Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969

The Wahhabis and the Arab Countries at the End of the 18th and Beginning of the 19th Centuries

Arabia in the 18th Century.

Arabia had always been the most backward country of the Arab world. Feudal relations here still bore traces of a patriarchal way of life reminiscent of the times of the prophet Mohammed. In the 18th century, as of old, nomadic cattle-breeding and oasis irrigatory farming remained the basis of the country’s economy. Vast though they were, the Arabian steppes with their meagre vegetation had never been able to satisfy the needs of the growing cattle-breeding population. From time immemorial, Arabia had suffered periodical “pasture crises,” which played havoc with the primitive economy and drove the surplus population from the peninsula. Besides causing waves of emigration, the lack of pastures also compelled the Bedouins to settle on the land, till the fields and cultivate date palms and other fruit trees. Thus in Arabia arose “a general relationship between the settlement of one part of the tribes and the continued nomadic life of the other,” [Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1965, p. 80.] which, according to Marx, was characteristic of all Oriental tribes. Settlements originated in this way in the mountains of Asir, Yemen, Hadhramaut, Oman, Nejd and in the oases at the foot of the mountains.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Arabian Peninsula did not have a single state organisation. Its population, steppe Bedouins and settled farmers of the oases alike, was divided into a number of tribes. Disunited and at loggerheads with each other, they waged continuous internecine wars over pastures, flocks, booty and the possession of wells. And since the tribes were armed to a man the struggles were extremely fierce and protracted.

The feudal and tribal anarchy of the nomadic regions was supplemented by the feudal disunity of the settled regions. Almost every village and town had a hereditary ruler. All of settled Arabia was a mass of small feudal principalities and, like the tribes, they waged endless internecine wars.

The structure of the Arabian feudal society was rather complicated. The sheikhs held sway over the nomadic tribes. In some tribes the sheikhs were elected to their posts, but most of them had already become hereditary rulers. Apart from the desert feudal aristocracy and the so-called free, noble tribes which it ruled, there also existed vassal tribes, and also the dependent settled and semi-nomadic population. In the towns and farming regions the feudal nobility (e.g., the sherifs and seyyids) and the rich merchants were counterpoised to the petty traders, artisans and the dependent peasantry.

ln feudal Arabia, class relations were further complicated by patriarchal and clan relations and the existence of slavery, which was comparatively widespread among both the nomads and the settled population. The slave markets of Mecca, Hufuf, Muscat and other cities provided the Arabian nobility with a large number of slaves, who were used both as household servants and as labourers.

The towns and villages of Arabia were constantly raided and plundered by the Bedouins. Raids and internecine wars led to the destruction of wells, canals and palm groves, and it was a matter of urgent economic necessity to the settled population that they should cease; hence the tendency to fuse the small principalities into one political whole.

Moreover, the social division of labour between the settled and nomadic population of Arabia led to the growing exchange of the agricultural produce of the oases for the animal produce of the steppes. Apart from this, both the steppe Bedouins and the oasis farmers were in need of such imported products as cereals, salt and cloth. Consequently, caravan trade between Arabia and the neighbouring countries, Syria and Iraq, began to grow. On the other hand, however, feudal anarchy and Bedouin robbery hampered the development of trade. Thus, the demands of the growing market, and also the need to develop irrigation farming, were an incentive to the political unification of the Arabs.

Arabia’s feudal and tribal disunity made it easier for foreign invaders to seize the peninsula. This, too, was an important incentive to unification. In the 16th century, the Turks occupied without encountering much resistance the Red Sea coast of Arabia: the Hejaz, Asir and the Yemen. In the 16th century, too, the British, Dutch and Portuguese began setting up bases on the eastern seaboard of Arabia. In the 18th century, the Persians seized El-Hasa, Oman and Bahrain. And it was only Inner Arabia, surrounded as it was by deserts, that remained impregnable to the invaders.

Thus it came about that the movement for unification in the coastal towns of Arabia grew into a struggle against foreign invasion. The movement in the Yemen, led by the Zaydit Imams ended in the 17th century with the expulsion of the Turks. The Imams controlled the whole populated (mountainous) part of the country. In the Hejaz, the Turks retained only nominal power. The real rulers were the Arab “descendants of the Prophet,” the sherifs. The Persians were expelled from Oman in the middle of the 18th century and in 1783, from Bahrain, where the Arab feudal dynasty had firmly entrenched itself. But it was in Inner Arabia, in Nejd, where the movement for unity did not have to fight against the invaders, that it was most clearly defined and consistent. This was a struggle for the unification of the Arab tribes, for the centralisation of the principalities of Nejd, for the fusion of the “Arabian lands” into a single whole. This struggle was based on a new religious ideology called Wahhabism.

The Doctrines of Wahhabism.

