1902 Encyclopedia > Arabia > Arabia - History - The Wahhabis (Wahhabus)

(Part 45)


(45) Arabia - History - The Wahhabis (Wahhabus)

Rise of Wahhabus or Abd-el-Wahhab

Born at the town of Horeymelah, in the center of Nejd, 1691 A.D., Abd-el-Wahhab, or the "Servant of the Bountiful," had in early life traveled far in Mesopotamia and Syria, report even adds India, seeking knowledge in observation and the conversation of the learned, to whom his own superior intelligence gave him recommendation everywhere. Returning in mature life to the secluded quiet of his native land, he gave himself up to thought and study, mostly theological. Convinced by the comparison between what he read and what he had seen in his travels, and continued to see around him in Nejd itself, where hardly a vestige of Mahometanism remained, that the primitive faith of Islam had become considerably corrupted in theory and totally so in practice, and that Turks, Persians, and Arabs, were all of them in fact, though after different fashions, no longer true Muslims, but mere idolaters and polytheists, he determined himself to inaugurate a reform that should reassert the doctrine and practice of the Koran as they had been at the beginning.

Wahhabee Reform

The invocation of saints, including Mahomet himself, a practice borrowed by Mahometanism from foreign example; the honours paid at the shrines and tombs of the dead; the use of intoxicating liquors; the wearing of silk and gold -- to sum up, every belief or practice directly or indirectly condemned by the Koran, or even not sanctioned by it -- with all these Abd-el-Wahhab declared open war. His special and notorious prohibition of tobacco, a prohibition rigorously observed by his followers, and which subsequently became in a manner their distinctive badge, must be attributed to an excess of sectarian Puritanism; nor can it be doubted that hatred of foreigners, and of the Turks in particular, had a large share in that zeal manifested by himself and his disciples for what they, not altogether wrongly, considered as in a peculiar sense the national or Arab religion; it was a view that had the sanction of the Koran itself.

Like Mahomet, Abd-el-Wahhab commenced his preaching when about forty years of age, and like the prophet, soon drew down on himself the persecution of those he failed to convert. Driven from Eyaneh, where he had established himself, by the hostility of its chiefs, themselves stirred up to persecution of the rigorous doctrine by the far-sighted Arav, governor of the neighbouring province of Hasa, he found refuge with the sheykh Mohammed Ebu Saood, the warlike chief of Dereyeeyah, who put his sword and that of his clan at the disposal of the new apostle. The reform thus supported soon extended itself, partly by persuasion, partly by force; and when Abd-el-Wahhab died in 1787, at the advanced age of ninety six, he had already seen his doctrines dominant from the coast of Bahreyn to the confines of Mokha and Aden.

Ebn Saood. Conquest of Nejd. Abd-el-Aziz.

His disciple and patron, Ebn Saood, after many victories gained over the governor of Hasa and other enemies or rivals, died in 1765, leaving the whole of Nejd, now consolidated into one government under one head, to his son and successor Abd-el-Aziz, who, on his accession, now assumed the titles of Imam and Sultan. Under this chief the important provinces of abu-Areesh, south of Mecca, and of Nejran, on the frontier of Yemen, were added to the Wahhabee dominions. These conquests, or rather annexations, naturally enough excited the alarm of Ghalib, the shereef or governor of Mecca, who by his representations succeeded in at last awakening the long negligent Turks to the danger which threatened their frontiers from the national and religious union of the Arab race. Orders were issued from Constantinople, and 1797 an army of 5000 Turks, with an equal number of allied Arabs, advanced into Hasa, which had already become Wahhabee territory, and laid siege to Hofho of, the capital of the province. But harassed by the Wahhabees and fearful or risking a general engagement, they retired without having effected anything except to provoke the bitter resentment of an enemy who had now learned not only to hate but to despite them.

Storming of Kerbela

The consequences was that the Wahhabees before long took the initiative; and 1801 their collected armies invaded the territory of Baghdad, and laid siege to Kerbella, a locality famous for the tomb of Hoseyn the martyr, son of Ali, and a centre of popular Mahometan superstition. The town was stormed, the inhabitants massacred, and spoils of immense value were transferred from its shrines to the Wahhabbee treasury.

