Observations on the Salafi View of Islamic History

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:50 PM
Metropolitan Ballroom West (Small) (Sheraton New York)
Bernard Haykel, Princeton University
Salafis, members of a sect of Islam who claim to follow a strict constructionist or originalist interpretation of the religion, have a distinctive view on Islam’s history, one that is not widely held by most Muslims. They typically idealize the early period, that of the so-called Pious Ancestors (al-Salaf al-Salih), circa 610-855 CE, and either ignore or vilify much of what followed, which they see as a period of decline, widespread corruption and unbelief. Salafis make a few exceptions to this view of history; they do highlight the works and lives of some notable scholars and personalities who lived after 855 CE (e.g., Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab), but only to underscore the truth of their claims. The Salafi revivalist project asserts to want to return to the early pristine period, and in so doing short-circuit, as it were, most of the intervening centuries. However, a closer look at their claims and actions highlights a series of historical and intellectual sleights of hand, which show that the Salafis are in fact deeply committed to a modern state-centered political project as well as the construction of a Muslim subjectivity that is contemporary in inspiration and that bears little relationship to the textual tradition they are putatively committed to reviving. The Salafis, who reify Islam, provide an excellent example for how Islam is forever being discursively constructed, while also being contested by their opponents who in turn promote a different objectified version of the religion and its history.