Understanding the Origins of Wahhabism and Salafism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 14

The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism cannot be adequately explained as the export of Saudi Wahhabism, as many commentators claim. In fact, the ideological heritage of groups such as al-Qaeda is Salafism, a movement that began in Egypt and was imported into Saudi society during the reign of King Faisal.

The official ‘Wahhabi’ religion of Saudi Arabia has essentially merged with certain segments of Salafism. There is now intense competition between groups and individual scholars over the ‘true’ Salafism, with the scholars who support the Saudi regime attacking groups such as al-Qaeda as ‘Qutbists’ (following Sayyid Qutb) or takfiris (excommunicators).

The easy explanation for differences within the Salafi movement is that some aim to change society through da’wa (preaching/evangelizing) whereas others want to change it through violence. But as the Saudi example shows, all strains of Salafism, even the most revolutionary and violent, make a place for social services such as education in their strategies for the transformation of society.

Origins of Wahhabism

When Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began preaching his revivalist brand of Islam amongst the Bedouins of the Najd [1] during the 18th century, his ideas were dismissed in the centers of Islamic learning such as al-Azhar as simplistic and erroneous to the point of heresy.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab claimed that the decline of the Muslim world was caused by pernicious foreign innovations (bida’) – including European modernism, but also elements of traditional Islam that were simply unfamiliar to the isolated Najdi Bedouins. He counseled the purging of these influences in an Islamic Revival. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s creed placed an overriding emphasis on tawhid (monotheism), condemning many traditional Muslim practices as shirk (polytheism). He also gave jihad an unusual prominence in his teachings. The Wahhabis called themselves Muwahideen (monotheists) – to call themselves Wahhabis was considered shirk.

Origins of Salafism

Salafism originated in the mid to late 19th Century, as an intellectual movement at al-Azhar University, led by Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935). The movement was built on a broad foundation. Al-Afghani was a political activist, whereas Abduh, an educator, sought gradual social reform (as a part of da’wa), particularly through education. Debate over the place of these respective methods of political change continues to this day in Salafi groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The early Salafis admired the technological and social advancement of Europe’s Enlightenment, and tried to reconcile it with the belief that their own society was the heir to a divinely guided Golden Age of Islam that had followed the Prophet Muhammad’s Revelations.

The name Salafi comes from as-salaf as-saliheen, the ‘pious predecessors’ of the early Muslim community, although some Salafis extend the Salaf to include selected later scholars. The Salafis held that the early Muslims had understood and practiced Islam correctly, but true understanding of Islam had gradually drifted, just as the people of previous Prophets (including Moses and Jesus) had strayed and gone into decline. The Salafis set out to rationally reinterpret early Islam with the expectation of rediscovering a more ‘modern’ religion.

In terms of their respective formation, Wahhabism and Salafism were quite distinct. Wahhabism was a pared-down Islam that rejected modern influences, while Salafism sought to reconcile Islam with modernism. What they had in common is that both rejected traditional teachings on Islam in favor of direct, ‘fundamentalist’ reinterpretation.

Saudi Arabia Embraces Salafi Pan-Islamism

Although Saudi Arabia is commonly characterized as aggressively exporting Wahhabism, it has in fact imported pan-Islamic Salafism. Saudi Arabia founded and funded transnational organizations and headquartered them in the kingdom, but many of the guiding figures in these bodies were foreign Salafis. The most well known of these organizations was the World Muslim League, founded in Mecca in 1962, which distributed books and cassettes by al-Banna, Qutb and other foreign Salafi luminaries. Saudi Arabia successfully courted academics at al-Azhar University, and invited radical Salafis to teach at its own Universities.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to host Egyptian radicals hinges on three factors: the need for qualified educators, Faisal’s struggle against Egyptian-led pan-Arab radicalism, and Saudi openness under King Khaled. Between the 1920s and 1960s, Saudi Arabia was emerging as a modern state. Increased oil production required technical infrastructure and a bureaucracy, resulting in a demand for educators that outstripped the administration’s capacity. [2] The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood represented a source of qualified educators, bureaucrats and engineers, many of them anxious to leave Egypt.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, the Middle East was gripped by a struggle between the traditional monarchies and the secular pan-Arab radicals, led by Nasser’s Egypt, with the pan-Islamist Salafis an important third force. [3] By embracing pan-Islamism, Faisal countered the idea of pan-Arab loyalty centered on Egypt with a larger transnational loyalty centered on Saudi Arabia. During the 1960s, members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, many of them teachers, were given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, in a move that undermined Nasser while also relieving the Saudi education crisis. [4]

