According to the outside world and media, it is a form or sect of Islam that goes back to Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulawahab. But to Saudis, especially the central region it is a sub-tribe of the Tameem tribe which coincidentally Sheikh Mohamed and I both belong to.
To set the record straight, no Saudi calls himself Wahbi unless they belong to the sub-tribe I mentioned above. To us Sheikh Mohamed was just another famous big sheikh who also happened to be into politics. He did not start a new Islamic sect. What he did do was educate people in the central region. The central region is practically an out of the way desert. Sheikh Mohamed was born here in Al Uyyanah, not far from Riyadh. He travelled to Makkah, Medina and Iraq to study Islam and then he came back and taught his people. At that time, people here were illiterate, superstitious and many had forgotten or never learned the basics of Islam. There are even stories about paganism and idol worshipping. So he came back to teach people. And he also made a pact with an ancestor of Al Saud, that he would take care of the religion and Al Saud would take care of bringing unity and government to our people.
Sheikh Mohamed, contrary to popular western belief, was not an ultra conservative hell bent against women and human rights. He barely delved into these issues. He had religiously bigger issues to take care of with wiping out paganism and the worship of saints and reeducating people on how to pray! He was also busy stifling the spread of Shiaism. His main focus was to resume the monotheism condition of Islam. He did such a great job that by the time he was through, the region had all the basics of Sunni Islam down. So much so that for the next two centuries, many many so-called sheikhs sadly had nothing better to do but twiddle their thumbs and create petty fatwas. For example, one that I came across written in the late eighties, early nineties that women should be discouraged from watching soccer matches on TV because the excitement of seeing men in shorts running around is too much for her fragile emotional health. That was a FATWA!
I digress, back to the term Wahabi. This is definitely an outsider’s term. And to those who the term refers to, it is meaningless. It isn’t even derogatory. It has no meaning outside of lineage and tribal names. There is no Islamic sect called Wahabi and Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulawahab did not create a new Islamic perspective. He was just a famous and notable figure in Saudi Arabian history.
So what Islamic sect does the central region and the government follow? It is Sunni and we strictly follow Sheikh Ahmed bin Hanbil and Ibn Taiymiah, both of whom came long before Mohamed bin Abdulwahab. Religiously speaking we call our selves Hanabillah. The next time you hear someone say “those crazy Wahabis” please correct them and say “they’re actually crazy Hanabillahs”.