03 November 2013

What's Behind the Salafi Reading of the Qur'an and Sunna?

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No caption, but the article is fascinating: “Salafist Women in Europe.” Notice the woman is wearing a niqab (veil covering her face) and even gloves; the man wears a tunic half way down between his knees and ankles, as some hadiths portray the Prophet’s attire – all this is typical of Salafi dress the world over. No caption, but the article is fascinating: “Salafist Women in Europe.” Notice the woman is wearing a niqab (veil covering her face) and even gloves; the man wears a tunic half way down between his knees and ankles, as some hadiths portray the Prophet’s attire – all this is typical of Salafi dress the world over. http://alaiwah.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/

This is the first of two blogs based on my review of Adis Duderija’s book, Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Duderija picked two Islamic movements that are polar opposites. OK, so the jihadis are more extreme than the Salafis, but only because of their recourse to violence as the means to establish God’s reign on earth. Nevertheless, their way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an and Sunna are very similar. Just keep in mind that as within any religious movement there are multiple factions and nuances (see my blog about Salafis).

On the other end, you can find many “secular Muslims,” that is, non-practicing but still tied to the cultural trappings of their Muslim upbringing, and handfuls of free-thinking Muslims who work hard at keeping their “heretical” views under the radar, who are more liberal than “progressive Muslims,” the topic of the next blog.

So in the middle you have this hodge-podge of “mainstream Muslims,” a term impossible to define unless you point to a particular country and a particular socioeconomic context. That said, one good indication of what majorities of Muslims think on a variety of issues comes from the 2008 book based on a very extensive Gallup Poll in over 35 different Muslim nations (Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, eds., Gallup Press).


Duderija’s postmodern methodology

For Duderija and many other progressive Muslims, “late modern” or postmodern theories of hermeneutics (how texts are read and interpreted) give us the best tools to study religion and the people that subscribe to them. In this vein, “theology” (how we construe God to be and how humans are supposed to relate to him, her or it, if you’re Buddhist) is “constructed” by “communities of interpretation.”

By the way, this was very much the perspective I used in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. Here’s how I defined theology in the Introduction:


“an ever-growing and evolving reflection—in the light of sacred texts and in interaction with a specific religious tradition—that leads people to better articulate their relationship to God, provides answers to the ultimate questions of human existence, and gives shape to a life-style in the world as community that best reflects that understanding. As such, theology must always be constructed within a particular socio-political, historical and cultural situation.”


In light of this, Duderija is looking at two very different schools of thought among Muslims and trying to dig up the theological and philosophical assumptions that make them interpret the sacred texts so differently. To simplify a bit – hopefully even to clarify his position, I hear him making three interconnecting points. As I put it in my review, Duderija uses three different lenses to highlight these two schools’ interpretive assumptions:


1) A theology of humanity, and in particular, what it means for humans to be God’s representatives or trustees on earth. Are they empowered by God with a moral compass enabling them to discern a righteous path based on the ethical imperatives of the texts amid the changing conditions of human societies? Or are they morally disabled, needing therefore to apply literally the teaching of the hadiths (like the early ahl al-hadith movement), or the body of rules laid out by the jurists of the classical period (Islam of the madhahib, or the various schools of Islamic law)?


2) A philosophical position on the status of the good: first, an ontological statement – is an act good in and of itself (ethical objectivism), or is it good only because God commands it (ethical voluntarism)? Then an epistemological statement, connecting to the first lens: can humans access that knowledge in the first case? In the second case, by definition, this knowledge cannot be attained apart from revelation.


3) A philosophical position on the status of language and meaning production: all premodern (and even modern) views proffer a positivistic view of language. Its external signs, from philology to syntax to grammar, represent an absolute and immutable signifier that, if carefully adhered to, yields for every reader of every place and time the same meaning. Starting with the 19th-century Romantic thinkers and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher language became identified with the human being in history. In other words, a significant gap appeared between historical events and the language used to depict them – a gap, I would add, which grew wider with the work of 20th-century philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, and even more so with postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty and Edward Said.


What’s behind the Salafi method of interpretation?

