Published in November, 2002
The Dissension of Najd -Wahhabism
Ayatollah Dr Sayyed Fadhel H Milani
on Saturday 14th September 2002
At UniSeminar 2002.London.
ibn Abdel Wahab who was born in Najd in 1703 CE., is
accredited as having instituted the branch of the Sunni
Hanbali school, now known as Wahabism. After 1792 CE
his son, in partnership with Muhammad bin Saud, a member of
the Arabian clan of that name, employed force of arms to
establish it in several parts of the Hijaz.
1801, intent on destroying the Karbala shrine of Imam
Hussayn ('a), a Wahabi force invaded Iraq. In 1803 a
Wahabi force attacked Makkah, then under the control of
Sharif Ghalib. This attack only ended when he fled to
Jeddah. In that same year, Abdel Aziz bin Saud was
assassinated and succeeded by his son Saud. Saud’s
support of Wahabism enabled him to extend his authority over
Makkah and Madinah and even to enter Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
only person to succeed in stemming the flow of Saud’s
Wahabism was the governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha.
In 1818, with the support of the Ottoman Caliph, his forces
overcame the Wahabi central command and halted their
opportunistic drives. However, in 1840 the then
British government forced Muhammad Ali Pasha to completely
withdraw his forces from the Arabian peninsula.
1902 CE, Abdel Aziz bin Abdel Rahman bin Saud, recaptured
Riyadh. In 1910, a group referring to themselves as
‘The Brothers’ – Al-Ikhwan, breathed new life into the
Wahabi movement. As a consequence, in 1913 Ibn Saud,
who by then controlled South Eastern Hijaz - Ahsa’, was
recognised by the Turkish Empire as de-facto governor of
Najd. In 1915 Ibn Saud signed an agreement with
Britain by which, in return for a monthly salary, he agreed
not to contract agreements with any government other than
October 1916, Sharif Husayn might have imagined that he would
reign over all Arab lands however, by May 1919 the troops of
Abdel Aziz bin Saud were at war with Sharif Husayn’s
armies. Thereafter, Abdel Aziz continued his spread of
Wahabism over the Hijaz through force of arms. On 18th
September 1932 he had control of a sufficiently large area
to declare his territory would, from that day onwards, be
known as The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
a clear understanding of Wahabism, it is necessary to
understand the roots of its ideology and the outstanding
personalities which have influenced it. In the main
these are Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiah
and Muhammad bin Abdel Wahab.
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal
Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiah
Muhammad bin Abdel Wahab
Hanbal was born in Marw in 164 AH. The famous scholar Al-Bayhaqi
records that Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s teacher Shafi’i, exerted
great influence over his thought. This appears to be
accurate as most of the narrations he included in his famous
book, Musnad Ahmad, have clearly been derived from Imam
the Abbasid Caliphs Al-Ma’mun and Mu’tasim formally
accepted the Mutazalite belief that the Qur’an was created
and not eternal, Ahmad ibn Hanbal publicly challenged them.
He claimed that, being Allah’s speech, the Holy Qur’an
cannot be separated from Him and thus the Qur’an, like
Allah, is eternal.
biographers have admired Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s resolute
defiance of those Caliphs claiming, as Abdur Rahman I Doi
does in Shari’ah - The Islamic Law. page 110 that, ‘As a
man of conscience, he never surrendered to wrong-headed
views of the authorities. There exists a lot of material on
his inquisition. The suffering of Imam Ahmad really started
when he came into conflict with the Mutazalites and their
it was Imam Ahmad’s views resulted in his being
imprisoned in Baghdad for almost thirty months. In
spite of taunts, ill-treatment and torture, Imam Ahmad
steadfastly maintained that the Qur’an was uncreated and
that all who proclaim Allah’s words to be created, are
guilty of the sin of Kufr.
rational thought attests to there being two distinctive
groupings of Divine attribute. Those which describe Divine
Attributes of Essence, and those which describe Divine
Attributes of Action. Allah’s attributes of essence,
such as knowledge, power and life are eternal. It is
impossible for them not to be eternal, not even for the
merest instant. On the other hand, His attributes of
action may or may not be applied at any one time. For
example, His attributes of creation (Khalq) and of providing
sustenance (Rizq) are such that it can be true to say that
Allah created such and such a thing but did not create such
and such a thing. Or, that Allah provided so and so
with a son but did not provide them with wealth.
