entourage) and their successors. For a brief discussion of these stages, see the article by Sedgwick, shown in the citations.
By looking at these interactions between the early Wahhabis and the other scholars of the time one can see many things about the early Wahhabis:
1) They were very similar in belief to several Sufi scholars of the Qarawiyyin in Morocco, but the Moroccan scholars did not accept their excesses in killing those they disagree with. This includes the beliefs about the nature of God and the current state of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as well as views on visiting graves, etc.
2) They were not opposed to Sufism, but to certain Sufi practices. They even honored such Sufis as Ahmad Ibn Idris because of his strict adherence to the Sharia and had friendly relations with him. Ahmad ibn Idris also preferred the Wahhabis to the traditional scholars of Cairo and Mecca, and only stayed in Mecca as long as the Wahhabis stayed there.
3) The later Wahhabi scholars diverged from the beliefs of the founders of the movement by holding that the entire ummah plunged into disbelief, and disrespecting such scholars as Ahmad ibn Idris. They also did not have the same scholarly knowledge that their founder had and simply imitated him in all his rulings, thus practicing taqlid. They were later to denounce all of Sufism itself, which none of the founders of the movement seem to have done.
4) Major scholars from Morocco and Yemen agreed that Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab had noble intentions but disagreed with his labelling of others, such as those who erect buildings over graves, as unbelievers. And they disagreed with his shedding of Muslim blood without due procedure. Sa’ud ibn Abd al-Aziz and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s sons, however, did respect proper procedure and the demand for proof in persecution (according to Ibn Idris). But later Wahhabis did not, and killed indiscriminately, as had the founder.
5) The way in which Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi scholars saw each other at this early period, and their similar attitudes toward Sufism and many Sufi practices, give more credence to John Voll’s suggestion that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s reforms were inspired by the Sufi reformers in his intellectual milieu. Perhaps his movement was not fundamentally different from the others, but only went to more extreme lengths.