Salafism and the threat to peace

Dr Syed Farid Alatas

The roots of extremism today, however, can be traced to ideas that began to appear in the eighteenth century in Arabia. The founder of Wahhabism, a particular orientation within Salafism, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), saw himself as returning the Arabs to the true monotheistic teachings of Islam.

Syed Farid Alatas, The Malay Mail Online

It is a fact that many acts of physical as well as verbal violence are perpetrated in the name of Islam.

It is therefore necessary to clarify that the problem lies not in the religion of Islam itself but in certain orientations to be found among Muslims. One such orientation is that of Salafism.

While it is true that not all Salafis espouse intolerance and violence, it is also true that some Salafi individuals and groups do have highly intolerant views towards those who differ from them in terms of what they consider to be the right political-economic system and way of life.

This intolerance was sometimes translated into sectarian violence. In Indonesia violence had been perpetrated against members of the minority Shi’ite sect while in Malaysia, Shi’ites have been persecuted.

Sunnis and Shi’ites represent the two main divisions in Islam, the Sunnis being the majority. The split into Sunni and Shi’ite Islam took place during the first centuries and were due to different historical experiences and competing views about who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the young Muslim community after his death.

Extremism among Muslims had existed from the early days of Islam. The early Muslims had terms that described such extremism. An example is the concepts of ghuluw, often translated as zealotry. The roots of extremism today, however, can be traced to ideas that began to appear in the eighteenth century in Arabia. The founder of Wahhabism, a particular orientation within Salafism, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), saw himself as returning the Arabs to the true monotheistic teachings of Islam.

In his time, the veneration of not only saints but also trees and other objects was common.  These were all manifestations of unbelief (kufr) and polytheism (shirk), and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab saw his role as rooting these practices out by emphasising the unity of God and returning the people to the true beliefs and practices of Islam. However, he enforced rules and punishments considered excessive by Muslims. These included the public stoning to death of a women accused of adultery.

The most important extremist orientation in Islam today is that of Salafism. Some of the traits of Salafism include the following (i) intolerance of others, particularly Muslims who disagree with their orientations. Sometimes this amounts to the pronouncement of takfir or excommunication on such Muslims; (ii) over-emphasis on rules and regulations at the expense of spirituality; (iii) forbidding beliefs and practices allowed by the majority of Muslims; (iv) non-contextual/non-historical interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna, the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad); and (v) literalism in the interpretation of texts. Salafism is generally understood to be a literalist, strict and puritanical approach to Islam.

Some Salafis also advocate violent action against non-Muslims and certain Muslims. They erroneously refer to this action as jihad. However, it is the minority of Salafis who take this approach.

Some Salafis also direct their energies against certain sects or schools of thought within Islam. Take the example of a modern day Salafi, Abu Musab Zarqawi, founder of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and an al-Qaeda leader in the 2000s.  In the following quotation Zarqawi compares non-Muslims with Shi’ites, both described as enemies:

[They are] the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom. We here are entering a battle on two levels. One, evident and open, is with an attacking enemy and patent infidelity. [Another is] a difficult, fierce battle with a crafty enemy who wears the garb of a friend, manifests agreement, and calls for comradeship, but harbors ill will and twists up peaks and crests…The unhurried observer and inquiring onlooker will realize that Shi`ism is the looming danger and the true challenge.

Zarqawi goes on to say that Shi’ism has nothing in common with Islam.

The impact of such thinking is devastating. An example is the wave of violence and persecution of Shi’ites in Indonesia and Malaysia. Although Sunni consensus regards Shi’ism as a legitimate school of thought and jurisprudence in Islam, this had not prevented action against them. In August 2012 a deadly anti-Shi’ite rampage in Sampang on the island of Madura, Indonesia turned houses into ashes and left Shi’ites dead and others homeless.

Sunni leader, Rois Al-Hukama of the Nahdlatul Ulama was charged with having participated in the arson attacks and destruction of property. However, the Surabaya District Court of Indonesia acquitted him of the charges, citing the lack of evidence. At the same time, the Shi’ite community of Sampang were apparently being forced to take an oath of allegiance to Islam as a condition for their return to their homes in Sampang.

