One dichotomy within Islam is between Wahhabis and Shias. Primarily because the former accuses the latter of being polytheist in their seeking intercession from the Prophets family, i.e. the twelve Imams. While the latter proclaims that the former’s accusations are somewhat baseless and furthermore proven incorrect from Islamic sources. From this disagreement developed a formidable polemical debate that has proven to be destructive just as much as it has been stagnant. Thus, the scope of this paper is to raise the question of what kind of polemical debates are there between Wahhabis and Shias? A secondary question will be to try to uncover how each camp approaches the other’s argument and whether the evidence they provide is grounded in classical and historical Islamic sources. In investigating such a project, this paper will be divided into three sections; the first will provide an introduction into the Wahhabi faith and their ideology. The second section will discuss their polemical debates against Shias, and the third section will be the Shi response. The simplicity of this paper is not due to a lack of research, I hope, or to a bias against Wahhabism, but rather to the mere fact that Wahhabism is a relatively new religion with not a substantial amount of scholarly material when compared to Shiasm. Therefore, this paper will try to uncover the questions stated above in hopes of understanding where each sect stands in their debate against the other and whether these debates hold any water.
Founded around 1740 by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in what is present day Saudi Arabia, this branch of Islam was essentially a movement without pedigree; it essentially – and arguably – came out of nowhere in the sense not only of emerging from the wastelands of Najd, but also its lack of substantial precedent in Islamic history. In other words, in the history of Islamic thought, Wahhabism does not occupy a particularly important location. Moreover, Wahhabism has had considerable geopolitical advantages. Its geographical location since the eighteenth century as well as its connections to the oil wealthy Saudi regime since the twentieth century has been argued as the two factors that kept this movement alive. Thus, their lack of historical importance within Islamic thought has been looked upon in a negative light. And their type of strength has been seen by the Islamic community as being one of strategic advancements more than a firm religious foundation. Furthermore, many scholars have stated that Wahhabism might well have passed into history as a marginal and short lived sectarian movement if it was not for the geopolitical advantages.
Nonetheless, after considering these possible draw backs, it has been argued by many Wahhabis that these situations have not hindered their progress within the Islamic community. They draw light on the fact that considering its lack of historical precedent, Wahhabism has not been exposed to the complexities of the structures of law, theology, mysticism and religious practices that had grown up since the completion of the Quranic revelation. As a result, providing them the ability to dismantle such intricacies which in turn has allowed them to find a way back directly to the main sources of Islam: the Quran and Sunna. Additionally, they have claimed that their religion has survived the test of time primarily because of their religious principles and the strong backing from those who want to follow Islam in its “purist sense”. They further argue that Wahhabi ideology had nothing to do with nationalism or a convenient relationship with the Saudi’s. In fact, due to the governments close ties with the West, this has caused a division between the two camps.
Yet, in defending and explaining their religious doctrine, it is difficult to find passages of continuous expository writing from al-Wahhab which might serve to illustrate faithfully his particular mode of thought. Most of al-Wahhab’s writings consist of a collection of Hadith, and many of the works after al-Wahhab were of others expanding off of his work, not necessarily from Islamic sources. Furthermore, Hamid Algar, author of Wahhabism: a critical essay, states that “to imagine that the meanings of applications of the Quran and Sunna are accessible, in any substantial and usable fashion, by disregarding the virtual entirety of post-revelatory Islamic tradition, is unrealistic”. Nonetheless, al-Wahhab’s teachings garnered a following, although Wahhabism has never managed to reproduce itself in any significant way outside of Saudi Arabia.
