The experience of interfaith struggle (Sunni vs Shī‘a, Sunni-Salafi vs Sunni-Ikhwānī, Najaf Shī‘a vs Qum Shī‘a) or the time-worn Salafist religious struggle with secularism and the consequences of this struggle – highlighted clearly by the issue of the intellectual, denominational, doctrinal and physical ostracism of the other – illustrates how the religious current in general, and that of Salafism in particular, is powerless to present a tangible, modern cultural form to this struggle. Instead it merely has recourse to images of the religious past in order to attain its narcissistic aims.


HERE WE WILL CONCENTRATE on the mechanism of Salafist ostracism whose purpose, in the final analysis, is domination. The Salafist religious current rejects the intellectual frameworks associated with the building of a modern life – such as the acceptance of a point of view that differs from their own – and fails to face up to its challenges. Any attempt at understanding these challenges simply forces a retreat into history, since Salafism is incapable of embracing these frameworks. Moreover, any attempt at accommodating them is tantamount to surrendering one of Salafism’s ‘time-honoured constants’, that is, what al-Salaf al-Sālih (the ‘Righteous Predecessors’) said of yore, and what are termed ‘sanctities’ characterised by traditional chronology.

The Salafist current seeks refuge in the past in their obligation to cleave to the ancestral texts, just as it seeks refuge in religious history as the expectation of time-honoured religious rulings. It does all of this so as to apply the modes of a traditional way of life in the here and now – a world currently characterised by a pace of swift development and stirring change aimed at the attainment of alternative paradises in this world – while its social and religious aims for it is domination over all of life’s matters and details, with all the diversity of its affairs, be they political or non-political. That is, the exercising of control over the present in a time-worn religious mode through a reliance on the texts of the Predecessors (Salaf).

According to the late Egyptian thinker Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the device of “reliance on the authority of heritage and the Salaf” effectively means “changing the words of the Salaf and their creative approach to legal interpretation into un-debatable texts.” Moreover, it constitutes “the conflation of these opinions with the essence of the faith.”

According to the Iranian thinker Mustafa Malikian, the ‘Salafist’ is one who adopts handed down, established thoughts, feelings and acts (held by some to be conclusive and beyond discussion) that have been transmitted from generation to generation through following the example of the Salaf. But many communities that are labelled ‘non-Salafist’ themselves base their thinking and culture upon following the example of the Salaf, and consider their thoughts to be above question and debate. So the Salafists differ from them only in respect to the historical Salafist personalities whose words and deeds are held to be authoritative and their adoption of distinct positions tending in most cases towards the hard-line. Both groups follow a single research methodology, but differ in interpreting what emanates from the Salaf, something which sets them on two different trajectories, the one hard-line, the other less so.

The only way they can justify their failures is to hide behind metaphysical fantasies

These practices (not all of them purely Salafist), such as for example the takfīr / ostracism / repudiation of the Sufis and the Shī‘a, merely indicate the inability of the Salafist current to embrace the concepts of modernity, its failure to accept alternative opinion and its refusal to co-exist with diversity. Indeed, as far as they are concerned, these experiences represent direct challenges to the faith. So in confronting these challenges they must re-activate the experience of the past, its personalities, its language and its instruments. That is, they must take inspiration from the religion’s past in order to face the challenges of the present age. This inspiration process requires ideologizing the historical text, so that time-worn, final, sanctified answers can be extracted from the text in response to questions posed by an active, changing, unsanctified present. We can naturally expect these responses to be unsuccessful and incapable of promoting reform, helpless to keep pace with reality, since they are unfit to do so, being shackled and lacking the requisite freedom and flexibility, and unable to embrace development or keep up with the movement of social and cultural change that is taking place across the globe.

At a time when the Salafist current, with its antiquated ideology, is ascending to the upper echelons of authority over one’s religious, moral and daily life, the products of its ideology have failed to prepare it to keep pace with reality. Experience has actually shown that it is a morally destructive ideology since it is an impotent one. It therefore resorts to circulating falsehoods and accusations of treachery in the name of the religious text, and does not stint at ostracising or killing others or infringing their human rights in the name of religion or under the cloak of ‘the interests of the faith’ – all the while taking no heed of how this reflects negatively on the reputation of the faith or how it is detrimental to religious spirituality.

In other words, the only way that those who lay claim to religious representation can justify their failures in contemporary life, is through hiding behind metaphysical fantasies or irrational visions which serve them as ‘solutions’ granting them the opportunity to repeat their sacralised, celestial experience which, in their imagination and their belief, cannot fail. The other alternative, for the Salafist current, for facing up to this failure is to attempt to gain control over others by force, by striking at the current single mode of perception of all of life’s phenomena, by striking at interpretations that conflict with theirs, and by threatening those who hold them or by doing away with them altogether.

Malikian confirms that whenever a free, rational movement totters, mankind will agree to any number of views and theories, or counter them, without employing any proof or (rational) evidence. Any support or refutation like this that lacks evidence to back it up merely serves to lay the groundwork for two mental vices: the first being fanaticism, the second being prejudice. Whenever mankind allows himself to believe in anything without proof or evidence, he exposes himself to the perils of superstition and humbug. “How could the results be otherwise,” Malikian adds, “when repudiation or consent is carried out without any evidence?”

Problems with embracing modernity
Sectarian violence: a refusal to co-exist with diversity