WAHHABI ISLAM AND THE GULF
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a turbulent time
for Arabia in general and for the gulf in particular. To the southeast,
the Al Said of Oman were extending their influence northward,
and from Iraq the Ottoman Turks were extending their influence
southward. From the east, both the Iranians and the British were
becoming increasingly involved in Arab affairs.
The most significant development in the region, however, was
the Wahhabi movement. The name Wahhabi derived from Muhammad
ibn Abd al Wahhab, who died in 1792. He grew up in an oasis town
in central Arabia where he studied Hanbali law, usually considered
the strictest of Islamic legal schools, with his grandfather.
While still a young man, he left home and continued his studies
in Medina and then in Iraq and Iran.
When he returned from Iran to Arabia in the late 1730s, he attacked
as idolatry many of the customs followed by tribes in the area
who venerated rocks and trees. He extended his criticism to practices
of the Twelver Shia, such as veneration of the tombs of holy men.
He focused on the central Muslim principle that there is only
one God and that this God does not share his divinity with anyone.
From this principle, his students began to refer to themselves
as muwahhidun (sing., muwahhid), or "unitarians."
Their detractors referred to them as "Wahhabis."
Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab considered himself a reformer and
looked for a political figure to give his ideas a wider audience.
He found this person in Muhammad ibn Saud, the amir (see Glossary)
of Ad Diriyah, a small town near Riyadh. In 1744 the two swore
a traditional Muslim pledge in which they promised to work together
to establish a new state (which later became present-day Saudi
Arabia) based on Islamic principles. The limited but successful
military campaigns of Muhammad ibn Saud caused Arabs from all
over the peninsula to feel the impact of Wahhabi ideas.
The Wahhabis became known for a fanaticism similar to that of
the early Kharijites. This fanaticism helped to intensify conflicts
in the gulf. Whereas tribes from the interior had always raided
settled communities along the coast, the Wahhabi faith provided
them with a justification for continuing these incursions to spread
true Islam. Accordingly, in the nineteenth century Wahhabi tribes,
under the leadership of the Al Saud, moved at various times against
Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. In Oman, the Wahhabi faith created
internal dissension as well as an external menace because it proved
popular with some of the Ibadi tribes in the Omani interior.
Wahhabi thought has had a special impact on the history of Qatar.
Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab's ideas proved popular among many of
the peninsula tribes, including the Al Thani clan, before the
Al Khalifa attempted to take over the area from Bahrain at the
beginning of the nineteenth century. As a result, Wahhabi beliefs
motivated Al Thani efforts to resist the attempt of the Al Khalifa,
who rejected Wahhabism, to gain control of the peninsula. In the
early 1990s, Wahhabism distinguished Qatar religiously from its
Wahhabi fervor was also significant in the history of the present-day
UAE. The Qawasim tribes that had controlled the area since the
eighteenth century adapted Wahhabi ideas and transferred the movement's
religious enthusiasm to the piracy in which they had traditionally
engaged. Whereas Wahhabi thought opposed all that was not orthodox
in Islam, it particularly opposed non-Muslim elements such as
the increasing European presence in the Persian Gulf.
Data as of January 1993