10 December 2011

Whence the Salafis?

Written by 
Prominent Egyptian Salafi preacher Abdel Moneim al-Shahat Prominent Egyptian Salafi preacher Abdel Moneim al-Shahat http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/404832

As you read the papers these days, you hear that “the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis” are the parties most standing to gain from the elections taking place in Egypt. We’ve covered the Muslim Brotherhood, but who are the Salafis?

Salafism is about a new, international and self-absorbed subculture that is completely obsessed with legal norms and rules that are traced back to the Prophet himself. Here the Sunna overshadows the Qur’an in importance. It fits to the tee Olivier Roy’s picture of the religious community of the twenty-first century – what he calls “neofundamentalism” – in which young people who are reacting to the traditional piety of their parents (or lack thereof) come under the sway of charismatic religious teachers, join their tight-knit, high-commitment community, while feeling certain and proud that they are followers of the “true” faith.

The phenomenon of the religious enclave of born-again believers huddled together against a hostile world is found among all religious traditions in one form or another. For the Salafists in particular, the appeal is enhanced even beyond its offer of a new community to join and a strong sense of identity and purpose. Indeed, the Salafi message is even more attractive because of its deep roots in Islamic history.


A very, very old reflex

The Arabic adjective “Salafi” comes from the plural noun salaf, that is, the ancestors, and more specifically here, the righteous forbears who were companions of the Prophet. Depending on who you ask, the salaf could include all the leading lights of the Islamic past; but Salafis have a more narrow focus: the salaf are the first leaders of early Muslim community, the first four “rightly guided caliphs,” and those pious companions who passed on reports (hadiths) of Muhammad’s words and deeds after his death.

Preoccupation with hadiths is what most sets Salafis apart from other Muslims. This too is what characterized the earliest Muslim reformers. To be pious, or to earnestly seek the path of faith revealed in the Qur’an, one had to know the teaching of the Prophet. He was the only one who could rightly interpret the meaning of the sacred text. Also, less than ten percent of the Qur’an is about the dos and don’ts believers consult on a daily basis. The Sunna (the “perfect example” of the Prophet, as found in the most authentic collections of hadiths) is what fills out the blanks left by the Qur’an.

Hence, the first properly religious movement in Islam was the ahl al-hadith, “the people of hadith,” who emerged in the second and third century after the Prophet. As I said, the early exemplars of piety made careers of studying hadiths – going from one Islamdom city to the next, sitting at the feet of the greatest hadith scholars, who would have memorized thousands of these reports. They in turn, once they had amassed sufficient knowledge, would become teachers for the next generation of hadith seekers.

After the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, was replaced by the Abbasids, who moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad in 757, a class of Muslim intellectuals appeared with a thirst for learning. They had inherited a sophisticated imperial realm (a mix of the former Byzantines and Persian Sasanians), in which Christian and Jewish scholars were reading and translating Greek texts of philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and more. Famously, Caliph al-Ma’mun in the early ninth century CE, founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which instantly became the world’s greatest center of learning. Now the many texts in Greek and Syriac were being translated in Arabic, with Christians, Jews and Muslims working side by side.

This marks the beginning of Islamic civilization as we know it, its classical period which gave birth to the explosion of science and philosophy. It also produced the science of hadith criticism and qur’anic interpretation, both of which led to the rise of the main schools of Islamic law. Often catalyzed by vigorous debates with Christians and Jews, Islamic theology made its appearance at this time too. But it was the next century (10th cent. CE) that witnessed the rise of the dominant school of Sunni theology (still today), Ash’arism, which found a middle path between the rationalists (Mu’tazilis) and the text-only advocates (Qur’an and Sunna, with emphasis on the latter), heirs of the ahl al-hadith.

