Reflections on Salafism’s rise and fall

Umar Lee recently posted a ten-part history on the rise and fall of the “salafi da’wah” in the USA (last post, with comments and links to the other nine, here). The whole series made me thoroughly glad that I was guided away from it (alhamdu lillah); although I was aware that “salafis” were fighting amongst themselves and that attacks were being posted on various “salafi” websites, such as the infamous Salafi Publications and TROID (who are blamed, to a large extent, for causing the acrimonious schism which took place around the turn of this century), I did not realise how bitter it was and how much social dislocation it caused.

The last post in the series is certainly among the most commented-on articles in the history of the Muslim blogosphere; other comments from Tariq Nelson, Ginny Quick, Kashif, Jinnzaman and Austrolabe, with an interesting perspective from Jinnzaman: that the persuasive effects of traditional Islamic websites and web forum contributions were important in reducing “salafi” influence.

I have a few comments of my own to make, which are too long to make at Umar’s own blog.

First, the circumstances of the “Qutubi Inquisition”, as the Salafi Publications gang called it, seem to have been forgotten. The historical context was the 1990s, the decade after the disastrous first Gulf War, in which many Muslims, particularly youth, were outraged at the Saudi government for allowing the American troops into the Arabian peninsula. This provided more than fertile ground for takfeeris who insisted that such actions could only be those of kuffaar and not Muslims. It was the decade during which Islamist political movements and extremist preachers flourished until the 9/11 attacks made them an embarrassment. Despite the upheavals they caused with their inquisition, the position of the pro-Saudi “super salafis” on this issue was the correct one, in line with the traditional Islamic position that sins alone, unless they reflect disdain for the deen, do not take someone out of the fold of Islam.

Second, it is arguable that the Saudis and others in the Gulf who financed the “salafi” book industry in the West could have alleviated the social problems Umar blames for the social breakdown of the Inquisition by assisting the community with its other needs. To quote a few paragraphs from chapter eight of his history:

Many entered the deen wounded by society and were at the bottom of the barrel. It was our belief that our demons could be exorcised by the memorization of the fatawa of scholars and by simply mimicking the ways of the scholars and running around and talking and acting as if we were not still dealing with the issues in our lives that pre-dated Islam when in fact we were dealing with these issues on a daily basis, but were afraid to speak about them to our fellow Muslims. This is one of the main places we went wrong.

Although more of our issues were spoken on at that time – especially as opposed to now – nonetheless, there were no fatawa that told us how to deal with an indifferent mother on drugs, chemical addictions that many around me had, or being able to find a job as a convicted felon.

When the ideological schisms happened, it revived many of the inner demons that were never fully exorcized in many. This left many brothers to attend lectures, and then after isha hit the streets and make money the only way that they knew how. This created a criminal underclass within the Salafi movement that paid lots of lip-service to the deen but in reality had lots of underlying problems. What led us to the streets has been put in our minds in our childhoods living through the harsh realities of urban life in America.

Could money to start businesses and get training have assisted the community in overcoming these issues? It’s possible, but it’s equally possible that companies would have ceased operating due to the management or directors falling out and workers resigning en masse. Still, one suspects that those who financed the “salafi” book industry were more interested in undermining mainstream Islam than building a strong indigenous “salafi” community - or even any strong indigenous Muslim community - in the West.

Third, an important legacy of the movement which I have seen first-hand in the UK is that some people hold “salafi” positions without realising what they are. Specifically, people object to the Ash’ari school of ‘aqida, to Sufism and to the following of madhhabs, particularly among the Somalis. I have had marriage discussions break down on three occasions, each involving Somali women who did not identify themselves as belonging to this movement. There is certainly a tendency towards a “unified Islam” which is simply “salafism” without the name and perhaps the “attitude”, but which still satisfies all but the most extreme “salafis”.