The founder of wahhabism was a theologian from Nejd by the name of Mohammed ibn Abd el-Wahhab, who hailed from the settled tribe of Banu Temim. He was born in 1703 at Uyaina in Nejd. His father and grandfather were Ulema. Like them, Abd el-Wahhab had travelled widely in the Moslem world (Mecca, Medina and also Baghdad and Damascus, according to some reports), studying theology. Everywhere he took an active part in religious disputes, returning to Nejd in the forties to preach his new religious doctrines. He sharply criticised such superstitious survivals as fetishism and totemism, which, to him, were indistinguishable from idolatry. Formally all the Arabs were Moslems. But, in reality, there existed many local tribal religions in Arabia. Each Arab tribe, each village had its fetish, its beliefs and rites. The variety of religious forms that stemmed from the primitive level of social development and the lack of cohesion between the countries of Arabia were serious obstacles to political unity. Abd el-Wahhab set up against this religious polymorphism a single doctrine called tauhid (unity). Formally, he did not desire a change in the doctrines of Islam, but merely preached a return to Islam’s former purity as proclaimed in the Koran. “Mohammed’s religious revolution, like every religious movement, was formally a reaction, an alleged return to the old, the simple,” Engels wrote of the origin of Islam. [Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 79.] Abd el-Wahhab’s “religious revolution” was also “an alleged return to the old, the simple.” But the meaning of the “revolution” lay not so much in a new interpretation of the tenets of Islam as in an appeal for Arab unity.

The teachings of the Wahhabis were devoted mainly to questions of morals. Its followers, who had grown up in the rigorous conditions of desert life, had to observe a strict moral austerity bordering on asceticism. They were forbidden to drink wine or coffee or to smoke tobacco. They rejected all luxury and forbade singing or the playing of musical instruments. They spoke out against all overindulgence and sexual dissoluteness. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Wahhabis were called “the Puritans of the desert.”

The Wahhabis fought against the survivals of local tribal cults. They destroyed the tombs of the saints, and forbade magic fortune-telling. But at the same time their teachings were directed against official Islam. They denounced mysticism and dervishism, the forms of religious worship practised by the Turks and formed over the ages. They urged the people to fight mercilessly against the apostates, in other words, against the Persian Shi’as, the Ottoman pseudo-Caliph and the Turkish pashas. The Wahhabis intended to drive out the Turks and unite the liberated Arab countries under the banner of “pure Islam.”

The Unification of Nejd.

The feudal rulers from the small Nejd principality of Deroiyeh headed the movement for unity. These were Emir Mohammed ibn Saud (died in 1765) and his son Abd el-Aziz (1765–1803). They had embraced Wahhabism and had entered into an alliance with Abd el-Wahhab in 1774. For the next forty years or so, their followers waged a stubborn struggle for the unification of Nejd under the banner of Wahhabism. They conquered one principality after the other. They forced the Bedouin tribes into submission. Some villages willingly submitted to the Wahhabis, others were driven on to the “path of truth” by force of arms.

By 1786, Wahhabism had spread all over Nejd. Small and once hostile principalities formed a comparatively large feudal theocratic state headed by the Saudi dynasty. In 1791, after the death of the founder of Wahhabism, Abd el-Wahhab, the Saudi emirs gained both temporal and spiritual power.

The victory of Wahhabism in Nejd and the emergence of the Saudi state did not lead to the formation of a new social system or bring a new class to power. The progressive character of these events lay in the fact that they weakened feudal anarchy and Arabian disunity.

However, the Wahhabis were as yet unable to create a centralised state with efficient administrative machinery. The former feudal rulers were permitted to retain their posts as the heads of towns on the condition that they embraced the Wahhabi faith and recognised the Wahhabi emir as their suzerain and spiritual leader. In the 18th century, therefore, the Wahhabi regime was unstable and was shaken by continuous feudal and tribal revolts. No sooner had the Wahhabi emirs added one district to their domains, than a revolt broke out in another, and the Wahhabi rulers had to rush their troops from one place to another to suppress it.

The Wahhabis’ Struggle for the Persian Gulf.

At the end of the 18th century, the Wahhabi state, which embraced all the provinces of Nejd, had shifted from the defensive to the offensive. In 1786, the Wahhabis made their first raids on the shores of the Persian Gulf and penetrated the region of El-Hasa, which in 1793 they conquered. This marked the beginning of the Wahhabi conquests beyond the confines of Nejd. After the death of Abd el-Aziz, they were led by Emir Saud (1803–14), who created a large Arab state incorporating almost the entire Arabian Peninsula.

After the conquest of El-Hasa, the Wahhabis spread their influence over the entire Persian Gulf. In 1803, they occupied Bahrain and Kuwait, and to these were added the towns of the so-called Pirate Coast with their formidable fleet. The majority of the population of the inner areas of Oman also adopted Wahhabism.

In 1804, when the Muscat ruler, Seyyid Sultan, England’s vassal, led his fleet into a battle against the Wahhabis, he was soon sunk. But his son, Said, acting on the advice of the East India Company, continued the struggle.

