The rise of ISIS and similar groups as formidable players in the Middle East and parts of Africa triggered heated debates on whether such political groups were “Islamic.” Certainly, the history of Muslim-majority societies is replete with examples of movements that embraced strict religious interpretations to fuel the fire of rebellion against existing power structures. However, I would argue that if we stopped at this level of analysis, we would have failed to grasp the depth of the challenge that groups like ISIS present to Muslim perspectives that we routinely call “moderate”. To move beyond the apologetic and polemic frames that have become ubiquitous in our public discourses, I propose to analyze how Salafism, the religious perspective from which ISIS and similar groups have sprang, fits within the mainstream Sunni tradition. It is true that not all Salafis are violent but they do share the same basic interpretative commitments. In other words, while ISIS certainly does not represent all Salafis, its religious worldview stems from the same premises. Thus, understanding the Salafi position within the world of Islamic scholarship is crucial to grasping the challenge that groups like ISIS pose to us today. The potential reach of Salafi movements is deeper than what many analysts realize or acknowledge.
Defining Salafism is a rather tricky task, given that what might fall under its rubric might stretch from a very unique and exclusivist religious interpretive community to a highly significant and rather widespread perspective in the contemporary period. This partly depends on whether one speaks of a strict methodology, of just an attitude, or of something in between. Without getting into the debate of when and how the term Salafiyya becomes part of the picture in Muslim contexts, it is safe to say that the orientation has existed for centuries within the Muslim community as “a reality without a name” to borrow a Sufi idiom. This perspective stems from taking very seriously the perceived standard that are the religious pronouncements and practices of the earliest generations of Muslims, as found in the Qur’an and authentic hadith reports, in contrast to the alleged laxism of the scholarly religious establishment with its engagement in what Salafis see as sophistry. At a basic level, one can posit that Salafi orientations regard the salaf (the first two or three generations of “Muslims”), their religious understanding, and their exemplary behavior to be the exclusive way in which Muslims of all times and places ought to understand and practice their religion without any compromise. Consequently, any perceived deviation from that ideal is not acceptable and must be fought in one fashion or another. What is at stake is nothing less than the “true” religion itself. By positioning themselves as the true and strict followers of the salaf in every aspect of their lives, the proponents of this position have constantly, and not surprisingly, clashed with both the realities of living Muslim communities in changing contexts and the intellectual developments within a historically adaptive mainstream Sunni tradition.
The Islamic tradition has developed over the centuries within highly diverse cultural experiences. Long-established patterns of thought and practice had shaped the communities and institutions in the lands that “Islam” entered as a religious perspective starting in the 7th century CE. The slow transformation of Islam from a rudimentary and localized religious perspective into a highly complex religious system spanning large geographic areas was a process within which social actors negotiated their relation to a variety of political, cultural, and intellectual tensions within many contexts. It was a process of integration, acculturation, and compromise. Ultimately, a number of legal, theological, and mystical perspectives imposed themselves on the religious scene. In the midst of evolving socio-economic conditions and complex power structures, a workable orthodoxy emerged from a creative mix of the elements available on the religious market. Thus by the 13th century CE, what came to be the Sunni mainstream comprised rationalist and mystical elements, living under an umbrella whose holders claimed adherence to textual precedent—a synthesizing traditionalism.
Those who embraced a “Salafi” stance have generally claimed to reject these adaptations, particularly at times of upheaval or rapid change. Seeking to control the flow of religious legitimacy, they have emphasized their rejection of some of the hallmarks of the Sunni tradition. For Salafi thinkers, strict loyalty to the schools of law (madhhabs) and strict adherence to their legal precedents (taqlid), when they stood against the legal rulings enshrined in hadith reports, was tantamount to rejecting the authority of divine revelation. Similarly, Sufi rituals and practices that had no basis in those prophetic reports were nothing but forms of heretical innovation (bidʿa). And so was the case of speculative theology (kalam), even when the practitioners of the latter reached positions that were acceptable to the Salafi worldview. The whole kalam enterprise was misguided because of its use of “Greek” (i.e. foreign) rationalistic tools and its delving into unwarranted territories according to the alleged authentic and literal reading of the textual sources that the Salafis propose.
