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Salafism’s Many Faces

Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā al-Kubrā (The Great Compilation of Fatwa), Ibn Taymiyya

Unlike their medieval forerunners, contemporary Salafis have developed a radical challenge to the traditional legal schools. The Egyptian case offers a clear example of this evolution

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-16 09:45:42

Behind the term “Salafism” there lies an evolving phenomenon that has assumed various guises over time. These range from the historical form associated with Ibn Taymiyya or Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb to the modern version shaped by Rashīd Ridā and the contemporary Salafism of al-Albānī. Developments have been marked by rivalry with the legal schools, even though it is impossible to draw a clear boundary line between the two currents. The Egyptian case has been staging the various acts in this drama.


Salafism” is one of the most commonly used terms in contemporary Egyptian religious discourse, particularly so from the early 1980s onwards. Any exploration of this concept, however, requires us to consider various aspects. The first is purely lexical. A second regards the concept’s transformations and the ambiguities that it has generated during the unfolding of the Muslim world’s religious history. Finally, a third aspect concerns the ideological principles on which the concept is founded.


By “Salafism” its followers mean “the path followed by [the Prophet’s] Companions, their most eminent Successors, their followers and the religious authorities recognized as guides and known for their excellence in religion, whose word has been handed down from generation to generation and has been accepted by the people, except those who have been accused of undue innovation or are known by negative appellations such as Kharijite, Rafidite, Qadarite or Murjite.”[1]


Despite its clarity, this definition is hard to apply. Indeed, it can be considered to constitute one of the consolidated principles (muhkamāt) over which the various schools of thought and theology have been in agreement during the course of Islam’s history.[2] However, the fact that it is also the theoretical foundation for all the historical forms of Salafism is one of the reasons why absolutizing the contrast between Salafis and followers of the legal schools amounts to an unwarranted generalization. Salafis have not always rejected adherence to the legal schools and, conversely, followers of the legal schools have also counted some Salafis amongst their number. For this reason, it is only correct to contrast one group with the other provided their mutual correlation is also taken into account. Unless one wishes to set this contrast within the specific framework of the ties between Salafism and the Islamist movements, in which case it is wholly legitimate. It cannot be applied quite so categorically to ancient Salafism, however.



From Ibn Taymiyya to Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb

From the historical point of view and putting all its variants to one side, Egyptian Salafism can be traced back to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1263) by virtue of two considerations. In the first place, he pioneered the Salafi renaissance during the Middle Ages and all subsequent forms of Salafism have been inspired by or have referred to him. In the second place, his bond with Egypt ensured that, over time, he had a sort of latent influence in the country. This was to become manifest centuries later with the appearance of Rashīd Ridā, the precursor to the modern Salafi renaissance in Egypt.[3]


Ibn Taymiyya severely criticized many aspects of the scholarship of his day (in a legal, theological and Sufi context) and their socio-political implications as well. The butt of his criticism was not so much the predominant legal thinking, nor affiliation to a given school, nor the legal schools as such but, rather, a more specific reality: he particularly rejected that jurisprudence should continue to be worked out exclusively within a school, on the basis of what were considered founding propositions that could not be re-discussed in the formulation of fatwas or rulings. Ibn Taymiyya further contested the idea that ordinary people had to comply with these propositions whilst excluding whatever contradicted them, even if the latter was supported by one of the school’s representatives, a proof or another ancient school.[4]


During the course of Islamic history, adherence to a legal school has been the path normally followed by those engaged in jurisprudential thinking and Ibn Taymiyya did not repudiate this in any way. There is ample evidence to substantiate this claim. His father and grandfather were Hanbali imams and he himself received an education deeply rooted in this school, whose foundations and branches he helped to classify. In his work as a jurist, Ibn Taymiyya took great care to expound the schools’ doctrines (tahrīr al-madhhāhib)[5] and accurately cited their positions regarding the issues that were submitted to him, case by case. In order to defend himself against accusations of supporting innovative opinions that were alien to the pious ancestors’ practice, Ibn Taymiyya always paid great attention to listing the forbearers’ positions in support of his own, even if they contradicted the official opinion of a school’s late exponent.[6] Ibn Taymiyya’s legal perspective never amounted to an invitation to reject the legal schools or to a limitation of the process of inferring legal rules to direct reference to the specific proofs.[7] Indeed, from this point of view, it is right to compare him with the followers of the legal schools.


