Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was a puritan of the highest order. Muslims everywhere, he believed, had become corrupt and their beliefs verged on polytheism. It was his duty to restore the "real" meaning of Islam.
Muslims had to be brought back to the right path, and encouraged, by force if necessary, to behave in a "purely Islamic manner". More than two centuries after his death, the results of his missionary efforts are all too evident. Wahhabism, the theological reform movement named after him, is widely embraced and supported throughout the Muslim world.
Born in 1703 in the central Arabian hinterland of Najd, ibn Abd al-Wahhab came from a family of religious scholars. He spent his early life in poverty, living with his three wives and attending to his herd of cattle and his date garden. As a young man, he travelled to Basra and Medina to study under scholars who followed the rigid Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence.
A staunch conservative, ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached an "absolutist ideology". He denounced most Muslim customs, such as listening to music, painting human figures, or praying while visiting shrines as idolatry.
He was against all forms of pluralism, and loathed the traditional "elasticity of doctrine, ritual and practice" that made Islam dynamic and vibrant. His theological position, writes Michael Crawford, "made him condemn much of the Islam of his own time". It was thus natural for ibn Abd al-Wahhab to declare that following any school of Islamic jurisprudence, except his own Hanbali School, was indistinguishable from shirk, or polytheism.
Initially, ibn Abd al-Wahhab was dismissed as a heretic and seen as an "evil deviant". Even his own father rejected his ideas; and his brother issued a fatwa against him. He was thrown out of a number of towns where he tried to attract followers. But his fortune changed when he entered into an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of Darriya, a small town in Najd. Ibn Saud vowed to uphold and spread Wahhabism. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab promised him dominion on Earth and paradise in the Hereafter. Religion and politics were united in a formidable force.
By the time ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in 1792, Wahhabism was on the move. A jihad had been declared against all Muslims who the Wahhabis regarded as apostates and polytheists – including the Shia, the Sufis, and other sects of Islam. His political and religious ambition transformed the House of Saud "from petty rulers of a central Arabian settlement into the guardians of Mecca and Medina".
Wahhabism, notes Crawford in this overtly balanced account of ibn Abd al-Wahhab's life and teachings, is a deviant innovation. Such an austere literalism has never been part of Islamic orthodoxy. So why has it become a major current of Muslim thought and behaviour?
Crawford argues that there are a number of very good reasons for Wahhabism's rapid spread over the past decades. It has a strong appeal in today's globalised, digital world because it enables broad standardisation of belief and practice.
It emphasises the collective success of the religious community over individual salvation and the superiority of the "true believer" over the rest of society. It gives a higher priority to religious allegiance and solidarity over material interests. These tenets "offer a sense of specialness, group identity and shared mission" to "those dislocated by social or economic change". All these factors have motivated droves of young Muslims to join Wahhabi offshoots such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram of Nigeria, al-Shabab of Somalia, the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State.
But one must also acknowledge, as Crawford points out, the ingenuity of the Saudi regime which has not only integrated Wahhabism into the wider Muslim community but made it into the foremost orthodox position. No doubt the petro dollars poured into building mosques throughout the world, and entrenching Wahhabi imams and preachers into them, have helped.
Ziauddin Sardar's latest book is 'Mecca: The Sacred City' (Bloomsbury).Reuse content