In addition to having often shown themselves very critical of the intellectual “compromises” of the dominant Sunni tradition, Salafis have constantly clashed with the folk practices of the larger populations. At the anthropological level, human communities inherit particular cultural and religious beliefs and practices from previous generations. Yet as circumstances change, shifts occur in these beliefs and practices. Often, these changes are barely noticeable in the short term. However, at times of direct encounter with significantly different traditions and cultures, tensions between the way things “have always been” and the “new” directions are more acute. Importantly, the resulting cultural and religious structures are usually syncretic, mixing “old” and “new.” This certainly is the case of most communities that developed over the centuries within areas in which Islam became an important player. For instance, in regions as diverse as Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the North African mountains, communities have long adhered to popular forms of Islam that mix local religious aspects with imported Islamic notions. It is against these forms of folk religion that a number of Salafi or proto-Salafi movements and scholars have directed their ire, particularly at times of instability and struggle over social and political control.
Not surprisingly, the Salafi perspective has been strongly criticized from competing interpretive orientations within the Islamic tradition. This is the case today as well. The most sustained attack on the rise in popularity of Salafism in the 20th century came from the religious scholars (ulama) who have perceived themselves as the inheritors of the Sunni mainstream viewpoint and who realized that the increasing popularity of Salafism was a threat to a whole class of “official” interpreters of the religion. In other words, the popularity of Salafis had become a threat to a dominant interpretive community regardless of how different in reality particular Salafi interpretations were from the positions of these scholars.
The bulk of the response of those I call neo-traditionalist Sunni ulama to the Salafi challenge builds on a central point. These ulama suggest that the Salafis are simply not knowledgeable enough to realize that the mainstream Sunni tradition had already dealt with all of the points raised within the Salafi circles about the Islamic authenticity of various practices and beliefs and about where particular hadith reports fit in the overall Islamic mosaic. As a result, whenever the Salafis raise the banner of the practice of the Prophet and the salaf, claim the neo-traditionalists, they simply do not understand that the Sunni schools took these precedents in consideration, using sophisticated interpretative models. The neo-traditionalist ulama are fond of using analogies that classical jurists utilized to protect their scholarly status against the challenge of Hadith experts. For instance, the late Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1996) used to argue that the “people of Hadith” only provided the building materials, but that it was up to the architects, i.e. the jurists, to decide what use to make of them in order to erect sound buildings. By not respecting the hierarchy, the providers of the materials who get involved in the construction process might endanger the lives of those who will inhabit the buildings. Similarly, those who claim to follow the practice of the salaf are in fact corrupting the practice they seek to defend. They are unable to deal with the subtleties of the received traditions on one hand and the realities of the time on the other hand. Only qualified jurists are up for the task.
The criticism that neo-traditionalist scholars level against the Salafis highlights both the latter’s often impractical and anti-pluralistic understanding of Islamic teachings and their reductive view of a rich tradition of religious thought and practice. However, what remains within the domain of the unthought, to use Mohammed Arkoun’s terminology, is the question of how the centrality of the notion of salaf itself affects the ability of contemporary Muslim religious practice to adapt to a world that has simply changed too much. Even though the neo-traditionalists are aware of the importance of contemporary realities, they maintain a structure that ultimately disregards the need to take those realities in a serious and methodical way. Their critique of Salafism keeps intact the dogma of the first generations of Muslims being the best of all generations and whose religious understanding is unquestionably the model to implement in every time and place. The neo-traditionalist response to the Salafis primarily seeks to defend the adaptations that shaped the Sunni perspective over the centuries. In other terms, it claims that the Sunni mainstream tradition had not deviated from the way of the salaf. The religious perspective of the salaf remains indeed supreme; what is rejected is the narrow Salafi view of what that perspective entails. The problem is that while such responses to Salafism are useful in the hands of modern social actors and political entities that fear its uncompromising character, they do not consider the serious implications of the salaf-centered religious worldview for contemporary Muslims.
