The spectrum of Salafism

I wish to comment on this article on Salafism in Kuwait. This post is not concerned with the details of Salafism in Kuwait but the typology of Salafism noted in the article. The article makes the point that ‘purists’ are more inclined to some sort of outreach to other Muslims, while harakis (activists) are prone to theological sectarianism and even violence to achieve their goals.

Purists mainly focus on peaceful proselytization and daily religious practices and are willing to cooperate with other religious groups. Activists, or haraki, believe in broader political involvement and often see violence as acceptable to achieve their aims.

First, binaries like this tend to flatten the nature of differences within not only Salafism but also generally trends and movements. I would prefer to state that Salafism is a spectrum that from one end may include quietists to violent activists. Second, it is the strong quietists, stated as purists, that are known for their theological exclusivism and refusal to cooperate with other groups and trends, lest they dilute the distinctives of Salafi Islam. Strong quietists include trends such as Al-Jaamiah, Al-Madkhaliah and followers of Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i in Yemen. At this end harakis are aberrations and not part of Salafism proper, due to the accusation of external influences of Islamist factions on their beliefs and practice (this is often identified with Muslim Brotherhood writings in general and specifically the writings of of Sayyid Qutb). As stated this is a spectrum, so that the stronger quietists are willing to identify these opposing Salafis as blameworthy innovators (mubtadi’a) that should be shunned and warned against. For this reason one of the key distinctives of this stronger form of quietist Salafism is ‘al-jarh wa al-t’adil i.e. who is to be critiqued as outside the correct view of Salafism and who may be identified as a worthy follower of what is deemed as the correct Salafi methodology. The distinctives of what is held to be the correct understanding of Salafism is also applied to all Muslim sects and groups and thus theological sectarianism is a key feature of their approach to other trends; ironically this approach is stated as a following of a Qur’anic junction against sectarian factionalism. The problem with activist Salafis, according to this strong purist quietism, is their appropriation of ideas from outside groups, specifically teachings pertaining to open political activism and missionary work that may challenge political authorities. The correct Salafi methodology is one that applies only secret advise to political authorities and is otherwise obedient and patient to any transgressions from these authorities.

This is a spectrum and some softer quietists  may be open to some form of cooperation and even cordial relations with other Muslims on shared objectives. Thus there are known edicts by Salafi scholars such as Abdul-Aziz ibn Baaz, Muhammad ibn al-‘Uthaymeen and Muhammad al-Albani that encouraged Kuwaiti Salafis to participate in political life and vote for Salafi candidates. Other edicts, for example, would admonish other Muslim groups but also praise them for what they view as praiseworthy attributes (e.g. Deobandi Tablighi Jamaat). It should be stated that reformist Salafis and strong quietists both venerate these notable scholars and their views are a point of contention and even vitriolic debate between stronger quietists and reformist Salafis. In my opinion esteemed scholars, especially state sanctioned Saudi ones, can show conflicting opinions or sympathies with different Salafi positions but are broadly softer quietists in their practice.

Accordingly as we move along this spectrum, then activist inclined Salafis are more willing to identify what are deemed as good attributes of other groups, rather than practising shunning, and even recommend their literature for worthy and useful instruction; often the literature read would be from prominent Muslim Brotherhood cadres. Hence we have reformist Salafi scholars, such as Abdul-Rahman Abdu-Khaleq, who are known to legitimate this haraki turn, write tracts that admonish other Muslim factions and trends, yet write other tracts encouraging political group activism and working with other Muslims outside the Salafi fold. He accuses stronger quietist Salafis of excessive sectarianism in their exclusivist and partisan misapplication of scripture warning against factionalism in Islamic practice (for strong quetists factionalism includes any form of political activism). Activist Salafis are thus more open to other Islamist groups and movements, while quietists can be anything from high exclusivists to a more restrained and restricted Islamic ecumenism.

Finally, at the hard end of the activist spectrum would be Jihadi Salafi groups that view reformist practice as a misdiagnosis of the nature of political authority in what they terms as ‘Muslim lands’. It is here that violence is legitimated, though the application of violent means is open to strategy and timing (differences on the legitimacy of certain strategies and application of junctions can turn into significant normative disputes, as happened between Jabhat al-Nusrah and the ISIL). Despite the adoption of violent means and polarizing rhetoric, or may be due to it, Salafi Jihadi trends are themselves open to the writings of Islamist writers, even if not Salafi, such as Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Maududi. Highlighted texts would be those that polarize belief/disbelief or Islam/Jaahiliyah, as part of an ongoing cosmic struggle.

