The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya

Reference: U.S. Department of State

Updated January 17, 2007

By Febe Armanios and Christopher M. Blanchard

Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division, Department of State


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent discussions of religious extremism have called attention to Islamic puritanical movements known as Wahhabism and Salafiyya. Al Qaeda leaders and their ideological supporters have advocated a violent message that some suggest is an extremist interpretation of this line of puritanical Islam. Other observers have accused Saudi Arabia, the center of Wahhabism, of having disseminated a religion that promotes hatred and violence, targeting the United States and its allies. Saudi officials strenuously deny these allegations. This report provides a background on Wahhabism and its relationship to active terrorist groups; it also summarizes recent charges against Wahhabism and responses, including the findings of the final report of the 9/11 Commission and relevant legislation in the 110th Congress. The report will be updated to reflect major developments.

Background on Wahhabism


“Wahhabism” generally refers to a Sunni Islamic movement that seeks to purify Islam of any innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. In the West, the term has been used mostly to denote the form of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and which has spread recently to various parts of the world. In most predominantly Muslim nations, however, believers who adhere to this creed prefer to call themselves “Unitarians”
(muwahiddun) or “Salafiyyun” (sing. Salafi, noun Salafiyya). The latter term derives from the word salaf, meaning to “follow” or “precede,” a reference to the followers and companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Some Muslims believe the Western usage of the term “Wahhabism” unfairly carries negative and derogatory connotations. Although this paper explains differences in these terms, it will refer to Wahhabism in association with a conservative Islamic creed centered in and emanating from Saudi Arabia and to Salafiyya as a more general puritanical Islamic movement that has developed independently at various times and in various places in the Islamic world.

History of Wahhabism.

Wahhabism is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam and is practiced in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it is much less rigidly enforced in the latter. The word “Wahhabi” is derived from the name of a Muslim scholar, Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab, who lived in the Arabian peninsula during the eighteenth century (1703-1791). Frustrated by the moral decline of his society, Abd al Wahhab denounced many popular Islamic beliefs and practices as idolatrous. Ultimately, he encouraged a “return” to the pure and orthodox practice of the “fundamentals” of Islam, as embodied in the Quran and in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In the eighteenth century, Muhammad bin Saud, the ancestral founder of the modern-day Al Saud dynasty, partnered with Abd al Wahhab to begin the process of unifying disparate tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.

Since its emergence, Wahhabism’s puritanical and iconoclastic philosophies have resulted in conflict with other Muslim groups. 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. In the past, this has brought Wahhabis based in the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere into confrontation with non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and non-Muslims in neighboring areas. The first Saudi kingdom was destroyed by Ottoman forces in the early 19th century after Wahhabi-inspired warriors seized Mecca and Medina and threatened Ottoman dominance. Similarly, during the 1920s, Wahhabi-trained Bedouin warriors allied with the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, Abd al Aziz ibn Saud, attacked fellow Sunnis in western Arabia and Shiites in southern Iraq, leading to political confrontations and military engagements with the British empire.

Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia Today.

Since the foundation of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has been a close relationship between the Saudi ruling family and the Wahhabi religious establishment. Wahhabi-trained Bedouin warriors known as the Ikhwan were integral to the Al Saud family’s military campaign to reconquer and unify the Arabian peninsula from 1912 until an Ikhwan rebellion was put down by force in 1930. Thereafter, Wahhabi clerics were integrated into the new kingdom’s religious and political establishment, and Wahhabi ideas formed the basis of the rules and laws adopted to govern social affairs in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism also shaped the kingdom’s judicial and educational policies. Saudi schoolbooks historically have denounced teachings that do not conform to Wahhabist beliefs, an issue that remains controversial within Saudi Arabia and among outside observers.

In September 2006, the State Department again designated Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act “for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” According to the State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report on Saudi Arabia, in spite of efforts by some senior Saudi government officials to promote tolerance of other religions and steps to remove some intolerant material from textbooks, members of the Shiite Muslim minority continue “to face political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination,” and non-Muslim groups are not granted freedom of worship, whether public or private.

