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New Texts Out Now: Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century

Henri Lauzière, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Henri Lauzière (HL): I wrote the book in an attempt to solve a nagging problem in Islamic intellectual history. For the last three decades or so, scholars who sought to define and tell the story of Salafism always faced something of a paradox. On the one hand, a lot of the secondary literature tells us that Salafism, or salafiyya, was a movement of Islamic modernism associated with Muslim reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries known for their rational and progressive views, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida, and a host of like-minded intellectuals from West Africa to Indonesia. On the other hand, in recent scholarship Salafism has a substantially different meaning, one that is more consistent with how today’s Muslims use the term “Salafi.” The literature now presents Salafism as a rigorist and purist form of Sunni Islam that condemns rationalist and progressive approaches to reform. With this alternative definition comes a series of very different narratives as well. Some scholars have suggested that Salafism dates back to the medieval period, while others have linked its emergence to Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century, and still others have argued that it originated in the 1960s. There are still other definitions and narratives of Salafism, but a fundamental problem remains: why do we have such largely incompatible understandings of Salafism and contradictory hypotheses about its origins? Should we believe that different strands of Salafism existed or coexisted at different points in history, as some have argued? Should we rather assume that ultra-orthodox Muslims coopted and thus transformed the label previously used by Islamic modernists?

Back in 2009, Bernard Haykel summed up the problem this way: “It would be useful to know why the term Salafi, which in the late nineteenth century referred to modernising and reason-minded Muslim reformist scholars, has come to be identified with the Wahhabis for whom reason-based (‘aqli) arguments are anathema.”[1] This is one of the questions I take up in The Making of Salafism—though I show that we must reformulate the problem because, in the nineteenth century, the term “Salafi” did not in and of itself refer to modernizing and reason-minded reformers. Rather, it referred to adherents of neo-Hanbali theology—that is, the more refined iteration of Hanbali theology as articulated and defended by Ibn Taymiyya. Therefore, the modernizing and reason-minded reformers who happened to be Salafi in creed were Salafis by virtue of their theological stance on questions such as God’s attributes, not by virtue of their rationalist approach to Islamic law or their desire to reconcile Islam and Western modernity. In the nineteenth century, the Wahhabis of Najd, too, already referred to themselves as Salafis from time to time to designate their theological position. And yet, they were by no means modernists.

By shrugging off some of our presuppositions about the term and paying closer attention to the way Muslim scholars themselves used the label “Salafi” in the nineteenth century, a whole new set of questions opens up. When and why did the confusion arise about the meaning of “Salafi”? Why exactly have scholars accepted and reproduced the false idea that al-Afghani and ‘Abduh were leading Salafis? When did the abstract noun “Salafism” emerge and how did Muslim scholars struggle over its definition? Is there a connection between the construction of Salafism as a concept and the changing attitude of self-proclaimed Salafis toward reform? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, it was relatively easy for a Salafi in creed to promote reason and progressive reform in areas other than theology. By the late twentieth century, however, a Salafi could hardly advocate this flexible, “rationalist” approach without risking being accused of betraying the core principles of Salafism. Why? I wrote the book in hopes of answering such questions, but also to challenge the numerous preconceptions and misleading assumptions about Salafism that continue to skew our understanding of Islamic intellectual history.

J: What particular topics and issues does the book address?

HL: Epistemology is, of course, a central issue in this book. I wanted to explore the ways in which both scholars of Islam and Islamic scholars grapple with an abstract notion such as Salafism and how they write its history. To me, asking the question “What is Salafism?” is almost pointless at this stage. It lures us into defining and redefining the term on the basis of existing literature, and away from critiquing the received ideas embedded in that literature. Perhaps the best way to provide a somewhat satisfactory answer to this question is to renounce all historical perspective and explain the principles that contemporary Salafis now claim to follow. But as a historian, focusing on the present is not enough. I want to go further, to examine Salafism over time, and to make sense of the historical problems that we can all too easily sweep under the rug. And as I explain in the book’s introduction, the first question historians ought to ask is not “What is Salafism?” but rather  “How do we know what we think we know about Salafism?” When we truly start questioning the provenance of our knowledge, the accuracy of our beliefs, and the basis of our historical narratives, we realize how shaky our interpretations of Salafism can be. Considering that salafiyya has served as an analytical category for nearly a hundred years, it is surprising how little empirical work has been done to validate, or invalidate, some of the most basic historical claims found in the literature.

But the book also deals with the changing notion of Islamic reform throughout the twentieth century, because the construction of Salafism as a concept is inextricably linked to the social and political challenges that Muslim communities have experienced in the past hundred years. One chapter, for example, focuses on Rashid Rida’s efforts to rehabilitate the Wahhabis in the 1920s, which, I argue, marked the beginning of a shift among self-proclaimed Salafis away from theological tolerance. Other chapters deal with the impact of anticolonial nationalism on the relationship between Salafis and other Muslims. Only with the passing of European colonialism and the advent of independence in various countries did a majority of self-proclaimed Salafis adopt the more rigid approach to Islamic reform that has come to characterize them. Incidentally, the last chapter of the book deals with the conceptualization of purist Salafism as an all-encompassing ideology since the 1970s.

