Without understanding the context of words such as Wahhabi, Salafi and Takfiri, reportage on Islamic militancy may obscure more than it reveals.
These days, almost every report about militancy in the name of Islam carries terms such as Wahhabi, Salafi and sometimes even Takfiri. These Arabic terms serve to establish that the writer is familiar with ideologies within radical movements, but beyond that, what do they really explain about what is going on?
Let us begin with the term Wahhabi. This refers to a movement or a way of thinking pioneered by the 18th century cleric Mohammed ibn Abd-ul Wahhab who allied with Mohammed ibn Saud.
Ibn Saud’s descendants went on to found the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and for many the term Wahhabi is synonymous with the way Islam is practiced in the country. The only thing is that ibn Abdul Wahhab himself would never have had the gall to call his teachings an original school of jurisprudence.
There are four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence – the Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali – all of them established more than a millennium before ibn Abdul Wahhab was born. Ibn Abdul Wahhab identified himself with the Hanbali school but it is unlikely you will hear the name Hanbali in the coverage of the trials and tribulations of the time, and what that form of jurisprudence implies. Or what the other forms do and how they have changed or not in more than a 1000 years.
At the same time, the term Wahhabi is widely used and has been used primarily as a pejorative since the 19th century, and has been a rage for quite some time. For example, if you pick up Chitralekha Zutshi’s The Languages of Belonging, you will find an interesting account of a conflict between the two most important Muslim religious leaders in Kashmir – the Mirwaiz (“head priest”) Kashmir, who preached at the Jama Masjid, and the Mirwaiz Hamdaan, who preached at the Khanqah. In 1888, the governor of Kashmir banned the Mirwaiz Kashmir, Yahya Khan, from preaching at 22 shrines and locations. Key to this ban was a vicious campaign between the two head priests.
As the Mirwaiz Kashmir started preaching at locations heretofore considered under the Mirwaiz Hamdaan’s influence, the latter pushed back, leading a delegation of clerics and notables to the governor and accusing the Mirwaiz Kashmir of being a Wahhabi. The accusation won the argument for the Mirwaiz Hamdaan, especially since the ruler of Kashmir, and his father before him, had opposed any signs of incipient “Wahhabisation”.
But how seriously are we to take the accusation? The Mirwaiz Kashmir was from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, and his descendants continue to be. The Hanafi school is the one with the largest followers in the world and which dominates South Asia, where Hanbali jurisprudence has had minimal reach. Nor was Yahya Shah the first, or only, person accused of being Wahhabi. It was an accusation flung around against any Muslim challenging British rule or the established clerics that collaborated with it. Quite often the accusation was hurled against new modernisers, who preached against practices such as honouring saints, reacting to British military dominion of the world by a desire to reform their own religion. They considered practices that are common in South Asia as “accretions” and thought that by “returning to original ways of being” Muslims would no longer be enslaved. (This was a wider movement than just within Islam. In Hinduism, the Arya Samaj movement in the 19th century also rejected a number of practices, such as idol worship and polytheism as later accretions to an original Hindu faith.)
One of the Muslim groups returning to original ways of being are those that call themselves “Salafists”. The term “Salaf” refers to the “salaf-e-saliheen”, the first Muslims, the pious ancestors. A few Salafi movements are political, such as the An Nour party in Egypt, but for many, being apolitical is the most correct choice.
There is no universally agreed upon definition of how the “pious ancestors” actually acted, and so, in many ways, Salafis have demonstrated their flexibility. The Costa Salafis, a group that took their name from a coffee shop where they used to have discussions, have included Coptic members in their midst, and while you may disagree with their social and religious conservatism, it does not explain militancy carried out by those advocating similar ideas.
There is a long history of fierce back-to-the-roots movements in Islam, both violent and non-violent. Of these, the Kharijites or Khwarij, are almost the textbook case. Their name means, roughly, those that go out, and the first great murder ascribed to them is that of Caliph Ali in 661. They had initially followed him but when he agreed to negotiate with Muawiyah, the caliph who founded the Umayyad Dynasty and whom the Khwarij thought was unvirtuous, they turned against his leadership.
But that violence is not all that characterised the Khwarij. As Patricia Crone documents in Medieval Islamic Political Thought, their focus on a righteous imam led them to something approaching representative governance and also to proposing the leadership of the community by non-Arabs, a woman Caliph or having no Caliph at all none, all of this over 1,200 years ago. I might remark here that the US has, as yet, to elect a woman as president.
None of this is to imply that the Khwarij were liberal in how they lived their lives or allowed others to do so – by all accounts, they seem to have been very conservative – just that preaching about going back to fundaments may be complex too. Maybe this is best illustrated by the term Takfir, or the idea that a Muslim can be called a “kaffir”, or rejector, and allowed to be killed as an apostate.
While the practice of Muslims killing Muslims over the idea that they are not being true Muslims stretches back to the earliest history of Islam, the person most often associated with the idea takfirism is the great Hanbali scholar and jurist ibn Taymiyah. Faced by war against the Mongols, who had recently converted to Islam, ibn Taymiyah wrote a series of fatawa on the legality of going to war against certain groups who claimed to be Muslim.
These fatawa were revived in the 18th century by ibn Adbul Wahhab and have become core texts among militant factions who use it to justify the murder of fellow Muslims, principally Shia, but also any others who collaborate with outside powers (consider Osama bin Laden’s reference to “far enemy” and “near enemy”).
The prominence of these fatawa by ibn Taymiyah among militant groups, often referred to as Takfiris, obscures the fact that in his day, ibn Taymiyah was anything but conservative. For example, his position against instantaneous triple talaq – the idea that a man can instantly divorce his wife by saying the word talaq (divorce) three times – is far more “progressive” than that held by many Muslim organisations in places like India today.
Unfortunately, for most people – Muslim or not – these terms in contemporary reporting on issues of militancy in the name of Islam are delivered without context of their history. Their use of these terms run the risk of painting large numbers of people – who may be conservative in their outlook, or may even hold bigoted views but who are neither politically active nor have any history of crime – as dangerous as militants.
Furthermore data suggests that the majority of militants recently, especially those linked to ISIS, have emerged out of criminal networks rather than theological schools. This begs the question of how well any of them understand – or may even care about – the fine distinctions in theological thought, even if the leaders of organisations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have gone out of their way to offer some form of theological justification for their actions.
It may just be possible that history is as important as theology, and citing terms that have appeared out of a complex history out of that context obscures rather than reveals the contours of our long fight against militancy.