Within Islam, there are sects, namely Sunni and Shi’a, and within those sects are different schools of thought. Salafism (from the word salaf, meaning to “follow” or “precede”) is a movement, rooted in Sunni Islam, based on a literalist, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. These Muslims rely solely on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions as guides for correct Islamic practice. Everything else, they deem impure innovation. Following the same ideology, but specific to Saudi Arabia, is Wahhabism. Wahhabism has a fairly negative connotation within the Western world; however, this sect was highly influential and continues to be esteemed by the royal Saudi family.
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Abdel Wahhab and his adherents aimed to move away from superstitious and the spiritually divine, back to straight monotheism. Wahhabis went one step above not condoning these superstitions and innovations—they destroyed the tombs of saints, the graves of the Prophet’s companions and family, and trees and stones that acted as sites of worship.
With the political and financial support of Muhammad ibn Saud, this religious revival weaved its way into the fabric of an empire. This alliance, called the Saudi-Clerical Alliance of 1744, was the foundation for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was comprised of the learned people of Islam and the Saudi royal family—an alliance that is still strong today. Ibn Saud’s military influence was supplemented by Abdel Wahhab’s religious legitimacy. Between the two of them, the first Saudi state was established, as was their superlative power. Their timeline of conquests was quick—they took Karbala in 1802 (destroying Husayn’s tomb in the process), occupied Mecca by 1803, and Medina in 1805 (Kamrava 64).
This new power structure was largely criticized, especially with the enforcement of controversial regulations, which were based in critical thought. Interestingly enough, the largest opponent of Wahhabism comes from other Muslim groups. Although Wahhabism is perceived as a threat to the Western world, they reforms they are in favor of hardly relate to Westernization. “Wahhabism opposes most popular Islamic religious practices such as saint veneration, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, most core Shiite traditions, and some practices associated with the mystical teachings of Sufism” (Blanchard). The people, mainly those in Saudi Arabia that are affected by this integration of strict religious enforcement in government, have almost no ability to change the beliefs and policies of the Wahhabi-Saudi regime. In order to carry on despite opposition, clerics issue religious judicial opinions, or fatwa, stating that the policies being carried out are sanctioned within Islam, even if they are deplored by the Saudi citizens. “The clergy, for example, issued a fatwa to justify the presence of United States troops during the Persian Gulf War” (Okruhlik).
This attempt at power-sharing did not last long—the most relevant cases of opposition to the power structure in Saudi Arabia have been from Wahhabis. Specifically, “the 1929 Ikhwan rebellion and the 1979 seizure of the great mosque in Mecca by Juhaiman al-Utaibi” (Okruhlik). Because the empire is based on the idea of religious puritanism, opposition arises when a person in power deviates from the puritanical teachings of the Qur’an and becomes corrupt.
Despite his opposition, Abdel Wahhab enacted a series of economic decisions geared towards public...