Taking of Mecca

Victorious on the east, the Wahhabee arms were next directed westward; Taif, the well known pleasure-ground of Mecca, was invaded and subdued with great blooshed in 1802; and in the April of the following year Mecca itself, though not till after a brave resistance, came into Wahhabee possession. Ghaleb fled to Jiddeh, the only place in Hejaz that held out against the invaders; and saood, son of Abd-el-Aziz, formally assumed the government of Mecca, whence he dictated to the Porte the terms on which alone he declared that he would henceforth permit the observances of the yearly pilgrimage from all parts of the Mahometan world. Shortly afterwards he succeded in person to the Wahhabee imamate, his father having been assassinated by a Persia in the mosque of Dereyeeyah.

Saood's Reign

Under Saood the Nejdee kingdom attained its greatest extension and prosperity. Internally its government was such as that of Arabia had been under the first caliphs and their Ommiade successors,-namely, a despotism regulated by the prescriptions of the Koran; and the revenues at Saood’s disposal fluctuated between 200,000 pounds and 300,000 pounds yearly. This sum he expended chiefly for military purposes. In 1804 he conquered Medinah, plundering the rich offerings accumulated by the supestition of ages round the prophet’s tomb, besides treating the inhabitants of the town with great severity.

From this date till 1811, open war, in which the Wahhabees were generally successful, was waged between them and all their neighbours on every side, but especially against the Turks, whose Syrian possessions were ravaged sometimes by Saood’s best general Abu-Noktah, sometimes by his gigantic Negro lieutenant Hark, up to Anah on the Euphrates, and within sight of the walls of Damascus . at this time, too, the inhabitants of Bahreyn and the adjoining coast having embraced Wahhabee doctrines, combined them with profitable piracy on the Persian Gulf, till the British expedition sent from Bombay in 1810 and 1819 broke up the robber nest of ras-el-Kheymah, and set bounds to the insolence of the piratical zealots.

For during these events the customary pilgrimage of Mecca and Medinah had ben interrupted, the Wahhabees allowing none but such as conformed to their own doctrines and habits to approach the sacred cities. Thus the whole extra-Arabian Mahometan world was roused to indignation against the new and exclusive reform; and the Ottoman Porte, after some futile efforts of its own, consented to entrust the chastisement of the Arabs to its doubtful and already over powerful Egyptian vassal, Mehemet Ali.

War With Egypt

In 1811 this cruel and treacherous but highly talented man began the work, and, in spite of many difficulties and even reverses, never faltered in it till it was fully accomplished. The details of the campaign that reduced Arabia, though only for a few years, to an Egyptian province, being well known, a very summary mention may here suffice.

Tousoon Beg's Campaign

Tousoon Beg, son of Mehemet Ali, commanded the first expedition. It was directed against the northern Hejaz, and landed in 1811 at Yembo, which town the Turks took and made a base of further operations. A severe check inflicted on them by the Arabs in January 1812 retarded their advance, but by the end of the year Tousoon stormed Medinah, and his troops made a frightful massacre of the Wahhabee garrison and inhabitants; to which atrocity the treacherous murder of 1500 more, who, after holding out long and bravely in the town castle, had surrendered on terms of safe-conduct, was soon added. Meantime the intrigues of Mehemet Ali detached the shereef Ghaleb from the Wahhabee cause; and Jiddeh was treacherously surrendered by Ottoman troops. Mehemet Ali now came over in person; and his troops having been reinforced by these of his son Tousoon, he felt himself strong enough to break his promises to the sheykh Ghaleb, whom he arrested, disposed of power, and sent to die in exile.

Mehemet Ali's Campaign

For a year and a half Mehemet Ali remained at Mecca, collecting his forces for a decisive blow. Meanwhile, in 1814 Saood had died, leaving as successor his son Abd-Allah, a chief equal to his father in every respect except prudence, in which he was unfortunately deficient. Mehemet Ali having completed his preparations, left, Mecca early in 1815 with a large army, and advanced towards Yemen; while the Wahhabees, who are said to have been 30,000 strong, occupied the mountain pass of Bisha on the way, and rashly hazarded a general engagement. The battle, in which Mehemet Ali displayed much personal courage, was desperate, and ended in the utter discomfiture of the Arabs, several thousands of whom were killed on the field. Mehemet Ali followed up his victory, and in a few months had reduced the entire mountainous district north of Yemen, besides taking alive as prisoners Bakrooj and Tami, two of the most renowned Wahhabee chiefs, both of whom, in violation of his promises, he made be put to death with atrocious tortures. But the exhaustion of his own soldiers obliged him to relinquish his further march south; he returned to Mecca, and in the summer to Egypt; Tousoon Pasha, left to conduct the war, concluded peace with the Wahhabees, and shortly after himself died of the plague.

