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Sola Scripturas: Can Evangelicals Befriend the ‘Protestant Reformers of Islam’?

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If one pictures “radical Islam,” chances are the image resembles Osama bin Laden, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the ISIS fighters of Iraq and Syria. And the connotation is that they are out to kill—or at least to turn the world into an Islamic caliphate.

They are known as Salafis: Muslims who bypass accrued tradition to imitate meticulously the example of Muhammad, his companions, and the first generation to follow them. After the death of the prophet in 632 A.D., the nascent faith’s collective zeal established a sharia-based global empire that did not end until the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Muslims who look like these jihadist images are found in every major American community.

Matthew Taylor counterintuitively argues that, at least in the United States, Salafis actually compare better with evangelicals—the religious group with the most unfavorable perception of Muslims in general.

Author of the forthcoming Scripture People: Salafi Muslims in Evangelical Christians’ America, Taylor argues that the Salafi impulse to return to the origins of Islam parallels the evangelical desire to imitate the early church. And both communities, as the title implies, center their approach on sacred text.

The question is: Do the two scriptures take them in radically different directions?

CT asked the Fuller Seminary graduate, now a mainline Protestant scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, to address the common concern about Salafi extremism and to advise evangelicals on how to pursue a path of possible friendship:

What makes a Muslim a Salafi?

Salafism has very deep roots in the Muslim tradition, and the term Salaf refers to the first generations of Muslims. The idea is to get back to the original authentic practices and theology of Islam, before the tradition became corrupted or diluted.

The Salafi approach involves a direct approach to texts, a deep interest in the Hadith—a secondary scripture in Islam that includes the sayings and actions of Muhammad and the early Muslim community—and a downplaying of the traditional schools of jurisprudence. This is why many Salafis will analogize and call themselves “the Protestant Reformers of Islam.” They see their project as similar to what Martin Luther and John Calvin did in the 16th century.

Can you tell a Salafi simply by their appearance?

It is easier in non-US contexts. A beard is a strong signal that a man is an observant Muslim. And you’ll find Salafi discourse—based on specific hadiths—as very focused around the length of the beard as more than can be grasped in the hand. Traditionally, they adopt distinctive modes of clothing such as the thobe, a long, flowing robe with pants that come up just above the ankles.

Salafi women almost always wear the hijab and others the niqab, which covers the face. But after 9-11, the American security state had an intense focus on Salafis which prompted a process in which many integrated into the American Muslim mainstream, downplaying distinctive Salafi attire and even avoiding always expressly calling themselves Salafis.

How do they justify downplaying their distinctives? Salafis have a sophisticated understanding of the difference between…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 25, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.


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.

Middle East Published Articles Religion Unplugged

Did the Bombing of Cairo’s Copts Also Hold a Message for Muslims?

ISIS destroys a Sufi shrine in Mosul, Iraq.

This article was first published at The Media Project.

When a bomb ripped through the women and children praying together at the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo on Dec. 11, the nation’s grief was expressed through a Muslim doll.

The suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State – Sinai Province took place on the national holiday of moulid al-nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The larger Islamic State has since called for bombings of Christian churches in the USA, with the aim of creating “bloody celebrations” there, as well.

Egyptians have begun trying to make sense of this latest wave of violence in Cairo, and the arousa doll has propelled expressions of grief. A popular cartoon depicted the arousa, traditionally given to Muslim girls, weeping in the black clothes of mourning. Behind her stood a somber crucifix.

Twenty-seven people died in the bombing, and their families have been changed forever. The Coptic community is approaching the Christmas season with fear wondering if another church will be targeted.

But does the timing of the attack suggest Muslims also have reason to be afraid?

The moulid, popular with most Egyptians and in particular the mystical Sufi trend, is rejected by many Salafi interpretations of Islam to which the Islamic State belongs.

It is a day for sweets, visiting family, and giving gifts. It is also a day Christian religious leaders congratulate their Muslim counterparts, reciprocated on Christmas.

But celebration of the moulid is condemned by Salafis as a religious innovation.

Coincidence or not, their extremists chose this day to escalate their insurrection and signal their willingness to inflict mass casualties.

“The message could be, ‘You love the moulid, and you like the Christians?’” said Sheikh Alaa al-Din Abul Azayim, head of the Azamiya Sufi order. “’Then on this day we’ll kill your friends – and you are next.’”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.



Two Wings of the Brotherhood

Rabaa Red and YellowThe text has 75 footnotes. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute has dutifully followed the internal power struggle consuming the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of Morsi. It is a long read, but he ties the strands together in a compelling narrative.

The thrust is that there are two competing wings, an old guard that wants to protect the principle of peacefulness — if only to maintain a longstanding international reputation. Beneath their leadership are the youth bent on revenge for the sufferings of Rabaa and continued demonstrations.

The latter, he writes, have been imbued with a heavy dose of ‘revolutionary Salafism’, pushing conflict with the regime. And with so many leaders imprisoned, it is very difficult to maintain the traditional system of cohesiveness and obedience. The split has not taken place, but it is brewing.

So here is Tadros’ summary of the two sides. It very important to keep in mind when listening to these talking points repeated in media discourse about Egypt:

At the heart of the Brotherhood crisis sit two competing visions. Neither side can claim a coherent strategy. The old guard believes that the Egyptian regime should be given a chance to implode on its own.

In this view, a combination of economic decline, security failure, and growing discontent will lead either to self-destruction, an internal coup, or Western intervention by pressuring for reconciliation.58 To maintain momentum, demonstrations need to continue even if they do not produce immediate results.

Simultaneously, the Brotherhood needs to keep the pressure on the West by warning that the fate of Iraq and Syria awaits Egypt if they don’t move. By maintaining a semblance of non-violence, the Brotherhood can continue to claim that it is the moderate alternative to the Islamic State. It is betting on time and changing regional dynamics, especially a rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia under King Salman.59

On the opposite side, the new leadership, and behind it the Brotherhood’s rank and file, believes that only by bleeding the regime can it be brought to its knees. 

A regional deal is precisely what they fear as it would mean that all their sacrifices would have been in vain and their tormentors would not be punished. Their war with the regime is no longer about Morsi and the coup; in fact, Sisi’s removal would solve nothing for them. Instead, the struggle is an ideological one between Islam and apostasy, between right and wrong, between them and the “Army of Camp David” and its “Zionist masters.” Such a struggle stems from a worldview that allows no compromise.

From well informed research, Tadros puts forward speculation that is well fitting within the reputation of the Brotherhood. Perhaps the leadership is ok with this division.