The second pioneer in the Salafi renaissance is Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Najdī (d. 1206/1791).[8] Indeed, a large part of contemporary Salafism is based on his works. Leaving the ambiguity surrounding Wahhabism to one side, what interests us here is Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s position as the precursor to modern Salafism in the context of the contrast between Salafis and followers of the legal schools.


On the whole, the jurisprudential variant of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb and his school (as originally founded) followed in the wake of tradition: he himself belonged to the Hanbali school, as far as the law’s branches are concerned. His father and grandfather were Hanbali ulama in the Najd and it was from them that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb learned his jurisprudence. He and his followers set great store by exhibiting their adherence to the Hanbali School’s jurisprudence and not departing from it.[9] Despite the paucity of legal tools in Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s possession and his lack of familiarity with jurisprudential enquiry, he was influenced by Ibn Taymiyya’s legal method and, in particular, by what I have referred to earlier i.e. the fact that the latter reproached jurists for limiting themselves to following and replicating the official opinions of the legal schools, with all the partisanship and controversy that that could generate. The Hanbali doctrine remained the jurisprudential tradition followed by Wahhabism up until the third Saudi State[10] and is still considered the official school of the Saudi religious authorities and the authorized doctrine in the courses held in the mosques and universities.



Modern Egyptian Salafism

It was the reformist school’s pioneers who disseminated Salafi ideology in Egypt until it became well rooted at the beginning of the twentieth century. More specifically, the main part in adopting, disseminating and preaching Salafism was played by Muhammad Rashīd Ridā (considered the first modern-era Salafi in Egypt). The Salafism of Rashīd Ridā and his school was doctrinaire (‘aqā’idī) in the most general sense of the term: it confined itself to purifying the concept of divine unity and oneness (tawhīd) of its historical sedimentations in order to restore it to its original formulation. Indeed, this earliest Salafism aimed at reforming the methods both of jurisprudential thinking and, more generally, of the Islamic sciences, at a doctrinal and a legal level. Its first advocates additionally aimed at a modernist revival. Although Salafism exercised a great influence on the Egyptian reality of that period, we cannot classify it (at least, not this version) as one of the “Islamist movements” or “political Islam,” since it had neither a stable organizational structure nor any form of social activism.


Salafism certainly attracted various kinds of hostility as it evolved over time. One early example was the legal and theological quarrel that broke out between Ibn Taymiyya and the imams of his day. Then there was Wahhabism and the conflicts generated by its appearance. These culminated in the campaign led by Ibrahim Pasha (son of Muhammad ‘Alī, the governor of Egypt) who destroyed Dir‘iyya, stronghold of the Wahhabi movement. Subsequently, conflict arose between modern Salafism and its Ash‘arite and Sufi opponents. During all these developments, however, we hardly find any invitations to reject either the legal schools and imitation (taqlīd) as the method to be followed in legal reasoning. If Salafism’s detractors have cast this accusation at the Salafis, they have only done so by way of provocation.[11] In Salafism itself, on the other hand, it was the invitation to rethink the codified doctrine and some cornerstones of the legal schools that prevailed.



