Fundamentalist sects of Islam emerged in the eighteenth century in reaction to what was felt as the weakening of Islam through Western influence. Fundamentalists believe that the law of Allah that was first revealed by the Prophet is just as relevant today as it was then, and they seek to establish the ideal society that Allah proposed. Although Islamic fundamentalists may adhere to the basic principles of Islam, their political interpretation of Islam is significantly different from that of most Muslims. This is most obvious in the fundamentalist application of the concept of Sharia. Sharia is a complete sacred legal system, derived directly from the Quran, that guides Muslims in all times and all places, governing every aspect of individual and social life. Whereas the Quran may be viewed as the constitution of Islam, the Sharia comprises the revealed and canonical laws of the religion. It is the core of Muslim practice regardless of sect and is essentially what unites all the diverse communities of Islam. How the Sharia should be interpreted to adapt it to modern times is a major point of contention among the different sects. Islamic fundamentalists attempt to live by a strict interpretation of the Sharia and view the lifestyle of the West as a threat and the antithesis of what the Sharia represents. An excellent paper by Knut Vikor entitled "The Sharia and the Nation State: Who Can Codify the Divine Law?" presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies in August 1998, describes the political significance of this concept. (See http://www.hf.uib.no/smi/pao/vikor.html (http://www.hf.uib.no/smi/pao/vikor.html) .)
Although there are other Islamic fundamentalist religious sects, two of the most important are the Kharijites and the Wahhabis. The Kharijites are the oldest sect of Islam; the name means "seceders." They were formerly extremely violent and were responsible for the assassination of the fourth caliph, Ali. Today they are strict fundamentalists and Quranic literalists, and they believe that the succession of the Prophet is open to anyone of true faith, not just the Sunni and Shiites.
The Wahhabi movement is considered the most conservative of all Muslim sects in its refusal to accept any revision of Quranic Law. It is essentially a purification of Sunni Islam that regards the veneration of images, ostentatious worship, and luxurious living as evil. Its goal is to return to the ideal, fundamental form of Islam of the era of the first four caliphs following the Prophet; it teaches that all additions to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era are false and should be rejected. Members describe themselves as Muwahhidun (Unitarians), those who firmly uphold the doctrine that God is one, the only one, Wahid. The Wahhabi view of Islam asserts that all who do not adhere to its beliefs are infidels, including mainstream Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Wahhabis practice an extreme form of Puritanism; they limit themselves to simple short prayers, worship in undecorated mosques where even the name of the Prophet cannot be inscribed, and refuse to celebrate his birthday. Many Islamic scholars and organizations have published denunciations of Wahhabism as a rigid minority sect intolerant of other forms of Islam. For one such article published by the Islamic Supreme Council of America, see http://www.islamicsupremecouncil.org/RadicalMovements/radicalism.htm (http://www.islamicsupremecouncil.org/RadicalMovements/radicalism.htm) .
The Wahhabi Movement was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century. In 1744, Abd al-Wahhab was exiled from his native city, Uyayna, because of his controversial preaching from his book Kitab al-tawid or Book of Unity . During his exile, he went into the northeast Nejd and converted the Saud tribe. Once the Saudi sheik was convinced that it was his religious mission to wage holy war, jihad, against all other forms of Islam, he began the conquest of his neighbors in 1763. By 1811, the Wahhabis ruled all Arabia, except Yemen, from their capital at Riyadh. The Ottoman sultan attempted to crush them by sending out expeditions, but to no avail. However, the Sultan met with success when he called on Muhammad Ali of Egypt, and, by 1818, the Wahhabis were driven into the desert. In the Nejd they reassembled their power and from 1821 to 1833 gained control over the Persian Gulf coast of Arabia. Their subsequent domain steadily weakened; nonetheless, a third triumph came for the Wahhabi movement when Ibn Saud advanced from his capture of Riyadh in 1902 to the reconstitution in 1932 of nearly all his ancestral domain under the name Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism remains dominant to this day. Members of the Wahhab family continue to hold prominent positions in Saudi Arabia because their ancestors helped the Saudi ruling family unify its kingdom in 1932. Wahhabism has also served as an inspiration to other Islamic reform movements, from India and Sumatra to North Africa and Sudan.
Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence is based respectively on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah and on the legal school of Ahmad ibn Hanbal; they stress literal belief in the Quran and Hadith and the establishment of a Muslim state based solely on Islamic law. The contemporary Wahhabi movement is flourishing in every Muslim country. In Lebanon alone, the movement is estimated by officials to have about 4,000 members; it is far larger in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. It goes by many names, including Ikhwan, Salifiyya, Mowahabin, and the best known, Taliban. Anti-Wahhabi Muslims refer to Wahhabism as fitna an Najdiyyah or "the trouble out of Nejd." Wahhabis receive financial support at the highest levels of the Saudi Arabian government. Wahhabi religious schools, known as madrassas , are part of a worldwide network of Muslim extremists. Beginning at ages 7-15, Wahhabi schools indoctrinate young men into the fundamentals of strict Islam, religious obligations, and radical militancy. Between the ages of 15-25, the young men are prepared for jihad and are trained to fight for the conquest of Wahhabi Islam. Not all of the young men who attend Wahhabi schools turn to violence. Some become religious teachers, and the vast majority of Wahhabi communities do not openly maintain armed militias, although they may engage in paramilitary training. The exception is the Taliban, who do not conceal weapons or other arms. The term Wahhabi has pejorative connotations, and Saudis themselves do not use the term, preferring to call themselves Unitarians, believers in one indivisible deity.
The Wahhabis' strict interpretation of the Sharia has sanctioned extreme laws and forms of punishment. According to Stephen Schwartz in the October 6, 2001 London Spectator , virtually all recent acts of terrorism have been enacted by Wahhabis. "Bin Laden is a Wahhabi. So are the suicide bombers in Israel. So are his Egyptian allies, who exulted as they stabbed foreign tourists to death at Luxor not many years ago, bathing in blood up to their elbows and emitting blasphemous cries of ecstasy. So are the Algerian Islamist terrorists, whose contribution to the purification of the world consisted of murdering people for such sins as running a movie projector or reading secular newspapers. So are the Taliban style guerrillas in Kashmir who murder Hindus."
According to some sources, the Taliban do not practice Wahhabism but belong to what is known as the Deobandi Movement, named after a small town in the Indian Himalayas where the movement was founded in 1860, during the period of British rule in India. Similar to Wahhabism, it is an unusually strict form of Sunni Islam. The followers of both the Deobandi movement and the Wahhabi movement make a sharp distinction between revealed sacred knowledge and profane human knowledge, which they reject. Deobandi philosophy has helped spawn many fundamentalist groups in the Muslim world, including the Taliban, although Afghans have been part of the Deobandi movement since its beginning. Over time, Deobandi philosophy has evolved toward more orthodoxy and militant fundamentalism.
The violence inflicted because of Deobandi and Wahhabi religious ideology has been substantial. Among the thousands of discussions of Islamic fundamentalism since September 11, one statement sums up the religious connection: "Not all Muslims are suicide bombers, but all Muslim suicide bombers are Wahhabis." There is no debating the violence that this belief system has inspired and continues to inspire. Unfortunately, we have all become familiar with the names of terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, Harakat ul-Mujahidin in Pakistan, and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines, all of whom have been linked to bin Laden. (For a complete list of terrorists and groups identified under Executive Order 13224, signed by President Bush on September 23, 2001, see http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/2001/index.cfm?docid=6531 (http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/2001/index.cfm?docid=6531) .) The violence perpetrated by these groups includes many incidents of suicide bombing, kidnapping, hijacking, and murder.