Earlier in his text he wrote of the discourse during the sit-in at Rabaa:

The mixing of Islamists had an effect on the speeches. Speakers, in English, portrayed the struggle as one of democracy against a coup while others, in Arabic, cast the struggle in the language of jihad. This was not merely the Brotherhood’s famous two discourses in two languages, but the result of genuine confusion and disorientation.

In order to maintain the organization of the Brotherhood, but perhaps also in strategy, they tried to hold the two wings together:

Besides, the leadership could have it both ways. Officially, the Brotherhood would not claim violent acts and maintain its pledge to nonviolence; in reality, the special units would bleed the regime to death. The new slogan, “All that is below bullets is peacefulness,” replaced the old slogan, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.”

After all, as a Brotherhood member lamented, “our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets.”38 Allowing the special units to conduct these attacks would hurt the regime without committing the whole group to the path of violence. 39 The calculation would prove mistaken as violence spiraled out of control.

But does he know this was a calculation? It is fitting and logical, but toward the conclusion where he speculates, ‘The Brotherhood may still hope to have it both ways,’ he provides evidence that seems more like an organization in confusion:

Before the clash, the Brotherhood’s statement endorsing jihad in Arabic on January 27 was removed from its website; and the group issued a statement three days later, in English, denouncing violence.63

On May 17, Mohamed Montaser called for a revolution to cut heads. Following his statement committing to the revolutionary path on May 28, he seemed to backtrack on June 25 by calling on the Brotherhood youth to be careful not to slip into a cycle of violence.64

His shift was in response to the horror of the Revolutionary Punishment’s assassination of a civilian which it accused of cooperating with the regime,65 and a realization that such acts would tie the Brotherhood to violence and end any prospect of the Brotherhood regaining public support.

The shift was short-lived, however. Following the regime’s liquidation of nine Brotherhood leaders on July 1, Montaser released a statement that declared “the Muslim Brotherhood affirms that the assassination of its leaders is a turning point that has ramifications and by which the criminal, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, founded a new phase in which there cannot be control on the anger of the oppressed segments that will not accept to die in their homes and between their families.”66

An organization in confusion also fits with Tadros’ thesis. But to what degree is Brotherhood leadership — to the extent it exists — engaging in conscious Machiavellian politics?

Other analysts follow the same footnoted evidence and conclude that the youth can no longer be controlled by a leadership that remains peaceful and moderate. Tadros also writes that the Brotherhood pyramid has been inverted, with the base dragging leaders along. But advocates of ‘reconciliation’ who believe that inclusion of Brotherhood-style political Islam is necessary for the stability of Egypt seem to grab this fact in hope that the situation can be redeemed. They lament the ‘coup’ and the failure not only of the Arab Spring, but also of their analysis of integration. Consider this section of a long essay by Marc Lynch, compellingly defending the foreign policy of President Obama:

Obama came to office intending to defeat al Qaeda with a lighter footprint, through drone strikes, partnerships with local allies, and the cultivation of more moderate Islamist groups. He understood the nuances of intra-Islamist politics and seized the opportunity to divide the mainstream of Islamism from al Qaeda and stop the spiral toward a clash of civilizations.

Obama’s willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood following Mubarak’s fall was a departure from decades of U.S. policy and the strongest signal Obama ever sent that the United States believes in democracy regardless of who wins. By early 2012, Obama’s policies on Islamism were proving successful.

Lynch then blames the coup and anti-Brotherhood Gulf propaganda as being the primary catalysts of current Islamist violence. Surely there is a contributing effect.

But Brotherhood literature has long imbued adherents with the worldview of ‘a clash of civilizations’ — just not now. And as Tadros’ essay details, even in 2012 the Brotherhood’s primary allies were Salafis, whose strident ideology is now convincing the ideologically vacuous Brotherhood that the priority of pragmatism — and with it the adoption of peacefulness — was a wrongheaded betrayal of the principle of jihad, to which they paid only lip service.

Lynch’s analysis is astute, but does he understand the nature of the Brotherhood? Or only of part of it, the part he hopes can be peacefully integrated into the world system providing an escape from instability, autocracy, and the ever present call for the US to re-intervene militarily. Who would not want such an outcome, and the Brotherhood seemed to promise it.

Only as time is now telling, as Tadros seems to suggest, that only part of the Brotherhood promised it. Let there be all sympathy for the Brotherhood in their trial. They are under tremendous pressure. It is amazing how their organization is still holding together, and a testament to their belief and commitment.

But it is only when a man is tested that his true colors show. And for a very large section of the Brotherhood, they witness that peacefulness was a means to an end. Under pressure, they strike back. Very natural, of course. But also very ugly. Just watch their satellite programming.

Have they suffered human rights abuses? Most certainly. Have they been cheated? Of course. At the least they were outmaneuvered.

But all their appeals in English lose sympathy when the Arabic is read. But is this their internal decision and strategy, or the flailings of an organization in chaos? Even after reading Tadros, I’m not sure. Even he is cautious between deductions and assertions.

Do the talking points meet in a coherent conspiracy-theory whole? As one wing warns of state collapse and a Syria scenario, is the other wing working to make the threat real?

You be the judge, but let 75 footnotes guide you along the way.


Orthodox Priest: Better to Abandon Christianity

If this quote is accurate, it is a terrible indication of the divide between the Coptic Orthodox Church and members who wish a divorce for other than adultery:

Orthodox priest Abd al-Masih Basit told Al-Monitor that the church would not interfere in politics and would not take any actions against Christian parliamentary candidates on the Nour list, as some newspapers had reported it would. Yet, he added, “The Nour Party considers the Christians infidels, and therefore, any Christian who participates in the party is giving up his dignity. It is better for those who have a problem with the church regarding the personal status laws — and who view support for Nour as a solution to amending those laws through parliament — to abandon Christianity.”

The context for the article is that election law requires all political parties to field a limited number of Christian candidates. The Nour Party is Salafi, an ultraconservative form of Islam that is described in quote. The article surmises the only way for Nour to attract any Christians is to appeal to a very specific segment — if sharia law is applied to all, Islamic divorce is far easier than Christian.

Abd al-Masih Basit is a very influential theologian and apologist in the Coptic Orthodox Church. It will be necessary to confirm this quote with him before assuming it is true, but if so, it appears he has his priorities in the wrong order. The church desires to control legislation on personal and family affairs, and the constitution gives it the right to do so.

But it would be a shame if the church is willing to sacrifice the faith of its members to preserve its power.


The Religious Reformation of Islam

Islamic Reformation

Given the terrorism practiced by certain Muslim groups at the head of which is the so-called Islamic State, many are saying – wishing – that a Reformation might come to Islam. An article in the Revealer does an excellent job of explaining it has already come.