The Salafism of Islamist Movements

The Egyptian religious sphere changed with the advent of Nasser. Nasser’s goal was to nationalize all the sectors of the public space (including the cultural and religious one) and subordinate them to his authority. In this respect, the most important measure that the ra’īs adopted in relation to the religious sphere was the 1961 law reforming al-Azhar. Nasser’s policy affected the course that Egyptian Salafism took from various points of view. On the one hand, early Salafism was significantly weakened by this overwhelming Nasserian surge; something that can be explained by the lack of a well-structured organization capable of assuring its preservation in such situations. On the other, the conflict between Salafis and Ash‘arites/Sufis was replaced, in Egypt, by one between Nasser and the Muslim Brothers (with the Brotherhood’s crises in 1954 and 1965), whilst al-Azhar’s role declined considerably. The fact that the religious sphere was deprived of any effective contribution from the mosque-university for eighteen years opened the door to the Islamist movements that began to emerge vigorously at the beginning of the Sadat era, filling this vacuum. Secondly, the shift in the religious centre of gravity from Egypt to Saudi Arabia (which rose to guard Islam during this period) allowed the Kingdom to throw its weight around in the Egyptian field.


The Nasserian era ended in 1970. Sadat ushered in a new age by adopting a different line. His first step was to destroy Nasser’s legacy in order to lead Egypt towards a phase of openness, free market and capitalistic transition: and this despite the domestic and foreign crises the country was going through. In order to achieve his goals, Sadat had to resort to the support of the historical enemies of Nasser and socialism: Islamists. He opened the prisons, released detainees and granted them access to the public space. These movements spilled over into the Egyptian universities and, coupled with the acute psychological crisis caused by the 1967 defeat, it produced a sort of religious awakening which Sadat knew how to exploit.


At this stage, the term “Salafism” still did not refer to a specific current; the Islamic movement run by the Egyptian university students went by the name of Gamā‘a islāmiyya (“Islamic Group”). When the students affiliated with the Muslim Brothers sought to extend their influence over the Gamā‘a islāmiyya by incorporating it into the Brotherhood, they met with a refusal from some of the Gamā‘a’s second-level leaders. The latter preferred to break away completely from the group and create their own organization. This was known as al-Madrasa al-salafiyya (“the Salafi School”) and in 1982 it settled in Alexandria, taking the name Da‘wa salafiyya (“Salafi Call”). This was the first time the term “Salafism” appeared as the expression of an actually existing militant current.


The Da‘wa salafiyya was not the only version of Salafism existing in that period. Indeed, an independent Salafi current came into being at the same time in the early 1980s. Its exponents had two distinguishing features: their reference to the name Salafism and the absence of any affiliation to organized groups, due to internal points of divergence. Other Salafi entities subsequently came into being within both these fronts and contended for visibility and power. It was the “Independent Salafism” that carried the most weight in Egypt, however. This fact can be explained by its greater dissemination in Cairo, the centre par excellence, and by the absence of a rigid organization that might hamper dissemination. During the period stretching from the beginning of the 1990s to January 2011, it succeeded in establishing itself in the Egyptian society. It was this type of Salafism that got most involved in the polemic with followers of the legal schools and in this it differed from the Salafism in Alexandria, which was sheltered from similar disputes by its pyramidal organization.



Al-Albānī’s Influence

One of the consequences of the religious policies adopted by Nasser was the break between the first version of Salafism (i.e. Rashīd Ridā’s school) and the versions that saw the light in the wake of the Islamist movements. As a result, new sources of inspiration replaced early Salafism, providing contemporary Salafism with new conceptual tools. The most important of these new sources was the methodological stamp that sheikh Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī left on jurisprudential theory. This had a profound impact on contemporary Salafism, stirring a definitive conflict between Salafis and exponents of the legal schools. Al-Albānī’s jurisprudential research was almost totally untrammelled by the schema laid down by the legal schools, as can be understood from his conception of Islamic reform.


