Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad

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Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, is a book by academic Natana J. DeLong-Bas, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. It is based "on a close study of the 14 volumes" of collected works[1] of Wahhabism's founder, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab and has been called "the first extensive explication of the theology" of Wahhabism.[1] The book "reveals" (according to its author), "a more moderate, sophisticated, and nuanced" interpretation of Islam than the "standard image" of Wahhabism.[2]

The work is divided into sections: a brief religious biography and history of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, his "theology and world view", Islamic law, women and Wahhabism, jihad and the evolution of Wahhabism.[3]

The work has been praised as a “monumental work ... lucid and carefully documented",[4] "often fascinating", and presenting "a nuanced discussion of Wahhab's Quranic interpretation",[1] but also criticized as a "piece of scholarly trash"[5] and of “markedly inferior quality",[6] and guilty of "special pleading".[1]


According to the author, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab has been misunderstood by historians, who have portrayed his teachings as rigid, literal, and extreme.

In many dozens of places throughout her book DeLong-Bas contradicts "preconceived notions" and "negative stereotypes"[7][Note 1] of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, contrasting them with his level of expertise -- "a well-trained and widely traveled scholar and jurist";[2] his true beliefs, interests and approach—a devotion "to the concept of social justice”, concern with "the protection of women and the poor";[8] preference “to win converts through discussion, debate, and persuasion rather than force”,[9] call for “fighting and military engagements” in the “struggle against unbelievers (kuffar) and hypocrites (munafiq)“ only as a “last resort” after “education and the call to Islam” had failed.[10]

His enmity towards non-Muslims has also been overstated, DeLong-Bas believes. He did not "divide the world" into Wahhabis and non-Wahhabis.[11] And while he did "at times" make "vehement denunciations" of them, he "never called for their destruction or death“.[12] "Even in the case of jihad, if Muslims find themselves in need” Ibn Abd al-Wahhab stated that “they may enter the territory of non-Muslims tribes that are friendly to them, [to take what they need] though only with the express permission of the imam,” (i.e the jihad fighters' leader). [13]

In writing her book the author explains that she used primarily Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's writings and those of sympathetic chroniclers. She did not make extensive use of "accounts written by Wahhabi opponents," because their vehemence made it "very difficult to discern the difference between facts and rumors", and because many of the accounts did not deal with Wahhabism during the lifetime of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab."[14]


Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (also abbreviated IAW in this article) came from a family of Hanbali "jurists and theologians". He studied under his father and also in Hijaz and Basra. Inspired to preach the importance of Tawhid (monotheism) in Najd, he began to develop a following and put his words into "practical application" by cutting down a sacred tree, destroying a tomb monument, and stoning to death an adulterous woman.[15] (Although some consider these actions examples of "extremism", IAW himself did not delight in killing the woman but "was uncomfortable with the outcome of this tragic case".[16]) In 1744 he formed an alliance with Muhammad bin Saud, the local leader of the town of al-Dir'iyah. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab would be the imam, "responsible for religious matters", and Ibn Saud the amir, "in charge of political and military issues".[17]

Over the next several decades, this alliance went on to takeover most of the Arabian peninsula, but not always through jihad. Muhammad ibn Saud did not follow the principles of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in his conquests, but IAW did not “actively" support or promote the conquests. He “merely `acceded` to” them, showing his lack of support by leaving the company of ibn Saud to devote himself “to spiritual matters and prayer.”[9] When Ibn Abd al-Wahhab did declare jihad against opponents, it was because they started it and justified their "military actions by accusing the Wahhabis of ignorance, sorcery and lies". Even then, IAW's jihad was "defensive" and "limited in scope", only attacking "those who had either attacked or insulted his followers directly."[18]

Tawhid and shirk

The first and foremost duty of the Muslim, preceding even salat prayer, according to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is belief in one God, monotheism (tawhid).[19] Inversely, polytheism or idolatry, (shirk), the opposite of monotheism, is “the one unforgivable sin.”[20] "Failure to uphold Tawhid" may lead not just to damnation in Afterlife, but to "collapse of the social order, evil, tyranny, corruption, oppression, injustice and degeneration" in the temporal world.[21]

However, contrary to what some have alleged, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, did not advocate the immediate killing of anyone declared a mushrik (one who practices shirk), but called for first giving preaching and education a chance to reform them. He did not call for jihad against polytheists, but rather qital, “which is more generic term for fighting”.[22] Nor did he call for the annihilation or destruction of particular religious groups, (though he did at times "vehemently" denounce them).[23]

Examples of shirk

According to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, shirk (or as the author refers to it, "associationism"), is much more than believing in more than one God. Among the most serious examples of shirk are “worshiping, sacrificing to, slaughtering to, praying to, invoking, seeking intercession by, or attributing authority to anyone or anything other than God.” This include intercession by the Muslim prophet Muhammad[24] [Note 2] But calling on “anyone or anything" other than God for help or anything else is shirk, and "is strictly, totally, and permanently forbidden", because ‘this calling signifies worship of the one called upon`", [26][27] and worship accords "godlike status to created beings and objects.”[27] Anyone who requests intercession or who believes "in the power of requesting for intercession "must be fought until they adhere to monotheism".[27]

