When Prophet Mohammed set out to establish Islam over 1400 years ago, he was not starting a new religion; he was not creating a new doctrine or a novel set of ecclesiastical principles. Mohammed’s message was a return to origins, to the essence of the first monotheist’s – Ibrahim – message of a one and true God, a message that got corrupted along the millennia and which Judaism and Christianity had failed to preserve in pure form. Mohammed sought to purify monotheism both of the outright polytheism that dominated the society he lived in, and the human fabrications that corrupted the Torah and the Bible. The goal was a return to a pure form of monotheism characterised by a total surrender to God and the realisation of His will on Earth through a community of believers now bound not by tribal affiliation but by a shared and uncompromising faith in the One.
Fast forward to 2012 and we have – in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution – a curious phenomena which has existed for a few decades (and in Arabia for centuries) but which had only explicitly appeared on the social and political landscape of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 11th February 2011. The ‘salafis’ – as they call themselves – derive legitimacy through affiliating with the Prophet’s companions (salaf); the devout brethren. They call for a return to the ways of the salaf who in virtue of being the first generation of Muslims and contemporaries of the Prophet are prime examples to be followed. Muslims, so they believe, should align their conduct, practices, values and habits with the salaf in order to purify Islam of the accretions that have accumulated over the past few centuries, and which contaminate the message of the Prophet.
There are thus two returns to origins: the first is the Prophet’s return to the Abrahamic message; the second is the ‘salafis’ return to the Prophet’s brethren’s example. These two returns might seem identical but they are not. The Prophet was reclaiming the essence of a call that had first been made many centuries before. He applied this message to the society he found in Arabia at the time, a society that had its own cultural values and social structure. Thus the monotheistic message was wielded upon a tribal, paternalistic society with a strong code of honour and a multitude of gods. Society had to change to allow a true and deep monotheism to flourish, together with the values that accompanied the (historically relative) newly founded equality of all before God.
The ‘salafis’ call to return to origins is not a return to the monotheistic message which the Prophet had espoused, it is a return to the ways of the Prophet and his brethren and therefore by proxy – so the ‘salafis’ think – to the Prophet’s original message. Nothing could be further from the truth. In espousing his message, the Prophet was not returning to the ways of Abraham, but to the essence of the message of Abraham. Imagine that Abraham had sported a decent moustache, would we then expect the Prophet to have grown a moustache in an attempt to return to the ways of Abraham? Of course not. The Prophet’s goal was not a return to purity of appearances, but purity in the conception of and relation to the One. And this is what the ‘salafis’ completely miss. In placing complete emphasis on the ways of people who lived 1400 years ago the ‘salafis’ are in effect worshipping a society and not a God. In donning untrimmed beards and head to toe black wraps they are worshipping a socio-cultural-historical moment and are committing the idolatory that the Prophet had spent the last twenty-three years of his life fighting against. Had the Prophet been born in the 12th century towards the end of the Abbassid Caliphate, the ‘salafis’ would now be wearing turbans and vests. The ‘salafis’ have and continue to commit the basic error of mistaking the sign for the signified, much like a dog that insists on staring at its master’s finger, instead of what this finger is pointing at.
Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed