Henri Lauzière’s book, The making of Salafism. Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016, sheds light on the genesis and development of the concept of Salafism, understood as a twentieth-century movement promoting an Islamic uniformed concept of law and religion. Its main argument is about the necessity to clearly differentiate between present Salafism (Salafiyya), the so-called “Reformist Salafism” – a term which was actually never used by its advocates – and Salafis in the medieval period.

The latter were originally the proponents of a fideist theological movement, madhhab al-salaf, originated within the Hanbali school, which distrusted any kind of theological reasoning applied to the Scriptures for fear that this could lead to negation or diminishment of God’s uniqueness and transcendence. The term did not have any legal connotations at the time.

For Lauzière, contemporary Salafism cannot be traced back to this medieval debate. Nor is it related to so-called reformist Salafiyya, which actually never existed as a term. According to Lauzière, it was Louis Massignon who wrongly labelled as Salafiyya some modern reformists like Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashīd Ridā, an error which then propagated to Western scholarship as a whole and also to Muslim production. In fact, according to Massignon, the Salafiyya had its origin in nineteenth-century India with the Ahl al-Hadīth movement.

Lauzière bases his counter-arguments on the fact that reformists never used the term Salafiyya to refer to themselves. Moreover, they made use of a different epistemology from the Salafis, although they share the criteria of Sola Scriptura and the rejection of the law schools. Nonetheless, some reformists were Salafis in theology, as they saw it as a suitable instrument for reform. Moreover, according to Lauzière, it would be a lexical anachronism to suggest that

  • “In the classical period Muslims used the word Salafiyya as an abstract name meaning Salafism and a conceptual anachronism to apply it to others before modern purist Salafism appeared around the 1920s”

Having excluded these two genealogies (from medieval theologians and from reformist thinkers), the book traces the making of purist Salafism by following the intellectual journey of the Moroccan scholar Taqī al-Dīn al-Hilālī (1894-1987), who travelled from Rabat to Mecca, from Calcutta to Berlin to promote the reform of the Muslim community. His curriculum gives an example of how contemporary Salafism developed by distinguishing itself from political activists like the Muslim Brothers, throughout the 20th century. Purist Salafis claim to be nothing other than true Muslims and their movement is characterized by the primacy of Scripture (Qur’an and reliable hadīths) over rational proof, the struggle against innovations such as the cult of saints and the mystical dimension of Islam as well as resistance against Western ‘corrupting’ influences.

In its formative period (1920-50), Purist Salafism was ready to compromise and joined forces with Islamic nationalists, who were territorial nationalists and even cultivated the idea of local or national forms of Islam. Decolonization transformed this situation and while modernists disappeared behind the state apparatuses of their countries, purist Salafists found a new place in the post-colonial societies.

This book is a great contribution to understand modern political thought in the Near East and the academic debate that it has stirred, especially with Frank Griffel, is just another proof of its interest.

Rocio Daga Portillo writes for Oasis, from where this article is adapted.

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