Recurring Definitional Issues Surrounding Salafism, or Why Analysts Are Too Quick to Equate Salafism with Early Islam

A quotation:

[Part of faith is] that the best of generations is the generation who saw the Messenger of God (SAW) and believed in him, then those who followed them, then those who followed them. The best of the Companions are the Orthodox, Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthman, then ‘Ali, may God be pleased with them all. None of the Companions of the Messenger should be mentioned except in the best way, refraining [from mentioning] the [quarrels] that broke out between them…

[And another part of faith is] obedience to the imams of the Muslims among the people in charge, and their scholars, and the followers of al-salaf al-salih (the pious predecessors), imitating their traces and seeking forgiveness for them, and leaving off quarrel and controversy in religion, and leaving all that the innovators have innovated.

Salafism, right? Not in the way I define it. This is quotation from the Risala (Epistle) of ‘Abd Allah Ibn Abdi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996). The Risala is one of the foundational texts of the Maliki school of Islamic law. From Mauritania to Nigeria and likely further, almost any classically trained scholar you meet (and not a few of the Salafis, I should add) has read this book. It belongs, at least in its usual context, to a tradition that blends the Maliki school with Sufism – and let us recall that Salafis often consider Sufis to be dubious Muslims at best, heretics at worst, and that many Salafis say that they do not follow any legal school, instead depending solely on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

I bring all this up because far too many analysts are quick to define Salafism as an effort to return to original Islam. Two recent examples:

  • A RAND analyst, discussing Libya: “Salafi-jihadis and traditionalist Madkhalis may share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”
  • CSIS’ big (and flawed) report on Salafi-jihadism (p. 4): “First, the group or individual emphasizes the importance of returning to a ‘pure’ Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors.” CSIS also counts the Taliban (Deobandi by orientation, rather than Salafis) as Salafis based on this minimal definition (p. 5): “Deobandism follows a Salafist model and seeks to emulate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad It holds that a Muslim’s primary obligation and loyalty are to his religion, and loyalty to country is always secondary.”

Such analysts are way too quick to take Salafis’ claims at face value – and they also evidence little knowledge of how other kinds of Muslims talk about the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. Most Muslims are at least nominally committed to imitating the Prophet and his Companions and avoiding “blameworthy innovations” in the religion. The important question when defining Salafism is not whether Salafis are more committed to this project than are other Muslims, but rather how/what Salafis understand the early community to have been, and how that understanding furnishes a model for action in the present. Put differently, there are a lot of Sufi Malikis in northwest Africa today who “share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [again, sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”

Now, some Salafis today are keen to reach into the past and claim figures such as al-Qayrawani as a Salafi of sorts. The Nigerian Salafi/proto-Salafi Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992) said that the Risala was one of his favorite books. But even if you, the analyst, said, “The Risala is Salafism” (I think you would be wrong, but nevermind), you would still have to confront the sociological fact that thousands of non-Salafis read, study, even memorize this book, and take what it says very seriously.

So take a little more time when you define Salafism, so that you don’t sound like you’re implicitly labeling them the most authentic Muslims.

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