The followers of Wahhabism claim that they are trying to purify Islam and see themselves as devotees of early Muslims and their practices. However, it is a mistake to include Wahhabis within the framework of mainstream Sunni Islam, as their interpretation and methods differ significantly
"As Jews and Christians were divided into sects once upon a time, my community will be divided into 73. Only those who follow my community and my path will be saved," said Prophet Muhammad. Within the frame of his statement, those who believed and followed Prophet Muhammad and his friends' sunnah and principles were called "Ahl as-Sunnah" or "Sunni." Due to political disputes, the sects in Islam which Prophet Muhammad foresaw came into being in the next century following his death. For example, people who believed in the precedence of Ali, Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, in the caliphate were called "Shiites," meaning "supporter" in Arabic. However, within this sect, some marginal groups which believed the prophecy and even divinity of Ali emerged. Moreover, another group appeared which approached both Ali and the other sects with hostility: the Khawarij. This sect became known for its harsh opinions. They began terrorizing and killing those who did not think like they did. Islam's leaders embarked upon an armed struggle with the followers of this sect and managed to defeat them. In the following period, Sunni Islam scholars conducted academic debates with the Khawarijis.
Today, a huge majority of Muslims around the world belong to the Sunni sect. Although Sunni's are divided into different sects within themselves, such as Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi'i, they are considered legitimate in Islamic law as their differences occur in their religious practice not beliefs. Most of the heretical sects that emerged over time came and went; only the Shiite and Khawarij sects exist today. While the official sect in Iran is Shiite, there are Shiite minorities living in other Muslim countries such as Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Turkey. On the other hand, people belonging to the Khawarij sect live in Oman, having given up their former extremism.
Recently, a new sect called Wahhabi came into being within Islam. This sect is a mixture of the heretical movement Mujassimah (Anthropomorphism which is the belief that God is similar to humans), and the Khawarij sect. Since followers of Wahhabism claim that they are trying to purify Islam, they call themselves "Salafi," while naming others "Sufi." Based on the dictionary meaning, Salafi means "antecedents," which refers to the Muslims in the first century. However, the practices and beliefs of people following Wahhabism have nothing to do with the early Muslims. Therefore, Salafism is a misleading term for this community. The Western world mistakenly considers Wahhabism within the framework of Sunni beliefs. This mistaken belief is propagated through the acts of al-Qaida, the Taliban and now ISIS. There are people who do not realize the difference between Salafism and Sunni beliefs even among Sunnis. In order to be a Sunni, one should not and cannot accept rebellion against a government as a legitimate right. So, categorizing those who rebel against a government and even kill others in the name of Islam is a historical error.
Wahhabism first appeared near the Nejd region in eastern Arabia toward the end of the 18th century under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1791. The foundations of this sect are based on a 14th-century scholar named Ibn Taymiyyah who came from Harran, which is an ancient city located in southeastern Turkey. Ibn Taymiyyah, who once belonged to the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, was put on trial in Damascus and Cairo and then sentenced due to his beliefs which were close to the Mujassimah (Anthropomorphism) sect, as well as due to some negative comments by some friends about Prophet Muhammad. This scholar, known for his thoughts and religious personality, was against certain concepts of Islam such as Sufism, prophecy, intercession and grave visits. He also put forward marginal opinions on some matters of law which contrast with the thoughts of prominent Islam scholars. He and his students were criticized harshly in their life times and were also accused of being heretics and even atheists.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab investigated the views of Ibn Taymiyyah and his students thoroughly and began to follow them fanatically. Similar to Martin Luther who led the Protestant Reformation, al-Wahhab came forward claiming his desire to purify Islam. He viewed grave visits and tomb building as well as Mawlid reading, Sufism, mimbar and the minaret in the mosques and using prayer beads when following prayers as a disgrace to the religion of Islam. The first person to object to al-Wahhab was his brother Suleiman; he wrote a book rejecting his brother's views. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was also in contact with British intelligence officers who wanted to control trade in the Persian Gulf at that time. The founder of Wahhabism died in 1791 after writing down his views in a book entitled "Al-Tawhid." His views mostly spread among the Bedouin (nomadic Arabs). The emir of Diriyyah, Muhammad bin Saud, the ancestor of the royal family of present-day Saudi Arabia, married the daughter of al-Wahhab and accepted Wahhabism in 1744. His successor, Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad bin Saud, launched an attack on Hejaz in 1811. When Medina fell, the soldiers of tore down the sacred tombs belonging to Muhammad's friends and family and the residents of the city were killed. Upon the order of Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, the governor of Egypt Mehmed Ali Pasha marched to Hejaz and retrieved Mecca and Medina by hiring nomads and villagers as mercenaries. However, Abdullah, the great-grandson of Abdul Aziz, who attacked again was defeated in 1818. Abdullah and his sons were sent to Istanbul and hanged. Following this defeat, their center in Diriyyah fell and was destroyed. Despite the Saudis' approach to historical artifacts and sites, this area is an open-air museum today.
Saudi emirs accepted the defeat and Ottoman rule as Riyadh district governors. However, with the help of the British forces during a power vacuum, they reclaimed Hejaz and all of Arabia in 1918. In 1924, Mecca and Medina fell, and Hüseyin Pasha who was the governor of Mecca during the Ottoman period (but became the King of Hejaz in 1916 after he declared his independence), was exiled from Hejaz. Soon after, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded and the namesake great-grandson of Abd al-Aziz who had rebelled 100 years ago was declared king. By becoming king, Abd al-Aziz avenged his grandfather who was hanged in Istanbul a century ago. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia won the support of the U.S. after World War II and grew stronger following the discovery of petroleum in its lands. Wahhabism, which is known as the Salafi Movement, is the official sect of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Imams and Muslim judges belong to Wahhabism and they are guided by the views of Ibn Taymiyyah in their decisions. Since Ibn Taymiyyah used to belong to the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, people tend to think that the Saudi Kingdom also belongs to this sect. However, the four sects of Ahl us-Sunnah are not accepted in this country. The government of Saudi Arabia has adopted a more moderate policy. Now, Wahhabism is spread through the press and education systems. Râbıta al-alemi al-Islami (The Muslim World League) is an international propaganda organization for Wahhabism. The organization opens Islamic centers all over the world and sends religious people to these places in order to spread Wahhabism. These types of organizations have been growing stronger every day and can now be found from the Balkans to the Caucasus, Africa to India. They especially target Muslim countries that do not have social or financial power. This movement is a serious threat to world peace.