The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged salafism
Further reading on Salafi attitudes to greetings on non-Muslim holidays

Since we recently discussed the phenomenon of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi preachers warning their followers against wishing Coptic Christians a happy Easter, some reading I did yesterday may shed some light on the matter. It's from a book of essays called Global Salafism edited by Roel Meijer that contains contributions by many leading experts on the subject — Stephane Lacroix and Bernard Heykal on the Saudi variant to name but a few. The introduction refers to four "tensions" of Salafism as currently understood (that is, in its heavily Wahabbi-influenced dominant contemporary). These tensions, the author argues, have transformed a revivalist / puritan movement into one that is more politically problematic and often intolerant. Here's some screen grabs from the Kindle edition, since Amazon's Cloud Reader does not allow for even limited cut-and-paste:

There are also some interesting passages on the more recent doctrinal / ideological sources of anti-Shia sectarianism (which of course date back all the way back to the fitna but have more recent sources of revival:

In Translation: Salafis vs Ikhwan

We’ve discussed several times, on this blog, the rivalries between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. If one goes by the results of the 2011–2012 parliamentary elections, the Salafis are the MB’s most potent political adversary, able to challenge them at the ballot box better than any other political movement. In terms of social outreach, the Salafis have a far more diverse and spread charitable movement than the MB’s, albeit one that is fragmented among any different organizations. And with regard to religious legitimacy, not only can the Salafis out-Islam pretty much everybody, they have a longstanding suspicion towards the MB’s secretive structure and the idolization of figures such as the movement’s founder, Hassan al-Banna (indeed, the former regime used to encourage Salafis to denounce Brothers as practitioners of shirk — basically polytheism or undermining the oneness of God — and hizbiyya, the prioritizing of the movement/party over pure adherence to Islamic values.

The article below is about video appearances by major Egyptian Salafi preachers in which they lambast the MB on religious ground. This is based on the usual roster of Salafi critiques honed by late 20th-century Saudi Wahhabi clerics such as Sheikh Bin Baz and Sheikh Rabee al-Madkhali — hence the references to “Madkhalis” in the article below to denote his followers. If you really want to know more, follow a site such as this one which goes on at length about Madkhali’s “exposure” of the MB, and especially al-Banna as a Sufi (the horror!) and Sayyid Qutb as a crypto-Leninist Ash’ari. There is a whole universe of anti-MB Salafi literature on the internet. Of course, this tension (which is not universal to all Salafis, of course) is one aspect of the uneasiness the Saudis feel towards the Muslim Brothers’ rise in Egypt and elsewhere. It appears it is bound to be a major feature of the post-uprisings Arab world for years to come, too.

Featuring translations from the Arabic press in Egypt and elsewhere is made possible with the support of Industry Arabic, a really good translation service specializing in Arabic. Reports, press articles, technical documents — you name it, they can do it. If you have professional Arabic translation needs, check these guys out.

Salafis Wage Video Warfare Against Muslim Brotherhood

Abdel Wahab Eissa, al-Tahrir, 16 September 2012

Political disagreement, or maybe even rupture, has come to characterize the relationship between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood recently, as statements from both camps against each other have become more heated and full of invective, which indicates that the united front they seem to present is only against common enemies. Some of these statements have been compiled by the Madkhali Salafi Front in a single video that contains harsh commentary and criticism against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini. It also includes grim, virulent attacks by Sheikh Yasser Burhami, and a fierce offensive waged by the premier Madkhali sheikh in Egypt, Sheikh Mohamed Said Raslan.

The website of supporters of the Salafi Da’wa, which is affiliated with Raslan’s Madkhali Front, posted a compilation video of these three Sheikhs of the Salafi Da’wa attacking the Muslim Brotherhood on YouTube and other websites. The first of these was Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini, who spoke about how the MB exploited his name in their electoral campaign by claiming that he had endorsed their candidacy for the People’s Assembly before the revolution. Expressing his outrage at this slur they made against him, he made a stern denial of this and stressed that it would be impossible to join ranks with the MB due to the differing beliefs of the Salafi and MB camp. In his view, the MB must correct their beliefs, since the corruption of their beliefs is behind every problem. The slogan of the Salafi Da’wa is “The word ‘monotheism’ before unification of the word,” and there is no use in succumbing to innovation until their creed is brought into line with that of the Pious Predecessors. He concluded by saying: “Therefore, I forbid all these existing coalitions. There is nothing good in them.”

Meanwhile, the video of Sheikh Yasser Burhami, the first deputy of the Salafi Da’wa, was extremely dangerous, as he spoke clearly and explicitly of his fear of the MB, and stated that if Egypt allowed them to, they would get rid of his Salafi Da’wa. In response to a question he was posed: “We’ve learned not to think ill of others, and yesterday we heard you say that the MB would get rid of the Salafi Da’wa if they were able to,” Sheikh Burhami spoke about the danger of leaving this matter up to the MB, and how to prevent them from gaining total power from the Egyptian state and to protect the Da’wa: “This is from experience of their way of dealing, from which we have suffered a lot. I was once kicked out of a mosque. They picked me up like this and threw me out. I haven’t forgotten that. Of course, they regret it now because it was a heated moment, and had an impact on me. They disagreed among themselves, but they said, ‘Kick him out of the mosque,’ and I went out, they kicked me out.” Someone behind him spoke, whose voice was not picked up by the microphone, and Burhami responded, “No, no, the situation has changed a lot now. God is the One from Whom we seek assistance.” Burhami added, “Knowledge is the correct path to a good relationship with the MB, it’s the powerful presence. In this case, the relationship would be great.” He repeated this phrase several times, “The powerful presence, then the relationship would be great.”