Also forbidden is “considering the writings or teachings of religious scholars, whether priests, rabbis, ulama (Islamic clerics) or jurists, to be as authoritative as God’s revelation.”[20] The imitation of past juridical rulings, and traditions (taqlid), and placing human knowledge and science above the revelations of the Quran and hadiths.[20]

Use of amulets, charms or talismans to cure disease, ward off the evil eye, or other problems, is “actually graver in nature than major sins”, and ignorance of its prohibition is “no excuse”. Wearers of talismans are to be rejected and condemned and their talismans removed immediately. Wearing an amulet or talisman so “as to be subject to its control” is grounds for “immediate death.”[28] (The only exception to this prohibition is a talisman consisting of Quranic verses that are used to ward off jealousy or the sting of deadly animals.[28])

“Sorcery” – i.e. seeking to know the future through astrology, blowing on knots, using particularly beautiful language,[29] and other means—is such a grave sin that it is punishable by “immediate death”.[28]

Taking pride in the achievements of relatives, attacking others for "weak genealogies", seeking rain by astrology are further examples of shirk. Seeking to know “fact that are hidden”, (such as the location of stray animals, the meaning of omens) through diviners or fortune-tellers rather than God, is blasphemy.[30]

Making “what appear to be harmless statements”—like attributing a good harvest to rainfall, or someone's wealth to the person who left them an inheritance—is shirk. This is because it is God and not rain or inheritance that provides any such blessings. Doing so can be a “reflection of continued shirk in the heart and mind.”[31] Likewise, phrases like `if only such and such had happened` and `If only so an so had done such and such` should be avoided.[32] Joking or jesting about God, the Quran, or Muhammad is an “act of unbelief.”[32]

Another common practice to avoid is expressing sorrow or giving a “negative response” to the death of a loved one or any other adversity,[31] These express disagreement with the will of God, and therefore contest tawhid.[24]

Explaining why domes and shrines over tombs had to be destroyed, IAW explained that these structures had the "potential to lead people astray" even if their builders opposed shirk and had no desire to foster it.[33]

“Lesser” or “hidden” shirk include showing off when praying or indulging in luxuries for their own sake. These actions `purportedly undertaken in order to serve or worship God that actually has the intent of calling attention to oneself`. They are shirk because they place a human being (the self) in the place that rightfully belongs to God.[34]

It is important to note that “However much he denounced certain practices or beliefs, IAW never called for wholesale killing of people, not even apostates. ... he declared that it is perfectly acceptable, and even beneficial, to carry out business with anyone who is friendly to Muslims" even if they are non-Muslims.[13] “Declarations and accusations of or ruling against apostasy" were "quite rare" in his works and he "further cautioned that evidence of apostasy must be very clear" before seizing their property and killing them.[13]

Other theology

Difference of opinion

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab "sharply disagreed" with other ulama who claimed that "variances of opinion" within the Muslim community should be "interpreted as a mercy to the people". He believed that they were actually "a source of chaos (fitna)" because differences "obfuscated rather than clarified the issues and judgments.”[35] But DeLong-Bas states that he also "recognized the reality of the potential plurality of interpretations on certain matters" and was not interested in condemning people through legalistic" interpretation.[36]

Islam is the source of all knowledge

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab believed "that direct knowledge of the Quran and hadith should be the foundation for all other knowledge, ..."[37] Placing "human knowledge and science" above "the revelations of the Quran and hadith" is a sin because it assigns "power and sovereignty, which are God's alone, to someone or something other than God."[20] On the other hand, the author tells us that although astrology was strictly forbidden, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab "was careful to state clearly" that astronomy was not. From this we know that "he believed that faith should not preclude attempts to know and understand physical knowledge."[38]


"Major" or "grave" sins include:

  • Slaughtering an animal in any other name than Allah’s
  • Cursing one’s parents
  • Sheltering the perpetrator of a crime carrying divine sanction so as to enable the perpetrator to escape punishment
  • Unjustly altering the boundaries of personal land properties in order to achieve illegitimate advantage[32]
  • Shirk
  • Sorcery
  • Murder
  • Consumption of interest
  • Robbery of an orphan
  • Desertion on the day of battle
  • False accusations against chaste women[32]

Of these the "biggest" sins are

  • Shirk,
  • Disobedience to one’s parents, and false testimony. and finally
  • Lack of goodness or righteousness in the heart that spoils the entire body.”[32]
Sins of the government
  • being dishonest toward or defrauding subjects;
  • hiding or veiling things from citizens;
  • showing favoritism in governing;
  • engaging in tyranny, oppression, or injustice;
  • permitting dishonest sales, contracts, purchases, measures, or weights.[39]
  • Governments necessarily need to hide some things from citizens. They also cannot give perfect justice. Injustice to someone or something is inevitable. In setting the above blanket rules for Islamic governments, Wahhab and DeLong-Bas have justified totalitarianism in a subtle form. If a government fails to stick to the above rules what will the people do to it? What will the neighboring Islamic country do? What should the militants do? We leave the answers as a guess to the reader.
  • Why is sorcery a grave sin? Sorcery has no basis in science; according to Muslims themselves, Allah and Quran are in complete compatibility with science. Is Allah scared of sorcery?