For centuries four traditional law schools defined sharia in rather flexible ways according to the circumstances of the time and place. But as the world modernized, sharia interpretation did not. What was flexible became fixed, and none were allowed to interact with the patterns of jurisprudence in new and necessary ways.

Islamic modernism witnessed both this stagnant heritage and the success of Europe, and tried to remedy the situation by going back to the original sources of Islam. One trend attempted to find the foreign values of the West within the Islamic tradition, and adapt accordingly. To do so it bypassed the legal schools and provided its own redefinition of traditional concepts. Shura, for example, always meant the obligation of the ruler to seek the counsel of those he ruled. To liberal Islamic modernists, this became ‘democracy’.

But not all modernists were liberal. Another trend also returned to the original sources of Islam and attempted their reapplication in the modern world. Here, there was no offense at appropriating technology and other tools of nation-states. But the goal was to seek God’s favor through better fidelity to and direct access of his original texts, and the medieval heritage of jurisprudence stood in the way. So conservative Islamic modernists also bypassed these legal schools, and emphasized the individual work of scholars to apply scriptural lessons to contemporary issues, often in illiberal patterns.

Both, in the Protestant sense, represent a ‘Reformation’. And in the article the implications are described well. But there is one section I take issue with:

The battle underway is not primarily between the young and the old, but between radically different approaches to understanding Islam: one that stresses proper legal training and respect for judicial precedent, and one that urges Muslims to open their Qur’ans and decide for themselves. The Reformation, you see, is already here. It just doesn’t look like we hoped it would.

Given the author’s great understanding of this topic, the conclusion surprised me. I think she may have been simplifying so as to better sum up her argument.

But the conservative version of Islamic modernism, which is often called Salafism, does not suffer so much from every Muslim deciding to interpret scripture on his own. Yes, this is an outcome of some trends of the Protestant Reformation, where God’s Spirit is understood to guide each person in interpretation.

Salafism, however, places great emphasis on scholarship and deep knowledge of the sources of Islam. Yes, it bypasses the traditional schools of law, and for this many Muslims criticize. But among themselves Salafis usually defer to the most knowledgeable among the community. Disciples gather around sheikhs, and indeed, these sheikhs can go terribly awry as they operate outside the bounds of traditional scholarship.

But it is not a matter of each Muslim interpreting for themselves. In fact it is the opposite. Salafis tend to defer judgment to their sheikh, even as they discuss and study together.

As for the author’s ultimate conclusion – ‘it just doesn’t look like we hoped it would’ – she displays great understanding of the oft-spoken desire of Westerners to see their own interpretive heritage within the alien world of Islam. The article is recommended.


Testing the Salafis

Salafi Madrasa

Who should be allowed to preach in Egypt’s mosques? A recent exam offered by the Ministry of Religious Endowments is accused of seeking a selective answer:

Over the last two months, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments held two such exams. Many of the questions used are known for being disputed by Salafists, most notably those about the ruling of Islam regarding the military salute, standing during the national anthem, women in the judiciary, the concept of the caliphate, the reconstruction of places of worship for non-Muslims, bank profits, women wearing the veil and the establishment of museums for ancient Egyptian and Pharaonic artifacts. Salafists have well-known and radical opinions about all these issues, as they believe that Islam forbids such things. (from al-Monitor)

An issue-specific approach appears to have won the desired results:

The crisis between the Salafists and the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments escalated when 600 Salafist imams took the ministry’s test and only 18 passed. Their disqualification prompted the Salafist Call to demand that the presidency resolve the crisis and support Salafist imams, who supported the road map on June 30, 2013.

Salafis bet on survival when the backed the overthrow of Morsi, and on this account have received their gains. They do not appear to have profited much beside, to this point. Their ultimate fate is still an open question, but it appears this institution is lined up against them. Should it be? One figure from the ministry is critical:

In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Sheikh Salem Abdul Jalil, the former deputy minister of Religious Endowments, said the crisis is mostly political, as parliamentary elections are approaching in Egypt. The move is intended to ensure that Salafist clerics are kept away from the pulpits where they win popularity. “Salafist groups have always been a problem for the government, just like the Muslim Brotherhood,” he added.


“Unfortunately, both parties have a unilateral message. For instance, the Ministry of Religious Endowments wants the preachers to tell the people that growing a beard is not obligatory, while Salafists want to tell people that having a beard is obligatory. Thus, there are two parties — the first desperately wants to impose its views, and the other is a government party that has no vision and ideology.”

Stay tuned for more wrestling, and if things go sour, potentially for fireworks.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Blame and Impose

Flag Cross Quran


The last three years in Egypt have been troublesome. Find a culprit, and force your way.

An early culprit was Mubarak. Today he faces a verdict that may exonerate him.

The current culprit is the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a national fact-finding investigation into the post-June 30 violence. They initiated the violence in the dispersal of their pro-Morsi sit-in, and followed it up against Christians across the nation.

An ongoing culprit is also named. The security services exercised an inordinate and random response, resulting in hundreds of deaths. They have the ire of Islamists who called for nationwide protests this weekend, but did not galvanize.

God, of course there are many to blame. Find them and transparently hold them to account. But blame deflects from one’s own culpability.

Give Egypt humility, and help her hold herself to account.

For it far easier to impose. The state has the strength and is asserting its right. Thousands have been arrested and dissenters marginalized.

But even weakness seeks to impose. A Salafi group, backed by the Brotherhood, called on the masses to impose sharia law and Islamic identity.

Each is trying to fix what went wrong.

The state does not wield the sword in vain, God, you have asked it to maintain justice and order. But the human impulse to blame and impose contradicts other principles you demand. Mercy, patience, confession, and other-centeredness – these are absent among too many.

Preserve goodness in Egypt, God. Protect her against those who wish her ill, but may she not respond in kind. Generate a wide consensus, so that no force is necessary.

Issue no blame, God, and impose no wrath. Forgive, and rebuild Egypt.


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Sayyid Hegab: Writing the Preamble to Egypt’s Constitution

Sayyid Hegab

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the committee which rewrote Egypt’s constitution:

The quip often attributed to Otto van Bismarck may apply to Egypt’s constitution: Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them made. Recent articles in this series attempt to do just that; peel back the layers to watch how certain articles came to be.

But the quip does not apply as well to the preamble of the constitution, for this was largely the work of one man. Sayyid Hijāb, the esteemed Egyptian poet and winner of the 2013 State Appreciation Award in Literature, described the process.