Accordingly, it is clear that speech is an Attribute of
Action, for it is perfectly accurate to say that Allah spoke
to Prophet Musa ('a) but did not speak to Pharaoh. It is also
accurate to say that Allah spoke to Prophet Musa ('a) on Mount
Sinai but did not speak to Prophet Musa ('a) Musa in the Nile
clear differentiation between His Attributes of Essence -
which are not created and thus beyond time, space and limit
- and His Attributes of Action, such as creation, giving
sustenance and speech - which He may or may not choose to
exercise, removes the need for fuss to be made regarding
ibn Hanbal’s methodology is based on his acceptance of
hadith, without any of the interpretation which encourages
discussion and rational comprehension.
When Allah writes, those in heaven hear the scratching of
Allah wrote the Torah for Musa in his own hand as He leaned
on a big rock.
On the Day of Judgement Allah will use his foot to compress
the contents of hell and make more room.
Book of Sunnah p. 76
Taymiah, highly regarded by Wahabis, is accorded by them the
title Shaykh al-Islam. Born as Ahmed bin Abdel Haleem
in Harran in 661 AH, he was given the Kunyah Taqi-al-Din.
He died in Damascus in 728 AH. His whole family are
recorded as having been adherents of the Hanbali school of
Allamah Hilli (Hasan Bin Yusuf, died 726 AH) wrote his
famous book on the Imamah, Minhaj al-Karamah, Ibn Taymiah
refuted it with contempt in his book Minhaj al-Sunnah.
This rebuttal, which unbiased researchers acknowledge,
completely lacks logical argument or credibility, is a
simple refutation of everything which Allamah Hilli presents
in Minhaj al-Karamah.
in his Sunan, Volume 5 page 636 tradition 3720;
in his Masabih al-Sunnah Volume 4 page 173, Tradition 4769;
Nishaburi in Al Mustradak Volume 3 page 14,
report that when the Prophet ('s) established
brotherhood between the Muhajarin and the Ansar, he told Ali
('a), ‘You are my brother in this life and in the
ibn Hanbal in his Musnad, volume 1 page 230, reports that
the Prophet ('s) said, ‘You are my brother and I am
are, in addition, many other scholars who also report this,
including: Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham, Ibn Sa’ad, Ibn Abdel
Barr, Ibn Al-Athir, Ibn Abi al-Hadid, Ibn Kathir and Suyuti.
when Ibn Taymiah refers to the above hadith in Minhaj al-Sunnah
Vol. 2 page 119, he asserts that the hadith of brotherhood
is a fabrication. On another occasion he also declared
that the Prophet ('s) never established any brotherhood
with Ali ('a)
do we accept the consensus of a group of highly respected
scholars, or the lone, unsupported and antagonistic
statements of Ibn Taymiah? Is it not appropriate to
question why Ibn Taymiah repeatedly denied the many reports
of brotherhood between the Prophet ('s) and Ali ('a) ?
Taymiah writes in Minhaj al-Sunnah, Volume 2 page 117, that,
‘The rafidite’, (referring to Allamah al-Hilli)
collected an abundance of lies in his book which serve to
illustrate his ignorance. For example, he claims that
Surat Hal Ata or Al-Dahr was revealed to honour Ahl al-Bayt
In reality, the consensus of scholars is that this Surah was
revealed in Makkah. Ali ('a) married Fatimah ('a) in Madinah,
Hasan ('a) was born in year 3 AH and Hussayn ('a) in year 4
AH. Anyone who claims that the above Surah refers to
those highly honoured people has no knowledge of the
The reference in this Surah, to three groups to be fed (Qur’an
76:8), provides clear evidence that it was indeed revealed
in Madinah. For, in addition to the poor and the
orphan, captives are also mentioned as needing to be fed.
