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Sunni vs. Wahabi: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 9, 2023
Sunni Islam emphasizes community consensus, while Wahhabi is a strict, Saudi-origin Sunni reformist movement.

Key Differences

Sunni Islam, a branch of Islam, is characterized by its acceptance of the Prophet Muhammad's first four successors, the rightly guided caliphs, as legitimate rulers of the Muslim community. The Wahhabi movement, however, emanates from a particular reformist ideology started in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in what is now Saudi Arabia, focusing on a purportedly pure form of Islam.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Muslim world and are often recognized for their acceptance of various schools of thought and theology within the fold of Islam. Contrarily, the Wahhabi movement is seen as conservative and puritanical, advocating for a return to what is seen as the pure, original form of Islam, and commonly rejects practices and beliefs that deviate from their strict interpretation.
While Sunni Islam is spread globally and harbors a variety of theological perspectives and practices under its umbrella, the Wahhabi movement, often considered a subset of Sunni Islam, is particularly influential in Saudi Arabia and has global influence due to Saudi's financial and political reach. The ideological rigidity and emphasis on religious purity are notable in Wahhabi teachings, often leading to an austere practice of Islam that starkly contrasts with other Sunni practices and beliefs.
Historically, Sunni Islam has been more inclusive and tolerant of differing views and interpretations within its fold, accepting varied schools of thought like the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools. Wahhabi thought, however, while rooted in the Hanbali school, tends to reject the traditional scholarly class and opposes many popular practices in Islam, such as the veneration of saints, considering them innovations (bid’ah) and thereby straying from their version of pure Islam.
Both Sunni and Wahhabi individuals and movements have played crucial roles in shaping the Muslim world and its history. However, it's pertinent to note that the internal diversity and range of beliefs within each cannot be overstated. The sociopolitical implications of each, along with their respective theological and jurisprudential stances, continue to influence global Muslim practices and politics.

Comparison Chart

Theological Approach

Generally more inclusive and diverse.
Adopts a strict, purist theological approach.

Geographic Origin

General term for mainstream Islam worldwide.
Originated in the Najd region of Saudi Arabia.

View on Innovation

Accepts certain innovations in religious practices.
Generally rejects all religious innovations.


Vast majority of Muslims worldwide.
Primarily found in Saudi Arabia, but with global influence.

Views on Leadership

Accepts the first four caliphs as rightful successors.
Follows Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s reformist ideology.

Sunni and Wahabi Definitions


Sunni Islam refers to the largest branch of Islam that follows the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and recognizes the first four caliphs as his rightful successors.
Most of the world's Muslims identify as Sunni, honoring the traditions and teachings passed down from the Prophet Muhammad.


Wahabism is significantly influential in Saudi Arabia, affecting the nation’s religious, social, and political norms and policies.
Saudi Arabia’s legal and cultural systems are notably influenced by Wahabi doctrines, reflecting in its strict adherence to specific Islamic practices.


Sunni, derived from "Ahl al-Sunna", means "people of the tradition", referring to those who adhere to traditions and practices of Prophet Muhammad.
The Sunni community prioritizes the Hadiths and the Sunna as significant sources of Islamic law and ethics.


Wahabis adhere to a strict, literal interpretation of Islamic texts and typically reject spiritual and theological interpretations that diverge from this perspective.
Wahabi scholars often scrutinize various Islamic practices to ensure alignment with their strict, textual interpretations.


Sunnis traditionally emphasize community consensus and are typically more inclusive of varied schools of thought within Islam.
Sunni scholars often encourage discussions and debates that explore diverse perspectives within Islamic jurisprudence.


Wahabi refers to a puritanical reformist movement within Islam, originating from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings in the 18th-century Saudi Arabia.
The Wahabi movement seeks to purify Islam of what it perceives as innovations and deviations from its original form.


Sunni political philosophy historically emphasized the community’s role in electing the leader or caliph, as opposed to a hereditary leadership system.
The Sunni belief in electing a caliph is rooted in the early Islamic community’s practice of selecting leaders.


Wahabi thought, while deriving from the Hanbali school, is characterized by skepticism towards the traditional Islamic scholarly class and many popular Islamic practices.
Wahabi teachings often criticize various popular Islamic practices, such as the veneration of saints, labeling them as un-Islamic.


Sunni Islam consists of various schools of thought, such as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali, which exhibit differences in jurisprudential interpretations.
A Sunni Muslim might adhere to any of the established schools of thought, respecting varied legal interpretations and practices.


The Wahabi movement emphasizes tawhid (oneness of God) and categorically rejects practices it perceives as shirk (associating partners with God), even ones accepted by other Sunni schools.
A Wahabi approach to Islam strictly condemns all acts perceived as shirk, actively discouraging practices like celebrating saints’ birthdays.


The branch of Islam that accepts the first four caliphs as rightful successors of Muhammad.


A member of a Muslim sect founded by Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), known for its strict observance of the Koran and flourishing mainly in Arabia.


Pl. Sunni or Sun·nis A Muslim belonging to this branch; a Sunnite.


A member of a strictly orthodox Sunni Muslim sect from Saudi Arabia; strives to purify Islamic beliefs and rejects any innovation occurring after the 3rd century of Islam;
Ossama bin Laden is said to be a Wahhabi Muslim


Do both Sunni and Wahabi Muslims read the same Quran?

Yes, both Sunni and Wahabi Muslims read the same Quran but may have different interpretations of its teachings.

Who is a religious leader in Sunni Islam?

An Imam, who leads prayer and might also serve as a community leader.

How is Sunni Islam different from Shia Islam?

The primary difference is related to leadership succession after Prophet Muhammad, with Sunnis accepting elected leadership and Shia preferring a hereditary line.

What are the main beliefs of Wahabis?

Wahabis advocate for a strict and literal interpretation of Islamic texts and oppose many traditional practices and beliefs viewed as innovations.

What is Wahabism?

Wahabism is a strict and puritanical Islamic movement within Sunni Islam, founded in the 18th century in what is now Saudi Arabia by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

What does "Wahabi" mean?

"Wahabi" refers to the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, emphasizing a return to what they perceive as pure Islam.

How does Wahabism influence Saudi Arabia?

Wahabism is integral to Saudi Arabia's religious and social policies, and the state actively propagates Wahabi teachings domestically and internationally.

Can a Muslim be both Sunni and Wahabi?

Yes, Wahabism is a subset within Sunni Islam, so a Wahabi is a Sunni, but not all Sunnis are Wahabis.

How does Wahabism perceive other Islamic sects?

Wahabism often views other Islamic sects and practices that diverge from its doctrines as misguided or heretical.

What is Sunni Islam?

Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam, characterized by a focus on the community and adherence to the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.

What are the key beliefs of Sunni Muslims?

They believe in the six pillars of faith, follow the five pillars of Islam, and generally emphasize community consensus in matters of doctrine and leadership.

What is the global demographic comparison between Sunni and Wahabi populations?

Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims worldwide, while Wahabis are a relatively small subset, primarily found in Saudi Arabia and some neighboring regions.

What does "Sunni" mean?

"Sunni" derives from "Ahl al-Sunna," which means "People of the Tradition," referring to those who follow the traditions (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad.

Are Sunni Islam and Wahabism the same?

No, Wahabism is a movement within Sunni Islam, representing a specific, strict interpretation of the faith.

How are Sunni leaders chosen?

Sunni leaders are often chosen through a community consensus or appointment, without a hereditary system.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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