from the encyclopedia Britannica 2001:
Historical fact sheet on
Saudi religious fanaticism
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Ibn Sa’ud – founder of modern Saudia Arabia

Role of religion in Ibn Sa'ud's policy

Foundation of Saudi Arabia


Wahhab, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-

The Wahhabi movement

The Sa'uds ruled much of Arabia from 1780 to 1880; but, while Ibn Sa'ud was still an infant, his family, driven out by their rivals, the Rashids, became penniless exiles in Kuwait. In 1901 Ibn Sa'ud, then 21, set out from Kuwait with 40 camelmen in a bold attempt to regain his family's lands.

Reaching their old family capital, Riyadh, the little group slipped into the town by night (January 1902). The Rashidi governor slept in the castle but came out every morning after dawn. Ibn Sa'ud lay hidden until the governor emerged. Then, rushing forward with his men, he killed him and seized the castle. This exploit roused the former supporters of his dynasty. They rallied to so magnetic a leader, and in two years of raids and skirmishes Ibn Sa'ud reconquered half of central Arabia.

Ibn Rashid, however, appealed for help to the Turks, who sent troops; Ibn Sa'ud suffered a defeat at their hands on June 15, 1904. But he was not driven from central Arabia and soon reconstituted his forces, the years 1907 to 1912 being passed in desultory fighting. The Turks eventually left, unable to supply their troops.

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Role of religion in Ibn Sa'ud's policy

Ibn Sa'ud decided, in the years before World War I, to revive his dynasty's support for Wahhabism, an extremist Muslim puritan revival. Ibn Sa'ud was in fact a devoted puritan Muslim -- to him the Qur'an was literally the word of God, and his life was regulated by it. Yet he was also aware that religious fanaticism could serve his ambition, and he deliberately fostered it, founding a militantly religious tribal organization known as the Ikhwan (Brethren). This fanatical brotherhood encouraged his followers to fight and to massacre their Arab rivals, and it helped him to bring many nomadic tribesmen under more immediate control.

He was able to persuade the religious leaders to declare it a religious duty of all Wahhabis to abandon nomadism and to build houses at the desert wells. Thus settled, they could more easily be levied into his army. But the scheme was unrealistic: nomads who sold their flocks were often unable to cultivate and were reduced to penury. The destitution of the more fanatical tribes, however, made them more eager to raid, and Ibn Sa'ud was not slow to suggest that they plunder the subjects of Ibn Rashid.

During World War I Ibn Sa'ud entered into a treaty with the British (December 1915), accepting protectorate status and agreeing to make war against Ibn Rashid, who was being supported by the Turks. But despite British arms and a subsidy of 5,000 a month from the British government (which continued until 1924) he was inactive until 1920, arguing that his subsidy was insufficient. During 1920-22, however, he marched against Ibn Rashid and extinguished Rashidi rule, doubling his own territory but without significantly increasing his meagre revenue.

Ibn Sa'ud now ruled central Arabia except for the Hejaz region along the Red Sea. This was the territory of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, who had become king of the Hejaz during the war and who declared himself caliph (head of the Muslim community) in 1924. Sharif Husayn's son 'Abd Allah had become ruler of Transjordan in 1921, and another son, Faysal, king of Iraq. Ibn Sa'ud, fearing encirclement by this rival dynasty, decided to invade the Hejaz. He was then at the height of his powers; his strong personality and extraordinary charm had won the devotion of all his subjects. A skillful politician, he worked closely with the religious leaders, who always supported him. Relying on the Ikhwan to eliminate his Arab rivals, he sent them to raid his neighbours, then cabled the British, whose imperial interests were involved, that the raid was against his orders. In 1924 the Ikhwan took Mecca, and the Hejaz was added to his dominions.

At this point, there were no more rivals whom Ibn Sa'ud could conquer, for those remaining had treaties with Britain. But the Ikhwan had been taught that all non-Wahhabi Muslims were infidels. When Ibn Sa'ud forbade further raiding, they charged him with treachery, quoting his own words against him. In 1927 they invaded Iraq against his wishes. They were repulsed by British aircraft, but Ibn Sa'ud's authority over them had vanished, and on March 29, 1929, the Ikhwan, the fanatics whom he himself had trained, were crushed by Ibn Sa'ud himself at the Battle of Sibilla.

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Foundation of Saudi Arabia.

This battle opened a new era; thereafter Ibn Sa'ud's task was government, not conquest. In 1932 he formally unified his domains into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. An absolute monarch, he had no regular civil service or professional administrators. All decisions were made by him or by those he personally delegated for a particular task. There was little money, and he himself was not interested in finance. In May 1933 Ibn Sa'ud signed his first agreement with an American oil company. Not until March 1938 did the company strike oil, and work virtually ceased during World War II, so that Ibn Sa'ud was again nearly penniless.

