Born in 1703, Muhammad ibn Wahhab came from Najd at the heart of Arabia. After study in Medina and 12 years of travel and study in Iraq, he returned to Arabia to launch a puritanical reform of Islam. He took aim at popular piety, destroying saints’ tombs and cutting down sacred trees. He ordered the stoning of adulterous women, and preached jihad against unbelievers – Shia Muslims among them. In short, he rejected 1,400 years of Muslim thought. But his message was popular. By the mid-1700s, Wahhab’s “True Muslims,” or Salafis, were powerful enough to be making alliances with the Bedouin Saud family against the Ottomans. In return, the first Saudi state endorsed the Wahhab movement. It benefited both sides: the Wahhabs had support for their extreme religious reforms, and the Sauds had given their new state legitimacy that came not from royal blood but from religious purpose.
This symbiotic relationship remains today: Saudi Arabia supports Wahhabist schools around the world, and Wahhabists recognize the Sauds as deserving to rule due to their commitment to purifying Islam.