In the Qur’an, the Arabic word for captive ‘Aseer’
specifically denotes those taken by force on the battlefield
as prisoners of war. Now, the first battle the Muslims
ever fought occurred at Badr after the migration from Makkah
to Madinah. Prior to that, Muslims were never in a
position to capture anyone. This should surely have
been known by the acclaimed scholar Ibn Taymiah. It is
thus apparent that it was Ibn Taymiah who lied, was intent
on misleading his readers, or ignorant of the Qur’an, and
not Allamah Hilli.
fact is that the opinions of the earliest commentators were
divided as to whether this surah was from the Makkah or
Madinah period. Many of the authorities of the second
generation – among them Mujahid, Qatadah, al-Hasan al-Basri
and Ikrimah (all of them quoted by Baghawi) – hold the
view that it was revealed at Madinah.
full evidence of their views regarding this surah, you may
refer to the tafaseers of Tabari, Baghawi, Zamakhshari, Razi,
Abul Saud, Baydhawi, Nasafi, Khazin, A’lusi and Shawkani.
All acknowledge that the ayat which honours the Ahl al-Bayt
('a) was revealed after they had resolved to fast for three days.
It is recorded that for three consecutive evenings during
that time, just as the Ahl al-Bayt ('a) were preparing to break
their fast, people arrived to beg food from them. On
the first day it was a poor man, on the second an orphan and
on the third a captive (Aseer). Although each member
of the family only ever had a small loaf of bread, all of
them willingly gave theirs. The above ayah was then
revealed to honour their unstinting generosity.
we ask ibn Taymiah which tafseer is closest to the book of
Allah and the Sunnah, he responds that it is the tafseer of
Muhammad bin Jareer al-Tabari. This on the grounds
that Tabari reflects the opinion of the salaf with authentic
chains of narration; does not include Bida’ah; and does
not include doubtful narrators such as Muqatil and Kalbi.
See his Introduction to Principles of Tafseer page 51.
referring to the incident in which Ali ('a) gave his ring
whilst in the ruku of salaat, Ibn Taymiah declares it a
fabricated hadith. However when Tabari discusses ayah
55 of surah 5 in his Tafseer, Volume 6 page 186, he includes
this incident and lists no less than 5 authentic narrators.
Twelve other exegetes share Tabari's view.
is Ibn Taymiah able to promote Tabari’s tafseer as best,
whilst he disagrees with his opinions? He tries
to support his own view with the claim that it is the belief
of some non-existent consensus of scholars.
Husayn’s ('a) stand was to counter Yazid’s atrocities and his
illegitimate claim to be the successor of the Prophet ('s).
At the time of his departure for Makkah, he
told his brother Muhammad bin Hanafiyya, ‘This action of
mine is not on account of stubbornness, rebellion, worldly
passion or the instigation by Shaytan. It is not
either my objective to create trouble or oppress anybody.
What encourages me to undertake this activity are; the need
to correct the affairs of my grandfather’s followers, to
eradicate corruption, to enjoin people to do good and
restrain from evil, and the desire to follow the traditions
of my grandfather, Allah’s Prophet ('s) and my father
course of action lead to the martyrdom of Imam Hussayn ('a) on the 10th day of Muharram in the year 61 AH. Today,
centuries later, his pre-eminent sacrifice is still
remembered and his example remains the inspiration of those
who yearn for liberty.
Taymiah’s reaction to those events is simply that Imam
Husayn made the wrong decision. He claims that,
‘the disadvantages of his actions were greater than their
advantages’. ‘It is clear’, he said, ‘that it
is extremely rare for anyone who rebels against a powerful
ruler to attain their objectives. The evil
consequences of their actions are invariably far greater
than their anticipated benefit’. He concludes that
there was no benefit in Imam Husayn’s rising - neither for
the Din of Islam nor for dunya, and that he could have
avoided all calamity had he calmly remained at
home.’ Minhaj al-Sunnah Volume 2 page 241-242.
is the language of a man who would rather submit to the
tyranny of unjust rulers and not warn people of evident
danger - even when that points to the destruction of the
very foundations of Islam.
Hussayn ('a) who was amongst those who had been purified and who revived the religion of his grandfather is, in the
opinion of Ibn Taymiah, a man of flawed judgement who should
have kept quiet.
famous explorer and traveller Ibn Battutah left a full
account of the peoples and places in the many lands he
visited. In page 95 of his book Rihlat ibn Battuta
(The voyage of Ibn Battuta) he states, ‘I was in Damascus
and attended the Friday prayer where Ibn Taymiah was
preaching. While coming down the steps of the minbar
he said, “Allah descends to the lower sky as I am now
descending.”. A Maliki jurist named Ibn al-Zahra
immediately stood up and repudiated his bizarre
anthropomorphism. On hearing him, the jamaat attacked
the Maliki and beat him with fist and slipper until his
turban became dislodged. When they unfortunately
discovered a piece of silk in his possession, they dragged
him to the Hanbali Qadi who immediately ordered him
imprisoned for being in possession of that material.’
