Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From Sufism to Salafism: How Tripoli inspired the global Islamist revival

[Originally posted at NOW]

Tucked behind a wall of bushes on the banks of Tripoli’s Abu Ali river, just a hundred meters south of the Crusader fortress, sits a peculiar domed building of white stone plated with chestnut wooden window frames. The Takiyya Mawlawiyya, as it’s called, is in fact a defunct Sufi temple; a 17th-century relic of a departed era in which the mystical brand of Islam was, in many if not most Muslim cities, the predominant one.

Looking at it today, one wouldn’t think it a structure of much historical consequence. Inconvenient to access, it was entirely deserted when NOW paid a visit last Saturday. Though recently renovated with the help of the Turkish government, no street signs declare its existence. It isn’t even on Google Maps.

Yet it was at this very site that, some 130 years ago, the young man who was to become the most influential Islamic thinker of a generation had an experience that permanently shaped his ideas – and, by extension, the Muslim world today.

That man was Muhammad Rashid Rida, born in 1865 in the nearby village of al-Qalamun. After receiving what was, for the time, a fairly radically advanced education in Tripoli (that’s to say, he was taught the new European sciences and languages in addition to the traditional Islamic curriculum,) in his early adulthood he took the not-uncommon step of joining a Sufi order (the Naqshbandi one, to be exact.) Thus it was that he found himself one Friday at the same Takiyya Mawlawiyya, where, as he later recalled, his first sight of the whirling dervishes sent him into an empurpled fury of piety:

“I could not control myself, and stood up in the center of the hall and shouted something like this: ‘O people, or can I call you Muslims! These are forbidden acts, which one has no right either to look at or to pass over in silence, for to do so is to accept them’.”

Abandoning Sufism on the spot, Rida sought the “true” Islam elsewhere, and found it in the reformist movement of the renowned Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh, whom he met in the 1880s during one of the latter’s visits to Tripoli, and of whom he became an ardent disciple. Building on the path first paved by his own mentor, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Abduh argued for a reconciliation of Islam with the European Enlightenment; for an embrace of modern science and technology, of wider education, of accountable government, and of increased rights for non-Muslims, while yet preserving the theocratic institutions of the caliphate and absolute faith in the Qur’an.

Rida followed Abduh to Cairo in 1897, where he began publishing a periodical, al-Manar (the beacon in English.) Though this began as little more than a medium for propagating Abduh’s ideas, as Rida grew older he developed views of his own, and took al-Manar in a distinctly more hardline direction than Abduh would have endorsed. Crucially, whereas Abduh had understood the theological concept of the salaf (ancestors in English) – the companions of the Prophet, traditionally held as the “best” Muslims – metaphorically to mean the great Islamic thinkers across the centuries, Rida took it literally: the only Islam was that of the Prophet’s generation.

Accordingly, he started openly denouncing the “illegitimate innovations” of Shiism and intensifying criticism of Sufis (even, according to one biographer, saying he would have them beheaded if he were in power.) He wrote contemptuously of Christianity. When the Wahhabis conquered the Hejaz in 1925, it was only natural that Rida should have been thrilled, seeing in their unflinching puritanism an admirable return to first principles. The Encyclopedia of Islam describes al-Manar at this time as an “active center of Wahhabi propaganda,” and indeed he was even to make personal contact with Ibn Saud (thus earning him the distinction of being Tripoli’s first Saudi ally.)

Such ferocious reactionism was all the more conspicuous for being so plainly contrary to the spirit of the time. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally periods of dramatic liberalization and even secularization in the Arab world. Modernity required laws and governance based on reason, rather than religion, believed many writers (including another Tripolitan, Farah Antun, who was initially a friend of Rida’s before falling out for obvious reasons). Darwin had buried the myths of religion for good, said others. Feminism was gaining ground even among men, and in 1923 a group of Egyptian women led by Huda Shaarawi made history by discarding their veils altogether.

As against all this, Rida was defending concubinage (sex slavery) and polygamy, while calling for a revamped caliphate (the old one having been permanently abolished by Atatürk in 1924) that would put apostates to death. It was in this capacity as champion of the counter-revolution against the Arab Enlightenment (or nahda) that Rida was to inspire the next generation of what we would now call Islamists.

Not least among these young devotees was Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood at just 22 years old. In his office at the American University of Beirut, history professor and nahda specialist Samir Seikaly told NOW that al-Banna was “certainly influenced by Rida.” Pulling worn volumes off his densely-packed shelves, he showed NOW how the young Egyptian “frequently visited Rida [and was] animated by [his] writings,” even briefly succeeding him as editor of al-Manar after his death in 1935. In al-Banna’s conviction that secular decadence was the root cause of the Arabs’ decline and that therefore (in the Brothers’ party slogan) “Islam is the solution,” Rida’s imprint is clear.

Indeed, al-Banna seems to have consciously taken it upon himself to popularize Rida’s thought, much as Rida himself had Abduh’s: Muhammad Musa al-Sharif, a Saudi professor of Islamic studies at King Abd al-Aziz University argues that the achievement of al-Banna was to “develop [Rida’s] movement, which had been confined to […] the upper classes [into] a movement […] accessible to the ordinary people. This was the first time that anyone had been able to do this.”

Is Rida, then, the ideological grandfather of Islamism today? To an extent, says Professor Seikaly. “In as much as he influenced al-Banna, and in as much as al-Banna then influenced the following generations, Rida’s ideas can be said to be still alive,” he told NOW.

That influence is strongest in Muslim Brotherhood circles, according to Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian cleric who led the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir party in the UK in the 1990s before being banned from the country and winding up in Lebanon.

“Rida’s thought is closest to the Brotherhood, rather than the Salafists as some people claim,” Bakri told NOW. “Salafists do not generally read Rida today. They might come across some of his articles, but they won’t read his tafsir [exegesis]; they read the tafsir of Ibn Kathir, while jihadists are more likely to read that of Sayyid Qutb. The Brothers, however, still refer to the tafsir of al-Manar.”

(It may be worth noting that Bakri’s definition of a Salafist is somewhat stricter than most: “I believe Salafism does not really exist in Lebanon. If they call [Sidon cleric] Ahmad al-Assir a Salafist, then Mother Teresa was al-Qaeda.”)

No small achievement for the Qalamun son, then, to be the acknowledged muse of a supranational organization that continues to command influence from Thailand to Turkey to Tunisia (where the local Brotherhood leader, Rashid al-Ghannushi, praises Rida even while having the nerve to name his party after the nahda.) At a time of monumental transformation in the Arab world, in which the very foundations of states are being reconstructed, the abstract disputes of Rida’s day concerning the place of Islam have perhaps never before been so consequential. It’s both tragic and fitting that Tripoli itself – where, in a sense, this whole business began – is proving one of the bloodier arenas of the contest.

The Rida quotes, and much of the background information in general, come from Albert Hourani’s ‘Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798 – 1939’.

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