Ibrahim Pasha

The treaty he had signed was disavowed both at Cairo and Constantinople; and in September 1816 the celebrated Ibrahim Pasha, adopted son of Mehemet Ali, landed at Yembo, and commenced the final campaign. For more than a year he exercised his troops in frequent but well-timed and generally successful skirmishes with those of Abd-Allah, who inperson commanded the Wahhabee armies; while his crafty diplomacy, equal to that of Mehemet Ali himself, won over tribe after tribe to the Egyptian cause. Well supplied with provisions, and his flanks covered by his Arab allies, Ibrahim, in spite of a severe repulse beneath the walls of El-Rass, subdued the entire province of Kaseem, entered Nejd on the northwest by the pass of Shakrah, and in April 1818 appeared beneath the walls of the capital, Dereyeeyah, on which Abd-Allah with his forces had retreated.

Fall of the Wahhabee Kingdom

The siege lasted five months, and was conducted with great ability by Ibrahim, whose military skill at last triumphed over the determined courage of the garrison and inhabitants. Not, however, till the town had been gradually reduced to a confusion of ruinous heaps did Abd-Allah consent to surrender, and then only on honourable terms, which, as usual, the conqueror granted freely, but with no intention of observing. The Wahhabee chief was sent under strong guard to Egypt, and thence to Constantinople, where, December 19th 1818, he was beheaded in the public square in front of St. Sophia.

Egyptian Occuptation of Arabia

Dereyeeyah was razed to the ground by the conqueror, and remains this day, like Eyaneh, a formless heap. The provinces of Hareek and Hasa submitted after slight resistance; and the whole of Arabia, Oman excepted, now lay at the mercy of Ibrahim, who showed none. after a bloody series of executions and massacres, he placed garrisons in all the strongholds that he permitted to remain standing; and Arabia had to submit to the military conscriptions and other exactions and oppressions that have ruined, and still ruin, every other province of the Ottoman empire, aggravated in this case by the licentiousness of the conquerors and the long outstanding mutual hatred of Turk and Arab.

Revival of Wahhabee Power

Ibrahim returning to Egypt, left Khaleel Pasha as vice-regent of Arabia, who for a while maintained despotic rule over the country. But Turkee, the younger son of Abd-Allah, who on the downfall of his family had fled to the mountainous fastnesses of Toweyk, soon organized guerilla bands, that, aided by the peasants, succeeded in rendering the central and eastern provinces of the land untenable by the Turks. The inhabitants of Hareek and Hasa were the first to throw off the yoke; and the town of Riad, celebrated as the birthplace, 1400 years before, of the prophet Museylemah, now became the restored Waggabee capital. Turkee, like so many other Arab rulers, fell the victim of an assassin, but his son Feysyl succeeded to his ability as well as to his popularity and power. The Egyptian government, by this time at open war with the Ottoman, made several unavailing attempts to put down the revolt; but the wars between Mehemet Ali and the Porte in Syria and Anatolia diverted its serious attention from the less important, because poorer, acquisitions made by Ibrahim in Arabia, till in 1842 Khoorshid Pasha, the last representative of Egyptian rule, was, partly by force, partly by craft, for Feysul was a master in both, compelled to quit his frontier residence in Kaseem; and this populous province was re-annexed to the Wahhabee empire; while Asser, throwing off foreign rule, returned to Wahhabeeism and independence.

