Awakening Islam, by Stéphane Lacroix

Mention of Saudi Arabia conjures images of a fundamentalist kingdom where the government prohibits women from driving and forbids non-Muslims from holding religious services. The roots of the country's puritanical code go back several centuries. In 1744, an unwritten compact was made between a religious reformer and the Saudi chief of a small oasis settlement near the present-day Saudi capital of Riyadh. The reformer's name was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. His Muslim adversaries dubbed his teachings Wahhabi, and the term stuck even though their adherents rejected it. For more than two centuries, Saudi rulers have backed Wahhabi doctrine, and Wahhabi clerics have blessed Saudi power.

Given the Saudi monarchy's commitment to upholding Wahhabi doctrine, specialists on Islam had a difficult time explaining the powerful religious protest movement that erupted in the early 1990s, in which protesters accused rulers of allowing infidels to undermine Islam. Were Wahhabi leaders turning against their historic patrons? Or were foreign Muslim ideologies at work?

Stéphane Lacroix, a young French scholar, spent three years in Saudi Arabia investigating the roots of the protest movement. His prodigious research demonstrates that Saudi Arabia's native Wahhabi tradition had mixed with foreign Islamic revivalist ideas framed by the Muslim Brotherhood to produce a religious awakening known by the Arabic term sahwa. The conflict between the religious awakening and the Saudi-Wahhabi establishment turned on competing visions of what Islam requires of believers.