The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman

Paths to Conversion

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Anabel Inge
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190611675.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Making of Salafi Woman by Anabel Inge is an ethnographic study focusing on new Salafi converts in Britain. The author has located her extensive field work—ranging over two years—in multiple localities of London with the principal site being Brixton Mosque in South London. The work is extremely pertinent in a scenario in which narratives of “brainwashing” are employed. Inge relies on conversion theories in the sociology and anthropology of religion, in addition to literature on Islam and Salafism. She locates the “making” of Salafi women within the paradigm of Rational Choice Theory (RCT) wherein the agency and decision making of these women are viewed as rational, conscious choices as opposed to dominant narratives on religious conversion that imagine the subject as an impassive/irrational self.

In the introduction, Inge discusses the over-simplified narratives used by media keen on exposing Jihadi extremism, rampant ISIS threats, and popular anxiety surrounding Islam as opposed to the “liberal rationality” of the West. One such was the channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque: The Return (2008), which “exposed” the Niqabi women adhering to hard-line Islamic teachings and puritanical norms of gender segregation. The “undercover” narratives centered upon the “vulnerability” of these women overlooked their subjectivity. Inge negates superficial understandings by moving into a nuanced zone where political, social, religious, and intellectual factors have informed women’s conversion to Salafism.

In the section entitled “Salafi Beliefs and Practices,” Inge problematizes the prevalent academic use of “Salafism” as an umbrella term to discuss a wide (often contradictory) range of religious constellations. This typology juxtaposes purists, who adhere to non-violent religious activism, with the “Jihadis” and Islamists. Inge moves beyond these dominant narratives to a zone of “moral and doctrinal purification” (11) founded on the revival of “Prophetic piety.” She further discusses the origin and belief systems surrounding Salafism, which linguistically corresponds to the “pious forefathers of Islam” (al- salaf al- salih ), with its nonnegotiable adherence to Tawhid (One-ness of God) and the authority of Quran and prophetic tradition.

The chapter titled “The Development of Salafism in Britain” traces the emergence of a new religious consciousness among British Muslims. This adherence to an (essentially puritanical) Islamic identity is linked to the political turmoil in Britain after that Gulf War and the Salman Rushdie affair. Added to that was the identity crisis among converts—who were predominantly migrants from Africa and South Asia—who regarded religion as a catalyst which enabled them to cope with an alien culture, language, and socio-political milieu. This was paralleled with the emergence of Islamic reform movements which eventually faced threats in the post-9/11 world. State-funded counter-radicalization programs were initiated by Salafi mosques, which played a major role in differentiating Salafism from Jihadi ideology.

Salafi Mosques emerged as spaces of piety and sisterhood, linking the personal and public domain of Salafi women and playing a crucial role in sustaining their new faith. The second chapter, “Fieldwork,” locates the ethnographic study within these “semi-formal” domains of faith, particularly the Brixton Mosque, dominated by Somali converts. A distinct Salafi identity, Inge argues, was formulated through language and Salafi attire: the use of Arabic language and jiljab accompanied by niqab. Dissemination of religious knowledge was attained through textual and audio sources, as well as social media, which bonded these semi-formal networks.

“Becoming Salafi” explores the socio-political and religious factors that trigger conversion. Inge adopts Quintan Wiktorowicz’s linkage between “personal” crisis and religious conversion. The trauma of migration and civil war, anxieties of survival in a liberal/multi-faith environment ,and disillusionment with cultural Islam catalyzed the process of conversion. Post-9/11 religiosity was followed by an experimental phase, wherein women encountered multiple Islams, from political Islam to theological Islam. The strong scripturalism and adherence to the “One-ness of God,” the rejection of law schools and the emphasis on “original sources,” made logical sense to the (migrant) converts beyond ethnic and cultural versions of Islam. Inge links this with the conversion narratives proposed by Bryan Wilson who argues that new religious movements (NRMs) can provide a level of “soteriological reassurance lacking from old religions” (95).

In “Commitment and Belonging,” Inge examines the multiple factors that bind the new converts into the Salafi fold by relying upon Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s typology of commitment. Religious and personal bonding between the individual and the (Salafi) community is established through the display of shared etiquette, language, dress, and identity which eventually makes the “Salafi Sisterhood” a compartmentalized space distinct from others. The role of female scholars in fostering bonding is explored: the gendered and non-hierarchical nature of the spaces adhering to an “authentic” body of knowledge plays a primary role in cultivating commitment.

The inherent disparity between Salafi ideals and the social reality of these women is examined in the chapter entitled “Applying Salafism.” Salafi religious identity operates within a highly compartmentalized paradigm, and Inge explores the multiple ways in which the women negotiate their “new religiosity” within the liberal framework of Western society. This involves framing creative solutions to make Salafism speak to familial, educational and employment dilemmas.

Marriage plays a primary role in initiating further bonding of the women of the Salafi community. A “pious and knowledgeable husband” is envisioned as per the Salafi ideal, yet the woman faces severe ethnic and cultural constraints in this choice. The chapter entitled “Salafi Match-making” explores these dilemmas in 21st century Britain, where the “demands” of Salafi marriage is at odds with the liberal framework. The women defend the Salafi matchmaking process and practice strict gender segregation by opting for the permission and presence of the male guardian (Wali) in marriage negotiations.

In her conclusion, Inge relates the complexity of the ethnographic work which unraveled the grassroots realities of Salafi women. The multifarious challenges to Salafism are also elaborated by Inge, extending from threats posed by Jihadi ideology, economic recession, and puritanical interpretations of faith that are at odds with Western liberalism.

By negating the clichés pertaining to the radicalization and anonymity of Muslim women, Inge’s book has created a key intervention within the academic framework involving Islam and gender studies by critically analyzing the personal, religious, and political realms of women’s engagement with Salafi Islam.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Simi K. Salim is a post graduate student in the English department at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anabel Inge completed her PhD at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King's College London, where she won the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Doctoral Award and Walton Scholarship. She has taught courses on Islam and the Anthropology of Religion at SOAS (University of London) and King's College London.

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