“Islam and the Theology of Power,” In With God on our Side: Politics and Theology of the War on Terrorism. London: Amal Press, 2005, pp. 299-311.

By Khaled Abou El Fadl


Since the early 1980’s commentators have been arguing that Islam is suffering a crisis of identity, and that the crumbling of the Islamic civilization in the modern age has left Muslims with a profound sense of alienation and injury.  Challenges confronting Muslim nations such as the failure of development projects, the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes, and the inability to respond effectively to Israeli belligerence have induced deep-seated feelings of frustration and anger that, in turn, contributed to the rise of fundamentalist movements throughout the Muslim world.  In an attempt to describe essentially the same socio-political and theological phenomenon, instead of fundamentalist movements some commentators have preferred using expressions such as fanatic or zealot groups, or simply political Islam.[1]  Nevertheless, most commentators have been caught off guard by the ferocity and vehemence of the acts of mass murder recently committed in New York City.  In many ways, while the socio-political frustrations of contemporary Muslims had been systematically explored, and somewhat understood, the basic cruelty and moral depravity of the recent terrorist attacks came as a shock not only to non-Muslims, but to Muslims as well.


Terrorism especially of the scale and persistence witnessed recently is not a simple aberration unrelated to the political dynamics and processes of a society.  Rather, it is an extreme manifestation of nestled and well-established ideological orientations, symbolisms, and discourses that had become prevalent within particular Muslim societies.  Terrorism is generally the quintessential crime of power  - it is a communicative act that seeks to challenge and undermine the perceived power of a targeted group.  But like many crimes of power, it is also a type of hate crime for it relies on a polarized rhetoric of belligerence towards a particular group that, as the target of terrorism, is demonized to the point of being denied any moral worth or value.  Importantly, however, in order for the terrorist process to fulfill its purposes in recruitment and communication it must have a reasonable expectation of effectiveness.  It needs to tap into and exploit an already radicalized discourse with the expectation of resonating with the socio-political frustrations of a people.  If acts of terrorism find little resonance within a society such acts and their ideological defenders are marginalized and are forced to channel into new sets of paradigms and activities.  But if it does find a degree of resonance, terrorism becomes incrementally more acute and severe, and its ideological paradigms becomes progressively more belligerent and radicalized.


The question posed by the recent terrorist attacks against the United States is to what extent are they symptomatic of more pervasive ideological and discoursive undercurrents in the Muslim world today?  Obviously, not all social or political frustrations lead to the use of terrorism, and while national liberation movements will often resort to the use of violence, the recent attacks had several distinctive aspects that set them apart from such movements.  The perpetrators of the recent attacks do not have a particular national character, and they do not seem to be acting on behalf of a specific ethnic group or nation.  In addition, there are no specific territorial claims or articulated political agenda presented by the perpetrators, and unlike the practice of national liberation movements, the terrorists are not keen about claiming responsibility for their acts in the context of making concrete demands.  While one can speculate that the terrorists’ list of grievances must include the persistent Israeli abuses against the Palestinians, the near daily attacks against Iraq, and the presence of American troops in the Gulf area, the fact remains that the attacks are not followed by a specific list of demands or even a set of articulated goals.  Furthermore, the latest terrorist attacks exhibit a rather profound sense of frustration and extreme despair, which was expressed by violence resembling acts of mass suicide rather than a struggle in order to achieve identifiable objectives.


Some commentators have tended to view the ideological underpinnings of the recent attacks as part of a civilizational conflict between the proponents of Western values and Islamic culture.  According to these commentators, the issue is not so much a problem of religious fundamentalism or politicized Islam, but a basic and essential conflict between competing visions of morality and ethical normative values.  In a sense, the violence is symptomatic of acts of resistance by one civilizational vision of the just life against another.  From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that the terrorists do not present a concrete set of demands, do not have specific territorial objectives, and are not even keen about taking responsibility for their attacks.  The point of these attacks is to strike at the symbols of Western civilization and to challenge its perceived hegemony in the hope that such acts would empower and reinvigorate the Islamic civilization. 


The civilizational conflict, the crisis of identity, and the socio-political frustration perspectives are not mutually exclusive.  It is quite possible that each of the three perspectives to an extent explain the rise of terrorism in contemporary Islam.  But each of these perspectives does not deal with or explain the ways in which the Islamic tradition is being re-invented and re-shaped in the modern age.  The civilizational confrontation perspective seems to assume that fundamentalism, puritanism, and terrorism are somehow authentic expressions of the predominant values of the Islamic tradition.  Meanwhile the crises of identity and social frustration perspectives do not adequately explain the reason for the specific theological positions adopted by Islamic fundamentalist groups, or how the use of terrorist violence becomes legitimated and justified in the modern age.  In addition, all three perspectives do not deal with the classical tradition regarding the employment of political violence in Islamic thought, and the ways in which contemporary Muslim actors reconstruct the classical tradition.  Put differently, it is important to think in terms of the ways in which either the classical or contemporary normative doctrines of Islamic theology contribute to the use of terrorism by modern Islamic movements.


