Cole Bunzel on Wahhābism

Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the editor of the blog Jihadica. He is the author of the book Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement.

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The Jihadis today root themselves theologically and ideologically in a particular movement that is exclusivist, that is militant, that is activist, and that is the movement known as Wahhābism.

Cole Bunzel

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:33
  • Relevance and Overview – 2:43
  • Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab – 14:15
  • Appeal to Adherents – 26:14
  • Legacy – 36:16

Podcast Transcript

Wahhābism is both a religious tradition and a political ideology. It provided the early Saudi states a source of political legitimacy and purpose. Most recognize it as a sort of Islamic fundamentalism, but this depiction minimizes how radical its early adherents really were. Wahhābism today is a much less radical political project, but its early writings continue to inspire jihadists such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.

I’ve wanted to know more about Wahhābism for a long time. So, when I saw Cole Bunzel’s new book, Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement, I was instantly attracted to it. Cole Bunzel is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the editor of the blog Jihadica.

This conversation explores not just the history and ideas of Wahhābism, but also its ties to the early Saudi states. You’ll find early Wahhābism was an intolerant and combative ideology. But I want to emphasize this is not a depiction of Islam or Muslims. In fact, you’ll find Wahhabis were the most intolerant of other Muslims. Ultimately, I hope this episode provides important background on the ideas that laid the political foundations for a country that remains one of the most authoritarian in the Middle East to this day.

If you like this episode, make sure to support the podcast with a monthly donation on Patreon or a paid subscription on Apple Podcasts. For just $5/month you can access a growing catalog of exclusive bonus episodes. Your support also helps me produce the weekly episodes I provide free of charge. Please email me with questions or comments at But for now… Here is my conversation with Cole Bunzel…


Cole Bunzel, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Cole Bunzel

Thanks for having me on.


Well, Cole, I was really impressed with your book Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement. It’s an interesting book and it’s interesting because, even coming from yourself, your work focuses a lot on contemporary issues of the Middle East. It’s grounded very much in practical matters. I mean, this book is very much a book of history and in many ways it’s not just a book of history, it’s a book of a history of ideas rather than events. So, I’d like to understand from you, what makes the history of Wahhābism relevant for today?

Cole Bunzel

Yeah, so the book definitely is more a history of ideas than politics, though I try to show that they’re very much connected in this book. What makes this relevant to today is after 9/11 when most of the hijackers were Saudis, there was a new renewed interest in the particular religious ideology known as Wahhābism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and there was a lot of, I would say, misleading and interested scholarship that was very biased about this movement. There hadn’t been a great deal of attention from historians of Islam, scholars of Islam, on this movement. So, there was a great deal of work to be done. There was a lot of polemic and I’ve been trying to search through it to come to a basic understanding of what this movement was all about. It begins in the mid 18th century. It’s very controversial.

But to get to your question about why it’s relevant to today, it’s most relevant because when it comes to understanding the Sunni Jihadi movement, that is the movement associated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS, a movement that has not gone away even though the groups are not as important and not as relevant in Iraq and Syria today and other places in the Middle East, you want to understand the roots, the theology, of this movement. You have to go back to Wahhābism, because the Jihadis today root themselves theologically and ideologically in a particular movement that is exclusive, that is militant, that is activist, and that is the movement known as Wahhābism.

At the same time as the Jihadis have reoriented themselves and have appropriated this tradition, you have the kingdom of Saudi Arabia distancing itself increasingly from the Wahhabi heritage. Particularly with Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, there is a new effort to even rewrite the history of the Kingdom going back to the 18th century, to kind of expunge the Wahhabis from the whole story, which I think my book demonstrates does not withstand scrutiny.


I was really impressed with how much I learned about the history of the region, the history of the Saudi people. I did not know that we were in the third Saudi state. I didn’t know that there were two Saudi states that preceded it. But I felt that more than anything, it taught me about the Arab people. It taught me about their ideas about Islam, not because Wahhābism is a stand-in for everybody who believes in Islam, but because it taught me about the diversity of how many different ideas exist in this religion and how there are so many debates and conflicts even within the religion. It’s much more diverse than I even expected it to be.

Cole Bunzel

Yeah. I think a great deal of attention, particularly after 9/11, was focused on the narrative of Islam versus the west. But when you start diving into what these groups are interested in, they’re really interested in the Islamic world and internal debates and asserting their own correct view of monotheism, of Tawhid, and in instituting those concepts in the real world. So, it’s really a story about a movement which begins in the mid-18th century. It is named for a preacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, hence the term, not his term, of course. He just thought he was reviving Islam.