Hegab describes his oppositional past as a possible reason he was chosen for membership in the Committee of Fifty, and then how he came to be given the preamble:

Eventually the committee agreed to authorize Hijāb and Fadl to write alternate preambles, though Hijāb consulted also with Salmāwi and Bishop Antonius, who represented the Coptic Catholic Church. After about a month both submitted their drafts, and Fadl’s was roundly dismissed. It read too much like an employee report, Hijāb described, while he purposed his to carry the vision of the revolution.

But tinkering with his draft went on throughout, up until the last minute. Hijāb faithfully continued in his subcommittee responsibilities, he said, working on the preamble from home. But while the end product differed from his original text due to negotiating the concerns of some—and the manipulation of others—he is pleased it carries forward the vision.

These concerns and manipulations were largely over religious matters of varying importance:

Most of this description was easily accepted, however. He modified language about ancient Egypt and its early discovery of monotheism, as his original text violated the sensibilities of some religious members. There was some objection to describing the early Christians as ‘martyrs’, he said, but this passed when they witnessed his suitable description of Islam. No Christians complained about describing the ‘light’ of Islam, but non-Orthodox questioned his initial description of the Christian martyrs defending the ‘true doctrine’ of the church of the Messiah. Seeking consensus, he pulled the phrase.

All Christians were pleased, though, by his unsourced reference to Pope Shenouda about Egypt being a homeland that lives in us. No one objected to this phrase either; perhaps some did not know where it came from, he surmised.

But the modern era ruffled some feathers, as he described it as a time of ‘enlightenment’ in which ‘humanity became mature’. Once again, the religiously conservative objected, seeing maturity in the message of the prophets. Hijāb had one conversation in particular with the Grand Mufti, in which he assured him the terms were common in the social sciences as descriptions of the developing world. The mufti was satisfied enough in the end, and the language stayed.

Hijāb proved flexible when he originally intended to describe the ‘sharī‘ahs’ of human rights documents, amending this only to state the constitution was consistent with UN Declaration of Human Rights. But he held ground over the objections of Salafis toward language describing the Egyptian people as ‘the sole source of authority’. These references came in Hijāb’s second section of the preamble in which he described the principles of the revolution and the basics of political vision.

Salafis view God alone as possessing authority, but they received a different goal in the end. After long discussions about defining the role of sharī‘ah within the body of the constitution, they won its mention in the preamble, defining interpretation according to the collected rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court. Here the poetic vision of Hijāb’s text is broken, for this reference even contains a footnote, saying these rulings are to be deposited in the official minutes. Hijāb did not intend for sharī‘ah to be mentioned in the preamble at all, finding its place in Article 2 to be sufficient.

But perhaps the Salafis received a bit more, though for whose benefit cannot be said securely. The reference to sharī‘ah was won through negotiation, but Hijāb believes a second late change came through manipulation. Salafis were strong, though not alone, in arguing against reference of Egypt as a civil state. In the end a compromise was won to declare Egypt had civil governance, and this is reflected in the official draft Hijāb submitted for the final vote. But at its reading, ‘Amr Mūsa spoke ‘civil government’ in its place, and Hijāb believes it was deliberate. In any case, though he and Bishop Antonius objected, it entered the record as the preamble was voted on and approved unanimously.

Please click here to read the preamble (and constitution) in its entirety, and here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


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Sharia in the Supreme Constitutional Court

Islamist protests at the Supreme Constitutional Court, December 2012
Islamist protests at the Supreme Constitutional Court, December 2012

From my recent article at Arab West Report, in the series on Egypt’s constitution. This text opens with a consideration of Salafi participation in both the 2012 and 2014 charters, and proceeds then to examine their chief triumph:

This article [219 in the 2012 constitution] was quickly scrapped by the new committee, but the [Salafi] Nūr Party representative continued to press. His lone leverage was in the desire of the transitional government to frame its discourse as anti-Muslim Brotherhood, in response to a popular revolution, rather than as anti-Islamist per se, and certainly not as anti-Islam. The presence of Nūr legitimized greatly.

For their troubles, they received a small reference in the preamble of the constitution. It was agreed upon at the very close of proceedings, and states:

‘We are drafting a Constitution that affirms that the principles of Islamic Sharī‘ah are the principal source of legislation, and that the reference for the interpretation of such principles lies in the body of the relevant Supreme Constitutional Court Rulings.’

But what does this mean for future legal interpretation? Is it only a means for them to save face, or will it have real impact on future constitutional rulings? A partial answer is to examine one of these relevant rulings, from 1996, and see what it says. Two girls were expelled from school for wearing the niqab, a garment that covers all but the eyes. The court ruled against them, as they appealed to sharia law and freedom of religion:

Sharī‘ah establishes the necessity of morality, the judge argued, even quoting the Qur’an. But sharī‘ah nowhere establishes that a woman must wear a niqab. On the contrary, and in dismissive wording, it compared such a woman as kept from interacting with society and going around as a covered ghost.

The constitutional guarantees of belief and individual freedom, the judge explained, are to follow and practice a religion in the manner the religion instructs. Since scholars differ about the nature of a woman’s dress, there is no firm principle on this matter in sharī‘ah. Therefore, the government is within its rights to establish a dress code as it sees fit, while staying within the principle of modesty as is clearly required by Islam.

Sharī‘ah, the judge wrote, is principally about truth and justice, and is naturally progressive to change with the time and place. This guarantees it flexibility and vitality, so as to guard its purposes (maqāsid) in preserving religion, life, reason, honor, and property. No one scholar’s view should be made holy over another’s, and even the Companions of the Prophet made their rulings based on the benefit of the people. There is no reason to either consider or cancel them, but to judge independently based on the benefit of today.

Salafis originally wanted to tie sharia interpretation to traditional rulings, not just purposes, as interpreted by senior scholars from the Azhar. These provisions were written into the 2012 constitution but lost in its 2014 amendments. Seeing such a ruling as this, it is clear they do not trust the court.

But maybe they got what they wanted, through the court, even in what evaded them in 2012:

In order to replace the sharī‘ah-escaping word ‘principles’, the Nūr Party sought to change it in Article 2 with the more strict ‘rulings’ (ahkām). They did not gain consensus, and even in Article 219 the words translated as ‘rulings’ do not reflect the strictures of the Arabic ahkām.

But the SCC states in its May 18 judgment that Article 2 is based on the ahkām of sharī‘ah, in its foundations and general principles, using language reminiscent of Article 219. Furthermore, these ahkām may not be violated where they are maqtū’ bi thubūtiha au bi dallālitiha. This phrase means that the rulings are clear and proven, either by the Qur’an directly (thubūt) or through jurisprudential reasoning (dallālah).

