Wahhabi roots in Saudi desert

The Wahhabi sect of Islam is most firmly established in Saudi Arabia, where it determines law and the strict rules of daily life.

Wahhabism first sprang from the central Arabian desert in the mid-18th century, when its zealous and puritanical founder, Muhammad bin Abdi al-Wahhab, made a political pact with ancestors of the ruling Saud family.

In exchange for the support of Wahhabi followers in expansionist wars, Muhammad Saud promised to promote Wahhabism in his territory. Most Saudi Arabians today are Wahhabi Muslims.

Based on a rigorous - and in the early days, uncompromising - interpretation of Islam, the Wahhabi creed accepted no other teaching but that of the 7th-century Prophet Muhammad and the following generation of disciples.

Al-Wahhab branded all those who disagreed with him heretics and apostates, thereby justifying the use of force in imposing his doctrine. This way he could declare a jihad, or "holy war," on fellow Muslims.

Followers were once so strict that, after the capture of Mecca, the playing of a trumpet caused a riot among Wahhabis, who forbade music. Minarets, a post-Prophet innovation, were also once forbidden. Police could raid a home and beat its owner if they caught a whiff of tobacco. In line with the Prophet's direction not to "make of my grave a place of pilgrimage," Wahhabi zealots nearly destroyed the Pro-phet's tomb in 1926.

Wahhabism is noted for compelling strict observance of the rules of Islam, such as prayers five times a day - punishment for such a violation was once flogging - and public enforcement of morals that is rare in the Muslim world today.

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and must cover themselves completely in public. Tough Islamic law - including beheadings for drug dealers and murderers - are common. Many Islamic countries, including Iran, look down on Wahhabi rules as backward and un-Islamic. But hard-line rules have relaxed some over time. Music, minarets, and smoking tobacco from water pipes today are common across Saudi Arabia.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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