For the sake of space, I’ll address this question in bullet form. A useful complement to this, and particularly the Salafi view of history and their own evolution over time, see my blog, “Whence the Salafis?”


1) The Salafi version of “true Islam” is rooted in their particular Sunni vision of early Islam. In fact, this is not only true of Sunnis versus Shia, but also of groups like progressive Muslims. This is so because the Prophet Muhammad ruled only ten years in Medina (622-32) and the four Companions who succeeded him in Medina (the so-called “Rightly Guided Caliphs”) were all assassinated, except for the first one, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, who died two years after Muhammad himself. There was a great deal of turmoil in the first sixty or so years of the early Muslim community and the way one chooses to tell the story hugely impacts one’s theological orientation.

The Salafis derive their name from the Arabic “al-salaf al-salih” (the righteous forbears), who naturally include all the Prophet’s Companions (as a title it’s always capitalized), some from the next two generations and a select few scholars over the ages, almost all of them harking from the Hanbali school of Islamic law (Saudi Arabia being the only country where it’s the official ideology in tandem with its 18th-century revivalist version, Wahhabism).

All these salaf are “righteous” – for one specific reason: they are the people who collected reports about what the Prophet said and did (hadith) and, as many of you know, the two sacred texts of Islam are the Qur’an and the Sunna (the Prophet’s righteous model that all believers are called to emulate as much as possible in their own lives). For the Salafis, the Sunna IS the body of hadiths that have been sifted and authenticated in the six main collections (with three others often referred to as well) and they are the direct heirs of the early movement to collect these hadiths in all corners of the Islamic empire in its first two centuries. These pious individuals are collectively called ahl al-hadith (“the people of hadith”).


2) They are primarily focused on the hadiths (in their view Sunna), secondarily on the Qur’an. For them any hadith in the official, semi-canonical collections clarifies, amplifies and settles the meaning of the Qur’an – not the other way around.


3) For them, the meaning of these texts is both clear (to any reader in whatever age or context) and attached to the letter itself. No need for any theory of interpretation, they say. Just do what the text says. This is theological literalism or textualism. It’s the position that most rules out any role for human reason. Humans don’t know right from wrong, even though they think they do. They need revelation, which God has made available in great detail for questions of daily life.

In philosophy, as mentioned above, it’s called “ethical voluntarism”: an act is good only because it is commanded by God. Being kind to one’s neighbor is only good because either you find it commanded in the Qur’an or in the body of hadiths. Of course, this is an extreme position, and in fact Islamic law as it developed in its various schools in the classical period (10th-13th centuries CE), was more flexible than that. And that’s the point: the Salafis condemn the jurists of the schools (ahl al-madhdhahib, “people of the schools of law”) for using too much human reasoning in their development of the law. Tools such as qiyas (analogical reasoning) or considerations of maslaha (public good) are actually tools of the devil. They draw you away from what God and his Prophet commanded.


4) Theirs is an ahistorical reading of the texts. By this I mean that the detailed admonitions and advice given by God in the Qur’an and the Prophet during his 22-year ministry (the hadiths) was not just addressed to a 7th-century Arab Bedouin audience but to people of all times. There is no contextualization of the message whatsoever here, and no distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law.


There are many other points I could make, but I just want you to get the main idea. My last two sections are the most interesting (though you need the first two to make sense of the whole), as they give you two fascinating case studies – what the Salafis teach about salvation and women.


The Salafi “ideal believer”

Whereas the qur’anic data can seem to point either to pluralism (sincere Christians and Jews will go to heaven) or to exclusivism (only Muslims – and the “right” kind – are saved), the hadiths are almost totally on the exclusivist side of the spectrum. So instead of seeing the qur’anic passages which are especially harsh on the Jews as a reflection of the very real political tensions between the Muslims and the Jewish community when Medina was at war with Mecca, any and every verse applies to the Jews at all times.

Let me give you three examples of hadiths on this topic:


“Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘Suhayl ibn Abu Salih said: “I went out with my father to Syria. The people passed by the cloisters in which there were Christians and began to salute them.” My father said: ‘Do not give the salutation first, for Abu Hurayra reported the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) as saying: Do not salute them (Jews and Christians) first, and when you meet them on the road, force them to go to the narrowest part of it’” (Abu Dawud collection, 5186).