So, he starts preaching in the mid-18th century that most of the world’s Muslims, and he’s a little cagey about this, but if you read between the lines, it’s quite clear that he is preaching that most of the world’s Muslims have reverted from Islam, from monotheism, to unbelief and to polytheism. The reason he says this is that there is a prevailing ethos in the Muslim world surrounding the so-called cult of saints, visiting saints and prophets at their grave sites, making prayers to them, and asking them for things. This was very much embedded in Sunni Islam, not even going into Shi’ism, where of course you have cultic rituals around saint visitation. But this was also very prominent in Sunnism and Sunni Islam and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached that this was shirk.

It was heresy. It was polytheism. This was an extremely controversial idea at the time and one thing I do in the book is I go through all the refutations that are extant, that were written by contemporary Muslim scholars of the men who regarded him as a schismatic heretic. They thought he should be killed. They thought he was crazy. Some of them said if he is crazy, he should be treated with medication. If he’s not crazy, then he should be killed so that the likes of him are deterred. He was driven out of the first town that he was preaching in. A town called al-ʿUyayna. He landed in a new town called al-Dirʿiyya , which is very close to Riyadh today, which is the capital of the modern Saudi state.

In al-Dirʿiyya he formed a pact with a man, a local ruler called Muḥammad ibn Suʿūd. This pact, this agreement between the two whereby the Saudi ruler would impose and extend Wahhābism. In return Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s support the state would grow and it would grow across Arabia. This was really something of a black swan event that you had. This is the first Saudi state, by the way, which existed from approximately 1745 to 1818. It’s the state that the modern Saudi state, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, looks back to as its heritage. The state, however, was not like the modern Saudi state. This was a militant state that believed that it was bringing Islam back to the Islamic world.

It gradually conquered towns and extended its sway from the central Arabian region, which was very remote, isolated, and resource poor to Eastern Arabia, which was a rich date, palm oasis. By the early 19th century, about 1805, it conquered Mecca and Medina, and in the 1810s it was even trying to extend its sway northward toward Iraq and Syria. I’ve found in doing this research, so many interesting items about the Wahhabis’ intentions with regard in particular to Iraq and Syria.

So, the ruler of the first Saudi state, a man named Suʿūd ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, in 1810 starts sending letters to the Ottoman Governors of Iraq and Syria calling on them to accept Islam. These are the representatives of the biggest, most important Muslim empire in the world. So, this petty guy from the Central Arabian Desert is calling on them to accept Islam and saying, ‘If you don’t do this, we’re going to bring Jihad against you.’ This goes on and on. Eventually the Ottomans say enough is enough. They send Muḥammad ʿAlī, the ruler of Egypt. They deputize him to send his military into Arabia, which crushes the first Saudi state and brings it to an end.


This was something that really caught me off guard, because I have not studied the history of the Ottoman Empire very closely. But I always had the impression that there was this Ottoman state that existed in this region and it was coherent and it was stable up until it collapsed. But as I’m reading through your book, I’m learning that there are different kingdoms and states within the Ottoman Empire and people are fighting against each other within the Ottoman Empire itself. It’s almost as if Indiana would actually try to invade Ohio. It really caught me off guard as to how the politics worked in the Ottoman Empire at that time.

Cole Bunzel

You could think of the Wahhabi state trying to threaten the Ottoman Empire, as some petty religious movement in Oklahoma writing letters to Washington, DC saying, ‘Accept our version of democracy or you will perish.’ A lot of people say, ‘Well, what about the Ottoman Empire? Weren’t they part of the Ottoman Empire? Did they rebel against the Ottoman Empire?’ The thing to understand is that the Ottoman Empire really wasn’t present in Central Arabia. This was an area that nobody ruled. Nobody from the Ottoman Empire had any real authority over it. The reason is that there was really nothing to have any authority over. These were just little pockets of oases, they are called in the literature oasis settlements, pockmarked by massive deserts.

So, the idea that there would be a religious movement of any significance or a political movement of any significance that would emerge from this area and then come to dominate the Arabian Peninsula and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was really unfathomable. In fact, there hadn’t been serious, significant state building in this region since the 13th century. This gives rise to this Saudi dynasty, which would continue after the first Saudi state was destroyed in 1818. It would be a second Saudi state created in the 1820s. That lasted in until about the 1870s. Then there’s an interegnal period followed by the founding of the third Saudi state in 1902, which becomes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. That kingdom also harked back to this earlier heritage and it harked back to the Wahhabi heritage.

