Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. By Hamid Algar. Oneonta, N. Y.: Islamic Publications International), 96 pp. $12.95.
The growing influence of Wahhabism as a peculiar interpretation of Islamic doctrine and practice has brought to the forefront the ways extreme forms of religion intersect in the rough terrain of polities in the Middle East. Since 9/11, the West has been forced to come to grips with the rise of Wahhabism and to see it within the larger context of Arab and Muslim history. The work to understand it has only begun.
In this critical essay, Hamid Algar, professor of Islamic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, writes about the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, arguing throughout that it has seriously distorted the fundamental teachings of Islam and functioned for decades as the ideological mainstay of the Saudi regime. In addition, the Wahhabi movement has vilified Sunni and Shi'i Muslims, exacerbating divisions and causing turmoil throughout Asia and Europe (most notably in Afghanistan). Algar shows how, at the hands of 'Abd al-Wahhab, Sunni Islam took an uncompromising turn and how, at the outset, Wahhabism was set on a collision course with the traditional practices and beliefs of Muslims, even among his own family. Algar's essay discusses how the Wahhabi movement made it possible to justify the shedding of blood of those who did not adhere to its brand of Islamic purity: the Wahhabi sect quickly condemns the "ignorance, shirk, and innovation" of moderate Muslims, while creating the censorious climate of fear, intimidation, and coercion among its most zealous followers, especially the Taliban.
Algar's essay reveals how Wahhabism has been anything but a perverse form of Islam, noting how it was not until the rise of the Saudi dynasty that it took on notoriety outside Arabia. The mixture of state influence and economic prosperity catapulted Wahhabis to a new but ominous level of influence. The geo-political ramifications have been felt in recent decades.
To students of church and state affairs, Algar's work will present two unique but interrelated challenges: first, it will raise questions on how Islam will deal internally with growing but disparate schools...