But this is not restricted only to hukm qata’i, where there is one accepted meaning only. It includes also hukm zanni, where many meanings and interpretations have been suggested. The point is that sharī‘ah encompasses the historic work of scholarship, and legislation must not transgress its bounds. Within this sharī‘ah heritage, no voice is sacred and new voices may emerge with the times. But as the parliament creates law, the judiciary judges within the hedge of sharī‘ah. This is not the language of a judge seeking to ignore it.

But perhaps this is all legal semantics, and what really matters is who is in charge. From the conclusion:

It may not be the language of the constitution that is of paramount importance, but who writes it. The 2012 constitution signaled a transition to a new Islamist order; the 2014 signaled a reversal. The reversal, however, includes preamble language authored by the Salafis, and the terms of debate bound by Article 2.

If correct, this interpretation suggests the forces of reversal remain in control, and less-than-Islamist rulings are likely to issue from the SCC. But it also suggests that Salafis have a place at the table, and may through this constitutional nod win either legislation or rulings that reflect conservative religion.

In this sense, does their defense of sharī‘ah mean also the defense of their existence? It is too early to tell, but it has resulted, at least, in a public constitutional reminder that sharī‘ah remains the basis of legislation.

That this reminder can be interpreted flexibly fits well the overall ambiguity of the political situation, Nūr included.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


Nour’s Quiet Dissenters

From the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a lucid article explaining the current situation of the Salafi Nour Party.

Having backed the popularly-led military overthrow of President Morsi, the party ensured at least its short- to mid-term survival, and did not go the way of the Brotherhood. But in doing so they have fractured their internal cohesion and invited the derision of many Islamists, their natural constituency. The results of their gamble remain to be witnessed, likely in upcoming parliamentary elections.

But here is an interesting excerpt about leadership in the Salafa Dawa, the socio-religious preaching association that gave rise to the Nour Party:

The movement’s controversial support for the military has also heightened internal divisions. The initial division that weakened the movement followed a disagreement between Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the former leader of the Nour Party, and Yasser Borhami, deputy head of the Salafi Dawa, that led to the former splitting off to form his own Watan Party in January 2013. Nour’s backing of the military and the crackdown on the Brotherhood deepened the rifts between those remaining in the party. A number of the original founders of the Salafi Dawa have stopped attending its meetings, such as Dr. Said Abdel-Azeem, who before June 30 had announced that he believed in “the legitimacy of President Mohammed Morsi.” Abdel-Azeem stayed the course after July 3 and appeared on the speakers’ podium at the Rabia al-Adawiya protest repeatedly; he has been against the Nour Party’s support of the military since the crisis between Nour and the Brotherhood began in January 2013. Dr. Mohammed Ismail al-Muqaddam has also been absent from the movement since July 3, declining to appear in public or speak about politics.

Even more illustrative of the fragmentation within the Salafi leadership is the sermon given by prominent Salafi figure Dr. Ahmed Farid at a mosque in the Amiriyya district of Alexandria on February 28, in which he called for “returning to our origin.” He added that “for 40 years, we have wanted to return to missionary work (al-dawa) and forget politics,” even though only a few days earlier he himself had participated in a political conference supporting the latest constitution. Even though a majority of the Salafi Dawa leadership is sympathetic to these dissenters, Borhami, the most powerful figure in the movement, continues his efforts to convince his followers that the political Salafi Dawa organization is emerging from the current crisis stronger than before. Borhami has sent his pupils and followers throughout Egypt’s provinces to rally Nour Party supporters and convince them of the wisdom of nominally condemning the use of violence against pro-Brotherhood protesters while tacitly accepting it by supporting the military regime, including Nour’s recent endorsement of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for president and calls for their followers to vote for him.

I have no evidence to the contrary, but I am curious how the author judges the majority to be sympathetic to dissenters. Is it an emotional sympathy, or something more? If more, might they be letting Borhami take the lead, watching to see what happens, but ready to let him take the fall if necessary?

Under this speculation, ‘if necessary’ could come from two directions. The first, as the author makes clear, is the possibility that Nour Party support for the transition may still not be enough to preserve their political presence. If they are denied a continuing place in politics under Article 74 of the new constitution, Borhami would be the one to hold accountable.

Less likely, but still the goal of many Brotherhood-sympathetic Islamists, is that the military overthrow of Morsi might still be reversed. If so, Borhami could be highlighted as the traitor while those keeping quiet now quickly seek to mend fences.

In any case, the interactions are fascinating. Read the full article linked above to get a good overview of the situation.

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How Salafis Supported the Constitution in Upper Egypt

Hamdi Abdel Fattah of the Nour Party
Hamdi Abdel Fattah of the Nour Party

Post-Morsi, some say, the Salafi Nour Party was pushed into a corner. Others say they played their cards perfectly. In any case they supported the 2014 constitution despite its removal of religious provisions they largely orchestrated only two years earlier. While the Muslim Brotherhood and most other non-Nour Salafis railed against what they called the ‘coup and its constitution’, the Nour Party nimbly tried to navigate the landscape.

So what did they do, and what was their rhetoric? In an interview with Arab West Report Sheikh Hamdi ‘Abd al-Fattah provided perspective from Maghagha, a city in the governorate of Minya.

The party held one large mass conference in Minya, in which Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, Nour’s representative on the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution, joined Sheikh Sharif al-Hiwari from Alexandria, and the local deputy of the Endowments Ministry formed a panel. The party’s approach to the constitution was explained by Mansour and others; Mansour himself spoke for an hour and answered questions for an hour and a half more. Everything was done in full transparency, ‘Abd al-Fattah stated.

From the government to the district level, such as in Maghagha and Beni Mazar, the Nour Party organized marches and had small four-to-five delegations circulate in the streets. Both were meant to give opportunity for people to speak face-to-face with party leaders and have their concerns answered.

For more details, and to discover the reasoning behind their controversial support, please click here to read the full article.

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Nadia Mostafa: The Hypocrisy of the Coup and its Constitution

Nadia Mustafa
Nadia Mustafa

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the composition of Egypt’s constitution. Nadia Mostafa is the former director of the Program for Dialogue and Civilizational Studies at Cairo University. She is also an Islamist, though not a formal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. But she is a severe critic of the events which removed him from power.

She did not want to even discuss the content of the constitution, unfortunately, deeming it illegal. But she was very willing to express her displeasure with several contributing forces:

Chief among them are the very Salafis the Brotherhood cooperated with, in error. In supporting their demand for Article 4, giving the Azhar a role in legislation, and Article 219, defining the principles of sharī‘ah, the Brotherhood gave into unnecessary, non-historical, and ultimately fear-inducing intimations of a religious state. But when the Salafis sided with the coup leaders, Mustafá notes, look how quickly they dropped these two articles. All the Nour Party desired, it seems, is to take the place of the Brotherhood in the political spectrum.

