The emergence of supremacist puritanism in modern Islam
By Khaled Abou El Fadl
The real challenge that confronts Muslim intellectuals today is that political interests have come to dominate public discourses to the point that moral investigations and thinking have become marginalized in modern Islam.
In the age of postcolonialism, Muslims have become largely preoccupied with the attempt to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness and a frustrating sense of political defeat, often by engaging in highly sensationalistic acts of power symbolism. The normative imperatives and intellectual subtleties of the Islamic moral tradition are not treated with the analytic and critical rigor that the Islamic tradition rightly deserves, but are rendered subservient to political expedience and symbolic displays of power.
Elsewhere, I have described this contemporary doctrinal dynamic as the predominance of the theology of power in modern Islam, and it is this theology that is a direct contributor to the emergence of highly radicalized Islamic groups, such as the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, and for the desensitization and transference by which Muslims confront extreme acts of ugliness.
Far from being authentic expressions of inherited Islamic paradigms, or a natural outgrowth of the classical tradition, these groups, and their impulsive and reactive modes of thinking, are a byproduct of colonialism and modernity. These highly dissonant and defensive modes of thinking are disassociated from the Islamic civilizational experience with all its richness and diversity, and they invariably end up reducing Islam to a single dynamic - the dynamic of power.
They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance to the “other” - a rather vulgar form of obstructionism to the hegemony of the Western world. Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it becomes constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by puritan modes of thinking and their groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West. This type of Islam, which the puritan orientation offers, is akin to a perpetual state of emergency where expedience trumps principal and illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends.
In essence, what prevails is an aggravated siege mentality that suspends the moral principles of the religion in pursuit of the vindications of political power, and the symbolic displays of domination as well. In this siege mentality, there is no room for analytical or critical thought, and there is no room for seriously engaging the Islamic intellectual heritage. There is only room for bombastic dogma, and for a stark functionalism that ultimately impoverishes the Islamic heritage.
One of the most salient characteristics of this orientation is a rabidly aggressive form of patriarchy that responds to feelings of political and social defeatism by engaging in symbolic displays of power that are systematically degrading to women.
In my view, for example, the girls that died in Mecca - with which I began this series of considerations - were the direct victims of the sense of frustration and disempowerment felt by puritan men over the humiliations experienced in Afghanistan and Palestine.
Of course, this is one of those associations that are virtually impossible to prove empirically, but in my experience in studying puritan orientations in modern Islam, one finds that women are not targeted and degraded simply because of textual commitments or determinations. Rather, there is a certain undeniable vehemence and angst in the treatment of women, as if the more women are made to suffer, the more the political future of Islam is made secure.
Puritan orientations do not hesitate to treat all theological arguments aimed at honouring women, by augmenting their autonomy and social mobility, as if they were part of the Western conspiracy designed to destroy Islam. This is also manifested in the puritans’ tendency to look at Muslim women as a consistent source of danger and vulnerability for Islam, and to go as far as branding women as the main source of social corruption and evil.
Although it would be rather disingenuous to suggest that demeaning attitudes towards women were invented, or exclusively adopted only by modern puritan orientations, it is important to understand the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the current puritan challenge at this specific historical juncture of Islamic history.
What makes the puritan challenge today particularly compelling and singularly threatening to the humanistic tradition in Islam is the deconstruction of the institutions of religious authority in the age of modernity. Historically, these institutions played the primary role in undermining and marginalizing the supremacist and puritanical movements of the past.
In addition, not only does the primacy of apologetic intellectual orientations within contemporary Islam not bode well for the ability of Muslims to overcome these supremacist and puritanical movements, but, even more, such apologetics are the main undercurrent feeding into such movements.
The apologetic orientation consisted of an effort by a large number of commentators to defend and salvage the Islamic system of belief and tradition from the onslaught of orientalism, Westernization and modernity by simultaneously emphasizing both the compatibility and also the supremacy of Islam.
Apologists responded to the intellectual challenges of modernity by adopting pietistic fictions about the Islamic traditions, but such fictions eschewed any critical evaluation of Islamic doctrines, and instead celebrated the presumed perfection of Islam.
A common heuristic device of apologetics was to argue that any meritorious or worthwhile modern institutions were first invented and realized by Muslims. Therefore, according to the apologists, Islam liberated women, created a democracy, endorsed pluralism, protected human rights and guaranteed social security long before these institutions ever existed in the West.