Yet the conservative, textualist Sunni trend lived on – always patrolling the theological and legal waters in order to denounce and eradicate any “innovation” (bid’a), or any recourse to human reason to explicate the texts, and especially any import of Greek philosophy! “Just stick to the texts,” was their motto, starting with the Sunna. [For a brilliant and feisty treatment of today’s Salafi Puritanism, read UCLA scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (HarperOne, 2007)] Its earliest and most famous standard bearer, Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), spent quite a few years in prison, and mostly under the watch of caliph al-Ma’mun. He bravely taught that the Qur’an was eternal and not created – the official state-sponsored Mu’tazili doctrine at the time. A jurist of some repute as well, Ibn Hanbal was later honored as the founder of the Hanbali school of law, the strictest and most literal of the four main Sunni law schools, and the official legal school of Saudi Arabia.


The Wahhabi revival and its 14th-century roots

Actually, the Salafi reflex turned up most famously in two other conservative reformers. The first was the 14th century jurist Ibn Taymiyya, whose eventful career (he too went to prison several times) is mostly remembered by some fatwas (legal rulings) related to the Mongols who had conquered Baghdad, along with a good part of the Middle East of the time, and who by then had converted to Islam. Unconvinced, Ibn Taymiyya declared them “unbelievers” – i.e., non-Muslim, and therefore legitimate targets of military action. To be fair, Ibn Taymiyya was a great theologian with a surprising breadth of knowledge and intellectual sophistication. Sadly, starting with the writings of Syrian Rashid Rida in the 1920s, he has became the patron saint of all the radicals who tend to declare their moderate coreligionists kuffar, or infidels.

The second Salafi reformer was the Arabian theologian of the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who focused on Ibn Taymiyya’s narrowest views, like his zero tolerance for the veneration of saints and their tombs, and for all other Muslims who did not adhere to his rigid, puritanical rules – all in the name of God’s Oneness (tawhid). You guessed it: he was obsessed with the Sunna, but only following its most rigorous interpretations. Politically, he judiciously allied himself with an ambitious tribal leader, Muhammad Ibn Saud, which meant that, after they had conquered most of the peninsula by the next decade, his religious ideology was passed down to future generations. His name, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, gave rise to the shorthand “Wahhabism,” which is the official legal/theological doctrine of today’s Saudi Arabia.

The literature on Wahhabism is abundant. Let me just state three characteristics here that are particularly relevant to our discussion. Each one carries with it tensions that are exacerbated in the present era, especially since 9/11.

First, it started as an activist movement – militaristic, in fact. Today, wealthy as the Saudi state is, its monarchy holds on to power mostly because it can afford to lavish financial benefits on its citizens. That is wearing thin, of course. Still, it mostly manages to keep a lid on political opposition groups. So until now, Wahhabism is officially promoted as apolitical, as focused on building an Islamically righteous society.

Second, the qur’anic notion of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and its traditional tool hisba has been actively enforced since the 1920s in Saudi Arabia through the ubiquitous religious police, who make sure, among other things . . .

      • that women are wearing their full body black coverings
      • that unrelated and unmarried men and women are not alone in the same car, on the street or in a mall
      • that male pilgrims for the Hajj are not wearing any gold jewelry
      • that that no one in Medina prays in the direction of Muhammad’s tomb (even the Prophet cannot be venerated as a saint, or, heaven forbid, as an intercessor).

 Finally, Wahhabism has evolved from a sectarian, parochial and regional movement at home in traditional Arabian tribal culture to a state ideology awash with petro-dollars and imbued with immense political clout globally through the international Islamic bodies it founded (including the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, or OIC), and of course through OPEC and its American and western clients. As a result, it decided early on to spread its narrow Sunni ideology throughout the Muslim world, building mosques and schools and disseminating its literature everywhere it goes. As such, Wahhabism is directly related to the Salafi revival of the last forty years. In some places it has help spread this puritanical ethos; in others, Salafis have openly denounced Wahhabis. Either way, both movements are linked.

But in order to tell that story, we have to first examine the modern pedigree of Salafism.


The unlikely evolution of modern “Salafism”

Those readers who know about the great modernist reformer of the nineteenth century, Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), will be scratching your heads about the definition I gave earlier of “Salafi.” Indeed, it was Abduh, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, who first coined that phrase in the modern era, with a quite different meaning. Though he had no sympathy for the excesses of Sufism either, Abduh saw himself as representing the best the Islamic heritage had to offer. For him, all the great qur’anic commentators, the sharpest legal and theological minds of the past should be consulted – but not in a slavish way. One also needed to take stock of the best of western modernity and make good, judicial use of our God-given powers of reason.