Although one would not know judging from the book cover, a thread connects every chapter: the Moroccan scholar and globetrotter Taqi al-Din al-Hilali (1894-1987) leads readers through the labyrinth of transnational Salafi networks. Al-Hilali is an intriguing character, but he is not particularly well known, even in his native country. When I first started conducting research about him in Morocco in February 2004, most of the Moroccans I met did not know who he was. Ironically, American and British converts were more familiar with him, because in the 1970s al-Hilali produced a Saudi-sponsored translation of the Qur’an into English in collaboration with with the Pakistani cardiologist Muhammad Muhsin Khan. My book is not a biography of al-Hilali per se; rather I use his intellectual journey as a springboard for further discussions about the making of Salafism in different intellectual circles. Not only did al-Hilali live in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, colonial India, and Nazi Germany for extended periods of time, he visited several other countries and interacted with countless high-profile scholars and activists. This is why the book also deals with figures such as Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi al-‘Alawi, ‘Allal al-Fasi, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Hamid al-Fiqi, Hasan al-Banna, Shakib Arslan, Muhammad ibn Ibrahim, Ibn Baz, Nasir al-Din al-Albani, and many others. By contextualizing al-Hilali’s experiences and those of his associates, I identify a number of historical conjunctures that contributed to the formation and transformation of the concept of Salafism.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HL: When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I still took for granted that a multifaceted movement of reform called salafiyya existed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that all modernist reformers à la Muhammad ‘Abduh during that period were, by definition, proponents of a modernist form of Salafism. In 2008, however, while conducting additional research as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, I came to the realization that my work built on received ideas that had no empirical basis. The notion of modernist salafiyya originated in the work of French scholar Louis Massignon. Because of its usefulness and apparent validity, however, both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars borrowed Massignon’s definition of Salafism and wrongly attributed it to al-Afghani, ‘Abduh, and their disciples. I first developed this argument in an article published in 2010 in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. By then, it had become clear that I could not simply turn my dissertation into a book, as I had hoped. Rather, I had to write an entirely different monograph that would reflect my new findings and supersede my previous views of salafiyya. The Making of Salafism is the fruit of these efforts.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HL: I think anyone who is curious about the history of Salafism, or Salafism in history, is likely to engage with the book. As for its impact, I hope the book will convince readers that many our assumptions about Salafism are unfounded and that the standard narratives about salafiyya are to a large extent mythical. Therefore, I hope my book will help historicize this category and lay unnecessary conceptual and historical problems to rest.

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?  

HL: This is a good question: how does one go about writing the history of an abstract notion, or concept, that it is supposed to be indigenous to the Islamic tradition? I chose not to let the secondary literature set the parameters of my research and dictate what I should be looking for in the sources. This would have been a pointless exercise considering the problems inherent in the historiography on Salafism. Rather, I read as broadly as possible in primary documents, especially for the period stretching from the 1900s to the 1990s, and strove to interpret these texts on their own terms, without assuming the existence of a concept known as salafiyya and without reading preconceived ideas about Salafism into the historical sources. Among other things, I searched for the conscious formulation of Salafism in the works of Muslim scholars. This approach proved surprisingly instructive. As I explain in the book’s introduction, such a methodology is not without its limitations. But given the current state of research on Salafism, it seemed appropriate.

Excerpt from the Introduction:

Just as there is always a danger of reading too much into the occasional use of Salafi terminology in primary sources, so there is a risk of exaggerating its semantic range. The issue is not only that scholars commit a lexical anachronism by suggesting that past Muslims used salafiyya as an abstract noun meaning “Salafism” when they did not. They also commit a conceptual anachronism by assuming that the term Salafi conveyed layers of meaning that, in reality, have been affixed to the word only in the last ninety years or so. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the work of contemporary purist Salafis who seek to demonstrate the historical legitimacy of their religious orientation. When using empirical evidence to try to convince other Muslims that Salafism is a term that dates from the medieval period, purist Salafis systematically resort to a logical sleight of hand that has major ahistorical implications. On the one hand, they use the word salafiyya as an abstract noun (maṣdar ṣināʿī), which, to grasp finer grammatical nuances, we could translate into English as “Ancestralism” instead of “Salafism.” They generally establish that this abstract noun refers to a comprehensive religious orientation—a kind of ideology—that embraces the entire gamut of Islamic beliefs and practices, encompassing theology, law, morals, and etiquette. On the other hand, contemporary Salafis are faced with the fact that no one has yet been able to find the noun salafiyya used in the sense of Ancestralism, let alone in the sense of a comprehensive religious orientation, in any source prior to the twentieth century.

