Regarding Salafism

“For him, humanity was divided into the rogues and the honest: there was nothing in between.”

Anton Chekhov, Ward no.6

Introducing Salafism

Previously often on the margins of both scholarly, media and political attention, few ideological currents in contemporary Islam have received more attention in recent years than Salafism.  In my native Norway, this has not only had to do with the rise of salafi-jihadism in the Middle East, but undoubtedly also with the rise of Salafism since 2008, in the form of the ‘quietist-activist’ Salafi youth movement IslamNet as well as salafi-jihadist organizations like The Prophet’s Ummah. Later this autumn, the Brill journal Journal of Muslims in Europe will publish an article I have co-authored with my former student Marius Linge, entitled ‘Da‘wa is Our Identity:  Salafis and their rationales for action in a Norwegian context.’ But how exactly are we to understand a heterogeneous ideological current such as Salafism in the past and in the present? Here are some suggestions. At the outset, I will have to make it clear that though I consider the various forms of Salafism in existence in today’s world as part of a religious-ideological continuum, I am here not concerned with what has become known as salafi-jihadism, or the forms of Salafism which endorse violence and terror against real and perceived enemies among Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and is expressed in terrorist movements such as al-Qaida, ISIS et cetera.

The term Salafism derives from the reference to the ‘pious forefathers’ (al-salaf al-salih), or more specifically to a ahadith collected by Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari’s (810-870) in which the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said that ‘the best of my community are my generation’ (al-sahaba: the companions), then those who come after them (tabi‘un: the followers) and then those who follow them (al tabi‘i al-tabi ‘in: the followers of the followers). There is little consensus about exactly who the ‘pious forefathers’ were among practicing Sunni Muslims, but the term is generally applied to the first three generations after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (al-Rasheed 2007: 2-3).  Salafism is thus, in the eyes of its adherents, about returning to the beliefs of the ’pious forefathers’ who due to their proximity to the Prophet practiced what is held to be the ̔authentic form of Islam’. For Salafis, their determination to imitate the Prophet logically implies an extraordinary emphasis on the Sunna (the exemplary, perfect habits and ways of the Prophet). In other words, the idea of a “golden age” implies an Islamic creed (‘aqida) which strictly differentiates between iman (belief) and kufr (disbelief). Above all, Salafis claim to uphold the unity of God (tawhid), notably by condemning what they regard as reprehensible innovations (bid‘a) and idolatry (shirk).

With reference to another ahadith collected by al-Bukhari which stipulates that out of seventy-three sects, only one group of Muslims will escape hell, Salafis commonly regard themselves as a ‘saved sect’ (al-firqa al-najiya), with a privileged access to Islamic ‘truth’ and a superior knowledge (‘ilm) about the sources of Islam.

This eschatological vision implies a strong sense of duty to implement the Qur’anic verses (suras) which encourages hisba, or the ‘commanding of good and forbidding of evil’(al-amr bi-l-ma‘ruf wa-n-nahy‘an al-munkar). Relevant suras here include Q3:104, Q3:110 and Q9:71, which all refer to the duty of the believers to ‘command right and fordbid wrong’ (Cook 2003: 3).

In contrast to classical Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in which the verse is commonly interpreted as a mission (da‘wa) directed primarily at non-Muslims, Salafis also target other Muslims such as Shiites and Sufis whose hagiographic emphasis on specific individuals in Islamic history is judged as a form of shirk or ‘idolatry.’ Many Salafis – and Saudi Salafis in particular – are loyal to the Sunni Hanbali school of law (madhhab) – or the ahl al-hadith (Haykel 2013: 483-84).

But to treat Salafism and Hanbalism as essentially two sides of the same coin – as some contemporary scholars do – is problematic. For other Salafis regard the the four (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi‘i) canonical schools of Islamic law (madhhahib) as potential sources of ‘blind imitation’ (taqlid) (Haykel 2009: 42)  and thus of bid‘a, and therefore considers practically all other Muslims as targets of their da‘wa. Taqlid originally refers to adherence to one particular school of law (fiqh) in Islamic legal reasoning.  These Salafis “reject the authority of the medieval schools of law and insist on an unmediated access to the foundational texts as the source of all norms.”

