Islamology and the Making of Fake Islam, part 2: Fundamentalists/Salafis
From the wisdom of David is that the believer knows what they need for their own affairs and is aware of the time in which they live.
Prophet Muhammad (Ibn Ḥibbān)
In the first part of this series I introduced the concept of the Islamologist based on Robert Pirsig’s notion of the philosopholigist articulated in his book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Following this, I began to outline one type of Islamologist; the western academic who studies Islam. My choice in so doing reflects not the chronology of various types of Islamologists, but rather a personal belief that this particular type of Islamologist is the most dangerous kind and that their threat will emerge as the most pressing in the coming generation. With regards to the beginning of the making of fake Islam, this ignoble prize belongs to the fundamentalist/salafi Islamologist. From the first generation of Islam until our time today, this type of fake Islam has plagued, tormented, defiled, and sought to destroy our faith. This second article in this series is dedicated to explaining their way of thinking.
Framework of the Fundamentalist
The fundamentalist/salafi is a broad personality who largely lives in the past and fails to see the beauty and opportunity of the present. They ultimately fail to see the meaning of the Prophet’s statement, “my nation is like the rain, you do not know which of it is best, the beginning or the end” (Tirmidhi). The idea being that there is always good, always true knowledge, always a version of real Islam in the present because this is the promise of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace). Since the fundamentalist lives in the past, they are overburdened and troubled by Islam’s intellectual history. It is simply too much for them to comprehend and too much for them to deal with. By limiting themselves to the past (which is actually their biggest lie-more on this in a moment), they rely on only a handful of authors and scholars of their choosing. There is no clear scholarly methodology of how they choose these authors as their authority figures. Rather, it is largely based on a type of ‘street cred’ these authors possess due to their rejection of the scholarly authority of their time and their claims that “things have gotten out of hand and we need to return to the past where a pristine and pure Islam exists.” By relying on a half dozen authors or so, the fundamentalist/salafi builds an Islam that is incomplete, incoherent, and, at least outwardly, very comical and anachronistic. Just like a puzzle that is only 10% complete, the Islam of the fundamentalist/salafi is so incomplete that it bares almost no resemblance to the original picture at all. One struggles to find coherence, guidance, inspiration, or beauty.
The fundamentalist/salafi usually backs this cut-and-paste approach to Islam with outward pseudo-religiosity (see my core principle articles on the difference between the study of religion [dīn] and religiosity [tadayyun]). Because they are by and large anti-intellectual, and because they conveniently erase nearly a millennium of intellectual history, they are left with outward matters that can easily be measured and observed. Rather than benefit from the quality of Islam’s rich history, they reduce it all to a measurable number of things. Aside from the fact that these outward things are usually easily perceptible (i.e. certain manners of dress, conduct, phrases, activities, etc.) the real danger is substituting the acquisition of these quantifiable acts with the acquisition of actual understanding. For the fundamentalist/salafi the more one is compliant with their outward way, the more they are perceived to be pious, and the more they are assumed to be of deep understanding of Islam. There is no doubt that the role of personal piety in Islam is important, but it never was and never will be a substitute for actual learning and mastery of the Islamic sciences and disciplines.
The Danger of the Fundamentalist
Like the Western academic, all this would be fine if the fundamentalist/salafi just kept to themselves. If that were the case and someone happened to stumble upon then, we could simply say that they were the quirky relative in our family. However, and very much like their cousin the Western academic, they cross the private threshold and make their buffoonery public. The damage they cause is more easily felt than the Western academic because they are not caged in a liberal learning institution. In fact, they have no institution, no lineage, and no actual authority. There is no recognized methodology of interpretation (aka Usuli Islam) that is called the fundamentalist or salafi approach to interpreting the Quran and Sunna. They simply made this up and called it whatever they wanted in order to gain popularity. For this reason, they prey on the average Muslim wherever they can be found, most frequently the local mosque. The chances are that if you are reading this, you have encountered a fundamentalist/salafi as you were going about your normal life and regular religious functions.
As detestable as the modern fundamentalist/salafi is, believe it or not the havoc they wreaked in the past was worse. The early Wahabis (the direct ancestors of today’s fundamentalist/salafi) tried to destroy the tomb of the Holy Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) in Madina arguing that it facilitated shirk/disbelief and a form of neo-idolatry. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and that did not happen. As a matter of fact, with the progression of time a lot of the craziness that came from these fundamentalist/salafi was checked by various political forces. This is a both a good thing, and a bad thing at the same time. It is good thing that they were checked from further persecution against Shias and Sufis throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. It is a bad thing because their threat moved from meta-issues to micro-issues; issues of basic living in the modern world. Within the last 50 years or so, these micro-issues have become rallying points for the fundamentalist/salafi mindset. Issues like celebrating birthdays, celebrating the birthday of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace), dealing with non-Muslims, modern dress, modern technology and science, etc., are all issues that we are unfortunately all too familiar with hearing about.
The obsession with these micro-issues has gone on for so long, that many average Muslims falsely believe that certain things are haram that are actually halal, and vice-versa. The damage of the fundamentalist/salafi is that they actually substituted a base-line Islam for many people, especially Muslims in the West, causing people to grow up with either a wrong fundamental understanding of Islam, or even worse, a repulsion to the faith entirely. How many people have been turned for mosques and centers of learning? How many women have been abused in the name of Islam? How many children exposed to hate and vile speech in the name of the faith? The list goes on and on. We are a community traumatized by these fanatics.
At the end, however, despite the way they dress, their focus on the micro-issues, their claiming to follow a pristine past, their crusade against innovation, etc., the fundamentalist/salafi is nothing more than an Islamologist peddling a self-made, narcissistic, and anachronistic fake Islam. An Islam devoid of love, beauty, mercy, and compassion is not Islam. It is the lower-self masquerading itself in the clothing of piety. The Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace) said, “gentleness does not enter something except that it becomes beautiful and is not removed from something except that it becomes tarnished” (Muslim). Let this be our measuring stick.