Wahhabism began as a reform movement within Islam in the eighteenth century in what is now Saudi Arabia. It is named after Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who was a follower of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). Like Ibn Taymiyyah, Al-Wahhab advocated purging Islam of all of beliefs and practices that did not fit his literal reading of the Quran and the Sunni Tradition (Hadith).
Al-Wahhab teamed up with Muhammad Ibn-Saud in 1744 to build the first Saudi state in Arabia. Today’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to subscribe to Wahhabi ideology and pours millions of dollars into promoting it, especially in Africa and Asia.
Wahhabis today are inspired by Al-Wahhab’s uncompromising applications of Ibn Taymiyyah’s puritanism. Most Sunni Islamist groups – Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. – are Wahhabi, even though some prefer to call themselves Salifis – those who revere the first three generations of Muslims (the salaf).
Both Wahhabis and Salifis seek to live strictly like the first generations of Muslims from the seventh century. While Wahhabism is influential across most of the Muslim world, it is difficult to estimate how many millions subscribe to this Islamist ideology.
Wahhabis view all Muslims who do not have the same strict understanding of Islamic practice and beliefs as non-Muslims who need to be opposed.
There is little difference in theology between Wahhabi and other orthodox Sunni Muslims, but in practice Wahhabis tend to be violent and aggressive towards all who disagree with their understanding of what it means to be faithful to Muhammad. They often destroy shrines, oppose veneration of saints, and outlaw all popular practices that they feel violate “pure” Islam.
Wahhabis seek to enforce right behavior by commanding right and forbidding wrong. When possible, they enforce full compliance to their version of Islamic practices in their jurisdictions. They prohibit friendship with non-Muslims. They enforce a strict dress code for both men and women.
Significantly, much of the unprecedented movement to Christ among Muslims in the Middle East can be traced to the negative example of violent Wahhabi Islamists. God is using the excesses of Wahhabi Islamist groups to drive millions of Muslims away from Islam. More and more members of Wahhabi Islamist groups are becoming tired of violence and hatred and are seeking a better way.
There are some astonishing stories emerging from the Middle East that cannot be told here. Many Wahhabis are seeking and finding a different kind of God than the one that their Wahhabi ideology promotes. In some places, tens of thousands of Muslims, fleeing the violence and injustice perpetrated by Wahhabis, are coming to faith in Jesus.
They are not only learning about the God of love, they are learning to forgive rather than fight their enemies.