Monday, March 21, 2005

Intellectual godfathers of jihadism (1)

Foreign Service officer Christopher Henzel, a recent graduate of the National War College, gives some valuable background on some of the Islāmic thinkers whose work influenced present-day jihadists in important ways: The Origins of al Qaeda’s Ideology: Implications for US Strategy Parameters (US Army War College quarterly) Spring 2005.

Despite the title, the focus of the article is less on the strategy implications and more on understanding the figures and ideas he discusses.   His main point for strategy is the much-needed observation that policymakers should not make simplistic and careless generalizations about Islām, and that they need to recognize that destabilizing existing Middle Eastern regimes may have negative consequences for American foreign policy.  As Henzel puts it:

Western advocates of  [Islāmic] "reformation" understandably want to see the existing secular, Westernized classes in Muslim countries gain the upper hand. But these politically weak classes are small elites viewed with suspicion by both the masses and the regimes. Any American effort to strengthen these elites must be a project for several decades, to be carried out quietly and with the greatest caution. The United States would gain little if more among the Muslim masses came to regard Muslim liberals as agents of the global hegemon, bent on depriving Islam of its capacity to resist a Western culture that most view as morally depraved.

Revolutionary Salafism

One of the most useful aspects of Henzel's article is that he defines the jihadist-type ideology as "revolutionary Salafism," an important distinction:

Sunni Islam is a very big tent, and there always have been insiders and outsiders within Sunnism playing out their rivalries with clashing philosophies.  Throughout the past century, the most important of these clashes have occurred between Sunni reformers and the traditional Sunni clerical establishment. ...

For the most part this struggle has been waged in Egypt, Sunni Islam’s center of gravity. On one side of the debate, there is Cairo’s Al-Azhar, a seminary and university that has been the center of Sunni orthodoxy for a thousand years. On the other side, al Qaeda’s ideology has its origins in late-19th-century efforts in Egypt to reform and modernize faith and society. As the 20th century progressed, the Sunni establishment centered on Al-Azhar came to view the modernist reform movement as more and more heterodox. It became known as Salafism, for the supposedly uncorrupted early Muslim predecessors (salaf, plural aslaf ) of today’s Islam. The more revolutionary tendencies in this Salafist reform movement constitute the core of today’s challenge to the Sunni establishment, and are the chief font of al Qaeda’s ideology.

Salafism looks to restore the purity of Islām as it supposedly existed in the religion's early days of the pious ancestors (salaf).  Juan Cole, speaking in reference to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq, now linked to Al Qaeda, wrote (Tawhid Joins al-Qaeda Informed Comment 10/18/04):

They are probably especially oriented toward the Salafi school of modern Islamic thought, which has a Protestant-like emphasis on going back to the original practice of the early companions of the Prophet Muhammad. (Most Salafis are not militant or violent, though they tend to be rather narrow-minded in my experience, on the order of Protestant Pietists). Monotheism and Holy War obviously does have a violent interpretation of Salafism, rather as the the [sic] leaders of the so-called German Peasant Rebellion among early Protestants did.

So Henzel's term "revolutionary Salafists" seems to be a good one for today's jihadists.  Cole also links to this definition of Salafism at

The Salafis view the first three generations of Muslims, who are the prophet Muhammad's companions, and the two generations after them (the Tabayeen and the next generation) as perfect examples of how Islam should be lived and practiced. These three generations are often referred to as the Pious generations. ...

Though often used interchangeably in common discourse and the media, technically speaking the terms Salafi and Wahhabi are not the same.

In a post of 03/05/04, Cole also recommends this article on Salafism: The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam by Guilain Denoeux Middle East Policy Council Journal June 2002. Denoeux defines Salafism as follows; note that he considers Wahhabism a variant of Salafism:

Within the Islamic context, the tradition that comes the closest to the western concept of "fundamentalism" is what is known as Salafism (al-Salafiyya in Arabic), a current of thought which emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century. The word comes from al-Salaf, which refers to the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and is usually used as part of the expression al-salaf al-salih, i.e., the "virtuous forefathers." Salafism urged believers to return to the pristine, pure, unadulterated form of Islam practiced by Muhammad and his companions. It rejected any practice (such as Sufi rituals), belief (such as the belief in saints) or behavior (for example those anchored in customary law) not directly supported by the Quran or for which there was no precedent in Muhammad's acts and sayings. Salafi thinkers also refused the idea that Muslims should accept blindly the interpretations of religious texts developed by theologians over the centuries. Instead, they insisted on the individual believer's right to interpret those texts for himself or herself through the practice of ijtihad (independent reasoning).

Salafism did not develop as a monolithic movement but rather as a broad philosophy, a frame of mind. To this day, there is no single Salafi ideology or organization. Instead, since the late nineteenth century, Salafism has expressed itself in a multiplicity of movements and currents of thought that have reflected specific historical circumstances and local conditions. Most have been primarily intellectual-cultural undertakings that generally have eschewed the political arena. In the past two decades, however, one particular brand of Salafi ideology - the Saudi variant known as Wahhabism - has known particular success...

