The passing away of the Khilafat-e-Rashida (the Caliphate of Pious Caliphs), the glorious democratic rule in the history of Islam, provided a serious setback to the spiritual growth of Islam. The material advancement, no doubt, continued and boundaries of the Muslim states expanded on all directions bringing new realms within their fold, but the spirit which guided the actions of Pious Caliphs was gone. The spiritual glory was replaced by material progress.

The advent of Omayyads provided a death blow to the spiritual democratic rule witnessed during Khilafat-e-Rashida. Instead, a hereditary despotic monarchy in the name of Khilafat-e-Banu Umayya was introduced by the Umayyads in which Baitul-Mal (Public Treasury) was at the mercy of the rulers who used it as they wanted in furthering their nefarious ends and in maintaining their pomp and show. The nobility of Islam perished in their encounters with Umayyads, like Yezid ibn Ziyad and above all Hajjaj bin Yusuf, one of the greatest tyrants of all ages, on whose death the Saint of Basra, Hasan Basri, thanked God for relieving Muslims of such a ‘Scourge’.

The Abbasids who succeeded Omayyads attained an unprecedented standard of pomp and glory. They were, no doubt, responsible for an unparalleled advancement of learning and culture, science, and arts during the Mediaeval Ages, but they were much influenced by the Persian culture which had crept into the diverse walks of life of the Abbaside Metropolis, Baghdad. The introduction of Persian culture among the Arabs gave birth to many evils, including the advancement of the mysticism of the Platonic type, which popularised the worshipping of Saints and their graves by the Muslims. The dynamic worldly life led side by side with the spiritual devotion as preached and practiced by the Holy Prophet of Islam and his worthy Companions was replaced by the pessimism and negative spiritualism of Mystics who laid all emphasis on the world hereafter.

This pollution of Islamic spirit and thought reached a high pitch in a number of Muslim states, including India, where all sorts of irreligious and superstitious Hindu practices were adopted by the Muslims. The illiterate Mughal Emperor Akbar, who has been acclaimed as “Akbar, the Great” by the nonMuslim historians, had adopted many Hindu rituals and practices in his State and had introduced a new religion, ‘Deen-e-Elahi’, which could hardly fetch more than a few followers, including the Faizi brothers, and met its natural death on the passing away of its sponsor.

Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, was languishing in a neglected state since the downfall of the Abbasids. The Arabs, torn by strife and tribal rivalries, had lost their spiritual as well as material progress. In such a gloomy atmosphere was born in 1703 A.C. in Najd, a great Muslim visionary and reformer, Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, who later became the pioneer of Muslim puritan movement, aimed at restoring Islam to its pristine glory. The Wahhabi Movement aimed at purifying Islam of the unhealthy and superstitious practices which had crept into it due to its contacts with non-Islamic influences.

Abd al-Wahhab, belonging to Banu Sinan, a branch of Tamim was born in 1703 A.C. at Uyaina, a place now in ruins. He studied at Madina under Sulaiman al-Kurdi and Muhammad Hayat al-Sindi, both of whom detected in this promising young man, the signs of ‘Etihad’. Later, he spent many years in travels, four years in Basra, and five years in Baghdad, one year in Kurdistan, two years in Hamdan, and four years in Isfahan, where he studied the Mystic and Ishrakiya philosophy. Returning to Uyaina, he spent about a year in speculation. Thereafter, he publicly preached his doctrines as set forth in his Kitab al-Tauhid. Initially, he met with some success but much opposition, mostly from his own relations, including his brother, Sulaiman, and his cousin Abdullah bin Husain. His views attracted attention outside Uyaina. He left along with his family his ancestral place and was received at Dariya, where the Chieftain Muhammad bin Saud accepted his doctrine and undertook its propagation.

Within a year of his arrival at Dariya, Abd al-Wahhab won the assent of almost all the inhabitants of the town. He built a simple mosque there with a floor of uncarpeted gravel. His doctrine won more and more adherents. His patron, the Saud family, was involved in a war with other chieftains lasting for 28 years. During this period Ibn Saud and his son Abd al-Aziz, a capable General, were steadily winning ground. In 1765, Ibn Saud died and was succeeded by his son, Abd al-Aziz, who retained Abd al-Wahhab as his spiritual guide.

The Wahhabi Theology is mainly based on the teachings of Ibn Taimiya and its jurisprudence on the Hanbali Fiqh. Its fundamental principles are:

  • Absolute Oneness of God, hence its followers call themselves Mowahhidin;
  • Return to the original teachings of Islam as incorporated in Holy Quran and Traditions;
  • Inseparability of faith from the action like prayers, alms-giving;
  • Belief that Quran was uncreated;
  • Literal belief in Quran and Traditions;
  • Belief in predestination;
  • Condemnation of all non-orthodox views and act; and
  • Establishment of the Muslim State on Islamic Law exclusively.

The Wahhabis are distinguished from all other Muslims by their emphasis on the oneness of God and their practice of admonishing Muslims to do good and avoid evil.

The name of Wahhabi was given to this community by its opponents which were later used by Europeans. In fact, they call themselves Mowahhidin, or unitarians and their system as “Tarika Muhammadi”. Their theology was based on the teachings of Ibn Taimiya who criticised the cult of saints and condemned the visits to tombs. The aim of Abd al-Wahhab was to do away with all the innovations (Bida) that were adopted by Muslims later than the Third century A.H. This community acknowledges the authority of four Sunni Schools of Fiqh and the six books of Traditions. The Wahhabis are against the cult of saints as exhibited in the building of mausoleums, their use as mosques and their visitations. They believe that all the objects of worship other than that of Allah are false. According to them, it is polytheism to seek intercession from any person except Allah. The Wahhabis mosques were built with great simplicity without ornamentation. They destroyed tombs and graves, even at Jannat ul-Baqi, lest these may be worshipped by the non-orthodox and ignorant Muslims.

The Mowahhidin (Wahhabi) movement soon spread to other parts of the Islamic world, where it had won many adherents. The House of Ibn Saud, the exponent of Wahhabi movement, soon conquered almost the entire Arabian peninsula, including the Holy cities of Makkah and Madina. The movement started by Sheikh Abd al-Wahhab found its great champion in the Saudi ruling family and his disciple Sheikh Muhammad Abduh of Egypt rose to be one of the leading intellectuals of the Islamic world. It created a stir throughout the world and was greatly instrumental in uniting strife-ridden Arabia under the ruling Saudi family.

In India, the doctrine was introduced by Syed Ahmed Barelvi, who had adopted its puritan views during his pilgrimage to Holy cities in 1822. He established a centre at Patna and acquired a large following. He undertook Jihad (Holy war) against the tyranny of Sikhs on the Muslims in the Frontier provinces and liberated most of the province from the Sikh Yoke but ultimately he was killed through a conspiracy of his own men who led the Sikh army through a secret route behind the Muslim lines at Balakot in 1831. His disciple Titoo Mir, started the Mowahhid movement in lower Bengal.

The Mowahhid movement had been a threat to British rule in the Frontier and Western Punjab till 1871, when the British Government conspired to get Fatwa of the Barelvi Ulema to treat Wahhabis as infidels (kafir). A work of Muhammad Ismail known as Sirat al-Mustaqim is said to be the Quran of Wahhabis in India.

In India, the well-known Madrassa of Islamic Learning at Deoband became the centre of Mowahhid (Wahhabi) movement in the subcontinent, which produced some of the leading religious scholars of the present century in the subcontinent. The great Muslim visionary Sheikh Abd al-Wahhab died in 1787 A.C. and was buried at Dariya. His mission was carried on by his disciples, which became a powerful Muslim reformist movement during 18-20 century A.C.

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