Over the last 30 years, the attitude of the Malaysian authorities towards the Shi’a had changed from one of acceptance to one of rejection and even persecution. In 1984, the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs declared that the following Shi’ite schools of jurisprudence, the Ja’fari and Zaidi, were acceptable in Malaysia.

In 1996, this decision was revoked. This was followed by a series of fatwas between 1998 and 2012 issued by various states in Malaysia that placed restrictions on the spread and practice of Shi’ism.

In the state of Selangor, Shi’ites have been arrested for practicing their rituals. In December 2010, about 200 Shi’ites including some foreigners were arrested by state religious authorities during a raid at a Shi’ite centre.

Under Section 16 of the Perak Criminal (Syariah) Enactment, 1992, it is an offence to possess items on Shi’ism including books, audio-visual materials and posters. In early August 2013, two Shi’ites were arrested, followed by another six arrests in September. The Perak Islamic Religious Department (JAIPk) enforcement chief Ahmad Nizam Amiruddin is reported to have said that the Shia should be eradicated.

Earlier this month (March 2014), Perak state religious authorities arrested more than 100 people believed to be Shi’ites. The arrests were carried out while they were commemorating the birth of Siti Zainab, the daughter of Sayyidina `AlÇ, the fourth Caliph of Islam, and the grand-daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

The position taken against Shi’ism in Indonesia and Malaysia is also found among the Salafis and Wahhabis. It is in this sense that we can speak of the Salafisation of Sunni Islam in the Malay world.

It is ironic that in Malaysia there is also a 2013 fatwa issued by JAKIM that considers Wahhabism as inappropriate for Malaysia. Nevertheless, state religious officials themselves have adopted an anti-Shi’ite position that does not differ from conventional Wahhabi or Salafi views.

These examples of extremism are to be contrasted to the tolerant and open tradition of Islam in the Malay world. Historically, Islam in the Malay world had been very accommodating to the cultural diversity of the region.

This was in part due to the fact that it was through the Sufi tradition that Islam came to the Malay world. Although the Malays did not compromise on the fundamentals of Islam, they were accepting of a variety of beliefs and practices often influenced by local customs known as adat.

The fifteenth century saints of Java, Sunan Drajat and Sunan Kalijaga, are said to have used traditional Javanese art forms such as the wayang kulit and gamelan to convey the spiritual teachings of Sufism.

Another example is Habib Alawi bin Tahir Al-Haddad (1884-1962), the mufti of Johor from 1934 to 1961. Habib Alawi is probably the most well-known mufti that Malaysia has ever had.

An indication of his openness is the fact that he granted permission (ijazah) to transmit hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to a senior Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Mar’ashi Najafi from Iran. This shows that Habib Alawi respected the Shi’ites. A leading Sunni scholar would not grant an ijazah to scholar of a sect that he regarded as deviant.

In a truly free Malaysia, adherents of all religious orientations, including Salafis, should not be made to feel threatened and unwelcome.

There should be no talk of the eradication of a group of perspective. Differences should be addressed through polemics and intellectual argumentation.

It is important to educate the thinking public that it is not the religion of Islam but certain minority orientations developed by Muslims that are extremist and that are responsible, at least in part for intra-Muslim and inter-religious intolerance and violence that we are witnessing now.

It is also important to state that it has become increasingly clear to scholars and activists alike that one of the main forces working against “religious” extremism in Muslim societies is that of the Sufi tradition of Islam.

The Sufi way is not an aspect or part of Islam but is the core of Islam itself. In fact, Sufism is as old as Islam itself.

Sayyid ‘Ali bin Uthman al-Hujwiri, the author of the first Persian treatise on Sufism cites one Abu al-Hassan al-Bushanji who says, “Sufism today is a name without reality, whereas it used to be a reality without a name”. Much of the struggle for Islam in this century will be that of the Sufis to reclaim Islam from the one-dimensional Salafism and other extremisms.

* Dr Syed Farid Alatas, a Malaysian national, is Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He also headed the Department of Malay Studies at NUS from 2007 to 2013. He lectured at the University of Malaya in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies prior to joining NUS.