Wahhabism has always taken a dim view of Shiʿism–really, denigrating the Shiʿa is at the core of the movement’s origins. Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) based his teachings in large part on those of the very influential 13th-14th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, and apart maybe from philosophers Shiʿa were pretty much Ibn Taymiyah’s least favorite people in the world. One of the things Ibn Taymiyah condemned was the practice, common among but certainly not limited to Shiʿa, of visiting the shrine of a respected religious figure (a “saint,” for lack of a better term) to venerate that figure and ask the him or her to intercede on one’s behalf with God. Ibn Taymiyah saw such practices as unequivocally shirk (placing someone or something on the same level with God, i.e. polytheism), and his condemnations are the intellectual justification for Salafis in modern times who, for example, destroy shrines of prominent Sufi figures (though, I should note, Ibn Taymiyah was himself a Sufi).
Ibn Taymiyah also really hated the Shiʿa pilgrimage to Karbala to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn b. Ali, who was killed there in the Battle of Karbala in 680. He didn’t disagree that Husayn was a martyr, but he argued that martyrdom was a blessing, not something to be mourned. And anyway, as I say, he rejected the act of making pilgrimage to someone’s tomb and paying homage there as shirk, which is really the most heinous crime one can commit under Islamic religious law.
Ideologically, Wahhabism takes the embrace of God’s oneness and avoidance of shirk as its main point of emphasis, so it’s no wonder that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab embraced what Ibn Taymiyah had to say about the treatment of saints and their shrines. He went further though, arguing that Shiʿa were guilty of elevating their imams over Muhammad and even of placing them on the same level with God. And under the so-called “First Saudi State,” which lasted from 1744 to 1818 and grew to control most of the Arabian peninsula during its brief lifespan, these tenets of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching were made state policy.
All of this is to explain why, on April 21 in either 1801 or 1802, but more likely 1802, a Saudi army of about 12,000 men marched north to Karbala, destroyed the Imam Husayn Shrine (seen above in its modern form), and massacred between two and five thousand people in the process. Or, well, it explains their theoretical justification for carrying out that act. If you ask me, the reason for the raid on Karbala was much less about the One True Islam than it was about all the sweet treasure they were able to plunder. Continue reading