Faith, good actions and excusing unbelief

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself repeatedly asserted that good actions are not enough "even when combined with ritual perfection". What "ultimately matters" for the Muslim is "faith" and the "intent behind actions".[40] Unbelief anywhere in the world is "never acceptable" because through history and all over the world people "have been told in their own language by a series of prophets what the Word of God is" so an unbeliever is not ignorant but one who has "deliberately chosen to disobey". Nonetheless, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab "presumed all persons to be innocent of unbelief or apostasy unless and until they have been properly instructed in the faith."[41]

Shi'i Islam

DeLong-Bas states that "although it is often asserted" that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was "adamantly opposed to Shiism", he only "denounced" some practices of theirs and "never specifically mentioned the Shia by name" except in one treatise where he "targeted only one particular extremist sect, the Rafidah".[42][Note 3]

She goes on to say that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab opposed Shia doctrine of

  • denying the legitimacy of the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) as a violation of the hadith stating `my community will never agree in an error' (Ijma),
  • the practice of according infallible status to those descendants of Muhammad who were imams,[44]
  • the status of "the most preferred of the companions" to Ali,[45] and
  • he also questioned the logic of the exclusion of Hasan ibn Ali (the oldest son of Ali and Fatima and older brother of Imam Husayn ibn Ali) and his descendants, from the succession of the imams. (p. 85-6)[46][Note 4]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab declared that believing in a particular hadith—which states that the Shi'i imams (descendants of Muhammad) are Muhammad's successors as leaders of the Muslim community—or following anyone who believed it, is an act of unbelief.

According to the hadith—which provides the basis for the Shi’i doctrine of the Imamate, and is embraced by Shia—Muhammad debated with God the wisdom of appointing a caliph to lead the Muslims after his death, but God stood by His original decision to have the Muhammad succeeded by male descendants (the Imams). IAW argued that the hadith must be fabricated because other, better hadith contradicted it, and furthermore debating anything with God would be an act of disobedience.[45]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab also wrote a long and detailed explanation of how accusations by some Shia that Muhammad's favorite wife (Aisha) had had an adulterous affair (the “Affair of the Necklace”) were an act of unbelief. (The marriage of Aisha and Muhammad was consummated when he was 53 years old and she was nine.) IAW pointed out that Quranic verses revealed to Muhammad defended the innocence of Aisha and called for the fighting and killing of those defamed her.[47]

Islamic law

While there are four binding sources in Islamic law for Sunni jurists—the Quran, the Sunna, "consensus" (ijma), and "analogy" (qiyas) -- Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s writings emphasized the Quran and Sunna, using ijma only “in conjunction with its corroboration of the Quran and hadith"[48] (and giving preference to the ijma of Muhammad's companions rather than the ijma of legal specialists after his time), and qiyas only in cases of extreme necessity.[49] He rejected the imitation of past scholarship (taqlid) in favor of independent reasoning (ijtihad), opposed using local customs,[50] and corruption.


He employed the principle of serving the needs of the general public (Maslaha), while being mindful that it had been used by in the past rulers as a rationalization “to cheat and deceive the people out of their property“.[51] Some cases where Ibn Abd al-Wahhab supported the use of maslahah were

  • in delaying of the payment of the almsgiving (zakat) tax in cases of dire necessity (such as during a drought),
  • in punishment of sexual activity outside of marriage.[52]
  • giving unbelievers taken captives in jihad the choice of death or submission to the Muslims via payment of a poll tax on non-Muslims (jizyah).[52]
  • setting aside one-fifth of the booty obtained during jihad for public welfare activities[52]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not refer to the principle of naskh (the idea that seemingly contradictory Quranic verses can be explained by the fact that some verses may have been overridden by a later revelation) frequently … as he preferred that “scripture should be used to interpret scripture.” However, verses he did believe to be abrogated were those: allowing sex with slave girls, temporary marriage (Mut'ah), jihad as an individual military duty, and booty/spoils of jihad being the property of individual jihad fighter rather than “God”.[53]


The Ijtihad of IAW was “designed to return to the primary sources” of Islam in order “to determine how the Quran and Muhammad dealt with specific situations,”[54] to discern the truth avoiding any set agenda.[55]

He gave as an example of a misuse of ijtihad one fatwa that allowed divorce by a simple proclamation by the husband of “taliq, taliq, taliq” (“I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee”) without any waiting period in between taliqs. IAW argued that three different hadiths had Muhammad stating that waiting periods were required.[56]

Other issues

Contrary to the association of IAW’s school of Islam with literalism and mindless rote memorization, IAW declared `The key of knowledge is questions.`[57] He “insisted on establishing the context of particular verses" of the Quran or hadith “so as to avoid a literal interpretation,” found the emphasis on memorization in the religious sciences to be “problematic”,[54] highlighted the importance of the intent and spirit behind the actions taken rather than the ritualism involved,[58] and denounced literalist ulama "for their ignorance,” and “rigidity.”[59]

Another claim of some critics—that IAW was a “blind” follower of jurist Ibn Taymiyya—is contradicted by the fact that only three of 170 citations in his work Kitab al-Tawhid, refer to the works of Ibn Taymiyya.[60][Note 5]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab never directly claimed to be a Hanbali jurist, warned his followers about the dangers of adhering unquestionably to fiqh, and did not consider “the opinion of any law school to be binding.”[62] He did, however, follow the Hanbali methodology of extreme conservatism in interpretation of the Sharia.[62]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab encouraged his followers to turn to the example of Muhammad’s companions (Salafs) rather than the opinions of the law schools. In one case, the law schools were unable to agree on the issue of whether property stolen from Muslims but taken in jihad as booty by other Muslims could be returned to the original owner after booty had been distributed or only before it had. Using independent reasoning (ijtihad) and examining a “strong” hadith[63] where a slave girl stolen from Muhammad was captured in jihad and returned to him, IAW found that the property could be returned even after distribution of booty.[62]

