I apologize if this seems an esoteric topic, but it is one that seems to be a matter of seriously contentious dispute, as well as one that Iis relevant to various controversies and issues in the Middle East now. It is triggered by the biggest argument I have ever had with Juan Cole, whom I usually agree with, and indeed I agree with the vast majority of his recent post advising Saudi Arabia on how they can make themselves look better to the rest of the world, which includes such obvious items as allowing women to drive (the last of 7).
My disagreement with him was over a line just dropped incidentally that he would later defend ardently, that the official Saudi theology/ideology of “Wahhabism” is “not Sunni.” I challenged this, pointing out that 1) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) officially uses as its official Shari’a law code the Hanbali code, one of the four Sunni Shari’a codes, and 2) that KSA is currently claiming to lead a global Sunni movement against the global Shia movement, even if this may well boil down simply to a local power struggle between KSA and Iran. I think Juan agrees with those two points, and also that Wahhabism and Salafism are not identical, in contrast to claims by many ignorant commentators.
I now accept that Juan is right about certain matters I differed with him about. The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammed ibn Abdel-Wahhab, who formed an alliance in 1744 with the founder of the Saudi dynasty, Muhammed ibn Sa’ud, did not make as his primal demand that the very strict Hanbali code be adopted by the Saudi family as part of their alliance. He had his own idiosyncratic theology that mostly attacked local practices such as worship of saints and their shrines. And he denounced the existing Sunnis and all other Muslims who did not follow his version of Islam to the point that they could be killed, although it seems that his worst wrath was against Shia and Sufis. But his stance led and justified the view by many that his followers were not proper Sunnis, even though later they would adopt the proper, if extreme, Hanbali Shari’a code, although that would be following ibn Hanbal’s follower, ibn Tamiyyah more specifically when they did so by a century or so ago. It was also the case that from the beginning Abdel-Wahhab’s views were close to those of advocates of the Hanbali code, who included members of his family, including his influential grandfather.