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Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab was born in 1703, in the small town in a barren wasteland called Najd, in the eastern part of what is now called Saudi Arabia. Ominously, Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, had already refused to confer blessings on the region, claiming that from it would emerge only “disturbances, disorder and the horns of Satan”. Abdul Wahhab’s father was a chief judge, adhering to the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, traditionally prevalent in the area. Yet, both he and Abdul Wahhab’s brother, Sulayman, detected signs of doctrinal deviance in him from early on. It was Sulayman who would first come out with a lengthy denunciation of his brother.
Following his early education in Medina, Abdul Wahhab traveled outside of the peninsula, venturing first to Basra. He then went to Baghdad, where he married a wealthy bride and settled down for five years. According to Stephen Schwartz, in The Two Faces of Islam, “some say that during this vagabondage Ibn Abdul Wahhab came into contact with certain Englishmen who encouraged him to personal ambition as well as to a critical attitude about Islam.” Specifically, Mir’at al Harramin, a Turkish work by Ayyub Sabri Pasha, written between 1933 and 1938, states that in Basra, Abdul Wahhab had come into contact with a British spy by the name of Hempher, who “inspired in him the tricks and lies that he had learned from the British Ministry of the Commonwealth.” The details of this relationship are outlined in a little known document by the name of The Memoirs of Mr. Hempher: A British Spy to the Middle East, said to have been published in series in the German paper Spiegel, and later in a prominent French paper. A Lebanese doctor translated the document to Arabic, from which it was translated to English and other languages. The Memoirs outlines the autobiographical account of Hempher, who claims to have acted as a spy on behalf of the British government, with the mission of seeking ways of undermining the Ottoman Empire. Because, as recorded by Hempher, the two principal concerns of the British government, with regards to its colonies in India, China and the Middle East, were: 1. To try to retain the places we have already obtained; 2. To try to take possession of those places we have not obtained yet. For we are the sort of people who have developed the habit of taking a deep breath and being patient. Hempher claims to have been one of nine spies sent to the Middle East for such a purpose. He reports, “we were designing long term plans to wage discord, ignorance, poverty, and even diseases in these countries. We were imitating the customs and traditions of these two countries, thus easily concealing our intentions.” The pretext Hempher was offered for his actions was: We, the English people, have to make mischief and arouse schism in all our colonies in order that we may live in welfare and luxury. Only by means of such instigations will we be able to demolish the Ottoman Empire. Otherwise, how could a nation with a small population bring another nation with a greater population under its sway? Look for the mouth of the chasm with all your might, and get in as soon as you find it. You should know that the Ottoman and Iranian Empires have reached the nadir of their lives.
Therefore, your first duty is to instigate the people against the administration! History has shown that “The source of all sorts of revolutions is public rebellions.” When the unity of Muslims is broken and the common sympathy among them is impaired, their forces will be dissolved and thus we shall easily destroy them.
In 1710, the Minister of Colonies sent Hempher to Egypt, Iraq, Arabia and Istanbul, where he learned Arabic, Turkish and Islamic law. After two years, first returned to London for briefing, before being sent to Basra, a mixed city of Sunni and Shiah, where Hempher met Abdul Wahhab. Recognizing his insolence towards the Koran and traditions of Islam, Hempher recognized him as the ideal candidate for the British strategy. To ensure his corruptibility, he had a temporary marriage arranged, known in Islam as Muttah marriage, and not considered legal, with a Christian women sent by the British government to seduce the Muslim men. As he had been told, “We captured Spain from the disbelievers [he means Muslims] by means of alcohol and fornication. Let us take all our lands back by using these two great forces again.”
Hempher was then called away to parts of Iran, and then to Baghdad. In the interim, he was concerned that his pupil would be brought back to the fold by those more knowledgeable than he. And so, Hempher advised Abdul Wahhab to venture in the mean time to Iran, an area where the Shiah dominated, and which, according to Hempher, was plagued with ignorance, and therefore, less of a challenge to Wahhab’s heterodoxy.
Wabbab did travel to Iran, territory of Shiah, a tradition contrary to his own, which was Sunni, and for which he later engendered quite a hatred. Therefore, his journey can only be explained as having been in the service of Hempher, who specifically advised him, “when you live among the Shiah, make Taqiya; do not tell them that you are Sunni lest they become a nuisance for you. Utilize their country and scholars! Learn their customs and traditions. For they are ignorant and stubborn people.”