In one ruling where he diverged from a literal interpretation of Islamic law was inheritance law where orphaned grandchildren were excluded as heirs of their grandfather because their parent was dead and the portion normally going to the parent was redistributed. IAW ruled in favor of “the right of the grandchild to inherit in the parent’s place" as being "in keeping with the principles of justice and equity intended by the Quran.”[64]

Women's rights, marriage and family issues

While Ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not believe that women had equal right with men since “certain responsibilities and rights vary according to gender”,[65] he “was actively engaged in the empowerment of women through support of awareness and enforcement of their rights,” and “made it clear that men and women were equal in terms of their responsibilities toward God.” For example he permitted women to recite the Quran (provide they had proper understanding of it and were properly veiled) regardless of whether they were menstruating or not.[66] Further, he “made it clear” that both genders “were equal in terms of their responsibilities toward God,” by stating that both men and women were required to observe the five pillars of Islam.[65] But if women living under "contemporary Wahhabi regimes" suffer from what the author calls "apparent oppression", where does it come from? DeLong-Bas asks if this misogyny "has more to do with patriarchy and local customs" than IAW's teachings.[67]

Sexual relations

While he is famous for leading the stoning to death of an adulterous woman early in his career, DeLong-Bas writes that in fact "His overriding concern was to protect women in the sphere in which they were the most vulnerable -- sexual relations."[68] His writing "makes it clear that marriage is the only legal means for the satisfaction of sexual desire".[69] The author explains that we know this based on his proclamation that "any man ... who fornicates with a Muslim woman" whether slave or free is to be put to death,[68] and his "elaboration on the topic of sexual relations with slaves and servants.".[68]

Sex with slave girls

DeLong-Bas states that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab "declared sexual relations with slave women to be forbidden because they occurred outside of marriage."[69] In fact, she admits he never used the Islamic term for forbidden, "haram",[Note 6] but she notes he did state that "it is preferable (afdal)" and "a supererogatory act of worship" (i.e. going beyond what duty requires) for a slave owner "to give it up/withdraw" from sex with any slave girls/women he might own.[70] He also taught that "it is preferable for" a slave owner to emancipate and marry any slave/servant woman who had bears him a child.[69]


Marriage is "a contractual relationship" in Islamic law. The wife is "responsible for providing sexual intercourse and children to her husband" and "for being obedient (nushuz) to him". "In exchange", the husband is responsible for providing his wife "with a dower (mahr) and maintenance, including food, clothing, and shelter, as well as sexual intercourse."[71]

"Ibn Abd al-Wahhab noted five conditions imposed by Muhammad for the contracting of a valid marriage:

  1. determination of the spouses-to-be, (this avoids mistakes "such as the confusion of one daughter or sister for another".[72])
  2. consent of the spouses-to-be,
  3. contracting of the marriage by a male guardian (wali) (IAW "taught that any marriage contracted by someone other than the girl/woman's marriage guardian even if it is the woman herself, is not valid and the marriage is void," since "a girl/woman "giving herself in marriage was tantamount to harlotry."[73] The guardian should verify that the husband-to-be is a Muslim, mature, honorable, is sexually and intellectually able, and is not a slave.[74] The guardian should be the bride’s father, but in the event the father could not, IAW gives a "order of succession" of various male relatives.[Note 7]
  4. presence of two reliable/just witnesses, (there must be "two male witness of just and reliable character at the conclusion of the marriage contract." If one or more male witnesses are unavailable, two female witnesses are acceptable as the equivalent of one male witness and may be substituted.)[75]
  5. equality of status between the man the woman.[72] (This refers not to the husband and wife having equal status in their marriage but to whether the groom comes from a background of equal social status to the bride. This is so important that if the guardian "was not aware of the man's lower status prior to the marriage," he can request the marriage be rendered invalid, "regardless of the opinion of the bride". DeLong-Bas writes that this "reflects his responsibility to ensure that the woman is married to an appropriate man." Because a marriage to "a man of lower social status would lower the woman's status...")[76][Note 8]

While Ibn Abd al-Wahhab ruled that marriages of girls under the age of nine were permissible, they "should only take place with the girl's consent, leaving the power in her hands ..."[80] Consent to marry need not be verbal but can be "an approving gesture of some sort during the actual contracting of the marriage."[81]

Preparations for Marriage

The Hanbali school granted the woman the "right to stipulate conditions in her marriage contract."[82] For example, the wife may insist that her husband not marry additional wives or take a concubine, on the other hand if she is to be his second (or third or fourth) wife, she may not demand that he divorce his current wife or wives.[83] The couple "has the right to meet" prior to entering into the marriage contract, and the man has "the right to look at his potential wife". While normally a marriageable woman would only have her face, hands and feet, uncovered,[84] the potential husband is allowed to view the potential wife's "full head, (including hair), and legs/thighs". If the potential wife is not a virgin he is allowed a "more open view".[85] (While this might sound like "examination of horseflesh" to some", the author states "it is done simply to satisfy "the practical need to determine compatibility of some sort between the future couple."[85] Furthermore IAW forbade the viewing of the opposite sex on other circumstances, such as the looking at beautiful women by men unless they are related nor married to them, or women looking at male visitors who are not visiting for "the express purpose of seeking to marry them."[86]