The center piece of al-Wahhab’s teachings is the principle of tauhid, the affirmation of the unity of God, which is also the foundation of Islam. al-Wahhab discusses this term in his book, Kitab Kashf al-Shubuhat, in explaining how during the Prophet’s time God sent him to the people who were engaged in worship, pilgrimage, zakat, and making abundant remembrance of God. But who were simultaneously placing certain individuals as intermediaries between themselves and God; such as angels, Jesus, Mary as well as other pious individuals. Therefore, before God revealed the devotional duties to Muhammad, He first revealed tauhid. A more detailed definition is presented by Algar in three parts: tauhid al-rububiyya, tauhid al-asma wal-sifat and tauhid al-ibada. Tauhid al-rububiyya is the recognition of Allah as the only God and the sole creator of the worlds, giver and taker of life. al-Wahhab argues that a mere verbal acknowledgement holds no value and is not adequate for acquiring the quality of being a Muslim, because during the time of the Prophet there were some Muslims who would verbally profess this recognition but were known as hypocrites – and for al-Wahhab that is more true today. Tauhid al-asma wal-sifat is the affirmation of the divine names and attributes mentioned in the Quran, unaccompanied by any attempt at interpretation, and the impermissibility of applying to other than God any of those names. The third and the most important, Tauhid al-ibada, is the directing of all worship to only God. This is most significant because it is here that the foundation of Wahhabism is established. A violation of this concept occurs when any act of devotion involves any other kind of entity other than the worshipper and God. This belief is defined only in the negative, partially because it creates the divide between Muslim and kufr, and tauhid and shirk. In other words, those who abide by the laws of tauhid are Muslim and those who perform shirk are considered kufr.
And it is the concept of shirk that really drives Wahhabism. Shirk is defined as polytheism, an act performed by a mushrikun, or polytheist, in where the individual violates tauhid al-ibada. al-Wahhab’s discussion about mushrikun is similar to that about tauhid, in that he refers to the time of the Prophet and how this concept is applicable today. al-Wahhab explains that the mushrikun of Arabia whom the Prophet confronted were all effectively monotheists, save only for their belief in intermediaries. Furthermore, al-Wahhab states that his contemporaries are more reprehensible than those of the Prophet because during the Prophet’s time, people would call on entities close to God, like the Prophet, his companions, friends of God, angels, or direct their petitionary prayers to trees and rocks, objects obedient to God. While al-Wahhab’s peers would call upon the most sinful of men.
The Wahhabis dismissal of all Muslims other than themselves as mushrikun revealed this rigid categorization that showed it nearly impossible for the Wahhabis to tolerate any other faction of Islam. Also, according to the Wahhabi ulama, the universe is divided into two camps: those who believe in the tauhid and those who do not. And the Wahhabis believe that this distinction clarifies between true and false Muslims, particularly the Shia representing the false. As the meaning of this separation evolved, an understanding came with it that it is permissible to engage in war against such false worshipers of Islam and soon it became obligatory.
The Wahhabi view of Shiasm is a development of the cornerstone of Wahhabi ideology. Abhorrence of such Shia practices as saint worship, shrine and grave cults and veneration for the Imams has become a central tenet of Wahhabism. Shiasm was viewed as shifting faith from the creator to the creature, hence explaining the Wahhabi argument of the complexities of the structures of law, theology, mysticism and religious practices that had grown up since the completion of the Quranic revelation. Furthermore, the Shia religious practices were perceived as obliterating the distinction between God and man and thus constituting shirk. In other words, with the emphasis on the twelve Imams, Shias are performing acts of devotions that involves another entity other than the themselves and God. Because of this, they are performing shirk, which would then make them mushrikun. Moreover, one of the early Wahhabi texts explicitly stipulates that visiting places and domes over tombs is the greatest shirk, which Shias perform at the different Imam shrines.
Before the discussion continues on Wahhabi polemics, first a brief look into one specific Sunni scholar is need due to his influence on the Wahhabi faith and them building their argument against Shias. It has been argued that Shaik al-Islam Ibn Taimiyya (1263-1328) appeared to be the pioneer of Sunni polemicists who launched a systematic and harsh criticism of Shia beliefs. His influential book within the Sunni scholarly community also became equally if not more influential within the Wahhabi scholarly community, which discussed a comparison between Judaism and Shiasm. Taimiyya’s claim was that there are similarities between the two in terms of ethos, extremism and ignorance; even though many of his examples were not based on profound analysis of Shia or Jewish sources.
