Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Reply to ‘Abdul Haq Al-Ashanti’s “Critique” of My articles on Neo-Traditional Salafi construction of the Religious Other

A Reply to ‘Abdul Haq Al-Ashanti’s “Critique” of My articles on Neo-Traditional Salafi construction of the Religious Other
By Adis Duderija, Ph.D.
Couple of months ago I was contacted by email by AbdulHaq ibn Kofi ibn Kwesi al-Ashanti   who informed me that he wrote a ‘critique’ of my two articles on what I term Neo-traditional Salafi (NTS) construction of the Religious Other  (the articles in question can be read here and here ) in which he has made a number of erroneous claims about my work that deserve unequivocal refutation. More importantly,  ‘Abdul  Haqq’s  ‘critique’ warrants attention  because it illustrates well  the problematic nature of more mainstream classical Sunni manahij ( sg. manhaj) on not only the normative relationship between the Muslim Self and the Religious other but also on other issues pertaining to gender , violence and tolerance.
‘Abdul Haq starts his ‘critique’ by rightly complaining that the label as well as the concept of Salafism , its historical roots  and manhaj  in particular, have  in many contemporary discussions ,especially political, been abused and/or  poorly understood by reducing them to a phenomenon  that does not go beyond the life and works of Abdul Wahhab ,a 19th century puritan reformer. However, he mistakenly includes my work as an example of this kind of scholarship.
For example in one of my  articles ‘Abdul Haqq ‘critiques’ I clearly link and describe  NTS manhaj  with that of the pre-modern ahl-hadith several times. On the very first page of the article ( p.76) in question when defining NTS I state that an alternative label that could be used namely  neo-ahl-al-hadithism. ‘Abdul Haqq misunderstands that my use of the prefix ‘neo’ as in neo-traditional Salafism ( NTS) means that NTS manhaj has no historical roots in the Islamic tradition ( see below). He writes on p.8 :
By using the word ‘neo’ however the impression given is that Salafism has concocted a new approach which has no roots in the traditionalist and juristic-classicist approach of Islamic scholarship….
 The prefix “ neo’ ,as in case of neo-traditional , neo-liberal or  neo-conservative in actual fact suggest quite the contrary. It means that there is a clear conceptual continuity and link between the contemporary ‘neo’ and the original concept may that be traditionalism, conservatism or liberalism. But this is not a simple mistake that can be reduced to the misunderstanding of the semantics of the prefix ‘neo’. This is so because ‘Abdul Haqq did not need to look far ( but  he clearly choose to  overlook it) that on p.76-78 in the very same article  I have clearly linked NTS with the pre-modern ahl-al-hadith  repeatedly
On  p.76 I state:
The epistemological framework of the Islamic tradition (turath) in NTS thought asserts that ahl al-hadith (Melchert 2000, 6) are the sole and true followers of the al-salaf al-salih understanding of the scope and the nature of the concept of Sunna because of their literal adherence to ‘authentic’ Hadith.

On p.77 I write:
As part of their overall claim to be the sole custodians of the al-salaf al- salih understanding of the scope and nature of the concept of Sunna, NTS scholars maintain that the way in which the nature and the scope of the Qur’an and Sunna were understood and interpreted from the time of the Prophet until now remained the same and is adhered to in its original form by the ahl al- hadıth.
A mere few paragraphs after I write:

NTS scholars claim to be the sole custodians of the al-salaf al-salih understanding of the concept of the Sunna by adhering to the ahl al- hadıth manhaj of understanding and interpreting the Qur’an and Sunna through the classical ‘ulum al- hadıth science, namely the ‘authentic Hadith’ as defined by ahl al- hadıth.

Moreover if this was not enough, had ‘Abdul Haqq taken the time to read my book  (or other articles  here and here )  I published  on NTS on the same subject matter ( as far as the historical background behind NTS and its manhaj  is concerned)   he would have realized that in the book one complete chapter is devoted to establishing the link between NTS and ahl-al-hadith ,especially in terms of their manhaj and their understanding of the nature and the scope of the concept of sunna.

