Radical Salafism: Osama's ideology

By Bernard Haykel

Radical Salafism is the ideology of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization. Its particular world view can be understood by looking at the roots of this ideology in Islamic intellectual history and by realizing that its teachings have been marginal to and opposed by mainstream Islamic thought.

Muslims in the modern period are either Sunni (90%) or Shi'iah (10%). The distinction pertains to a dispute over the spiritual and political leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). In matters of politics, two principles are strongly identified with the Sunnis:

1) they are loath to declare fellow Muslims infidels, a practice called takfir;

2) they prohibit war against Muslim rulers, however tyrannical these may be, so long as Islam remains the religion of state and Islamic law is enforced. Sunnis argue that adherence to these two principles is crucial in order to maintain social order and to avoid warfare amongst Muslims which might lead to the demise of Islam itself.

Osama bin Laden and his followers are Sunni Muslims of the Salafi branch. Salafism is a minoritarian tendency within Islam that dates back to the 9th century - under the name of Ahl al-Hadith - and whose central features were crystallized in the teachings of a 14th century Islamic scholar, Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyya's importance lies in that he was willing to hereticize fellow Muslims who did not share his views and, more important, he declared permissible war against Muslims rulers who did not apply the Shari'ah (he advocated war against the Mongols who had declared themselves to be Muslims but did not apply Islamic law).

Salafism's hallmark is a call to modern Muslims to revert to the pure Islam of the Prophet Muhammad's generation and the two generations that followed his. Muslims of this early period are referred to as al-Salaf al-Salih (the pious forefathers) whence the name Salafi. Salafism's message is utopian, its adherents seeking to transform completely the Muslim community and to ensure that Islam, as a system of belief and governance, should eventually dominate the globe.

Salafis are not against technological progress nor its fruits; they do, however, abhor all innovations in belief and practice that are not anchored in their conception of the pristine Islamic age. They refer to such reprehensible innovations as Bid'a, a term of deligitimization in Islamic law or the Shari'ah.

According to the Salafis, Muslims can only be certain that they are not practising reprehensible innovations if they adhere to a strictly literal interpretation of the sources of revelation, and those are the Qur'an and the Sunna (the Sunna is the practice of Prophet Mohammad and can be found exclusively in the canonical collections of accounts of his sayings and doings (hadith)). Salafis claim to be the only Muslims capable of providing this literal interpretation; all other Muslims would therefore be - to a lesser or greater extent - deviant innovators.

Another salient feature of Salafism is an obsession with God's oneness while condemning all forms of polytheism (shirk) and unbelief (kufr). Certain Sufi practices (Sufis are mystics of Islam), such as visiting the graves of great Sufi masters, are condemned by the Salafis as diminishing true belief in Allah. The world, according to the Salafis, is unequivocally divided between the domains of belief (iman) and unbelief, and it is incumbent on Muslims to be certain that they remain in the domain of belief.

This they can do only if they are Salafis. Nothing less than eternal salvation is at stake. The Salafi world view is rigid and Manichaean. In its radical form Salafism leads to the practice of takfir. This is exactly what Osama bin Laden did in his November 4 statement: Muslims who are not with him are, by definition, infidels.

The mantle of Ibn Taymiyya's teachings was most famously taken up by a movement in central Arabia in the 18th century. Known to its enemies as the Wahhabi movement whose adherents called themselves the Muwahhidun (The believers in the oneness of God). The Wahhabi's had a powerful reformist message and were able to galvanize the tribes of central Arabia into a powerful military period.

So great was their zeal to focus all the belief and religious practices of fellow Muslims on God alone, that the Wahhabis destroyed in 1805 tombs in Medina, including a failed attempt at destroying the cupola over the tomb of Prophet Muhammad.

Such excesses, including the declaration of fellow Muslims to be infidels whose blood could be shed, horrified the wider Muslim world leading the Ottoman Sultan to send an Egyptian military force and destroy the fledgling Wahhabi state. This was accomplished in 1818. The example the Wahhabi sect, however, left an indelible mark on the world of Islam and the like-minded would look to their experience as a model to be emulated.

King Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa'ud, commonly known as Ibn Sa'ud, the founder of the present Saudi kingdom, based his rule and conquests on Salafi doctrine, and this remains the ideology of Saudi Arabia today. But Ibn Sa'ud realized quickly that embedded in this ideology was the potential for radical extremism and he vanquished militarily his own radicals, otherwise known as the Ikhwan, in 1930.

The radical Salafis raised their heads again in November 1979 when one of their leaders, Juhayman al-Utaybi, led a revolt in Makkah that seized control of the Great Mosque for two weeks. As they had done in 1930, the Saudi authorities attacked al-Utaybi and his followers, killing every last one in a bloody battle in the Makkan sanctuary.

However, it is important to know two features that distinguish the official Salafism of the Saudi kingdom from the teachings of these radical Salafis. The Saudis believe that: 1) war against an Islamic ruler is not permitted, and 2) declaring fellow Muslims to be infidels is also not permitted. For this reason, the Saudi minister of Islamic Affairs stated on October 19, in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, that "obedience to Islamic rulers is obligatory for Muslims."

A principal reason radical Salafis like Osama bin Laden advocate violence against the Saudi state and the United States relates to the presence of US troops on Saudi soil. By permitting this, Osama says the Saudis are no longer adhering to Islamic law and consequently war against them is permissible. Osama bin Laden bases his claim about the illegality of the presence of US troops on a statement of Prophet Mohammad in which the Prophet says: "Expel the polytheists from the Arabian peninsula."

Literally understood, the injunction is clear. Non-Salafis, i.e., the vast majority of Muslims, disagree with Osama's judgement. The non-Salafis counter with another statement of the Prophet in which he says: "Expel the Jews of Hijaz from the peninsula of the Arabs." The reference to the Jews is to be read as a synecdoche  (for non-Muslims: Hijaz is a region of Arabia and this second Prophetic statement narrows the more general first statement. In other words, non-Muslims are permitted to reside in Arabia, but not in Hijaz, the region of the twin sanctuaries of Makkah and Medina.)

Such differences in abstruse legal opinions, however, do not explain Osama bin Laden's massive appeal among Muslims today. It is his genius at manipulating images and symbols, as well as his ability to tap into a wellspring of legitimate Muslim and Arab resentment of US foreign policies, that explains his success. Muslims live under the yoke of authoritarian regimes - regimes that have succeeded in destroying the fabric of traditional Muslim education and networks of knowledge and socialization.

Most Muslims therefore do not appreciate or understand legal arguments like the one stated above. What Muslims react to enthusiastically is Osama's role as a leader and symbol of Muslim resistance to domestic and western oppression. This reaction is fuelled by a century of arguments promoted by the Arab regimes that all the problems of the Arab and Muslim worlds are due to foreign intrigue, and are not because of any policies or actions of the Arab and Muslim leaders themselves. This reasoning explains, for example, the eagerness with which so many Arabs and Muslims have accepted the conspiratorial theories that the attacks of September 11 were the work of Jews and Zionists.

Thus far, moderate Sunni Muslims have been reluctant to condemn Osama bin Laden in light of the events of September 11. This is a consequence of the quiescent political culture Sunnis subscribe to: pointing fingers at fellow believers might lead to a state of chaotic disorder they fear most. Moreover, the present conflict involves unbelievers and Muslims prefer not to air their differences in public. Another reason for this conspicuous silence is that moderates feel the evidence Osama bin Laden in the attacks has not been provided by the US government.

Finally, the fear of violent retaliation by the radical Salafis has kept many silent. Moderate Muslims, many of whom have been and continue to be oppressed by Arab and Muslim governments, do exist and must be encouraged to take centre stage. We can take heart from the fact that most Muslims have not heeded Osama's call to kill innocent Americans wherever and whenever they find them.

In short, the battle being waged today is at heart an internal Islamic one and may take a very long time to end. It is part of a larger battle about the very nature of Islamic society and politics, and one in which there are many sides (moderate Muslims, state-sponsored Muslims, radical and moderate Salafis, secular nationalists, and Shi'ah

The writer teaches Islamic law at New York University
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Manichaen: a believer in religious or philosophical dualism

the vast majority: i.e. of the entire Muslim population, Salafi's comprise less than 1% of them

synecdoche: a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage)

"massive" (sic). We hardly think bin Laden has "massive" appeal. We disagree with the author here.