Next she takes aim at the liberals:

Early in the transitional period these same liberals bemoaned the extremism of the Salafis and the interference of their Saudi Arabian backers. Now, they speak of the Salafis as possessing political acumen and of the Saudis as important financial backers for Egypt.

Similarly, liberals rejected the constitution of 2012 because it was an unrepresentative document crafted by an Islamist majority. But this did not prevent them from orchestrating an unrepresentative majority of their own, which all but excludes political Islamists, except for those who play by the measure of the coup. And as for their rhetoric saying the Muslim Brotherhood was invited but refused, what sort of invitation can be accepted when the president and his aides are held incommunicado, and the organization brandished as terrorists? Their goal, Mustafá believes, is to eliminate political Islam, or at the least any political Islam that has leverage.

Finally, she criticizes the church:

Excited by the possibility of gains in the constitution, some Coptic groups threatened to boycott or urge a ‘no’ vote if they did not win a special parliamentary quota. But when this failed to materialize, Pope Tawadros stepped in to support a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. Christians, Mustafá believes, are not seeking their rights but to limit the rights of political Islamists, allied with seculars against the Islamic identity of the country.

But she also has critical words for the Brotherhood:

She and others of similar mind advised the presidency that Mursī was leaning too heavily on the support of Salafis rather than maintaining unity with liberals and other moderates. She believes there should be a separation between the preaching of a religious organization and the rhetoric of its political spinoff. A civil system must allow for religion in the public square, but politicians should not play with religion for political gain. When many call for the leadership of the Brotherhood to leave, she agrees, provided the same be true for current leadership across the board. The old guard, everywhere, must yield to the youth.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


Building Democratic Polity in the Face of Islamism

From The Immanent Frame, an article describing where democracy went wrong in Egypt, and doesn’t blame the Islamists. The author draws on James Madison’s assertion that factionalism cannot be destroyed without destroying freedom, and that the only path is to create democratic governmental mechanisms that prevent a certain faction from taking over the state.

This, unfortunately, never took place in Egypt. Non-Islamist political forces, for one reason or another, were never able to develop the kind of broad and cohesive coalitions that could have effectively represented them. After the constitutional crisis of the fall of 2012, moreover, they effectively threw in the towel, and formed the National Salvation Front.

The article states the NSF sought to undermine the government rather than seek to compete with it.

Even if it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially an anti-democratic movement, it could not have threatened an Egyptian democracy, at least as long as other Egyptian political movements played their role in such a democracy by organizing their supporters into cohesive parties that could effectively compete at the ballot box. Even if it took a couple of rounds of electoral losses before they successfully organized themselves, it would have been worth it to build a genuine democratic coalition.

The question the opposition might give in response is that the Brotherhood showed inclination not to reform the state and open up a democratic polity, but to inherit the Mubarak state and maintain its relative authoritarianism. The author admits the Brotherhood’s illiberal leanings, but finds it would not ultimately have mattered.

In short, so long as there is at least the credible prospect of a politically competitive system, there is no reason to believe that the principles underlying the median voter theorem would not have applied to restrain the Muslim Brotherhood until such time as the non-Islamist opposition could have organized itself more effectively. Ironically, then, it may very well be the case that the biggest problem facing Egyptian democracy is not that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is too committed to its own organization, as many Egyptian commentators have suggested, but rather that other Egyptian groups lack the internal discipline necessary to form an effective nationwide coalition.

This seems too rosy an application of Madison, but spot on concerning the fault of the opposition. But there is more strong critique to come.

Success at the ballot box is not mere “ballotocracy,” to be casually dismissed, as many Egyptian liberals have claimed. An inability to form an electoral majority signifies an inability to govern—at least in the absence of overwhelming force.

So what then? Here is the author’s hindsight analysis:

The fact that there is no credible liberal democratic political party does not mean, however, that Omar Suleiman was right. It only means that Egypt has not yet produced such a party. The existence of such a party is not, however, a precondition for a functioning electoral democracy; it is the product of the practice of democracy over multiple rounds and iterations.

It is too late now, unless it isn’t too late. This would be the claim of the liberals, that the democratic order is now coming under a strong and guiding hand. The author disagrees, and thinks they took the easy way out.

As a result of their short-sighted strategies, Egypt faces at least several years of renewed authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to exclude their competitors from politics, Egyptians need to embrace competitive politics and accept the substantial costs of building a competitive electoral system from the ground up, even if that requires letting your opponents win from time to time.

Ironically, his advice may have been heeded by an unintended audience. The Salafi Nour Party may have sensed what was coming, took their licks, and ensured their coming place in the order – democratic or otherwise.

If not democratic, Muslim governments have long had their ‘sultan’s sheikhs’, as the Nour Party is now derogatorily called by pro-Morsi Islamists. But if democratic, they stand ready to inherit the Islamist mantle. Perhaps they will lose elections to come, but by building up the polity, their bet is for the long haul.

Who knows the developing political orientation of the people, but if Gulf funding is any indicator, these Salafis may be the best students of Madison.

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Safwat al-Baiady: Negotiating Religion in the Constitutional Committee

Safwat al-Baiady
Safwat al-Baiady

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of Egypt’s constitutional Committee of Fifty. Safwat al-Baiady is the head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, and lent his experience in how the committee’s religious members came to agreement on contentious articles. Here is his perspective on Article 3, giving Christians and Jews the right to refer to their religious laws in personal affairs and religious organization:

But one part of society that was not represented by the committee, Bayādī stated, were the Baha’īs. He personally argued that Article 3, guaranteeing Christians and Jews the right to govern themselves according to their own religious laws, should be phrased instead for ‘non-Muslims’. This wording won the majority in the ‘fundamentals of the state’ subcommittee on which he served, with ten votes for and only four against – the representatives of the Azhar and the Salafi Nour Party.

But when the subcommittee sent the article to the writing committee, it came back changed. Bayādī said the Azhar’s Muhammad Abd al-Salam, consultant for the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib, led the charge against this wording. Bayādī said he was very mad, and told the committee their job was in wording, not to change the meaning of the article and throw the majority outside. They responded they were also members of the full committee and had the right to their own ideas. In the end, Bayādī admitted that perhaps the change was wise, as it would not be good to upset the religious elements in society who look to the Azhar and Salafi scholars. After all, they want people to vote for the constitution.