I would argue that historically Sunnism gave moral and religious primacy to the salaf because it served an important role in the formation of a stable political identity. I term this the construction of the salaf. It had much more to do with the realities of those involved in negotiating Sunni orthodoxy in the 9th and 10th centuries CE than with the history of the Companions of Muhammad or their immediate successors. The religious primacy of the salaf strengthened the legitimacy of the Qur’anic revelation, particularly in its written form of the official corpus (Mushaf), against the claims of those who raised doubts about its integrity. Similarly, in the important domain of Sharia, the righteousness and exemplary character of the Companions (and to a lesser extent of their successors) was crucial to guarantee the authenticity of at least part of the Hadith corpus attributed to Muhammad. That corpus was central to the elaboration of the bulk of legal rulings yet was only put into writing long decades after the passing of the Prophet. Interestingly, this ideal image of the salaf clearly clashes with what survived in the historical record. The early years of the post-Muhammad community were highly chaotic. Instances of questionable and at times shocking behavior on the part of the first generations of Muslims are certainly present in the work of early historians.
Importantly, once the constructed notion of the salaf was positioned at the center of the Sunni perspective, the battle over religious authority became tied to being able to show that one’s perspective fit within the range of the alleged religious thought and practice of the salaf. Furthermore, the construction of the salaf automatically generated a dichotomy with the rest of the Muslims being positioned on the other side (khalaf). What this dichotomy creates in turn is on one hand a hierarchy of human beings in relation to God and on the other hand a powerful political tool to be harnessed by social actors in a variety of contexts. Not surprisingly, in Sunni thought, the term salaf became associated with the adjective salih (pious). This makes the hierarchy salaf/khalaf even more challenging. If piety is connected to one part of the dichotomy, it does not take much to perceive the religious worth of the khalaf as lower and their religious perspectives as accordingly questionable. In fact, this is often articulated in a statement attributed to the Prophet in later hadith compilations and according to which, “a time period will not come upon you but with the one following it being in a worse state.” Therefore, khalaf is not a simple description but a political statement that discredits the religious perspective of opponents at every juncture of Islamic history.
The dogma of the primacy of the perspective of the salaf becomes a powerful tool in the hands of those who speak in its name, imposing particular religious perspectives that support and are supported by a political order whose legitimacy stems from defending the “true” religion. Any religio-political opposition had to present itself as adhering to the perspective of the salaf, if it hoped for any success. This is also partly why the Salafi claim has been and will continue to be potent. Arguably, leaving aside the potential contradictions that stem from the religious texts themselves and the fiction of the possibility of reading texts literally, the Salafi message appears to the average believer to be more consistent with the constructed notion of salaf. So, whenever an acute crisis hits, the certainty and straightforwardness of that message becomes more appealing to social actors.
The tension that is inherent in maintaining the primacy of the perspective of the salaf, as a basis for religious authenticity, is that the human condition inevitably changes. Adapting to change is thus a necessity. However, the tension is much more acute when a religious perspective that develops within a particular socio-linguistic and cultural setting is exported elsewhere. This is why the mainstream Sunni tradition had to negotiate, albeit unevenly, with each new environment and with each local cultural and religious perspective. In a number of cases, local practices, were introduced into the scholarly world or at least tolerated within it. Significantly, the primacy of the salaf remained untouched at the theoretical level despite being compromised in one way or another.
At the popular level, syncretism was the norm. As mentioned above, Salafi and proto-Salafi scholars and movements decried both the compromises of the mainstream scholars and the syncretism of the Muslim populations. Yet religious syncretism is a natural and unavoidable element in the growth of any religious perspective. The perceived religious perspective of the salaf itself is a syncretic one. How could it be otherwise? A religious perspective grows in the midst of existing cultural frameworks and uses existing languages and stocks of symbols. Even the rituals that came to be the five pillars of Islam are adaptations of preexisting religious practices. There is no such thing as religion in a historical vacuum. Arguably, the mainstream Sunni tradition survived and continued to be relevant because it engaged the new historical settings it came across. However, by maintaining the primacy of the salaf at the theoretical level, it has carried within it the powerful Salafi impulse.