same story is related in Ibn Hajar al- Askalani’s al-Durar
al-Kamina Volume 1 page 154.
can we possibly accept a man whose teachings lead to belief
in Allah being domiciled in a particular place and that He
walks about like a human being? Is this pure Tawhid?
bin Abdel Wahab revived the methodology of the Hanbali
scholars and accepted Ibn Taymiah’s methodology in its
entirety. However, unlike Ibn Taymiah, Muhammad bin
Abdel Wahab had the support of the ruling establishment –
in his case the Saud family, whose military might was
utilised to impose his views. The Saud family believed
that Abdel Wahab’s view represented ‘purity of tawhid’.
refer to these being the Tawhid of the Unification of the
Divine Essence, and the Tawhid of the Unification of
Lordship. According to Muhammad bin Abdel Wahab,
whilst Muslims and non-muslims share Tawhid of the
Unification of Lordship, what divides Islam for disbelief is
the Tawhid of the Unification of the Divine Essence.
He somehow concludes that, ‘The mushrikin (Lit. “those
who associate”) of our time (i.e. today’s Muslims), are
worse than the mushrikin of earlier times because, despite
(those of earlier times) having associated things with Allah
during times of ease and comfort, it was to Allah alone that
they turned when faced with problems. Contemporary
mushrikin on the other hand, associate things with Allah all
the time.’ See Muhammad bin Abdel Wahab’s Treatise
of Four Principles p.4. He refers to Qur’an 29:65,
‘When they embark on ships they call upon Allah sincerely
and with pure faith. When He brings them safely
ashore, they associate others with him.’
believe that any who visit the shrines of Ahl-al-Bayt ('a) or
the Prophet ('s) to ask for their intercession are
Mushrik and Kafir. Muslims of Najd and Hijaz whom they
accused of this, were killed, had their properties looted
and their children enslaved.
bin Abdel Wahab, distressed by the consequences of his
brother Muhammad bin Abdel Wahab’s extreme opinions
regarding who is, or is not a disbeliever, wrote a book
Divine Thunderbolts that Reject Wahabism, expressly to
criticise those views. He wrote that, ‘Intercession
occurred during the time of the companions when one dreamed
that he had complained to the Prophet ('s) about
drought. The Prophet ('s) ordered him to seek the
help of Umar. In this case, neither Umar nor that
companions denied intercession, yet you Wahabis claim those
who ask for intercession are unbelievers.’ He
continued, ‘Similar actions occurred at the time of Imam
Ahmad Ibn-Hanbal. Although some scholars might have
had reservations, none ever accused anyone of being a kafir,
labelled them apostate or permitted them being killed as
asking for intercession is not prohibited anywhere, indeed
it has Shari’ah approval. In one hadith a blind man
came to the Prophet ('s) to asked him to pray for the
return of his eyesight. The Prophet ('s) replied,
‘If you wish, I will pray for that, but you must be
patient.’ ‘Please,’ the man asked, ‘Do pray
for me’. The Prophet ('s) ordered he perform
Wudu, pray two Rakaats and then ask, ‘O Allah, I ask and
beseech you in the name of Muhammad Messenger of Mercy, O
Muhammad, I beg you to intercede for my request to be
fulfilled, O Allah, please accept his intercession’.
Uthman bin Hanif, the narrator of this report said, ‘We
did not separate from our meeting until the blind man
returned to us with his sight fully restored.’
Sunan ibn Majah Vol. 1 p. 441.
al-Hakim Vol.1 p. 313.
Ahmad Vol.4 p.138.
hadith provides clear evidence that the Prophet ('s) not
only accepted the concept of intercession, but that he
himself complied with a request to intercede, gave
instruction on how Allah should be asked to accept his
intercession, and that his intercession was indeed accepted.
Despite this, Wahabis claim intercession to be a Bida’ah
and oppose it vehemently.
Muslims, Wahabi or not, eagerly seek the assistance of the
medical, legal and countless other professional services,
when they need their help. This however does not in
any way imply that they have turned away from Allah.