Salafism and Traditionalism
Scholarly Authority in Modern Islam
- ISBN: 9781108621076
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: March 2021
Emad Hamdeh’s Salafism and Traditionalism: Scholarly Authority in Modern Islam is a long-awaited work on two important and major trends in modern Islamic thought: Salafism and Traditionalism. The book not only brings to light the fierce intellectual debates on who gets to explain Islam, but also provides the most detailed study yet on the thought of Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), one of the most important and polemical 20th century scholars on hadith literature (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings).
The book focuses on the tensions between purist Salafis and Traditionalists in regard to the study and use of hadith literature. Hamdeh also does an excellent job of highlighting how these tensions have impacted the status of the ‘ulama’, religious scholars who serve as the gatekeepers of Islamic knowledge. The author also analyzes the implications of this debate on both modern Islamic thought and the average Muslim. To achieve the book’s goal, the author focuses on the religious message of Salafism and how it created a school of thought in Islam that not only stands in contrast to the Traditionalist school and the ‘ulama’, but also threatens and undermines the traditional study of Islam (and of the hadith in particular) that has existed for the past 1400 years. Although the book discusses the Salafi point of view on how to study hadith, the author focuses on al-Albani’s “brand of purist Salafism” (3).
Traditionalism, according to Hamdeh, is not static or stuck in the past, but is instead fluid and open to change and challenge, with a strong belief that the past and early Islam can serve as the best model for Muslims today. Traditionalism, in short, looks back to early Muslims in “a continuous effort to understand the present” (19), referring to their texts, interpretations, arguments, methodologies, and practices. Traditionalism, the author tells us, is defined as a trend within Islam that adheres to the Qur’an and Sunna (Muhammad’s tradition), the consensus (ijma‘) of early scholars, and the Islamic knowledge (education, law, and hadith) that is passed down in chains of scholarly authority (isnad). The author’s use of the term “Traditionalist” refers to the ‘ulama’ who view themselves as the sole authority to preserve, transmit, and interpret the Islamic legal tradition. Because Traditionalists believe that Islamic knowledge cannot be preserved, transmitted, and interpreted without the ‘ulama’, who are grounded in the tradition through an established chain of teachers going all the way back to the Prophet, it is necessary for Muslims to follow a school of law or school of thought (madhhab).
In the West, as well as in many Muslim countries, Salafism is defined as a political movement that employs religion for political goals. Many scholars and laypeople also adhere to the views that Salafis can be either pacifists (preaching a strict version of Islam) or militant (forcing their own ideology on other Muslims). In this book, the author gives Salafism its true face and meaning: a religious movement that rejects taqlid (the unquestioning acceptance of the legal decisions of the ‘ulama’) and interpretation. In other words, Salafism is a “method of understanding Islam” (24). For instance, Salafis argue that Islam cannot be interpreted because they believe that Islam is a message before scholarly opinions. In this regard, Salafis reject the legal methodology of early scholars. Here, Hamdeh not only defines Salafism to the Western reader but also explains how Salafis understand Islam vis-à-vis other Muslims. No other book in the English language makes such a profound and detailed distinction between Salafism and Traditionalism.
Hamdeh makes another significant contribution by drawing a distinction between Salafism and what he calls “purist Salafism.” While Salafism is not opposed to the madhhabs, “a strong anti-madhhabism lies at the heart of purist Salafism” (30). Purist Salafism advocates a legal methodology that is guided only by the Qur’an, hadith, and the salaf (pious ancestors) with limited commentary. This version of Salafism, according to the author, was practiced by al-Albani and his students and became very popular throughout the Muslim world in the late 20th century. The main difference between Salafis and purist Salafis is that while the former does not prohibit taqlid for laypeople and advises people to adhere to their madhhabs, the latter rejects taqlid and refuses to be affiliated with any madhhab.
Thus, the book not only explains the tension between Traditionalism and Salafism alluded to in its title, but also discusses the clash between Salafism and purist Salafism. For instance, Hamdeh recounts how al-Albani condemned the Wahhabis––the Saudi Salafis––for their connection to the Hanbali school of law and for “restricting themselves to a madhhab’s interpretive methodology” (45). Later in the book, the author demonstrates how al-Albani singlehandedly challenged the authority of the ulama’ as well as the Traditionalist institutions that provided the people with Islamic knowledge for centuries. The book portrays al-Albani as the Muslim Martin Luther who attempted to take the authority of the ulama’ as the sole interpreters of Islam and hand it down to the people. With al-Albani’s views, purist Salafism became an “attractive alternative to what many perceived as outdated Traditionalism” (58).
Throughout the book, Hamdeh makes mention of other “purist Salafis” who oppose the Traditionalists, but does not tell us who they are. It would have been helpful if the author had identified these thinkers and provided us with an overview of their thought and how they support or echo al-Albani. The question remains: Is al-Albani a lone wolf or one of several scholars challenging the Traditionalists? The book does not tell us much. Also, the author uses the Arabic term madhhab on page 1 of the book, but does not provide a translation or definition of the term or explain its meaning until page 23.
Salafism and Traditionalism is a well-written and well-researched work on the clash between Traditionalism and Salafism. This clash has been highlighted by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has called on religious scholars to “confront platforms that broadcast false ideas about Islam” and to correct “religious discourse at the level of individuals, groups, and countries.” This important and timely book not only helps us understand what al-Sisi is referring to but also explains to the reader the roots and history of a clash that has just begun to materialize.
Hussam S. Timani is professor of philosophy and religion and co-director of the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program at Christopher Newport University.Hussam S TimaniDate Of Review:November 30, 2022