Belying "the extremist misogynist he is often made out to be," IAW responded to a picayune question about "some minute details of women's dress" with a fatwa not spelling out dress regulations, but simply stating "that clothing and maintaining the wife are the responsibility of the husband, and ended the discussion. Thus it is left to the husband, rather than an external party" (or the wife herself) "to decide how his wife ought to dress."[87]


The amount of the marriage Mahr (a compulsory dower in Islam given to the bride by the groom) should be decided by negotiation, according to IAW.[88]

While the Quran specifies that the mahr goes to the bride and not the bride's family, IAW permitted the father of the woman to stipulate a portion of the mahr for himself in exchange for marrying off his daughter.[89]

Wedding Feasts

In yet another "sharp austere to the typical portrayal" of Wahhabis, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab asserted that wedding feasts must be publicly announced, `joyful/delightful occasion[s]` where "all must be invited regardless of status". (This carries "out the message of social justice", and contradicts the image of Wahhabis "as austere and puritan in their approach to life".) While no sinful behavior may take place, effeminate males should not be excluded if they behave themselves, (proof that IAW believed effeminate men "should not be ostracized" and that "it is not anyone else's job to police him"), tambourines may be used (this "negates the claim that Wahhabis are opposed to all forms of music"). Women's voices may "publicly proclaim the fact of the marriage", love poetry may be recited, and guests may mingle.[90] Guests should eat with their right hands using three fingers, one should lick one's hand prior to wiping it off, and never eat while seated.[91]

Relations between man and wife

A husband and wife are commanded not only to protect each other but “to smile and be cheerful” with each other, and if they dislike each other to not make this obvious, and to protect each other. While women are commanded to have sexual relations with their husband they are not obligated to engage in sexual activity that harms them or interferes with their religious duties indicates.[92]

Men are commanded to treat their wives equally including in matters of sex. A wife has the right to sex every four days, unless the man has a new wife in which case the other wives may have to wait, as he "has the right" to spend three consecutive nights with a new wife, seven nights if she is a virgin.[93]

Wife beating

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab emphasizes that a husband has the right to beat his wife only when the wife is refusing sexual relations with him and only after lesser punishments of "admonishing" her, and "parting company with her" have failed.[94]

IAW “went to great lengths to emphasize" that the husband's right to strike his wife is not "a license for committing violence" against her, nor does "it make domestic violence a religious prescription or right". The "purpose of the blow" is only "to emphasize the admonition ..."[95]

"Men can also be considered nushuz if they neglect their martial duties." [95][Note 9]


"The Quran specifies three possible types of divorce:

  1. divorce initiated by the husband (talaq),
  2. divorce initiated by the wife (khul`), and
  3. divorce due to the husband's unsubstantiated accusations that his wife has committed adultery (li'an).[95]

"Historically, men have wielded the most power in matters of divorce [talaq] because they are not required to offer a reason for repudiating their wives.[95] Ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached that a husband making a talaq divorce must provide maintenance for his ex-wife during the iddah (her waiting period before she can remarry) and give her any part of her mahr not yet paid.[96] He also "allowed several legal mechanisms" by which an abandoned wife "could seek an end to a marriage",[97] and forbade men seeking a divorce from avoiding paying their ex-wives maintenance by forcing her to initiate a divorce.[98]

IAW was vehement in denouncing the practice of "triple talaq"—instant divorce by pronouncing three talaqs at one sitting rather than spacing the pronouncements over three menstrual cycles. While this practice has historically been legally recognized in the Muslim world—and in Saudi Arabia in particular—IAW found hadith evidence against it quite unambiguous.[99]


Ibn Abd al-Wahhab "particularly emphasized that requirement that the woman be permitted to continue to reside in her matrimonial home [the home she lived in while married] after being either widowed or repudiated by talaq if she is pregnant."[100]

Widows are "cautioned" to avoid behavior (such as being “overly friendly, well dressed, or adorned”, or leaving their house) “that could potentially attract undesirable attention.” This discretion would “ensure that the widow would be treated with respect and could live a quiet life.”[101]

Inheritance and Custody of Children

In the case of divorce or the death of one of the spouses "generally speaking, IAW asserted the right of the mother to custody of her child. While classical Islamic law changes custody of a boy from mother to father at age of seven and girl at age of puberty, IAW allowed a boy to select his own guardian at age of "maturity" (although he preferred that girls went to custody of their father).[100]

"When asked to rule on matters of inheritance, he defended the rights of women."[102]


IAW did not believe that the "pursuit of knowledge"—i.e. Islamic knowledge—was "the end goal" for good Muslims. They also were required to "seek to spread knowledge".[103]

Although "many have claimed" that Wahhabis believe in using jihad to do this, IAW's "writings make it clear"[104] that he believed missionary work or proselytizing (da'wah), or winning true "converts to God" was best done[104] "through discussion and debate rather than violence and killing."[103]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab called his followers `the army of God` and `the victorious ones in argument and in language, just they are victorious by the sword and by the spear`, and so "made clear the importance of discussion on conversion by conviction rather than by violence."[105]

