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Friday, Mar 28, 2003

face off

"In the mid-1700s a new strain of Muslim extremism began to flourish in a small village in the Arabian desert—a strain that would have a profound effect on Islam and the world as a whole. As Stephen Schwartz describes it in his recent book, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror, little is known about the early life of the sect's founder, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that as a young man he is thought to have traveled through much of the Ottoman empire. He returned from his travels with a belief that Islam had been corrupted and weakened by the Ottomans, and that it needed to be brought back to its roots. But his brand of "an original, authentic Islam," as Schwartz writes, was both harsher and more stripped down than the religion that the Prophet Muhammad had founded centuries before. Al-Wahhab forbade many practices and traditions that were an established part of Muslim culture, such as the celebration of the Prophet's birthday, the decoration of mosques, and the use of music in worship and daily life. But most striking was his attitude toward those people—both Muslims and non-Muslims—who didn't share his beliefs. As Schwartz describes it, "Shi'as, Sufis, and other Muslims he judged unorthodox were to be exterminated, and all other faiths were to be humiliated." Al-Wahhab soon established a political-religious alliance with a local bandit, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, and they agreed that any territory they conquered could only be ruled by their descendants. The House of Sa'ud—which rules Saudi Arabia—is directly descended from that alliance, and Wahhabism (though Saudis don't use the term) is the religion of the regime."