Both harassment of citizens and non-Muslims by Wahhabi religious police (the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) reportedly decreased during 2006.

Political and Religious Factors

What Is Salafiyya?

As noted above, among adherents in general, preference is given to the term “Salafiyya” over “Wahhabism.” These terms have distinct historical roots, but they have been used interchangeably in recent years, especially in the West. Wahhabism is considered by some Muslims as the Saudi form of Salafiyya. Unlike the eighteenth-century Saudi roots of Wahhabism, however, modern Salafi beliefs grew from a reform-oriented movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which developed in various parts of the Islamic world and progressively grew more conservative. In line with other puritanical Islamic teachings, Salafis generally believe that the Quran and the Prophet’s practices (hadith) are the ultimate religious authority in
Islam, rather than the subsequent commentaries produced by Islamic scholars that interpret these sources.

Salafiyya is not a unified movement, and there exists no single Salafi “sect.” However, Salafi interpretations of Islam appeal to a large number of Muslims worldwide who seek religious renewal in the face of modern challenges.

The Use of Violence.

According to a number of scholars, the waging of violent Jihad is not inherently associated with puritanical Islamic beliefs. Among certain puritanical Muslims — be they self-described Salafis or Wahhabis — advocacy of Jihad is a relatively recent phenomenon and remains highly disputed within these groups. Although Wahhabi clerics and converts have advocated religiously motivated violence and played military roles at key moments in Saudi history, most scholars date the ascendancy of militancy within the wider Salafi community to the war of resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. The war against the Soviets gained wide support throughout the Muslim world and mobilized thousands of volunteer fighters. Radical beliefs spread rapidly through select groups of mosques and madrasas (Islamic religious schools), located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which were created to support the Afghan resistance and funded primarily by Saudi Arabia. Similar U.S. and European funding provided to Pakistan to aid the Afghan mujahideen also may have been diverted to fund the construction and maintenance of madrasas. Following the war, militant Salafis with ties to the Afghan resistance denounced leaders of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt as “apostates” and as vehicles for facilitating Western imperialism. The Taliban movement also emerged from this network of institutions.

Violent Salafist-inspired groups such as Al Qaeda continue to advocate the overthrow of the Saudi government and other regimes and the establishment of states that will sustain puritanical Islamic doctrine enforced under a strict application of shari’a or Islamic law. Although the majority of Salafi adherents do not advocate the violence enshrined in Bin Laden’s message, violent Salafist ideology has attracted a number of followers throughout the Muslim world. Analysts note that some receptive groups are drawn to the anti-Western political messages preached by Bin Laden and his supporters, despite the fact that these groups may hold different religious beliefs.

Recent Allegations against Wahhabism and Responses

There have been two major allegations against Wahhabism and against the Saudi Arabian government, which is viewed as its principal proponent:

“Wahhabism Spreads Terrorism”?

It is widely acknowledged that the Saudi government, as well as wealthy Saudi individuals, have supported the spread of the Wahhabist ideas in several Muslim countries and in the West. Some have argued that this proselyting has promoted terrorism and has spawned Islamic militancy throughout the world. Saudi funding of mosques, madrasas, and charities, some of which have been linked to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, has raised concern that Wahhabi Islam has been used by militants who tailor this ideology to suit their political goals and who rely on Saudi donations to support their aspirations.

“Wahhabism Spreads Intolerance”?

Some reports suggest that teachings within Saudi domestic schools may foster intolerance of other religions and cultures. A 2002 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) indicates that “some Saudi textbooks taught Islamic tolerance while others viciously condemned Jews and Christians …[and] use rhetoric that was little more than hate literature.” Others also have argued that the global spread of Wahhabist teachings threatens the existence of more moderate Islamic beliefs and practices in other parts of the world, including the United States. A 2005 report from Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom cites examples of what its authors calls “hate ideology” taken from a number of Saudi government publications that have been distributed in U.S. mosques and Islamic centers. Recent attention to Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia has focused on harsh sectarian rhetoric accusing Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere of religious apostasy and political disloyalty worthy of punishment. An October 2006 petition signed by 38 prominent Saudi religious figures called on Sunnis everywhere to oppose a joint “crusader [U.S.], Safavid [Iranian] and Rafidi [derogatory term for Shiite] scheme” to target Iraq’s Sunni Arab population.