Nonetheless, influenced by Taimiyya’s work, the Wahhabi ulama followed in his footsteps and adopted his polemical legacy. One individual in particular was Ibrahim al-Jabhan, an eminent Wahhabi polemicist who had his own influential yet more so provocative book. Although, lacking any real academic credentials, Jabhan’s work drew an audience, discussing how Shiasm was founded by Jews to serve Jewish ends. Jabhan did not hold back on his attack, describing Shiasm as a foreign and absurd doctrine, with rotten traditions, decayed intellectual foci. He goes on to say that it is a new religion derived from Magian, Christianity and Judaism, a despotic religion, a canon stemming from Masonic centers and Jewish aeries, and so on.
Another polemical approach can be seen twenty years earlier from the Egyptian Wahhabi, Muhib al-Din al-Khatib, who sought to prove the incompatibility between Sunnis and Shias in an effort to curb any attempt of reconciliation. His argument consisted of stating that Shiasm was not even a branch of Islam but an entirely different religion. Fouad Ibrahim, author of The Shias of Saudi Arabia, quotes al-Khatib’s argument:
The fact is that the impossibility of reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shias is due to the latter’s disagreement with and contradiction of the rest of the Muslims in the very fundamentals of faith, as we have seen from the declarations of the Shias scholars, and as can be seen from the beliefs and practices of every Shia. This was the state of affairs in the past, and it is the state of affairs at the present time.
Even though the language of al-Khatib was more directed towards Sunni-Shia relations, the Wahhabi camp, although known for their distance from both sects, saw a closer connection with the Sunni faith as far as religious beliefs, thus presenting anti-Shia rhetoric in order for the Sunnis to at least not side with the Shia even if they were not going to side with the Wahhabis. A third and more extreme approach can be seen during the 1990’s, with Salman b. Fahd al-Auda, who calls for the expulsion of all Shia inhabitants from Saudi Arabia.
Until recently it was difficult to differentiate between moderate and extreme Wahhabis, between individuals like al-Auda from al-Jabhan or al-Khatib. However, as time has passed and different scholars and different religious schools have defined their doctrines, it has become more transparent where each camp resides. First, there are the extremists, individuals like Shaikh bin Jibrin, Shaikh Abdul Muhsin al-Ubaikan, Shaikh Nasir al-Omar, and Shaikh al-Hudhaifi. Jibrin for example, argues that a Wahhabi should not sit with a Shia at the same dinner table, he should attempt to move to a place where there is no Shia. Otherwise, the Wahhabi should show the Shia their abomination, disrespect and sarcasm. Furthermore, a Wahhabi should try to debunk the Shias defective belief and then convince the Shia of their own rightness, therefore allowing them to give up their charade otherwise they would have to face their fate.
Next, there is the moderate camp, with leading figures such as Shaikh bin Baz, Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Uthimein and Shaikh Safar al-Hawali. Although they adhere to the polemical legacy from which they derive their views and their antagonistic stance towards the Shias, traditional ulama do not believe that the Shias are to be killed, expelled or forcibly reverted to Wahhabi Islam – they prefer instead to advise the Shias to abjure their innovative practices. Finally, there are the reformist, Abdullah al-Hamid, Abdullah al-Subaih, Abdulaziz al-Qasim, Abdulaziz al-Khudr and Shaikh al-‘Awda, whose arguments are for reconciliation and maintaining commonalities as a collective responsibility which requires a high degree of social interaction, permitting plurality, and different viewpoints. Although, their movement has not yet crystallized in a socio-religious form, there are many indications that it is growing within the Wahhabi community.
Ultimately, the inability of further elaborating on such issues as al-Auda’s argument on expelling Shias or the arguments by other Wahhabi scholars is mainly due to the fact that many of their polemical rhetoric is less founded in religious, scholarly, or academic work and more based on the works of al-Wahhab and his followers. Their arguments are based on a certain collection of Hadith with no real passages of continuous expository writing from al-Wahhab, thus leading to his followers to present historical events, terms, rules, and laws in a distorted way in order to support their arguments.
