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The Brink

Salafi Piety: A Story of Radical Rupture

This post examines the Islamic movement that most explicitly patterns itself on early Islamic history –Salafism – and the way in which its distinctive social practices are fundamentally indebted to modern questions and challenges of visibility and social performance.

In the 1980s, Egyptian Salafi elites, in conversation with likeminded scholars from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, came to a consensus regarding a seemingly secondary question. Citing the precedent of the first three generations of the Muslim community (al-Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ), these scholars declared that the proper Islamic beard must reach a minimal length of a fist (qabḍa) and be paired with a trimmed mustache.

That Salafis reached this end point is, on the surface, unsurprising: there is little dispute that the Prophet Muhammad wore a beard, while the length of the fist is an easily-accessible measurement in the hadith corpus that carried over into legal literature (fiqh). It would thus be easy to assume that Salafism’s interpretative approach to Islamic law –distinguished by a normative commitment to reliance on the Quran and the Sunna[1] –led in linear fashion to a particular legal position. One might also dismiss the beard as a marginal concern; after all, Salafis are best known for their commitment to theological rectitude, legal methodology and ritual precision. Yet, many Salafis took a different view of the beard: as a preacher in Egypt’s leading Salafi organization, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya (Proponents of the Muhammadean Model), Ahmad Taha Nasr, explained in 1988, “the beard serves as a noble announcement to introduce society to what it means to be a Sunni” (li-taʿrīf al-mujtamaʿ bi-kalīmat Sunnī).[2]

Indeed, the story of the beard raises as many questions as it answers. First, why does the beard –rather than, for example, the transmission of particular theological or legal positions or access to state power –serve as a central means to introduce Salafi understandings of Sunnism to society? Second, if Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya was established in 1926 and possessed a clear interpretative approach, why did it take over half a century for the organization’s elites to articulate a defined model of facial hair? And finally, what should we make of Ahmad Taha Nasr’s description of the beard’s communicative function and his focus on shaping society?

The question for Salafism –and more broadly, of this roundtable on Islamic piety in the 20th and 21st century –is one of origins. While Salafis claim that such practices emerge directly and unequivocally from the Quran and Sunna, ethnographers of piety in late 20th century Egypt such as Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind have foregrounded the continued relevance of a discursive tradition of ethical cultivation to pious Muslim communities distinguished by a Salafi orientation.[3]

The latter approach is also distinguished by an emphasis on the primacy of internal states, with visible practice constituting a secondary manifestation. Most explicitly, Mahmood argues that:

[A] key line of fracture between the piety movement (of which the mosque movement is an integral part) and Islamist political organizations… [is that] for Islamists…religious ritual should be aimed towards the larger goal of creating a certain kind of polity, and the mosque movement fails precisely to make this linkage, keeping matters of worship and piety incarcerated within what for them is a privatized world of worship.[4]

Similarly, for Hirschkind, publicly observable behavior –what he terms “ethical sociability” –constitutes a reflection of an internal state rather than a mode of social performance and the relevant signification is auditory, not visual.[5]  

In this post, by contrast, I will offer an alternative vantage point which foregrounds modernity generally and visibility specifically in the story of Islamic piety. My argument is that the animating logic of Salafi piety –the 20th century Islamic movement that most consciously traces its continuity with early Islamic history– does not derive primarily from either ethical or legal strands of the pre-modern Islamic tradition. Instead, it is most fundamentally a descendant of the late 19th century diffusion of a distinctly modern logic of social life in which individuals could pose a threat to an abstraction known as “society,” and by which particular practices signified belonging not only to a particular religious community but also to a broader religio-political project.

It is certainly the case that the pre-modern Islamic tradition regulating individual behavior and prescribed visible practices of social distinction.  Pre-Modern models of comportment (adab) set forth broad expectations of conduct, whether relations with one’s parents and neighbors, etiquette within the mosque, or how to engage in acts as mundane as eating or sneezing.[6] These expectations were part and parcel of a broader project of cultivating a virtuous individual and, by extension, a virtuous society.[7] Visible practices also served to distinguish Muslims from Jews and Christians, most famously in the “distinguishing signs” (ghiyār) code instituted by the Marwanid Umayyad Caliph ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAziz (r. 99-101/717-20).[8]

Yet, rather than begin with seven century Arabia or with an Islamic discursive tradition (whether that of ethics or law), I argue that the primary point of origin for Salafi piety is the arrival of colonial projects of subject formation. Specifically, as Timothy Mitchell argues, colonial rule in 19th century Egypt introduced two conceptual shifts that proved central to the emergence of Salafism, as well as other Islamic and non-Islamic movements: a “politics of the self” (al-siyāsa al-dhātiyya) dependent on individual hygiene, education, and discipline on the one hand, and the abstraction of authority, expressed through the linkage of particular uniforms to state power, on the other.[9]

