Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs

Egypt’s war with the Wahhābīs exemplified the complex political relationships affecting the Arab world and its transition into the modern era. Although the Egyptians eventually subdued the Wahhābīs in battle, these Arab nomads spread a theocratic political philosophy that swept through the Middle East. The Wahhābī vision of Islamic governance helped foster modern political Islam, simultaneously influencing the later creation of Saudi Arabia.

Summary of Event

Six years after consolidating his political power, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha, began a series of military campaigns designed to expand his influence in the Middle East. After having relied on the Ottoman Turks to quash domestic resistance to attain his power, Muḥammad ՙAlī secretly hoped to make Egypt independent from the declining empire. In 1811, he seized upon such an opportunity by invading the Hijaz and Najd regions of modern Saudi Arabia. The political tensions between Egyptians and Ottoman Turks; the causes, course, and consequences of the war; and the Wahhābīs’ political orientation and alliances make the Egyptian war with the Wahhābīs a small but pivotal event in the course of modern history. Wahhābīs
Egypt;Wahhābī war[Wahhabi war]
Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis]
Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha
[p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis]
Arabia;Wahhābī war[Wahhabi war]
[kw]Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs (1811-1818)
[kw]Fights the Wahhābīs, Egypt (1811-1818)
[kw]Wahhābīs, Egypt Fights the (1811-1818)
Egypt;Wahhābī war[Wahhabi war]
Islam;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis]
Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha
[p]Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha[Muhammad Ali Pasha];and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis]
Arabia;Wahhābī war[Wahhabi war]
[g]Egypt;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[g]Africa;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[g]Middle East;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[g]Saudi Arabia;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[c]Religion and theology;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[c]Government and politics;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1811-1818: Egypt Fights the Wahhābīs[0490]
Ibrāhīm Paṣa

[p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis]
Muḥammad ibn ՙAbd al-Wahhāb
Muḥammad ibn Saՙūd

Muḥammad ՙAlī proved himself an ambitious and conniving politician. His experience as an Albanian officer in the Ottoman army provided him with a decidedly Western perspective that embraced modernity. After he was appointed the Ottoman viceroy, or pasha, of Egypt in 1805, he oversaw military and civil reforms that he hoped would translate into greater Egyptian autonomy. Before enhancing his image abroad, however, he faced stiff opposition from domestic political rivals.

Prior to Napoleon’s intervention in Egypt in 1798, numerous wealthy landowning families, known as the Mamlūks Mamlūks[Mamluks] , or Mamelukes, governed Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Turks. Egypt’s political power remained decentralized under this feudal-like bureaucracy. Initially, Muḥammad ՙAlī tried cajoling these barons. However, many resented his dictatorial power and his modern reforms. In 1811, to ensure their compliance, he lured opposing Mamlūks to a meeting at which he had them massacred. After consolidating his power at home, he pursued expansion abroad.

Muḥammad ՙAlī Pasha.

(Library of Congress)

The Ottoman Turks feared regional competition from Egypt. Too weak to engage Muḥammad ՙAlī directly, Sultan Mahmud II Mahmud II
[p]Mahmud II[Mahmud 02];and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] requested that he quell the rebelling Wahhābīs in Arabia’s Hijaz and Najd regions. Mahmud hoped that Egypt’s expenditure of men and resources in Arabia would check Muḥammad ՙAlī’s regional ambition while providing security in an area vital to Turkish trade. The ensuing conflict then devolved into a war of attrition.

After the Battle of al-Khaif, Muḥammad ՙAlī’s Albanian infantry deserted his army, making him rely more heavily upon his Egyptian contingents. Muḥammad ՙAlī’s son Ibrāhīm Paṣa Ibrāhīm Paṣa commanded the expedition and, after eight arduous years, succeeded in conquering the Wahhābīs, breaking their rule over Medina and Mecca. Mecca;and Wahhābīs[Wahhabis] Muḥammad ՙAlī then appointed Ibrāhīm governor in Arabia—an act that implied Egyptian, rather than Ottoman, control. In response, the Turks incited a revolt in Cairo Cairo;revolt that Muḥammad ՙAlī suffocated by uniting Egyptian public opinion behind his new invasion of the Sudan, to the south. Meanwhile, Muḥammad ՙAlī’s actions in Arabia agitated Turks to the north in addition to provoking the enmity of the Wahhābīs to the east.

More than a simple band of Bedouins creating havoc, the Wahhābīs represented a powerful Islamic philosophy. Within Islam, discrepancies between social lifestyle and religious authority remain highly contested. The Wahhābīs interpreted Islamic Islam;Sharia law law, or Sharia, in strict, puritanical terms devoid of any dissent. The Sunni theological scholar Muḥammad ibn ՙAbd al-Wahhāb spread these views in his Ḥanbalite schools. Witnessing the growing corruption of traditional social standards resulting from an external invasion of modernity and an internal manifestation of paganism, the Wahhābīs championed traditional norms. They repudiated pagan rituals and iconoclastic worship, defied Muslims who advocated rationalism, and mutinied against Sufi doctrines on mysticism. ՙAbd al-Wahhāb interpreted these Islamic derivatives as heretical and stressed the individual’s responsibility to follow divine will as determined by the Qur՚ān. During the late eighteenth century, the Saՙūdi family, under Muḥammad ibn Saՙūd and his sons, incorporated these teachings into their Hijaz and Najd provinces.

