Definitions and etymology
Some definitions or uses of the term Wahhabi Islam include:
- "a corpus of doctrines", and "a set of attitudes and behavior, derived from the teachings of a particularly severe religious reformist who lived in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century" (
- "pure Islam" (David Commins, paraphrasing supporters' definition),
 that does not deviate from
Sharia law in any way and should be called Islam and not Wahhabism. (King
Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the King of the Saudi Arabia)
- "a misguided creed that fosters intolerance, promotes simplistic theology, and restricts Islam's capacity for adaption to diverse and shifting circumstances" (David Commins, paraphrasing opponents' definition)
- "a conservative reform movement ... the creed upon which the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, and [which] has influenced Islamic movements worldwide" (Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world)
- "a sect dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar" with footholds in "India, Africa, and elsewhere", with a "steadfastly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the tradition of Ibn Hanbal" (Cyril Glasse)
- an "eighteenth-century reformist/revivalist movement for sociomoral reconstruction of society", "founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab" (Oxford Dictionary of Islam).
- originally a "literal revivification" of Islamic principles that ignored the spiritual side of Islam, that "rose on the wings of enthusiasm and longing and then sank down into the lowlands of pharisaic self-righteousness" after gaining power and losing its "longing and humility" (
- "a political trend" within Islam that "has been adopted for power-sharing purposes", but cannot be called a sect because "It has no special practices, nor special rites, and no special interpretation of religion that differ from the main body of Sunni Islam" (Abdallah Al Obeid, the former dean of the Islamic University of Medina and member of the Saudi Consultative Council)
- "the true salafist movement". Starting out as a theological reform movement, it had "the goal of calling (da'wa) people to restore the 'real' meaning of tawhid (oneness of God or monotheism) and to disregard and deconstruct 'traditional' disciplines and practices that evolved in Islamic history such as theology and jurisprudence and the traditions of visiting tombs and shrines of venerated individuals." (Ahmad Moussalli)
- a term used by opponents of Salafism in hopes of besmirching that movement by suggesting foreign influence and "conjuring up images of Saudi Arabia". The term is "most frequently used in countries where Salafis are a small minority" of the Muslim community but "have made recent inroads" in "converting" the local population to Salafism. (Quintan Wiktorowicz)
- a blanket term used inaccurately to refer to "any Islamic movement that has an apparent tendency toward misogyny, militantism, extremism, or strict and literal interpretation of the Quran and hadith" (Natana J. DeLong-Bas)
According to Saudi writer Abdul Aziz Qassim and others, it was the
Ottomans who "first labelled Abdul Wahhab's school of
Islam in Saudi Arabia as Wahhabism". The British also adopted it and expanded its use in the Middle East.
Naming controversy: Wahhabis, Muwahhidun, and Salafis
Wahhabis do not like – or at least did not like – the term. Ibn Abd-Al-Wahhab was averse to the elevation of scholars and other individuals, including using a person's name to label an Islamic school.
Robert Lacey "the Wahhabis have always disliked the name customarily given to them" and preferred to be called
 Another preferred term was simply "Muslims" since their creed is "pure Islam".
 However, critics complain these terms imply non-Wahhabis are not monotheists or Muslims.
 Additionally, the terms Muwahhidun and Unitarians are associated with other sects, both extant and extinct.
Other terms Wahhabis have been said to use and/or prefer include
ahl al-hadith ("people of hadith"), Salafi Da'wa or al-da'wa ila al-tawhid
 ("Salafi preaching" or "preaching of monotheism", for the school rather than the adherents) or Ahl ul-Sunna wal Jama'a ("people of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah"),
 Ahl al-Sunnah ("People of the Sunna"),
 or "the reform or Salafi movement of the Sheikh" (the sheikh being ibn Abdul-Wahhab).
 Early Salafis referred to themselves simply as "Muslims", believing the neighboring
Ottoman Caliphate was al-dawlah al-kufriyya (a heretical nation) and its self-professed Muslim inhabitants actually non-Muslim.
 The prominent 20th-century
Nasiruddin Albani, who considered himself "of the
Salaf," referred to
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab's activities as "Najdi
Many, such as writer Quinton Wiktorowicz, urge use of the term Salafi, maintaining that "one would be hard pressed to find individuals who refer to themselves as Wahhabis or organizations that use 'Wahhabi' in their title, or refer to their ideology in this manner (unless they are speaking to a Western audience that is unfamiliar with Islamic terminology, and even then usage is limited and often appears as 'Salafi/Wahhabi')."
 A New York Times journalist writes that Saudis "abhor" the term Wahhabism, "feeling it sets them apart and contradicts the notion that Islam is a monolithic faith."
 Saudi King
Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for example has attacked the term as "a doctrine that doesn't exist here (Saudi Arabia)" and challenged users of the term to locate any "deviance of the form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia from the teachings of the
Quran and Prophetic
Ingrid Mattson argues that "'Wahhbism' is not a sect. It is a social movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islam of rigid cultural practices that had (been) acquired over the centuries."
On the other hand, according to authors at Global Security and
Library of Congress the term is now commonplace and used even by Wahhabi scholars in the Najd,
 a region often called the "heartland" of Wahhabism.
 Journalist Karen House calls Salafi "a more politically correct term" for Wahhabi.
In any case, according to Lacey, none of the other terms have caught on, and so like the Christian
Quakers, Wahhabis have "remained known by the name first assigned to them by their detractors."
Wahhabis and Salafis
Many scholars and critics distinguish between Wahhabi and Salafi. According to American scholar Christopher M. Blanchard,
 Wahhabism refers to "a conservative Islamic creed centered in and emanating from Saudi Arabia," while Salafiyya is "a more general puritanical Islamic movement that has developed independently at various times and in various places in the Islamic world."
However, many call Wahhabism a more strict, Saudi form of Salafi.
 Wahhabism is the Saudi version of Salafism, according to Mark Durie, who states Saudi leaders "are active and diligent" in using their considerable financial resources "in funding and promoting Salafism all around the world."
 Ahmad Moussalli tends to agree Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, saying "As a rule, all Wahhabis are salafists, but not all salafists are Wahhabis".
Hamid Algar lists three "elements" Wahhabism and Salafism had in common.
- above all disdain for all developments subsequent to al-Salaf al-Salih (the first two or three generations of Islam),
- the rejection of
- the abandonment of consistent adherence to one of the four or five Sunni
Madhhabs (schools of fiqh).
And "two important and interrelated features" that distinguished Salafis from the Wahhabis:
- a reliance on attempts at persuasion rather than coercion in order to rally other Muslims to their cause; and
- an informed awareness of the political and socio-economic crises confronting the Muslim world.
Hamid Algar and another critic,
Khaled Abou El Fadl, argue Saudi oil-export funding "co-opted" the "symbolism and language of Salafism", during the 1960s and 70s, making them practically indistinguishable by the 1970s,
 and now the two ideologies have "melded". Abou El Fadl believes Wahhabism rebranded itself as Salafism knowing it could not "spread in the modern Muslim world" as Wahhabism.