In this video, Burhami revealed his view of the relationship with the MB in the past and present, as well as his future plans for this relationship. The third video was of the Sheikh of Egyptian Madkhalis, Mohamed Said Raslan, and it also concerned his view of the MB. The makers of the video began this clip with a word stating how proud the Madkhalis were that the previous statements by Huwaini and Burhami on their vision of the MB had already been anticipated by their own sheikh, but they had not taken note. The compiler of the video wrote, “This is the essence of what was said by the Lion of the Sunnah, the Sheikh of the Tribulation Mohamed Said Raslan, but people believe what they want to believe, and do not seek the truth.” Then Sheikh Raslan spoke, delivering a grave warning against empowering the MB, but to be precise, he did not mention the MB by name, but rather the website confirmed the video in which he said, “You will soon be oppressed in the name of religion by those who degrade you. Indeed, a group of people is coming to take revenge, they are not coming for the sake of ‘There is no god but God’ – which they did not fight on behalf of for a single day – but rather they battled whoever fought on behalf of this affirmation, and they are enemies of the truth: these are not the Jews, the Christians, the secularists or the communists. These enemies of truth are Sunnis. Whoever considers their condition wherever the Sunnis have been in power – which is the best witness and greatest proof – only the Sunnis and those who preached the Sunnah have been a threat, they fought no one other than these people, and whenever they gained power in a land, they pursued them and killed them mercilessly, and the case of the Imam al-Albani Center is not far from people’s minds.” He was referring to when militias of Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, attacked the Imam al-Albani Center in Gaza, destroying it and seizing everything inside.

Raslan added: “They sow corruption on the earth in the name of religion, they cause people to deviate from the creed in the name of Islam. What do they offer to people? Delusions and superstitions, since they are ignorant of the truth of what was brought by Muhammad (PBUH).” Then Sheikh Raslan directed a message to the Egyptian people, saying: “You’re a nice, oblivious people that suffered great wrongs. You are about to receive the severest punishment in an age of corruption that claims to be transitory, even though it is more corrupt. Their marriage with the authorities will be like Christian marriage – without divorce. Those people, if they are able, will get into your pores and your minds, mingle with your blood, and take possession of the key posts of power in the country in such a way that they will only be able to be dislodged by spilling rivers of blood. The tribulation lies in that whoever opposes them is an infidel – this is what their sheikhs propagate now (and whoever opposes establishing sharia law, how should they be described?…and whoever battles against religion…how shall they be judged?). This is the greatest mistake, that the unfortunate people of this good country are exposed to the greatest deception in the name of religion that this good country has ever faced.”

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak | World |

From a really great TIME piece by Ashraf Khalil :

Ultraconservative Salafist Muslims and other Islamist factions essentially started this fight when—bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs—they marshaled a large  protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.. But having sparked the protests, the Islamists seem to have almost immediately lost control.

By Wednesday evening the clashes had begun—often despite the best efforts of some of the Islamist groups on the scene. On Thursday, I witnessed this dynamic in action as a temporary peace between police and protestors dramatically broke down.

A group of young men suddenly resumed throwing rocks at the police—who largely huddled behind a phalanx of plexiglass shields and made no offensive moves at first.  Into this maelstrom stepped an incredibly brave group of bearded men—and one woman wearing the full Saudi-style niqab. Facing down a hail of rocks and yelling for calm, they essentially acted as voluntary human shields for the police. (In a slightly humorous side-drama, the Islamist men repeatedly kept dragging the woman away and yelling at her to stay on the sidelines for her own safety.)

Read the whole thing.

The rise of Salafism in Syria

"we’re even willing to say we’re al-Qaeda to annoy the regime"

Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith reporting for the FT from Beirut:

Syria’s rebels are also driven by religion in their relentless 17-month campaign to bring down Bashar al-Assad, first through peaceful protests and now through a military struggle. Abu Berri says he became a committed Salafi, the ultraconservative Sunni sect, after spending nine years in conservative Saudi Arabia.

Many of his peers, he says, are becoming Salafi even if they have little understanding of this brand of puritanical Islam. The charismatic leader of a Homs brigade, Abdelrazzaq Tlas, traded his moustache for a beard, he notes. “They grow beards to defy the regime,” he says. “In fact, we’re even willing to say we’re al-Qaeda to annoy the regime.”

This kind of comment goes to the heart of the trouble in identifying who's a jihadist in Syria, and what that exactly means, as discussed here the other day. Worth reading the whole thing.

Egypt: Abu Ismail's campaign against US aid

The above graphic is from the Facebook page of presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, aka the world's cuddliest Salafi. It says "Buy your dignity for only LE72".

The calculation it makes is that Egypt's $1.3bn in US military aid amounts to about LE6bn, which divided by 84 million Egyptians makes just about LE72. What a bargain! Of course Sheikh Hazem — a Salafi from the Muslim Brotherhood (the MB-Salafi distinction becomes irrelevant away from syndicate and national politics) — is always full of brilliant ideas. His entry on Wikipedia says he "has presented 10 great national projects in all fields to overcome most of the Egyptian people problems." I'll have to do a fuller profile at some point.

Yet another sign that the US-Egypt NGO crisis is plumbing into new depths of facile populism. Of course, not only on the Egyptian side.

In Translation: Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?

This week’s In Translation piece is a departure from the usual focus on commentary on current events in the Arabic press. I chose a piece recommended by As’ad AbuKhalil, aka Angry Arab, that takes a scholarly look at the key inspirations of the Salafi movement, the theologian and thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who was born in Harran in what is today Turkey and lived most of his life in what is today Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s times coincided with the destructive Mongol invasions which razed Baghdad and, from his perspective, must have appeared as an end-times event. He is considered to be a key inspiration inspiration to the Wahhabi and contemporary Salafi movement.

Angry Arab wrote of this piece:

This is an interesting discussion of the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and how it differed from Hanbaliyyah on some theological issues. Ibn Taymiyyah warrants a lot of academic attention (given his influence on today’s Islamists): French Orientalists of the 20th century did pay attention to him but the reason that he is not studied as, say, Sayyid Qutb, is because he left a vast body of literature and access to this text requires a deep understanding of Arabic. He was a dangerous but effective and sophisticated polemicist.

That’s an important point: a deep understanding of Qu’ranic exegesis necessitates advanced study as a grammatician and even etymologist. For more on Ibn Taymiyya and how the democratization of religion in the Arab world that has given rise to new forms of fundamentalist Islamic thought, I recommend reading As’ad AbuKhalil’s critical essay The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arabic Islamic Thought At The End Of The 20th Century [PDF 2.6MB]. It includes his usual verve against the late Saudi Mufti, Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, who counts among the handful of founders of contemporary Salafism.

This is a difficult piece, but I thought it might be enlightening not only for the learned (and unorthodox interpretation) the writer gives of Ibn Taymiyya, but also in the second degree as telling of some of the discussions taking place in the quality Arab press in reaction to the electoral success of the Salafis in Egypt and the rising intellectual and spiritual influence of the Salafi movement more generally.

As always, this translation is possible thanks to Industry Arabic, which provides multi-lingual translation of many different types — media, technical, legal, etc. — and really did a great job on this difficult piece.



The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists

By Abdel Hakim Ajhar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 14 December 2011

The terms and concepts that have achieved wide circulation with the Arab revolutions – those such as democracy, tyranny, civil society, and citizenship – have no place in the writings of Islamist thinkers before the Nahda period. However, the writings of one such pre-Nahda1 thinker, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), contain material that could enable his followers to adopt a different mentality, one that would guide them – with a little effort — to these prevailing concepts of the age.

The Ibn Taymiyya whom we read about is not the real Ibn Taymiyya: he is a theoretical reproduction and refabrication that has made him into one of the authorities for religious extremists among both his supporters and detractors alike. The real Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, the one who needs to be read by Islamists ascending to the political forefront, is one who will help these Islamists adopt a flexible, rationalistic mode of thinking, and perhaps change many of the intellectual assumptions these forces still live by and consider to be fundamental tenets not subject to review.

Ibn Taymiyya theoretically belongs to the Hanbali school, which is held to be synonymous with, or the basic source of the contemporary Salafi movement in one way or another. In reality, however, Ibn Taymiyya criticized the Hanbali school2 more than any other thinker – whether from within the Hanbali school or without – and his criticisms were profound enough to affect the foundations of the whole school. For example, he criticized the literalism of the Hanbalis’ reading of the text of the Qur’an, which is one of their major tenets, and called for an interpretation of the Qur’an that differs from traditional interpretations such as the those of the Mu’tazilites and later Ash’arites3 who applied the theory of figurative language in this matter. Ibn Taymiyya resorted to a different theoretical foundation to explain his principle of interpretation, which relies on the idea of the “meaning of the text,” or the “intention of the text.” Not only does Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation — which derives from a consideration of the text’s intention — differ from linguistic interpretation, but it also differs from the theory of exoteric and esoteric meaning that Sufis and some other religious groups employed.

Ibn Taymiyya announces his stance supportive of interpretation when he accepts the explanation of the well-known Qur’anic verse that states:

“None knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it.’”4

Ibn Taymiyya makes “those firmly rooted in knowledge” grammatically conjoined with “God,” thus refusing to split the verse and limit interpretation to God alone. This reading is the interpretation of a minority of thinkers in the history of Islamic thought who possessed great intellectual daring, such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Rushd, and it contradicts the views of most conservative schools in Islam. Ibn Taymiyya rejects the Hanbali position, which says that “those firmly rooted in knowledge” do not “know its interpretation,” and that God alone is the one who knows this: He monopolizes it for himself and will reveal it on Resurrection Day. Those holding this view back it up with a verse that says:

“Do they look for aught else but its interpretation? The day its interpretation comes…”5

For the Hanbalis and many conservative currents, the Qur’an is a text that is closed-off on many sides, which adds a sort of secrecy and ambiguity to it. This is in contrast with Ibn Taymiyya, who thought that the Qur’an was an open, completely comprehensible text, and that human beings – to whom this text was sent – are able to understand it through reflection and uncover its intended meanings. Moreover, this understanding is not the exclusive possession of specific religious or spiritual authorities, but rather is granted to any educated or learned person. Ibn Taymiyya says on this point:

God gave an absolute command to reflect on the Qur’an, and did not exempt anything from reflection. He did not say, “Don’t reflect on the obscure passages, and reflection is impossible without understanding.”6

In this context, he criticizes the Hanbalis and some Sunnis who

without complete experience… supposed that only God knows the meaning of the obscure passages” and who would say: “texts conform to their external sense, and they reject any interpretation that contradicts the external sense.”

Ibn Taymiyya levels harsh criticism at this understanding and accuses those who hold this belief – who are mostly Hanbalis and Zahiris7 – of contradiction, lack of experience and of holding a literal understanding. He asks the, “What virtue lies in obscure passages such that God keeps the knowledge of their meaning to himself?” Ibn Taymiyya didn’t stop there; rather, he provided all the philosophical premises to justify his theory of interpretation, as he considered the Qur’an to be “originated”8, and that its words originate in God’s essence little by little according to the needs of revelation, before they emerge from the Divine Essence as audible expressions able to be spoken and recorded by human beings. Ibn Taymiyya confirms his view with a Qur’anic verse that is explicit on this matter:

“No Remembrance from their Lord comes to them lately renewed.”9

Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, adopted interpretations of the Qur’an whose boldness exceeded that of Muslim philosophers preceding him, since he believes that the world has no beginning and no end and is an eternal process of creation and re-creation, and that the world moves according to its own nature, and according to necessity and the principle of causality. In this way, he breaks with one of the most pervasive ideas in Islam – creation ex nihilo – as is held by Hanbalis, Ash’arites, Mu’tazilites and the jurists.10 He backs up his perspective by interpreting the Divine Intention, as he says when he treats a group of Qur’anic verses that prove his theory. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the Qur’anic verse that says

“Surely thy Lord accomplishes what He desires”11

means that God is eternally accomplishing things, since it is impossible for God’s efficacy to be posterior to His will, and for His will to be posterior to His very existence. Therefore, there are three necessary things that are co-eternal: God, His will and His efficacy. This is what puts the world in a state of eternal creation. This eternal creation is proven by the Qur’anic verses that refer to this gradation in the creation of one thing after another with no beginning, such as:

“Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke”12

“His Throne was upon the waters”13

“Then [he] sat Himself upon the Throne.”14

All this confirms the existence of a chain of creation and its lack of a beginning. Ibn Taymiyya here seems very close to Ibn Rushd’s understanding of the same issue, but he is even bolder, since Ibn Rushd has decided that the transition from God’s eternity to the process of creation requires intermediary entities, such as planets and spheres, as Aristotle before him had hypothesized. Ibn Taymiyya rejects intermediary entities, and argues that the transition from eternity to the corporeal world takes place through origination within the Divine Essence. His interpretation of origination is that it is the transferal of the Divine Attributes from their whole position as genera and species to individual intellectual potentialities within the Essence, then these potentialities are transferred to external essences and sensory existents. Ibn Taymiyya believes that the true intention behind the Qur’anic verse that says of God “Every day He is upon some labour”15 is that origination within the Essence is an eternal process.

The Qur’an is not too obscure for human understanding; it is completely comprehensible by the person able to reflect upon it and uncover its various meanings and intentions. Without this belief about understanding the Qur’anic text, the entire heavenly message becomes meaningless, because the message is aimed at mankind, and it would be futile for God to bar mankind from knowledge of all its details, especially its obscure and ambiguous passages.

Mankind enjoys the highest value in the universe because the Divine Attributes have been transferred to him in varying amounts. They exist in God in their capacity as attributes of perfection, whereas they exist in human beings as relative attributes of varying degree. Therefore, Ibn Taymiyya accepts the Prophetic hadith that says: “The Merciful created man in His own image,” and he allows that the pronoun “his” refers to “The Merciful” and not to man.16 Ibn Taymiyya does not intend anthropomorphization, as his followers and his detractors understood it, but rather he means something close to Ibn Arabi’s understanding of the hadith, where man is in a certain sense the image of God. It is through this image that man recovers the attributes that he has lost, and thereby recovers his central status.

Because of mankind’s status, Ibn Taymiyya rejects the view that man is incapable of attaining the truth by his own faculties. For him, mankind is capable of knowing the truth through his natural powers known as his “innate disposition,” as mentioned in the prophetic hadith: “All human beings are born with innate disposition….” This is the human nature that enables a person to attain the truth without the help of anyone, and even without the help of heavenly inspiration.

Ibn Taymiyya here appears in complete agreement with the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl (d. 581/1185) in his story “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.” The child Hayy, who grows up outside of human society and is ignorant of any language to communicate with, is able to attain the ultimate truth of the world just through his natural capabilities as a human being.

Human nature is disposed to seek knowledge and to will this knowledge, despite people’s varying levels of will in seeking and attaining it. Because of this variation in the will to knowledge, there are a number of people who cannot or do not want to reach the truth through their own powers, and it is for this reason that God sent prophets. Even those people for whose sake prophets were sent do not accept this truth because it comes from heaven, but because their innate disposition accepts it, since the success of prophets is connected with the preparedness of man’s innate disposition to accept their message and for no other reason. If not for this disposition, prophets would not succeed in the first place, since the innate disposition itself that guides some people to the truth is also what causes heavenly inspiration to be accepted.

On the other hand, human beings act on the basis of this truth, and are the originators of their actions and responsible for them, because these actions are the natures themselves that God placed within everything, including mankind. Man is capable of freedom, and in his human activity he proceeds according to the principle of “seeking benefit and avoiding loss,” and this is the Qur’anic concept of divine guidance. Consequently, all human actions are explained according to their actual conditions in terms of benefits and losses. This is what causes the universe, the world, and mankind to be governed by cause and effect, including natural objects, which must be understood on this basis.

The world is governed and ordered by its laws, which makes everything in the universe comprehensible. What we do not know today is merely something we ourselves have not been able to figure out, but we will find it out tomorrow. The world is not obscure or a secret, and God does not veil any wonders from human understanding. The universe and its major truths are subject to our human nature, and the knowledge of all this comes about because of our will to knowledge. Not even God’s acts are of the secret and obscure type, as God’s actions are justified by wisdom and by cause. God does nothing in vain, nor does he conceal anything from mankind. His actions are subject to interpretation like anything else.

With these profound conceptions, Ibn Taymiyya breaks the secret about that complex trio in Islam — the Qur’an, prophecy and God — and narrows the circle of the sacred that Muslims have woven around it for a long stretch of their intellectual history. Ibn Taymiyya leaves the world and all its relative and absolute truths open to human knowledge governed by reason. Everything that occurs or will occur tomorrow is in the grasp of our perceptions and our knowledge: there is no wide circle of sacred things, no secret world, and no ambiguity surrounding the facts of the world. Ibn Taymiyya completely rejects the belief held by some people that only God Himself understands His own actions, and that we cannot use logic to understand them — which is a widespread view in the popular understanding of Islam. Contrary to this, God’s actions proceed from his wisdom and are necessarily in harmony with the laws of things and the universe; consequently, they fall within the field of our perception and our intellectual aptitudes.

Ibn Taymiyya, who is considered the spiritual father of the Salafi movement and one of the major authorities in Islamic thought, needs to be re-examined, since there is another aspect to his thought that trains his followers and others to think rationally and to reach a new understanding of Islam. This is an understanding that restores to man his status and his ability to penetrate the world’s secrets, and which pushes him to think about everything, and about the fact that he possesses a degree of truth – however much people may disagree in their conceptions and creeds.

  1. The Nahda: a period of culture awakening that took place in the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th century, which witnessed modernizing reforms in many fields, including the Islamic intellectual heritage. ↩

  2. Hanbali: one of the four schools of law within Sunni Islam. Usually regarded as the most conservative and literalistic. ↩

  3. Mu’tazalite and Ash’arite are two major schools of theology within Islam. The debate the author is obliquely referring to here is over how to handle passages in the Qur’an that pose a certain difficulty, whether because they are obscure or are in apparent conflict with Islamic doctrine (for example, verses that use anthropomorphic language to describe God). Contrary to the Hanbalis, who clung to a rigid literalism in dealing with such passages, the Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites referred to interpreted these verses on the basis that they are employing figurative language, and so managed to resolve any ambiguity or discrepancy. This type of interpretation, which was not without controversy as it involved what some considered an unlicensed deviation from the Qur’anic text, is known in Arabic as ta’wil, in contrast to the more straightforward explanation of unambiguous passages, which is called tafsir. Throughout this translation, “interpretation” is rendering ta’wil and not tafsir. ↩

  4. Qur’an 3:7; the Arabic text is ambiguous, and could also be read as “None knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say ‘we believe in it’…” This was evidently Ibn Taymiyya’s reading of the verse. A. J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted is the translation used throughout for Qur’anic citations. ↩

  5. Qur’an 7:53 ↩

  6. Tafsir of Surat al-Ikhlas, p. 263 ↩

  7. The Zahiris, at one time, were a fifth legal school in Islam, known for their emphasis on adhering to the “external sense,” or zahir of the Qur’an and other religious texts. The school is now considered extinct. ↩

  8. “Originated”: in Arabic, muhdath. The idea that the Qur’an is not coeternal with God, but rather was created by God at a certain point in time. This view, whose most prominent exponent were the Mu’tazilites, is now a minority view in Islam, having been displaced by the Ash’arite belief that the Qur’an is uncreated and hence coeternal with God. ↩

  9. Qur’an 21:2. “Lately renewed” is how Arberry renders muhdath here. ↩

  10. Regarding the world to be eternal is a belief most commonly associated in the Islamic intellectual tradition with the philosophers – those such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, who follow Aristotle in this matter. Most orthodox theologians reject this view, and consider it to be heretical.  ↩

  11. Qur’an 11:107 ↩

  12. Qur’an 41:11 ↩

  13. Qur’an 11:7 ↩

  14. Qur’an 7:54 ↩

  15. Qur’an 55:29 ↩

  16. The Arabic pronoun in the hadith is ambiguous. Interpreters who wished to avoid the anthropomorphic connotations the hadith implies argued that “his” referred to “man” and not “the Merciful,” thus giving the hadith the sense: “The Merciful created man in man’s own image.” ↩

Salafis: Why the surprise?

This is a guest post by Nathan Field.

One of the major themes I’ve noticed in the media after the Salafi al-Nour party won 25% of the votes in the first round of Egyptian elections was a surprise (or as in this week’s In Translation – anger). Yet their success shouldn’t be considered a surprise. Here are four points to ponder:

(1) Most popular T.V. stations to 25% of the votes isn’t a huge jump:

In 2008 Ahmed Hamam and I talked to dozens of Egyptian Salafis, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and various journalists and academics for a study on Salafi Satellite TV Stations in Egypt, published in Arab Media and Society in April 2009.

While precise Nielsen-style statistics don’t exist in Egypt, the general consensus was that Salafi-oriented TV stations such as Al-Nass and Al-Rahma, featuring charismatic preachers like Mohamed Hassan, were drawing higher ratings than any other TV stations in Egypt. So the evidence of the popularity of Salafism has been clear for years.

(2) Salafis were never against politics in theory:

Critics have accused Salafis of hypocrisy for entering electoral politics post-Revolution. An accusation that assumes Salafis were somehow “quietist” or against participation in politics on principle. This is not true; their discourse has always been “political” and entering electoral politics is a logical post-Mubarak step.

The basic Salafi worldview is that society is broken and needs to be reformed (that’s a very political statement). However, the acceptable means for achieving that reform are dictated by the situation in the society they are operating in. During the Mubarak era, Salafis judged that they couldn’t achieve meaningful reform by trying to get involved in politics, so they focused on preaching, i.e. teaching Egytians how to be better Muslims. However, post-February 2011, the equation changed and as the political process opened up, they saw an opportunity to achieve change by working within the system, and without having to compromise on their values. In fact, if they didn’t enter the political game, they would probably have lost support.

(3) Don’t underestimate the “hustle” factor:

Read this excellent article by David Kirkpatrick to understand why Salafis will continue to be a major force in Egyptian politics.  In Egypt, the gaps between the different social classes are huge, culturally as much as economically and the fact is, there is often a condacscneing tendency towards the lower elements of society by those on the upper half.  And that doesn’t work in the political  favor of some of the Liberal Activist groups.

Egyptian liberals would be wise to study the example John Kennedy set when he won his first seat in Congress in 1952.  Despite being from one of the richest and most powerful families in America, John Kennedy went door-to-door in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Boston and simply listened to what average people had to say.   He figured out what they thought important and learned how to communicate effectively to people from all walks of society.  Eventually (but not at first) he became as persuasive addressing a room full of factory workers as he was a group of university professors. 

Stumping for votes is an essential ingredient of success in competitive democratic elections  but so far the liberals have been at a serious self-inflicted disadvantage. They either focus on the biggest picture of issues (such as the constitution) that don’t resonate with most average people, or they aren’t disposed to wander through the slums asking poor people about their needs. 

Bottom line:  if they don’t get better on this front, they won’t be competitive in future elections.  No one is entitled to votes on the basis of their ideas alone! The Salafis are significantly out-hustling the competition and that largely explains their success so far." 

(4) Don’t blame Saudi Arabia – they are a genuine grassroots Egyptian movement:

Critics of Salafism like to argue that they are a “Saudi import,” usually as an attempt to discredit them. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was asked this question at a recent conference in Washington DC and gave what I think is the best answer: there is not likely official, meaningful support from Saudi or other governments in the Gulf for the Salafis, especially for their post-February political activities. The Saudis are not in the business of encouraging other Islamist alternatives so its hard to see what they would gain. However, if the Salafis are receiving external funding from the Gulf, it would likely be from private individuals or institutions in the context of zakat.

Nathan Field is the Co-Founder of Industry Arabic.

In Translation: Fahmy Howeidy on Salafis

The electoral success of the Salafis has alarmed many in secular circles, but not only. Fahmy Howeidy, an Islamist writer considered to be one of the most-read commentators in the Arab world, wrote last week of his relief in seeing a prominent Salafi personality defeated in Alexandria. The article was translated courtesy of Industry Arabic, which is sponsoring our In Translation series.

Society Has Issued Its Verdict

By Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 8 December 2011.

I cannot conceal my feelings of relief at the defeat of Eng. Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, one of the representatives of the Salafi movement, in the run-off election.1 I consider this defeat a message sent to him by society, which should be taken in by him and his ilk of fanatical Salafis, who incessantly terrify people with their abuse of both the sacred and the secular. When I heard the results, I said that the issue here is not a question of who won, but rather the real story is that this man failed and did not succeed.

I do not know Eng. al-Shahat personally, but whenever I heard him or followed him speaking in the media, I felt like he was launching a personal insult at me in my capacity as a researcher concerned with Islamic issues. When I learned of the final tally in the second round of elections in the al-Nuzha electoral district in Alexandria, I said that voters’ aversion to him was a sort of punishment vote against him for the statements he keeps spewing, especially as of late.  This is a story that deserves to be told.

In the first round of the election, Eng. al-Shahat captured about 191,675 votes, while his opponent, the independent lawyer Hosny Duwiedar — who received support from the Muslim Brotherhood — won 144,296 votes. He was known as an extremist ever since his days as a university student. We discovered him when he started appearing on satellite channels, and some newspapers vied with each other to shed light on him due to his perverse views that were considered rich game for those who like to hunt and provoke.

This was most evident when the host of a populist TV show invited him on and barraged him with questions that all focused on his views on people’s private lives, states of dress and undress, the hijab and the niqab, bathing suits, cabarets, alcohol, gambling, entertainment, etc. Our friend responded to all these questions in the negative, to the extent that it seemed like he wanted to overturn everything in society without any gradualism, moderation or compassion. The show’s host did not ask him about anything that concerns the masses like unemployment, education, health or development, but rather confined him to the problems of the elite and the interests of the upper class — which are the interests that most of the media still focuses on at the present time. The man subsequently attacked democracy and declared it to be bid’a2, and he went back to talking about growing out beards, closing down banks, and banning bathing suits. We didn’t hear a word from him about what he could accomplish to benefit God’s creation. It was as if he didn’t want to leave the realm of bans and prohibitions, and give people hope in permissible and recommended acts (those which are encouraged or desirable).3

One of his colleagues who graduated with him from the computer department in the University of Alexandria told me that the media tripped him up, and that the man — who is still in his 40s — is not good at expressing himself. I didn’t rule this out, but I replied that no one forced him to say what he said: he went along with the trick and didn’t disappoint those who laid the trap for him. In politics, speakers have no excuses; rather, they’re held to account for what they utter, and they may even be held to account for what they remain silent on.

Eng. al-Shahat’s views caused a negative impact once he declared them in public. The result of this was that in the run-off election, he lost more than 50,000 votes, as he got 144,296 votes this time, compared to 191,675 votes in the first round.  His opponent, on the other hand, who received around 170,000 votes in the first round, captured more than 28,000 additional votes in the second round for a total of 198,000 votes – and won the district as well.

I have heard from some people that the drop in turnout in the second round came at the expense of Eng. Al-Shahat, but I noted that this drop could have affected his opponent as well. However, those who went to the polls firmly rejected al-Shahat and voted for his rival after al-Shahat painted himself in a negative light, an image the media helped circulate among people.

Society has punished the man by rejecting him, I said, pointing out that this was not a rejection of the person as much as it was an aversion to extremism and an inclination toward moderation. I also said that I felt relieved that he didn’t win. I have another reason for relief, which is that the climate of relative openness that Egypt is now experiencing has allowed society to listen to in public what extremists were saying to their followers in secret. Although it may be considered an appropriate punishment if people turn away from them, such a rejection could lead them to reconsider their views and rein in their discourse. If this rejection takes place, then society will have averted a minor disaster; but if extremists rein in their discourse, then society will have gained a major advantage. In the first case, we would reap a reward; in the second case, we would reap a double reward. But God knows best.

  1. For more on this election, see al-Masri al-Youm.  ↩

  2. A religious term literally meaning “innovation,” bid’a has largely a negative connotation and refers to the sort of innovations in religious matters that constitute a deviation from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. ↩

  3. “Permissible” and “recommended” are terms from Islamic law here. “Permissible” (mubah) refers to acts that are considered morally neutral, i.e. one is neither recommended nor discouraged from performing them. “Recommended” (mandub) acts are those that are encouraged but not mandatory. ↩
Maybe the Salafis are the Tea Party after all

Good piece in the NYT (headline in reference to this post):

But when a few hundred men gathered last week in a narrow, trash-strewn lot between the low cinderblock buildings of this village near Cairo, what they heard from the sheiks, known as Salafis, was a blistering populist attack on the condescension of the liberal Egyptian elite that resonated against other Islamists as well.

“They think that it is them, and only them, who represent and speak for us,” Sheik Shaaban Darwish said through scratchy speakers. “They didn’t come to our streets, didn’t live in our villages, didn’t walk in our hamlets, didn’t wear our clothes, didn’t eat our bread, didn’t drink our polluted water, didn’t live in the sewage we live in and didn’t experience the life of misery and hardship of the people.”

“Brothers,” he continued, “we, the Salafis, the founders of Al Nour Party, were part of the silent majority.”

Except the senior Nour Party official I met a few months ago, who very kindly drove me to Alexandria's train station, has a rather swanky BMW. And I bet Sheikh Mohammed Hassan or Sheikh Yasser Borhami don't live among the poor either. 

The interesting thing about the Salafis is that they are more inclusive in some respects than Muslim Brothers, who have an in-group mentality, are difficult to join (and its members are mostly middle class or elite). At Egyptian universities, Salafi groups often formed among marginal people who feel ill at ease with the more urbane, middle class student population (this was particularly the case at Cairo University). The Egyptian uprising of 2011 has unleashed the rage of a highly stratified society where economic privilege is compounded by the lack of rule of law (just look at how the police talk to people who appear upper class — and connected — compared to those who look poor). 

The sad thing is I have yet to see a response from the Egyptian elite that even begins to address this problem — among the liberals or Brothers at least. 

Salafists are not the Tea Party, they're Shas

Sheikh Yasser Burhami, one of Egypt's most influential SalafistsRabbi Ovida Youssef, spiritual head of Shas








This morning's WSJ makes the Salafist - Tea Party comparison:

Political analysts don't expect the Nour Party and their allies to win more than 5% to 10% of the incoming Parliament. By comparison, leaders of the Brotherhood-aligned Freedom and Justice Party have said they aim for about 35% of the incoming legislature.

But the Salafis' popularity could create a "tea-party effect" on the Brotherhood, said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Egypt at the Brooking's Institution Doha Center. Likening the Salafis to the American conservatives whose electoral gains have helped move the Republican Party to the right, Mr. Hamid said these Islamists have the potential to alter the political platform of the Brotherhood, which has been comparatively more moderate.

"It's very likely that Salafis will be the second-largest bloc in Parliament behind the Brotherhood," said Mr. Hamid. "Down the road, the Salafi competition could...drag the rest of the political spectrum rightwards."

As we await the results, what may be more important than the size of the Salafist presence in the next parliament is their results compared to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafists pose a problem for Egyptian society overall, but also pose a particular problem for the Brotherhood in two ways: first, they are competitors for "the Islamist vote" (whatever that is), but secondly and more importantly, they have an internal impact in a Brotherhood that is partly Salafist-oriented itself. Hence a big question is whether Salafists, who are more intellectually innovative than the Brotherhood has been in years (at least in that they produce a lot of cultural, theoretical and theological output whereas the Brothers largely stick to Hassan al-Banna) might not drag the Brotherhood their way — rather than the entire political spectrum.

If the Salafists remain under 10%, the Brothers can afford to make alliances with centrist forces knowing that the Salafists will have their back on social conservative issues. If they start to rival the Brotherhood itself, it becomes more complicated, especially if both the Brotherhood and Salafists do well, because it will freak out the rest of the political spectrum. But we should also remember that politically, the MB and the Salafists are different political animals. The MB have a political project, whereas good parts of the Salafist movement (which is diverse) might have more narrow interests related to the role of religion in public life, social mores, education and similar issues. They've shown in the past that they could be quietist about who holds power, and the Salafi movement has a strong tradition of defference to the rulers. They are not necessarily upstart radicals out to change the political system, which is how the Tea Party presents itself. They might be more like the Israeli party Shas, focusing on a narrow range of issues. It might not be getting funding for Yeshivas (or madrassas), but rather fighting the culture wars they've been fighting for decades: influencing education, state-backed religious and cultural production (al-Azhar, the Ministry of Awqaf, the Ministry of Culture, etc.), and laws having to do with women and family.

Sufis vs. Salafists

Love the last line in this story on the emerging feud between Salafists and Sufis in Egypt after a bunch of Salafist neanderthals burned several shrines revered by Sufis (Salafists hate any version of Islam that incorporates mysticism and esoteric beliefs): 

Sufi sheikh warns of sectarian war with Salafis | Al-Masry Al-Youm:

A leading figure from the Azeemia Sufi order has warned of a sectarian war between Sufis and Salafis over the destruction of several shrines connected with revered religious figures.

Sheikh Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem labeled as “thugs” Salafis who carried out the attacks, and accused them of trying to erase important symbols of Islamic Egypt.

On Tuesday, the Azeemia order held a symposium in which it announced its intention of forming a political party named the Egyptian Liberation Party, which aims to protect Sufis in the event that either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis come to power.

Abul Azayem also said he had proposed a meeting with Salafis at Al-Azhar in 2006, but they rejected the proposed venue, and even refused to hold a meeting on their own premises.

However, on Monday, Sufi leaders finally managed to meet with their Salafi counterparts in Alexandria, where Salafis denied responsibility for the demolition of shrines.

For his part, Al-Azhar University Professor Ahmed al-Sayeh said he had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun with which to kill those who have demolished shrines.

Bring it on!

Links for 08.16.09 to 08.17.09
U.S. group invests tax-free millions in East Jerusalem land - Haaretz - Israel News | Prosecute them: "American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a nonprofit organization that sends millions of shekels worth of donations to Israel every year for clearly political purposes, such as buying Arab properties in East Jerusalem, is registered in the United States as an organization that funds educational institutes in Israel."
Palestinian state is not synonym for terrorist entity - Haaretz - Israel News | "The Jewish army's work in the territories we still call "Judea and Samaria" is done by non-Jews: Arab police, American instructors, European money. How has Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it? Paradise."
Al-Ahram Weekly | Region | Hamas faces Gelgelt | On links between the Salafist Jihadist group and "our son of a bitch" Muhammad Dahlan.
Is the Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline a Viable Project? The Impact of Terrorism Risk - The Jamestown Foundation | To me this is a ridiculous idea but what do I know?
Al-Ahram Weekly | Culture | Tractatus Franco-Arabicus | A Wittgensteinian review of Sonallah Ibrahim's latest.

Links for 07.05.09 / Comment / Opinion - Chinese exports could crush fragile markets | With consequences in Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa.
Sic Semper Tyrannis : Harper on Ross, Clinton et al | An argument that Dennis Ross' move to NSC is a demotion, plus Hillary vs. Barack stuff.
'Aqoul: Palmyra's Last New Month Post? | Is dying? I know how difficult it is to keep momentum going on a blog, but let's hope not, come on guys...
Shishani on Salafi-Jihadism in the Levant — jihadica | On the Salafasation of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Egyptian chronicles: Gamal Mubarak ; The Prince of Upper Egypt | Will Assyut actually have a "Midan Gamal Mubarak"?
A thing called “politics” carries on « The Moor Next Door | Another excellent post by Kal on Mauritanian politics
Les « règles de l’art » et le prix d’un intellectuel (en Egypte) | Culture et politique arabes | A very good post on Egypt's state literary prizes and the politics of being nominated for them or accepting them, with an extra contribution on recent literary news (and the Farouq Hosni / UNESCO saga) by the august Richard Jacquemond. Bookmark this site, if you read French.