So, you had this alliance between the al-Su’ud dynasty, the family of al-Su’ud, and the  Al ash-Sheikh, or the family of the Sheik Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The partnership between the Saudis and the Wahhabis was sustained and continued to be the lifeblood of the Saudi-Wahhabi polity into the early 20th century.


As I’m hearing you discuss the history of Wahhābism, particularly with its founder, I find myself drawn to a lot of parallels with Protestantism with its birth, the idea of Martin Luther, even the idea that the first Saudi state starts to create a civil war of sorts in that region. I mean, it parallels a lot of what became the 30 Year War in Europe. In that area, it created religious wars. I don’t want to say the parallels are exact, but I just find myself very much drawn to that. Do you see a lot of parallels between the two?

Cole Bunzel

I do. I don’t want to pretend to expertise in Protestantism and European religious history, but what I can say is that a lot of the early European observers of Wahhābism, particularly European travelers who interacted with Muslims who talked to them about Wahhābism in Hejaz in Western Arabia in the 18th and 19th centuries. They saw a lot of parallels between Wahhābism and Protestantism and for this reason, they liked Wahhābism. They thought it was a good movement, because it was against saint veneration. They saw it as similar to the war against Catholicism and so they were sympathetic to it. We’re talking about, of course, English speaking travelers. They had many misconceptions, misunderstandings about the movement.

But the idea that it was a puritanical movement aiming at going back to the roots of the religion and doing away with the scholarly super structure that had been erected over the centuries. That to them was very appealing and it was accurate in many ways. I wouldn’t say that the parallels are perfect, because they’re very different religious traditions. But there definitely is something there.


So, who was he? Like, who was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab? What was he like? What was his background?

Cole Bunzel

Well, we don’t know exactly what he was like, but we know that he was a preacher and a scholar. So, in all of these oasis towns in the area of Central Arabia, which is called Najd in Arabic, there were preachers and local scholars who would adjudicate disputes. They were essentially those who used Islamic law who were at the hands of the ruler to adjudicate and impose Islamic law. So, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was the son of a prominent qāḍī or judge. He belonged to a scholarly family and he trained to become a Muslim preacher, a Muslim scholar from an early age.

He was born in about 1703 and he studied outside of Nadj. He studied in Medina in Western Arabia. He studied in al-Ahsa in Eastern Arabia, and he also spent a lot of time in Basrah in Southern Iraq. It was in those towns that he read a lot of an earlier Islamic reformist preacher named ibn Taymiyya from the 14th century who like ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached against saint veneration and had many peculiar features of his theology. So, ibn Abd al-Wahhab adopted a lot of ibn Taymiyya’s ideas and re-articulated them in a more accessible fashion. When he comes back to Najd, when he stops living in Basrah after his father dies, he begins this missionary project where he starts sending out epistles to nearby areas, calling on them to accept Islam, and saying that they are not practicing Islam, Instead, they’re practicing polytheism.

We have some anecdotes from his teachers, from those he interacted with, who describe him as very idiosyncratic, as somebody who from an early age, rejected the Muslim legal textual tradition. There’s one teacher of his who writes in a refutation that ibn Abd al-Wahhab would cross out the different parts of his legal manual. In one of his early epistles, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab said that we should basically get rid of the traditional Hanbali, that is the Sunni Islamic School that he practiced, legal manual that was most in use in this area. So, he was very, very radical in his views. He was a rejectionist. He was against the mainstream institutions of Sunni Islam in his day. It appears that his father, as long as he was alive until he died in 1741, was able to keep him in check.

But there are also anecdotes about him having a very difficult relationship with his father, because his father was part of the status quo who imposed Islamic law and was a teacher and a judge and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw everyone around him as practicing polytheism. So, obviously, a difficult progeny to have around. Once his father was dead, he launches this mission, which remarkably, perhaps miraculously, attracts a very large following in a short period of time, just a couple of years. He seems to have a large number of followers. So many that he was driven out of his first base of operations, a town called al-ʿUyayna from threats from a local potentate and is forced to relocate into al-Dirʿiyya.