Indeed, he concentrated all his efforts on a process he called “purification and education” (al-tasfiya wa-l-tarbiya), which is also the title and goal of his project. “Purification” meant the elimination from the Islamic sciences of all the foreign elements that they had integrated over time. In this sense, al-Albānī devoted himself, above all, to clearing weak or forged hadīths from tradition. For al-Albānī, this purification was to be followed by a second phase, namely, the education phase i.e. the reorganization of the Islamic sciences on the basis of the Qur’an and the authentic Sunna, the clarification of which had already been worked on during the first phase so as to educate Muslim generations in accordance with this product now relieved of its impurities.


In order to achieve his objective, al-Albānī did not respect the (traditional) school-based, jurisprudential structure. Instead, he inclined towards exclusively adopting the Prophet’s traditions, following the model of the canonical collections such as the Sahīh of al-Bukhārī and Muslim and other versions of the Sunan and extrapolating the legal rules from the texts, directly from the sections in which they were entered. This without worrying about referring to the legal schools and their propositions and without proceeding to any meticulous exposition of the various schools’ doctrines, as Ibn Taymiyya had done.


At the purely legal level, it is doubtless correct to assert that the Qur’an and the Sunna are inescapable sources of legislation. This is a consolidated principle that no Muslim would ever dream of contradicting. The difference lies, rather, in the methods by which one draws on the Qur’an and Sunna. Al-Albānī and the whole of the contemporary Salafi movement born after him chose to approach the texts directly, seeking a textual reference or a specific proof in relation to every issue. Throughout Islamic history, followers of the legal schools have also always declared that they refer to the Qur’an and the Sunna – indeed, every school used to claim to be closer than the others to the truths contained in the Qur’an and the Sunna[12] – but their way of drawing on the Qur’an and the Sunna differed from that of al-Albānī and the school of the neo-Ahl al-hadīth (to borrow Stéphane Lacroix’s expression).[13] Indeed, it was based on the legal heritage produced through history, beginning with the school’s founder. This heritage dealt with legal issues by way of an all-encompassing method that would gather proofs (adilla) of different kinds for each case in point. Some proofs referred to the texts either directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, whilst others found their basis in legal rules inferred from the texts, in justifications that were textual or derived from the texts, or in general, sapiential considerations or matters of public interest that the induction made possible to trace back to the Law.


And yet, despite the intrinsically conflictual nature of the contemporary Salafi model of jurisprudential elaboration, its structure has integrated a series of concepts revolving around abstention from power struggles. This choice has won the Salafis favour with the political authorities. These have left them free to act and propagate in the public sphere, exploiting them in order to limit the expansion of any religious idea that could entail political consequences. Thus contemporary Salafism has become the centre of gravity and the pole of attraction in the religious sphere.



The Counter-Attack of the Schools

In the meantime, at the beginning of the 1990s, some members of the Azharite elite became aware of the shift in religious authority towards Salafism. They noted that the most pious segments of society was following this trend and that these ideas had penetrated al-Azhar itself.[14] For this Azharite elite – the repositories of ancient glory – there remained only a place on the edge of the road traced by Salafi religious discourse. They therefore sought to regain their status, but their attempt was undermined by the fact that they acted outside the institutional framework and never pushed beyond the scientific circles in al-Azhar that were run by Ali Gomaa and some of his disciples. Former Egyptian Mufti and author of a few books that are critical of the Salafis, Gomaa was then to play an important part on various levels, particularly during the escalation between the traditional (Ash‘arite and Sufi) camp and the Salafis.[15]


When the protest movement got under way in January 2011, the Salafis initially sided against every contestation of the authorities, whereas the people were in a state of furious turmoil. Once the revolution broke out, the Salafi position underwent a gradual transformation that eventually resulted in total support for the political process of which they had been the fiercest opponents. This change was subsequently to have negative aftermaths, causing the Salafis to lose the trust of most of their power base: facing the re-ignition of the rivalry between Salafism and the Islam proposed by the legal schools, this base was to opt for the latter.