Moreover, by examining the case of Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), one of the most prominent figures of contemporary Salafism, Lacroix has shown that the equation of Hanbalism and Salafism contradicts the latter movement’s emphasis on ijtihad or independent reasoning. Through his re-interpretations of the ahadith and his subsequent legal edicts advice (fatawa), al-Albani was in fact indirectly reproaching the Wahhabi ‘ulama’ of doing taqlid in the name of Hanbalism.

 The exclusivist puritanism of contemporary Salafism has manifested itself throughout one principle in particular: loyalty to Muslims and disavowal to non-Muslims (al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or ‘loyalty and disawoval’),  a concept which in its essence draws a red line between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane.’

 The Wahhabi claim to Islamic orthodoxy and the modern Wahhabi-Salafi nexus

Part of the analytical challenge in research and writing on Salafism is Salafism’s fragmentation and heterogeneity.

There is a great deal of confusion – even among academic scholars – concerning the historical origins of Salafism and the terms applicability to contemporary movements within Islam. It has been argued that Salafism can be traced back to the founder of the Hanbali school of law in Sunni Islam, Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d. 855 A.C.). Bernard Haykel has also demonstrated that the very term al-salafiyya appears in a fatwa (legal edict) by the classical Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 A. C.) (Haykel 2009: 38). This should not be taken to mean, however, that there is conclusive evidence to the effect that Salafism as a ‘school of thought’ existed in the Islamic Middle Ages already, as some scholars have argued (see Alschech 2014: 3 for a recent example).

The historian Henri Lauzière usefully notes in this context that “despite some suggestions to the contrary, there remains no conclusive evidence that medieval Muslim scholars used the term salafiyya as a substantive meaning Salafism (Lauzière 2010: 371).”

The idea of a literalist reading of the ahadith and the subsequent implementation of hisba and al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ are pre-modern concepts that are associated with Hanbali scholars such as ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali school of law, with  ibn Taymiyya  and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the Najdian founder of what in academic circles in the modern era would be known as Wahhabism (Meijer 2009).- As a result of the politico-religious “Pact of Nadj” between the al-Sheikh and the al-Saud families in 1744 (al-Rasheed 2002: 16),

Wahhabism would in the 20thth century become the state ideology of Saudi Arabia, and was institutionalized and implemented through the Committee for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong, established in 1926, a religious police and the Permanent Committee for Religious Research and Fatwa (established in1971), a body of the country’s most senior Hanbali religious scholars, the ‘ulama.(Vogel 2000: 93).

The legacy of these institutions implies a long-standing tradition of intolerance and discrimination towards Sufi and Shia inhabitants of the kingdom on the part of the Saudi religious establishment.

Al-Rasheed (2011) has argued that the Saudi authorities’ deployment of anti-Shia sectarianism is historically flexible and variable (al-Rasheed op. cit: 514): it was last deployed as a counterrevolutionary strategy in the wake of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, and to such effect that it appears to have united both the regime and its Sunni Salafi opposition, known since the 1990s as the al-Sahwa (al-Rasheed op. cit.: 516). (For studies of the al-Sahwa and their gradual co-optation by the Saudi authoritarian regime after 9/11 2001, see al-Rasheed (2007) and Lacroix (2011))    A further confusion regarding the term Salafism arises from the fact that as a descriptor for modern reformist interpretations in Islam which sought to anchor contemporary faith and practice among Muslims by advocating that Muslims return to the Islamic foundational sources, the term was introduced in international academic literature by the French Orientalist Louis Massignon. Massignon used the term in reference to the ‘modernist school of thought (madrasa fikriyya) of inter alia Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Rashid Rida’ (1865-1935) and Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), Islamic scholars who by current Salafis are more likely than not to be excoriated as ‘deviant rationalists’ (Wiktorowicz 2006: 212).

