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."