Importantly, the actual assertion by  (neo)-ahl -al-hadith/NTS to be the  sole custodians of  the al-salaf al- salih  manhaj generally or that in relation to sunna specifically , a belief that is contested by other classical madhahib who make the very same claim, as I have shown elsewhere ( here  and here ) is ahistorical.  So , as I argued in my book  and in this short article , the concept of Salafism in Sunnism  is a contested concept that signifies  a particular approach to interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna, a particular worldview and a particular interpretation of early Islamic history.  More specifically it  signifies  a particular methodology of interpreting the Islamic tradition as a way of distinguishing it from other approaches considered not to be based on the supposedly as-salaf as-salih manhaj. This concept of Salafism is also supported by the large amount of evidence ‘Abdul Haqq procures (pp.2-20) to argue that the idea of the salaf ( however appropriated and whatever its actual manhaj related implications are)  existed throughout Islamic  history .
Salafism as a concept is, however, as I show in my book much more than this. It is also a religio-political doctrine purporting to bestow an amnesty on all of the Companions of the Prophet in the midst of socio-political chaos that characterised early Islam in order to validate the methodology of Hadith criticism developed by the early  muhaddithun such as Bukhari and Muslim   as well as to counter the emerging  Shi’i  theology of Imamism. Lastly, it denotes an approach to conceptualizing the Islamic tradition premised on a pre-supposition of a regressive view of the nature of history and time. As such, in these respects,  it is shared by all classical Sunni madhahib.

‘Abdul Haq’s second point of critique which is rather minor concerns my statement that  that Shaykh Yahya al-Hajūrī from Yamen held “senior positions on religious councils responsible for issuing fatwas” is indeed valid. Nonetheless, Shaykh Yahya al-Hajūrī in terms of his manhaj is indeed a proponent of NTS or neo-ahl-al-hadithism something that ‘Abdul Haq himself does not question.

‘Abdul Haqq’s third point of critique is that I have confused the Zahiri  manhaj  with that of Ahl-hadith by stating that :
The NTS manhaj reason and reason-based, non-textual sources of knowledge {sic}, which...are considered to function outside the scope of the ‘valid’ religious knowledge contained in the Qur’an and the hadith-based Sunna.

But ‘Abdul Haqq  does not elaborate whatsoever on what basis the Zahiri manhaj  is different from that of (neo)-ahl hadith /NTS . But as shown in my forthcoming edited volume on Sunna  their respective manahij  are more or less identical based on great similarities they share in terms of  their concept of sunna and its status in Islamic law.


In his fourth point ‘Abdul Haqq  asserts that:

“ Duderija main crux is that he appears to claim that certain views, adopted by some Salafi scholars, are not only adhered to by all Salafis, but also presents these views as if they are exclusively ‘Salafi’ or ‘NTS’, as he refers to it. One of the main issues in which Duderija does this is in regards to how Salafis view “the Other”. Duderija (2010) states on p.81:
Here we investigate how several qur’anic verses, when interpreted on the basis of the NTS manhaj, can result in the exclusivist construction of the religious Self vis-a-vis the Other advocated by NTS thought.

I have already dealt with the issue of the definition and meaning of Salafism above.  I have never claimed that NTS / (neo)-ahl-al-hadith/salafis have a monopoly on what I term exclusivist construction of the religious Self is-a-vis the Other. The NTS were the focus of my study and I cannot be faulted for that. The fact that some other classical madhhahib and the manahij on which they are based share this view is also concerning and I will come back to this point later.

What I have argued is that given the NTS’s concept of sunna as ittiba’ of ‘sahih hadith” as defined by  the NTS/ ahl-al-hadith  muhaditthun  and given the  role law ‘sahih hadith’  as per NTS manhaj ( which I describe  in length  in the relevant articles and in the book indicated above ) have in Islamic law and legal theory, the proponents of NTS are obliged if they are to stay true to their manhaj to hold these ahadith as normative. I have never asserted that NTS do not resort to fiqh at all but that the nature of their fiqh is characterised by their broader manhaj that I have described /delineated in some detail,especially in my book.

‘Abdul Haqq does not have the audacity to actually  quote in full the examples of qur’anic verses( when interpreted according to the NTS manhaj)  or over half a dozen ‘sahih” hadith ( p. 81-84 in my article ) I have used to establish  why NTS have a exclusivist construction of the religious Self is-a-vis the Other.  He only refers to the hadith of  Aisha in a footnote but omits not only all of  the Qur’anic verses and in particular   but also additional  6  ‘sahih hadith” ( hence normative for all who adhere to NTS manhaj) that I cite in full again:

1.Narrated ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar: ‘Allah’s Apostle said, “You [i.e. Muslims] will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, ‘O ‘Abd Allah [i.e. slave of Allah]! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him’”’. (Bukhari, 4.176)

2.Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘The Prophet said, “Jews and Christians do not dye their hair so you should do the opposite of what they do.”’ (Bukhari,  Sahı h, 7.786)

3. Narrated ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-’As: ‘Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said, “He does not belong to us who imitates other people. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians, for the Jews’ salutation is to make a gesture with the fingers and the Christians’ salutation is to make a gesture with the palms of the hands.”’ (Tirmidhi, 4648, classified as weak).