And indeed, the ‘enlightened Salafism’ (al-salafiyya al-tanwiriyya) that Rida’ and ‘Abduh’s intellectual circle and current represented in its time was as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel has noted neither anti-rationalistic, particularly literalist in its approach to Islamic foundational texts, or puritanistic in its theology (see Haykel 2009: 45).    Rida’ – who would after the death of his intellectual mentor ‘Abduh in 1905 gradually adopt both funding from and engage in spirited defenses of Wahhabis and Wahhabism’s virulent attitudes towards Shia and Jews (Achchar 2009: 105-108, 111-120)   – referred to Saudi Wahhabis as Salafis as early as 1905 (Lauzière op. cit.: 375) – and declared that he had gone from being an adherent of the Hanafi school of law to a Salafi in 1928. Be that as it may, today, “salafiyya is first and foremost a label that Sunni purists use to designate their approach to Islam.” The term is usually understood to refer to a rigorist creed and religious methodology that share a “family resemblance…to Wahhabism or are intimately linked to the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia” (Lauzière op. cit.: 370).

Khaled Abou El Fadl (El Fadl 2005) has also usefully pointed to the increasing co-imbrication of reformist Salafism and Wahhabism which Egyptian Muslim Brothers’s Saudi Arabian exile as a result of Nasserist secularist-nationalist repression in Egypt from the 1960s and onwards generated.  This is not to suggest that Salafism and Islamism is to be conflated for analytical purposes, even though some autodidact Norwegian academics without any training in Islamic or Arabic studies whatsoever have quite predictably been completely unable to tell the difference. Roxanne Euben and Mohammad Qasim Zaman in their introduction to a 2012 Princeton reader on Islamism usefully point to the fact that even though Salafis and Islamists often share similar intellectual genealogies, Salafis have historically been much more pre-occupied with matters of doctrine and ritual than Islamists, and much more averse to Sufism than the latter.

The Egyptian case after the uprising against the Mubarak-regime in 2011 is quite instructive in this regard: For significant sections of Egyptian Salafis were reluctant, if not opposed even to the uprising, and initially supported General Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s military coup in 2013, all whilst the Saudi regime have bankrolled al-Sisi’s ensuing and increasingly brutal and repressive dictatorship to an unprecedented extent. We should of course not be surprised that the al-Sauds fear the wider repercussions of less autocratic forms of rule in the Middle East, and remain willing to bet on any dictatorial horse willing to deliver on opposing the ballot box. Egyptian and other Middle Eastern Salafis formal entry into party politics was of course new and unprecedented, but the scholarly idea of Salafism as inherently ‘quietist’ and ‘apolitical’ was perhaps always more representative of a failure to conceive of politics in a broader sense than that which the historical strictures of political science have allowed. Martijn de Koning has in researching and writing about Dutch Salafis in recent years made this point very eloquently.

In a very valuable and impressive Cambridge University Press anthology edited by Bernard Haykel, Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix and published earlier this year, David Commins notes how Saudi state ‘ulama in the early 1970s in the face of the ruling al-Saud dynasty’s decision to open up the country to foreign Muslims in the 1960s with a view to developing public institutions, and the attempt to export the peculiar Saudi interpretations of Islam, quite deliberately “constructed a Salafi patrimony for Wahhabism.” (Commins 2015: 162).

This, in Commins’ apt terms, “anchored a narrative of the community’s rebirth through rediscovering the values and virtues of the Pious Fathers, and […] affirmed the community’s special place in the world, as bearer of a universal divine mission” (Commins op. cit.: 166).

Roel Meijer (2009: 10) argues that Wahhabism’s main contribution to Salafism has been the strengthening of xenophobic attitudes towards foreigners and its sectarianism against non-Wahhabi Muslims.  The fact that Saudis themselves have by now long referred to the state’s religious ideology as Salafism rather than Wahhabism – which is considered a pejorative term – in that it suggests that modern Saudis emulate ibn al-Wahhab rather than the Prophet Muhammad and his companions – lends more credence to this interpretation of what Salafism might conceivably refer to at present (Lacroix 2004: 345).

When the third Saudi state was established in 1924, Saudi Arabia was doctrinally relatively isolated (Redissi 2008). The Saudi project of modern state building, the discovery of petrol and the emerging geo-political polarization of the Arab Cold-War (Kerr 1965) ended the former isolation of Wahhabism. With the intention of countering  Pan-Arab socialism and later revolutionary Khomeinism, the kingdom revived pan-Sunnism by making global da‘wa a matter of foreign policy, notably by establishing transnational Islamic institutions such as the Islamic University of Medina (IU, established 1961) and the Muslim World League (al-Rabitat al-‘alam al-Islami, MWL, established 1962) (see al-Rasheed 2002: 102).  In addition to the scholarships granted to students from all over the world who were trained as preachers (du‘at) at the Islamic University of Medina (Commins 2008), channeled through the MWL’s affiliate The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (established in 1972), the MWL established a worldwide network of Wahhabi orientated institutions which distributes da‘wa literature, organizes conferences and funds mosques – or in other words activities which provide the du‘at with a religious infrastructure (Amghar 2012).

