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This article is the first in a weekly column by Dr. Mouzahem that will focus on issues related to Islam and the Middle East without stereotypes or prejudice and based on original sources.
By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem
Professor Radwan Al-Sayed is professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University and a current member of the political bureau of Lebanon’s Future Party.
Professor al-Sayed spoke exclusively with The Atlantic Post about the rise of “Jihadi Salafism,” a movement and ideology used to describe the beliefs of Salafi Muslims who became interested in violent jihads – meaning “struggles” or “holy wars” – in the mid-1990s.
The Salafi phenomenon, explained al-Sayed, was born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Radical Salafis first declared jihad against non-Muslim countries before focusing their efforts increasingly on Muslim countries.
The rise of Jihadi Salafism led to an insurrection by radical figureheads, including Juhayman al-Otaybi, whose 1979 movement against Saudi leadership eventually led to his three-week takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. Al-Otaybi claimed that the royal al-Saud family had lost its legitimacy through corruption and imitation of the West. He also believed this corruption led to problems within Sunni communities.
After Saudi Special Forces raided the mosque and captured al-Otaybi, he was executed along with 67 other members of his group in 1980.
But further jihadi movements took root after such insurrections, including the Osama bin Laden-led group al-Qaeda.
It is important to note, al-Sayed said, that Jihadi Salafism is distinct from other types of Salafism. Jihadi Salafism arises from a discontent with ordinary Salafism, which is described as a literal, strict approach to the teachings of Islam. Some Salafi scholars condemn violent attacks on westerners in the name of Salafism. Scientific Salafism, known as Salafiyya Almiyya, is another prominent sect of Salafism and is non-violent in nature.
An estimated quarter of Salafis qualify as jihadists, while other types of Salafis employ strong political leanings, as seen during the Arab Spring uprisings, al-Sayed said. Some of these political Salafis have allied themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, marking a new blend of Salafism. A main challenge to this group has been distinguishing itself from the Muslim Brotherhood’s style of organization.
Professor al-Sayed asserted that the problem with Salafism is not extremism, but rather, it is the absence of the taqlid, or the following of a leading Islamic religious scholar, and an absence of unified leadership. Taqlid contrasts with independent interpretation of Islamic sources by intellectual sources.
“Even Jihadi Salafism has no unified leadership,” al-Sayed said. They may emulate the Osama bin Laden model of Jihadi Salafism, he added, but with bin Laden’s death, many refuse to follow the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Every Salafist works independently according to his interpretation of the Salafi doctrine, al-Sayed said.
Salafism encourages independent thinking and reasoning known as ijtihad, unless the follower decides to follow fatwas – legal pronouncements – from prominent Salafi scholars.
Because of the natural state of Salafism, the movement has no leadership. It is also not under the control of any one country, like Saudi Arabia, despite a large Salafist following there. Interpreting the Qu’ran and understanding the Sunnah, the way of life prescribed for Muslims based on the teachings of Mohamed, is very much subject to personal experience, al-Sayed said.
“Given this reality,” al-Sayed concluded, “we must admit that Salafism is a threat to Sunni Islam, especially regarding the partition of societies from the inside, due to the gloomy Salafi vision of the world and its tendency to clash with others.” Al-Sayed makes this distinction based on the notion that Sunni Islam follows the strict teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. “This rebellious Salafism is ever more problematic to [Sunnis],” al-Sayed said, “because of what has sprung up lately.”
“Jihadi Salafism has known two eras or waves,” al-Sayed said. “That of the two worlds or paths and the wave that fights the Shi’a, which was started by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and now has reached its peak. Bin Laden’s era and war against the world was waged from everywhere.” Al-Sayed added that the majority of radical adherents came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which holds strong pockets of radical Salafis. “Since Muslims do not prefer brutality, this wave was reduced in influence over new generations.”
Al-Sayed noted that both Salafi and Shi’a militants continue to fight each other. Current Salafists are in essence destroying societies and states, he added, since they now conduct many of their operations from within the Muslim countries they are targeting, making their efforts concentrated and extremely effective.
“We Sunni moderates regarded early on that our misunderstanding with Iran and Hezbollah can be solved through negotiations,” al-Sayed said. These clashes, he added, constitute a political misunderstanding between groups. It came as a surprise, he said, when Salafists turned their attention on Muslims after 15 years of concentrated attacks on the United States and ruling Arab regimes suspected of being sympathetic to westerners.
Al-Sayed gave an example of the anti-Shi’a Salafist movement, noting Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadik al-Ghariani’s ban of marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims (as he considers Shi’a). The majority of Libyans follow the Maliki Sunni, or Madhab, school of thought, while some have turned to Salafism. The Grand Mufti, a Salafi, explained that Sunni Muslims could potentially meet and marry Shi’a abroad, as there are few or no Shi’a in Libya and he does not consider Shi’a to be Muslims in any case. That is why he issued this fatwa.
“This wave of hatred is dangerous and damaging,” said al-Sayed, who noted that these clashes involving radical thought maintain the same hate and momentum as that seen in al-Qaeda’s early days.
Saudi Arabia, al-Sayed said, has kept a tight watch over Salafis since rebellions began in the 1970s. Rebellions that broke out in the Indian Peninsula and Saudi Arabia shortly before the 1991 Gulf War have had a deteriorating effect on the Sunni school of thought and the welfare of Muslim societies, he added.
Salafists have isolated themselves from Shi’a and Sunnis alike, al-Sayed said, and they no longer pray alongside Hanafi, Shafi’i and Maliki followers. Nowadays, they have their own mosques in Egypt, Tunisia and Pakistan. This has led to a new form of worship that breaks apart from Muslim tradition, al-Sayed claimed, and a fluid view of what constitutes pious worship in and outside of the Muslim world.
Radwan Al-Sayed studied at the Religious Academy of Al-Azhar in Cairo and obtained his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Germany in 1977. Al-Sayed is the former Director of the Arab Development Institute in addition to being the former Director of the Islamic Studies Institute in Beirut. He is also the former editor of the Arab Thought Journal and the former Editor in Chief for Al-Ijtihad Quarterly.
Al-Sayed is the author of many books and other publications, most of which focus on Islamic cultural history and ancient and modern Islamic thought. He has worked as a visiting professor for various European, American and Arab Universities. Al-Sayed is also a former advisor to former Lebanese Prime Ministers Saad Hariri, Fuad Seniora and the late Rafik Hariri.
Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is The Atlantic Post’s Middle East Analyst, based in Beirut, Lebanon. His Twitter handle is @Haytham66.