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Wahhabi manuscript

This manuscript is not only a regional chronicle, but also refers to the teachings on which the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed: those of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the austere reformist sect of Islam known as Wahhabism.

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Wahhabi Manuscript

‘Wahhabi’ manuscript, Saudi Arabia, 1853 ‘Uthman ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Bishr al-Hanbali’s ‘Unwan al-majd fi ta’rikh al-Najd (History of the Najd region from the mid-18th to mid-19th century)
BL Or. MS 7718, ff. 1v-2
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is Wahhabism?

Wahhabism began as a religious and spiritual reform movement in Najd, a remote and rather featureless area of central Arabia. Its founder, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), was born in Najd, into a region inhabited by an Arab population of predominantly tribal structure. Based on the legal interpretations of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyah, which are conservative and literal in approach, Wahhabism is based on Sunni Islam but is very puritanical in its outlook. It forbids all practices that might be considered innovations, such as the Sufi custom of venerating saints, and disapproves of activities such as listening to music.

Wahhabi Muslims do not usually refer to themselves as such, but use terms such as Salafi ('followers of pious forefathers').

What are the other types of Islam?

Islam's principal division is between Sunnis and Shias. Their differences relate to the attitudes towards leadership of the Muslim community, not to disagreements over belief. The division arose in the very earliest days of Islam as we know it today, immediately on the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. He had not named a successor, and the majority (Sunnis) believed that whoever was best able to protect the faith should be the leader (Caliph). They elected Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's closest companions, to the role, which was seen as political rather than spiritual.

The minority (Shias) believed that the leadership should stay within Muhammad's family and favoured Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law. For Shias the leader had not only a political role but was held to be divinely inspired, an imam. The Sunni-Shia divide was exacerbated when first Ali and later also his son Husayn, the Prophet's grandson, were murdered by other Muslims.

Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, crosses the Sunni-Shia divide.

Why is this manuscript important?

Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was protected by the Najdi chieftain, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, with whom he concluded a treaty. Over the generations the teachings of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab became the religious force behind the formation of what is today the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The country is home to Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, places associated with the Prophet Muhammad. Mecca is the target of the hajj, the pilgrimage that must be undertaken by every able-bodied Muslim at least once.

The teachings of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab are referred to in this history of the Najd by the chronicler 'Uthman ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Bishr. This manuscript is the only known copy of his work.