“Neo-Salafi” Fallacies and Muslim Reaction to Insults against Prophet Muhammad – by Stephen Schwartz


The devastated site of Jannat Al-Baqi, 2008 — Photograph Via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: Writing for CIP, Stephen Schwartz highlights the divide within muslims. It should be pointed out that even moderate Deobandis and Wahabis have suffered at the hands of their more extremist counterparts. In Pakistan, JUI (F) has been periodically threatened by the Taliban when it has opposed them and therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between moderate (non-violent) Deobandis versus extremist Deobandis-Wahabis who dominate the Jihadi-sectarian landscape of Pakistan.   Mr. Schwartz should acknowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda surge in Libya, Egypt and Algeria is a direct result of US support for the so-called Arab Spring.

The majority of the world’s Muslims – especially spiritual Sufis, but also traditional, conservative, moderate, and conventional believers – object to naming as “Salafis” the fundamentalists we see attempting aggressively to usurp the leadership of Sunni Islam. The term “Salafi” equates present-day Islamist ideological radicals with the “aslaf,” the first three generations of Muslims, including Muhammad, his family, his Companions (sahaba), his Successors (tabaiyun), and those who came immediately after his Successors (taba tabaiyun). It is historically inaccurate and theologically illegitimate to call masses of people now living “Salafis” for several reasons.

Current “Salafis,” or, better, “neo-Salafis,” assert their right to the title because of their alleged emulation of the aslaf. Some of this “revival” of habits ascribed to the aslaf is mere, absurd mimicry, such as growing an untrimmed beard, wearing a full-length robe or short breeches, and cleaning one’s teeth habitually with a mishwak or twig, as Muhammad is said to have done. Critics of the “neo-Salafis” contend that the style of Muhammad’s facial hair and garments, and use of the mishwak, were common Arabic cultural signifiers found among the Prophet’s enemies. This may seem trivial, but as will be seen, it goes to the heart of “neo-Salafi” falsehoods and the conflicts unleashed by them, most recently on the pretext of an anti-Islamic video clip produced with the slightest of budgets and production values in the U.S.

The difference between the authentic aslaf and the “neo-Salafis” is defined additionally by things Muhammad and the aslaf did not do. Muhammad is never known to have pronounced any Muslim an apostate, to cite the most obvious example, while the “neo-Salafis” are avid to expel those of whom they disapprove from the worldwide community of Muslims, or ummah. As will be discussed also here, the “neo-Salafis” have introduced many notions into Islam that were absent from the time of the aslaf through eleven and a half Islamic centuries thereafter.

The seemingly advancing self-designation as “Salafi” is further spurious historically, in that a modernizing reform movement known as the “Salafiyun” appeared in the 19th century, represented mainly by the Iranian Sayyid Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838/9–1897), the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and the Syrian Rashid Rida (1865–1935). The 19th century “Salafis,” unlike those today denoting themselves as such, took the aslaf as moral exemplars, but sought to learn from the West, and did not preach violence, although they opposed European domination of the Muslim lands. (Among the three mentioned, Rida strayed furthest toward radical Islam, ending up as a supporter of the Saudi Arabian state.)

Finally, the assumption of the title “Salafis” by Muslims in the 21st century of the common era reeks of arrogance inappropriate for a religion that preaches humility before God. The “neo-Salafis” compare themselves with the aslaf as if they were assuredly their equal in religious works, achievements, and character. Traditional Islam, while promising the arrival of individuals (“renewers” or “mujadiddin”) who would reinvigorate the religion in each century, equates the “renewers” with the aslaf, but the “mujadiddin” were and are few, and do not comprise a self-proclaimed movement or state sect. Moreover, most of the Islamic “renewers” have not been fundamentalists. Many may aspire to status as a “renewer,” but very few will attain it.

