Casablanca - The dominance of the literalist approach and the rupture with rationalism in the fourth century A.H., which was revalidated several times afterwards, is what caused "the closure of the door of independent reasoning" or Ijtihad (Iqbal 1989) or "the closure of the gate of Ijtihad" Canbulat (2001). Arkoun (1987 and 1990) argues that the petrifaction of Islamic thought began in the fifth century and asserts that the classical period that extended from the prophet's death up to the fifth century A.H. was characterized by intellectual activeness and that the subsequent periods were marked by mere imitation. The relegation of rationalism in the Muslim tradition was based upon a particular paradigm imposed by the traditionalist view which Salafism strongly adheres to. This traditionalist paradigm has epistemological characteristics as well as methodological specificities that are worth studying.
Casablanca – The dominance of the literalist approach and the rupture with rationalism in the fourth century A.H., which was revalidated several times afterwards, is what caused “the closure of the door of independent reasoning” or Ijtihad (Iqbal 1989) or “the closure of the gate of Ijtihad” Canbulat (2001). Arkoun (1987 and 1990) argues that the petrifaction of Islamic thought began in the fifth century and asserts that the classical period that extended from the prophet’s death up to the fifth century A.H. was characterized by intellectual activeness and that the subsequent periods were marked by mere imitation. The relegation of rationalism in the Muslim tradition was based upon a particular paradigm imposed by the traditionalist view which Salafism strongly adheres to. This traditionalist paradigm has epistemological characteristics as well as methodological specificities that are worth studying.
The Salafist Epistemological Features
The philosophy of knowledge, epistemology, has recurrently dealt with the extent of human knowledge and questioned its reliability (Popkin and Stroll 1993). The Salafist conception of knowledge has been characterized by passiveness since it views it as absolute, transcendental, and static. Hence, knowledge “is not regarded as the active pursuit, a creative reaching-out of the mind to the unknown – as is the case today – but rather as a passive acquisition of already established knowledge” (Rahman 1982,38). The epistemological vision adopted by the traditionalists generally and the Salafists specifically has four main consequences that shaped its paradigm.
First, the knowledge of religion became text-based, literal and exclusive of minimal reasoning or critical thinking. The restriction of independent reasoning disqualified the possibility of having different interpretations and made the literal understanding of the textual scriptures unapproachable.
Second, knowledge became stagnant and, thereby, cyclical which shut the doors in front of any development or further contribution. Third, the process of trial and error (Radnitzky 1993, p94 p108) is absent from this epistemological consideration so long as knowledge is established through deductive reasoning (Gibb 1945). The fourth shortcoming of this vision is that the Salafist discourse became self-sustaining and consequently critical debates and discussions with both the rest of the movements that constitute the Muslim scholastic and intellectual enterprise and the exchange with the other arenas of human knowledge, such as sociology or political science, are unwarranted. This independence or exclusion of other spheres of knowledge are what made the Salafist discourse stagnant, rigid and lax.
The Salafist Methodological Specificities
The methodological tenets of the Salafists are strongly influenced by their vision of epistemology. The absolutism envisioned vis-a-vis the religious knowledge derived from literal readings of the scriptures has established a particular methodology that is still at work until the present. Provided that the Salafists deny any interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith that goes beyond the surface layer of their literal meaning and engages the intellect, the literal reading becomes predominant. This signifies that the traditionalist understanding of Islam is considered inseparable from Islam per se. The outcome of this methodological feature is that heterogeneity that makes of Islam a rich corpus is denied and homogeneity is claimed instead. Another methodological specificity of the Salafist movement is its relation to the past religious authorities.
It is true that in every discipline the paradigm proposed by the pioneers puts certain constrains on the perspectives of the subsequent contributors; however, the latter’s endeavors are not completely demoted. The ground-breakers in the Islamic religious tradition are constantly referred to as the sole sources of authenticity whereas most of the ideas of the scholars who came later on are at best relegated to the periphery.
The upshots of these two methodological particularities of the Salafists, namely considering the understanding Islam as inseparable from Islam itself and the adherence to past authorities, have greatly, and dangerously, shaped the framework of the Salafi movement. The first outcome is the ahistorical caliber of the Salafist methodology, and the second is the disregard of empirical data in its approach.
The self-imposed constraints of the Salafi methodology lead to a neglect of the Islamic scriptures’ context of emergence, which in turn, placed the Quran above the spatiotemporal context. One of the most widely used verses by the Salafi literalists to restrict contact with the non-Muslims is the following: “Let not believers take disbelievers as allies rather than believers. And whoever [of you] does that has nothing with Allah, except when taking precaution against them in prudence. And Allah warns you of Himself, and to Allah is the [final] destination.” (The Holy Quran: Sahih International, Chapter 3, Verse 28) According to Asbab al-nuzul, the most reliable reference that records the context of Quranic verses revelations, this verse was revealed to the Prophet Mohamed for a specific case, in regard to the hypocrites who showed allegiance to the Prophet Mohamed and made secretive alliance with the enemy.
For all the traditionalists, evolution of knowledge and its adaptation to time is not attained. Time is not viewed as evolutional and dynamic, but as static. This reduction of the past, present and future to “One Time,” that of the first Salaf Salih or the righteous predecessors, has resulted in the reduction of the complexity of the present and the idealization of the Salafi methodological approach. Therefore, evaluating the present situation using the classical frame and standard is what is responsible for the prevalence of the contemporary apologetic Islamist discourse.
Beside the historical anachronism, the absence of empirical consideration and inductive approach mark the Salafi methodology. Drawing on scientific empiricism, the knowledge of social as well as natural science is tentative and probabilistic, subject to continued revision and falsification.” (Shelley 2006). In this respect, empirical data are indispensable in the process of verification and the testability of the established scientific knowledge.
The Salafists exert a selective handling of the data derived from the present realities and situation. In other words, the straight-jacket imposed by the classical context makes the Salafist accept solely the facts and raw data that corresponds to the criteria of this context. From this characteristic springs the second characteristic of the traditionalist methodology generally which is the lack of inductive reasoning. This means that the Salafists start from the scriptures and the ideal, simple and static reality that it depicts and they reject any methodology that does not move from the general axioms to specific instances in its interpretation.
Read the first part: Understanding Salafism: Background & Development (Part I)
Read the second part: Understanding Salafism: The Specificities of the Salafist Doctrine (Part II)
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