A Primer on Salafism

Salafi Women
(Photo: Marwan Tahtah, via Al Akhbar English)

Muftah recently published a special collection of essays on Salafism, under the premise that the popular, conservative, and terrorism-linked interpretation of Islam is often misunderstood and unfairly judged.

I agree, though there are certainly aspects to judge thoroughly.

Six essays were provided –  most helpful, some mixed, and one awful.

I’ll provide excerpts to save you the trouble of reading all of them, with a few comments along the way.

But first, what is Salafism?

From ‘Why are Muslim’s Scapegoating Salafism for ISIS’ Crimes?’:

Salafism, broadly speaking, is an Islamic movement that focuses on teaching tawhid (Oneness of God), emulating the sunna (customs and teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers, and eliminating bid’a (heterodox innovations) from the religion.

That’s a good starting point, but let’s get to the crux of the issue:

ISIS’s theological justifications for terrorism are hardly related to the fundamental principles of Salafism (i.e. tawhid, the sunna, and eliminating bid’a). Rather, the beliefs of ISIS and other such groups have everything to do with the corrupted, misread, and decontextualized doctrines of takfir (excommunication) and jihad (struggle).

In terms of takfir, this entails enforcing “zero-sum,” maximalist boundaries around who is considered a Muslim, and who is a kafir [infidel]. With regard to jihad, it becomes a justification to sanction the wanton killing of any and all individuals who fall “outside Islam”—even if they identify as Muslim.

That’s how many people view Salafism in general. Not that some Salafis aren’t guilty, but why are they wrong?

Consider, for example, the following verse from the Quran: “Whoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed; they are the disbelievers” (5:44 al-Ma’ida). ISIS and its many followers regularly recite this passage to justify their murderous actions against anyone who is a “disbeliever” as “coinciding with the true way of Islam.” Some argue that ISIS’s approach toward the verse is a “Salafi reading” of the Quran, but this is simply inaccurate.

Both the most knowledgeable of the Prophet’s companions in tafsir (exegesis), Ibn Abbas, and the most cited and revered resource for modern Salafis, Ibn Taymiyyah, read this passage entirely differently from ISIS’s interpretation.

They note that the same sura [chapter of the Quran] offers two other denunciations for those who legislate by something other than the Sacred Law. Those who reject the very source of the Sacred Law, as the Jews did, are the non-believers (kuffar, the plural of kafir), while those who believe in the Prophet (i.e. Muslims) but turn away from the Sacred Law out of laziness, selfish interests, belief that it is outdated, or that there is something superior to it, are oppressors (zalimin) or heretics (fasiqin). In other words, those who disregard God’s law are not all kuffars, as ISIS claims.

As this example demonstrates, there is a substantial difference between a “Salafi” reading of scripture, and a straightforwardly bogus reading of scripture. ISIS is involved in the latter, not the former.

Interesting. It is a helpful article, but it would have done well to give a few more examples. But that would be research, not an essay.

Strangely, the essay entitled ‘What is Salafism?’ does a poor job of answering its own question.

What is it exactly that unites Salafism transhistorically? Here, Haykel offers some common but not entirely accurate generalizations. These are, (i) a return to the authentic practices and beliefs of the pious predecessors, the salaf;

(ii) monotheism (tawhīd); (iii) actively fighting unbelief; (iv) the Qur’an and Sunna as the only valid sources of religious authority,

(v) ridding Islam of heretical innovations, and (vi) a belief that specific answers to all questions are found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

That’s not bad, and following the simpler description above is helps reinforce the idea. Unfortunately the author spends most of his time showing how the above don’t quite work. Oh well. Academics.

What he does do, though, is give a very good (ok, and academic) summary of where Salafism came from:

Salafism, simply put, is a form of Sunni Islam that aspires to the model of the earliest Muslims (“the salaf”). Literally, the “salaf” means the forebears, and refers to the companions of the Prophet and the succeeding two to three generations.

The Quran, along with the literature of Muhammad’s traditions produced by these early generations, became the main sources for Salafi interpretation.

But now here comes the jargon. If your eyes glaze over, please come back in a couple paragraphs:

The primordial manifestation of this scripturalist tendency in Islam was the rise or consolidation in the 3rd AH/9th CE century of traditionalism against the rationalist syncretism of the intellectual elite that came to be known as kalam (lit., speech or discourse).

Kalam had its origins in Christological debates [that is, debates about the nature of Christ] and was then absorbed into Muslim practice through the mediation of the Arab Christian milieu in Syria and Iraq.

The salaf, including the eponymic founders of the four Sunni legal schools rejected kalam and condemned its practitioners as those given to whim and desire.

Ok, one more migraine-susceptible excerpt. But if you have a developing interest in Islamic history, this part is really good:

Perhaps the best contemporary description of this nascent movement (that was to become known as “Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama`a”) comes from the matchless prose of their arch-enemy, the Muʿtazili essayist, al-Jāhiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), who labeled them al-Nābita, literally, the “nobodies,” the rootless leaders of the masses, the demagogues.

He describes the Sunni movement as a consolidation of various groups aligned against the Muʿtazila and their rational discourse on theology (kalam). The followers and supporters of their new movement, he writes, included “worshippers (ʿubbād), jurists (fuqahā’), hadith people (ahl al-hadīth), and ascetics.”

There’s more here I could copy, including more info about the Ashari interpretation of Islam, described in my recent Azhar post, if you liked that.

But just to sum up the nature of academia that leaves one more confused through knowing more:

All of these traits have been widely shared by a variety of movements from all different theological backgrounds in Sunni Islam.

Finally, what further complicates the challenge of defining Salafism through self-identification is that there is no unified “Salafi” movement today.

Oh well. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

It is important to note, though, that two important characteristics of Salafism are the rejection of foreign ways of thought and its popular, pietistic appeal.

The first will be emphasized tomorrow in considering two key pillars of Salafism, Ibn Taymiyya and Mohamed Abdel Wahhab.

The second will come the next day treating marketplace religion – and the aforementioned ‘awful’ essay. Stay tuned.

 Please click here for part two of the series, and here for part three.

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