A Primer on Salafism III

Salafis Studying
(Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.)

Salafism is often wrongly criticized. But it can be rightly criticized also. The first post in this series emphasized how it is often a popular (meaning of the people) expression of Islam. The first essay here shows how this happens, though I think it errs in conclusion.

The second doesn’t even err, because it doesn’t even say anything. It just is hell-bent on Salafism winning in one particular corner of the world.

Salafism and the Politics of Free Market Religion’ takes an economic approach to the question.

Like economic forces, some ideologies may be best explained as different approaches to the marketplace of religion. In applying this idea to Salafism, we see that it promotes a free market “faith economy.” Salafism seeks to break the monopoly of state religion over Muslim identity, analysis of texts, and daily religious life.

Ok… benefit of the doubt so far. It is an interesting premise.

Salafism, until very recently, was not formally invested in politics. It was, as such, largely distinct from larger Islamist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbul Tahrir, and others. Salafism is not, however, agnostic to the societies in which it operates; many Salafis engage in social education and proselytization programs.

Yes, largely true. He goes on to make the point that most governments in the Middle East have a particular brand of sponsored religion – often not Salafi.

Because the state enjoys a monopoly, it does not need to ensure that its product, state religion, is adequate or appealing to this audience. This usually means the quality of that product suffers, which is why most monopolized religious economies have low levels of popular participation.

While the people yearn for more direct religious participation, the ulema [religious scholars]—at the behest of governments—often support the status quo. This has caused popular resentment toward the scholarly class, which is viewed as backward and obscurant.

‘Yearning’ seems a word too close in sympathy with its analysis. But ok. I’ve often heard this criticism.

Salafism focuses more on an individual’s principles and ethics. It is not enough for the state and scholars to protect the faith. The individual must also “establish the state of Islam in his heart,” which will result in “the state of Islam being established in the land.”

According to Salafism, the individual is elevated above more imperial notions of allegiance and dedication to state. The focus is on individual dedication to a broader set of values, including duty to self, family, and neighbors. In short, Salafism is about a kind of personal transformation.

Much like the Protestant Reformation, Salafism has been able to personalize religion for the masses.

A bit too harsh on state-sponsored religion, perhaps, sometimes. But it is an interesting window into how Salafis see themselves.

But here is the author’s conclusion and recommendation:

In a “faith economy” free from state regulation, greater levels of religious participation, and possibly even civic duty, become possible. By heeding Salafism’s call to deregulate religious identity, authority, and interpretation, greater religious freedoms can be enjoyed by all.

This seems an idea to celebrate – but do you dare? Does Salafism really believe in the deregulation of religion and the state? Does Islam? People should be free to choose what religion to follow? This is the heritage of Ibn Taymiyya and Abdel Wahhab?

Salafis believe in religious freedom? What if they win? It’s a horrible question, but one so many Muslims are afraid of. That’s one reason why there is state-sponsored religion in the first place. And for 1400 years, it’s almost always been that way.

Perhaps in conversation some Salafis might surprise me. In many other ways, several have. But this is not the discourse I’m used to.

The following, though, is rampant in some sections of the Muslim word. It just doesn’t belong as academic analysis.

Syria, the War on Terror, and the Left’s Salafiphobia’ is an impassioned plea to get rid of Assad and call out the hypocrisy of the American left. I get it, Assad’s a bad guy. And I get that that there is likely a whole lot of misinformation about ‘moderate rebels’, ‘extremists’, ‘secular government’, and the like.

I don’t understand Syria, but if you want to pick a side, go for it.

But why here? It’s not really worth excerpting anything except the opening and concluding paragraphs:

The spontaneous, massive protests against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban were an inspiring display of solidarity between non-Muslim and Muslim Americans. As encouraging as public backlash against this draconian policy has been, however, it strongly contrasts with the lack of public support Muslims have received during the past fifteen years of the so-called “War on Terror.”

We cannot truly defeat destructive far right policies and structural Islamophobia if we tolerate these same positions among individuals and groups that label themselves as progressive. Now is the time to make clear that the left will not tolerate anti-Muslim bigotry even within its own ranks.