The terms “Salafi” and “Salafist,” having been appropriated by radical Islamists whose claims and customs deviate widely from that of traditional Islam, are reproduced in Western and other media without question and without explanation. “Neo-Salafis” should be labeled correctly as they are: Wahhabis, or adherents of the official Islamic interpretation in Saudi Arabia (and, in a more moderate form, Qatar); Deobandis and Mawdudist “Jamaati” jihadis, affiliated with Jamaat-e Islami, in South Asia. The Muslim Brotherhood and its discreet ally, the “fundamentalist-lite” Justice and Development Party or AKP of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, regardless of secular camouflage in the latter case, are “neo-Salafis” in attitude if not in daily activities.

To most Muslims, all such fundamentalist groups are “Wahhabis,” offering slight but unoriginal variations on the terroristic phenomenon that arose in central Arabia in the 18th century and contributed greatly to establishment of the Saudi kingdom as well as the emergence of Al-Qaida.

As I write these lines, once again, Wahhabis in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere have disgraced the Islamic ummah. With the pretext of a meaningless and crude video created by the dregs of Los Angeles, California – below which it is difficult to imagine any cinema work being judged – Wahhabis have rioted and slain Americans.

In Benghazi, on the night of September 11, 2012, U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel, foreign service officer Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs working as security contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, died in a mob assault, and several more were wounded. Ordinary Libyans in Benghazi, recently liberated from the regime of Mu’ammar Al-Qadhdhafi with the assistance of the Western European powers and the U.S., attempted to rescue Ambassador Stevens, and have expressed their remorse at the atrocious deaths of the Americans. Libyan interim president Muhammad El-Megarif, elected by a populace that repudiated the Muslim Brotherhood – unlike their neighbors in Tunisia and Egypt – has apologized to Americans and promised meaningful cooperation with them in bringing the terrorists in Benghazi to justice.

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood’s president in Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, and Egyptian Muslim chief cleric (grand mufti) Ali Gomaa, vacillated. Both treated the ridiculous anti-Muhammad video clip as more important than the upsurge of violence in their country, then condemned the turmoil that occurred. In effect, Morsi and Gomaa contributed to the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities. The Egyptian authorities have issued legal warrants for the arrest of eight people living in America as blasphemers associated with the video. The possibility that the eight will be tried in an Egyptian court is nil, but the act illustrates the devious nature of Morsi’s administration.

The sensibilities of Sufis and other traditional Muslims are hurt by insults to Muhammad, but they do not typically react to them by brutal outbursts. As I and my colleagues in the Center for Islamic Pluralism have said and written, when we are firm in our Islam, we cannot be harmed by those who speak ill of us, unless their words incite real, physical violence. I avow this as one who has written extensively about and shared in the pain caused by the hate-inspired deaths of more than 200,000 European Muslims in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

If the term “Salafi” is controversial among Muslims, so are the global concepts of “Islamophobia” and “Islamofascism.” Negative commentators on various aspects of Islam, whether in the radical or conventional articulations of the religion, object to the former as an ugly epithet intended to prevent discussion. “Politically correct” defenders of Islam argue against the latter as a gratuitous slur to the whole faith. In both cases, disapproval of these terms runs against empirically-demonstrable reality.

One may label the creators of the recent anti-Muhammad video clip “Islam-haters” rather than “Islamophobes,” but that does not change the content of the product, or its intent – to offend and provoke. The low reputations of its alleged fabricators suggest that their main concern was to gain attention for themselves. They may say their motivation was to oppose “radical Islam,” and not to degrade Muslims in general. But as long-standing opponents of demonstrably “radical” Islam – the fundamentalism of Wahhabis, Deobandis, South Asian Jamaatis and allied jihadis, and the Muslim Brotherhood – I and others are disturbed to perceive challenges to “radical Islam” used as a cover for indiscriminate prejudice against our entire community and tradition.