So popular is this movement that the ruler of al-Dirʿiyya, Muḥammad ibn Suʿūd sees potential for it to be useful to him and in all appearances actually does become a devout follower of this movement as do all the early Saudi rulers. If you about today, you have the clerics of the Wahhabi establishment and you have the al- Suʿūd rulers and they’re very different. You think of the al- Suʿūd as people who don’t really believe in this puritanical, religious version of Islam. They drink wine. They have a good time. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Saudi rulers were not like this. In the letters that they sent to nearby Muslim lands, they preached the Wahhabi creed. They’re ferocious in their attachment to it and they are intense on conquering nearby areas in the name of reinstituting Islam and reinstituting monotheism.


So, the founder, al-Wahhab, when you kind of gave a description of his education, it gives the impression that he’s traveling all over the place. He’s definitely well educated, but I got the impression in the book that despite all of the places he studied in, he still wasn’t considered one of the truly elite scholars of Islam. He was kind of on the periphery, kind of considered provincial. It’s almost like he went to a state school, whereas the people that were considered elites maybe went to like the Ivy Leagues. I mean, is that a good parallel? Is that fair?

Cole Bunzel

Yeah, there’s definitely something to that. I mean, this area of Arabia, of the Arabian Peninsula, is remote. It’s provincial. It’s unimportant. This is not a place that had produced a significant Muslim scholarship. Even Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s family, which is supposed to have been this elite scholarly family, has very little to its name in terms of scholarly production. So, compared to the Hanbali scholars in Baghdad, even in Damascus. or Hejaz in the West, yeah, he was a graduate of a state school and he was also somebody who was probably writing essays that irked his teachers the whole time. So, he was an idiosyncratic graduate of the Islamic State School of Central Arabia, you could say.

But also, to this point is that not only did he irk his teachers, he rejected them. So, some of the later biographers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab will point out that he had a lineage of study. He studied with very important teachers all over the region. But if you look at what Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab wrote about his teachers, it basically says that they were heretics and that they didn’t understand the meaning of Islam. There’s a nice little quote I like to read and that opponents of Wahhābism today, even in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like to read, which is Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab talking about his teachers. So, just bear with me.

He says this and this is from an epistle he writes in about 1743. We’re able to date it. He writes, “I will tell you about myself, by God apart from whom there is no God. I sought learning and those who knew me believed that I had some. Yet at that time, I did not know the meaning of there is no God but God,” which is the Muslim confession of faith.

“Nor did I know the religion of Islam before this blessing that God vouched safe to me. Likewise, not one among my teachers knew it. If any of the scholars of al-Rub,” which is the subregion of Central Arabia he’s from, “claims that he knew the meaning of there is no God, but God or knew the meaning of Islam before this time or maintains that any of his teachers knew it, he lies, fabricates, leads people astray and falsely praises himself.”

So, this is a very, very harsh condemnation of the scholarly tradition of his day. There are no teachers to learn Islam from, ibn Abd al-Wahhab is saying, because Islam had practically ceased to exist. So, I, because of the blessing that God vouchsafed to me, I’m going to teach you what it is. So, you can imagine how offensive this line of argument was to those who came across these epistles. So, they authored these numerous refutations, which I discussed in the book, and that are very, very helpful to piecing together what was happening. Because unlike the Wahhabi tradition, which preserves a lot of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s writings, the epistles can be dated because of the refutations, since the reputations are dated and they refer to the epistles.

In some cases, they even reproduce the entirety of the epistles, because the scholar who’s refuting them wants to go through it line by line to say, this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong, this guy’s a heretic. You’re able to recover these epistles and put some rough dates on them and kind of track the development of his preaching.


So, you’ve mentioned a few times that the movement begins in a place called Najd. Looking back, is there anything that’s really special or sets this area apart, maybe it’s because it’s more remote, maybe it’s because of where it’s located or its history, that it was inclined to produce a movement like this and a people like the House of Saud to be able to create a first, second, and third Saudi state?

Cole Bunzel

Well, like I alluded to before, it was a very unlikely event, the emergence of the first Saudi state and the emergence of Wahhābism. There’s no record of anything similar having been tried in the recent history, meaning in the last 500 years of Central Arabia, a heretical preacher coming in and gaining a following and trying to subvert the religious milieu.

So, there really doesn’t seem to be a whole lot that would help you anticipate this movement. But you can point to the remoteness as an advantage for the founder for ibn Abd al-Wahhab because it allowed him the space and terrain, to preach in a way that was effectively unmolested. So, if he had tried this in Baghdad or in Damascus or in the environs thereof, he would’ve been harassed by military forces, by the local politicians and their states. But there really was no state in this area to police his activities.

