Islam is based on two writings, the Qur'an, believed by Muslims to have been revealed by Allah to Mohammad during the 7th century, and the Sunnah, which records the Prophet's life. Taken together, the Qur'an and Sunnah form the basis for Islam as a religion and for Islamic jurisprudence, very much like our Constitution forms the basis for our secular laws; except that Islam does not distinguish between "religious" and "secular" as we do in the West.
The Shari'ah, which is analogous to codified law in Western society, consists of the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and a constantly evolving collection of Fatwas, or rulings, that deal with every aspect of Islamic life from ideology to practical daily matters. Throughout Islamic history, Imams and Mullahs have issued Fatwas, which have the force of law among Muslims, similar to a ruling by a Western court. As in the West, these rulings can be confirmed or overturned by a higher authority, by issuing a Fiqh.
From the beginning, two branches of Islam evolved: Sunni and Shia or Shi'i. As in every religion with internal differences in belief, how these differences are described is very much a function of who does the describing. All factions, however, seem to agree on at least two points.
The Shia (or Shi'ites) believe that they derive directly from 'Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. 'Ali died in AD 661. Shi'ism, as their brand of belief is called, derives from the Arabic phrase "shi'at 'Ali," which literally means the partisans or party of 'Ali. The Shia believe that the Prophet chose 'Ali as his rightful successor. Today they fall under one of twelve Imams, and most live in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The Sunni, on the other hand, specifically reject that the Prophet selected 'Ali as his successor, and went to war repeatedly in the ensuing 1,400 years to prove their point. The Sunni are organized under four schools of law or jurisprudence called madh'habs. Their differences don't matter here.
The second point is not so obvious in how it matters, but has been material in the wars fought between the Sunni and Shia over the centuries. The Sunni passionately believe that certain body parts of Allah are real, physical objects. The Shia just as passionately believe that Allah is entirely immaterial. I don't mean to trivialize these differences, but only to indicate that relatively minor differences in belief or in perspective have resulted in profound differences in behavior.
In our own Judeo-Christian culture some believe in the literal meaning of the Bible, whereas others choose to interpret the Bible according to one or another religious point of view. In this sense, Islam is no different.
In another sense, however, Islam is dramatically different from both Christianity and Judaism. The Judeo-Christian focus is mainly on peace and nonviolence - turning the other cheek. Granted, in practice, our own heritage has had its share of faith-based wars, but in today's modern world, both Christianity and Judaism can be considered entirely benign.
No so Islam - and especially not so the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. The Wahhabis believe that Allah's organs are physical, and that Allah sits firmly on a ruling throne in Paradise. They take in a literal sense every Qur'anic statement, especially when it relates to warfare, and most particularly to jihad - religious war.
Sometimes called the Salafi school, Wahhabi is an 18th-century offshoot of the Hanbali madh'hab. In 1818 Wahhabi was nearly defeated and deprived of influence, but the Saudi dynasty breathed new life into the movement in the early 20th century when it drove the Hashemites out of Arabia into the present Jordan.
According to a prominent Lebanese Islamic scholar (who remains anonymous for obvious reasons), during the last decade, Saudi Arabia has financed all of the Wahhabi movements in the region either directly or indirectly through non-governmental organizations.
This means that al Qaeda, 9/11, and all the other terrorist acts against the United States and other nations received their funding from the House of Saud.
"This was really a strategic mistake," says this scholar. "The Arab rulers, as well as the policy analysts, have really underestimated the [fundamentalist] regeneration in the region. I would expect a war of Wahhabism against the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi rulers."
In effect the House of Saud tried to purchase protection for itself by channeling some of its vast wealth to the Wahhabis. Recent events, of course, have put the lie to this point of view.