I’m quite sympathetic to parts of what the author is arguing. Does the war on terror mean perpetual militarism? And there is a great danger. Given that much of this war is being fought against Muslims, it risks ramping up the rhetoric against Muslims in general.

As we have seen in part one, that can be directed against Salafis in particular, even by other Muslims.

But why is this essay even here? The last of six in a series on Salafism, it teaches nothing about its subject. Has Muftah inserted an endorsing editorial?

It was a disappointing ending to a very helpful series. I hope you have benefited from their scholarship, and my piddling comments here and there.

Salafis are human beings. Tear apart or adopt their ideas as you will. But treat them with the honor given them by their Creator, and recognize the fidelity they wish to give back. Just remember, as Paul wrote, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.”

Please click here to review part one and part two of this primer on Salafism.


A Primer on Salafism II


Abdel Wahhab Ibn Taymiyya
Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab (L) and Ibn Taymiyya (R)

If you have been introduced to Salafism in the news or in often critical analysis, two figures are generally named. The first is Ibn Taymiyya, who you won’t likely know much about but may understand he is the source of all Muslim things violent.

The second is Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab, and you may well have heard that his ‘Wahhabism’ is the state interpretation of Saudi Arabia, which funds conservative and perhaps violent Islam around the world.

We would do well to know a bit more about individuals often pilloried, and ‘Understanding Ibn Taymiyya as a Man of His Time’ is a good starting place.

Born in the city of Harran (then Upper Mesopotamia, now modern Turkey) in 1263, Ibn Taymiyyah was already a refugee in Damascus by the age of seven. His family had been forced to flee from their home, in order to avoid the encroaching Mongol invasion, which had overtaken Baghdad in 1258.

The common theme of much of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was relatively straightforward: the desire to achieve freedom for Muslims, both physically and metaphysically. For example, he famously lamented over the manner in which Muslims were enamored and distracted by Greek philosophy.

Ibn Taymiyyah was acutely disturbed by the Mongolian invaders, whom he believed were physically and intellectually colonizing Muslims. The underlying message and purpose of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was, therefore, to free the Muslim community from its foreign conquerors. In order to accomplish this, he argued, it was critical to first free the Muslim mind from the distractions of non-Muslim philosophy.

This is precisely why Ibn Taymiyyah dedicated significant portions of his work to opposing the use of external sources (i.e. sources outside the Quran and Hadith) in theology and law.

To Ibn Taymiyyah, the Quran and Hadith alone effectively addressed issues previous Muslim scholars (and many of his contemporaries) were attempting, but ultimately failing, to resolve through Greek philosophy. In a way, then, Ibn Taymiyyah was engaged in a momentous project of rebuilding Muslim intellectual independence.

As posted yesterday, much of Salafism is about rejection. But perhaps Christians can sympathize – there have been many a ‘Back to the Bible’ with some similarity.

But in his rejection of the Mongols he took a step that has plagued Muslims ever since, though in ways the author thinks he likely didn’t intend:

Unlike many other scholars, he not only saw the Mongols as hostile invaders, but also refused to accept them as legitimate rulers, even after they converted to Islam. He went as far as to issue a fatwa mandating that Muslims fight them.

Much of the Islamic heritage was dedicated to keeping popular obedience to rulers who may not have been upright, but at least were Muslims. And once you start calling some Muslims ‘non-Muslims’, it opens up all sorts of doors.

Extremist groups to distort Ibn Taymiyyah’s views, for their own benefit. For example, ISIS commonly cites the scholar to justify its sectarian crimes. Its members claim that his diatribes against the Shia, Sufis, and Druze clearly sanction their murder.

Ibn Taymiyyah was, however, both sharply aware of this and vehemently against sectarian splits, as evidenced by one of his fatwas: It is not permissible for teachers to sectarianize people and sow enmity and hatred between them. Rather, they must be like brethren supporting each other in goodness and piety.