Nonetheless, these concepts were not asserted out of critical understanding or genuine ideological commitment, but primarily as a means of resisting the deconstructive effects of modernity, affirming self-worth and attaining a measure of emotional empowerment.
The main effect of apologetics, however, was to contribute to a sense of intellectual self-sufficiency that often descended into moral arrogance. To the extent that apologetics were habit forming, it produced a culture that eschewed self-critical and introspective insight and embraced the projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence and arrogance.
Effectively, apologists got into the habit of paying homage to the presumed superiority of the Islamic tradition, but marginalized the Islamic intellectual heritage in everyday life. While apologists revered Islam in the abstract, they failed to engage the Islamic tradition as a dynamic and viable living tradition.
To a large extent, apologists turned Islam into an untouchable, but also entirely ineffective, beauty queen, simply to be admired and showcased as a symbol, but not to be critically engaged or manhandled. In many ways, apologists ended up reproducing the legacy of orientalism - a legacy of which they were very critical.
Orientalists dealt with the Islamic tradition as a static and, perhaps, even mummified heritage that is represented by a set of self-contained intellectual paradigms, and that is incapable of adapting to the demands of modernity without becoming thoroughly deconstructed, and collapsing onto itself.
In essence, orientalists, who worked in the service of colonialism, paid nothing more than lip service to Islam, and otherwise negated the practical value of Islamic culture. The most typical strategy was for orientalists to insist that the Islamic tradition, while generally decent, lacked essential features necessary for rational modernization. As such, it is not so much that orientalists deprecated Islam as a religion, but rather, they casted serious doubts on the ability of what might be called “active” or “dynamic” Islam to deal with rational modernity.
Ironically, Muslim apologists ended up with the same basic construct. They paid lip service to the Islamic tradition by, among other things, insisting that not only is Islam compatible with modernity, but, in fact, it has already achieved “rational modernization” fourteen hundred years ago. Effectively, apologists treated the Islamic tradition as if it was fossilized at the time of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Companions, and thus rendered this tradition non-dynamic and un-living.
Not only was the practice of apologetics unhelpful in dealing with the challenges of modernity, but it also significantly contributed to the sense of intellectual dissonance felt in many parts of the Muslim world. The problems posed by this response to modernity were only aggravated by the fact that Islam was, and continues to this day, to live through a major paradigm shift, the likes of which it has not experienced in the past.
There is a profound vacuum in religious authority, where it is not clear who speaks for the religion and how. Traditionally, the institutions of Islamic law have been de-centralized, and Islamic epistemology tolerated and even celebrated differences of opinions and a variety of schools of thought. Islamic law was not state-centred nor state-generated, but was developed by judges and jurists through a slow, creative, indeterminate and dialectical process, somewhat similar to the Common Law system.
Classical Islam did develop semi-autonomous institutions of law and theology that trained and qualified jurists, who then provided a class of individuals who authoritatively spoke for, and most often disagreed, about the Divine law. The institutions of religion and law were supported by a complex system of private endowments (awqaf), which enabled Muslim scholars to generate a remarkably rich intellectual tradition.
The guardians of this were the fuqaha, whose legitimacy to a large extent rested in their semi-independence from the political system, which was already fairly de-centralized, and in their dual function of representing the interests of the state to the laity and the interests of the laity to the state.
Importantly, however, much of this drastically changed in the modern age. The traditional institutions that once sustained the juristic discourse have all but vanished. Furthermore, the normative categories and moral foundations that once mapped out Islamic law and theology have disintegrated, leaving an unsettling epistemological vacuum.
Colonialism formally dismantled the traditional institutions of civil society, and Muslims witnessed the emergence of highly centralized, despotic and often corrupt governments that nationalized the institutions of religious learning and brought the awqaf under state control. This contributed to the undermining of the mediating role of jurists in Muslim societies.
The fact that nearly all charitable religious endowments became state controlled entities, and that Muslim jurists in most Muslim nations became salaried state employees, de-legitimated the traditional clergy and effectively transformed them into what may be called “court priests.”
In addition, Western cultural symbols, modes of production, and normative social values aggressively penetrated the Muslim world, seriously challenging inherited normative categories and practices, and adding to a profound sense of socio-cultural alienation and dissonance.
Most Muslim nations experienced the wholesale borrowing of civil law concepts. Instead of the dialectical and in-determinate methodology of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim nations opted for more centralized, determinative and often code-based systems of law.
