The debate persists as to whether the state religion of Saudi Arabia breeds intolerance or is just misunderstood
By David Van Biema
Posted Sunday, September 7, 2003
Religious movements often originate in a dream. It was said in Arabia in the 1800s that a man in Najd province dreamed that his body produced flames that spread far and wide, consuming desert camps and towns alike. He told his dream to a sheik, who said the man's son would found a new faith that the desert Arabs would adopt. And so it transpired—although the founder was ultimately the man's grandson: Mohammed ibn Abd Wahhab.
The version of Islam that Wahhab conceived in the 1740s is now the state religion of Saudi Arabia. These days, many would interpret that premonitory dream in a darker light. Is Wahhabism somehow synonymous with terrorism, dictating war on the West as part of its doctrinal underpinnings? Or have terrorists distorted Wahhabism to give a false legitimacy to their militancy?
In his book on Islam in Saudi Arabia, Stephen Schwartz suggests that where Wahhabism is the official creed, there must be a terrorist state. Many religious historians and sociologists, however, see a more subtle picture: a faith founded on rigid and deeply intolerant tenets that in principle falls somewhere short of advocating terrorism. And though a recent murderous mutation may be ascendant in many Saudi mosques, it does not yet represent the ideology of the country's entire clerical establishment.
Wahhab was born in a small central Arabian town in 1703 as the Ottoman Empire, which had dominated Islam's majority Sunni branch for centuries, was in its long, final decline. His seminal text, The Book of Unity, attempted to recover what he saw as the original, pristine state of Islam by pruning out "innovations" that had polluted its essential monotheism. Wahhab's list of corruptions was sweeping; it included Shi'ism, the faith's minority strain, and Sufism, its mystical tradition. He discarded most of the interpretations of Islam's four great legal schools in favor of an exceedingly literal reading of punctilious ritual and enforcement by draconian punishment.
The new creed had no place for free will or human rights, let alone separation of mosque and state. Wahhab partook of a historically typical hostility toward Christians and Jews. But he was less focused on infidels than he was inward-looking and obsessed with orthodoxy: he wrote that jihad should be postponed until the Islamic house was in order. He was more combative regarding his brethren. Although Muslims are forbidden to wage holy war against one another, Khaled Abou El Fadl, an expert in Islamic law at Yale University, says Wahhabis "argued that Muslims guilty of [unorthodoxy] could and should be killed."
That notion proved attractive in 1744 to Mohammed ibn Saud, an ambitious local chieftain of puritan leanings who wanted ideological approval to treat the Ottomans as a foreign occupying power. Wahhabism gave him religious credibility for an armed campaign to gain stewardship of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The resulting full partnership—Saud granted Wahhab religious and judicial control in his lands and married his daughter—was wildly successful and memorably brutal. Slaughtering thousands of Shi'ites and Sufis (and Sunnis), the House of Saud began a journey that would turn most of the Arabian peninsula into a Wahhabi theocracy. As the Sauds gained territory, they imposed what Paul Hardy, author of Traditions of Islam, calls Wahhabism's "radical intolerance." In 1926 they introduced the muttawa, religious police who enforce prayer five times a day, monitor citizens' cell-phone text messages and arrest women for failing to cover themselves completely with the black abaya robe.
Over the years the profligate ruling family has drawn the ire of its most fervent subjects. To them, the increasing opulence of the princes' lifestyle and the kingdom's openness to dealing with the West are corruptions of the faith's rigid strictures. That dissent increased when the Sauds let Westerners develop their oil.
In the 1980s, when the regime sought to deflect its homegrown militants from domestic agitation by sending them off to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, it midwifed a radical mutation of Wahhabism. There Saudi mujahedin battled alongside cadres inspired by Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, whose fundamentalism was influenced by notions of violent national liberation. Unlike Wahhabis, these Islamists believed that the time for jihad against infidels and the neocolonialist West was now. Returning home, the Saudi fighters advanced the idea, and soon there were two types of Wahhabism.
Today, notes Hillel Fradkin, an Islamic scholar who heads the neoconservative Center for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington, "it's increasingly hard to distinguish Wahhabism from radicalized Islam." French writer and Islam expert Gilles Kepel says the Sauds until the late 1990s relied on a trio of aging clerics with conservative credibility to keep the young in check. But all three have since died, and the remaining government-sanctioned religious establishment holds little sway with the most hard-core believers. Those imams who still counsel against jihadist terrorism, says Kepel, may be in earnest. But they "inevitably combine it with injunctions to embrace 'real' Islam all the more zealously." In this era, that all too often translates into values and attitudes hostile to Western culture.
—With reporting by Bruce Crumley/Paris