Ibn Taymīyya

Henzel identifies several figures as important for today's jihadist ideology.  The earliest of them is Taqi ad-Din Ahmed ibn Taymīyya (1263-1328).  He lived in a period of Mongol advances into the former Muslim caliphate.  Ibn Taymīyya sought to encourage Muslims to rally around the rulers of Egypt to resist the Mongols.  But some Muslims argued that one cannot wage jihad against other Muslims, and the Mongol king had just adopted Islām.  Ibn Taymīyya argued that because the king had not fully implemented sharia (Islāmic law), the Mongols were apostates and therfore righteous Muslims could practice jihad against them.  As Henzel writes, "Today’s revolutionary Salafists cite Ibn Taymiyya as an authority for their argument that contemporary Muslim rulers are apostates if they fail to impose sharia exclusively, and that jihad should be waged against them."

Hans Küng in Der Islam (2004) writes of Ibn Taymīyya that, from his refuge in Damascus (the caliphal seat of Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258) "he becomes famous not only for his call for resistance [to the Mongols], but also for his campaign for the execution of a Christian who had insulted the Prophet Muhammand."  He compares Ibn Taymīyya, who was a jurist rahter than a theologian or philosopher, to the medieval authorities in the Catholic Church who relied so heavily on canon law.

Küng describes Ibn Taymīyya as a religious reactionary, though he doesn't use precisely that world.  He believed that all innovation in matters of religion was bad.  The Qur'ān and the traditions of the Prophet that had taken authoritative form in the sharia were the only valid religious standards in Islām.  He took what we might call a "Puritanical" approach to Islām.  "Ibn Taymīyya also spoke out strongly against worldly music and every kind of dancing."  He recognized no right of internal resistance to the established authority in an Islāmic state.

What was new about Ibn Taymīyya's situationas a major Islāmic legal authority is that, for thefirst time in Muslim history, there was nocentralized caliphate.  Instead and thenceforward, Muslims would be governed by a variety of rulers in different lands.  (Although in practice al-Andalus had been independent of the caliphate for centuries, as were parts of northern Africa for a shorter time.)  In order to maintain proper religious rule, Ibn Taymīyya maintained, the various Muslim political leaders should rely heavily on the ulama (religious authorities) for direction in applying the sharia.

Ibn Taymīyya was part of the Hanbalite legal school, one of the four enduring trends in Islāmic legal thought.  Ibn Taymīyya and the Hanbalite legal school were to become influential in the Wahhabi version of Islām.  Küng writes that Ibn Taymīyya's book Legal Policy (or Treatise on Juridical Politics; Gesetzpolitik is the German name Küng uses), which based Islāmic law specifically on religious and not rational grounds, became "a catechism of Islāmic fundamentalism, even though he himself was perhaps not really a fundamentalist."  Küng seems to prefer the description "traditionalist" for Ibn Taymīyya.  Küng places him in the fourth Islāmic paradigm, the "ulama-Sufi" paradigm, in his six-paradigm historical scheme of the religion.


Ğamāl ad-dīn al-Afghānī (1839-1897), writes Henzel, launched a "moderninzing reform movement in Islam, one strain of which developed later into the revolutionary Salafism the United States confronts today."  Küng sees al-Afghānī as one of the Islāmic reformers of the 19th century who focused not only on the need for a response to European colonial encroachments into the Muslim world, but also looked at ways to address problems in "real existing Islam."  (That's a refernce, one that has become common in German writing, to the Communist regime in the former East Germany which described its system as "real existing socialism.")  Though "al-Afghānī" means "the Afghan," he was an Iranian Shia, but he had a huge influence on Sunni Muslims, as well.

Henzel calls al-Afghānī an admirer of Western rationalism.  This description by Küng seems to portray him as an appealing thinker from the viewpoint of present-day non-Islāmic Westerners, particularly for conservatives who like to talk about the needfor an Islāmic Reformation:

He stands between the traditionalists who want to return to the Qur'ān and Medinan beginnings and the secularists who want to give up Islam for European learning.  He represents, quasi Islamic Martin Luther, the necessity of an Islāmic Reformation.  European progress, he said accurately, was only possible because the [Protestant] Reformation preceded it.

But glib historical analogies can be misleading.  And if those who pass an easy judgment about the need for an Islāmic parallel to the European Reformation were to reflect on the close collaboration of the Lutheran establishment and the Prussian (German) state, the peasants' revolt that Luther was so eager to see bloodily crushed, early Protestant fanaticism in matters like witch-burning, and the Wars of Religion that followed the Church split, they might not be quite so quick to recommend an Islāmic equivalent today.  And while al-Afghānī was an important Islāmic modernizer, his legacy is complicated.

As Henzel points out, al-Afghānī saw rationalism as a necessary part of a theological response to what he viewed as a religious problem in Islām.  He also looked to return to a supposedly lost original spirit of Islām.  He believed, as Küng puts it, that the true Islām properly understood in its original sense presented no difficulties in tying itself to "Western reason, science and technology."  But, Küng also notes, al-Afghānī always had "his sights on liberation from the colonial yoke as the final goal" of his reformist thinking.  Even during his lifetime, one of his disciples assassinated the Shah of Iran.  His ideas were to be very influential on both Muslim nationalism and the Pan-Arabist movement.  Küng also credits his approach with opening the way to a more modern Qur'ānic exegesis that began to apply more scientific/scholarly methods and to take into account political and social developments.

Küng emphasizes that al-Afghānī and his followers did not perceive themselves as accomodating the West.  Rather, they understood themselves as "religious reformers who acknowledged the Qur'ān and the Sunna [tradition] and promoted a return to the original Islām."  Thiswas similar, of course, to Martin Luther's attempt to return to what he saw as the original Christianity of St. Paul as interpreted by St. Augustine.

To be continued in Part 2.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

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