“Narrated ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar: ‘Allah’s Apostle said, ‘You [i.e., Muslims] will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, O ‘Abd Allah [i.e., slave of Allah]! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him’” (Bukhari collection, 4.176).

“Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) observed, “By Him in Whose hand is the life of Muhammad, he who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me, but does not affirm his belief in that with which I have been sent and dies in this state (of disbelief), he shall be but one of the denizens of Hell-Fire”” (Muslim collection, 284).


As it turns out, this mistrust and even hostility toward members of other faiths also stems from a particular Salafi doctrine called al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and severance). In a nutshell, it involves surrounding oneself with “true” believers and shunning all unnecessary contact with those outside. A contemporary Salafi writer, Qahtani, puts it this way:


“When Allah granted love and brotherhood, alliance and solidarity to the believers He also forbade them totally from to [sic] allying themselves with disbelievers of whatever hue, be they Jews or Christians, atheists or polytheists” (Duderija, p. 92-93).


From a sociological perspective this “enclave mentality” is typical in many religious communities of various faiths in our age of globalization – “it’s us the true believers against a hostile world.” For more detail on this see my blog on fundamentalism.


The Salafi “ideal woman”

Duderija indicates three important assumptions both Salafis and classical Muslim jurists brought with them in pondering this question. It’s important therefore to note that most of the following is common to the traditional writings of the jurists in their various schools as well as to the more puritanical Salafis today. These assumptions fall in three areas:


1. The nature of female (and male) sexuality: males and females are essentially different and their differences revolve around their sexuality. Male superiority over the female is both ontological and sociomoral – the man is more intelligent than his female counterpart, and more capable of leadership and wise ethical judgment. But the assumption with the most consequences for Muslim societies is sexual in nature: the female body is morally corrupting for men who find women impossible to resist. Here is Duderija interacting with the work of Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (she will reappear in the next blog):


“On the basis of classical Muslim literature she argues that Muslim civilization, unlike the modern Western one, developed an active concept of female sexuality regulating female sexual instinct by ‘external precautionary safeguards’ such as veiling, seclusion, gender segregation, and constant surveillance. What underpins this view is the ‘implicit theory’ based on the notion of the woman’s kayd power, that is, the power to deceive and defeat men, not by force but by cunning and intrigue. This theory considers the nature of woman’s aggression to be sexual, ‘endowing [the Muslim woman] with a fatal attraction which erodes the male’s will to resist her and reduces him to a passive acquiescent role.’ As such women are a threat to a healthy social order (or ummah), which, as we shall subsequently see, is conceptualized as being entirely male” (Duderija, pp. 101-102).


The following two hadiths stress the danger that women pose to society:


“Abd Allah b. Masood narrated that the Prophet said, ‘[The whole of] the women are ‘awra [first meaning is “deficiency” and second meaning applicable here is “female genitals” – a good example of how language reflects culture] and so if she goes out, the devil makes her the source of seduction.’”

“Abd Allah b. ‘Umar narrated that the Prophet said, ‘I have not left in my people a fitnah [meaning ranges from temptation, enchantment and infatuation to intrigue, sedition, and civil war] more harmful to men than women.’”


It is this category of hadiths that gives fuel to Salafi scholars to place all manner of restrictions on women. Shaykh Ibn Baz (1910-99) was an influential Saudi jurist and Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti for the last six years of his life. He was also a self-declared Salafi. Just to explain: all of the Saudi jurists, and especially those with some kind of official function, follow the Hanbali school of Islamic law, the most rigorous and literalistic of the four Sunni schools of law. These jurists are also Wahhabi, that is, giving allegiance to the puritanical movement of reform initiated by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), which has now become the kingdom’s official ideology (Wahhabism). But some Wahhabi clerics have also identified with the wider (and much more recent) movement called Salafism, which can tend to be even more puritanical and exacting in its rules than Wahhabism.

Ibn Baz leans on these kinds of hadith to say that women may not drive cars; that they may not sit privately with any man; not work with any men; not receive any visits from a man not in their family and not travel anywhere without a male-guardian. Concludes Duderija, “Thus, religiously ideal female Muslim identity, as we will argue subsequently, would be constructed along the lines of their complete ‘invisibility’ in the public domain of males” (p. 105).