These developments only contributed to the power of the state, which had become extremely meddlesome, and which was now capable of a level of centralization that was inconceivable just two centuries ago. Even Muslim modernists, who attempted to reform Islamic jurisprudence, were heavily influenced by the civil law system, and thus sought to resist the indeterminate fluidity of Islamic law and increase its unitary and centralized character.
But not only were the concepts of law heavily influenced by the European legal tradition, but even the ideologies of resistance employed by Muslims were laden with third world notions of national liberation and self determination. For instance, modern nationalistic thought exercised a greater influence on the resistance ideologies of Muslim and Arab national liberation movements than anything in the Islamic tradition.
The Islamic tradition was re-constructed to fit third world nationalistic ideologies of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, rather than the other way around.
The disintegration of the traditional institutions of Islamic learning and authority meant a descent into a condition of virtual anarchy with regard to the mechanisms of defining Islamic authenticity. It was not so much that no one could authoritatively speak for Islam, but that virtually every Muslim was suddenly considered to possess the requisite qualifications to become a representative and spokesperson for the Islamic tradition, and even shari’a law.
This was primarily because the standards were set so low that a person who had a modest degree of knowledge of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet was considered sufficiently qualified to authoritatively represent the shari’a, even if such a person was not familiar with the precedents and discourses of the interpretive communities of the past.
Consequently, persons - mostly engineers, medical doctors, and physical scientists - who were primarily self-taught, and whose knowledge of Islamic text and history was quite superficial, were able to position themselves as authorities on Islamic law and theology. Islamic law and theology became the extracurricular hobby of pamphlet readers and writers.
As such, Islamic intellectual culture witnessed an unprecedented level of deterioration, as self-proclaimed and self-taught experts reduced the Islamic heritage to the least common denominator, which often amounted to engaging in crass generalizations about the nature of Islam, and the nature of the non-Muslim “other.”
Clinging to vulgar apologetics, the point of the self-proclaimed experts was to increase the Islamic tradition’s mass appeal by transforming it into a vehicle for displays of power symbolisms. These power symbolisms were motivated by the desire to overcome a pervasive sense of powerlessness and to express resistance to Western hegemony in the contemporary age, as well as a means of voicing national aspirations for political, social and cultural independence.
The irony, however, was that these self-proclaimed experts, being primarily medical doctors, engineers or computer scientists, were trained only in Western scientific methods and according to Western invented educational curriculums, and therefore, methodologically and epistemologically, they were effectively a part of Western culture.
Although defiant and rebellious, in every way they were the children of the West, despite the power symbolisms of resistance in which they engaged. Most significantly, as they searched Islam for black and white, and definitive answers to all their socio-political problems, these Muslim activists superimposed the logic of empirical precision and the determinism of Western scientific methods upon the Islamic intellectual, and particularly the juristic, tradition.
With the deconstruction of the traditional institutions of religious authority emerged organizations such as the Jihad, al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, who were influenced by the resistance paradigms of national liberation and anti-colonialist ideologies, but also who anchored themselves in a religious orientation that is distinctively puritan, supremacist and thoroughly opportunistic in nature.
This theology is the by-product of the emergence and eventual primacy of a synchronistic orientation that unites Wahhabism and Salafism in modern Islam. Puritan orientations - such as the Wahhabis - imagine that God’s perfection and immutability are fully attainable by human beings in this lifetime. It is as if God’s perfection had been deposited in the Divine law, and by giving effect to this law, it is possible to create a social order that mirrors the Divine truth.
But by associating themselves with the Supreme Being in this fashion, puritan groups are able to claim a self-righteous perfectionism that easily slips into a pretence of supremacy. The existence of this puritan orientation in Islam is hardly surprising. All religious systems have suffered at one time or another from absolutist extremism, and Islam is not an exception.
Within the first century of Islam, religious extremists known as the Khawarij (literally, the secessionists) slaughtered a large number of Muslims and non-Muslims, and were even responsible for the assassination of the Prophet’s cousin and companion, the Caliph ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The descendants of the Khawarij exist today in Oman and Algeria, but after centuries of bloodshed, they became moderates, if not pacifists.
Other than the Khawarij, there were other extremists such as the Qaramites and Assassins whose terror became the raison d’etre for their very existence, and who earned unmitigated infamy in the writings of Muslim historians, theologians, and jurists. Again, after centuries of bloodshed, these two groups learned moderation, and they continue to exist in small numbers in North Africa and Iraq.
The essential lesson taught by Islamic history is that extremist groups, such as those mentioned above, among others, are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalized, and eventually come to be treated as a heretical aberration to the Islamic message.
