Shiraz Maher, Salafi Jihadism: The History of An Idea

When Salafi thought is examined within the historical framework, we see that it presents diversity within itself, and especially in English-speaking western academia, studies have been carried out by different scholars to understand the diversity. For a long time, these discussions were conveyed through St.

John Philby’s books and articles, followed by Roel Meijer’s book titled ‘Global Salafism’. Considering the important events of the last two decades which have included; the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt which opened up space for the militant groups and ISIS’s attacks in the heart of Europe, there is clearly a need for a better understanding of the mental construct of militant groups. Shiraz Maher’s book ‘Salafi Jihadism:

The History of An Idea’ aims to explain this mentality backdrop which motivates Salafi-Jihadist groups from Nigeria to Sudan and the Levant to Mindanao. Maher was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he joined as a result of his enthusiasm for its cause after the 9/11 attacks, but left in 2005 before writing his doctoral dissertation, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2016 as this book.

The book has five parts, comprising twelve chapters alongside an introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, Maher discusses the adventure of Salafi-Jihadi thought, making a different conceptualization than Jarret Brachman and Muhammed Hafez, who worked on the concepts to grasp the basis of Salafi Jihadi thought before him. Hafez defines contemporary Salafism with five characteristics: tawhid, hakimiyya, rejection of bid’a, takfir and jihad.

Brachman rejects both hakimiyya and bid’a while Maher considers jihad, takfir, al-wala ‘wa-l-bara’, tawhid and hakimiyya as the five pillars of Salafi-Jihadism. He claims that, the first three pillars aim to protect the religion while others function as encouragement for the believers.

In the first part of his book, Maher explores mainstream Salafi Jihadi positions on defensive jihad before explaining how the global Jihadi movement appropriated these opinions to license its war against the West, as a legitimate and defensive measure.

In this context, he aims to explain the concept of defensive jihad, which is used as the most important means of legitimization by the Salafi-Jihadists, through Abdullah al-Azzam, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Yusuf al-Uyayri. Maher then examines how important principles of Islamic war law, qisas and tatarrus, have been reinterpreted to legitimize targeting civilians.

In the second part of the book, Maher focuses on the foundations of takfiri understanding and how takfir is systematized by Salafi Jihadists. In the third chapter, Maher demonstrates the basics of the understanding of al-wala ‘wa-l-bara’ and how it has gained a new political meaning after the establishment of the 1st Saudi State.

Al-wala ‘wa-l-bara’ is seen to be used to demonize the opposing group and to get the absolute support of the followers. In the following chapter, he discusses the fundamentals of classical understanding of tawhid and its reflections on politics. Salafi thought cannot be understood before fully understanding the concept of tawhid. Finally, Maher focuses on the evolution of the concept of hakimiyya in the modern period and its use in connection with the tawhid.

From early in the book, it is clear that Maher did not intend to write a book as an introduction to Islamic movements and Salafism. Instead he is trying to speak to an audience with advanced knowledge of Islamic movements and Salafism. Maher has adopted a different methodology to many scholars by analysing Salafi jihadist ideology through concepts rather than names and events.

Nonetheless, Maher frequently refers to such scholars, believing that, the roots of ideologies cannot be grasped by analysing certain names, but that the ideologies behind those people should be understood. He has succeeded in building this methodology on a solid foundation by supporting it with the main sources of Islam.

When discussing disputes between different Salafi groups, it should be acknowledged that Maher has written a comprehensive work, demonstrating the attitude of such groups in accordance with Qur’an and Hadith, as well as sharing theological debates among the leading scholars of the groups.

Throughout the book, Maher states that Salafi-Jihadi thought is present in Sunni understanding of Islam and in this regard, as a Sunni group ISIS has the strongest claim of caliphate since 1924, the year the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished. Although Maher sometimes refers to Salafi thinkers opposing the ideas of ISIS, he fails to adequately emphasize how little ISIS is accepted by Sunni scholars.

Therefore, when attempts to understand ISIS are made in the book, readers can be misled into thinking that the conflict between ISIS and other Salafi groups is similar to the conflict between Hanafi and Shafi’i followers of Islam. However, in the Islamic world, ISIS is considered illegitimate by almost all Muslims, even groups such as al-Qaeda.

Maher’s authority in his field is clearly demonstrated by the discussions in the book and the selected citations of key scholars and theorists. However, one minor criticism in this context is that many of the references are translations. When the Salafi ideology is studied, it is seen that almost all accepted names in this field have written their works in Arabic and the current discussions have been conducted based on the same language.

Considering the fact that the debates within the framework of the five concepts discussed in the book are sometimes caused by minor differences in translated interpretation (such as mafhum al-mukhalafa), it is clear how vital it is to read these works in their original Arabic language.

All in all, this book, which fills an important gap in its field, is a work which every researcher wanting to understand the Salafi Jihadi thought should read. It can also be considered as a good reference for those focusing on the Middle East and looking to develop an in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of the region.