In the committee, Bayādī said, everyone had to compromise, getting something and leaving something. This is the way to resolve differences, and he described an article the church left behind. Having already received a number of useful articles, which will be described below, Bishop Antonious of the Coptic Catholic Church proposed an article granting approval and independence to the Egyptian Council of Churches. Formed after the revolution, the council had been operating but had no official recognition. Majority approval was easy in the subcommittee, but after submission to the writing committee it was removed. Bayādī said that no one opposed early on because it did not concern them as non-Christians. But upon further deliberation committee members felt they had already received enough attention in the constitution. ‘Amr Mūsa pledged his help to get the president to give his official approval, which pleased Bayādī. But what the president gives he can take away, and if in the constitution it would be harder to revoke.

Baiady also described the battle to remove the old Article 219 interpreting sharia law, as well as the article assigning a specific age of childhood. He gives a grammar lesson in Article 64 on establishing places of worship, and describes the shenanigans over securing ‘appropriate representation’ for Christians in the coming parliament. Here is an excerpt on the fight over the term ‘civil’, and to what it should apply:

The final controversy Bayādī described came at the time of the vote itself. The preamble of the constitution declared Egypt to be a modern democratic state with civil governance. This last phrase – civil governance – was very difficult to achieve, and even Bishop Bula, to Bayādī’s surprise and anger, said he did not care for the word ‘civil’. The Salafīs in chief opposed this designation, and the Grand Mufti found the proper compromise when he supported ‘civil governance’. Everyone clapped, and the matter was over.

Or so it seemed. At the final vote Mūsá read ‘civil government’. Muna Dhū al-Fukkār, who was elected as his assistant, spoke out to correct and help him. But the vote took place and passed. According to the official transcript, of which he showed a copy, Mūsá afterwards stated that he misspoke and meant ‘governance’. But the next day, at a dinner function with the army, they received the official copy of the constitution with the words ‘civil government’. Bishop Antonious especially was very upset, saying the text was changed. Some say it doesn’t matter, Bayādī related, for government can mean the whole system of government and not just the ministers. In any case, he does not want to spoil the whole bouquet because of the insertion of one thorn, but he does believe it was meant to be changed, and not simply a mistake, due to opposition to what the mufti proposed.

For this and more, please click here to read the full report at Arab West Report.

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Placating Salafis for Constitutional Passage?

Placating Salafis

From my recent article in Arab West Report, about warnings that Salafis, despite only having one member in the Committee of Fifty to amend the 2012 Constitution, were nonetheless exerting undue influence against a liberalizing majority. Some argued they were being placated on several issues so as to keep them involved in support of the overall roadmap:

Arab West Report does not here differ with Coptic Solidarity about the potential implications of furthering the role of sharī‘ah law in the Egyptian Constitution. Their concerns are valid and worthy for discussion. Their statement, however, allows an opportunity to provide context for this struggle.

The mobilization of Tamarrud against President Mursī culminated on June 30 in vast protests calling for early presidential elections. A significant percentage of protestors were motivated by sectarian tendencies reflected in his policies and the predominance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the administration of government. But many protestors also called for his removal due to the ineffectiveness of his government in terms of the economy, security, and general standard of living of the ordinary citizen. Finally, the decision to oust Mursī, taken on July 3, was supported also by the Nour Party, Egypt’s largest political representation of Salafīs.

It is not possible to gauge the level of ordinary Salafī support for the removal of Mursī. It is clear that many sided with the president through their participation in the sit-in protests dispersed violently on August 14. But many Salafīs also voiced consistent opposition to Mursī, though for reasons at times very different from those of their liberal and leftist allies of convenience.

Therefore, Arab West Report wishes to nuance the sentiment of Coptic Solidarity when it speaks of the “dreams of most Egyptians”. The Egyptians who bravely fought against Mursī were diverse.

Yes, diverse, though the Salafi presence was one of the less numerous participants. But their strength in the committee came from another source:

By including the Nour Party among the Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church, the military was able to portray its action as one of national unity, to remove Mursī who had transgressed the popular will. Early overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood also contributed to this rhetoric, though whether offered sincerely or otherwise, failed to bring Mursī’s parent organization on board. But without the key role played by Nour, the military risked allowing an opposite rhetorical stratagem, that of portraying Mursī’s removal not only as a coup against democracy, but as a war against Islam. With the largest Salafī political party in cooperation, this latter accusation was severely muffled.

By acting either from brave conviction or political acumen, the Nour Party risked alienation from its key constituency that still hoped Mursī might provide the rule of sharī‘ah. As the crackdown ensued on the Muslim Brotherhood in general, non-Islamists might say that Nour’s survival as a political entity is reward enough for their participation. But as article after article is debated, Nour holds the threat of switching sides and mobilizing against a constitution free of sharī‘ah. In an already polarized environment, supporters of the new government are ill at ease risking further agitation against them, let alone igniting a voter base that may rise against the constitution in the upcoming referendum.

This, therefore, is the “intense pressure” to which Coptic Solidarity is worried the committee will succumb. It is an understandable fear. This close to a “window of opportunity” in which they can win every article demanded, will the chance be thrown away simply to placate the Salafīs?

Unfortunately, this idea that Salafi viewpoints should simply be outvoted recycles the logic of the earlier constitutional committee which exhibited Islamist numerical dominance. The failure of consensus was greatly criticized by liberals at the time. Now, it appears, some desire it.

Or, such language was simply a pressure technique of their own. If so, here is the final article excerpt, from the conclusion:

But AWR also recognizes that long term social peace depends on the ability of all Egyptian citizens to come together and decide their national charter. None must yield on principles, and Coptic Solidarity is right to advocate strongly.

As Salafīs advocate in return, it is good to take a step back to see the big picture. They also are part of the June 30 revolution. However much the Committee of Fifty represents the diverse institutions of Egypt and the participants in the overthrow of Mursī, it does not represent fully the diversity of political-religious thought. Fair enough, perhaps, as many Islamists rejected their place at the table. But unless a wide consensus of society is able to approve the final constitutional text, it will take its place in the line of charters drawn by an elite and swallowed by an unengaged people, even if they vote for it.

Salafīs should not be placated, but neither should they be alienated. Their pressure is valid.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Salafyo Costa: Egyptian Inclusivity

Mohamed Tolba, Salafi Muslim (L) and Bassem Victor, Coptic Christian (R)
Mohamed Tolba, Salafi Muslim (L) and Bassem Victor, Coptic Christian (R)

From my recent article at the Middle East Institute:

Salafyo Costa were once the darlings of the media. Featured both in Egyptian outlets and foreign publications such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post, the groundbreaking youth movement founded in April 2011 brought together ultraconservative Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, political liberals and leftists, and Coptic Christians. Together they forged a common identity promoting both the goals of the January 25 revolution and the necessity of unity in an increasingly polarized society.

