Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Correction: The Salafis: A Brief Social History

Muhammad 'Abduh

The following paragraph in the newspaper article which I posted yesterday is a bit misleading:

"Salafists are rooted in a 12th century movement within Sunni Islam that argues for a strict interpretation of the Koran. Funded in part by conservative Sunni religious organizations in the Persian Gulf, Salafist mosques and teachings have spread quickly across the Muslim world."

The term "Salafi" was a term first used by Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian Sunni Muslim jurist and religious reformer. He believed that Muslims needed to reinterpret religious social practices, morals, and rulings in order to adjust to the rapidly changing modern world. He was an advocate of the reasoned (re)interpretation (ijtihad) of religious texts, particularly the medieval Sunni legal books. 'Abduh was opposed to taqlid, the practice of imitating the practices of religious scholars (in Sunnism, generally done with historical figures, such as the founders of the Sunni schools of jurisprudence), however pious.

'Abduh also believed that modern Muslims needed to study science, mathematics, and technology in order to combat European colonialism, which was in its heyday in the Middle East during his lifetime. He argued that the "Salaf al-Salih," the pious first several generations of Muslims, were rational and practical in the practice of Islam. The term "Salafi" orinally referred to Muslim modernists like 'Abduh.

The Salafis of today have much more in common with Sunni religious scholars like the 18th century Najdi (Najd is a province in modern day Saudi Arabia) Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, who opposed taqlid of medieval jurisprudence and believed that the Qur'an and traditions of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (Ahadith) were the key sources that should guide a Muslim's life. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab and his followers were strongly and vocally opposed to ecstatic Muslim mysticism (Sufism) and Shi'ism, mainly due to what they (the Salafis) saw as Sufis' and Shi'is' association of individual holy figures and places with God. Often called "Wahhabis," those Muslims who trace their intellectual origins back to Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab and likeminded scholars refer to themselves as "Salafis," since they see themselves as recreating the Islam which they believed existed during the time of the Salaf al-Salih, or "al-Muwahidun," roughly, "those who believe in Tawhid" (the absolute 'oneness' of God).

The most influential brand of Salafism today is that practiced by the official religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. Despite what is often written by Western journalists and talking heads (policy wonks) at "think tanks" (so-called), the majority of Salafis are not violent. The official Saudi religious establishment, which is made up of religious scholars at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and other official state religious institutions (mosques, universities, centers) refer to jihadi groups such as al-Qa'ida as the "errant groups," and have done so long before September 11, 2001.

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a noted expert in Sunni jurisprudence, Zaydi Shi'ism, Saudi Arabia, and Salafism, gives an excellent talk at the Carnegie Council about the role of Islam, and particularly Salafi interpretations of Islam, in the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is currently finishing two books on the kingdom and Salafism, one on the modern history of the kingdom and another on the spread of Saudi-sponsored and funded Salafism across the Muslim world. He has conducted in-depth fieldwork in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
View his talk HERE.

Read an excellent study of the divisions within the modern Salafi movement HERE. The author is Quintan Wiktorowicz, an assistant professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. He is an expert on Muslim politics in Jordan and has written extensively on Muslim radicalism in the West and the Salafi movement.

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