The brave women in Saudi Arabia who recently defied their government's ban on women driving exposed a problem that lies much deeper than just this ban. Saudi law, in fact, does not prevent women from driving. It just insists that everyone who wants to drive in that country must possess a local driver's licence. But women, unfortunately, cannot get such a licence.
The refusal of the Saudi government to issue licences to women is not based on Islam. An iman has praised these women for being more knowledgeable about Islam than many religious scholars. This refusal stems, rather, from the ironclad hold that Wahhabism has on many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.
Wahhabism is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that is practiced especially in Saudi Arabia. The name "Wahhabi" derives from the Muslim scholar, Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab (1703-1791), who denounced many popular Islamic beliefs and practices as idolatrous. These included praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, venerating trees, caves, and stones, and using sacrificial offerings.
Abd al Wahhab emphasized the unity of God (tawhid). Thus his followers are sometimes called "unitarians." In spite of the popular image of Wahhabism as being anti-female, he was also very concerned about the plight of widows and orphans and how women were denied their inheritance.
Today Wahhabism is the dominant Islamic tradition on the Arabian peninsula. Adherents of Wahhabi Islam regard it as the only path of true Islam. The term Salifiyya is often used to describe the puritanical Islamic movement that developed independently of Wahhabism at various times and in various places in the Islamic world.
Most critics of Islam fail to appreciate how diverse and varied Islam is. It would be a grievous error to blame all of Islam for doctrines that are peculiar to Wahhabism. Modern Islamic extremism and terrorism cannot be understood apart from a careful study of Wahhabi Islam, even if it is not the only source of Islamic militancy.
It is widely acknowledged that the Saudi government and wealthy Saudi individuals have supported the spread of Wahhabi ideas to other parts of the Muslim world, and even to Europe and North America. The Saudi government strenuously denies this allegation, as well as the similar charge that Wahhabism promotes intolerance.
The bulk of Saudi funding goes to the construction and operating expenses of mosques, madrasas, and other religious institutions that preach Wahhabism. It also supports imam training, mass media and publishing outlets, distribution of literature, and the endowment of chairs in Islamic studies in universities.
Not surprisingly, other Muslims were the first to oppose Wahhabism. Even the father and brother of Abd al Wahhab criticized him severely.
Even today, the militant Islam of Osama bin Laden did not have its origins in Wahhabism, but in the ideology of Sayyid Qutb. This militancy was born out of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Apart from promoting violent jihad, Wahhabism has managed to permeate nearly every aspect of Saudi society. The founder of Wahhabism, Abd al Wahhab, and the founder of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Saud, became partners in the process of unifying the disparate tribes in the Arabian peninsula.
This partnership became the basis for a close political relationship between their descendants, and has been welded by intermarriage. Hence the pernicious influence of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.
This influence extends beyond the denial of driver's licences to women. Women cannot travel anywhere without a male relative accompanying them. The religious police monitor this rule very strictly. Other regulations prevent churches from being built, and even limit the importation of Bibles to those required for personal use.
Many years ago I suggested to a Filippino man who was going to work in Saudi Arabia that he should take only one Bible with him, but that he should also import or buy a photocopier.
Wahhabi ideas form the basis of the rules and laws that govern Saudi Arabia. They also shape the kingdom's judicial and educational policies.
So you see how extensive and destructive the influence of Wahhabism is. It reaches into every nook and cranny of Saudi society. The imam who criticized the ban on women drivers stated that this is a human rights issue. Indeed, it is.
Thus I want to praise those women who are speaking out about the denial of their right to drive. Would that their menfolk would display the same courage.