The Fountain of Saudi Arabian Culture

Strict, intolerant wahhabism is a potent force.


The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York's twin towers and the Pentagon have had reverberations far beyond the initial shock to people's psyches. Because 15 of the 19 hijackers had grown up in Saudi Arabia, worldwide attention focused on the strict, conservative, and often intolerant strain of Islam to which most Saudis adhere, which is known to outsiders as Wahhabism.

While all Muslims espouse the same basic beliefs and are guided by the same holy book, in Islam as in Christianity there are variations in ritual and in the degree to which Islam dictates daily behavior and social custom. In Saudi Arabia, birthplace of the faith and home of the holy sites that all Muslims aspire to visit, the teachings of Wahhabism dictate the legal code and dominate religious, social, and educational life.

The sect's name derives from the name of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century reformer who taught that such practices as saint worship were deviations from the true Islam, which worships only God. He also insisted that Muslims be guided only by the original sources of the faith, namely the Koran and the authenticated sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Widely traveled, Abd al-Wahhab saw shirk, or idolatry, everywhere—the veneration of human beings, the belief that people or objects could intercede with God, the association of objects with divinity. It is said that in the town of Uyaynah he ordered the cutting down of trees upon which the local people had hung objects to request their blessing or their intercession with God. His action shocked the community, but it demonstrated the absoluteness of Abd al-Wahhab's vision. American scholar Natana Delong-Bas says this incident made it clear that Abd al-Wahhab would not tolerate any "worship or veneration of objects, as well as other animist and superstitious practices."

The reformer also arranged the destruction of the tomb of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, a companion of the Prophet. He declared that Muhammad himself had commanded the demolition of such tombs to prevent people from worshiping those buried in them.

Such absolutism apparently alienated the people of the town and their local sheik, and Abd al-Wahhab fled to the outskirts of modern-day Riyadh, where he found a supporter in the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud. In 1744, the two men entered into the alliance that controls Saudi Arabia to this day: The House of Saud enforces the Wahhabi version of the faith, in return for which the Wahhabi elders support the political authority of the House of Saud.

Twice in the 19th century the al-Saud family and its religious allies achieved dominion over much of the Arabian peninsula, only to be crushed by the Ottoman Turks, then defeated by rival clans. At the beginning of the 20th century, the al-Saud family lived as powerless exiles in Kuwait. But in 1902 the young Abdul Aziz ibn Saud led a small group of men in a daring raid on Riyadh, then a remote mud-walled outpost, and re-established his family's dominion. That was the beginning of the modern Saudi Arabia, of which Abdul Aziz became the founding king in 1932.

Wahhabism is often described as puritanical, which in many ways it is. Abd al-Wahhab banned tobacco, music, and other entertainments that would interfere with religious contemplation. Today, Saudi Arabia abounds in luxury, but many of the old social restrictions remain in place: There are no movie theaters or statues, public mixing of the sexes is banned, and historic tombs are still being demolished by the religious authorities.

More significant for the rest of the world, Wahhabist attitudes have limited Saudi Arabia's political development and intellectual modernization. Isolated, impoverished, and never colonized, Saudi Arabia was not subjected to the influences—most notably the Enlightenment—that expanded knowledge and tempered religious absolutism in other societies. Instead, Saudi Arabia was catapulted into the modern world by oil money while the social practices and intolerant religious attitudes that came with Wahhabism remained largely in place.