By the nineteenth century the Wahhābī-Saՙūdi alliance had expanded aggressively between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Wahhābīs began harassing Ottoman provinces by sacking Karbala in what is now Iraq and conquering Mecca, Islam’s most revered city. Additionally, the Saՙūdi emir labeled the Ottoman sultan a heretic and usurper. Against Wahhābī fervor backed by Saՙūdi force, outlying Ottoman provinces capitulated, bringing puritanical Islam into direct conflict with Arabs espousing modernity. During the war with the Egyptians, the Wahhābī yielded ground only after exerting determined tenacity. Despite its political and military defeat, Wahhābīism remained as a vibrant philosophical alternative to modern reform.

Historians debate the extent to which modernity influenced Wahhābīism. The movement evolved from an Islamic reformation challenging new interpretations of faith and theocratic government. From this perspective, the Muslim world faced growing social and political stratification. Stress among competing economic interests polarized Egyptian society and politics. On one hand, Arabia’s Hijaz region opened trade with eastern lands stretching to India. On the other hand, Upper Egypt prospered from thriving trade with both Great Britain and France.

Rather than enhance Egypt’s regional standing, these competing commercial interests pitted a burgeoning class of wealthy merchants against an established class of wealthy landowners. Although modernity had little impact on Wahhābī teachings during the eighteenth century, the fundamentalist sect countered the region’s hasty adoption of Western reforms by the nineteenth century. Soon after the end of the war in 1818, Wahhābī schools spread to Cairo. Cairo;Wahhābī schools[Wahhabi schools] Over the course of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, Egypt wrestled with Wahhābī- and Western-oriented factions and the volatile environment they created.


The events surrounding the Egyptian war with the Wahhābīs exhibited a lasting set of intersecting factors that persist in the modern world. First, Muḥammad ՙAlī’s ambition launched Egypt on a rendezvous with Western modernity. The war initiated expansionist expeditions that challenged both Ottoman hegemony and provincial rulers who enforced traditional social practices. The war also contributed to the Ottoman Empire’s impotent image. By 1811, the sultan’s viceroys, such as Muḥammad ՙAlī, were acting with increasing autonomy. The empire limped into the twentieth century, during which World War I delivered the coup de grâce in 1918.

Wahhābīism’s emergence as a militant, puritanical sect reflected a tumultuous era within the history of Islam. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Ottomans retreated from their position as sole representative of an autonomous Muslim world. Islam experienced a bloody reformation in which the powerful Saՙūdi family spread radical fundamentalist teachings. By the 1930’s, the Saՙūdi family had consolidated political power once again and succeeded in forming modern Saudi Arabia, in which Wahhābīism remains the official state religion. Finally, Wahhābīism challenged modernity as Western reforms infiltrated the Middle East. After the war, Wahhābīism took root in Egypt and other areas where modern reforms disenfranchised Voting rights;in Egypt[Egypt] the established social order. Ultimately, succeeding rulers and generations struggled to resolve these volatile issues, which were evident during the early twenty-first century’s conflict with Osama Bin Laden’s Wahhābī sect.

Further Reading

  • Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. Excellent overview of Muḥammad ՙAlī’s rise to power and imperialist exploits.
  • Harris, Christina P. Nationalism and Revolution in Egypt: The Role of the Muslim Brotherhood. London: Mouton, 1964. Discussion of Wahhābīism that serves as an insightful reference with a thorough understanding of the movement within an Islamic context.
  • Hassan, Hassan. In the House of Muhammad Ali: A Family Album, 1805-1952. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2000. Lavishly illustrated memoir of life within Egypt’s ruling family by a member of the family. Although the author’s firsthand observations are limited to the twentieth century, he also provides an intimate look at Muḥammad ՙAlī’s family during the nineteenth century.
  • Lawson, Fred H. The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muḥammad ՙAlī Period. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Detailed account of Egyptian foreign policymaking as well as a rich record of Egypt’s domestic situation during the war with the Wahhābīs.
  • Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid. A Short History of Modern Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Like Cleveland’s book, Marsot’s narrative provides a concise overview with specific attention paid to Egyptian bureaucracy.
  • Pollard, Lisa. Nurturing the Nation: The Family Politics of Modernizing, Colonizing, and Liberating Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Study of family and gender issues in Egyptian politics leading up the revolution of 1919.
  • Yapp, M. E. A History of the Near East: The Making of the Modern Near East, 1792-1923. New York: Longman, 1987. Yapp provides a thorough explanation of the Wahhābīs complete with highly detailed regional maps.

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