They implemented this vision through fun. Salafyo Costa organized a soccer match pitting Salafis against Copts, they produced films satirizing political and religious divisions, and they went on field trips to Upper Egypt for charity campaigns. And they lived the life of street demonstrations against military rule. Throughout it all, the 120 members raised suspicions in their original communities, accustomed as these communities generally were to non-interaction with the religious or political “other.”

Salafyo Costa continued on relatively seamlessly until the Tamarod campaign against Mohamed Morsi. During the campaign, the group made the controversial decision to support the call for early elections. The liberal media heralded their courage, while Islamists hurled criticism, finding confirmation of earlier suspicions about the group. Following Morsi’s July 3 ouster, the media forgot them. And then they began to break rank.

The article continues by explaining how they came back together. From the conclusion:

“We revolted on January 25 to create our own manual, to write the rules of the game,” says Tolba. “But since February 11, every regime has imposed its own manual.”

Yet Salafyo Costa has stayed true to their ideals. Despite difficulties, growing pains, and losses, they continue the struggle to break down the barriers separating diverse groups. Maintaining a common commitment is obviously easier among dozens of members than millions of citizens, but in Salafyo Costa, Egypt is not without an example of inclusivity.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at the Middle East Institute.


Recruitment Compared: The Brotherhood vs. Salafis

From an older article at the Hudson Institute, with a very thorough description of how one becomes a Muslim Brother or a Salafi:

First, the Brotherhood uses a rigid process of internal promotion to ensure its members’ commitment to the gama’a and its cause.  The process begins at recruitment, when specially designated Muslim Brothers scout out potential members at mosques and universities across Egypt. During the process of recruitment, prospective Muslim Brothers are introduced to the organization through social activities, such as sports and camping, which give the Brotherhood an opportunity to further assess each recruit’s personality and confirm his piety.  If the recruit satisfies local Brotherhood leaders, he begins a rigorous five-to-eight-year process of internal promotion, during which he ascends through four different membership ranks, muhib, muayyad, muntasib and muntazim before finally achieving the status of ach ‘amal, or “active brother.”

During each stage of internal promotion, the rising Muslim Brother’s curriculum intensifies, and he is tested, either orally or through a written exam, before advancing to the next stage.  For example, a muayyad (second stage) is expected to memorize major sections of the Qur’an and study the writings of Brotherhood founder al-Banna, while a muntasib (third stage) studies hadith and Qur’anic exegesis.  Rising Muslim Brothers also assume more responsibilities within the organization: muayyads are trained to preach in mosques and recruit other members, and muntasibs continue these activities while also donating six-to-eight percent of their income to the organization.[11]  This process serves to weed out those who are either less committed to the organization, or who dissent with some of its principles or approaches.  Muslim Brothers’ commitment to the organization is further established through their assumption of a bay’a, an oath, to “listen and obey,” which occurs sometime after the midpoint of this promotional process.[12]

Second, the Brotherhood pursues its Islamizing project by maintaining a well-developed nationwide hierarchical organization.  At the top of this structure is the Guidance Office (maktab al-irshad), a twenty-member body largely comprised of individuals in their late fifties to early seventies.  The Guidance Office executes decisions on which the 120-member Shura committee (magles al-shura al-‘amm) votes, and orders are sent down the following chain of command: the Guidance Offices calls leaders in each regional sector (qita’), who transmit the order to leaders in each governorate (muhafaza), who pass it on to their deputies in each subsidiary area (muntaqa), who refer it to the chiefs in each subsidiary populace (shu’aba), who then call the heads of the Brotherhood’s local cells, known as usras, or “families.”  The usra is typically comprised of five to eight Muslim Brothers, and they execute the Guidance Office’s orders at the local level throughout Egypt.  Such directives can include everything from managing social services to mobilizing the masses for pro-Brotherhood demonstrations, to supporting Brotherhood candidates during elections.

The union of a committed membership and a clear chain-of-command provides the Muslim Brotherhood with a well-oiled political machine and thereby a tremendous advantage over the Salafists.  Indeed, whereas the Brotherhood is one cohesive entity that can summon hundreds of thousands of veritable foot soldiers, not to mention the millions of ordinary Egyptians who benefit from its social services, to execute its agenda, the Salafist movement is entirely decentralized and spread out among a plethora of Salafist groups, schools, and shaykhs.

In a certain sense, Salafists are mirror images of Muslim Brothers in that they privilege ideological objectives above organizational ones.  Indeed, many Salafists are “quietist,” in that they view Salafism as a personal religious commitment and reject attempts to politicize it: “I don’t have to join any organization to be more religious,” stated Bakr, a Salafist who participated in the youth coalition that organized the 2011 anti-Mubarak protests, when asked why he never considered joining the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: “There is no organization in Salafism because an organization needs a target.  And there is no target in Salafism, the only point is dawa (outreach).”  Even those Salafists who are deeply involved in Salafist organizations view their affiliation as secondary to their personal religious commitments. “Salafist streams are movements and different schools, not an organization,” said al-Gamaa al-Islamiya member Abdullah Abdel Rahman, son of the infamous “Blind Shaykh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  “It’s a way of life.  Anyone who follows the Holy Book and Sunna, they call him a Salafist.  They don’t have a certain person to follow.  …  They all have their own schools, but agree on one way.”

Salafism’s deeply personal, self-directed nature is perhaps most evident in the independent process through which one becomes a Salafist.  In stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s five-to-eight-year, four-stage process of internal promotion, one becomes a Salafist simply by declaring himself a “multazim,” or “obligated” to follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna.  Typically, a multazim attaches himself to a specific Salafist shaykh, with whom he studies how to live a deeply conservative lifestyle.  But the multazim can choose his shaykh, unlike a Muslim Brother, who is assigned to an usra and handed a standardized curriculum.

It is a long article, written after the passage of the Islamist dominated constitution in 2012, but still relevant.

It is too early to say how things have changed, but I imagine Muslim Brotherhood recruitment is rather difficult now. Much of their upper leadership is in prison, but presumably the lower ranks can carry on activity, however impeded. I gather their usras explain much mobilizing force behind recent smaller area protests.

As for Salafis, the question is if the leading sheikhs have been compromised by cooperation with the current government. It may be much easier, however, for the average Salafi-inclined individual to resort back to a quietist, non-political faith that had long accepted the misguided rule of Mubarak, which if less than legitimate made rebellion also illegitimate for the social strife it would incur.

But the present is still being written, so we will see.