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How the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab influenced everyday life in Saudi Arabia

| February 6, 2017

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Introduction

Commins (2006, p. 97) asserts that the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab have influenced the contemporary political and cultural environment in Saudi Arabia. This religious movement, commonly referred to as the Wahhabi movement started in central Arabia in the mid-18th Century and grew because of the preaching and scholarship of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. According to Zayd (2006, p. 41), Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence who received his education in Mesopotamia and Hijaz and then returned to Najd (central Arabia) to advocate for Islamic reforms. This paper explores how his teachings influenced the everyday life in Saudi Arabia.

Allen (2006, p.89) says that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was concerned with the practices of the people of Najd, which he regarded as polytheistic and wanted them to stop the practices. He wanted reforms that would remove all practices that were added to Islam after the death of Mohammad. He was against practices like using votive and sacrificial offerings, veneration of caves, stones and trees, celebration of birthdays of prophets, praying to saints and making pilgrimages to special mosques and tombs. These were common practices in Najd and the people here regarded them as being in compliance with Islamic teachings. However, to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab they were polytheistic. He was concerned with these practices because he perceived them as being lax in terms of adherence to Islamic law. In addition to this, he was also concerned with the fact that the people were reluctant to perform religious devotions like disregard to obligatory prayers, not showing care to the widows and orphans, rampant adultery and failure to give women their fair share of inheritance. These practices formed the basis of his preaching as he was determined to make the people change their ways of life and start living in full compliance with Islamic laws.

Weston (2008, p. 11) asserts that his teachings revolved around the breaches of Islamic laws and emphasised the need to comply with all customary practices like jahiliya. He initially encountered opposition but eventually overcame it by forming an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, a local chieftain. This alliance ensured that his influence endured through difficult times because Muhammad ibn Saud was very powerful in southern Najd. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his descendants converted the alliance that was initially for political loyalty into religious obligation that had to be followed by everyone. In his teachings, he insisted that all Muslims must present an oath of allegiance (bayah) to Muslim leaders when alive so that they can get redemption when they die. He emphasised that Muslim leaders must be given unquestionable allegiance from the people as long as they are providing leadership that is in full conformity with Islamic laws. He held the perception that the purpose of the Muslim community was to be a living embodiment of Islamic laws (Hegghammer & Lacroix 2011, p. 64). The responsibility of ensuring that the community knows and conforms to the laws of God lay squarely on the legitimate rulers. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers then started a jihad targeting the backsliding Muslims in the region to ensure that there is total obedience to Muslim rulers and God. This was the beginning of religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia.
Fatah (2008, p. 77) claims that the key message in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was tawhid (oneness of God). Tawhid is very important in Saudi Arabia and it is emphasised by both state and religious leaders. It is for this reason that its adherents call the movement as the call for unity (ad dawa lil tawhid). He was against third party intercession and all prayer rituals because he considered them as leading to shirk. This is why he objected Sufi mysticism, celebrating the birthdays of prophets and Shia mourning ceremonies which were considered as religious festivals. As a consequence grave marking, building of tombs and any other shrines are forbidden in Wahhabism. However this is partly practised in Saudi Arabia because the shrine of Prophet Muhammad is in the country and Muslims go there to pay pilgrimage.
They only accept authority from the Sunna and Quran and disregard any reinterpretation of the two books on issues that were already settled by the previous jurists. They totally remain opposed to reinterpretation but give allowance for interpreting the areas not decided by the earlier jurists. Livingstone (2011, p. 50) suggests that they literally interpret the Sunna and Quran and aim towards enforcing parochial Najd practices. The religious and political leadership work collectively in ensuring that there is conformity in behaviour throughout the country.
Life in Saudi Arabia is guided by Wahhabism as the government remains committed to ensuring that there is full compliance with Islamic laws (Brym & Lie 2010, p. 31). In addition to this, the government has supported the Wahhabi literal interpretations of right and wrong behaviour. Prayer performance in a ritually correct and punctual manner is required of all men. Livingstone (2011, p.54) says that all the believers are forbidden from taking wine because literally, the Quran forbids it. They have extended this ban to include all intoxicating drinks and stimulants like tobacco. Both men and women are required to dress modestly in accordance with the Quran. These conservative regulations have direct influence on all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. The leaders of Saudi Arabia support the conservative religious establishment and monitor closely the people who present potential threats to their regimes (Lacroix & Holoch 2011, p. 96).
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the most conservative and restrictive countries with those who do not subscribe to the Islamic religion barred from practicing their faith even in private (DeLong-Bas 2007, p. 66). It is this harsh, conservative and restrictive environment that has led to radicalisation of some people in Saudi Arabia as they have no tolerance to other religious faiths. In school the religious curriculum teaches students that there are two types of people; the first one is the Salafis (Wahhabis) who are the chosen ones and will go to heaven because they are the winners. The other group are Muslims, Jews, Christians and all other religions. These ones are either, enervators, or deniers of God (kafirs) or they put their gods next to God (mushrak). The Sunni Muslims are called enervators because they do things that are proscribed by Salafis like celebrating the birthday of Prophet Mohammed (Husain 2009, p. 15). All these groups of people are not accepted by the Saudi Arabians as Muslims and as such, they are supposed to be hated, persecuted and even killed. This is what the government is encouraging and has led the Saudi Arabians to be intolerant to any other dissenting views on religion because of the rapid radicalisation and fundamentalism (Allen 2006, p. 77).
This paper has shown that the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab influenced everyday life in Saudi Arabia. His teachings, which were originally intended to bring reforms to the Islamic faith, have gone to the extent of radicalising the people of Saudi Arabia. As the paper indicates, they have no tolerance for other religions. To them, the people of other religions should be hated, persecuted and even killed. This is what is fuelling fundamentalism and radicalism in Saudi Arabia and has already brought about extreme terrorists like Osama bin laden among others.

References

Allen, C. (2006). God’s terrorists: the Wahhabi cult and the hidden roots of modern Jihad. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
Brym, R. J., & Lie, J. (2010). Sociology: Your compass for a new world, the brief edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Commins, D. (2006). The Wahhabi mission and Saudi Arabia. London : Tauris.
DeLong-Bas, N. J. (2007). Wahhabi Islam: From revival and reform to global jihad. London: I.B. Tauris.
Fatah, T. (2008). Chasing a mirage: The tragic illusion of an Islamic state. Mississauga, Ont: John Wiley & Sons Canada.
Hegghammer, T., & Lacroix, S. (2011). The Meccan rebellion: The story of Juhayman al-ʻUtaybi revisited. Bristol, England: Amal Press.
Husain, E. (2009). The Islamist: Why I became an Islamic fundamentalist, what I saw inside, and why I left. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books USA.
Lacroix, S., & Holoch, G. (2011). Awakening Islam: The politics of religious dissent in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Livingstone, D. (2011). Terrorism and the illuminati: A three-thousand-year history. Joshua Tree, CA: Progressive Press.
Weston, M. (2008). Prophets and princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the present. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.
Zayd, N. A. (2006). Reformation of Islamic thought: A critical historical analysis. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press.

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