An obscure sectarian divide in U.S. Islam is gaining more attention as the nation tries to understand the world’s second-largest faith.
Wahhabism, a strict form of Muslim orthodoxy backed by Saudi Arabia’s wealth and its members’ missionary zeal, may have overshadowed alternative strands of Islam here, its critics say.
Others say Wahhabism, which is more likely to claim it is “true Islam” and expect other Muslims to conform, is merely part of the faith’s diversity.
“Wahhabism is identifiable only with American Muslims in Saudi religious organizations,” said Sulayman Nyang, a professor of Islam at Howard University. “But it doesn’t influence American Muslims linked to” other branches of Islam.
Said to be the strictest of four legal schools of Islam, it was revived by a religious leader named Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, who joined forces with the military founder of the Saudi dynasty.
Mr. Nyang said it grew from a sect backed by the Saudi royal family to a world movement, especially during the Cold War. “The royals, in alliance with the United States, used Wahhabism in the Middle East to drum up support against secular socialism,” he said. “So there’s unintended consequences.”
Wahhabi Islam hopes to enforce a more literal interpretation of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, in social custom and criminal law, said Khalid Duran, a Muslim scholar who is of the Sufi, or more mystical, persuasion.
“What we see today is some leaders demanding a rigidity that is really not Islamic,” he said. “They want to show off as being more pious. They are all Wahhabis, though the term is a little bit loose.”
He said they call themselves “Islamist.”
He said Muslims abroad use the Wahhabi term negatively “to mean fundamentalist, fascist,” and that in Western countries it can be divisive in its missionary zeal.
But Azizah al-Hibri, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Wahhabism is merely part of religious diversity working itself out in America, not a major split among the faithful.
“The problem is that some ideas have more funding than others,” she said, responding to the point about Saudi funding of Wahhabi schools, literature and religious teachers.
But she said its influence in the United States, imported with immigration, has softened over the years.
“It has a strong presence, and that makes it an issue for people who are not Wahhabi. But it’s not a split in Islam. It is part of the marketplace of ideas.”
Wahhabism also has been characterized as an ardent political critic of Muslim regimes that secularize and of sects that are less legalistic, such as Sufism.
One Sufi leader, Sheik Hisham Kabbani, who founded the Islamic Supreme Council of America as an alternative to Wahhabi influence, stirred an explosive debate on the issue in 1999.
In a State Department hearing, he said that 80 percent of the nation’s mosques had been taken over by imams (Islamic clergy) with Wahhabilike loyalties.
Estimates of the number of mosques, or prayer centers, in the United States range from 1,200 to 3,000.
For his testimony, Mr. Kabbani was denounced by a coalition of established Muslim political groups here, and called a “hippie” or “guru” by orthodox Muslims who look askance at Sufism.
Mr. Nyang of Howard University said the sheik spread the Wahhabi label too liberally across U.S. Muslim leadership.
Mrs. al-Hibri rejected the sheik’s charge that policy groups such as the American Muslim Council (AMC) harbor Wahhabism. “The AMC is not Wahhabi,” she said.