I would end by stating that it would be expected that Kuwaiti Salafi harakis are funding Salafi armed groups in Syria but this funding is broadly restricted to the ‘Islamic Front’ and their leaders such Zahran Alloush. This part of the Salafi armed struggle is not Salafi Jihadi but more broadly inclined to the ideas and views of haraki Salafis. The uprising to the Islamic Front is against a disbelieving tyrant and sect(s) rather than it being an issue of violence as an obligatory means of struggle against rulers in ‘Muslim lands’. Jihadi Salafi groups such as the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusrah may receive funding from Gulf sources but this is likely funnelled from illegal underground networks of Salafi Jihadis than open and tolerated Salafi haraki groups.

ISIL and reasons for excommunication

The ISIL are not the Khawarij documented by medieval Muslim heresiologists in their encyclopaedias of sects and religions; historically the Khawarij, as a sect, were not uniform but are now largely extinct. Nevertheless there remains the ‘Ibadia‘ that exists in Oman as a state sponsored form of Islam and also, as a lesser presence, followers of this sect can be found in Kenya and North Africa; but this sect is significantly different to the Khawarij of earlier centuries. The ISIL, on the other hand, are Salafi in doctrine and similar to other Jihadi Salafi groups, view other Salafi factions as misguided in understanding the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab. For example, there is the accusation that Muhammad Al-Albani (his writings remain a guide to the global Salafi movement and his many sittings with his students were recorded and some transcripts published), fell into errors regarding the relation between belief and works.

For Jihadi Salafis he distinguishes between belief and works, to the extent that no practice affects the status of belief and hence the plausibility of excommunication (takfir). Instead, in their position (e.g. see the writings of Abu-Muhammad Al-Maqdisi), the genus of religious practice is both fundamental and a condition for sustaining belief. Further, there is an accusation that he denied what they describe as acts that intrinsically justify excommunication and this includes, for example, mere utterance of blasphemy and importantly adopting ‘secular’ laws as state legislation or even joining the armed forces in any of the nation states that exist in ‘Muslim countries’ and so maintaining these ‘secular’ states. These acts are labelled as ‘kufr ‘amali’ or actions that intrinsically denote disbelief, as they relate to issues of belief and disbelief directly and hence become a basis for excommunication. It should be noted that excommunication does not extend to committing greater sins, as is the position of the classical Khawarij sects and hence they state their view, regarding excommunication, as the correct position of Sunni Islam (Sunni Islam means, in a very strict sense, a strand of Hanbali Islam that can be identified, predominately, in the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah). This far groups such as the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are in agreement.

The issue of difference is the view, by Jabhat al-Nusra, that ISIL have gone into extremes in their expansion and application of this category (actions that intrinsically denote disbelief) to include dissociation from any faction receiving funding from these states; this includes even explicitly Islamist coalitions such as the Islamic Front. This is further exasperated, according to the ISIL, as these groups receive funding on the condition they collaborate to uproot the ISIL from their territories (they are likened, in ISIL literature, to the Iraqi ‘sahwat’). To not dissociate and even worse abet these groups is to make allegiance with the enemy at times of war and this alone is a basis for excommunication (Quran 5: 51, for example, is cited to justify this as ‘kufr ‘amali’). The FSA, on the other hand, are viewed as a ‘secular’ coalition invested in a democratic state and aligned to the National Coalition that is directly supported by the US and the Saudi monarchy and that alone is sufficient to make outright excommunication of those under this coalition. Jabhat al-Nusra only agree regarding the excommunication of the leaders of the FSA and the National Coalition but hold the Islamic Front as believers and are willing to cooperate with them in military operations. The ISIL also accuse the Islamic Front and the FSA, with others, in attacking their positions and this, to them, is a broader conspiracy to exterminate the organisation from Syria.

In future posts I will attempt to note different Salafi discourses pertaining to collective guilt, de-humanising through identifying individuals to opposing religious collectives and the necessity to dissociate and despise all those considered outside the pale of Islam (the doctrine of ‘Al-Wala’ Wal Bara”). These different discourses figure, to different degrees, in all Salafi groups and play a part in how they perceive and treat the ‘other’.