In da'wah, the convert first declared "absolute monotheism" before going on to the other pillars of Islam. Having become "a true Muslim" who could "enjoy the benefits of membership" in the Muslim community, the proselytizer was then to address whatever complaints "those who claimed to be suffering from injustice" might have. From this we learn (DeLong-Bas tell us) that while winning converts is "an important first step ... the main goal of expanding the Muslim community is to create a just society."[105]


DeLong-Bas emphasizes several time in her book that for IAW Jihad is "always a defensive military action",[106] "must be strictly defensive in nature".[107] It "must always have a religious justification".[108] Its purpose "is the protection and aggrandizement of the Muslim community as a whole",[108] and "to win adherents to Islam".[109] It is not for "personal gain or glory",[108] not to take booty.[110] -- Jihad is "not intended to be a get-rich-quick scheme."[109]

"Defensive" in this case, however, does not mean fighting off attackers or harassers, but fighting those who have rejected the call to Islam, refused to recognize Muslim hegemony by paying tribute. Christians and Jews (People of the Book) are to pay the special jizyah poll tax, "in recognition of Muslim hegemony and in exchange for protected status." Those who refuse are actually making a "choice" to fight the Muslims, "rendering them the aggressors in the conflict", according to the author.[111]

Further proof that "the degree of violence" in jihad encouraged by Wahhabis "is not as extreme" as has often been portrayed, is that IAW "specifically used the Arab term" for `fighting` (qaatala) rather than `killing` (qatala) in talking about jihad.[107][Note 10]

Jihad "can only be declared by the religious leader (imam)",[112] who is also responsible for making sure rules of jihad are followed, for distributing funds from the treasury (Bayt al-Mal),[113] and concluding truces and treaties with the enemy whereby they acknowledge Muslim jurisdiction and pay jizyah tax.[113]

Jihad is a collective duty (fard kifayah), to be carried out once a year by mature, financially able (non-slave), male Muslims.[114]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab places numerous restrictions on jihad. He requires that the enemy be called to Islam before being attacked. He forbade jihad against non-Muslims who had submitted to jizyah tax or who have a business relationship with Muslims, the killing of children, elderly, blind or monks (these were to be called to Islam "until they either submit or God causes them to die for their errors in faith"), or women (provided they did not fight Muslims, encourage non-Muslim fighters or engaged in "revile or scold" Muslims/Wahhabis).[115] Jihad could not be waged just because Muslims found "the personal habits or practices of a given group of people ... inappropriate" (inappropriate practices including the "drinking of date wine (khamr)" or "a desire for power").[107]

The author states that IAW even called for the punishing of fighters who had killed one or more of the enemy in jihad. They are deprived of their share [of booty] and "cast out of this rank", yet another example of "IAW's overall concern for the maximum preservation of life ..."[116]

Even captives taken in combat who refused to convert to Islam were not to be killed (unless they were adult male polytheists or refused to pay jizyah).[117]

Destruction and booty

The deliberate destruction of property not related to jihad is forbidden and the taking of property is subject to many restrictions. For example the territory of a non-Muslim tribe friendly to Muslims can only be entered and property taken to fulfill Muslim needs during jihad, and only with the approval of the Muslims' imam (religious leader). Only if the property is "owner-less" (for example firewood) can the Muslims take as much as they need. Otherwise Muslims may take only one-fifth of the property of a non-Muslim-tribe-friendly-to-Muslims. "Thus, participation in jihad does not serve as a license to take whatever property one comes across or wishes,"[118] and the portrayal of Wahhabis as participating "in rampant and wanton destruction in the course of their military activities", is "clearly is not sanctioned by the writings of their religious guide."[113]


Also subject to strict regulations is the dividing of booty taken from the enemy after the jihad.[Note 11] Clothing, personal jewelry ... and weaponry are considered the property of the individual who took them."[119] Riding animals, not just human fighters also got their own share of booty.[120]

After fighting was done, booty collected, and inspected to make sure none came from non-enemy sources,[121] It was to be divided, with four fifths of the money and property going to the leader (emir) and the mujahidin,[110] and the rest reserved for orphans, the poor, and the `sons of the path`.[116] [Note 12]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab taught that "only "worn and undesirable robes [thobes) captured in battle could be worn, only "emaciated" riding animals could be ridden.[120] Weapons could be taken from the enemy only "in such a way" that the enemy was not "cast down ... by it."[119]

Slaves as Booty

Booty included people, but as mentioned before "IAW was careful to note that the taking of a female captive does not entitle the owner to sexual relations with her ...." [Note 13] "Here again he broke with other law schools in his concern for human dignity and welfare..."[119]

One restriction some of the non-Muslim (non-Wahhabi) enemy may not have appreciated was on the return of women and children taken captive. Although they had to remain captive/slave and not return home, this captivity provided them "with the opportunity to become Muslims themselves".[117] If they were sold as slaves it had to be to another Muslim.[Note 14]

Dhimmi and jihad

Post-jihad, the conquered non-Muslim "dhimmi" in a "treaty relationship" were "entitled to remain on their property in exchange" for obedience and paying taxes applied to non-Muslims -- "the land tax (kharaj) and the poll tax (jizyah)." IAW "specifically forbade Muslims from overtaxing their subjects,"[123] or from purchasing the subjects land.[Note 15]

Revenue from these taxes and from property abandoned by non-believers fleeing jihad became the collective property of the Muslims, with "no distinctions to be made in terms of combatants versus noncombatants, age, or social or financial status", with the exception of the portion that went "to the leader to be used at his discretion".[123]

Why he is misunderstood

As to why Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's interpretation of Islam, with its focus on "education and persuasion" and "narrow and restricted discussion of jihad" has been misrepresented for over a century as literalistic, intolerant, violent, etc., and now portrayed as the inspiration for supporters of "unlimited global jihad",[124] DeLong-Bas offers several explanations.

