Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Islam, Islamism And Islamic Activism - Sneak Preview - Part 2

The Salafiyya
The Salafiyya was founded in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by two Muslim thinkers Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) a Persian Shiite, and his follower Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905) an Egyptian Sunni. Al-Afghani and Abduh were alarmed by:

  1. The impact of Western power upon Muslim societies.

  2. The results of forced partial westernisation resulting from Western colonial policies upon Muslim societies.


They saw that the conservatism inherent in the thought and institutions of agrarian polities were leading to the failure of Muslim polities to rise to the challenge of the Western colonialism. They feared for the survival of the Muslim world. Both were convinced that Islam as revealed religion had within it the wherewithal to promote a modernist renewal of Islamic civilisation. To this end they put forward reforms that could not be stigmatised as either deviating from Islamic belief or as being heretical. Such Islamic reforms would overcome the intellectual conservatism inherent within an agrarian society and would bring a modernist Islamic renaissance to pass.

In their search to identify its essence al-Afghani and Abduh evoked Islam's founding fathers, the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors the first four "rightly-guided" Caliphs - al-Rashidun. By identifying those essential principles, which had been embodied in the earliest Muslim community of seventh century Arabia, they hoped to reinvigorate the Muslim world with the vitality of the early Muslims. The name "Salafiyya" reflects this invocation of the "venerable ancestors" (al-Salaf al-Salih). It is important to understand that while al-Afghani and Abduh saw the rediscovery of these principles as a worthy objective in and of itself it was not their primary purpose. Their primary goals were twofold:
  1. They wanted an indisputably Islamic criterion for judicious technological, academic, and political, borrowing from Western the West.

  2. They wanted an unassailably Islamic criterion for abolishing doctrines, rituals, and institutions promulgated by the official 'ulama (religious authorities) in response to specific historical circumstances in particular those of the Ottoman state.
It will be clear that Al-Afghani and Abduh's reformism was highly selective it combined:
  1. A selective "back to basics" fundamentalism in behaviour and.

  2. A selective modernism that accepted Western science and some Western political ideas most notably liberal democracy and constitutional government.
Following their deaths in 1897 and 1905 respectively Al-Afghani and Abduh's selectivist approach however was abandoned by their successors - most notably by Abdu's disciple Rashid Rida (1865-1935). Under Rida's guidance the Salafiyya movement developed a pronounced anti-Western and conservative focus, several factors are to blame for this:
  1. The political upheavals in the Middle East following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire by the allies after the World War I.

  2. The abolition of the Caliphate.

  3. The establishment of British and French protectorates (in reality colonies) in:

    • Iraq,

    • Palestine,

    • Syria,

    • Transjordan.

  4. The increasing British grip upon and exploitation of Egypt.

  5. The expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestine.
Moreover from the late 1920s onwards Rida championed an unequivocal rapprochement between the Salafiyya and the Wahhabi doctrines promoted by the newly resurgent Al-Saud dynasty in Arabia. This was entirely understandable given that the Al-Saud's triumphant reunification of most of Arabia under their rule and their establishment in 1932 (with significant British help) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the sole example then to hand of a successful exercise of Muslim military and political power.

That Western governments failed to see that the assertion of Western military, economic, and political, hegemonic power in the Arabic heartlands first during 1990-1991 Iraq war, followed by the years of sanctions, and culminating in the "catastrophically successful" invasion and brutally inept occupation of Iraq in 2003 would make the logic of this alarming confluence freshly relevant today is one of the more savagely ironic developments in modern history.

It is this context also which shaped the Muslim Brothers' conception of Islam as an organic whole. A conception summed up in the slogan; "religion, world and state" - "din wa dunya wa dawla" - and in their characterisation of Islamic political thought as sufficient unto itself and in no need of extraneous outside influences. Not for nothing did they coin the slogan: "al-Qur'ân dusturna" ("the Qur'an is our constitution"). Nor, given the context in which they found themselves is it surprising that they only relatively recently have re-evaluated the original modernist aspects of the Salafiyya, incorporated them into their political standpoint, and dissociated themselves both from what the Salafiyya has now become and from the violent overthrow of the state advocated by followers of Sayyid Qutb.

The Evolution Of Salafist Anti-Western Conservativism And Its influence upon The Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Afghani and Abduh's selective borrowing from the West in order to reform and renew Islamic civilisation as it sought to continue to exist under the impact of expanding Western power only made sense while most of the Dar al-Islam remained under Muslim rule and Muslim societies retained the freedom to exercise the political powers of decision and choice. After World War I the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent relentless Kemalist assault upon the Turkish ulama, and the establishment of British and French regimes in the heartlands of the Dar al-Islam, meant that the priority inevitably shifted from renewal to resistance. The reestablishment of the Islamic polity became the sine qua non for everything else. The changed situation dictated a profound alteration of priorities and this shift is unambiguously seen in Rashid Rida's work. Whereas his mentor Abduh had been immersed in the project to modernise of Islamic jurisprudence, Rida's project was Caliphal restoration.

This is the context in which the convergence of the hitherto modernist Salafiyya with Saudi fundamentalist Wahhabism can be understood. From Rida and his followers' standpoint the Dar al-Islam had fallen to Christian outsiders and the House of Saud were the sole exemplars of a militarily and politically successful Muslim polity.

It is this context also which shaped the Muslim Brothers' conception of Islam as an organic whole. A conception summed up in the slogan; "religion, world and state" - "din wa dunya wa dawla" - and in their characterisation of Islamic political thought as sufficient unto itself and in no need of extraneous outside influences. Not for nothing did they coin the slogan: "al-Qur'ân dusturna" ("the Qur'an is our constitution"). Nor, given the context in which they found themselves is it surprising that they only relatively recently have re-evaluated the original modernist aspects of the Salafiyya, incorporated them into their political standpoint, and dissociated themselves both from what the Salafiyya has now become and from the violent overthrow of the state advocated by followers of Sayyid Qutb.

Afterword: I am publishing this here rather than on my main site somewhat earlier than planned in response to several emails asking for information on the evolution of Salafist thought and how it is relevant today.

mfi

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