So, the kind of politically undeveloped nature of the area allowed him to do this, even though as he was sending these epistles, as he was preaching to the local areas, the local scholars were very, very hostile to what he was doing and tried to put an end to it. They solicited the help of outside powers. They even asked for political intervention, for military intervention to ‘stop this crazy fanatic who’s trying to tell us that we’re not Muslims. He’s an awful person. Please help us.’ They wrote things like this and we have the receipts. So, that’s Central Arabia and if you visit Central Arabia, you’ll see it’s a resource scant. There’s hardly anything there other than these oases towns to support local communities. It’s not built to be the seat of a large expansionary state.


But as you point out some of the scholars were saying that they needed to do something about it for quite a long time and the reason why they didn’t was because political leaders just thought it was completely insignificant and so remote and unnecessary to worry about that. They really didn’t even touch it until they actually started conquering territory. Right?

Cole Bunzel

So, it develops very gradually. It takes about 20 plus years for the capital of the first Saudi state to even conquer the surrounding villages. It took, in fact, 20 years to conquer the nearby town of Riyadh and this is just about 20 something miles away. So, the state was no real significant threat to the metropolitan areas of the Ottoman Empire, until the 1790s, which is when it conquered Eastern Arabia and started to threaten Western Arabia where the Islamic holy cities are and which were nominally under the authority of the Ottoman Empire. So, once it conquers Mecca and Medina in about 1805, this sets in motion the process of reconquest, which was carried out by Egypt.

The Egyptians when they get to al-Dirʿiyya in 1818 and they take into captivity the surviving Saudi ruler named ʿAbdallāh Āl Suʿūd, they would eventually bring him back to Istanbul where he was beheaded in a public square but that’s another story. Once they get to al-Dirʿiyya in 1818, they raze it to the ground. They make it uninhabitable. This was the Ottomans sending a message that this is enough. This movement is over. The Egyptians are doing this at the behest of the Ottomans. They leave military installations there. The idea is that this is going to be a place that they supply and they kind of rule, but it becomes very difficult. It’s hard to please this area. It’s kind of like the Americans trying to control Iraq.

There’s effectively an insurgency led by a new Saudi ruler who gives rise to a second Saudi state in the 1820s and that goes to war against the Egyptians. So radical are the Wahabi scholars at this period that they argue that anyone who is not fleeing the Egyptian occupiers or who is not waging jihad against them is a heretic. So, this is another part of the scholarly tradition of Wahhābism, which is extremely radical and exclusive and activist that is later picked up by the jihadis as inspiration.


So, why did this religious philosophy appeal to so many people?

Cole Bunzel

That’s a very good question and there isn’t really good evidence, so we can only speculate. I have a few theories. One is that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was very opposed to a culture of saint and shrine worship that seems to have had some people who didn’t like it like himself. These people who managed these shrines took money from people. It was cultic. So, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab seems to have tapped into some sort of resentment that was already in existence. This is one of my theories.

The second is that the way he appealed to people. He appealed directly to the listener or to the reader in very plain Arabic, sometimes using vernacular Arabic. He boiled down what are otherwise somewhat obstruse concepts into very intelligible ones that help people grasp what were in ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s presentation, the roots of the religion. He told people this is Islam and it’s not what you’re practicing here. Basically, what he’s doing is boiling down the ideas of the earlier scholar, ibn Taymiyyah who dies in 1328, including his ideas about monotheism and polytheism and repackaging them in a way that sells. I call these catechisms. They’re little statements of creed. They’re little epistles that were in some cases memorized by local people.

So, unlike the scholarly class, which was kind of remote and inaccessible and elite, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s trying to appeal to the common man in language that is intelligible and, in a sense, almost empowering the listener or the reader by immediate contact with the text of revelation, with the core teachings of Islam. That clearly was very appealing, because even before there was any real polity, a political entity that was enforcing Wahhābism and that was expanding it, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab seems to have had hundreds, probably thousands of followers at his disposal.


So, some of the ideas that he’s preaching would make a lot of sense if you’re a Muslim, even to contemporary Muslims today. Like really focusing on the idea that there is only one God. That’s a core tenant for Islam to this day. It makes sense that if people are seeing so many others that are venerating saints, that they’d think deeply about it after hearing him and think this makes sense. But what was so controversial about that idea was that he then starts to refer to other Muslims as polytheists. So, why is it that he’s referring to contemporary Muslims as being polytheists?

