Wahhabis (sometimes spelled Wahabis) are the chief sect of Islam in Mecca and Medina and all of Saudi Arabia. It is a very pure, severe, black-and-white, by-the-letter-and-not-the-spirit sort of Islam. There are not many Wahhabis outside of Saudi Arabia, but it has rewritten the book on jihad and is backed by a lot of oil money. So it gets heard above the rest.
Famous Wahhabis include Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers. The Taliban are not Wahhabis, but very much like them. Wahhabis have such a bad name in Russia that almost any violent Muslim there is called a Wahhabi.
The Wahhabi sect, also known as Wahhabism, was founded by al-Wahhab in the 1700s. He converted the house of Saud, which by 1932 would come to rule all of Arabia. It became the state religion of Saudi Arabia.
Wahhabis do not think they belong to a sect: they are just Muslims. Other Muslims follow corrupted forms of Islam. They are not real Muslims. Sufis are the worst.
Wahhabis do not smoke or drink or wear silk. Women cannot drive cars. Men must go to public prayers. Men and especially women must dress a certain way. It is against their religion to give women equality.
This sort of outward obedience to the letter of the Koran and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) matters. Among the Wahhabis it marks you as a Muslim in good standing.
Rulers must make sure their subjects know and follow God’s law. That is the purpose of government.
Wahhabis hope to bring back the Caliphate, a holy empire ruled by piety and Muslim law.
Al-Wahhab brought back the idea of jihad, which in his day had fallen into disuse. He taught his followers to kill anyone who does not convert to his teachings – not just Christians and Jews, but even other Muslims! In Saudi Arabia 14-year-old boys are taught in school that Muslims and Jews will fight till the end of the world when the Muslims will win. Christians and Jews are their enemies.
When Al-Wahhab first came to Mecca he was shocked: people lived in luxury and followed a sort of Islam that that was one part Islam and two parts something else. God, it seemed, was not enough: people turned to dead saints and even stones and trees in addition to God.
Two things had corrupted Islam. First, many of the ignorant beliefs people had before the Prophet Muhammad’s time still lived on. Second, over the centuries new things were added to Islam, especially by the Sufis.
So al-Wahhab set about to purify Islam.
First, God is enough. God is God, after all. Next, through Muhammad God has taught us all we need to know to get through this life and into heaven: it is all written down in black and white in the Koran and the hadith. What more do you need? Al-Wahhab, however, did allow anything added in the first three generations: Muhammad said they would be pious. Everything else, however, had to go.