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy concerns eased in 1970 with Nasser’s death. But in the 1970s, the Saudi education system was awash with Egyptian Muslim Brothers and other Salafis, much as Berkeley was awash with Marxists. Under King Khaled (r.1975-1982), some of the most important proponents of Qutbist terrorism, including Abdullah Azzam, Omar Abd al-Rahman and Muhammad Qutb, served as academics in the Kingdom. Qutb, an important proponent of his late brother Sayyid’s theory, wrote several texts on tawhid for the Saudi school curriculum. [5]

A generation of prominent Saudi citizens was exposed to various strains of Salafi thought during the 1970s, and although most Saudi Salafis are not Qutbist revolutionaries, the Qutbists did not miss the opportunity to awaken a revolutionary vanguard.


Although Salafism and Wahhabism began as two distinct movements, Faisal’s embrace of Salafi pan-Islamism resulted in cross-pollination between ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings on tawhid, shirk and bid’a and Salafi interpretations of ahadith (the sayings of Muhammad). Some Salafis nominated ibn Abd al-Wahhab as one of the Salaf (retrospectively bringing Wahhabism into the fold of Salafism), and the Muwahideen began calling themselves Salafis.

Today, a profusion of self-proclaimed Salafi groups exist, each accusing the others of deviating from ‘true’ Salafism. Since the 1970s, the Saudis have wisely stopped funding those Salafis that excommunicate nominally Muslim governments (or at least the Saudi government), condemning al-Qaeda as ‘the deviant sect’. The pro-Saudis correctly trace al-Qaeda’s ideological roots to Qutb and al-Banna. Less accurately, they accuse these groups of insidiously ‘entering’ Salafism. In fact, Salafism was imported into Saudi Arabia in its Ikhwani and Qutbist forms. This does not mean that the pro-Saudi Salafis are necessarily benign – for example, Abu Mu’aadh as-Salafee’s main criticism of Qutb and Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna is that they claim Islam teaches tolerance of Jews.[6]

Meanwhile, non-Muslims and mainstream Muslims alike use the ‘Wahhabi-Salafi’ label to denigrate Salafis and even completely unrelated groups such as the Taliban.


Faisal’s embrace of pan-Islamism achieved its main objective in that it helped Saudi Arabia to overcome pan-Arabism. However, it created a radicalized Salafi constituency, elements of which the regime continues to fund. It should be kept in mind, though, that this funding is now confined to more compliant Salafis.

Saudi Arabia still has some way to go. Some will say that a leopard can’t change its spots, but in fact the Saudi Government is capable of serious doctrinal change under pressure. Faisal’s broad introduction of Salafi policies involved such a shift, as did the subsequent rejection of Qutbist interpretations of Salafism by pro-Saudi Salafis.

The Middle East today is clearly in need of alternative models of political change to counter takfiri Salafism. In the West, education has been a major factor in social integration. But as the Saudi case study indicates, we need to be aware of not only the quantity, but also the nature of education. Saudi students in the 1970s learned engineering and administration alongside an ideology of xenophobic alienation. In the long run, the battle against violent Salafism will be fought not only on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in the universities of the Middle East.


1. A province in the Arabian Desert, now part of Saudi Arabia.

2. Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp122-123. Rasheed observes that most teachers in Saudi Arabia at this time were Egyptians.

3. For a comprehensive account of this struggle, see Abdullah M Sindhi, King Faisal and Pan-Islamism, in Willard L Beling (ed), King Faisal and the Modernisation of Saudi Arabia, London, 1980.

4. Madawi al-Rasheed, p144.

5. Syed Muhammad al-Naquib al-Attas (ed), Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education, King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, 1979, p48. Introduction to Muhammad Qutb’s chapter, The Role of Religion in Education. (Proceedings of the 1977 World Conference on Islamic Education, Mecca).

6. Abu Mu’aadh as-Salafee, Exposing al-Ikhwaan al-Muflisoon: the Aqeedah of Walaa and Baraaa’, SalafiPublications.com and As-Sawaa’iq al-Mursalah ‘Alal-Afkaar al-Qutubiyyah al-Mudammirah, SalafiPublications.com, pp48, 50.