Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative form of Islam and the official state-sponsored form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. Seeking a fundamentalist form of Islam with an uncompromising emphasis on tawhid (unity of God), Wahhabism renounces bida (religious innovation) and supports a literalist interpretation and implementation of sharia (Islamic canonical law). Wahhabism calls for the eradication of perceived practices of shirk (idolatry or polytheism), notably the visiting of saints’ tombs and their veneration. Early in its formation, Wahhabism also adopted the concept of takfir, whereby some Muslims not abiding by the narrow definition of Wahhabi Islam could be branded as kuffar (non-believers) and deserving of death.
Wahhabism was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the early 18th century in Najd, the central region of the Arabian Peninsula. Inspired by Salafi Islam, Wahhabism took political form when Wahhab signed a pact with Muhammad bin Saud, forming the Emirate of Diriyah, the first Saudi state. In return for Saud’s support for the Wahhabi movement, Wahhab offered support to Saud’s rule in a political alliance that has lasted until the present day. In large part due to Saudi Arabia’s prestigious status as the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and the home of two of Islam’s holiest sites—Mecca and Medina—Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has been successfully exported throughout the Muslim world. Adherents often reject the use of the term “Wahhabi,” preferring “Salafi,” although some commentators use Wahhabism and Salafism interchangeably.