Cole Bunzel

Well, this is what all of the elite Muslim scholars who read his words at the time thought. They were aghast at the idea that he would say this. So, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, you can respect him for this, took his views to their literal conclusion, which was that if you practice shirk, if you venerate saints in a way that directs some aspect of worship that is due to God to other than God, that means you have committed polytheism and therefore you are a polytheist. So, one of the differences between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and those who inspired his teachings, including ibn Taymiyyah, was that he practiced takfīr or excommunication on a much larger scale.

So, unlike ibn Taymiyyah and other scholars who would excuse lay Muslims and their errors on account of ignorance, a concept called al-ʿudhr biʾl-jahl, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not agree with this. He saw it otherwise. He believed that anyone practicing shirk was a polytheist and ought to be treated like one. In fact, he went further and this is what is most distinctive about his preaching. He would say if you want to be a true Muslim, if you want to profess Islam in the correct manner, in accordance with the Quran, you have to not only direct all worship to God alone, stop this shrine visitation nonsense, but you also have to show hatred and enmity and hostility to the so-called polytheists around you. You have to agitate against this polytheist milieu that you have been born into.

This was one of his core teachings, and it’s found, in fact, in the earliest extant epistle that we have from him, which arrived in Basrah in 1742, just about a year after he started preaching. This was kind of the militant ethos of Wahhābism. It was a hostility to those seen as practicing polytheism. He gathers this from two sources in particular. One is the Quranic example of the prophet Abraham, who in the Quran says to his polytheist community that I am quit of you. I dissociate from you and between me and you there shall be hatred and enmity forever.

So, these words and concepts come from the Quran. They’re also part of the Islamic tradition, but Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab uses them to focus hatred and enmity on nominal Muslims. This was what was so controversial about his teachings, but it also seems to have been a recipe for success.


In the book you write, “Wahhābism was a provocative and activist faith. One that encouraged and even demanded confrontation with those Muslims seen as polytheists during this time and throughout most of its history” Was it more focused on confrontation than building a community with like-minded followers?

Cole Bunzel

That’s a very good question. You know, a lot of the texts that have been preserved for us are from polemics, written by Wahhabi scholars against those who are against the Wahhabi creed. So, when it comes to understanding the building of the community, the enforcement of Islamic law, and the imposition of proper belief and practice on a local level, we know much less. It seems that the main focus of Wahhābism, it should be emphasized, was credal or theological. It had to do with belief. The core beliefs of the Islamic religion. It wasn’t so much about Islamic law which is of course a major issue when it comes to the modern jihadi movement.

When it comes to Islamists they want to impose Islamic law, because they see Islamic law as having been abandoned. It’s almost taken for granted that once the community of true belief of monotheism is recreated, it will follow Islamic law. That’s not an issue. Prayer is prescribed five times a day. There are things that you should avoid like tobacco according to travelers’ accounts. We know most about what was going on internally in the early Saudi polity from travelers’ accounts of how puritanical it was. But we know more from the written scholarly tradition of Wahhābism about what they hated and what it meant for one to be a true Muslim.

We also know that they wanted to kind of cordon off themselves from the larger Islamic world if they couldn’t conquer nearby areas. The next best thing to do, according to the Wahhabi scholars, was to avoid them, was to stay away because as they taught, if you cannot show hatred and enmity in a particular location, then you cannot profess Islam. So, if you cannot go up to the so-called polytheist and say, barāʾa and call them out for their polytheism because they would harass you, put you in prison, and it wouldn’t be safe for you to do so then it is not allowed for you to travel to live in these areas. So, one of the big contentions of 19th century Wahhābism was the issue of travel to so-called lands of Polytheism. Lands of polytheism being, in essence, the Ottoman Empire.

Sometimes they’re rather explicit about this and say that Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are lands of shirk, of polytheism that one is not permitted to visit, to conduct business in, or to travel to. The only proper thing to do about them is to shun them, to avoid them, and hopefully one day we will conquer them and they will be admitted into the realm of Islam.


So, you’ve already mentioned a couple of the key concepts of Wahhābism. You’ve talked about shirk. You’ve talked about takfir. One of the others that most people have probably heard of is jihad, and that was key to the first Saudi state and I would assume the second Saudi state in terms of conquering the land. Can you talk a little bit about how jihad played a role in terms of initiating actual military conquest?

Cole Bunzel

So, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab rooted a lot of his practice in his conduct and what he saw as the conduct of the Prophet Mohammed as it is received in the Sunni Islamic tradition which has the prophet Mohammed preaching in a more or less peaceful, even if confrontational manner in Mecca for 12 years. Then afterward moving to Medina and waging war or jihad against local adversaries. Ultimately, trying to extend the ambit of Islam by means of jihad even further north into Syria. There are these letters preserved, or they might be apocryphal, from the prophet Mohamed to at the ruler of Byzantium, to the ruler of Persia, calling them to accept Islam or else it’s implied we were going to wage jihad against you.

So, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, in the early part of his preaching, is styling himself after Mohamed in the early part of the prophet’s preaching, which is a confrontational, as he understands it, preaching of tawhid, of monotheism, in a sea of shirk, of polytheism. When he gets into al-Dirʿiyya, it’s approximately 1745 and is supported by Muḥammad ibn Suʿūd the warfare of the early al-Dirʿiyya of Muḥammad ibn Suʿūd comes to be seen as jihad against unbelievers, against polytheists. There’s a whole literature in Islamic law about the proper conduct of jihad against unbelievers and this is followed. So, jihad becomes a key aspect of the Wahhabi doctrine going forward.

Once there is political power behind the Wahhabi movement, it’s not sufficient just to show hatred and enmity to your enemies. If you have the means, it’s also necessary to fight them in jihad. That concept is embraced and encouraged. There are commentaries on it from later Wahhabi scholars talking about the importance of fighting the so-called polytheists, because that is what the prophet did.


So, you’ve already alluded to it a little bit, but what extent does Wahhābism today continue to shape modern Saudi Arabia?

Cole Bunzel

One could give a very, very long answer to that. So I’ll try to just make a few points. So, the modern Saudi state begins in 1902 with a man named Abd al-ʿAzīz ibn Āl Suʿūd who becomes the king in 1902. It just has this small part of Arabia, central Arabia. It gradually expands and basically comes to encompass most of the Arabian Peninsula, including the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina, including Eastern Arabia. Eventually it accepts borders and becomes a conventional nation state. So, in 1932, it becomes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

So, Abd al-ʿAzīz drew on the scholars, on the Wahhabi Scholars, and on the Wahhabi doctrine with its emphasis on hatred and enmity to polytheism and jihad against the polytheists to build his state. It was, in essence, a jihadi state in that sense. But once the state has been formed and Abd al-ʿAzīz has made agreements with the international community, he tames the Wahhabi scholars. He essentially says, I’m not going to listen to you, if you’re telling me that I can’t have Western businessmen here. That’s just not going to fly. I don’t care what you say or the scholars say. You can’t have Shia in the Eastern province. They have to be erased from this land. He just ignores their advice.

So, he does this and he also brings them into contact with Muslim scholars from different theological persuasions including Shia in conferences in Western Arabia. So, the scholars that the Wahhabis were condemning as Polytheists just 10 years earlier are now seated at a table across from those scholars in the 1920s. This jarring effect that was brought about by King Abd al-ʿAzīz was his legacy and his tribute to Wahhabi history. So, Wahhābism becomes, in essence, a quite different phenomenon in the 20th century with the rise of the third Saudi state. It’s subdued. It’s tamed. It’s appropriated. It’s brought into the state structure. The intolerance is still there. The core of the Wahhabi doctrine is still there. It’s an unreconstructed doctrine.

But the same level of hatred and enmity is just not there. The extent of the takfir, of the ex-communication of the larger Islamic world, eventually is whittled down. We are not talking about our neighbors as the lands of shirk to be conquered or avoided. So, that’s the first point that Abd al-ʿAzīz tames Wahhābism but then Wahhābism does stay a major part of the state. The Saudi rulers still root their legitimacy in this pact, this union, between the Saudi Royal family and the family of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the Wahhabi creed. So, even the current King Salman, current ruler of Saudi Arabia, in many of his speeches and writings and lectures, has said things like the importance of this union can’t be overstated. This is the basis of the state. We recovered Islam when Islam had ceased to exist.

So, the basic narrative of the whole Saudi state project was more or less the same as it had been in the 18th century. It was just no longer as radical a version of Islam, even though the core tenets there could easily be read literally to mean what ISIS is doing today. So, that’s where we come to what is happening today in terms of the importance of this religion in Saudi Arabia itself. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, the quote unquote reformist Crown Prince. He’s not a political reformer in the sense that he’s not trying to bring democracy to the region, but he is very much a social reformer, cultural reformer, who is trying to reshape his country and he’s doing it extremely effectively.