We oblige nobody to agree with or honor us. But neither can we overlook attempts to deny our majority ordinary respect as human beings. Insults to Muhammad are aimed against all of Islam, which is identified with his reception of Qur’an, and comprehend no distinction between jihadists and their Muslim enemies and victims. Rejection of our religion should not justify contemptuous outrage at our right to our religion.

Similarly, one may label the criminals that killed the American personnel in Libya “Islamist extremists” rather than “Islamofascists,” but that does not alter the nature of their homicidal acts. A polemic about the term “Islamofascism” took place without meaningful results late in the second presidential administration of George W. Bush, but was pathetically simplistic.

Some disputants declared, following the simple entries in dictionaries, that “fascists” are defined by extreme nationalism, imperial expansionism, statist control of economy and society, and suppression of free expression by a totalitarian party. Where these have materialized in the Muslim lands, they have most often been identified with socialism rather than fascism. But such are merely the external aspects of fascism. The essence of fascism is its lawlessness and defiance of state institutions. Extreme conservatives may promote nationalism, colonialism, “coordination” of the economy and state, and even dictatorship as a means to preserve the existing social structure. Fascists seek to replace the established state with a “new order” based on reactionary fantasies of the past.

The murderers in Benghazi were Islamofascists. Wahhabis, Deobandis, South Asian Mawdudists, and the clerical regime in Iran are Islamofascist. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish AKP have Islamofascist aspects but have not yet displayed a full expression of the phenomenon. There seems, really, to be no other word that adequately describes them – except “Wahhabis” – which is how, to emphasize, Muslims refer to most of them.

Both groups – Islam-haters and Islamofascists – need one another. Without the pretext of the anti-Muhammad video, Wahhabi demagogues would be restricted in their ability to muster crowds to commit abominable acts. Without the resulting carnage, Islam-haters would have to argue on the basis of abstractions rather than graphic television news.

One may identify, therefore, a significant difference: the anti-Muhammad video, however objectionable, did not inflict bloodshed on those who watched it, though it may have encouraged those who saw it to ferocity. The video is, by American standards, legally-protected expression. By contrast, the aggression by Wahhabis in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere has been unrestrained. At worst, the anti-Muhammad video clip was a stupid lampoon, which may be ignored. But the dead Americans in Libya cannot be ignored.

Let us then ask a question known to every conscious Muslim but seldom heard among non-Muslims: who has exterminated more Muslims, voiced worse contempt for Islamic customs, and denigrated the Prophet Muhammad and his family and the aslaf more repugnantly – a handful of Western Islam-haters, or the Wahhabis themselves?

The Wahhabis who murdered Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues in Libya are of the same ilk as those who campaign to destroy Sufi mosques, meeting houses, and graveyards in Libya, Egypt, Mali, Macedonia, and elsewhere. And their motivation is the same: Wahhabi “purism.”

Wahhabi bigots and the pseudo-moderate Muslim Brotherhood politicians who summon ill-educated Muslims in Arab lands, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, other Muslim states, Australia and Europe to follow them may proclaim their love for Muhammad, and maintain that anyone who insults his person should be executed. So came about the “Rushdie Rules” in 1989 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran recommended the murder of the British Indian Muslim author Salman Rushdie for publishing his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.

But are the Wahhabis, Deobandis, South Asian Mawdudist Jamaatis and other jihadis claiming to be Sunnis sincere when they shout or scrawl as graffiti an undiluted love for Muhammad and demand death for insults to him?

Wahhabis and their counterparts bomb mosques, and murder Sufis, Shias, and secular citizens of their societies. They do so in a calculated manner, and such actions cannot be explained as the “collateral damage” of war, as is seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their supposed justification for such devastation is, in numerous incidents, the prevention of “idolatry” in the “worship” of shrines, those buried in them, and mosques. But no Muslim “worships” architectural monuments or dead people. Prayers at shrines are meant to recognize the blessings associated with the distinguished Muslims of the past, not to treat the latter as “partners” of God.

