The intellectual, religious and educational movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in Muslim societies shaped what we today call the Muslim world. Colonialism and the rise of the West triggered processes of internal transformation in Muslim societies, that had multiple expressions ranging from the revival of political systems, selective Westernisation and inner purification through Sufism to socio-cultural reformations.
These processes of reformation and moderation were not only constructing new Muslim societies, but also intellectual discourses. In different Muslims societies, thinking processes were producing almost similar intellectual trends that were difficult for Western — and even Muslim — scholars to accurately describe. However, in the Indian subcontinent, the transformation discourse was largely educational in nature and did not create much trouble for the colonial rulers. Various educational movements associated with the names of cities, places and institutions, such as Deoband, Aligarh and Bareilly, etc, emerged. Western scholars, particularly, were interested in the interpretations of Islam emerging from North Africa and Ottoman Asia. The terms ‘Salafi’ and ‘Salafiyya’ referred to these interpretations of mainly neo-Hanbali theology.
French Orientalist Louis Massignon, who was studying reformist movements, thought the terms Salafi or Salafiyya referred to a coherent reform movement. Massignon’s notion swiftly became popular among Western and Muslims scholars. Still, many ambiguities surrounded the less-explored term of Salafism. Henri Lauzière, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, has resolved the issue in his well-researched book, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the 20th Century.
Straightening out over a century of confusion around the Salafist movement Tracing and understanding the making of Salafism was not an easy task. For that Lauzière followed the intellectual journey of the Moroccan Salafi and globetrotter Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Hilali, a former Sufi of the Tijani order. According to Lauzière, Al-Hilali embraced what he later called Salafism in 1921 and embarked on a lifelong mission to study, teach and defend the primary textual sources of Islam on three different continents.
It is particularly interesting to learn how an academic Islamic journal, Al-Majalla al-Salafiyya, from Cairo, edited by Abd al-Fattah Qatlan, played a significant role in spreading the word Salafiyya overseas. Al-Majalla al-Salafiyya contoured the concept of Salafiyya mostly in a theological context. Lauzière discovered the fact when the first issue of the journal reached the office of the Revue du Monde Musulman in Paris, to which the French scholar of Islam, Massignon, was a major contributor. Massignon wrongly conceived of Salafiyya as an intellectual movement. Later, Arab social intellectuals and journalists created conditions conducive to the misinterpretation. Though Massignon played a leading role in labelling Islamic modernists Salafi, the definition provided useful context to Western scholars who were looking for a conceptual box in which they could place Muslim figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and their epigones, who all seemed inclined toward a scripturalist understanding of Islam, but proved open to rationalism and Western modernity.
Lauzière’s contribution is important because, as cited earlier, there was confusion around the term Salafism and Muslim scholars referred to it in two contrary perspectives. Some considered Salafism an innovative and rationalist movement and others conceived of it as anti-rationalist; the view of Salafism as purist evolution is a result of decolonisation.
Lauzière notes that from the medieval period until the beginning of the 20th century, Muslim scholars and activists referred to themselves and to others as Salafis only to signal their adherence to the Hanbali theology espoused by Ibn Taymiyyah and other theologians of his tradition. The 20th century Islamic modernist reform movements were labelled Salafism because of their reformists’ Salafi credentials. Lauzière has also probed the roots of different Salafi traditions, including the one focusing on doctrinal purity and characterised by adherence to neo-Hanbali theology. The 20th century reform movements later triggered an ecumenical approach towards other Muslims among neo-Hanbalis and made Salafism compatible with emerging Muslim nationalism concepts. Both tendencies nurtured another stream of purification. This trend emerged in Morocco and was hallmarked by such figures as Muhammad Allal al-Fasi.
Two main conceptualisations of Salafism — one purist and one modernist — rose in parallel to each other during these decades. And because their construction occurred simultaneously, modernist Salafism did not morph into purist Salafism. The former simply faded during the postindependence era [...]— Excerpt from the book
Lauzière’s critical appraisal of the term Salafism is a commendable effort; it not only removes confusions surrounding it, but also helps in understanding the construct of Islamic thought in contemporary times. He explains that prior to the 20th century, Salafism was not part of the typological lexicon of traditional Islamic science. The growth of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries entailed greater interaction between native and non-native people. So, too, did it favour cross-pollination between indigenous and non-indigenous ways of thinking about Islam. He argues that the concept of purist Salafism did not initially entail a complete rejection of religious compromise.
The process of purification took place between the 1920s and the 1950s, mainly to accommodate political considerations and to increase the likelihood of achieving political independence from colonial powers. Lauzière explains how this process expanded the meaning of Salafi and Salafism beyond the confines of theology and constructed a rigorist notion of Salafism in the hopes of strengthening and uniting Muslims of different regions and cultural backgrounds under a common standard of Islamic purity.
Lauzière also discusses the new challenges facing the adherents of Salafism. Apart from the violent expressions, the most important question for purist and modernist Salafis regards their participation in the political process. Lauzière lists some questions that he believes dominate contemporary Salafi discourse: should they establish political parties at the risk of creating divisions? Should they run for [public] offices at the risk of legitimising democracy? Should they take to the streets at the risk of encouraging social and political instability? He argues: “For the most part, these questions fall under the purview of the Salafi method because they pertain to neither orthodoxy nor orthopraxy in a strict sense. Under specific circumstances, different Salafis have, therefore, been providing different answers depending on their understanding of the Manhaj [Method].”
One important chapter of the book discusses Rashid Rida’s engagement with the Wahhabis and its consequences. Rida, a Syrian-born Islamic scholar who formulated an intellectual response to the pressures of the modern Western world, had offered his unconditional support to Abd al-Aziz al-Saud. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the failure of Faisal ibn Hussein ibn Ali’s Arab kingdom in 1920, the loss of Iraq and Greater Syria to the mandatory powers, the triumph of secular Kemalism in Turkey and the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 had created enormous challenges for Muslim political, religious and intellectual leaderships. Rida’s initial response was not to support one group or one doctrine in particular for he believed that factionalism and sectarianism could only weaken the already fragile Islamic community. Later, the circumstances that finally caused Rida to lend his full support to the Saudis resulted from Sharif Husayn’s self-proclamation as caliph two days after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the institution in March, 1924. This event confirmed Husayn’s arrogance in the eyes of Rida, for whom the offence had particular significance. Rida’s challenge was two-fold: first, to transform the new state according to his concept of the caliphate. Second, to rationalise Wahhabi thought. Rida explained that even though Wahhabis were Salafi in creed, they often ignored the significance of modern science and opposed modernist ideas. However, he failed to transform the Saudi clergy that was critical towards his new ideas of theological rationalism and tolerance of religious error.
Lauzière’s scholarship on Salafism is commendable and an example for young Muslim scholars on how to pursue intellectual queries. His journey to exploring the dynamics of Islamic reform movements still continues. He considers Salafism a useful category as long as scholars refrain from using it imprudently.
NON-FICTION: MISGUIDED INTERPRETATIONS
Book Reviwed by MUHAMMAD AMIR RANA: The reviewer is a security analyst and director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Islamabad
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