Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, May 8th, 2007
This is the first part in a series of articles I will post on the relationship between Salafism and Sufism in Syria. The idea to commission different experts to write on this subject is a result of the questions raised by commentators on this earlier post on Islam in Syria, here (read the last 15 comments of the post).
Background: Today, the US administration is debating whether it can or should use the new Syrian opposition party – the National Salvation Front (NSF) – as leverage against the Assad regime in Syria. Is it a genuine democratic option? The NSF was created last year to combine the forces of ex-Vice President Abdal Halim Khaddam, who was a Baathist, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, whish is led by Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni. The new front and its leaders claim to embrace democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law.
One of the main arguments made by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood for why they should be trusted as pluralists is that they distinguish themselves from the intolerant Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. They claim that they do not endorse and never did endorse the break-away branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which led the violence of the late 1970s leading up to the Hama uprising of 1982. Another claim they make for why Islamic parties in Syria should threaten neither Syrian minorities nor western governments is that most Syrian Muslims are Sufis. Salafis in Syria, they argue, also embrace Sufism, something Salafis in the Gulf do not do. Because Sufism is a tolerant and peaceful brand of Islam, they insist, Syrian Islamists will be tolerant and peaceful.
But how true are these claims? Is the Syrian Salafist movement substantially different from the Wahhabi Salafists of Saudi Arabia? Do they embrace Sufism, and does that mean they are more tolerant and pluralist than other Muslims? These are some of the questions I have asked a number of scholars to address. The first of these scholars is David Commins.
David Commins, a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, has written two excellent books on Salafism in Syria and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. He explains the different attitudes on Sufism between the Salafis of Syria, who were influenced by their Egyptian counterparts and the Wahhabi Salafis of Saudi Arabia.
David Commins writes:
It seems to me that different tendencies have claimed the salafi mantle in modern times, so divergences between Syrian Muslim Brothers and Saudi Wahhabis are not surprising. Nor would it be surprising if there were different tendencies within the Muslim Brothers on matters such as Sufism and the standing of Shia as believers.
Regarding the specific issue of Sufism in the longer view: The Wahhabi salafis regard Sufi practices as illegitimate innovations and those who cling to them they consider infidels. Their position on Sufi practices is not identical to that of Ibn Taymiyya, whose own Sufi affiliation with the Qadiri tariqa George Makdisi discussed. The salafis in late Ottoman Damascus led by Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi disapproved of certain Sufi practices but did not condemn Sufism entirely. The Syrian salafis certainly held a more favorable view of the Wahhabis than did most Muslims of that era, primarily due to their common interest in purifying ritual practices of what they considered ritual innovations. The religious scholars of Damascus who opposed the salafis considered themselves defenders of proper Muslim ways and claimed the salafis were the same as Wahhabis (in their view, doctrinal extremists akin to Kharijites), but we need to view that charge in the context of a religious controversy and acknowledge points where Syrian salafis and Wahhabis differed. They disagreed on adherence to legal schools: Wahhabis follow the Hanbali school while Qasimi did not believe in strictly following a single legal school. They disagreed on politics: Qasimi strongly endorsed constitutional parliamentary government, while Wahhabis have no qualms with hereditary monarchy. As for how the Wahhabis viewed the Syrian salafis, I have not come across specific evidence. There is indirect evidence of cooperation in the published correspondence between Qasimi and the Baghdad scholar Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi, where the two men mention cooperating with Najdi contacts striving to bring to light works of Ibn Taymiyya.
As for the Muslim Brothers, it is important to recall that Hasan al-Banna referred to the Brothers as a salafi message and a Sufi truth. In this light, that Syrian Muslim Brothers have maintained Sufi allegiances is not surprising. I think the key point to keep in mind is that ‘salafi’ assumes different forms in different places and times. There is certainly consistency in the emphasis on the authority of Islam’s founding generations, but the texts from Islam’s early centuries are rich enough to justify different views on the standing of individuals as believers or infidels (takfir), legal school affiliation, Sufism, and political systems. If there is debate in contemporary Syria on what qualifies as salafi and the correct salafi position on Sufism, that should not be surprising as debate, not uniformity, is the norm in the history of Islamic thought.
It may be helpful to readers to have what I consider a very broad sketch of some basic differences between the Brothers and the Wahhabis that are rooted in the origins, one in interwar Egypt, the other in eighteenth century Najd. To that end, I am attaching a couple of pages (slightly modified) from my book that compares Hasan al-Banna and Wahhabi thought in a few key areas. References are in the book.
David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I. B. Tauris (February 2, 2006). From pp. 141-143.