2. Women and the public sphere: as mentioned in the last sentence, classical Islamic law and certainly Salafis today impose a number of rules and regulations limiting women’s social participation, including the religious obligation of hijab (headscarf, but also requiring a modest, form-covering shawl over the rest of the body), niqab (some kind of veil covering the face; in typical Salafi fashion women are totally covered in black, including gloves), segregation of the sexes and seclusion of women in particular.

On that last point, here are two hadiths to support that view:


“Narrated by Abd Allah b. ‘Umar that the Prophet said, ‘The prayer of a woman in her room is better than her prayer in her house and her prayer in a dark closet is better than her prayer in her room.’”

Narrated by Abu Bakrah, the Prophet is reported to have said, ‘Those who entrust their [sociopolitical] affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.”


Here I have to interject: in the picture on top of this page you have a Salafi couple, but you know for sure this picture could not possibly have been taken in the Muslim world, and certainly not in the Arabian Gulf countries. There couples would never have any physical contact in public (even holding hands); the man would likely be walking ahead of his wife; there would never be any display of affection in a public place. This is Europe, and in light of the article, I would guess Germany. Read these two women’s stories – how they were transformed from club hopping socialites with a string of male relationships to becoming deeply satisfied (from what they say) Salafi wives, by way of a born-again like experience.


3. Marriage and spousal rights: “the premodern Islamic jurisprudence developed a system of sharply differentiated, interdependent, gender-based spousal rights and obligations” (p. 103). Duderija leans on a book by Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University (a progressive Muslim), to say that “marriage, in essence, was a type of ownership (milk) based upon a contract between the parties giving rise to mutually dependent gender-based rights and obligations.” The key word here is “ownership” – the context, let’s not forget is a patriarchal society with sharp social stratification built on slavery. Here is a longer quote that is mostly taken from Ali’s book, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence:


“At the core of this contract was a transaction whereby a wife’s sexual availability was exchanged for her right to be financially supported and maintained by her husband. Furthermore, she states that ‘at its most basic, the [classical] jurists shared a view of marriage that considered it to transfer to the husband, in exchange for the payment of dower, a type of ownership (milk) over his wife, and more particularly over her sexual organ (farj, bud’).’ Based on this concept of marriage, women’s constant obligation to be sexually available to her husband resulted in granting to her husband a total control over his wife’s mobility so much so that it could prevent her from going to the mosque, family, visiting her parents, or even from attending the funeral of her immediate family, including her parents and children. This view of marriage, in addition to other laws pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the strictly associated gender differentiated marital rights and obligations, resulted in the creation of a hierarchical, authoritarian marital relationship and the creation of a classical Islamic tradition based on male epistemic privilege” (p. 103).


Now that you see those three areas of assumptions clearly spelled out, you can imagine where that mindset focused on a literal application of hadiths might lead Salafi clerics. Whereas Muslim countries, particularly in the postcolonial period, have made great strides to mitigate the worst of this legal framework so as to promote the participation of women in all sectors of society (recall that six Muslim-majority countries have had female heads of state), there has also been a growing tide of conservative religiosity in Muslim circles as happened among other faith traditions since the 1970s. This of course – combined with all the instability and wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and especially the impact of Saudi petro-dollars used to spread the Wahhabi gospel to all continents – has been fertile ground for the growth and spread of Salafi-like doctrines and practices.

How do progressive Muslims counter this textualist and unabashedly patriarchal reading of the Qur’an and Sunna? That will be the topic of my next blog.

Still, I can’t close on this rather somber and depressing picture of men and women. Just a week ago, a young Saudi comic, shortly back from his university studies in the USA, decided to register his own satirical protest against the Saudi ban on women driving in a song that went absolutely viral on the internet.

Just two things you need to know: Wahhabis forbid musical instruments and one Wahhabi/Salafi shaykh gave a fatwa saying that driving could make women infertile. Read too this short commentary in a British paper; then watch it again and laugh! When the youth rise up with such creativity, humor, and insight, you know that change is in the air!