Purportedly objective, “etic” examinations of Islam routinely struggle to advance a compelling method of analyzing the faith and its adherents, without essentializing them. This challenge defined much of the early Orientalist literature on Islam, which was rife with stereotypes about Muslim belief and behavior, and underscored the fundamental limitations of examining the religion as an “outsider.”
While the contemporary study of Islam has generally been more sensitive to these issues, many of the same failures found in classic Orientalist readings continue. This is particularly true for the topic of “Islamic extremism.” While many academics, journalists, and laymen have eagerly tried to decipher the phenomenon, they have improvidently parsed the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic scholarship for “theological explanations.”
For the blatantly bigoted, Islam is the cause of religious extremism. The only issues these individuals deem worth exploring are “why Muslims hate us,” the “roots of Muslim rage,” and what “Muslims want from the West.” Even those who try to offer more scrupulous explanations focus on certain tenets or expressions of Islam—like jihad, Salafism, and Wahhabism—which they believe are chiefly to blame. Instead of asking why “Muslims” hate us, for example, these individuals speak euphemistically about “jihadi” and “Wahhabi-Salafi” hate.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to find analyses on “Islamic extremism” today that do not inelegantly cite “Wahhabi-Salafism” as the real threat to world peace—occasionally to justify ongoing wars in Muslim-majority countries. Yet, very few seem placed to properly define Salafism and Wahhabism, or explain their origins and evolution. Popular analyses of Salafism and Wahhabism are exceedingly simplistic, dehumanizing, and even conspiratorial in nature. Often, they build on the idea these movements exist and spread simply because of Saudi Arabia’s “oil money.” Even those who allegedly champion Muslim rights and oppose the “War on Terror” heedlessly indulge these narratives, and insist these so-called deranged and cancerous movements be combatted.
To confront these tropes and provide a more nuanced analysis of Salafism and Wahhabism, Muftah has put together this collection of six articles from Muslim scholars, students, and activists. The pieces in this collection variously contextualize and define Salafism and Wahhabism, explain the appeal of these movements to Muslims, debate their reformist features, explore why they have been blamed for the problem of extremism, identify the place they have assumed in the “War on Terror,” and address their relationship to intellectual figures like Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, among others.
We encourage our readers to contribute to the discussion by posting their reactions and questions on our website, Facebook, and Twitter pages. We encourage those who are interested to submit their own articles, responding to the pieces in this collection, by emailing them to [email protected].
We look forward to continuing the conversation on Salafism, Wahhabism, and the War on Terror.