by Ali S. Asani
Historically, exclusivist interpretations of the Quran have been used to justify dominion over other Muslims, specifically those whose interpretation of the faith and religious practices were perceived as deviating from the norms established by exclusivists. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several areas of the Muslim world witnessed the rise of movements which, in response to what was perceived a general moral laxity and decline, attempted to “purify” Islam. The leaders of these movements targeted a whole range of practices and beliefs among fellow Muslims which, in their eyes, constituted evidence of religious backsliding. In particular, Sufi forms of Islam were attacked as not deriving from “authentic” Islam. In certain cases, these attacks took on a military character and “jihads” were launched against fellow Muslims with the intention of forcibly imposing upon them those interpretations of Islam favored by the exclusivists.
The most dramatic and influential of these movements was the so-called Wahhabi movement in Arabia. Named after the reformer, Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1791, this puritanical movement acquired an explosive energy after its founder allied himself with a petty Arab chieftain, Muhammad Ibn Saud. Abd al-Wahhab was influenced in his thought by the writings of a controversial fourteenth century thinker, Ibn Taiymiyyah (d. 1328), whose exclusivist and literalist interpretations of the Quran led him to declare that the descendants of the Mongols were infidels, notwithstanding their public profession of belief in Islam. To propagate their particular brand of Islam, the Wahhabis attacked fellow Muslims whose practices they considered “un-Islamic.” Targetting in particular popular expressions of Sufi practice as well as Shii Muslims, the Wahhabis steadily expanded their power over Central and Western Arabia until they were able to effect the political unification of the peninsula into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Once established, the Wahhabi authorities instituted a religious police force, which, among its other functions, compels Muslims to perform ritual prayer at the appropriate times of the day in direct contradication to the Quran’s commandment, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Not surprisingly, this movement considered Jews and Christians to be infidels. To this day, Saudi Arabia’s state version of Islam is founded on an exclusivist interpretation of the Quran, intolerant of both interreligious and intrareligious plurality. Through the use of millions of petrodollars, the Saudis’ exclusivist interpretation of Islam has been exported all over the Muslim world, much to the dismay of the pluralists.
What exactly is ‘Salafism’? In the absence of a unanimously agreed upon definition, I propose to elucidate the modern Salafī phenomena via an outline of its beginnings, an assessment of its particular characteristics, manifestations of it in various contemporary groups, and a discussion of its positive and not so positive contributions to Islam and our global society.
Within the context of our modern World, or to be more precise over the last half a century, the term ‘Salafī’ has come to designate an Islamic methodology, the aspirational objective of which is the emulation of the Prophetic example via the practices and beliefs of the earliest generations of Islam. This is because the first three Islamic generations, in being closest to the era of Muḥammad and the period of revelation, are understood to best embody the Prophetic Sunnah, and thus a pristine Islam.