The most significant attempt within Islam to break free from the constructed notion of the salaf and from the primacy of their religious perspective has been Sufism. Many of the Sufis stressed the here and now of spiritual experience. Generally, Sufi orientations tended to focus on having direct interaction with the divine through a spiritual process that allowed the Sufi seeker to ultimately “become one with God.” Therefore, the Muslim of the here and now mattered and her religious experience and perspective had the potential to be equal or even higher than what was inherited from the salaf. It is no accident that a number of Sufi figures perceived themselves as friends of God and even as quasi-prophets, including the famed Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240). This was a religiously and politically subversive position, and it is partly why it could not be sustained without compromise. Sunni orthodoxy incorporated Sufism into its fabric, but at a cost to the religious perspective of the here and now. A dividing line was drawn between the acceptable and unacceptable forms of Sufi spirituality, practices, and beliefs. By the time Sufism reached its institutionalized forms, the Sufi brotherhoods had already elaborated silsilas (chains of transmission of their religious practice), reaching back through the salaf to the Prophet.
Here again, we see the power of the notion of salaf to guarantee the authenticity and legitimacy of Sufi practices. Salafis remained skeptical, not without reason, of the Sufi claims of being grounded in the practices of the salaf. It must be stressed however that, unlike what Salafis have often claimed, “unorthodox” Sufism has always been Islamic, in the sense that the experiences of the Sufis could not exist in the forms they took without the spiritual seekers being an integral part of the world of symbols and discourses initiated by the Qur’an. However, the softening of the radical spirituality of Sufism as a way to include it within the mainstream tradition was a blow to the right of later Muslims to define their own Islamic perspectives, in ways that are uniquely meaningful to them.
If the issue of historical change has always been central to the tension between the demands of the time and inherited notions, it is no surprise that the tensions would deepen as a result of the Muslim encounter with European modernity. It would not be an exaggeration to describe that encounter as cataclysmic, partly because of the aggressive and exploitative European colonialist enterprise and partly because of the tremendous shift that modern conditions triggered for human existence. The pressures have only intensified ever since. For the purpose of the topic at hand, it suffices to briefly highlight four elements that have had a huge impact on the paradigm of the religious primacy of the salaf. Firstly, modern tools of technology and communication made the pace of change much faster than ever before in human history. Muslim societies have changed irreversibly, though unevenly, in the last two centuries. Secondly, modernity brought to the Muslim world a much higher awareness of each person’s individuality. The spread of education and economic independence at a much larger scale has created individuals that are more likely to challenge communitarian limitations imposed on them. This process will continue to make things more complex as literacy rates climb and as globalization expands its reach into more territories. Thirdly, although the rethinking of religion that has occurred in Western contexts has only partially entered the Muslim study of Islam, it seems inevitable that new approaches to Islam will develop, as more Muslims become acquainted with the scholarly tools that have taken the mask off of human aspects of religion (hitherto sacralized as divine). Fourthly, awareness of the religious other has shifted in a significant way. In premodern societies, identity was closely tied to religious affiliation. One generally grew up, learned a craft, married, and died within the confines of one’s religious community. Converting to another religious path was tantamount to betrayal and even treason. In contrast, within modern contexts, the concept of citizenship (even when misapplied and misappropriated) and the frame of globalization have allowed individuals belonging to different religious denominations to interact at a much more intense level than before, thus fueling a sense of belonging to something bigger than one’s immediate community.
Consequently, in no other time in Islamic history have Salafi positions and actions seemed so anachronistic. The primacy of the religious perspective of the salaf, in the hands of strict Salafis has led to highly problematic practices in a world that has drastically changed. I would argue that these changes are so far-reaching that the neo-traditionalist attempt to compromise with lived realities without radically rethinking their inherited systems would neither adequately satisfy the needs of contemporary Muslims nor will it be able to persuasively show the ‘salafity’ of those compromises. The neo-traditionalist perspective can only present a hybrid that is sustained by the weight of tradition in the minds of the Muslim populations and the need for legitimacy of political regimes that are not grounded in popular sovereignty. Within such contexts, a worldview centered on the religious views of the salaf will continue to fuel existing socio-economic tensions and to create sharp identity crises that push idealist youth into clashing with the realities of their world. It then becomes appealing for some to try to impose extreme norms on their communities and for others to fall into complete nihilism.