I do not want to suggest here that all Muslim students trained as du‘at at the Islamic University of Medina or other Islamic institutions of higher education established in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and 70s come to adopt Wahhabi/Salafi religious interpretations and orientations – a claim which in light of the high number of graduates these institutions have turned out over the years would simply be unsustainable. I recall from my previous research in South Africa in the early 2000s that even though a significant number of ‘ulama in Cape Town, South Africa had since the late 1960s received their higher Islamic education from Saudi’s Islamic universities (for South African Muslim students in pursuit of a religious career often a way out of underprivileged circumstances, courtesy of comparatively relatively lavish Saudi scholarships), and some had indeed become Salafis in the course of their studies or by means of other forms of influence, most knew very well that the local Sufi dominance meant in terms of required pragmatism on the part of returning Islamic scholars. And some had even engaged with and cultivated Sufi underground networks in Saudi Arabia during their studies there.   In the Norwegian case in recent years, however, one clearly sees an ‘elective affinity’ between Salafi orientations and a pre-disposition to want to pursue higher Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia, in that some students affiliated with the salafi-jihadist group the Prophet’s Ummah have pursued such studies in Saudi Arabia, and in that among Norwegian students accepted as students at the Islamic University of Medina in 2013, most had known affiliations with the Salafi grouping IslamNet. While this ‘soft politics’ does not imply a general acceptance of Wahhabism or Salafism among Muslims worldwide, historical circumstances such as the failures of Arab nationalism, the successful Khomeinist revolution in Iran and the communist invasion of Afghanistan during the 1970s underpinned Saudi Arabian claims to Islamic orthodoxy. One should, however, avoid the assumption that Salafism’s global spread in recent decades is expressive of a uni-directional movement emerging out of Saudi Arabia. In fact, a number of the most populous and influential countries in the Middle East as well as on the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent have long-standing Salafi movements, and serve as significant nodes and conduits for the dissemination of Salafi ideas, literature and personalities to Muslims living in Europe. The seminal work of historians such as Henri Lauzière, Umar Ryad and David Motadel on figures such as the Moroccan-born Salafist Taqi al-din al Hilali (1893-1987), an Islamic cleric, pan-Islamic thinker and anti-colonial activist who turned into a Nazi propagandist in the service of Nazi Germany’s Radio Berlin’s Arabic broadcasts during World War II, only to end up as a respected Islamic scholar and world-famous translator of the Qur’an into English after the war, illustrates that Salafism has deeper and more long-standing roots in Western Europe than most people think.  Scholars of Salafism have suggested that the term Salafism is popular among Islamist actors in general in that “it connotes doctrinal purity and therefore affords a degree of religious and political legitimacy to whoever describes himself as such” (Hegghammer 2009: 249). Which is of course true in the sense that notions of ‘authenticity’ or ‘asala do play an important role in contemporary Muslim identity politics globally. Yet the readiness to do so obviously also depends on the social, political and historical context in which Salafi da‘wa inserts itself. And so in the Norwegian context, one interestingly finds that a group such as IslamNet almost never refer to themselves as ‘Salafis’, at least not publicly. They are more likely than not to refer to themselves as being ‘Muslims’ pure and simple, thus suggesting that their ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam are to be understood as the authoritative and correct interpretation of Islam, whilst seeking to avoid adverse attention from Muslims and non-Muslims alike to their religious ideology on the grounds that they are in fact Salafis. Terminological confusion, and Salafis’ own instrumentalization of such terminological confusion, is therefore also part of the intellectual challenge for any person – lay or scholar – who seeks to counter Salafism’s stark binaries between the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’ and the appeal these simplistic binaries appear to hold for significant minorities among Muslims in present-day Europe.


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