Saudi Arabia took no part in the war, but toward its end the exploitation of oil was resumed. By 1950 Ibn Sa'ud had received a total of about $200,000. Three years later, he was getting some $2,500,000 a week. The effect was disastrous on the country and on Ibn Sa'ud. He had no idea of what to do with all the money, and he watched helplessly the triumph of everything he hated. His austere religious views were offended. The secluded, penurious, hard, but idealistic, life of Arabia was vanishing. Such vast sums of money drew half the swindlers in the Middle East to this puritan religious sanctum. Ibn Sa'ud was unable to cope with financial adventurers. His last years were marked by severe physical and emotional deterioration. He died at at-Ta'if in 1953.

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(Arabic: Brethren), in Arabia, members of a religious and military brotherhood that figured prominently in the unification of the Arabian Peninsula under Ibn Sa'ud (1912-30); in modern Saudi Arabia they constitute the National Guard.

Ibn Sa'ud began organizing the Ikhwan in 1912 with hopes of making them a reliable and stable source of an elite army corps. In order to break their traditional tribal allegiances and feuds, the Ikhwan were settled in colonies known as hijrahs. These settlements, established around desert oases to promote agricultural reclamation of the land, further forced the Bedouin to abandon their nomadic way of life. The hijrahs, whose populations ranged from 10 to 10,000, offered tribesmen living quarters, mosques, schools, agricultural equipment and instruction, and arms and ammunition. Most important, religious teachers were brought in to instruct the Bedouin in the fundamentalist precepts of Islam taught by the religious reformer Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab in the 19th century. As a result the Ikhwan became archtraditionalists. By 1918 they were ready to enter Ibn Sa'ud's elite army.

In 1919 the Ikhwan began a campaign against the Hashimid kingdom of the Hejaz on the northwestern coast of Arabia; they defeated King Husayn ibn 'Ali at Turabah (1919), then conducted border raids against his sons 'Abd Allah of Transjordan and Faysal of Iraq (1921-22). In 1924, when Husayn was proclaimed caliph in Mecca, the Ikhwan labelled the act heretical and accused Husayn of obstructing their performance of the pilgrimage to Mecca. They then moved against Transjordan, Iraq, and the Hejaz simultaneously, besieged at-Ta'if outside Mecca, and massacred several hundred of its inhabitants. Mecca fell to the Ikhwan, and, with the subsequent surrenders (1925) of Jiddah and Medina, they won all of the Hejaz for Ibn Sa'ud. The Ikhwan were also instrumental in securing the provinces of Asir, just south of the Hejaz on the coast (1920), and Ha'il, in the north of the peninsula, along the borders of Transjordan and Iraq (1921).

By 1926 the Ikhwan were becoming uncontrollable. They attacked Ibn Sa'ud for introducing such innovations as telephones, automobiles, and the telegraph and for sending his son to a country of unbelievers (Egypt). Despite Ibn Sa'ud's attempts to mollify the Ikhwan by submitting their accusations to the religious scholars ('ulama'), they provoked an international incident by destroying an Iraqi force that had violated a neutral zone established by Great Britain and Ibn Sa'ud between Iraq and Arabia (1927-28); the British bombed Najd in retaliation.

A congress convened by Ibn Sa'ud in October 1928 deposed Ibn Humayd, ad-Dawish, and Ibn Hithlayn, the leaders of the revolt. A massacre of Najd merchants by Ibn Humayd in 1929, however, forced Ibn Sa'ud to confront the rebellious Ikhwan militarily, and, in a major battle fought in March on the plain of as-Sabalah (near al-Artawiyah), Ibn Humayd was captured and ad-Dawish seriously wounded. Then in May 1929 Ibn Hithlayn was murdered. In retribution the Ikhwan killed his murderer, Fahd, the son of one of Ibn Sa'ud's governors, and commandeered the road between Ibn Sa'ud's capital, Riyadh, and the Persian Gulf. The rebels suffered a setback in August at the hands of 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Musa'id; their leader, 'Uzayyiz, ad-Dawish's son, and hundreds of his soldiers were either killed in battle on the edge of an-Nafud desert or died of thirst in the desert. Shortly afterward, an important Ikhwan faction defected, and Ibn Sa'ud was able to surround the rebels and force them to surrender to the British in Kuwait in January 1930. The Ikhwan leaders, ad-Dawish and Ibn Hithlayn's cousin Nayif, were subsequently imprisoned in Riyadh.