I’ve been to Saudi Arabia recently and sat down with the Minister of Islamic Affairs and tried to understand what’s going on with the new approach to the Wahhabi heritage and they’re really shunting it aside. Mohamed bin Salman in the last year even declared a new national holiday called quote unquote Founding Day. Founding day is to celebrate the so-called founding of the first Saudi state, which is backdated now to 1727, not to 1744-1745, with the union with Wahhābism. So, the new Saudi narrative of history is to look at the Saudi dynasty before there was any Wahhābism and to predate the Saudi political enterprise to an era when there was no Wahhābism to emphasize that the Saudi kingdom is really not about a particular religious heritage. It’s not about any particular scholar.

Mohamed bin Salman even says this in lectures, in interviews, that there were many scholars. There were many important personages in the first Saudi Arabia. Abd al-Wahhab was one of them, but he has no claim on anything. There are many different opinions on different religious subjects. So, they’re completely rewriting history to erase Wahhābism from the narrative and you could look at it as a false presentation of history. That’s how I look at it. But if you’re looking at it in terms of the kind of benefits that it might bring to Saudi society, you might think that this is an erasure worth supporting.

The second thing beyond the Saudi Kingdom’s movement away from Wahhābism is the fact that the Jihadi movement, which constitutes Isis and Al-Qaeda, since the 1980s has been reappropriating the Wahhabi tradition for itself. So, there’s a Muslim scholar, you could call him an ideologue if you don’t like him. His name is Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī from Jordan who was responsible for bringing Wahhābism into the Jihadi tradition. In the 1980s he wrote a series of books and tracts where he quoted at length from the Wahhabi tradition from Wahhabi Scholars, including some of the epistles that I’ve talked about calling on people to practice true Islam. But the shirk, the polytheism, was no longer about graves and saint worship. It was rather about democracy. It was about political systems that did not impose Sharia, did not impose Islamic law.

So, he used the Wahhabi tradition and retargeted it against the new form, in his view, of Polytheism, which was a kind of legal political polytheism. I call it legal-political shirk and this is the main target of the Jihadi movement today. Some of the texts that ISIS in its heyday was printing and distributing for free in Iraq and Syria were simply some of the standard texts from the Wahabi tradition. The main theological source that the Jihadis draw on today is the Wahhabi tradition, which is historically associated with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But today, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is denying that this is even part of its history.


So, when we think about Wahhābism, usually we’re thinking of Saudi Arabia, because that’s where formal Wahhābism actually continues to exist and proliferate. But when we look for better parallels back to its origins, back to the 18th century, you’re saying that the Jihadi movement is much closer to what the original Wahhabi movement was like, and probably gives us a scarier interpretation of what it was like for people who were dealing with it at that time.

Cole Bunzel

I don’t want to take this too far because there are some extremely big differences between the first Saudi state and say ISIS, the Islamic State. But there are also some very interesting parallels and if you’re looking for a contemporary movement that captures the militant spirit of early Wahhābism, it’s definitely going to be more jihadism than it is the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with its raves and parties and race car driving. The Jihadi movement is a puritanical movement that is seen by the majority of the Islamic world as schismatic heretics much in the same way as the Wahhabis were seen in the 18th century as schismatic heretics who regarded most of the Islamic world as not truly Muslim.

So, there’s a real parallel there and it’s no surprise in that sense that the Jihadis see themselves as the proper extension and embodiment of the early Wahhabi movement. You even find this in a lot of their own writings. I mentioned before that ISIS would publish some of the basic texts of the Wahhabi cannon and in the introductions to these books, the editor would even say things like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia falsely attributes itself to this tradition. We are the heirs, the true heirs of this tradition. I’ve come across an internal document from ISIS where it talks about why it was publishing these Wahhabi texts and one of the reasons was that the Jihadis of ISIS saw themselves as confronting a similar war against the surrounding lands of shirk and unbelief as the early Saudi state.

These parallels have been drawn by the Jihadis and they will continue to insist that they are proper heirs of this tradition and they are going to maintain a commitment to the most controversial aspects of Wahhābism that the heirs to the early Wahhabi tradition who exist in modern Saudi Arabia are just simply not interested in any longer.


Well, Cole, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to plug your book one more time. It’s Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement. So, thank you so much for joining today. Thank you so much for explaining this movement and thanks so much for writing the book.

Cole Bunzel

Thanks for having me on, Justin. I appreciate it.

Key Links

Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement by Cole Bunzel

Read the Jihadica Blog

Learn more about Cole Bunzel

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