Hasan al-Banna shared with the Wahhabis a strong revulsion against Western influences and unwavering confidence that Islam is both the true religion and a sufficient foundation for conducting worldly affairs. Nevertheless, significant differences separate the Najdi movement from the modern revivalist agenda because the former stemmed from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s distinctive views on doctrine whereas the Muslim Brothers were a reaction against European domination and cultural invasion. On the central Wahhabi doctrine of monotheism, Banna held that only the open proclamation of apostasy, denying well-known beliefs and religious obligations, and deliberately twisting the meaning of the Quran rendered the believer an infidel. While he agreed with the Wahhabis on the need to purify religious practices of illegitimate innovations, he saw nothing wrong with visits to the tombs of holy men as long as one did not seek their intercession. As a youth, he had been active in a sufi order and although he would later criticize sufism’s ‘corrupt’ aspects, he maintained that its emphasis on asceticism and mindfulness of God made it an essential part of Islam. In fact, he exhorted Muslim Brothers to practice individual and group dhikr, a ritual ‘mentioning’ of God, to strengthen the believers’ mindfulness of God and the Prophet’s example. Dhikr is a hallmark of sufi practice and considered by the Wahhabis an illegitimate innovation. More generally, Banna’s keen desire for Muslim unity to ward off Western imperialism led him to espouse an inclusive definition of the community of believers. Thus, he would urge his followers, ‘Let us cooperate in those things on which we can agree and be lenient in those on which we cannot.’ Banna did not share the Wahhabi view that most Muslims were idolaters.
Banna also differed from the Wahhabis in his political ideas. He lived during Egypt’s phase of constitutional parliamentary government and his writings reflect that context’s influence. He maintained that constitutional government meshed with Islamic principles because it ensured a ruler’s accountability to the people. He lamented the failure of the Egyptian constitution of his day to establish Islam as the fundamental basis for public life, but did not regard constitutionalism as contrary to Islam. Wahhabi doctrine does not support constitutional rule. Whereas Banna denied the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy in Islam, Wahhabi ulama have supported the Saudi monarchy.
A salient element in Banna’s notion of Islam as a total way of life came from the idea (current since the mid-nineteenth century) that the Muslim world was backward, and the corollary (current since the early twentieth century) that the state was responsible for guaranteeing decent living conditions for its citizens. He argued that the government had the duty to minimize unemployment, guarantee a minimum wage and health care for workers, and ensure the fair distribution of wealth. Such notions are alien to Wahhabism. Other assumptions of the modern state permeated Banna’s outlook. He considered public education a critical vehicle for bolstering Muslim society against Western influences (which did not exist in eighteenth-century Najd). Muslim schools would teach pupils about Islam and encourage them to eschew foreign ways.The central area of accord between the Brothers and the Wahhabis is their moral zeal and rejection of Western ways that threaten to erode piety and undermine Muslim custom. Western influences arrived in Saudi Arabia much later than Egypt, but when they did, the Wahhabis exhibited a similar revulsion toward them and agreed with the Muslim Brother view of European culture as one of godlessness, immorality, and excessive individualism. It is true that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Hasan al-Banna would have seen eye to eye on the ruler’s responsibility to eliminate immoral habits. They would also have concurred on the duty of the ruler (or the state) to appoint (or employ) pious believers to responsible positions to ensure proper observance and enforcement of religious duties and principles.
In the face of foreign forces that seemed to have the power to totally overwhelm every bastion of Muslims’ lives—economic, political, cultural, and moral—the Muslim Brothers’ assertion that Islam was not just a religion but an entire way of life represented a logical stance of resistance. The irony is that the position entailed reshaping Islam into religious nationalism and incorporating a notion of backwardness that made sense only in the context of the modern confrontation with the West. Briefly, to save Islam, Muslims had to change it. This reflects the different historical circumstances surrounding the appearance of the Muslim Brothers and Wahhabism. It is common for writers on Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to assert that he sought a social renewal of Arabia, but that characterization is never given specific substance, unless one considers ritual correctness and moral purity to constitute such renewal. The problem with such generalizations is they encourage facile comparisons with Islamist movements, when in fact Najd’s eighteenth-century reformer would have found key elements in Hasan al-Banna’s writings utterly alien. In sum, the twentieth century alliance between Wahhabis and Muslim Brothers had a narrow base in religious doctrine, but a shared commitment to combat powerful secular forces seeping into Muslim societies.
For readers interested in the early twentieth century debate on Wahhabism in Damascus, here are some useful sources:
Mustafa al-Shatti, al-Nuqul al-shar`iyya fi al-radd ala al-wahhabiyya (Damascus, 1900).
Ata al-Kasm, al-Aqwal al-murdiya fi al-radd ala al-wahhabiyya. (Cairo, 1901)
Ahmad al-Mu’ayyad al-Azmi, Jala’ al-awham `an madhahib al-a’imma al-`azam wa al-tawassul bi-jah khayr al-anam alayhi al-salah wa al-salam (Damascus, 1911).
Abd al-Qadir ibn al-Sayyid Muhammad Salih al-Kaylani al-Iskandarani, Al-Nafha al-zakiya fi al-radd ala shubuh al-firqa al-wahhabiyya (Damascus, 1922)
Muhammad Tawfiq al-Suqiya, Tabyin al-haqq wa al-sawab fi al-radd ala atba` Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (Damascus, 1922)
Abu al-Yasar al-Dimashqi al-Maydani (Muhammad Bahjat al-Bitar), Nazara fi risalat al-nafha al-zakiya fi al-radd ala shubah al-firqa al-wahhabiyya (Damascus, 1922),
Ahmad Fawzi al-Sa’ati, al-Insaf fi da`wat al-wahhabiyya wa khusumihim li-raf` al-khilaf (Damascus, 1922)
The Qasimi-Alusi correspondence is in Muhammad ibn Nasir al-`Ajmi, al-Rasa’il al-mutabadala bayna Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi wa Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi (Beirut, 2001).