The first argument is the Wahhabi’s justification of tauhid and how God sent this article of faith first to Muhammad because the people who were engaged in pious activities were also performing shirk. Also al-Khatib argues that Shiasm is a completely different religion because of their religious practices and their disagreements with and contradictions of the very fundamental faiths of Islam – which includes tauhid. Mahmud Shaltut, author of Shiaism Explained: light, knowledge, truth, refutes this argument by reiterating that Shias believe in the fundamental faiths and the only difference is the added fifth article to Usul al-din, which is Imamat, the divine guidance from the Prophet’s family and lineage, specifically the twelve Imams. Of course the fifth article is the defining characteristic that divides the Wahhabis and Shias, but al-Khatib’s argument that Shiasm is a completely different religion because of their religious practices, disagreements, and contradictions to the faith is essentially incorrect. The only disagreement and contradiction is the belief in Imamat.
Furthermore, Imam Ali in Shiasm is also Caliph Ali in Sunni Islam. And if al-Khatib’s teacher (al-Wahhab) proclaimed that the individuals who committed shirk during the Prophet’s time are less blameworthy because they would call on entities close to God, like the Prophet or his companions that would mean that even though Shias go to the Imams for certain reasons, their visit to Caliph Ali is permissible. Thus weakening al-Khatib’s possible counter argument to Shaltut that even though the fundamental faiths are similar, save the fifth article, Imamat compromises tauhid because then the Shias are placing Imam’s as their intercessors. But if Caliph Ali is considered one of the Prophet’s companions and this intercession was less blameworthy during Muhammad’s time then today it would also be permissible.
Another argument is in regards to tauhid al-ibada, the directing of all worship to only God. Here al-Wahhab argues that a violation of this concept occurs when any act of devotion involves any other kind of entity other than the worshipper and God.  Also, al-Wahhab argues that this subcategory of tauhid is the most significant because of its foundational establishment of Wahhabism. In other words, if an individual violates this, they are considered a mushrikun and that is equivalent to being a kufr, which then means that that individual can be killed. Although the severity of this violation is dire, al-Wahhab only provides textual confirmation from the Hadith. Likewise, Shia polemics also draw from Hadith literature as well as the tradition and consensus, explaining that the violations in Appendix A can and have been vindicated. On an interesting note, Sunnis also have the same argument as the Shia and provide the same sources as evidence.
In conclusion, the arguments provided by Wahhabi polemicists and scholars against Shiasm do not carry much of a classical and historical Islamic weight. In other words, considering a religion with no pedigree in Islamic history and the founder providing limited sources in support of his claim, most of the arguments against Shiasm is either somewhat baseless or weak in argument because of the type of evidence provided by al-Wahhab. His findings coming almost exclusively from the Hadith and not from any other classical Islamic source or from skillful, credited scholars has circumvented the Wahhabi argument. Hassan al-Saffar, one of the most prominent and important Shia scholars and leaders in Saudi Arabia, holds the regime “responsible for propagating hatred and enmity among people and exaggerating the points of difference, while ignoring the points of agreement”. This argument has been the general argument for those individuals pushing for reconciliation.
Unfortunately, since the validity of Wahhabism’s place within the Islamic community is questioned, their approach is less academic and scholarly and more personal and dogmatic. In gathering research for this paper, there were accounts of Wahhabi thinkers speaking some ill words about Shias that was irrelevant to any profound argument. Also, some scholars argue that Wahhabism represents the kernel of division within Muslim society. Some Saudi thinkers state that Wahhabism is the ultimate threat to not only their national unity but also to Islamic unity. It is also widely agreed that Wahhabism is the main impediment to Sunni – Shia coexistence. A prominent Sunni thinker, Dr. Muhammad al-Bahi, argues that “Wahhabism has widened the gap of difference between the Sunnis and the Shias, reflecting the negative impact of the Wahhabi call”. Furthermore, Wahhabism has proven to be the greatest challenge to Shiasm since the Sunni and Shia split in 632 CE.
There is a reform movement within Saudi Arabia trying to build constructive reconciliation talks between the Wahhabis and Shias by pushing for self-criticism. Their reason is because through polemical debates each sect only concentrates on the other’s defects, while ignoring their own. Ultimately, the divide between Shias and Wahhabis will need to be resolved by one of the above mentioned suggestions. The polemics between Wahhabis and Shias is unprecedented given the arguments provided by Wahhabis as well as the lack of history they bring to the argument when juxtaposed against Shiasm. I believe with the evidence I provided there is a clear understanding on where each sect stands and on what grounds they stand on. Whether these grounds are sturdy in classical and historical Islamic support will be left for the experts to decide, I merely wanted to raise the question of what kind of polemical debates there are between these two camps and how does each branch approach the other – in terms of presenting their sources and arguments. Hopefully the information provided in this paper has given a better understanding of this relationship.
