For more than two centuries, Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia’s dominant faith. It is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism’s rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
Wahhabism’s explosive growth began in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques from Islamabad to Culver City, California.
Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE’s interviews with Mai Yamani, an anthropologist who studies Saudi society; Vali Nasr, an authority on Islamic fundamentalism; Maher Hathout, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California; and Ahmed Ali, a Shi’a Muslim from Saudi Arabia.
(Also see the Links and Readings section of this site for more analyses of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia.)