Current troubles in the Middle East have focused much international attention on Saudi Arabia. However, little has been published in English on the background to its culture and its roots in the First Saudi State that arose in 18th-century central Arabia. The Islamic reform movement that gave it its sense of mission, and the life and thought of Shaikh Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the teacher who inspired it, have been similarly neglected. Often referred to outside Arabia as Wahhabism, the Shaikh's teachings have been a fundamental influence on the lives of Saudi Arabians and their government ever since his death in 1792. His ideas continue to inspire his many followers, both inside the Kingdom and abroad, and a knowledge of his life and thought is vital to a proper understanding of both Saudi Arabia and the Arab world of today. Students of Saudi Arabian history have long recognized George S Rentz's thesis on the Shaikh's life and the origins of the First Saudi State as a work of pioneering scholarship. Despite this, since its acceptance in 1947 by the University of California, it has never before now been published.
Closely basing his account on the local Najdi chroniclers who were contemporary with many of the events they describe, Rentz pieces together the life and thought of the thinker who, using as his guide orthodox Hanbalite doctrine, set out to purify Islam as he saw it practised around him, and to direct Muslims back to the original fountainhead of their faith. In the process Rentz tells the colourful story of the creation of the First Saudi State (1745-1818) with its capital at al-Dir'iyah, near present-day Riyadh.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1912, George S Rentz was recruited by Aramco in 1946 to set up the company's research and translation division at Dhahran. His sojourn there (1946-63), where he immersed himself in the history, culture and geography of the Arabian Peninsula, transformed him into Aramco's resident authority on Arabic and Arabian matters and established him as a scholar of international repute. Rentz influenced a generation of Arabist scholars, and laid the foundations for the study of Saudi Arabian history in the West. William Facey is a historian of Arabia. He is also a museum consultant and a director of the London Centre of Arab Studies.