During preparations for the coup d’état in 2013, General al-Sisi exploited the Salafis (particularly the Da‘wa salafiyya in Alexandria) in order to organize the mobilization against the Muslim Brothers and eliminate them. Not by chance, the secretary-general of the Salafi party, al-Nūr, was sitting behind the general when the latter announced that President Morsi had been overthrown on 3 July 2013.


Little by little, the power relations altered and the Salafi al-Nūr party gradually disappeared from the scene after efficiently playing its part in Egyptian events. It thus made room for al-Azhar’s elite, who exploited these events to resolve their rivalry both with the Salafis and with the Muslim Brothers to their own advantage. Ali Gomaa gave his blessing to the suppression of Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya’s demonstrators, calling them “Kharijites” and thereby paving the way to their “lawful” killing. Gomaa was later to go on to give a lecture at the Egyptian Armed Forces’ Department of Moral Affairs, during which he expressed his consent to the killing of anyone who was opposed to the General.


The efforts of al-Azhar’s elite were crowned with success when one of Ali Gomaa’s pupils was appointed to the post of religious advisor to the president of the Republic, whom General al-Sisi was to exploit, in his latent rivalry with al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, in order to weaken the mosque itself. However, if this disciple of al-Azhar initially came to the defence of the “Azharite method” against the Salafis, nowadays he is standing up against this very same “method,” arguing (and in this he is following in the general’s footsteps) the need to purify it of the seeds of violence and extremism with which it is sown.