Not all of the Ikhwan had revolted. Those that had remained loyal to Ibn Sa'ud stayed on the hijrahs, continuing to receive government support, and were still an influential religious force. They were eventually absorbed into the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

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Wahhab, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-

b. 1703, 'Uyaynah, Arabia [now in Saudi Arabia]
d. 1792, Ad-Dir'iyah 

theologian and founder of the Wahhabi movement, which attempted a return to the "true" principles of Islam.

Having completed his formal education in the holy city of Medina, in Arabia, 'Abd al-Wahhab lived abroad for many years. He taught for four years in Basra, Iraq, and in Baghdad he married an affluent woman whose property he inherited when she died. In 1736, in Iran, he began to teach against what he considered to be the extreme ideas of various exponents of Sufi doctrines. On returning to his native city, he wrote the Kitab at-tawhid ("Book of Unity"), which is the main text for Wahhabi doctrines. His followers call themselves al-Muwahhidun, or "Unitarians"; the term Wahhabi is generally used by non-Muslims and opponents.

'Abd al-Wahhab's teachings have been characterized as puritanical and traditional, representing the early era of the Islamic religion. He made a clear stand against all innovations (bid'ah) in Islamic faith because he believed them to be reprehensible, insisting that the original grandeur of Islam could be regained if the Islamic community would return to the principles enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad. Wahhabi doctrines, therefore, do not allow for an intermediary between the faithful and Allah and condemn any such practice as polytheism. The decoration of mosques, the cult of saints, and even the smoking of tobacco were condemned.

When the preaching of these doctrines led to controversy, 'Abd al-Wahhab was expelled from 'Uyaynah in 1744. He then settled in Ad-Dir'iyah, capital of Ibn Sa'ud, a ruler of the Najd (now in Saudi Arabia).

The spread of Wahhabism originated from the alliance that was formed between 'Abd al-Wahhab and Ibn Sa'ud, who, by initiating a campaign of conquest that was continued by his heirs, made Wahhabism the dominant force in Arabia since 1800.

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The Wahhabi movement

Origins and early expansion

As the population of the oasis towns of central Arabia such as 'Uyaynah slowly grew from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, the 'ulama' [muslim community] residing there increased in number and sophistication. Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, was born in 'Uyaynah in 1703 to a family of religious judges and scholars and as a young man traveled widely in other regions of the Middle East. It was upon his return to 'Uyaynah that he first began to preach his revolutionary ideas of religious reformation on fundamentalist lines. His teaching was influenced by that of the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, who had died in 1328.

The ruler of 'Uyaynah, 'Uthman ibn Mu'ammar, gladly welcomed the returning prodigal and even adhered to his doctrines. But many opposed him, and 'Abd al-Wahhab's preaching was put to a number of severe tests. 'Uthman received threats from the Banu Khalid chief of Al-Hasa, demanding the death of the innovator on pain of withholding annual gifts from the province and even of invasion.

'Uthman, unable to face this danger but unwilling to kill his guest, decided to dismiss 'Abd al-Wahhab from his territory. 'Abd al-Wahhab went to Ad-Dir'iyah, some 40 miles away, which had been the seat of the local prince Muhammad ibn Sa'ud since 1726. In 1745 the people flocked to the teaching of the reformer. The alliance of theologian and prince, duly sealed by mutual oaths of loyalty, soon began to prosper in terms of military success and expansion.

One by one the enemies of the new dispensation were conquered. The earliest wars brought 'Uyaynah and portions of Al-Hasa under Wahhabi control, but Riyadh maintained a stubborn resistance for 27 years before succumbing to the steady pressure of the new movement. By 1765, when Muhammad ibn Sa'ud died, only a few parts of central and eastern Arabia had fallen under more or less effective Wahhabi rule.

Muhammad ibn Sa'ud's son and successor, 'Abd al-'Aziz I (reigned 1765-1803), who had been largely responsible for this extension of his father's realm by his exploits as commander in chief of the Wahhabi forces, continued to work in complete harmony with Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab. It was indeed the latter who virtually controlled the civil administration of the country, while 'Abd al-'Aziz himself, later in cooperation with his warlike son, Sa'ud I (reigned 1803-14), busied himself in the expansion of his empire far beyond the limits inherited by him. Meanwhile, in 1792, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab died at the age of 89. Wahhabi attacks had begun to attract the attention of the Ottoman government, and in 1798 an Ottoman force invaded Al-Hasa, though it was compelled to withdraw. Qatar fell to the Sa'udis in 1797, and the latter also gained control through local allies over Bahrain and parts of Oman.