Abd al-Wahab traveled to many places in the Islamic world during his lifetime. After he completed his studies in Medina, he lived for 4 years in Basra, 5 years in Baghdad, one year in Kurdistan, two years in Hamadan, and 4 years in Isfahan. He studied the different sects of Islam from up close in these travels. When he returned to Najd he announced his new sect which was like a call to war with the other sects of Islam. He considered the beliefs of Muslims of his time to be innovation and polytheism. He used verses of the Quran and prophetic traditions to show the principles of monotheism and to prohibit acts such as seeking blessings from inanimate objects, seeking aid from anyone other than Allah, and fanaticism in visiting the graves of the righteous. [Kitab al-Tawhid, published by Maktabah al-Qahirah, pgs.2-87] This is how Abd al-Wahhab fell out with all other sects of Islam other than the Hanbalis. But, since the Uthmanis ruled over the Arabs in his time his movement was painted with an anti-Uthmani brush. When the Saudi ruler of Najd, who was Hanbali, converted to the Wahabi sect a large portion of the Arab peninsula was taken over by them. The Wahabi sect became a serious threat to Uthmani power. Finally, Muhammad Ali Khadiyu of Egypt was appointed by the Uthmani king to destroy the Wahabi movement. But, the Wahabis were victorious and gradually gained strength. In the third decade of the century they controlled Najd and Hijaz thus forming the Saudi Arabian government.
The Wahabi movement, despite the fact that it claimed to rid Islam of innovations and return it to its pure course, became an obstacle for the progress of Islamic thought. The murder and destruction that the Wahabis caused in Islamic lands increased the fanaticism and sectarian violence of the region.
Wahabis were not very aware of the pure form of Islam or Islamic principles. All Islamic sects, except Hanbalis, did not agree with the Wahabi definition of innovation, visiting graves, or intercession.
“Wahabis consider anyone who greatly resepcts someone other than Allah as a polytheist. The Saudi Arabian mufti Aramku announced in 1402 that throwing a party on the anniversary of the Prophet’s birthday is polytheism. Eastern and western political issues were mixed with pure Islamic beliefs.” [Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi Ja’fari, Nihzat-i Bidargari dar Jahan-i Islam, p.269]
These notions were not unprecedented before Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in Islamic history. For instance, in the fourth century the famous Hanbali scholar, Abu Muhammad Barr Bahari, prohibited the visiting of graves. This was severely rejected by the Abbasid caliph of the time.
Another instance is Abdullah bin Muhammad ‘Ukbari, a famous Hanbali scholar known as Ibn Battah. He rejected visiting the Prophet’s grave and intercession. He believed that traveling to visit the grave of the prophet is a travel of sin and therefore stated that one who embarks on such a journey must perform full prayers – meaning that the traveler’s prayer would be invalid for such a person. He also believed that anyone who considers traveling to visit the grave of a righteous person or a prophet to be a form of worship is acting in opposition to the sunnah of the Prophet and to a consensus amongst the scholars.
Again, Ibn Taymiyah, a huge Hanbali scholar in the seventh and eighth centuries, was someone who Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab took many of his beliefs from. Some of his students, the most famous of whom being Ibn Qayim Jawziyah, put forth much effort in spreading the beliefs of their teacher.
After Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab would announce his beliefs he would rise to implement them. He took a number of officials in Najd along with him and created a new sect which was different than the four sunni sects. The distance between it and the Shia sect was farther than the other schools of thought. The closest school of thought to it was the Hanbali school of thought.
The issue of reforming the schools of thought and uprooting superstitious activities, a claim of the Wahabis, never surpassed being a mere claim. The Wahabi movement did not perform any actions that can be labeled as a reform. The only thing that Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab and his callous followers did was to create more division amongst the Muslims using the name of reform.