The problem, however, is that the traditional institutions of Islam that historically acted to marginalize extremist creeds no longer exist. This is what makes this period of Islamic history far more troublesome than any other, and this is also what makes modern puritan orientations far more threatening to the integrity of the morality and values of Islam than any of the previous extremist movements.
Extreme acts of ugliness today represent the culmination of a process that has been in the making for the past two centuries. In the same fashion, the culmination of Salafism, Wahhabism, apologetics and Islamic nationalisms has become a synchronism that could be called “Salafabism.”
The bonding of the theologies of Wahhabism and Salafism produced a contemporary orientation that is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism, alienation and frustration. The synchronistic product of these two theologies is one of profound alienation, not only from the institutions of power of the modern world, but also from the Islamic heritage and tradition.
Neither Wahhabism nor Salafism, nor the synchronistic Salafabism, is represented by formal institutions; these are theological orientations and not structured schools of thought. Therefore, one finds a broad range of ideological variations and tendencies within each orientation.
But the consistent characteristic of Salafabism is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeatism, disempowerment, and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the nondescript “other” - whether the “other” is the West, non-believers in general, or even Muslim women.
In this sense, it is accurate to describe the Salafabist orientation as supremacist, for it sees the world from the perspective of stations of merit and extreme polarization. It is important to note, however, that this trend does not only de-value the moral worth of non-Muslims alone, but also those that it considers inferior or of a lesser station, such as women or heretical Muslims.
Instead of simple apologetics, Salafabism responds to the feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising and arrogant symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims, but even more so against fellow Muslims.
It is important here to note that Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the religious police who caused the death of schoolgirls in Mecca, as well as most extremist Muslims, belong to the persuasion that I have called Salafabist. Bin Laden, although raised in a Wahhabi environment, was not, strictly speaking, part of that creed. Wahhabism is distinctively introverted - although focused on power, it primarily asserts power over other Muslims.
From that perspective, the religious police involved in the school fire incident - to use that event to which I keep making reference - are more within the classic Wahhabi paradigm than was Bin Laden. This is consistent with Wahhabism’s classic obsession with orthodoxy and correct ritualistic practice, especially as they pertain to the seclusion of women.
Militant puritan groups, however, are both introverted and extroverted - they attempt to assert power against both Muslims and non-Muslims. As populist movements, they are a reaction to the disempowerment most Muslims have suffered in the modern age at the hands of harshly despotic governments and interventionist foreign powers.
In many ways, these militant groups compensate for extreme feelings of disempowerment by extreme and vulgar claims to power. Fuelled by the supremacist and puritan creed of Salafabism, these groups’ symbolic acts of power become uncompromisingly fanatical and violent.
It would be inaccurate to contend that the militant supremacist groups fill the vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. Militant groups such as al-Qa’ida or the Taliban, despite their ability to commit highly visible acts of violence, are a sociological and intellectual marginality in Islam.
However, these groups are in fact extreme manifestations of more prevalent intellectual and theological currents in modern Islam. In my view, they are extreme manifestations of the rather widespread theological orientation of Salafabism. While it is true that Bin Laden was the quintessential example of a Muslim that was created, shaped and motivated by postcolonial experience, he is representative of underlying currents in contemporary Islam.
Much of what constitutes Islam today was shaped as a defensive reaction to the post-colonial experience, either as the product of uncritical cheerleading on behalf of what was presumed to be the Islamic tradition, or an obstinate rejectionism against what was presumed to be the Western tradition.
As such, the likes of Bin Laden are the children of a profound dissonance and dysfunctionalism experienced in both the Islamic heritage and in modernity. In my view, Bin Laden, along with the whole of the Salafabist movement, was an orphan of modernity, but their claim to an authentic lineage in the Islamic Civilization is tenuous at best.
Originally published July 20, 2011 on Religion and Ethics
Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches International Human Rights, Islamic Jurisprudence, National Security Law and Political Crimes and Legal Systems. He was awarded the University of Oslo Human Rights Award in 2007 for his lifetime accomplishments in the field of Human Rights, and was named a Carnegie Scholar in Islamic Law in 2005. He is the author of numerous books on Islam and Islamic law, and in 2007, his book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (HarperCollins, 2005) was named as one of the year’s Top 100 Books by Canada’s Globe and Mail. His book, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books (University Press of America, 2001), is a landmark in contemporary Islamic literature.