Saudi Arabia’s Response.

The Saudi Arabian government has strenuously denied the above allegations. Saudi officials continue to assert that Islam is tolerant and peaceful, and they have denied allegations that their government exports religious or cultural extremism or supports extremist religious education. In response to allegations of teaching intolerance, the Saudi government has embarked on a campaign of educational reforms designed to remove divisive material from curricula and improve teacher performance, although the outcome of these reforms remains to be seen. Confrontation with religious figures over problematic remarks and activities poses political challenges for the Saudi government, because some key Wahhabi clerics support Saudi government efforts to delegitimize terrorism inside the kingdom and have sponsored or participated in efforts to religiously re-educate former Saudi combatants.

Current U.S. Policy and Legislation

In light of allegations against Wahhabism, some critics have called for a reevaluation of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, although others maintain that U.S. economic and security interests require continued and close ties with the Saudis.
The Bush administration has praised Saudi counter-terrorism cooperation, and President Bush has praised Islam and denounced groups that have “hijacked a great religion.”

9/11 Commission.

The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the “9/11 Commission”) claims that “Islamist terrorism” finds inspiration in “a long tradition of extreme intolerance” that flows “through the founders of Wahhabism,” the Muslim Brotherhood, and prominent Salafi thinkers. The report further details the education and activities of some 9/11 hijackers in the Al Qassim province of Saudi Arabia, which the report describes as “the very heart of the strict Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia.” According to the Commission, some Saudi “Wahhabi- funded organizations,” such as the now-defunct Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, “have been exploited by extremists to further their goal of violent jihad against non-Muslims.” Due in part to these findings, the Commission recommended a frank discussion of the relationship between the United States and its “problematic ally,” Saudi Arabia.

Issues for Congress.

Wahhabism has been a focus of congressional hearings, which have examined the relationship between Wahhabi religious belief and terrorist financing, as well as its alleged ties to the spread of intolerance. Several bills in the 108th Congress criticized Saudi-funded religious institutions and alleged that they provide ideological support for anti-Western terrorism. Section 7105(b) of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-458, December 17, 2004) expressed the sense of Congress that “there should be a more robust dialogue between the people and Government of the United States and the people and Government of Saudi Arabia.” Section 7120(b) of the act required the President to submit to Congress within 180 days a strategy for collaboration with Saudi Arabia, which was to include proposals for promoting tolerance and diversity in Saudi Arabia and for diminishing support for extremist groups from Saudi sources. The report was submitted in classified form in September 2005. In the 109th Congress, H.Con.Res. 275 cited Wahhabi influence over Saudi Arabian religious education in expressing “extreme disappointment with the slow pace of education reform” in Saudi Arabia. The bill was passed by the House in December 2005. The proposed Saudi Arabia Accountability Act of 2005 (S. 1171 and H.R. 2037) called on the government of Saudi Arabia to end its support for organizations that allegedly support terrorism, including religious charities and schools. Both bills were referred to committees of jurisdiction and not considered further. In the 110th Congress, H.R. 1, the Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007, states that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has an uneven record in the fight against terrorism, especially with respect to terrorist financing, support for radical madrassas, and a lack of political outlets for its citizens, that poses a threat to the security of the United States, the international community, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself.” The bill would require the Administration to submit a report to Congress 90 days following enactment of the bill describing the status and progress of the U.S.-Saudi strategic dialogue that began in 2005, with specific reference to issues of reform and terrorist financing. The House passed H.R. 1 on January 9, 2007, by a vote of 299 to 128 (Roll no. 15).