4.Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘Suhayl ibn Abu Salih said: “I went out with my father to Syria. The people passed by the cloisters in which there were Christians and began to salute them. My father said: ‘Do not give them salutation first, for Abu Hurayrah reported the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) as saying: Do not salute them [Jews and Christians] first, and when you meet them on the road, force them to go to the narrowest part of it.’”’ (Abu Dawud, 5186)

5. Narrated Abu Hurayra: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Religion will continue to prevail as long as people hasten to break the fast, because the Jews and the Christians delay doing so.’ (Abu Dawud, 2346)

6.Ibn ‘Abbas reported: ‘The Messenger of Allah fasted on the day of ‘Ashurah and ordered the people to fast on it. The people said: “O Messenger of Allah, it is a day that the Jews and Christians honour.” The Prophet said, “When the following year comes – Allah willing – we shall fast on the ninth.” The death of the Prophet came before the following year.’ This is recorded by Muslim and Abu Dawud. In one version the wording is: ‘If I remain until next year, we shall fast the ninth,’ meaning, the tenth. This is related by Muslim and Abu Dawud.

‘Abdul Haqq tacitly actually concedes that the correct (from the vantage-point of NTS manhaj) interpretation of this body of texts does result in such a construction by saying that  I am “holding only Salafis account for what is present within the Qur’ān and hadith !”( p.27) or that ” hold Salafism to account for the words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)”( p.28).

Moreover ‘Abdul Haqq accuses me of cherry picking the hadith and not including those ones that do talk about tolerance of non-Muslims. In this regard, he is only able to adduce three ahadith  ( p.28-29) in addition to a rather vague and decontextualized reference to one Qur’anic ayat ( a hallmark of NTS manhaj ) . If anything this feature of NTS thought just further highlights the problematic nature of their manhaj since it does not have interpretational mechanisms to reconcile these conflicting textual bodies of evidence for reasons that are inherent to the very nature of the NTS manhaj ( especially comprehensive contextualisation) as I describe and delineate it.

‘Abdul  Haqq asserts that I am intentionally picking on NTS to be the only ones who consider Christians and Jews as Kuffar . I have already stated that in none of my articles on NTS have I made an assertion that it is only the proponents of  NTS have a monopoly on this interpretation but that NTS are the focus of my study. 

‘Abdul Haqq argues that  Al-Qahtani is not representative of NTS manhaj because he is supposedly a member of the Ikhwan .  But this is incorrect because his book al-wala wal bara’ ,which is the actual  subject of discussion, is very much part of NTS manhaj . Indeed the book was defended as a master’s thesis at the Department of Aqida of the Umm al-Qura University in Makkah, one of the main centers of NTS thought. This cannot be denied!

‘Abdul Haqq takes issue with the fact that I link NTS manhaj with that of takfiri-jihadist such as Al-Qaeda. He considers that this is an “overestimation” yet he never goes into the  nitty gritty of how NTS manhaj is similar of different from that of the takfiri-jihadists to support his claims.
He cites the works of some counter-terrorism experts who do not have a clue about Islamic hermeneutics/legal theory to argue that those who adhere to ‘true’ Salafism ( i.e. NTS )  are less likely to get involved in takfiri-violence.
However, on the question if NTS is part of the problem rather than part of the solution ( or an antidote to be more precise )  when it comes to stemming takfiri-jihadist( such as ISIS) violence recent discussions of the leading experts are not in agreement or even suggest the contrary. For example, Jacob Olidort writes :

