Salafism is a branch of Sunni Islam whose modern-day adherents claim to emulate “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ; often equated with the first three generations of Muslims) as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible. Different scholars of Islam throughout time have striven to emulate the early Muslim generations in the legal sphere, in theological matters, or in both. The ideas espoused by these scholars have more or less culminated in the Wahhabi movement that started on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century, which in turn helped spread a Salafi message to the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds and even beyond. As such, the trend now referred to as Salafism came about, expressing itself ideologically in teachings that are meant to present the trend as exclusively and meticulously adhering to the example of the salaf, while rejecting all other sources of influence. Practically, Salafism can be divided into three branches: quietist Salafism, whose adherents shun political activism and concentrate on “cleansing” and teaching Islam in all its “purity”; political Salafism, which does concentrate on political commitment as an integral part of Islam through contentious debates, parliamentary participation, and founding political parties; and Jihadi-Salafism, whose followers seek to overthrow supposedly apostate regimes in the Muslim world through violent jihad. Although the term “Salafism” is heavily contested among Salafis—with adherents of one branch often not allowing the application of the label to be applied to the other branches—its various ideas and manifestations show that Salafism is quite a diverse phenomenon.
Intellectual debates and sociopolitical changes in Arab societies have brought about new political outlooks and consciousness, and have resulted in profound political change and restructuring of state institutions. Reform efforts successfully introduced modern political institutions, but failed in effecting a broad and systematic transformation of political culture, as the latter continues to be guided by notions and practices rooted in the premodern models of authoritarian (“sultanic”) governance. The drive to political reform under the rubric of Tanzimat started around the turn of the 19th century as a matter of necessity by both Ottoman rulers (sultans), and their governors in Egypt and Tunisia, in response to European imperial expansion into Africa and Asia. By mid-20th century, political institutions and state bureaucracies were restructured in the mold of modern political ideas. Yet these ideas, and the ethical foundations on which they stood, failed to mature in post-Ottoman Muslim societies. Conservative forces resisted the new ideas. With the increased disenchantment of Muslim youth with postcolonial states, conservative thinkers reintroduced Islamic notions and values into the debate over the proper form of government in contemporary Muslim societies. The push to modernize society has been intense, empowering Muslim modernists to move ahead to reshape societal institutions. The zeal to bring about quick development effected indeed rapid modernization but led to the rise of autocratic governments, and further polarized Muslims societies. Notions of popular sovereignty and equal citizenship were countered by the sovereignty of Shari`ah and the need for religious differentiation and religious autonomy, thereby demanding the revival of the historical institutions of caliphate and dhimmis. The debate gradually moved toward compromise, whereby Muslim intellectuals and scholars attempted a creative synthesis on the common ground found in both traditional Islam and modern democratic liberal ideas. The transformation into a model that aligns Islamic values with the principles of democracy (or shura) and equal rights of citizens, while profound and increasingly broad, is still incomplete, as current struggles in Muslim societies demonstrate; intellectual and practical battles for the soul of Muslim societies continue to rage. The push back in the last two decades against modern notions of state and citizenship, and the rise in popularity of groups that aim at reviving the premodern institution of caliphate underscore the debate between old and modern notions of political organization and allegiance, and require deeper understanding of the nature of the tensions between premodern and contemporary political ideas and institutions.
Lawrence A. Peskin
Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.
Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.
These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.
As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.
After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.
One of the world’s most endangered religious minorities, the Yazidis are a predominantly Kurdish-speaking group numbering some 500,000 souls, who once inhabited a wide area stretching across eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. Of these territories, only the community in Iraq still numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Most come from two areas: Sheikhan, a collection of villages and towns to the northeast of Mosul, and Sinjar, a mountain to the northwest close to the border with Syria. Until recently these areas seemed stable; however, in August 2014, the so-called Islamic State (Da‘esh) attacked the ancient community of Yazidis of Mount Sinjar, massacring hundreds of men, enslaving thousands of women and children, and driving the population of some 350,000 Yazidis into camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan region. They are targeted because of their non-Abrahamic religion; for many years they have been erroneously known as “devil-worshippers.” In fact, their belief system incorporates visible elements from the three “religions of the Book” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and traces of lesser-known religions, upon a substratum that may derive from Iranian religions (Zoroastrianism or similar). It is not a proselytizing faith, and religious relationships within the community are determined by birth. Marrying out is traditionally forbidden.
Yazidis are relative newcomers to urban life and are often socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged. Internal pressures, especially from the youth, to “modernize” the religion have existed at least since the 1990s. However, the main drive toward change comes now from the Yazidis’ loss of confidence in their safety in Iraq and their consequent migration toward Europe and the stresses of diaspora life. At the same time, an increasingly activist younger generation is demanding justice. The future of Yazidism is unclear, but it will certainly never be the same again.