Salafi Muslims and American Thanksgiving

Salafi Thanksgiving

From Christianity Today, a very interesting article about an evangelical historian who challenges the received traditions of the Puritans:

In 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. “The great Father,” he declared, “has given us this year an abundant harvest…and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” He directed the Pilgrims to gather that November, “the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

Except Bradford didn’t write that. Someone—we don’t know who—fabricated this “proclamation” in the late 20th century.

The author takes note of how American Christians are at a bit of a crisis point concerning their national history:

American evangelicals seem to have reached a crisis point over the study of history, especially the history of the American founding. For decades, many evangelicals have turned to popular history writers who have presented America, especially of the colonial and Revolutionary era, as a straightforwardly Christian nation.

But take the popular belief that the pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It is not wrong, he argues, but subject to misinterpretation:

He demonstrates that the quest for “religious freedom,” in the modern sense, did not really animate the Pilgrims. Yes, they wanted to find a place where they could worship God according to Scripture and the dictates of conscience. But they had already discovered those conditions in Holland, where a number of English dissenters had gone in the early 1600s.

The most pressing concern that led the Plymouth Separatists to leave Holland was that they found the Netherlands “a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living.” They did not worry so much about religious persecution (at least not since they left England), but about “spiritual danger and decline.” They worried about the cultural corruption they saw around them in foreign Dutch culture, and struggled to find profitable employment that could nourish their common identity. America seemed to offer both better opportunity and a place to preserve their sense of covenanted community.

And, just to throw in one ugly incident:

We should remember, McKenzie cautions, than not long after the first Thanksgiving—which was indeed a peaceful, if tense meal between the English and their Wampanoag neighbors—the Pilgrims launched a preemptive assault on local Massachusetts Indians that resulted in violence and bitter resentments. The English even placed the severed head of one Native American on a pike outside their fort. Recalling this is telling the truth, not revisionist history.

What does any of this have to do with Salafi Muslims? Nothing at all, except by way of similarity.

The word ‘Salaf’ in Arabic means ‘forefathers’, and Salafi Muslims honor in particular the first three generations of Muslims. This was the golden age of Islam, when the community lived the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In all current religious interpretation – even in political and cultural matters – Salafis believe Muslims should study this period and apply its lessons accordingly to modern life.

Many Muslims honor this heritage without calling for the same level of imitation as Salafis. But most all of the faithful prefer not to open this history of these forefathers to questioning.

There are two issues at stake. The ancient challenge was given by Shia Muslims who said the community went wrong right after the death of Muhammad. Leadership, they say, should have been passed to Ali, within family lines. It was only the political scheming of these forefathers that prevented his immediate succession, and it was their further scheming that resulted in the loss of his role as caliph.

Sunni Muslims were the political and numerical victors of early Muslim in-fighting. But the Shia challenge contributed to the sanctification of these early generations who established the caliphate. They were also the assemblers of Muhammad’s sunna, his words and deeds not found in the Qur’an, so demonstrating their honesty was paramount. Just as Muslims find it terribly difficult to accept a word spoken against Muhammad, so do Salafi Muslims, and many beside, take offense if the Companions of Muhammad are questioned.

The modern challenge questions this sacred history as well. Using mostly Muslim sources, increasing numbers of historians are dissembling the received traditions about the development of the early Muslim communities. And similar to scholars who try to trace the human origins of the Bible, some also find other than divine influences in the Qur’an. The consequences can be dire for those engaged in revisionist history, or, let historians judge, telling the truth.

History, of course, is often deeply contested. Defining the past is a good way of determining the future.

For American Christians, revisiting the history of Thanksgiving is not nearly as threatening as the accusation that the Trinity was invented at the Council of Nicea, for example. But for a people confident in the idea that God has blessed America, there is often the implicit assumption that he has done so – from his sovereign purposes, of course – but also because of the Christian faithfulness of America’s founders. There is also often the modern application, with political overtones, that if America returns to her Christian heritage God’s blessing will come again.

It may well. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,’ God said to Israel. Americans Christians consider themselves part of the family of God, his people. Should the land of America be considered a possible heir to this promise?

Either way, both American Christians and Salafis must face up to any possible ‘fabrications’ of their history. If this is a crisis point for evangelicals, it is hardly a blip on the radar for Salafis. But both groups have invested heavily in the sacred narrative of their secular traditions. As the author closes in his article:

The temptation toward idol-making seems much more pressing with the titans of America’s national history, those who line the mall in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington: These are the ones that, despite limited evidence of orthodoxy, many of us want—or need—to be evangelical Christians, just like us. We desperately need help to know how to think about those Founders.

Similarly, what will Salafis do with the four ‘rightly guided caliphs’ – Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali? There were fine Muslims, surely, but what does it say that three of them were killed? What of other leaders who opposed Muhammad until the near-end, and then switched sides? Muslims are not ignorant of these controversies; in fact, Salafis study them diligently. But no one should go beyond the limits of the historic evaluation given to the Companions of Muhammad; no one should tar their reputation.

I must stop short of proscription for either community. This post began as an attempt to draw parallels between two communities not often associated together. But I am a historian of neither narrative, so I dare not make pronouncements that can be easily countered by the studied. Neither am I a theologian, certainly not of Islam to make cavalier statements about how to interpret God in their history.

But I hold as a conviction that fidelity to God requires fidelity to truth, come what may. The shaping of pious myths may aid in the development of social and cultural faith, but they are acts, ultimately, of manipulators. ‘God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.’

He may take a long time in doing so, but this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful that God will guide us into all truth.