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Ibn Saud, the Wahhabi and Oil, to 1945

Wahhabism and the Saud Family | Oil and Geologists from the United States

Wahhabism and the Saud Family

In the 1700s, a Sunni Muslim named Muhammad Wahhab (1703-1791) traveled about the Ottoman Empire comparing what he saw with what he thought Islam was supposed to be according to the Koran. He began a new movement that denounced all influences in Islam that had developed after the writing of the Koran: luxurious living, Sufi influence, rationalism, visiting the tombs of saints and asking intercession of the Prophet or the Imams. Wahhab viewed the granting of godly powers to Muhammad and others as a violation of Islam's strict monotheism. Wahhab's movement labeled all other Muslims as polytheist. They called themselves "Unitarians," or simply Muslims. Others called them the Wahhabi (Wahabi).

Wahhab was forced to flee from Medina, and in a more rural inland area – in the Nejd – he was adopted by the Saud family. With a combination of warrior power with camels and Wahhabi religious zeal the Saud regime spread across Arabia. In 1802 an army of 12,000 Wahhabi warriors attacked Shia in the city of Karbala, slaying 4,000 of that city's inhabitants and smashing Shia holy sites. In 1803 they attacked Mecca and, aware of the slaughter in Karbala, the Meccans opened their town to Saud rule. Opposed to images, the Wahhabi warriors smashed opulent graves, and they forbade smoking. After taking power in Medina they smashed grave-sites again, including the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed. In 1813, the Ottoman sultan sent expeditions against Wahhabism. The defeated head of the Saud family was taken in a cage to Istanbul and beheaded.

the Ikhwan

The Ikhwan (Brethren), a photo probably from the 1920s Enlarged photo of the Ikhwan

King Saud, 1927

King Saud, 1927, at fifty-one.

By the late 1800s, Saud family members were refugees in Kuwait. In late 1901, a twenty-year-old member of the Saud family, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, was without a kingdom, but he had allies. At the age of 28 he rode from Kuwait with from 40 to 60 relatives and retainers, ready for combat against the Rashid family, a dynasty centered in northern Nejd, which had driven out the Sauds and killed the brother of his father. On the moonless night of January 15-16, ibn Saud and some of his men went over the wall of the compound at Riyadh and prepared for an assault at the main gate at dawn. Ibn Saud and his men killed defenders of the compound. Saud was now in possession of his place of birth – a kingdom that measured 700 by 700 yards.

Ibn Saud remained allied with Wahhabi warriors, with Bedouins called the Ikhwan -- in Arabic the Brotherhood. Mounted on camels they helped Ibn Saud maintain his position at Riyadh.

In 1914 before the war, Ibn Saud allied himself with the Turks, agreeing that he should have relations with no other foreign power and be committed to joining Turkish forces in resisting any aggression. When war came Saud opted for neutrality and kept his options open. Then he allied himself with the British, who offered recognition of a middle of the Arabian Peninsula (namely the Nejd and Hasa) as his – with the proviso that he and his heirs not be antagonistic toward Britain. Ibn Saud agreed not to enter into relations with another foreign power (Britain's enemy the Ottomans) and the British promised to come to the aid of Ibn Saud should he be the victim of aggression. Britain lent Ibn Saud £20,000, 1,000 weapons and 200,000 rounds of ammunition. Added to this was a subsidy of £5,000 per month. This strengthened Saud against his territorial rival, the Hashemite family, which in 1915 remained allied with Britain's current enemy, the Ottomans.

Matters became more complicated for Saud in 1916 when the Hashemite family broke with the Turks and went over to the side of the British – what became known as the Arab revolt. Britain began looking after the interests of both ibn Saud and the Hashemite family, and the British would draw territorial lines that were not to Saud's liking, especially regarding Kuwait. Saud's old enemy the Rashid family – south of Iraq and southeast of what today is Jordan – remained allied with the Ottomans. The Rashids were supplied by the Ottomans and remained the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula.

After the war and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Rashid's were without Ottoman support. Beginning in May 1919, Saud moved against the Rashids. He defeated them in November 1921, showed them clemency and reconciled with them, marrying the widow of their now dead ruler. His territory now extended northwest and north to the edge of territories the British had given to the Hashemite brothers: Transjordan and Iraq.

The British responded to a raid by the Ikhwan into Transjordan with a ground and air attack that killed all but 8 of 1,500 Ikhwan. Ibn Saud kept his cool and submitted to a British decision regarding borders. The British gave him a free hand in the Hejaz and the Nejd. In 1924-25, Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi warriors drove Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the father of the Hashemite brothers in Iraq and Transjordan, from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. After the caliphate was abolished in Turkey, Hussein proclaimed himself Caliph of all Muslims. He felt justified in this because his family, the Hashemites, claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. But he was losing out in the competition for power. On January 8, 1926, ibn Saud was proclaimed King of the Hejaz and Sultan of Nejd. Hussein fled to Cyprus and then went to Transjordan where his son was king, and Saud ruled Medina and Mecca.

The shrines in Mecca and Medina provided ibn Saud with a modest income. In 1926 he called a conference in Mecca, and delegations of Muslims from various areas of the Muslim world came. He introduced the delegates to his Wahhabi ulama. He charmed the delegates, and, thereafter, pilgrimages to Mecca became regular and grew in size.

The Saud family reinforced the allegiance of surrounding tribes through marriages. To keep his new kingdom united, he married a daughter from every tribe as well as from the influential clerical families – more than twenty wives, although never more than four at one time. Meanwhile, the Ikhwan warriors wanted to extend their Wahhabism beyond Arabia, and ibn Saud saw this as trouble and tried to restrain them. The Ikhwan were unhappy with ibn Saud. They believed that they had been insufficiently rewarded for their contribution to ibn Saud's conquests. No Ikhwan had been made a governor in any Hejaz city. Ikhwan raids across ibn Saud's frontiers had embarrassed ibn Saud, and the British responded again with their air force, pursuing the Ikhwan back into ibn Saud's territory. The Ikhwan created a disturbance at Mecca. They disliked ibn Saud's association with the English and his importation of devilish devices such as the telephone. In 1929, the Ikhwan revolted. The ulama exercised their moral authority and sided with Saud rather than the Ikhwan, whom they declared to be in violation of Islamic principals. Ibn Saud crushed Ikhwan resistance and built a National Guard.

King Saud, 1945

King Saud in 1945

In 1932 ibn Saud gave his name to the regions in Arabia that he had unified, calling it Saudi Arabia, and he declared himself King of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism remained a state sanctioned doctrine, and, because of Mecca, Wahhabism gained influence from India and Sumatra to North Africa and the Sudan. The Wahhabi (or Salafi as they prefer to be called) continued to adhere to simple, short prayers, undecorated mosques, and the uprooting of gravestones in order to prevent what they saw as idolatrous veneration. They avoided the kind of ostentatious spirituality that had become a part of Christianity when Christianity united with the Roman Empire. Moreover, they forbade the name of the Prophet Mohammed to be inscribed in mosques, and they forbade the celebration of the Prophet's birthday. Mohammed had claimed no godly powers. His original followers had not seen him as a god, and the Wahhabi did not want him celebrated like a god. Muhammad, as he himself is reported to have said, was just a messenger.


Copyright © 2001-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.