Fourth, I object very strongly to the persistent attempts to sound, to quote the Victorian poet Robert Browning, “the exhausted air-bell” of “salafi” identity politics - that is to say that people should not call them Wahhabis. A recent example was Yasir Qadhi’s video rebuttal of the Channel 4 documentary showing leading “salafi” preachers in the UK making offensive remarks; he said that Wahhabi is a “fabricated” group and that nobody says they belong to it. Whether or not the sect has ever identified itself as such, it is the only accurate label for them as it is the convention in Islam to name groups after their founder or after its most prominent characteristic or proponent. In the case of Wahhabism, it is called that because it traces back to Muhammad ibn Abdil-Wahhab. Muslims outside the sect object to the term “salafi” being used to describe them, because the salafis, historically, were the salaf themselves, not a group claiming to follow their example.

In the case of the “salafis” of today, the fact is that they do not follow the example of the salaf, but rather a set of teachings handed down from a small fringe group of the Hanbali school. Splits and feuds within it are inevitable, because a group distinguished by rigid piety wedded to a royal family with a terrible history of corruption and oppression cannot be stable. The ferocity of the schism in America may have had much to do with personality politics and envy, but its roots lay in the Gulf war and the fact that the Saudis had got so fat on oil revenues that their rulers had no confidence in their ability to drive out the Iraqis and resorted to getting American help.

Finally, “salafism” took hold as easily as it did simply because the alternatives were not there to serve the needs of the new converts. Even in the UK, where traditional Islam is strong due to the large Indo-Pak diaspora community, it could not stop the spread of “salafism” among either the converts or the Somali community. I believe that the over-use of Urdu has much to do with this: the Friday lecture in some Indo-Pak mosques is delivered in a foreign language which the converts (and many non-Indian immigrants, like Somalis) do not speak, and have no reason to learn. Of course, there are racism issues in the Indo-Pak community in the UK (and probably among Muslim immigrants to the USA) which may well motivate converts, particularly black converts, to seek the company of their “own kind” after converting, which of course leads them into the clutches of the predominantly black “salafi” communities.

Not all Black converts are “salafis”, however; they are represented in most of the Sufi tariqa groups operating in London, for example, but with a couple of exceptions (the groups that follow Shaikh Nazim and Shaikh Asif H. Farooqui in Manchester), none of the groups have a markaz in London (although many are attached to certain mosques, such as those in Ilford and Cricklewood). Of course, the da’wah to Islam given by the “salafis” has been much a word-of-mouth affair as it has been about store-fronts and da’wah tables in the streets, although certainly they have played a part; it’s fairly well-known that the Tablighi Jama’at does not concern itself with giving da’wah to non-Muslims, but it is debatable whether they are really equipped to give it.

I might also add that it is perfectly possible for traditionalist Muslims to be intolerant, rigid or cult-like in their attitudes and practices. Some of those from the Indian subcontinent are well-known for their rigidity on the beard, for example, refusing to accept that schools of thought other than their own (the Hanafi) do not require a fist-length beard. (I am mostly, but not exclusively, talking about the youth here.) The antics of the “Habashi” group in Lebanon and among the Lebanese diaspora are notorious, and the Murabitun do not have an enviable reputation either. While “salafism” may be accused of feeding off a sense of victimhood among Black converts, I have noticed that many middle-class white converts, many of them with a history in the Murabitun (but not all), display a sense of superiority over immigrant Muslims even though their personal observance of Shari’a may be rather more lax than theirs.

Traditional Islam distinguishes itself, not only among sects of Islam but among all religions, for its ability to accommodate minor differences of opinion without loss of decorum and without Muslims anathematising each other. The opposite tendency among “salafis” was known of well before the Inquisition (Abdul Hakim Murad uses as an example the “vituperative” tone of the Saudi writer, al-Tuwayjiri, to Nasir al-Albani regarding the status of the niqaab in this footnote to Understanding the Four Madhhabs). Traditional Muslims themselves have not been immune from acrimonious divisions (the ongoing Bareilawi-Deobandi divide, which has existed for about a century and still exists, being a case in point), but they can be best avoided if people are aware of, remember and practise the Islamic etiquettes of disagreement.

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