I wrote this essay almost five months ago, but did not post it until now because every time I was ready to post it I would encounter a virulent “Salafi” attack on a colleague or myself that would lead me to believe that posting this essay would be to ignore the narrow-minded bigotry behind those attacks. More recently, however, I reflected on the many Salafi friends and associates I have and the amazing work they are doing to serve Islam. Far from being narrow-minded, bigoted hotheads, they are honorable, fair-minded, balanced men and women whose love for Allah, the Messenger (peace and blessings upon him) and Islam itself is almost unparalleled. At a time when so many forces are trying to divide Muslims and get us to fight, disavow or abandon one another, I could see no way that I could remain silent and not add my voice to the desperately needed calls for unity and mutual appreciation and respect.
Do Not Blame the Salafis
The current avalanche of negativity directed at Islam and Muslims, fueled, to a large extent, by the actions of coldblooded “Jihadi” murderers, and increasingly stoked by the mainstream news media, is unsettling to most people, including most Muslims. That being the case, there is a desperate search for answers and solutions. One result of that desperation is the tendency to discard nuance and history when analyzing the roots of “Jihadi” violence.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the argument being advanced by some that the maniacal violence of the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS is due to their Salafist roots. While this argument is convenient and simple, it is not an accurate or detailed explanation for such violence. Utilizing it disguises some very important facts and opens the door to undermining the very critical solidarity needed by those in the Muslim community, many of whom call themselves Salafis, who stand in vehement opposition to ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and their ilk.
We begin by mentioning that one of the most influential Salafi scholars of the Twentieth Century, Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani, was decidedly apolitical. This is particularly true after his indirect association with the failed Meccan Revolt of 1979. From then on, the focus of his “Dawah” was to encourage the adoption of a particular interpretation of the theological and legal methodology of the early generations of Muslims (as-Salaf as-Salih), while purging Islam of what he considered to be unfounded, corrupting accretions. In his view, and that of his followers, victory for Islam and the Muslims, in this world, would only be accomplished when these steps have been taken and would ultimately involve Divine intervention. This is the approach endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Salafis worldwide.
Furthermore, the Salafis have a consistent methodology (Minhaj), as Al-Albani and other Salafis place great emphasis on the foundational aspects of Muslim belief and practice. Legally, some see that methodology as reflecting elements of the literalism of Dawud al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm, and to a certain extent, the legal reasoning of the Shafi’i school, from which Dawud al-Dhahiri emerged. Others would say that Salafis are committed to a legal methodology more akin to what is popularly known as comparative fiqh, which focuses on considering the opinions of various juridical schools on a particular issue and then choosing the one deemed to be evidentiary preponderant.
In theology, most Salafis adopt a methodology that generally reflects the positions of the Hanbalis, with special emphasis on the emendations of the great, if controversial, Hanbali scholar, ibn Taymiyya. It is extremely important to note that the Salafi theological approach, while highly critical of the Ash’aris and Maturidis, in the Sunni realm, did not lead to the inability to peacefully and respectfully coexist with other Muslims –with rare exception. This respect is exemplified by ibn Taymiyya in his famous debate with the great Ash’ari, Sufi scholar ibn ‘Ata Allah Sakandari. Unlike the Salafis, ISIS, Boko Haram and their likeness have demonstrated no consistent legal or theological methodology. This allows them to distort the basic texts of Islam in ways that find little historical precedence and even less resonance among contemporary scholars.
Some will readily acknowledge that not all Salafis, such as al-Albani, are violent, but that the violence exhibited by Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Qaeda and similar groups is rooted in Salafi teachings. They would argue, to rephrase a popular Islamophobic cliché, “Not all Salafis are violent extremists, but all violent extremists are Salafis.” This is simply not true. While the violence of ISIS, Boko Haram and similar groups is well-publicized, the Alawi thugs defending the Asad regime, the Shiites of Hizbollah, who have flooded into Syria, the Iraqi Shiite militias and death squads that helped to push many Iraqi Sunnis into the ranks of ISIS, have all engaged in ghastly acts of violence. None of these latter groups, would be described in any way as Salafis. Hence, alienation, disenfranchisement, rabid sectarianism, a perceived threat to their very existence, or to the existence of an ally, as opposed to Salafism, might be more insightful explanations for the violence of all of these parties and factions.
We add here, for clarity, that of course not all violent extremists are Muslims. This is clearly indicated by the actions of the American military in Iraq and elsewhere, Hindu death squads in India, crimes committed by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza, tribal militias in Rwanda and the Congo, Mexican and other Central and South American drug cartels, and many others. Examining this issue in detail is beyond the scope of this essay.
To begin to understand the sources of violence exhibited by “Jihadis,” we need to look beyond simplistic slogans. One of the issues that helps us to understand that violence is Takfir, the act of excommunicating other Muslims and declaring them to be outside the pale of Islam. This dangerous practice allows some Muslims to attack others with wanton impunity. While it is certainly true that some Salafis, contemporarily and historically, may be guilty of Takfir, it is not an exclusive Salafi problem.
Historically, Takfir was the hallmark of the Khawarij. The abuses and excesses of the Khawarij, in terms of their readiness to excommunicate other Muslims, were roundly repudiated by the historical antecedents of present-day Salafis and are rejected by most Salafis today. Many Muslims today view groups like ISIS as the modern-day Khawarij. That being the case, what do we say about those Salafis who condemn both the Khawarij as well as ISIS and reject their violence and the doctrines that enable it?
