How (not) to talk about Salafism

There is a current public controversy around popular Islamic preacher Zakir Naik accusing him for inspiring Islamic militants who conducted an attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The controversy is based on a report in a Bangladeshi newspaper,Daily Star,which claims that one of the killers was inspired by the speech of Zakir Naik.The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also made an indirect reference to Zakir Naik in his speech at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and implicitly condemned his activities.

There are multiple layers of the debate around the personality of Zakir Naik.According to reports in the media, the common denominator between Zakir Naik and the Islamic State (or IS, ISIS or ISIL)is that of Salafism. Is it a plausible argument, then, that Salafism is the binding force of both an Islamic preacher like Zakir Naik and militant formations such as IS? The main argument is that both Zakir Naik and IS believe in the Salafi methodology.

I want to show some of the challenges inherent in understanding the phenomenon called Salafism that defies an easy definition. A careful analysis of the debate around Zakir Naik or any other issues related to Salafism must take into consideration the complexities of the historical movement called Salafism. The public criticism of Salafism will not be useful as long as it reproduces obscurantist readings of Islam, Muslims and Islamic movements and public figures.

According to one of the foremost experts on global Salafism, Roel Meijer, the problem with mainstream analyses of Salafism is that it is written from the perspective of ‘security studies’. New works on Salafsim that are neutral from   an academic point of view such as works by Thomas HegghamerMadawi Al-Rasheed and Stephane Lacroix have changed the way we study and view Salafism but the impact of their studies has been limited considering the amount of ignorance and prejudice that governs the mainstream discourse on Salafism.

The difference between creed and the subjective history of the creed is also obscured in the mainstream analysis of Salafism. It is striking that the subjective experience and historical setting makes the Salafi interpretation of the creed different from one context to another

What is Salafism? The Salafists believe that a Muslim should emulate the first three generations of Muslims commonly referred to as the pious predecessors (al-salaf as-salih) as much as possible in all areas of life. This historical period of the first three generations of Muslims spans the years between roughly 667 CE – 850 CE. A major study on Salafism by Quintan Wiktorowicz explains that “The Salafi creed outlines the rules for generating religious opinions to ensure that conclusions are methodologically sound and based on solid evidence from the Qur’an, Sunnah [the tradition of prophet Muhammad], and consensus of the companions”.

The counter argument among many Muslims against Salafism is that the post-prophetic phase of Muslim history is dismissed outright for the sake of constructing the prophetic precedent. This qualifies the Salafi approach as ‘puritanical’(a problematic term with all its Eurocentric baggage) from the perspective of many academic scholars when they view it from the larger historical experiences of being Muslim and Islamic in the world .Wiktorowicz explains that “The Salafi creed outlines the rules for generating religious opinions to ensure that conclusions are methodologically sound and based on solid evidence from the Qur’an, Sunnah [the tradition of prophet Muhammad], and consensus of the companions”.

Any careful analysis of Salafism must take into consideration the diversity within the movement before lumping all self-identified or suspected Salafis or Salafi personalities together and expressing a blanket demonization of a monolithic Salafism

The difference between creed and the subjective history of the creed is also obscured in the mainstream analysis of Salafism. It is striking that the subjective experience and historical setting makes the Salafi interpretation of the creed different from one context to another. Adherence to the Salafi methodology is also a source of difference among Salafis with regard to the ‘correct’ definition of Salafism. Even though Salafism theoretically rejects the subjective aspects in the interpretation of the creed, the differences within the movement show subjective variations from one context to another.

For example, there is a split in the Salafi movements of Kerala around the issues of social activism. One group of Salafis (led by prominent Salafi scholar Husaain Madavoor) argues that it is the model of the first generation of Muslimsto take part in activism against environmental degradation. To this end this group proposes a ‘green’ Salafism. The other group of Salafis ( led by Salafi scholar T.P. Abdulla Koya Madani) rejected this position based on their particular reading of the Islamic creed. In short, any careful analysis of Salafism must take into consideration the diversity within the movement before lumping all self-identified or suspected Salafis or Salafi personalities together and expressing a blanket demonization of a monolithic Salafism.

