This extremist sect of Islam considers itself to be a puritanical reform movement. Adherents belief that Wahhabism is the purest form of Islam. In reality, Wahhabism is a distortion of Islam, known as Islamism. Followers of Wahhabism include Afghanistan's Taliban and terrorist Osama Bin Laden.
The faith that drives Osama bin Laden and his followers is a particularly austere and conservative brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, which was instrumental in creating the Saudi monarchy, and if sufficiently alienated, could tear it down.
Throughout its history, the Wahhabis have fiercely opposed anything they viewed as bida, an Arabic word, usually muttered like a curse, for any change or modernization that deviates from the fundamental teachings of the Koran.
The telephone, radio broadcasts and public education for women were at one point condemned as innovations wrought by the Devil. Riots ensued over the introduction of television in 1965, and were only quelled after police fired on demonstrators. Similar tensions exist today. A recent ruling suggested that the music played as mobile phone rings should be outlawed on religious grounds.
Whenever the forces of change prevailed, it was usually with the argument that the novelty could help propagate the Koran. When that argument fell flat, change stalled. So, for example, there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia — they would promote the unhealthy mingling of the sexes — and women are banned from driving.
But above all, the Wahhabis believe their faith should spread, not giving ground in any place they have conquered.
The ferocity with which the Wahhabis fight for their cause is legend. One Arab historian described followers of the sect, founded in the 18th century, as they engaged in battle: "I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies, utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank after rank with only one desire — the defeat and annihilation of the enemy. They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men."
Today Wahhabis extol the purist state ruled by the Taliban as one that subscribes to their vision, and they would seek to replicate it.
Bin Laden Adheres to Austere Form of Islam, New York Times, Oct. 7, 2001
A number of prominent religious scholars describe Wahhabism as a particularly rigid minority Islamic sect that is intolerant of other forms of Islam, unwilling to accommodate other religions and likely to create a narrow view of the world among its followers.
The sect is named for Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century clan leader whose descendants helped the Saudi ruling family unify its kingdom in 1932. Members of the Wahhab family continue to hold prominent positions in the country.
"It is not a form of Islam that most people from the rest of the world are comfortable with," said Bruce Lawrence, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University and author of "Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence" (Princeton University Press, 2000). "While it does not, in and of itself, promote violence, there are elements and possibilities in Wahhabism for extremism."
Like many other Saudis in America, Mr. Alahmari does not like to refer to the brand of Islam that is exported from his country as Wahhabism. "We don't feel Wahhabism is something different," he said. "It is a purification of Islam."
Saudis Seek U.S. Muslims for Their Sect, The New York Times, Oct. 20, 2001
The term ''Wahhabi'' is often used very freely.
The Russian media, for example, use it as a term of abuse for Muslim activists in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia itself - rather as the Western media use the vague and derogatory term ''Islamic fundamentalism''.
In fact, the term is properly used to describe an Islamic revivalist movement which sprang up in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century.
Like many revivalists in the course of Muslim history, Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the founder of the movement, felt that the local practice of Islam had lost its original purity.
Saudis themselves do not use the term ''Wahhabi'', preferring to call themselves Unitarians - believers in one indivisible deity.
The modern Saudi state is founded on the 18th-century alliance between the Wahhabi religious movement and the House of Saud - the family that has ruled the Saudi kingdom since its creation in the 1930s.
In daily life, the Saudi religious establishment - the ulema - have imposed strict segregation of the sexes, an absolute prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol, a ban on women driving and many other social restrictions.
The rules are enforced by the ''mutawa'', or religious police, who patrol the streets and shopping centres on the look-out for anyone breaking the rules.
There are some similarities between the Saudi interpretation of Islam and that of the ruling Taleban movement in Afghanistan.
The Taleban, too, represent an unusually strict form of Sunni Islam - and restrictions on women, for example, are even tighter than in Saudi Arabia.
But the Taleban are not Wahhabis.
They belong to what is known as the Deobandi movement, named after the small town of Deoband in the Indian Himalayas.
It was here that the movement was founded, in the 1860s, during the period of British rule in India.
Over time, the movement has become a broad umbrella, including in its ranks Muslims who wish to remain aloof from politics - and others, like the Taleban, who are politically militant.
It would be wrong to see either Bin Laden or the Taleban as typical of modern Sunni movements.
They represent a radical fringe, rather than the Sunni mainstream.
Analysis: Inside Wahhabi Islam, BBC, Sep. 30, 2001
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Wahhabi Entry in the The Columbia Encyclopedia.
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