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History of Islam: Salafi reformism


In the context of the weakening Ottoman Empire, there is a "return" to Islam. This return to religion is distinguished by a reference to salafs, that is to say the "pious ancestors", and this is why we will call the reformers at the end of the 19th century, salafists. Reformers because while they react to Westernization, they also oppose the conservative ulama. Three characters will then stand out: Jamal Eddin El-Afghani (1839-1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Rachid Rida (1865-1935).


Reforming Islam in the Face of the West

Within the Ottoman Empire, some voices are raised to criticize the delay that the Arab-Turkish Muslim world would have on a West (especially Europe) conquering and innovative in all fields. But far from wanting to westernize and abandon Islam, these new thinkers are proposing to reform their religion to adapt it to modernity. Islam is the true religion and therefore has moral superiority. We must reject the tension over the past and acculturation to European values; there is a dichotomy between tradition and modernity. Reformists internalize the historical decline of Muslims and the idea of ​​progress towards civilization; society is all concerned, not the only faithful. The change of Islam must be lawful and build on already existing values. Islam must not be altered or sclerotic. They therefore reject the taqlid, traditions, to return to the founding texts and promote’Ijtihad (effort of reflection), rejecting imitation. They also introduce new modes of intervention: public debate and the press. The reform must indeed apply to all of society.

The example deliberately cited by reformists is that of Protestantism. The movement is a return to salafs, the early believers (including the caliphs rashidûn), and takes the name of salafiyya.

The first Salafists: El-Afghani and Abduh

The first of the Reformists is a complex and largely mysterious figure. Jamal Eddin El-Afghani is probably of Persian origin; born in 1839, he campaigned first in Persia, then in India and Afghanistan, against European interference. In his day, being Persian was assimilated to being Shia, which was frowned upon in the Ottoman Empire; that's why he masquerades as afghan when he arrives in turkey. However, he remains marked by the Shiism in which he was immersed.

He travels in the Empire, and arrives as far as Egypt, where he has many followers, among whom a certain Muhammad Abduh. The latter was born in the Nile delta in 1849; he studies at Al-Azhar (so he is a ‘Power supply), while approaching Sufism. He met El-Afghani in 1872, and the two men developed a completely original thought, opposing the faith to the Western influence and the conservatism of the ulemas of Al-Azhar with genuine political activism. They are thus at the heart of the troubles which hit Egypt in the 1870s, in particular El-Afghani, who ended up being expelled in 1879. The Persian returned for a time to India, then arrived in France, where Abduh joined him in 1883. , also expelled from Egypt. Both then created the newspaper "Le Lien Indissoluble", a true manifesto of Salafist reformism: they criticized the powers of Muslim countries, blaming nationalisms and rivalries on the decadence of Islam (and colonization, due to complicity of Muslim leaders), whose believers should all be grouped together in an indivisible umma, for a common ideal: respect for Islamic law.

Instead, they reject any idea of ​​the personal power of one, claiming that despotism is the enemy of Islam. Salafists are haunted by the moral vacuum of Muslim societies and therefore attach importance to religious and moral education, conducted by the ulama. They wish to bring Islam and Reason closer together: Abduh in 1897: "religion and reason thus fraternized for the first time in a sacred Book and through the mouth of a prophet, sent from God". Religion and reason are therefore in harmony, there is a complementarity between them, and there must be a choice between "each to his own domain" and equal involvement in all areas of individual existence. Islam is therefore part of the social, and Abduh chooses the second option through the use ofijtihad. But their rationalization has limits: Reason is ultimately confined to an instrumental role, it is not the ultimate criterion which is that of Revelation ... The Salafists want Muslims to take their destiny back in hand in the social and collective registers. For El-Afghani, we must seek the historical causes of the decline: he rejects predestination and fatalism, and claims the freedom of human action. Human Reason distinguishes good from evil; the Salafists therefore give a great place to the freedom of human action: Man is a responsible subject. The Law of God serves to encourage Man to do Good, it has an especially collective role. Ultimately, only a full application of Islamic law can restore independence and oppose European interference.

If El-Afghani, who made himself famous in Paris for his opposition to Ernest Renan, is a political agitator, it is Abduh who is spreading Salafist reformism. He left France for Syria, then could return to Egypt in 1888. The situation changed, and Abduh obtained several important posts, until that of Grand Mufti of Egypt, in 1899. He thus seemed ideally placed to disseminate the reformist thinking. However, and despite the support of the British authorities, he fails to reform Al-Azhar. He died in 1905.

Rachid Rida, the heir?

The reformism of El-Afghani, and especially of Abduh, was based on a return to the salafs, a practice ofijtihad, a fight against despotism, and the need for an education of Muslims with a renaissance of the Arabic language. They rejected Wahhabism, judged as too doctrinaire and above all too close to Hanbalism, enemy of Muslim rationalism (the mutazilism of the 9th century). Yet it was one of their heirs, Rachid Rida, who initiated a rapprochement between Salafi reformism and Wahhabism.

Rida is Syrian, born in 1865 in Lebanon. He met Abduh during the latter's stay in Syria, then joined him in Cairo in 1897; there he founded his newspaper, "Al-Manar" (The Lighthouse), in the tradition of the revolutionary magazine of his master and El-Afghani, "The Indissoluble Link". If he too is a reformer, he is more conservative than his elders. Among the followers of the Salafists, he opposes the modernist rationalists, "liberals" seeing Islam more as a morality than a practice, and debating both the rights of women and the Islamic legitimacy of the caliphate. Rida insists on respect for the principles of religion and on personal jihad, on the purity of Islam; he strongly opposes Sufism. We can consider him as more "radical" than El-Afghani and Abduh, which can be noticed by his positions in the context of the end of the Ottoman Empire: he adheres to pan-Arabism, linking Arab and Muslim identity ( we speak of Arab-Islamism), and with his newspaper takes on a real political dimension. At the end of the 1920s, he became closer to the Wahhabis of the Sa'oud family, and supported the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, three years before his death in 1935.

The conservative Salafist reformism of Rida, real political activism, will then inspire an even more important movement, that created in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna: the Muslim Brotherhood.

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- N. Picaudou, Islam between religion and ideology, Gallimard, 2010.

- H. Laurens, The Arab East (Arabism and Islamism, from 1798 to 1945), A. Colin, 2004.

- B. Rougier (dir.), What is Salafism?, Presses Universitaires de France, 2008.

- T. Ramadan, At the source of Muslim revival, from al-Afghani to Hassan al-Banna a century of Islamic reformism, Bayard Éditions / éditions Tawhid, 1998.


Video: Dr. Emad Hamdeh - Between Salafism and Traditionalism: The Case of Nasir al-Din al-Albani.. (September 2021).