In 1799, Sir Harford Brydges, the British Resident in Baghdad, sent a fascinating piece of intelligence to London about a new sect in Arabia, the ‘True Muslims’, whose founder Muhammad ibn Wahhab had died seven years before. Born in 1703, Wahhab came from Najd in the heart of Arabia. After study at Medina and 12 years’ travel and study in Iraq, he returned to launch a puritanical reform of Islam aimed against popular piety, levelling saints’ tombs and cutting down sacred trees. He ordered the stoning of adulterous women, and preached jihad against unbelievers – Shia Muslims among them.


That story came to mind as the tragic events unfolded recently in my home town, Manchester. The world of Islam is vast and diffuse, but since the late 20th century Wahhab’s extremist ideas have come from the margins to the very centre, even though rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. We call them Wahhabi or Salafi. But what does that mean? And how did they spread?

The key is the alliance made by Wahhab with the Bedouin Saud family against the Ottomans in 1744 when they formed the first Saudi state, endorsing Wahhab’s puritanical reform movement. The message was spread in bloody wars of expansion. In 1802, at the Shia holy city Kerbala, 5,000 people were massacred. The cruelties of the “wahabbis” are described by William Palgrave, a British explorer who crossed Arabia in 1862 disguised as a Syrian doctor. But their influence was largely confined to Najd until a century ago when the Saud clan became a power with their “puritanism by force”, as TE Lawrence described it.

Their subsequent rise to world significance was due to one thing: oil. Founded in 1932, the Saudi kingdom sealed its first oil deals with the US in 1933. Then, after 1945, with the rise of the consumer society in the west, and the 70s hike in oil prices, suddenly the Saudis wielded unimaginable economic power. It was a time when decolonisation in the Arab world had spawned back-to-roots Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, contesting western modernity. And the Saudis saw the possibility of spreading Wahhab’s brand of Islam worldwide. In the last 40 years they have spent $100bn on mosques and madrasas, publications and teaching, overwhelming other versions of the faith, asserting that theirs is the one true Islam.

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This new radical Islamic movement is now known as Salafism, a word referring to the ‘ancestors’: the first three generations of Islam. The word doesn’t appear in its modern sense till after the 1960s; it is really a modern invention projected back into the past. Its hardliners, known as takfiris, reject almost the sum total of 1,400 years of Muslim thought. They denounce reason and philosophy (a great Muslim tradition), mysticism and Sufism (one of the richest traditions in Islam), they scorn history and culture (the monuments of Mecca and Medina have been swept away). All that matters is outward obedience.

Still worse, to mainstream sensibilities, is their view of what constitutes a Muslim. With tendentious readings of the Qur’an they arbitrarily declare people to be non-Muslims, changing the rules of Jihad to endorse suicide, terrorism and killing – going against the pluralist history of Islamic civilisation. It has been called the most dangerous idea to emerge in the Muslim world in the last century.

And here’s the paradox: Saudi Arabia is still officially a Wahhabi state. Post 9/11, it has denounced the extremists’ ‘satanic faith’ but it is still the main source of their funds, and the Saudi minister of religion is still drawn from the clan of Wahhab. Perhaps they hope for reform from within, but here is the root of what one might call the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the House of Saud.

Across the Muslim world resistance is growing. In 2016, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, hosted an international conference in which the head of the Al Ahzar university in Cairo proposed a definition of Sunni Islam excluding strict Wahhabism on the grounds that the takfiris are a source of violence and indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And as recent events in Nice and Paris, London and Manchester have shown us, this battle within Islam will be one of the most important of our time.

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series including The Story of India and The Story of China.


This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine


Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester