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Aladdin Sarhan {*}

Godgiven Order

Who are the Salafis?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2012, P. 523-526
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the Arab upheaval countries the Salafist version of Islam plays a considerable part. Also in Germany the Salafists are very much in the news. They represent an Islam that is strictly oriented towards the model of its early days. It allows no room for interpretation, and aims at a complete transformation of society in the sense of an Islamic order.


The pluralism within the Muslim community in Germany is a central finding of statistical surveys and qualitative studies that have been conducted in the past five years. The Muslim diversity existing in this country also includes the followers of Salafism. Still until 2006 science and media simply described the Salafist-oriented Muslims as "(neo) fundamentalists." Their belief was often seen as a section of "Islamism" - mostly without sufficiently going into detail about the characteristics that distinguish this section and separate it from others.

Since 2006, this situation is continually changing. On the one hand the intensified propaganda activities of Salafist protagonists contribute to this, as well as the combined processes of expansion, professionalization and differentiation of the Salafist propaganda in this country. These and other developments cause the growing interest in the discussion about the Salafist body of thought. In this context it is essential to define the nature of Salafism and to illustrate its theological foundations, so that it is possible to distinguish Salafist-oriented Muslims from other followers of the Islamic religion.


The True Islam and its Distortion

The contemporary Salafism is a religio-puritanical, revisionist, backward-looking religious and ideological community. It exists in various, in terms of their policy differing movements of Sunni Islamism. The core of Salafism is the fundamental conviction that the Islamic religion during the lifetime of the "righteous ancestors" (as-salaf as-salih, for short: salaf) was "authentic" and "pure", and that it therefore was possible optimally to practice it.



The Salaf generations include the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), his companions (sahaba), and the disciples of the companions of the Prophet (tabi'un), as well as those who have been trained by these disciples (at-tabi'i tabi'n). According to the Salafist point of view, the year 855, the year of death of the Sunni jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal marks the end of the blessed Salaf era.

In the following generations, however, the "true" Islam went through some processes of distortion, which would continue to have an effect up to the present day. This tendency resulted in the decline of Islam, and the worldwide political impotence of the Muslims. In order to restore or ensure the purity and truthfulness of Islam, it would be inevitable to orient the religious practice, lifestyle as well as the political and legal system towards Quran and Sunnah (Prophetic Tradition) - as they were allegedly understood by the righteous ancestors. Influential Muslim religious scholars such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) contributed considerably to the creation and development of contemporary Salafism.

Salafis can be described generally as Sunni Muslims. In the areas of compulsory rituals and religiously determined patterns of behavior they follow the doctrine of the righteous forefathers whose methods they use in order to derive religious verdicts from Quran and Sunnah.

In demarcation from the majority of Muslims, Salafists categorically reject any interpretation of religious and authoritative sources (Qur'an and Sunnah) by adapting them to the changing social and political circumstances. They regard this as "inadmissible innovation" (bid'a, plural: bida'). According to the Salafist worldview, innovations inevitably result in "unbelief" (kufr). In addition, in the Salafist discourse the Salaf-era is represented as the "golden era" (al-'asr az-zahabi) of the Muslim community: In it an Islamic empire was established. This glorification contrasts with the disparagement of the contemporary societies, which are felt to be "decadent" and the worldwide splittings of the Muslims. They were the result of abortive developments in the religious practice.

The Islamic traditions ascribe to the righteous forefathers a pious lifestyle and a high level of commitment to the cause of faith and to the Muslim community (umma). That's why those generations of believers have a role model function for the majority of Muslims at the level of ethics and morality. Just at this point, Salafists go ahead. They make the Salaf generations an icon, and are of the opinion that the intellectual heritage of the righteous forefathers contained what alone could be considered to be the "real" Islam (al-Islam al-sahih). They vehemently demand the meticulous imitation of the righteous forefathers in all areas of life. It would therefore be necessary to reject alleged, inadmissible innovations that can not be proved by the tradition of Quran, Prophet and companions, and consistently to banish them from the religious practice and lifestyle.

But the Salafists selectively take no account of those traditions which report on conflicts, divisions and disunity among Muslims during the lifetime of the Salaf - before and after the Prophet's death. The ideal of the Salaf, towards which the followers of the Salafi belief want uncompromisingly to orient themselves, may therefore be described in many ways as "utopia".

The Salafist project aims at restoring the "authentic" Islam, and at building a state that is based on this foundation. Muslims should thus recover their former strength. This would only be possible by an unconditional orientation towards the fundamental sources of Islam, and the meticulous imitation of the Salaf in all areas of life. Since Salafism is in the name of "true" Islam striving for the establishment of a solely religiously legitimized social and political order, it must be regarded as a subcategory of Islamism.


Declared Belief in God's Oneness

Its specific concept of God is fundamental to the Salafism. It attaches central importance to the declared belief in the "oneness" of God. The underlying concept is that of "Tawheed". Tawheed, derived from the Arabic verb "wahhada" means "unite / unify" or make something "wahid (one)" and describes the "belief in the oneness and uniqueness of God" (Tilman Nagel, Geschichte der islamischen Theologie - von Mohammed bis zur Gegenwart, München 1994, 12).

For the majority of Muslims, the declared belief in God's oneness and in Muhammad's prophethood is sufficient to be recognized as a Muslim. For Salafist Muslims, however, Tawheed is not only the verbal declaration of belief in the oneness and uniqueness of God, but the consistent internalization and implementation of and adherence to this declaration in all ritual and profane acts that have directly or indirectly to do with God.



A characteristic feature of Salafism is furthermore the rigor in calling for, complying with, and implementing Tawheed in the faith community and in the life of the individual.

The majority of Muslims assesses every worship of other deities besides the one God as polytheism and idolatry (shirk). Right at this point, Salafists go ahead and argue that there are forms of associating partners to God which can only be fully unmasked, if they are judged by the criteria of Tawheed. In Salafism, the term "shirk" is therefore conceptually extended: as a counterpart of Tawheed. Shirk would come about, if the performing of an act is not based solely on the intention to serve the One God.

The background to this strict view can be found in the Salafi belief: It declares every human action to be a form of worship. This view is proved by the literalist interpretation of Quranic verses (for example: "Say: Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds: No partner hath He: this am I commanded, and I am the first of those who bow to His will." [Qur'an: Sura 6, verse 162-163]). Consequently, many Muslims are guilty of Shirk, even if they by speaking the Creed declare their faith in the existence of a sole deity: They violate either directly or indirectly, respectively overtly or covertly God's universal and absolute claim to sovereignty and worship. Since Shirk would result in apostasy from Islam and be tantamount to an act of rebellion against the One God, the one Creator and Ruler of the universe, it would - according to Salafist belief - punished by God with the extinction of all good deeds previously done by a person, and eternal damnation in hell.

Salafis reject the man-made legislative and judicial powers and the executive authority as institutionalized forms of shirk. They demand that a secular ruler reigns only according to the Salafi understanding of Quran and Sunnah. Otherwise, he is labelled as idol (Taaghoot, literally something/someone that/who exceeds the limits), and the submission to his authority or jurisdiction is dismissed as idolatry ('ibadat attaghut). According to Salafists, rulership (hakimiyya) and submissiveness ('ubudiyya) are only due to the one God, the absolute Sovereign.

Both the separation of powers and human legislation as well as judicature and law enforcement of the man-made laws and verdicts are condemned by Salafi scholars as aggression against the "Hakimiyyat Allah" on earth. For they confirm thus the rule of men instead of God's rule. Here, competing laws which are applied in addition to the divine and differ from Quran and Sunnah are regarded as the enactment of laws besides (those of) God (tashri 'min dun-i-llah). Refraining from judging or reigning by the laws of God (tark l-hukm bi-ma anzala Allah), in case the secular ruler replaces them by other legal bases (al-hukm bighair ma Anzala Allah), is also regarded as a heresy.

This heresy has its origin in the suspension of God's absolute sovereignty. The creatures are thus involved in the Creators reign. This is unacceptable from the perspective of Salafi belief. All Salafists agree: a legal system that differs from the rules which are laid down in Koran and Sunna is a misdemeanor against the system of God. According to this view, it is Shirk if you produce, apply and acknowledge laws that contradict God's judgments. This applies to those laws which e.g. prohibit polygamy or regard the stoning of adulterers and cutting off the hand as barbaric acts and make it a punishable offense.


The World is Divided into two Antagonistic Spheres

The "true Muslim", by contrast, is propagated as an obedient servant of God ('abd), who in all areas of life completely surrenders to the will of his sole Creator. This Creator is at the same time the absolute ruler. It is possible to learn His divine will from Quran and Sunnah - exclusively according to the interpretation of Salaf. This is the consequence of the fact that the ancestors understood the word of God in the same way as the Prophet and put it into practice in all areas of life, and that any deviation from it must be rejected as Bid'ah.

The commitment to Tawheed and the public condemnation of Shirk are therefore at the center of the Salafi doctrine (al'aqida as-Salafi). Every doctrine which admittedly refers to Islam but does not give central importance to Tawheed was wrong; it would not be accepted by God and could therefore not rescue its followers from the temporary or eternal punishment in the fires of hell in the Hereafter.

The Salafist doctrine includes basic dogmas that form the core of faith. It deals with crucial issues such as the nature of God and of the Koran, the role of human reason, the interpretation of the divine commandments and prohibitions in Quran and Sunnah as well as the manner of their implementation. It also provides principles of classification and a reference framework for the development of religious legal positions with regard to current issues. The Salafist doctrine thus provides a fixed framework, which does not tolerate any deviation or difference.



In a conceptual framework, every human behavior is according to the literal meaning of the verses of the Koran and the Tawheed-understanding classified in categories, and used for the classification of individuals in true believer (mu'mM), hypocrite (munafiq), evil-doer (fasiq), polytheist (mushrik) or infidel (kafirs). In the ideological perception of the Salafist doctrine, you detect therefore a dichotomy. This dichotomy divides the world into two antagonistic spheres: in compliance with Islam and not in compliance with Islam, or faith (iman) and unbelief (kufr).

The Salafist spectrum ranges worldwide from missionary groups and actors, to religious scholars close to the government, to legalistically behaving political persons and parties, and to jihadist networks. Both the complexity of the socio-political context in which Salafists are active and the priorities and foci set by the respective authorities and Salafist groups contribute to this diversity. Despite their diversity in terms of political action, all Salafist movements share the same religious principles and follow mainly the same guiding intellectual forces.

In addition, Salafist movements of every shade of opinion share the same views with respect to society and State. Depending on the movement, they strive on a short or long-term basis for the complete transformation of State, society and private conduct of life of each individual according to certain standards, which they posit as "God's will". The intended political and social goals therefore are the same in all Salafi movements. They differ mainly in the choice of means by which these goals are to be achieved.

Although the principles of Salafism are constant, they are variably used to (de-) justify the social and legal systems, and the systems of government. This depends mainly on the respective political orientation of the opinion-leading Salafist religious scholars, and on the resulting positioning of the respective movement to society and State.


Four Types of Salafist Movements

1) The empirically testable social reality of Salafism proves that four types of Salafist movements exist: pietistic-oriented Salafists are characterized by their pragmatic, temporary refraining from political activity. They refer to the doctrine "Today it belongs to good politics to refrain from politics" (d. 1999), which can be traced back to the great Salafist scholar Nasir al-Din al-Albani. They therefore initially give priority to purifying (tazkiyya) religion from inadmissible innovations. The purification from "un-Islamic" elements also applies to the character of the individual and of society. Based on this, the education (tarbiyya) of individuals and of the community follows, in order to teach them the "true" Islam by means of da'wah. According to their view, the existence of a "genuine" and therefore vital Muslim community after the ideal of the Salaf is the prerequisite for the establishment of a powerful Islamic state. In the phase of Tazkiyya and Tarbiyya, they reject political activism and even the use of violence in the name of jihad, because the failure of these ambitions could result in the oppression and persecution of Muslims.

2) In addition, there exists a group of Salafist religious scholars, who play a major role in the state's political system and serve as a medium for supporting the ruling elite. In Saudi Arabia, they even are an essential part of the political elite. 3) Politically active legalistic Salafists, by contrast, strive for a non-violent change of the political and social order. 4) In contrast to them, the jihadist Salafists expedite the use of violence in order to establish an Islamic state.

These four groups can be described as "fractions" of an in theological terms coherent movement. This theological coherence, which exists in spite of differences in terms of forms of political activity, makes the shifting from one Salafist movement to another easier for the followers, and blurs the differences between them.

Advocating the Salaf generations as a social, normative ideal, towards which every Muslim has to orient himself in all situations of life, holds the potential for conflict. The legitimacy of individual differences and cultural differences between people is negated. Compared with his/her functionalization as an executor of the will of God and of the regulations of a supposedly Islamic order, the self-development of the individual fades thus into the background. In the Salafists' understanding of Tawheed, God alone is sovereign, not the people.
The logical consequence of this rigid understanding is on the one hand that they regard both laws and standards which are the result of democratic processes and the in Germany prevailing rule of law as the usurpation of the sovereignty of God, and on the other hand strive for the transformation of State, society and individual conduct of life of every individual in accordance to certain standards that are posited by them as "God's will." This is to be understood not only as a religious creed but as politically motivated propaganda.

This propaganda implies the dichotomous division of the world into "good" and "evil" or "in compliance with Islam" and "not in compliance with Islam." According to Salafists of any orientation, the Germans are "infidels." Shiites, mystics, followers of other faiths and schools of thought as well as secular-oriented Muslims, who claim to be Muslims, are no "genuine Muslims."
The dissemination of this view is suitable to promote the development of parallel societies - also in Germany.


    {*} Aladdin Sarhan works as consultant in the field of Islamic studies and strategic evaluator in the Rhineland-Palatinate Office of Criminal Investigation. He teaches at the Faculty of Reflection on Culture at the University of Witten/Herdecke. His main areas of research and teaching are: Islam as a political factor, militant Islamism, Salafism, Muslim life in Germany, humanistic hermeneutics of sacred texts, transformation processes in countries with a Muslim majority, courses in politics and media in Egypt and the Gulf region.


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