To circumvent this problem, contemporary Salafis falsely imply that the terms Salafi and Salafis, as they appear in medieval texts, are nothing but derivatives of what is now known as Ancestralism. (The underlying assumption here is that the technical term Ancestralism must have existed and must be as old as the words that allegedly derive from it.) In doing so, contemporary purist Salafis commit two historical errors. First, they intimate that most salaf-related terms in the medieval period refer to a particular religious orientation, even though it is not always clear, for instance, that the adjective salafī means “Ancestralist” rather than simply “ancestral.” Second, they assume that the conceptual content of these medieval terms is equivalent to the conceptual content of today’s Ancestralism, which is all-encompassing. In other words, contemporary Salafis try to force their empirical evidence into a preconceived notion of Salafism that does not seem to have existed in the medieval period.

Historians are not immune from this kind of lapse. Similar assumptions lie behind the claim that Ibn Taymiyya and his disciples used the term Salafi to refer to a “school of thought” that informed not only theology but also law. Although premodern sources leave no doubt that Muslims sometimes used the term Salafi as a theological marker to identify themselves as adherents to the Hanbali creed, the idea that the same term played an equivalent conceptual role in the realm of the law and served to denote an originalist (e.g., non-madhhab) legal stance is empirically far-fetched. Likewise, textual evidence does not validate the widespread assumption that in the late nineteenth century the term Salafi referred to Muslims who took the salaf as role models and endeavored to reconcile reason and revelation to assert the relevance of Islam in modern society. For the most part, these interpretations derive from our tendency to inject elements of the purist and modernist versions of the concept we now call Salafism (which is relatively recent) into the term Salafi (which is much older). By imposing our habits of mind on primary sources and by failing to give due consideration to both the philological and the philosophical dimensions of the question, we condemn the historical study of Salafism to being a well-meaning but futile exercise. At best, it is tantamount to chasing a historical mirage—namely, the refracted image of a contemporary concept. At worst, we end up chasing a conceptual chimera that exists only in our modern scholarship.

The use of empirical criteria in intellectual history, however, raises another question: Do ideas matter more than the words by which they come to be known? Some scholars argue, for instance, that the study of feminism should not be restricted to the period following the appearance of the words feminism and feminist in the late nineteenth century. A similar logic applies to the study of Islamism. Even though many scholars adopt the convention that a distinct form of Islamic activism emerged with Hasan al-Banna’s founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, few deem it necessary to ask whether or not al-Banna used the term Islamism. (He did in the 1940s, but the fact that this has gone unnoticed goes to show that the issue is considered largely irrelevant.) The reason anachronism seems tolerable in such cases is that the aforementioned terms, like so many others, are first and foremost categories of analysis. They denote historical phenomena that scholars define according to their needs and then choose, for understandable reasons, to call feminism or Islamism. Because these terms acquire most of their meaning from the function they serve as vehicles for thinking and speaking about abstractions, their utility trumps their historicity.

Salafism is a different case. Although scholars have now used the term as an analytical category for nearly a hundred years, the underlying justification has always been that salafiyya is a legitimate and appropriate label because it is indigenous to the Islamic tradition. Implicit in this reasoning is that the term must have one or more indigenous meanings, which scholars should try to retrieve rather than create. As should be obvious by now, the idea that salafiyya emerged as a distinct religious orientation when Muslim scholars and activists started using the terms Salafi and Salafism is still at the heart of the most serious scholarship on the topic. So even if one claims to use Salafism as a mere analytical tool (or etic term, in anthropological jargon), one will inevitably have to circumscribe the meaning of that word by relying on a body of secondary literature that considers Salafism to be an indigenous category (or emic term). Although I disagree with the various narratives of origins found in the secondary literature, I agree that the relationship between an allegedly indigenous concept and the word by which it is known deserves close attention.

Of course, this approach has its limits. It is true that focusing on the conscious formulation of Salafism poses another potential danger, “which is to discard all historical descriptions of conceptual developments if they are not coupled with linguistic ones.” But here the historian must exercise discretion, and in the present case, I believe that discarding non-linguistic conceptual developments is an acceptable price to pay for the much-needed demythologization of Salafism. Contemporary Salafis sometimes contend that their historical heroes did not need to discuss the concept of Salafism or to identify themselves as Salafis in order to be Salafis. That may well be the case, but such logic leads us nowhere. The issue is not the purported nature and origin of Salafism but its actual construction as a concept for asserting claims about Islamic thought and activism. Considering the current state of confusion, there is little academic benefit to be gained by presuming that the concept existed before the word. No doubt many intellectual features of what is today known as Salafism have existed since the medieval period, but this is tangential to the question of how and why a particular conceptual framework developed. We must acknowledge that the conceptualization of Salafism is itself the product of a historical process that deserves to be examined.

 [Excerpted from The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, by permission of the author (c) 2016.] 


[1] Bernard Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. Roel Meijer (London: Hurst & Co., 2009), 34.

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