Necessary History

Review – Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea by Shiraz Maher

The advent of the Islamic State (IS) took much of the world by surprise.  The suddenness of that group’s appearance, coupled with the rapid growth of territory under its control, was a shocking development. In addition, the brutality of IS, and the extent to which it revelled in cruelty which was invariably described as ‘medieval’, meant that it was, in many ways, an organisation which defied easy description.

The world – and the West – is used to an idea of Islamist terror, and this notion has been consolidated since September 11th 2001. Personified by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, this type of thought was of a different order; though it sought to and did control territory, there was no suggestion of the sort of dominance to which IS aspires. The leaders of these groups, such as the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, did see themselves as leaders of Muslims the world over – Omar in particular acquired the title of Amir al-Mu’minin (leader of the faithful) – but none of them could ever claim, as IS’s leader does, to be Caliph, and to rule a reinstated Khalifa.

But that is what IS has done. As Shiraz Maher writes in his new book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, this new era began when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ‘defiantly ascended the pulpit of Mosul Grand Mosque, slowly and deliberately, leading with his right foot’. He declared the establishment of a new Caliphate, with him at its head. It was a dramatic move, one which has had vast reverberations around the world. But this was not only a ‘prayer hall putsch’, as Maher describes it. It was also the culmination of an extensive process of debate and discussion, all of it intended to determine whether this new proto-state met the criteria necessary to be considered a Caliphate.

This debate and jurisprudential assessment is what makes IS so interesting; and it is this which makes Maher’s book so vital. This is valuable because IS is not a one-off, even though it has achieved more – and claimed more – than any other like-minded organisation which has come before it; IS has ‘the most dramatic manifestation of Salafi-Jihadi doctrine of the modern era, serving a dualistic purpose between temporal and cosmic ends’, but it is still only a manifestation of that doctrine, and not that doctrine in its entirety.

Because of this tension between corporeal and spiritual aspects, Maher writes, IS’s ‘purpose can therefore appear contradictory’. Its short-term goal is to capture territory, to remain and expand. But its long-term objective is ‘philosophically destructive in its desire to precipitate the end of the world’ and to bring about the commencement of God’s judgement.

If anything, IS is something of a postscript to Salafi-Jihadism in history. Salafism as a religious school aims, in general, to emulate the earliest three generations of Muslims, the al-salaf al-salihin (‘pious predecessors’).

How this idealised state of affairs can be reached is a matter of debate and dissention within the collective world of Salafi thought; some, like IS, espouse the smashing of nation states and the creation of a Khalifa; others, for example the Wahhabi clerics within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, prefer to advise the government rather than seek to supplant it; still others, such as Ahrar al-Sham, a rebel group in Syria, have Salafi ideas and take up violence in certain instances to implement them, but have no fundamentally global ambitions – in this way Ahrar is thoroughly unlike IS, whose raison d’être is transnational in essence.

IS’s use of scriptural justifications for its own actions makes it difficult to claim that the group has ‘nothing to do with Islam’.

It is interesting to note how theoretical and almost legalistic Salafi-Jihadi thinkers can be. This is fundamentally important, especially as some of its adherents’ core weapons – terrorism generally and the use of suicide attacks in particular – appear to be contravened by the sayings of Prophet Muhammad and need therefore to be justified with reference to other sources of religious authority.

This is an ideology with its own intellectual schools of thought, its own internal debates, and its own praxis. All of these aspects are worthy of study; and Salafi-Jihadism provides an excellent and important insight into an intricately constructed religious and intellectual situation.

Maher’s book is an important one, and it provides much needed context to some of the most complex and consequential events in the world today. With its elegant, engaging style and crisp brevity, this book is an excellent investigation into a subject many of us would do well to learn that bit more about.

The book provides essential and necessary historical context to some of the most initially incomprehensible events of modern times.

This piece was originally published at Middle East Eye.

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