Casablanca - Amid the state turbulence and chaos in the Middle East and beyond, the dimension of religion and particularly the question of Islam has become essential to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Casablanca – Amid the state turbulence and chaos in the Middle East and beyond, the dimension of religion and particularly the question of Islam has become essential to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The controversy that groups such as ISIS stir; the horrific terroristic attacks here and there that are executed in the name of Islam; the accusatory fingers directed toward Muslims worldwide; the suspicion, the hatred, the stigmatization, and the manipulation are all calls for the well-intentioned (but confused) Muslims and non-Muslims to suspend judgment and ponder for a moment on what went so wrong in the world today. The mainstream western media portrays the state of crisis in the world as a struggle between modernity and Islam as a set of obsolete rules and regulations from which Muslims cannot free themselves. However, there is a growing tendency among scholars and intellectuals to believe that this global crisis is one of knowledge.
At the same time when Muslims and Islam are scorned, voices of reason have gradually been raising in the west pleading the hypnotized masses to wake up and denounce the Islamophobic media bias that is loaded in the nuance of every presenter’s voice. The British actor Russell Brand, the French journalist Edwy Plenel, the American journalist Glenn Greenwald, the comedian Jon Stewart, and the British MP George Galloway among many others are all well-known public and media figures who have been fighting the anti-Islam ideology and calling people to be more intellectually autonomous in judging the current state of affairs. In this regard, knowing Islam (in its diversity and unity) has become an urgent personal obligation for anyone and everyone.
From Muslim extremists like Bin Laden to public figures who have displayed Islamophobia like Bill Maher, there exists a great unwashed or as Jon Stewart terms, “Je suis confused.” It is this majority that stands baffled between hasty condemnation and hasty retaliation that matters to me and that I attempt to target in this series of articles about Islam and Islamic expression. My aim herein is to objectively put side-by-side the two most important contemporaneous trends of Sunni Islam, Salafism, and reformism so to help the reader better comprehend where extremism comes from and what motivations it has.
Islam’s most powerful and established movement, Salafism, encompass a number of different ideological currents which have a common dogmatic basis. It is commonly seen as the ideological assertion that a certain understanding of the Islamic scriptures is not only pertinent in politics and diplomacy, but also should enjoy priority in them. Unlike the other movements of Islam, Salafism does not tolerate any sort of intermix between what they perceive as authentic Islamic politics and the other forms of government. Thus, accommodations to the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood for instance is a concession that the Salafists are not willing to make. As much as the totality of the Salafist currents meet in this point, their main disagreement, says Mneimneh, is related to “the legitimacy and importance of political action in their overall effort to construct an Islamic state.”
The pivotal assertion that the Salafists repeat constantly and emphatically is that Salafism attempts to reclaim the essence of Islam. This latter, they claim, has been tarnished mainly by the western ideologies and philosophies and thereby diverted from the pure Islam that was revealed to the prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him), and understood by his companions and the immediate predecessors. In the Islamic scholastic and jurisprudential traditions, the early generation of Muslims has been referred to as ‘Al-Salaf Al-Salih‘, or ‘the righteous predecessors’ (Mawsili: 1999). So long as the ideal behind its formation in the nineteenth century was to restore the first-generation Muslims, the Salafist movement acquired its designation that is derived from the expression “Al-Salaf Al-Salih” and which represents an ideological and political foundation. The aim of its founders Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani and his student Mohamed Abduh was to validate the harmony of the values of Islam with modernity. To do this, these founders advocated:
“a return to the original principles of the al-Salaf al-Salih, or a “purified” Islam that was free from historical accretions that, in their view, supported their progressive and modernizing vision. Their efforts have thus been characterized as ‘Salafi-Salihi’ or ‘reformist-purist.’ (Mneimneh 2011: 24)
The spread of the ideals of the Salafist movement in its embryonic form required from Mohamed Abduh and his followers to collaborate and merge with the already deep-seated currents that had the same reformist propensity and shared similar ideological inclinations. Consequently, the movement embraced other visions and ideas which sought the revival of the purity of Islam like the ones advocated in the teachings of Mohamed Ibn Abd al-Wahab the Arabian scholar who lived in the eighteen century Arabia, and the Sanusiyyah Suffi trend that is still an established Islamic authority in North Africa. Due to the vagueness of the criterion considered in incorporating these reformist currents within Salafism, its diverse interpretations resulted in disputation and split between the proponents of reform and those of purity. Hassan Al-Banna and Ali Abd al-Raziq were both considered the legitimate successors of the Muhammad Abduh in the 1920’s and 1930’s despite their ideological and methodological divergence. Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and sought the establishment of a theocratic state whereas the latter envisioned a secular state that has its roots in the Islamic doctrine.
The twentieth century was quite remarkable in the development of Salafism in that it assigned radically different positions to it. During the decolonizing waves in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Arab political thought evolved rapidly and the Salafi-Salihi undertaking was superseded by new ideologies that did not need to gain their legitimacy from a religion-based thought. The main ideologies adopted in those contexts namely liberalism, socialism, and nationalism were quite ubiquitous among the elites and religion was treated in the political discourse at best as merely one among many constituent of the local and national identity.
However, Islam generally and Salafism specifically enjoyed prosperity in the subsequent decades for the three reason I listed earlier and due to other events that characterized the history of the Muslim world. The Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979 spurred in the Muslim collective consciousness the hope of bringing down the autocratic regimes placed and empowered by the West. The second event was the defeat of the Soviet Union at the hand of the jihadist in Afghanistan who had been widely supported in the Muslim world. This particular event laid the foundation of the jihadist ideology that is crucial in the contemporaneous post-revolution reality.
The insurrection of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood against the regime of Hafiz al-Assad in 1980 is another important factor. These events and more helped to secure a supreme position for Salafism particularly in the opposition. “The takeover of the Meccan Holy Shrine by Millenarian Islamists in 1979” is the most essential event in understanding the development of the Salafist movement up to this date. The Saudi regime managed to hold it in restraint, but it stirred hope among Salafists throughout the Islamic world.
The Salafist movement merged with a number of movements that took similar directions of reform. In matters of doctrine, the literalist Wahhabi ostensibly marked the Salafist movement. This doctrine became prevalent in Arabia in the 1920’s due to the alliance of its inheritor, the influential family of Al-Shaykh, with the Al-Saud in Najd which ended by the establishment of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Abd al-Aziz al-Saud. In return for the strong-arm implementation of the Wahhabi doctrine, which dismissed the other doctrines as impure and deviatory, the religious institution sustained the monarchy by making allegiance to it an indispensable basis in faith. This strong alliance between the political and the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia has still been preserved until the present time through bestowing the religious references with financial support and extending the scope of their influence. Hence, a well-established expression of the Salafist movement calls for incontestable submission to the will of the ruler.
Read the second part: Understanding Salafism: The Specificities of the Salafist Doctrine (Part II)
Read the third part: Understanding Salafism: The Salafist Paradigm (Part III)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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