The State of the Region of Najd and Arabia in the Time of Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab

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The State of the Region of Najd, Arabia in the Time of Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab and the First Saudi State

The Turkish Ottoman Empire had pockets of sovereignty in the Arabian lands. It became little more than a shell in Egypt, Syria and Iraq by the eighteenth century. As for the Arabian Peninsula, then the Ottomans never inhabited the vast areas of the Najd, the region in which Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab was born and raised. Though they controlled Baghdad and Basrah in Iraq, the closest they came to the Najd was al-Ahsa in 1592CE, and they had a Turkish garrison at al-Hufoof, however only eighty years later the Bedouin tribe of Banu Khalid fell upon the Turks and expelled them. That was nearly a century before the birth of Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab .

Political power in the Najd itself had broken into minute particles for centuries, the Turks had never ventured in that far. Ibn Bishr [2], a historian and biographer of Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhab and the region of Najd, the birthplace of the Saudi state, mentions the case of the tiny settlement of Tuwain in Sudair, Najd where in 1708CE, four leaders were competing for the right to rule. None of the four was individually strong enough to overcome his rivals, so they divided this small settlement into four regions, so that each could be a sovereign over a quarter of the town. So the claim that Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab and the ruler of the first Saudi state, Imam Muhammad bin Saud rebelled and took authority from the Ottoman Empire in Arabia is factually and historically incorrect.

Un-Islamic Practises and Religious Heresies in that Era

Un-Islamic practises were widespread throughout the region; devotees would flock at the graves of the dead, seeking their aid, and offering sacrifices to the inhabitants of tombs [3]. “The domed mausoleum of Zaid bin al-Khattab was at al-Jubailah; it was a famous shrine and many used to go there to seek intercession and aid from him. In ad-Dir’iyyah, next to Riyadh, there were tombs attributed to the Companions of the Prophet and people came from far and wide to visit them and seek cures from them. Ibn Ghannam [4] records that in the little village of al-Fida, there was a male date-palm tree – unmarried women would embrace the trunk and call out, “O male palm of the palms, I desire a husband before I become barren”. They used to come night and day, men and women seeking blessings from the tree. Ibn Ghannam mentions that the tamarisk tree was a favorite place on which to hang pieces of cloth when a boy was born believing that it would protect him from the ‘hand of death’.

Near Dir’iyyah there was a great cleft in the mountain known as Ghar bint al-Amir, which they believed had been opened by Allah in response to a cry for help uttered by a girl of noble birth when a man tried to take her honour – so people would visit the cave and leave meat and bread as offerings.

On the Red Sea coast to the southwest was the city of Jeddah, where the people had built a tomb in which they claimed the mother of mankind Eve, the wife of the Prophet Adam (alayhis salaam) was buried. The complex had three domes, one hundred and fifty meters long, four meters wide and a meter high; one dome was at the head, one over the navel and one at the feet – the tomb-keepers amassed large amounts of money in admission fees for those visiting.

In the sacred city of Madinah the people prostrated to the grave of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wassallam) and rubbed their cheeks in the dust; they would celebrate at the grave and seek cure for illnesses from him by beseeching him, likewise with the graves of the Companions in the graveyard of Baqi’ near the Prophet’s mosque.

Also in the eighteenth century there existed the cult of a blind ‘living saint’ of al-Kharaj in the south by the name of Taj bin Shamsan. His devotees in large numbers would seek his aid, even in his absence, and would sacrifice animals to him. The village rulers would fear him and miraculous feats were attributed to him. They claimed that he travelled on his own through the whole distance from al-Kharaj to Dir’iyyah, a distance of nearly 500km, with none to guide him except his blindness. So this was the environment into which Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab was born and raised, an environment far removed from the guidance contained in the Quran and Prophetic example.”

Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab was raised in a family of scholars and judges. His father was a leading judge (qadhi) as was his grandfather and he studied under his paternal uncle who was a scholar also. Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab memorized the Quran before the age of ten. He went on to study Quranic commentary, hadith literature and hadith science, jurisprudence and the rest of the Islamic sciences, so much so that his father would seek his opinions on religious subjects. He studied in the centres of Islamic learning in Madinah and Basrah in Iraq under notable scholars of the time.

Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab wrote and strived to convince people against false practices that were foreign to the Islamic teachings contained in the Quran and Prophetic Sunnah. The ruler of Dir’iyyah, Muhammad bin Saud became convinced of the teachings of the Shaikh and aided him in eradicating false practices and uniting the people under a single ruler instead of warring tribes. They faced much opposition in the early years from various tribes and village leaders, which resulted in many skirmishes and battles. Eventually Imam Muhammad bin Saud managed to unite the region of Najd and beyond under his rulership.

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Footnotes:

* Map: Saudi Arabia In the Nineteenth Century, R. Bayly Winder, MacMillan, 1965.
1. For a detailed discussion in English see Rentz, George. S, The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4-1792) and the Beginnings of the Unitarian Empire in Arabia, Arabian Publishing, London 2004. One can benefit much from this work.
2. See Ibn Bishr, ‘Uthman bin ‘Abdullah, ‘Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd, in two volumes.
3. These Sufi practices are still common and widespread throughout the Muslim world and are even regarded by many as ‘mainstream’ Islam, yet in reality they contradict the worship practised by the Prophet and his Companions.
4. Ibn Ghannam, Husain, Rawdatul-Afkar wal-Afham li Murtad Hal al-Imam wa Ti’dad Ghazawat Dhawil-Islam, in two volumes.

From the book: “The Rise of Jihadist Extremism in the West”, Salafi Publications, Birmingham.

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