Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Making of Salafism by Henri Lauziere

One point worth stressing is that the last thirty years of the twentieth century saw the appearance of an indigenous literature about the purist notion of Salfism. Until then, the concept was not an object of study per se. Purist Salafis used the term and sometimes gave brief and indirect definitions of it. But prior to the 1970s we can hardly say that systematic attempts were made to explain what purist Salifism meant. By the end of the 1990s, the opposite situation prevailed. Countless books and articles now dealt with the origins and meaning of Salafism, as understood by purist Muslims.

Even more significant is the novel way in which a majority of purists Salafis articulated the concept. Beginning in the 1970s, a process of ideologization took place whereby Muslim scholars recast purist Salafism as a totalizing system reminiscent of the Islamism of Sayyid Qutb (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood). Far from being a theological doctrine and an approach to Islamic law, Salafism became a worldview that encompassed the whole of existence, from knowledge to practice, from morality to etiquette, and even from religion to politics. Salafism was now a total ideology, as defined by sociologist Daniel Bell: ”a total ideology is an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality , it is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole way of life.” The Arabic term that best encapsulates this process of ideologization is manhaj, or “method,” an Islamic civilizational world view.

The vast majority of self-proclaimed Salafists worldwide define salafiyya as the most authentic and purist religious orientation within Sunni Islam and have placed themselves at the center of intra-islamic polemics because of their claim to follow the only true  Islam that can lead to salvation. To its many detractors, this form of Salafism is virtually synonymous with Wahhibism – the conservative approach to Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia and that was first expounded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century. But purist Salafis have long denied this characterization, both because they abhor such terminology as Wahhabism  and because they reject the idea that Wahhab created a new religious orientation. Salafism, they argue, is nothing other than Islam as it was first revealed, unsullied by innovation, deviation or accretion and uncontaminated by exogenous influences. It is the pure Islam to which the pious ancestors of the first three generations conformed.

Given the difficulty of defining purity in absolute terms, contemporary Salafists often must define it negatively – that is, by elaborating on all things they deem contrary to the pristine Islam of the pious ancestors. In matters of creed, which they view as the highest priority, purist Salafists reject all forms of speculative philosophy, known as kalam in Arabic. According to them, Muslims who seek to explain thorny issues such as God’s names and attributes should never resort to Philosophy, Aristotelian logic, or metaphorical interpretation (tas’wil), all of which distort the meaning of scriptures. The pious ancestors, the argument goes, never used such devious techniques: they merely described God as He described Himself in the revelation. In order to revive this ‘originalist’ approach to theology, purist Salafists insist on the need to avoid nearly every theological doctrine that has emerged since the first fitna, or civil war, which split the Muslim community in the mid-seventh century. They find them all – including the Ash’ari and Maturidi doctrines followed by millions of Muslims today – to be misguided, heretical, or offensive to God in one way or another. In short, they regard these theological doctrines as reprehensible innovations that the pious ancestors either did not encounter or did not tolerate.

This leaves contemporary purist Salafists with only one reliable doctrinal system – Hanbali theology – to which they adhere in its later and more refined iteration, as articulated and defended by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 13428). Yet unlike medieval Muslim scholars, contemporary Salafi usually refrain from claiming  that they are Hanbali in creed because that would imply the blind following of a single man – namely Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855)- who has no inherent authority. To speak Hanbali theology would also imply that ibn Hanbal and his disciples were innovators who constructed a doctrinal system more than two hundred years after the death of the Prophet. To avoid these potential objections, purist Salafis claim to follow the doctrine of the forefathers (madhhab al-salaf), thus enlisting the collective authority of all the pious ancestors in matters of theology. Ibn Taymiyya, the controversial medieval scholar, had made it a point to draw the distinction during one of his trials in Damascus in 1306. When asked to acknowledge that his writings conformed to the Hanbali creed – an admission that might have satisfied his judges and ended the trial – Ibn Taymiyya refused and retorted: “I compiled nothing but the creed of all the pious ancestors, and it is not particular to imam Ahmad. Imam Ahmad only transmitted the knowledge that the Prophet brought forth.”