  • The status and power of religious leaders of his era were threatened by IAW's preaching that all Muslims had the "right and the responsibility to encounter and study the Quran and hadith." They responded by smearing his teachings as violent and intolerant.[125]
  • Muhammad bin Saud's son and successor as emir -- Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad—departed from Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's teachings, adapting a `convert or die` policy towards conquered subjects, "for the express purpose of acquiring wealth and property".[126]
  • Also in the 19th century, Wahhabis adapted the ideology of Ibn Taymiyya, who called for "jihad against anyone who refused to abide by Islamic law or revolted against the true Muslim authorities" on the grounds that such people were not true Muslims. Wahhabis embraced Ibn Taymiyyah (according to DeLong-Bas) because they badly wanted to evict the Sharif rulers of the two holy cities in Hijaz, and to rule Mecca and Medina themselves in a more righteous manner. The sharifs were—according to some contemporary observers—greedy, religiously slack, unjust, and incompetent in protecting hajji pilgrims from bandits, but were also Muslims, and waging war against other Muslims was forbidden in Islam. Ibn Taymiyya's belief provided a work-around by allowed Wahhabis to declare the Sharifs unbelievers. Wahhabis went on to drive the sharifs from Hijaz and to accept other beliefs of Ibn Taymiyya different from those of IAW, such as
    • a strict division of the world into opposing realms of dar al-kufr and dar al-Islam;
    • a "far more extremist approach to the questions of violence and killing than did Ibn Abd al-Wahahb";
    • looser rules of jihad (for example, allowing the killing of captives, the launching of jihad against unbelievers as punishment for infractions as slight as not giving to the Muslim whatever the Muslims demands of them); and
    • a passion for martyrdom in jihad and a preoccupation with the glories awaiting martyrs (those who die in jihad) in the afterlife.[127] Many of these themes—opposed or untouched by IAW—became prominent among Global jihadis and Islamic radicals.
  • 20th century Islamist Sayyid Qutb, like Ibn Taymiyya, focused on martyrdom and jihad, adding the theme of the implacable treachery and enmity towards Islam of Christians and especially Jews. In his influential book Milestones, Qutb preached that jihad, `is not a temporary phase but a permanent war ... Jihad for freedom cannot cease until the Satanic forces are put to an end and the religion is purified for God in toto.`[128][129] Milestones, was embraced not by Wahhabis in particular, but by militant Islamic movements around the globe, including Osama bin Laden.[130]

Examining the fatwas and declarations of bin Laden, DeLong-Bas finds echoes of Qutb's themes of the glories of jihad,[131] and the global Christian, Crusader, Zionist, Jewish conspiracy to destroy Islam. Bin Laden uses Ibn Taymiyya (and Ibn Taymiyya's student Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya) as religious authorities, but not Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.[132] Rather than tawhid being "the most important duty after the duty of belief in God" for bin Laden, "pushing out the American occupying enemy" is.[133]


DeLong-Bas concludes her book with a summary of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's thought, and finally with a contrast of the Wahhabi "vision" of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab with that of bin Laden. The first offering "a legal methology for indigenous reform based on Islamic teachings and law" and "hope for the future", and the second seeking "to cause fear and discord". She calls on "the international community" to "emasculate" extremist ideologies by supporting a "serious and systematic redress" of their "root causes" -- "poverty, injustice, authoritarianism, repression, and despair -- on a global level". By doing so it will "make space for the revival and reform of Muslim societies around the world."[134]


Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, has received positive reviews[135] from David E. Long in Middle East Journal (a “monumental work ... a lucid and carefully documented assessment of Wahhabism."[4]), Sara Powell in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs ("...a well-regarded, logically constructed, and considered --if perhaps somewhat sympathetic--analysis of Abd al-Wahhab's beliefs"[136]), History magazine ("a ground-breaking study ... both controversial and informative"[135]).

But others have questioned the book and DeLong-Bas's views on Wahhabism. Conservative Muslim anti-Wahhabi author Steven Schwartz has called her an "apologist", criticizing her for among other things, receiving financial support from Saudi Arabia; not including as a source the correspondence of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, "which critics of Wahhabism and other Saudis consider key to understanding him"; and failing to mention the religious and/or governmental background of some Saudi Arabians mentioned in her acknowledgments.[137] Reviewer Michael J. Ybarra, called the book "often fascinating", and providing "a nuanced discussion of Wahhab's Quranic interpretation", but also complained that she "seems to bend over backward to give Wahhab the benefit of the doubt while dismissing his critics as biased."[1] He also notes that DeLong-Bas "doesn't say ... where on earth" the tolerant form of Wahhabism described by her "ever existed",[5] and that "the voice of Wahhab himself is largely absent from this book" because the author rarely quotes him.[1]

Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of law at UCLA who writes frequently on Islamic jurisprudence, expressed sorrow that Oxford University Press had published the book, stating "This doesn't qualify as scholarship -- it falls within the general phenomenon of Saudi apologetics."[5]

She has also been criticized for depending on the chronicles of supporters of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (primarily Ibn Bishr who is footnoted 45 times) for biographical information on IAW. Blogger Zubair Qamar compares it to using "Hitler’s admirers" as a source for a biography on the Führer, and describing the admirer's as "the `most accurate`" sources "because they were among the closest in `proximity` to him."[138]



  1. index has a subheading for "Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, negative stereotypes of"
  2. While a hadith does say that Muhammad plans to petition God on behalf of good Muslim monotheists on Judgment Day, the hadith does not say it is permissible to ask Muhammad for intercession.[25]
  3. DeLong-Bas writes that "Although it is often asserted that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was adamantly opposed to Shiism, he specifically targeted only one particular extremist sect, the Rafidah in one only treatise."[42]

    But she also writes that "Historically the Hanbalis were in fact opposed to Shiism. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself found certain beliefs and practices of Shiis to violate the key doctrine of monotheism."[43]

  4. DeLong-Bas states: "Although it is often asserted that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was adamantly opposed to Shiism, he specifically targeted only one particular extremist sect, the Rafidah in one only treatise". (p.22) Later she states "Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself found certain beliefs and practices of Shiis to violate the key doctrine of monotheism." (p.84) In her section on IAW's thoughts on Shia (p.84-90), she does not specify which beliefs were unique to the "extremist sect" and which IAW did not "target".
  5. "When pressed to choose between rulings by Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya", he declined to choose, "preferring to return directly" to the Quran and Sunnah "to form his own scripturally based opinion."[61]
  6. "...he does not use the word haram..." footnote on page 317
  7. assignment of guardianship: to the woman's brother, if he was unavailable, to the paternal grandfather, than to the woman's son, than to the tribe of the brother, "unless it is law/base/despicable", then to the paternal uncle, followed by his son, then other relatives in paternal relationships, and if there are no male paternal relatives, to male maternal relatives.[74]
  8. One case of a marriage being invalidated due to husband’s status was the August 2005 Saudi court-ordered divorce of a 34-year old mother of two (named Fatima Mansour) from her husband, Mansur, despite the fact that were happily married and her father (now deceased) had approved the marriage. The divorce was initiated by her half-brother using his powers as her male guardian, who alleged that his half-sister's husband was from a tribe of a low status compared to the status of her tribe and that the husband had failed to disclose this when he first asked for Fatima’s hand. Fatima declared her fear of domestic at her brother’s home,[77][78] and was sufficiently concerned to spend four years in jail with her one-year-old daughter before the Supreme Judicial Council overturned the decision.[79]
  9. (Although nothing is said of a woman hitting her husband.)
  10. Although DeLong-Bas notes " ... it may be assumed that some killing is likely to occur during the process of fighting ..." [107]
  11. IAW distinguished between two types of booty.
    1. al-ghanimah -- the spoils of war, captured by the Muslim army after battle, 4/5s of which are to be distributed among those Muslims who participated in the fighting.
    2. fai -- spoils surrendered by non-Muslim enemy without fighting, considered to be
    the common possession of the whole Muslim society and divided up and distributed by the amir.[110]
  12. rewarding "specific individuals who desire special items" is forbidden prior to the division of the booty, as is giving a portion of the booty to a tribe hired to participate in the jihad. All this ensures "jihad will not become a means of seeking wealth, privilege, or special status."[109]
  13. As mentioned above, IAW believed that not having sex with a slave girl/woman was "a supererogatory act of worship"
  14. "Although the Muslim `owner` technically has the right to sell a slave, IAW insisted that this can only be to another Muslim."[122]
  15. this prohibition ensured that "those who were conquered" maintained "their property and enter[ed] into a treaty relationship with the Muslims. Thus, it remains clear that even the aftermath of jihad is not intended to serve as a means of enriching the Muslims; rather it is designed to encourage those whom they have conquered either to submit to Islam or to enter into treaty relationship with the Muslims. This hardly matches the typical historical image of the Wahhabis as bloodthirsty murderers of any and all who disagreed with them."[123]


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  137. "Her book seemed to have been rushed into print with official Saudi support: DeLong-Bas thanked such individuals as Faisal bin Salman, whose status as a Saudi prince she failed to mention; Abd Allah S. al-Uthaymin, son of a notoriously extreme member of the Wahhabi clerical class in the kingdom; and Fahd as-Semmari, director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. She also acknowledged the latter foundation for financial support.", Schwartz, Stephen, "Natana DeLong-Bas: American Professor, Wahhabi Apologist", http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/01/natana_delongbas_american_prof.html 
  138. Qamar, Zubair, "Critical Book Review: Wahhabi Islam (by Natana DeLong-Bas)", http://zubairqamar.com/2014/03/08/critical-book-review-wahhabi-islam-by-natana-delong-bas/. 

Further reading

  • ibn Abdul Wahhab, Muhammad. Kitab al-Tawhid, volume I of Mu'allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahahb (First ed.). Riyad: Jamiat al-Imam MUhammad bin Saudi al-Islamiyah, 1398h.