“Quietism,”[in my parlance NTS] or abstaining from political involvement or activism, is merely a placeholder rather than a principle for most Salafi groups today. "Quietists,” activists, jihadists, and other Salafis are all composed of the same theological DNA. They base themselves on texts and concepts developed over centuries by communities of established Muslim scholars. Indeed, this is a crucial component of the Salafi claim to authenticity. It is therefore not a big conceptual leap to go from quietism to jihadism. The turbulent politics of the Middle East have encouraged Salafis to shift their approaches to political engagement; where Salafis stand today is not necessarily where they will stand tomorrow.
There have been many cases of so-called “quietist” Salafis throughout the twentieth century who became activist. Most recently, hundreds of thousands of quietists became politically active in parliamentary elections after the Arab Spring revolutions, perhaps the most famous example being the Nour party in Egypt.
The civil war in Syria is also shifting the terms of the debate among Salafis about whether to engage in political activism. Before the war, the intra-Salafi debate was focused solely on the merits of engaging in parliamentary politics and on whether it was appropriate to excommunicate Muslims who disagreed with them. The discussion has now shifted to focus on how best to address the growing humanitarian problem, which often puts quietists and jihadists on the same page. The human toll of the crisis in Syria (which activist and quietist Salafis depict as a result of the Asad government’s Shiite faith) has led some non-violent Salafis—such as the Lebanese Salafi Ahmed al-Assir—to take up arms and lead battalions in Syria.

In fact, as I have pointed out in an article on debates between quietist and jihadis, if one adopts the concepts, methods and basic assumptions of Salafism as a framework of reasoning, the radicals’ theological arguments may not come across as being quite as preposterous as some quietist Salafis would have us believe. Employing quietist Salafis to counter the Islamic State’s ideology may, therefore, actually convince some potential radicals of the merits of the Islamic State’s reasoning, rather than persuade them to abandon that way of thinking.

Another leading terrorism expert Schmit  in his article on  Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? argues along the same lines in the context of how to deal with NTS in the  West and writes (p.24) :

In the view of knowledgeable observers who have watched the operations of Islamists in Western societies very closely, the two camps[violent and non-violent extremists] share a similar uncompromising worldview and in the end disagree mainly on tactics. If this is indeed the case, collaboration (as opposed to informal contacts and functional i.e. non-political engagements) should be avoided since it strengthens Islamist extremists in their battle for religious leadership of Islam in the West.

I share the views of these scholars.
Let me add that none of these experts, either those with whom I agree or disagree, are well acquainted with Islamic hermeneutics or have attempted to precisely delineate the NTS manhaj in the manner I have done in my scholarship.

‘Abdul Haqq takes issue with my statement that NTS is distinct from the classical Islamic tradition of scholarship. What I actually have said is :
It is distinct from the madhhab-based approach to the Islamic tradition, which is regarded as embodying the most substantial part of the Sunni interpretational spectrum.

In my reply to point one I have shown that I do consider NTS to be the contemporary embodiment  of ahl-al-hadith  manhaj which indeed distinguishes itself ( which is not too say that it does not share any  manhaj presuppositions with other madhahib- as I clearly state it is a spectrum) for example in their concept of the nature and the scope of the concept of Sunna from lets’ say Hanafi and Maliki usulis. In my book, especially chapter one, I explain these differences in more detail. There is no contradiction in my position in this regard.

In relation to offensive jihad engaged in by some takfiri-jihadist movements such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda Abud Haqq rightly point out that these are not restricted to only NTS manhaj but have a broader standing in the Islamic tradition if it is interpreted by means of classical manahij such as in the Shafi’i madhab( e.g.  Umdat us-Sālik by a Shāfi’ī and Sūfī scholar Ahmad ibn an-Naqīb al-Misrī (circa 702-769 AH/1302-1367 CE and its offensive jihad doctrine).  This is very concerning and I have constantly been raising this point on different academic and non-academic list-serves and other fora but it has mainly fallen on deaf ears.  The same holds true of oppressive gender and slavery practices which I discuss here.

So in summary, except for a minor second point, ‘Abdul Haqq’s ‘critique’ not only does not have any foundations but demonstrates why classical embedded manahij, may they be ahl-al-hadith or more prevalent sunni  madhabased, , must be critically and unapologetically  assessed and their role in religion-based violence ( with respect to both other Muslims as well as non-Muslims), strong elements of intolerance  and gender based oppression  recognized for what they are. As I have demonstrated in my work on critical/progressive Muslims alternative of the Islamic tradition are perfectly possible but they require,  at times, radically different interpretational assumptions to those embodied by mainstream traditional Sunni as well as NTS /ahl-hadith manahij. And no I am not a Shi’i as many of the issues discussed here , albeit in a differ form, apply also to some versions of  classical Shi’i thought.

[1] Meaning more of less method of interpretation and the assumptions governing it.

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