Suffice it to say here that two main currents developed from the influence of this exceptional modern reformer: 1) a mostly secular-leaning current; and 2) a much more conservative one, starting with his colleague Rashid Rida (the one who resurrected Ibn Taymiyya in the 1920s), Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the current I’ve mentioned before – 20th-century islamism.

Ironically then, the Salafis emerged from Abduh’s desire to create a modern Islam in the late nineteenth century. His “back to the sources” slogan was taken by the majority as a return to the Qur’an as read through the prism of the Sunna – a betrayal, to my mind, of Abduh’s teaching. Many local groups formed in the Muslim world (Egypt and Indonesia are good examples) in the 1920s and 1930s aimed to reform society in a more traditionalist Muslim way. For instance, a movement born in India developed its own devotional literature and sent its missionaries two by two, going door to door. Within a couple of decades they had encircled the globe with their brand of conservative piety. Still today you can find clusters of Tablighi Jama’at wherever you travel.

All these groups were adamant about staying away from politics. By contrast, it was the politically engaged, the islamists who captured the limelight – right until the end of the last century. Best known among these is the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, which after its great 1954 “persecution” at the hand of Egypt’s military junta (Gamal Abd al-Nasser was beginning to emerge as the head) renounced violence and stood the course until now.

Those who grabbed the attention of the media, however, were the smaller offshoots, whose theology and practice were more radical. And most of those, like the student-based Gama’a al-Islamiyya, used violence to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, some leaders were emerging at the time that can only properly be labeled “Salafi,” as we read in the recent book, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement. The Albanian-born scholar Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), for instance, taught in Saudi Arabia for years, but not without wrangling the Saudi authorities on many points. His focus was strictly on hadith study.

A famous Saudi legal scholar, Salih Ibn Fawzan al-Fawzan (b. 1935), exemplifies the Salafi love of doctrinal purity and loathing of all of those who disagree when he wrote that Muslims in non-Muslim countries should emigrate to Muslim countries, since rubbing shoulders with unbelievers will lead one to form loyalties with them – something strictly forbidden in these circles. Even more radical are the views of Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi-Salafi Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who took that doctrine a step further and declared the Saudi state apostate. Bin Laden, no scholar he, was greatly influenced by al-Maqdisi.

Beyond the Arab world, Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s influence can be seen in large Salafi movements in Indonesia (around Jafar Umar Thalib), in Ethiopia and in France. As I said, Saudi oil money has undoubtedly contributed to this spread of conservative Sunni theology and practice.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that for decades some of the most influential ulama (religious scholars) of Saudi Arabia have been teaching a more activist and politically-minded ideology, which can easily be linked to Bin Laden and many other Salafi-jihadi groups. Truly, Wahhabism is in the balance.

[2018 edit] Today the crown prince who effectively holds the reigns of power in Saudi Arabia, the 32-year old Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS] has embarked on an ambitious reform program, giving women the right to drive and other symbolic freedoms, and significantly setting out to curb the power of the Wahhabi ulama. The religious police is all but disbanded, for instance.He is promoting his plan to wean the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil (the 2030 Vision), but at the same time is hellbent on rooting out any dissent. Numerous journalists, bloggers, and others with critical views of his rule have been imprisoned. There will be no "Arab Spring" on his watch!

In the end, with or without Wahhabism, Salafism is likely to endure as a hodge-podge of contentious movements, often very hostile to one another. What links them, however, is this reflex of going back to the Prophet’s example and teaching, in order to make sense of today’s world and find a way to live as faithful Muslims – in spite of it (for the quietist Salafis), or in order to change it (for the Salafis who in Egypt this year have formed three political parties, hoping to cash in on the February revolution).

But there’s a lot more to Salafism than its historical roots, theological hobbyhorses, and present manifestations, contradictory as they might be from place to place. Through the lens of sociology, Salafism fits within a wider pattern observable among many religious movements the world over. That will be my next blog post, as I try to come full circle in my observations about the sociology of religion.