In more recent times, some of the groups most intense in their utilization of Takfir identify as Sufi. This would include a prominent Sufi group in Lebanon and some of the Sufi orders in the Indian subcontinent. In this regard, let us ask who declared the popular Muslim singer Junaid Jamshed an apostate, forcing him to temporarily leave Pakistan, fleeing for his life? It was not the Salafis. ISIS, Boko Haram and other “Jihadi” groups, however, have taken Takfir to a macabre extreme rarely witnessed in Muslim history. This extreme is rejected by virtually all Muslims, including most Salafis.
A second issue undergirding extreme “Jihadi” violence is the systematic erosion of the sanctity of life. In no uncertain terms, Islam strongly condemns the murder of innocents and noncombatants, even on the battlefield. Its teachings also endeavor to restrict the loss of life among active combatants. It does so through strong warnings against humans terminating lives that have been sanctified by Almighty God. When the concept of the God-given sanctity of life is lost, the ability and desire to distinguish between combatants, noncombatants, civilians, prisoners of war, women and children is lost. This is a reality likely to afflict anyone who finds himself adrift in the blinding fog of war. Far from being a Salafi issue, it is not even a religious issue, it is human issue.
One starts losing belief in the sanctity of life when one begins dehumanizing the “other.” Once that sanctity is lost, one is not killing an innocent human being, one is killing an object, a thing, which is totally undeserving of life. Consider the following chilling words of Steven Green, the American soldier who raped and then murdered a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl, after massacring her family, and then burning the bodies to hide the evidence of his crime. He stated at his trial, “There’s not a word to describe how much I hated these people… I wasn’t thinking of these people as humans.” The process whereby Green and others come to see Iraqis as towelheads and sand-niggers, may be different from the process whereby “Jihadis” come to see their victims as undeserving of life, but the common denominator is war.
A third issue contributing to the extreme violence we are currently witnessing in the Middle East is the unique nature of the apocalyptic reading of Islamic sources taken by ISIS. The feeling that we have literally reached the end of the world is not unique to contemporary violent groups. As the Muslim Ummah approached the end of the First Millennium, many respected scholars, such as Imam Suyuti, wrote treatises declaring the arrival of the Apocalypse. The difference between the vision of those scholars and ISIS is that no classical or contemporary scholar or group has politicized the apocalypse in ways ISIS has and then wedded that politicized interpretation with sensationalized violence.
ISIS’s violent eschatology cannot be described as Salafi, in the sense that it reflects neither the teachings of the early generations of Muslims, nor those of most contemporary Salafi groups. This is extremely important to bear in mind when one attempts to blame Salafism for the emergence of ISIS and related groups. There is a unique set of ideas and circumstances, a perfect storm if you will, one will have to comprehend if one is to truly understand these groups and combat their ideology.
While it is easy to claim that the “Salafi” roots of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and others is the cause of the levels of violence currently witnessed in areas where these organizations are operating, it is far more difficult to point to the source of the arms that have made the violence of these groups so lethal. Who armed and provided the logistical infrastructure of what would become Al Qaeda and the Taliban? How did Boko Haram go from being a cult-like organization confined to a single city in Northern Nigeria, to a group that is better armed than the Nigerian army? Who supplied them with their weaponry?
A similar question can be asked about ISIS. How did they gain control of so much advanced weaponry, most of it American? To claim that they got it when Mosul fell is inadequate. Why did 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, armed with heavy American weaponry in that city abandon their positions in the face of approximately 1,500 lightly-armed ISIS fighters? Why was ISIS allowed to truck those weapons across open desert, when destroying them would have been a turkey shoot? Who financed the purchase of the balance of their weapons stockpiles and who sold the arms to them? Answering these questions involve inconvenient truths that will never be mentioned by the pseudo-journalists, pundits and experts so quick to weigh in on the sources of “Jihadi” violence.
A related issue revolves around the question of who is ultimately responsible for creating the conditions that led to the emergence of these murderous groups? Salafism existed in the Middle East and Africa long before “Jihadi” murderers appeared on the scene. Yet, there was no Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan before the old Soviet Union and then the American military ripped apart the social fabric of that country. Similarly, there was no ISIS before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. In Nigeria, Boko Haram began its deadly rampage after the Nigerian regime killed hundreds of its adherents and executed its founder, Muhammad Yusuf, in 2009. To simply attribute the violence of these groups to “Salafism” is to ignore the many actual causal factors that triggered and sustain the violence we rightly find so abhorrent.
In conclusion, there are several other issues we could examine in order to get to the roots of the violence we see in many parts of the Muslim world. Ultimately, we are dealing with a massive crisis of ignorance. We need to educate Muslims and non-Muslims alike about our religion and what it says about matters related to dehumanizing members of “other” communities, violence, war and peace. This is a long and challenging process that will require a unified community that respects all of its constituents who are committed to sanity and peace. By simply reducing the cause of “Jihadi” violence to Salafism we run the risk of failing to address the real roots of a phenomenon tearing apart far too many Muslim societies. We also run the risk of alienating a lot of sincere, well-meaning Muslims, who, while calling themselves Salafi, are just as outraged by the brutal excesses of so-called “Jihadis” as any other Muslim.