This linkage of physical appearance to particular ideological projects dependent on self-regulation undergirded cultural contestation in early 20th century Egypt. As Hilary Kalmbach has shown in her recent study of the Teacher Training faculty of Dar al-ʿUlum in Cairo, students – including the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949) – shed the scholarly robe and turban in favor of the suit and tarbush, a tasseled red brimless hat that signaled membership in a socio-cultural project of efendi modernity.[10] Facial hair was also linked to competing projects of modernity. Al-Banna sported a closely trimmed beard that identified him in a matter consonant with the Efendiyya project,[11] an approach later reflected in a popular Islamist legal compendium, Fiqh al-Sunna.[12] By contrast, secular-nationalist thinkers of this period argued that a clean-shaven face and a mustache combined to signal its bearer’s orientation to the future as a modern man, while the beard constituted an unhealthy attachment to the past.[13]

Neither was this focus on visibility limited to Islamic movements. Most notably, a concern with visible markers also figured prominently in the a “shirts movement” in 1930s Egypt, which similarly emerged from the efendiyya.[14] Modeled after the European trend of the same name,[15] the “Blue Shirts” (al-Qumṣān al-Zarqāʾ) were allied with the Wafd, and the “Green Shirts” )al-Qumṣān al-Khaḍrāʾ) with the Fascist Young Egypt Party (Miṣr al-Fatā).[16] Furthermore, a 4 December 1926 image in the Egyptian weekly al-Siyasa al-Usbuʿiyya encapsulates the centrality of visibility at this moment of sartorial contestation: in an article entitled “The Chaos of Dress in Egypt” (Fawḍā al-Azyāʾ fī Miṣr), the author lays out some 33 different forms of dress, ranging from the robe (jalabiyya) and turban to the modern suit and tarbush, and encompassing various hybridized forms. At the bottom of the image, the author asks rhetorically: “which one is national dress?” (al-libās al-qawmī).

The slow emergence of the Salafi beard is not exceptional to this movement. Instead, over the course of the 20th century, Egyptian Salafis, in conversation with counterparts elsewhere in the Arab Middle East and South Asia, came to adopt a series of distinct social practices relating to prayer, gender relations, and dress. In contradistinction to arguments for the continued primacy of a diachronic Islamic tradition, however, these practices were animated by a logic that had far more in common with modern projects of subject formation than it did with pre-modern Islamic discursive traditions.  The question that remains –both for this roundtable and for future scholarship on Islamic piety –is to assess the extent to which contemporary Islamic understandings of piety have been radically transformed by the conditions of modernity and, if so, what role the discursive tradition approach can play in the study of such movements and practices.

[1] The Sunna is the authoritative account of the Prophet Muhammad’s life.

[2] Ahmad Taha Nasr, “Iʿfaʾ al-Lihya Sunna Thabita wa Fitra Mustaqima,” al-Tawhid, Ramadan 1408/April 1988, 52-5, at 54.

[3] Neither Mahmood and Hirschkind acknowledges studying Salafi movements yet, based on the groups that they studied, members of such movement figured prominently. Specifically, Mahmood describes Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya and Daʿwat al-Haqq as “Islamic non-profit organizations,” while Hirschkind classifies the first two groups as “Islamic charitable associations.” Although there is considerable debate as to the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya’s relationship to Salafism, the other two groups understand themselves and are understood by others to sit squarely within the Egyptian Salafi movement. See Saba Mahmood, The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 72 and Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 57.

[4] Mahmood, The Politics of Piety, 52-3.

[5] Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape, 130-2.

[6] Katharina Anna Ivanyi, Virtue, Piety and the Law: A Study of Birgivī Meḥmed Efendī’s al-Ṭarīqa al-muḥammadiyya (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020), 116-59 and Megan Reid, Law and Piety in Medieval Islam (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[7] Zahra Ayubi, Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 187-200.

[8] Milka Levy-Rubin, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Co-Existence (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 88-96, 154-7.

[9] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 104 and 37-40, respectively.  

[10] Hilary Kalmbach, Islamic Knowledge and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 21-2.

[11] Gudrun Krämer, Hasan al-Banna (Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2010), 90.

[12] al-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh al-Sunna (Cairo: NP, 1946), 1:34.

[13] Lucie Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 20.

[14] Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya, 18-9

[15] On Hitler’s “Brownshirts” in Germany, see Daniel Simens, Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler’s Brownshirts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017). On the “Blackshirts” in the United Kingdom, see Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (London: Thistle Publishing, 2006).

[16] James P. Jankowski, “The Egyptian Blue Shirts and the Egyptian Wafd,” Middle Eastern Studies 6:1 (1970), 77-95 and James P. Jankowski, Egypt’s Young Rebels: “Young Egypt”:1933-1952 (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1975),15.

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Salafi Piety: A Story of Radical Rupture

This post examines the Islamic movement that most explicitly patterns itself on early Islamic history –Salafism – and the way in which its distinctive social practices are fundamentally indebted to modern questions and challenges of visibility and social performance.

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