Contemporary Salafis also search for impurities beyond the realm of theology. In legal matters, they usually deny that the four Sunni schools of Islamic law have any authority apart from the canonical primary sources on which each body of jurisprudence is supposed to be based. In principle, few self-respecting Salafi scholars today would argue to the contrary, even if, in practice, they tend to follow one school in particular. Their rationale is that the schools of law and their institutionalization of disagreement did not exist at the time of the pious ancestors. Therefore, the cumulative legal precedents and methodologies of these schools should not carry more weight than the Qur’an, the hadith, and the consensus of the salaf. Purist Salafis are particularly cautious not to let legal pluralism justify actions that could be construed as shirk ( literally “association”, by which they mean a breach of tawhid, or God’s unicity) because in such cases the distinction between a wrong action and a wrong belief tends to disappear. Allowing Muslims to build structures over tombs and declaring it permissible to seek divine favor through the auspices of a deceased patron are examples of legal pinions that, according to the purist Salafis, endorses idolatry. This is one of the many reasons why they abhor Sufism, which they view a a hotbed for such innovations in deeds and, ultimately, in creed.

The most uncompromising purist Salafis usually leave no stone unturned to locate and eradicate actual or potential impurities from all aspects of religious experience. Not only do they reject what they regard as misguided beliefs and actions, but also attack the epistemologies that enable these beliefs and actions to emerge in the first placed. For this reason, they deny the validity of any intuitive or esoteric knowledge whose content is not accessible to all. Purist Salifis are equally adamant about the primacy of scriptural evidence (naql) over rational proofs (‘aql) as the best means to arrive at the truth. Again, only the Qur’an, the hadith, and the authenticated reports from pious  ancestors who have assimilated infallible prophetic teachings may yield certitude. Reason alone never does, and according to purist Salafi, it would be irrational. They agree that one must appeal to reason, or common sense, to appreciate the superiority of sound transmitted knowledge. But Muslims are not at liberty to interpret textual sources as they please. Nor can they explain away passages that do not serve their views and tastes. Failing to interpret the scriptures as the pious ancestors allegedly did would be an innovation. It would open the door to relativism and could render one liable to accusations of unbelief (kufr). According to some purist Salafi, a Muslim’s deliberate failure to act on this proper understanding of the scriptures, even in matters of etiquette (such as shaving one’s beard) could have similar consequences. In that sense, purist Salafis raise the specter of heresy to a particularly high degree. Even Muslims who personally live up to Salafi standards of orthodoxy or orthopraxy could theoretically stray into heresy if they fail, or hesitate, to anathematize heretics.

In the last twenty years or so, scholars and commentators of various backgrounds have further divided this purist conception of Salafism into several distinct subcategories, the most well known of which are jihadist Salafism and quietist scholarly Salafism. These labels intended to provide better tools for analysis, but it must be remembered that they are often imposed by outsiders. Moreover, the attempt to capture differences on questions pertaining to politics and violence, which, although important, are not at the core of Salafism. By this, I mean, again, that purist Salafists tend to evaluate the soundness of all thoughts and actions – including those pertaining to politics and the use of violence – by standards of religious purity. Ultimately, it is not so much what Salafis do or say about politics that matters as it is  how well they can avoid or defend themselves against charges of epistemological, theological, and legal impurity. As a rule, the stronger the case against them, the weaker their claim to Salifism becomes among their peers.

1 comment:

  1. The futility of this exercise in religious purity is perhaps best expressed, from among my sources, by George Kubler in The Shape of Time; Remarks on the History of Things:

    “The survival of antiquity has perhaps commanded the attention of historians mainly because the classical tradition has been superseded, because it is no longer a live water; because we are now outside it, and not inside it. We care no longer borne by it as in a current upon the sea: it is visible to us from a distance and in perspective only as a major part of the topography of history. By the same token we cannot clearly descry the contours of the great currents of our own time: we are too much inside the streams of contemporary happening to chart their flow and volume. We are confronted with inner and outer historical surfaces. Of these only the outer surfaces of the completed past are accessible to historical knowledge.” That is, the perspective of the pious ancestors is actually inaccessible, a delusion, reactionary in its very nature.

    So, it seems like, though perhaps it presumes an exaggerated notion of the influence of Salafism in the contemporary Islamic world, that the conflicts to which it gives rise will not be resolved without a prolonged period of war, much as in 16th and 17th century Europe (not-with-standing such broad-minded and tolerant figures like Erasmus) in which the involvement of the so-called Christian nations- which have similar problems along the same lines even today- can do no good.