In 1806, the East lndia Company sent its fleet to the Persian Gulf and together with the ships of its Muscat vassal, blockaded the Wahhabi coast. The fight ended in the temporary defeat of the Wahhabis, who were compelled to return the British ships they had captured, and to pledge respect for the flag and property of the East India Company. From that time onwards a British fleet was permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf and regularly sank any Wahhabi warships it sighted. But England’s command of the sea could not weaken the Wahhabis’ command of the land. The entire Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf was still under their control.

THe Wahhabis’ Struggle for the Hejaz.

While fighting for possession of the Persian Gulf seaboard, the Wahhabis also sought to annex the Hejaz and the Red Sea coast.

Starting from 1794, the Wahhabis continuously raided the steppe districts of the Hejaz and the Yemen, seizing the oases near the borders and converting the border tribes to the Wahhabi faith. In 1796, Ghalib, Sherif of Mecca (1788–1813), sent his troops against the Wahhabis. During the ensuing three-year war, the Wahhabis won one victory after another. They were morally superior, their troops were well organised and disciplined, and they had a firm belief in the justice of their cause. Moreover, the Wahhabis had many followers in the Hejaz. Many of the feudal lords in this region were convinced of the necessity of Arabian unity. The rulers of Taif and Asir, many tribal sheikhs and even the sherif’s brother accepted Wahhabism. By 1796, all the Hejaz tribes except one had gone over to the Wahhabis’ side and the defeated Sherif Ghalib was obliged to acknowledge Wahhabism as an orthodox trend of Islam and officially surrender to the Wahhabis the land which they had conquered (1799). But the Wahhabis, who dreamt of a united Arabia, were not going to stop at this. After two-years’ respite, they renewed the fight against the sherif of Mecca and in April 1803, they seized Mecca itself. All ceremonies which seemed in the eyes of the Wahhabis to suggest the taint of idolatry were forbidden. They destroyed the tombs of “saints” and stripped the Ka’aba of its relics. The mullahs who persisted in the old belief were executed. These acts gave rise to an uprising in the Hejaz, forcing the Wahhabis to retreat, but their retreat was only temporary. In 1804, they seized Medina, and in 1806, recaptured and plundered Mecca. The Hejaz was annexed to the Wahhabi state, which now stretched from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, incorporating almost all the countries of the peninsula, Nejd, Shammar, Jauf, the Hejaz, El-Hasa, Kuwait, Bahrain, part of Oman and Yemenite and Asirian Tuhama. Even in the parts of the peninsula they had not occupied, in inner Yemen and Hadhramaut, the Wahhabis had many followers. Their influence was decisive.

Having united almost all Arabia, the Wahhabis proceeded to incorporate other Arab countries in the state. Their primary objectives were Syria and Iraq.

The Wahhabis’ Fight for Syria and Iraq.

Abd el-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism, had in his day dreamt of liberating Syria and Iraq from the Turkish yoke. He had disputed and denounced the Caliph’s (the Turkish Sultan) authority, regarding all Arabs as brothers and urging them to unite. In those days, when Arabia was an amorphous mass of tribes and principalities engaged in internecine strife, the idea of Arab unity had seemed remote, but by the beginning of the 19th century, Arabia was united and it looked as though the time had come to put Wahhab’s dream into practice.

While raiding the Hejaz, the Wahhabis also began operations on the borders of Iraq. Here, they had little success. True, they crushed the troops of the Baghdad pashas each time the pashas invaded the peninsula. But in Iraq, the Wahhabis were unable to take a single town or village and had to content themselves with raids and tribute-gathering. Even the biggest raid on Karbala (April 1801) ended unsuccessfully. Having destroyed the treasures of the Shi’a mosques in Karbala, the Wahhabis returned to the steppes. After the unification of Arabia in 1808, the Wahhabis launched a large attack against Baghdad, but it was repulsed. The campaigns against Damascus, Aleppo and other Syrian cities were likewise unsuccessful. The Wahhabis exacted tribute from these cities but were unable to establish themselves there. The Wahhabis fought just as well in Syria and Iraq as they did in Oman or in the Hejaz. They were just as well organised, disciplined and courageous. They still believed in the justice of their cause. But in Arabia they had had the support of the tribes and the progressive elements of the feudal class; the objective need for unity had stemmed from the conditions of economic development, and in this lay the secret of their past victories. The economic and social prerequisites for a union with Arabia were non-existent in Syria and Iraq. The people here stubbornly resisted the Wahhabis, whom they regarded as foreign invaders. In the days of the Wahhabi campaign against Baghdad and Damascus, Arab unity was as much a utopia as it was when the Wahhabi movement was first born. But after half a century of struggle, the Wahhabis’ dream for a united Arabia had come true at last.


Last updated: 27 July 2020