The violations of tauhid al-‘ibada occur whenever an act of devotion involves, in any fashion at all, an entity other than the worshipper and God, for example:
- Petitionary prayer in which mention is made of the prophet or other exalted personages in the hope of gaining greater acceptability for one’s supplication
- Seeking help in mundane or spiritual matters with a form of words that implies expectation of help from a given person, rather than from God, even if the person in question may be implicitly viewed as a channel or transmitter of divine aid
- Tawassul = regarding a person, however exalted, as a means of facilitating one’s approach to the divine presence
- Attributing life and agency to the dead by addressing them in devotional context, even if not as the objects of one’s devotion
- The expectation of or aspiration for the shafa’a = intercession of Prophets, saints, martyrs and other exalted personages
- Tabarruk = the seeking of blessings at their tombs
- Ziyara = the visitation of those tombs as an act performed in its own right and with due intention
- The construction of domes and other elevated structures over such tombs
All of these are violations and make the individual a mushrikun
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 Algar, 2.
 Algar, 10.
 Algar, 71.
 Algar, 11.
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 The Book of Clarification of Uncertainties
 At this juncture it is worth noting that the evidence and explanation provided by al-Wahhab about tauhid, shirk, and mushrikun are convincingly refuted by both Sunni and Shi’i scholars who refer to classical Islamic sources. Many of these counter arguments will be provided within the context of this paper, but many others will not be discussed for time purposes. But the acknowledgment must be made that al-Wahhab’s arguments on these three concepts hold no genuine merit within the Islamic scholarly community.
 The giving of alms or charity
 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Kitab Kashf al-Shubuhat, ed. ‘Ali al-Hamad al-Salihi (Riyad: Mu’assasat al-Nur, 1968), 13-14.
 Algar, 31.
 Algar, 32.
 Refer to Appendix A, on page 14 for a list of examples provided by Algar.
 Kufr means an individual who is an unbeliever or a disbeliever.
 Algar, 32-33.
 Algar, 71.
 al-Wahhab, 31-32.
 Fouad Ibrahim, The Shias of Saudi Arabia (California: Saqi Books, 2006), 228.
 Jacob Goldberg, “The Shi’i Minority in Saudi Arabia,” In Shiasm and Social Protest, ed. Juan R.I. Cole and Nickie R. Keddie (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1986), 231.
 Goldberg, 231.
 Christine M Helms, The Cohesion of Saudi Arabia (London: Croom Helm, 1981), 82.
 Ibrahim, 225.
 The Sunni Method in the Critique of the Theology of the Shias and the Qadariyah. A refutation against the Shi’i theologian Ibn Mutahar al-Hilli.
 Ibrahim, 225.
 Diffusing Darkness and Awakening those who are Asleep to the Danger of Shias and Shiasm to Muslim and Islam. Appearing in the ‘70s following the Iranian Revolution, it was widely circulated both inside and outside Saudi Arabia; well received by the Wahhabi community as well as being republished nine times.
 Ibrahim, 226.
 Ibrahim, 226.
 Ibrahim, 227.
 Ibrahim, 229.
 Ibrahim, 230.
 Ibrahim, 230.
 Belief in (a) the existence of Allah preached by Prophet Muhammad; (b) Tauhid; (c) Usul al-din =the fundamentals of Islam, which in include: 1. tauhid, 2. adl = divine justice, 3. nubuwwah = prophethood, 4. qiamat = final day of judgment and only for the Shias 5. Imamat = divine guidance through the Prophet’s lineage.
 Mahmud Shaltut, Shiaism Explained: light, knowledge, truth (Michigan: Peermahomed Ebrahim Trust, 2009), 24.
 Ali is the fourth Caliph among the four rightly guided Caliphs.
 Refer to Appendix A, on page 14.
 Ibrahim, 234.
 Yann Richard, Shiite Islam: polity, ideology, and creed, tran. Antonia Nevill (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 119.
 Algar, 32-33.