There are many historical and contextual aspects of the movement that have evolved. Popularly diverse tendencies in Salafism are wrongly equated with Wahabism, a movement developed by Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahab (1703-1792) in the Najd (in contemporary Saudi Arabia), with a particular historical tendency in the global Salafism. Roel Meijer argues that there was a similar tendency of Salafi orientation that was developed around the same time in Mughal Delhi by Shah Wali Allah (1703-1762) which cannot be described as Wahabism. Sha Wali Allah advocated an approach to Islamic law that was dynamic and not confined to taqlid [imitation of one of the schools of jurisprudence]. There are many disagreement on the legacy of Shah Wali Allah and a careful reading of this debate shows that he does not neatly fit within a Salafi methodology. Similarly there are many differences between statist orientation of West Asian Salafism and the historical legacy of North African Salafism that keeps critical distance from the state.

Roel Meijer also shows that Salafi movements are diverse in their operations which include individual approaches to social movements covering the USA, Ethiopia, Norway, France and Saudi Arabia among many others. Salafi individuals and communities maintain diverse positions on issues of violence, jihad, apostasy and modes of social activism. Roel Meijer explains that “What makes Salafism so difficult to define is its ambiguity and fragmentation. Although it is a movement with clearly defined characteristics, it is not a homogenous movement but- especially in the modern era- has become a movement with mixed, and recently even contradictory tendencies which have sprung up in different regions”. The historical and regional variations in Salafi movements are often obscured when media pundits and security analysts write about Salafism .

This article classifies Salafi groups and tendencies into three broad categories; purist , political and militant Salafism. The categorization of Salafi movements as being ” purist” (Quintan Wiktorowicz) was later challenged by different scholars and they use alternative names such as “quietist” (Jacob Olidort), or “apolitical” (Joas Wagemakers). According to Jacob Olidort, major sections of the Salafi movements in the world are apolitical in the sense that they stay away from direct political actions and movements in both democratic and autocratic Muslim countries. They focus on the preaching of Islam, the purification of Muslim rituals and practices, and educating the masses about Islam. They mostly view formal politics as a distortion from the aims and objectives of the first generation of Muslims. Most of the time apolitical/quite Salafism views political Salafism as a deviance since it is motivated by the achievement of worldly aims and desires. Hardly any political and militant Salafi movement is visible in the Indian context when compared to countries like Egypt, Norway, Jordan, Kuwait or Pakistan. What about the support of militant Salafism of IS in India? “In the 44 countries tracked by the U.K-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and the Central Intelligence Agency, India finds no mention”.

While there is a clear link between some salafi orientated preachers such as Zakir Naik and the Wahabi oriented Salafism including a connection to sources of power from Saudi Arabia, it is not the case that such preachers and in this Zakir Naik has ever advocated or supported violent or militant action within India or anywhere else for that matter. There is an important distinction between preaching a socially problematic and mostly apolitical message and advocating for militant action to bring about political change. By conflating the two, the media is misrepresenting the facts and creating the false impression that all who identify or are identifies as salafi are cut from the same cloth.

The larger point made by Quintan Wiktorowicz is that Salafi radicalism has less to do with adherence to the methodology but rather with particular socio-historical conditions which contributed to radical political and religious views. This is an observation that is relevant to the Indian scenario. The problematic media reporting on the Salafism related security threat does not do justice to the centuries long history of Salafism in India and its various manifestations in different regions of India. The broad anti-Salafism rhetoric by sections of the Indian media demonstrates a lack in understanding the historical and current contexts and only contributes to furthering the anti-Muslim prejudice in the name of Salafism.

 

 

 

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Ashraf Kunnummal Written by:

Ashraf Kunnummal is a PhD candidate at Department of Religion Studies at University of Johannesburg, South Africa. His research focuses on the history and politics of Islamic liberation theology in Iran, India and South Africa

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