When the Wahhabi hordes seized Karbala in Iraq, and Mecca and Medina in Arabia at the end of the 18th century CE, they massacred Muslims, ransacked tombs, and destroyed a great many more (and more valuable) copies of Qur’an than were allegedly desecrated by Americans in Afghanistan earlier this year, or in any other such incident involving non-Muslims, even the worst Islam-haters. Saudi authorities have eradicated countless copies of Qur’an printed outside their territory. When the Wahhabis returned triumphantly to Mecca and Medina in 1924-25, they demolished the sacred cemeteries of Jannat Al-Baqi in Medina and Jannat Al-Mualla in Mecca. The first sheltered the remains of the Prophet’s Companions and the second those of his family. The tombs marking their graves were levelled.

Jannat Al-Baqi, the cemetery in Medina of the Family, Companions, and Successors to the Prophet Muhammad sallallahualeyhisalaam, before its demolition by Saudi Wahhabis in 1925.

The Wahhabi agitators who proclaim their devotion to Muhammad prohibit celebration of the Prophet’s birthday (known as mawlid, milad an-nabi, or mevlud) although the practice has been known in Islam since the time of Muhammad and is observed in every Muslim community in the world. It even takes place behind the walls of private homes in Saudi Arabia, where it is publically forbidden. In South Asia, milad an-nabi and commemorative events for prominent Sufis have been obstructed legally, and attacked, leaving numerous dead.

One of the most notorious Wahhabi demands has been for the destruction of the green dome over the Prophet’s Shrine in Medina. A Kuwaiti Sunni cleric, Shaykh Yusuf ibn al-Sayyid Hashim Al-Rifa’i, notes that the Saudi regime permits Wahhabis to shout at the Prophet’s Shrine, “‘The father and mother of the Prophet, peace and greetings be upon him, are in hellfire! The father and mother of the Prophet, peace and greetings be upon him, are in hellfire!’ ” The Wahhabi rationalization for this perverse behavior rests on the allegation that the parents of Muhammad, having died before the Prophet received the revelation of Qur’an, were not Muslims and are therefore not saved from perdition. The consensus of Muslim scholars, however, denies this charge and relies on the argument, among other points, that ignorance of Islam could not condemn the Prophet’s parents.

How do the Wahhabis reconcile their loud declamations of love for Muhammad, in leading homicidal forays in Libya and elsewhere, with their deliberate vandalism of buildings in Mecca associated with Muhammad and his family? These have included the house where Muhammad was born, which was first turned into a cattle market and then into a library; the grave of Muhammad’s mother, Amina Bint Wahb, bulldozed, soaked with gasoline and set afire repeatedly; and the home of Khadija, the first wife of Muhammad, in which five of his children were born. The Wahhabis covered the latter with sand and then desecrated it by the erection of public toilets, to discourage Muslims from praying there, since Islam does not permit worship (of God, not Muhammad, his wife, or his children) in a place where the odors of human waste are detected.

The catalogue of Islamic heritage, much of it personally associated with Muhammad, that has been despoiled by the Wahhabis, or marked for wrecking to come, in the name of preventing “idolatry,” is long and outrageous. As sheikh Al-Rifa’i has written, “Alas, woe and misery for a Sect that hates its Prophet, whether in word or in deed, holding him in contempt and trying to eradicate his traces!” [Emphasis added].

Who, then, does harm to Islam and to Muslim believers – obscure, marginal Islam-haters producing an amateur video, or the “neo-Salafis” – Wahhabis, Deobandis, Jamaatis, and others, who are fanatically eager to remove the physical legacy of Islam from the Holy Places of which Saudi King Abdullah is the official “custodian”?

Protests in defense of Muhammad should be aimed at his Wahhabi and other fundamentalist detractors, not at Westerners involved in a media scheme. And they should be calm and peaceful, reflecting moderate Islamic convictions and principles, and the dignity of our faith.




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