[1] Muhammad al-Saffārīnī al-Hanbalī, Lawāmi‘ al-anwār al-bahiyya wa sawāti‘ al-asrār al-athariyya (al-Maktab al-islāmī, Bayrūt, 1991), vol. 1, p. 20. The Kharijites are a rigorist group who played an important part in early Islam. Rafidites (literally, “rejecters”) is a negative appellation for the Shi‘ites. The Qadarites and the Murjites are two ancient schools of theology that respectively expressed themselves to be in favour of free will and postponing the sinner’s judgement until the end of time (Ed.)
[2] The Mu‘tazili judge ‘Abd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025) places the four rightly-guided Caliphs in a group other than that of the Companions, considering them to be the first generation of the Mu‘tazili School. See Fadl al-i‘tizāl wa tabaqāt al-mu‘tazila (al-Dār al-tūnisiyya li-l-nashr, Tūnis, 1974), p. 214. See, also, what Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 771/1370) says about Abū al-Hasan al-Ash‘arī (d. 324/936) in Tabaqāt al-shāfi‘iyya al-kubrā, (Faysal ‘Īsā al-bābī al-halabī, al-Qāhira, 1964), vol. 3, p. 365.
[3] Ibn Taymiyya stayed in Egypt for seven years, from 1306 to 1313 (705-712 in the Islamic calendar). As regards the hidden influence he exercised in this context, see al-Maqrīzī, Al-Mawā‘iz wa-l-i‘tibār bi-dhikr al-khitat wa-l-āthār (Dār al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt, 1418), vol. 1, pp. 434-442, 446-450, 714, and compare this position with Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Al-Turuq al-hikmiyya (Maktabat Dār al-bayān, undated) vol. 1, pp. 7-8, and Id., I‘lām al-muwaqqi‘īn ‘an Rabb al-‘ālamīn (Dār al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt, 1991), vol. 5, p. 513. See, also, Al-Maqrīzī, Tajrīd al-tawhīd al-mufīd, and al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-āthār fī ’l-tarājim wa-l-akhbār (Dār al-kutub al-misriyya, al-Qāhira, 1998), vol. 2, p. 519.
[4] Ibn Taymiyya, Al-Radd ‘alā al-Subkī fī mas’alat ta‘līq al-talāq (Majma‘ al-fiqh al-islāmī, Judda, undated, vol. 2, pp. 626-628.
[5] The expression “tahrīr al-madhhab” means the inquiry directed at distinguishing the opinions held by the founders of the legal schools (which constitute the madhhab’s foundations) from the interpretations provided by subsequent ulama within the same school (Ed.)
[6] See Ibn Taymiyya, Al-Radd ‘alā al-Subkī, vol. 1, p. 170.
[7] In Arabic “Al-adilla al-juz’iyya”, i.e. the specific textual proofs regarding a particular issue (Ed.)
[8] Wahhabism came into contact with the Egyptian context on several occasions; first of all in the wake of the two campaigns conducted by Muhammad ‘Alī against the Saudi emirate. See, in this respect, al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-āthār, vol. 2, p. 591, vol. 3, pp. 189, 247, 341, 600. See Muhammad ‘Abduh, Al-A‘māl al-kāmila, qism al-ilāhiyyāt, pp. 212, 335, 541-545, 557, in relation to the influence Wahhabism exercised over the Egyptian context up until the beginnings of the Nahda, when the reformist school was formed. As far as the influence of Wahhabism over Rashīd Ridā and the subsequent phase of dissemination in Egypt is concerned, see Muhammad Rashīd Ridā, Al-Wahhābiyyūn wa-l-Hijāz (Maktabat al-manār, Misr, 1344h / 1926) and his introduction to Muhammad Bashīr al-Sahsawānī al-Hindī, Siyānat al-insān ‘an waswasat al-shaykh Dahlān (Maktabat al-manār, Misr, 1351h / 1933).
[9] See Al-Durar al-saniyya fī ’l-ajwiba al-najdiyya, vol. 1, pp. 15, 277, 446 and vol. 10, p. 304; Muhammad Bashīr al-Sahsawānī al-Hindī, Siyānat al-insān, p. 546, and Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Hajwī, Al-Fikr al-sāmī fī tārīkh al-fiqh al-islāmī, vol. 2, p. 446.
[10] I.e. the modern Saudi Arabia, founded by ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl-Sa‘ūd in 1932. The two preceding Saudi emirates lasted from 1744 to 1818 and from 1824 to 1891, respectively (Ed.).
[11] For some examples, see Ibrāhīm al-Samannūdī, Sa‘ādat al-dārayn fī ’l-radd ‘alā al-firqatayn: al-wahhābiyya wa muqallidat al-zāhiriyya (Dār al-khulūd li-l-turāth, al-Qāhira, 2009) and Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī, Al-Lāmadhhabiyya qantarat al-lādīniyya (al-Maktaba al-azhariyya li-l-turāth, al-Qāhira, undated), which confutes Salafism.
[12] See Abū al-Mu‘ālī al-Juwaynī, Mughīth al-khalq fī tarjīh al-qawl al-haqq (al-Maktaba al-‘asriyya, Saydā-Bayrūt, 2003. Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī al-Hanafī responded to this book with his Ihqāq al-haqq bi-ibtāl al-bātil fī mughīth al-khalq, al-Maktaba al-‘asriyya, Saydā-Bayrūt 2003. There are numerous other examples, including Bakr Ibn ‘Abdallah Abū Zayd, Al-Madkhal al-mufassal li-madhhab al-imām Ahmad wa takhrījāt al-ashāb, Dār al-‘āsima, Judda, 1417, vol. 1, pp. 53-77.
[13] Stéphane Lacroix, “Sultat al-hadīth fī ’l-madrasa al-salafiyya al-mu‘āsira: qirā’a fī ta’thīr al-shaykh Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī wa madrasatihi,” Marāsid 6, January 2012.
[14] See the case of Muhammad Yusrī Ibrāhīm, who became minister of Religious Affairs in 2012, causing a stir amongst the ranks of the Azharites.
[15] For example, Al-Bayān li-mā yashghal al-adhhān (Dār al-Muqattam, al-Qāhira, 2009), and Al-Mutashaddidūn: manhaju-hum wa munāqashat ahamm qadāyāhum (Dār al-Muqattam, al-Qāhira, 2011).

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