Certainly we see many Muslims today not ‘like brethren’. In fact we find two actual brethren not like brethren in the story of Abna (the sons of) Abdel Wahhab.

From ‘Ibn Taymiyya and the ibn Abdel Wahhab Brothers’:

Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab—Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s lesser-known older brother [was a] major critic of the early Wahhabi movement. Sulayman wrote a significant refutation of his brother’s work, called The Divine Lightning in Refutation of the Wahhabis (al-Sawa‘iq al-Uluhiyya fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Wahabiyya).

I left the Arabic there for those who like that sort of thing (like me). But here’s the historical context:

Wahhabism first emerged in Arabia, as a localized reform movement aimed at correcting the deviances and errors that Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab perceived to be widespread in the Muslim community.

For Abdul Wahhab, many of the popular religious practices of the day—such as the veneration of saints’ graves, pilgrimage to their shrines, pleading for intercession with God from holy figures, or attachment to relics—smacked of a blatant idolatry (shirk) that reflected an excessive attachment to fellow men, rather than God.

His writings consistently stressed the absolute sovereignty of God, and emphasized the need to perform all acts of worship (ibada), broadly conceived, toward God alone.

At issue between the brothers was a divergent reading of Ibn Taymiyya. But on the following point all three agreed:

Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal rulings never tired of condemning the rampant shirk being practiced by many Muslims of the time, particularly their excessive devotion toward saints and Sufi-oriented mystics.

But remember what he did to the Mongols? Abdel Wahhab the younger took it a step further:

This strict emphasis on shirk is not the most controversial aspect of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s writings, however. That is reserved for his takfīr (excommunication) of those Muslims engaging in acts of idolatry.

Throughout his writings, Ibn Abdul Wahhab declared that Muslims who engage in such idolatrous practices are no longer Muslim—despite their testimony of the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith).

Abdel Wahhab the senior quoted Ibn Taymiyya to show he wouldn’t approve:

It is not permissible to call a Muslim an “unbeliever,” neither for a sin which he has committed nor for anything about which he was in error, such as questions about which the People of the Qiblah (i.e Muslims) dispute.

The following could get a little complex again, like that section yesterday. Skip over briefly, or follow along if you want to see an example of how Muslims dispute among themselves:

A key pillar of Sulayman’s argument against his brother rested on the important distinction between greater and lesser idolatry. This distinction was not found in the Quran, but rather was alluded to in the Hadith traditions, and became a key construct in later Islamic thought.

An act of “greater idolatry” (shirk al-akbar) is typically viewed as something so manifestly idolatrous as to directly contradict Islamic monotheism, taking the person outside of Islam. An example of this would be praying to a stone or wooden idol; one cannot seriously claim to be Muslim and perform this act. An act of “lesser idolatry” (shirk al-asghar) would be an act that is disapproved of, but considerably less serious.

According to Sulayman, the popular violations his brother railed against were shirk al-asghar—crucially falling short of apostasy.

Fascinating. Here’s how it was resolved, as you could likely guess:

As history tells us, however, this debate between the brothers would not be settled by strength of argument, but rather by force of arms, as the early Wahhabi movement gradually spread its influence through conquest across the Arabian Peninsula in the late 18th century.

Two very good essays, showing how Salafism is often mischaracterized and its originators distorted.

But don’t let that get too far. I said in the introduction yesterday that there is still quite enough room for judgment. Sulayman channels Ibn Taymiyya:

From where did you get that a Muslim…if he calls out to a living or dead (saint), or makes vows to him or sacrifices to him or touches his tomb… that all this is greater idolatry (constituting apostasy) … and that he who commits it may have his good deeds wasted, wealth plundered and blood spilt (as an apostate)?

Good. An erring Muslim should not be killed as an apostate. But an apostate can be killed as an apostate.

It is important to nuance and sympathize. But it is more important to stand on principles and not the proper desire to prevent demonization result in unwarranted approbation.

I think the final two essays in the series cross that line, the final one horribly. See you tomorrow.

Please click here to review part one of this primer on Salafism, and here for part three.






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.