Present Condition of Central Arabia

Hasa, Hareek, the whole of Nejd, Kaseem, and the provinces adjoining Yemen on the north, with Aseer, were now re-united under the scepter of Feysul, and a broad belt of Wahhabee rule thus again stretched across the center of the peninsula, from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. But over Bahreyn, Oman, and Yemen, the Wahhabee, though they have frequently attempted, it, have never been able to re-establish their former dominion; and in Shomer and Jowf to the north, between Nejd and Syria, a new kingdom of a different and much more liberal character, that of the brave and clever Telal, sprung up, and has since maintained its independence. Nor have the often-repeated Wahhabee inroads on Mecca and the Hejaz been attended with their former success. Still, within its actual though narrowed limits, the Wahhabee government has remained well-organized and strong,-a constant menace to its neighbours, and a genuine specimen, nor a wholly unfavourable one, of Arab autonomy. But in 1870, Feysul, already aged and blind, was assassinated, as his father had been before him, and the dissensions of his two sons, Abd-allah and Saood, the former of whom advanced the rights of first-born, the latter those of popularity to the throne, led to a civil war, and gave occasion to Ottoman interference. An armed force was sent, and advanced along the shore of the Persian Gulf into the province of Hasa, where it occupied the capital, Hofhoof. With this, however, its success terminated, and the difficulties of crossing the "Dahna" desert strip seem likely to place an effectual barrier to any further progress. Aseer, however, a stronghold of Wahhabeeism, has been invaded by the Turks, who have gained there some temporary and superficial advantages, while the new kingdom of Shomer, weakened by the untimely death of its accomplished prince Telal, has also offered facilities for Turkish interference, though not of a military description.


To these varied change the kingdom of Oman has for many generations remained in great measure a stranger. But its capital Mascat, was occupied by the Portuguese in 1508, who retained it till the middle of the 17th century. It was then retaken by the Yaarebah princes, who had all along maintained their power in the interior, and now for a century more became the sole though not the undisputed rulers of Oman, which was at this time often harassed by Persian invasion. In 1737 the country was formally attacked by the armies of Nadir Shah; the principal towns were at last taken the inhabitants massacred, and for four years Oman groaned under the Persian tyranny. A deliver, however, appeared in the person of Ahmed Ebn-Saood, of Temenite origin, but not of the reigning family. By a series of daring deeds he succeeded in expelling or destroying the enemies of his country, and was in return elected Imam in the year 1741, since which time his family have occupied the throne of Oman. Under the Imam Sultan Saood and his son the Seyyid Saood, the Omance kingdom attained its greatest splendour at the beginning of the present century. Its power then extended not only over Oman and a large tract of the Arabian mainland, but also over Bahreyn, Ormuz, Larej, Kishm, and the other islands of the Persian Gulf; besides the coast of Katar, with its celebrated pearl fisheries, on the Arab side, that of Barr-faris, with the harbours of Linja and Bander Abbas, on the Persian, and a long strip of African sea-shore, south of Cape Guardefui, with the islands of Socotra and Zanzibar. Sultamn Saood was killed in 1804, but his son, of the same name, proved his not unworthy successor; and though unable to prevent considerable encroachments of the Nejdee Wahhabees on the north and west of his dominions, saved Oman itself from conquest and annexation. He consolidated the Arab power in Zanzibar and the east African coast; and when he died in 1856, after reigning fifty-two years, he left the kingdom of Oman the most flourishing state in the entire Arabian peninsula. Its proximity to India has often involved this government in relations, sometimes amicable, sometimes hostile, with ourselves; but a detail of them need not detain us here. Suffice it to say, that on the death of sultan Saood, Zanzibar was, partly by British influence, detached from the Arab empire; while the death of the late Imam, Thomweynee, son of Saood, who perished, assassinated by his own son, in 1866, inaugurated a period of civil wars from which Oman is still suffering. Her Wahhabee neighbours too, continue their restless attempts at encroachment on her western frontier, while Katar and Bahreyn, with their pearl fisheries, have been wholly lost to the Mascat sceptre.

Ottoman Power in Arabia

Lastly, the Hejaz is at the present date absolutely under the Turkish government, while Aden has ever since its first capture in 1839, remained a British possession. Thus Nejd itself, with the inland districts immediately adjoining, and the desolate coast districts of Mahrah and Hadramaut, are now the only parts of the peninsula where Arab independence can be said fully to maintain itself; though with this difference, that in the last-named provinces it is merely the independence of barbarism and poverty, while in the former it is that of organization and not contemptible resource.

Future Prospects of Arabia

Nor can it be well doubted that the recent encroachments of the Ottoman government, or rather misgovernment, will prove equally ephemeral with those of Sultan Selim or Mehement Ali, and that Arabia will in a short time, probably within a few years, regain its previous autonomy. Arab institutions are far from perfect, yet they are better than Ottoman oppression, and the Wahhabee empire might easily, under a judicious head, relax from its intolerance and become a center, not of strength only, but of order, prosperity, and even civilization, for the whole Arab nation, restoring, not, indeed, for external conquests, the days of which have long gone by, but for internal wellbeing, the better times of the Ommiade dynasty.

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