Terrorism and Classical Islamic Law


By the 11th century, Muslim jurists had developed a sophisticated and multi-layered discourse on the proper limits on the conduct of warfare, the use of political violence, and terrorism. The Qur’an articulated general exhortations calling upon Muslims to perform jihad by waging war against their enemies. The Qur’anic prescriptions are not specific but simply incite Muslims to fight in the way of God, establish justice, and not exceed the limits of justice in fighting their enemies.  Muslim jurists, reflecting their historical circumstance and context, tended to divide the world into three conceptual categories: the abode of Islam, the abode of war, and the abode of peace or non-belligerence.  The various abodes did not reflect clear or precise categories, but they connoted, in a general sense, the notion of territories that belong to Muslims, territories that belong to enemies, and territories that are considered neutral or non-hostile for one reason or another. Muslim jurists, however, could not agree on the distinctive characteristics that define the abode of Muslims versus the abode of others, especially when sectarian divisions within Islam were involved, and when dealing with conquered Muslim territories or territories where sizeable Muslim minorities reside.[2] Furthermore, Muslim jurists disagreed on the legal cause for fighting non-Muslims.  Some jurists contended that non-Muslims are to be fought because they are infidels, while the majority of jurists argued that non-Muslims should be fought if they pose a danger to Muslims.  The majority of early jurists argued that a treaty of non-aggression between Muslims and non-Muslims ought to be limited to a ten-year term.  Nonetheless, after the 10th century an increasing number of jurists argued that either a treaty of non-aggression can be renewed indefinitely in ten-year increments or that such treaties could be permanent or of indefinite duration.[3]


Importantly, however, Muslim jurists did not focus their attention on the idea of just cause for war.  Other than emphasizing that if Muslim territory is attacked, Muslims must fight back, the jurists seemed to assume that the decision to resort to war or peace properly belongs with the political authorities.  There is a considerable juristic discourse prohibiting Muslim rulers from violating treaties, indulging in treacherous behavior, or attacking an enemy without first giving notice, but the literature on the conditions that legitimate or warrant a jihad is rather sparse.  It is not that the classical jurists believed that war is always justified or appropriate, rather they seemed to assume that the decision to wage war is fundamentally political.  However, the method pursuant to which a war is prosecuted was, in fact, the subject of a substantial jurisprudential discourse.


Building upon the proscriptions of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim jurists insisted that there are legal restrictions upon the conduct of war.  In general, Muslim armies may not kill women, children, seniors, hermits, pacifists, peasants and slaves unless they are combatants.  In addition, vegetation and property may not be destroyed, water holes may not be poisoned, and flame-throwers may not be used unless out of necessity and even then only to a limited extent. Torture, mutilation, and murder of hostages were forbidden under all circumstances even if the enemy commits such acts.  Importantly, the classical jurists reached these determinations not simply as a matter of textual interpretation but as moral or ethical assertions.  The classical jurists spoke from the vantage point of a confident and moralistic civilization.  In other words, these jurists did not speak from a point of desperation or apologetics; rather they spoke from a moralistic perspective that betrayed a strong sense of confidence in the normative message of Islam.  The jurists seem to have accepted a pragmatic or real politik approach to the issue of whether a war should be waged.  However, their approach to the regulation of warfare was not simply subject to pragmatic paradigms or concerns.  Rather, the classical jurists accepted the necessity of moral constraints upon the way war is conducted.


Aside from the issue of regulating the conduct of warfare, Muslim jurists exhibit a remarkable amount of tolerance towards the idea of political rebellion. Because of a variety of particular historical circumstances in the first three centuries of Islam, Muslim jurists, in principle, prohibited rebellions even against unjust rulers.  At the same time, they refused to empower or give the government unfettered discretion against rebels. The classical jurists argued that the law of God prohibited the execution of rebels or the needless destruction or confiscation of their property.  Rebels should not be tortured or even imprisoned if they take an oath promising to abandon their rebellion. Most importantly, according to the majority point of view, rebellion, if committed by reliance on a plausible cause, is not a sin or moral infraction, but is merely a political wrong because of the chaos and civil strife that result from such rebellions. This approach effectively made political rebellion a civil and not a religious infraction, and therefore, precluded political rebellion from being considered a moral wrong.


The classical juristic approach to terrorism was quite different.  Since the very first century of Islam and onwards, Muslims suffered from extremist theologies that not only rejected the political institutions of the Islamic empire, but also refused to concede legitimacy to the juristic class.  Although not organized in a church or a single institutional structure, the juristic class in Islam had clear and distinctive insignia of investiture.  They attended particular colleges, received training in a particular methodology of juristic inquiry, and developed a specialized technical language the mastery of which became the gateway to inclusion.[4]  Significantly, the juristic class shared an epistemology based on common sources, adopted a distinctive style of hermeneutics, and shared a dialectical form of inquiry and discourse.  For instance, it is not at all surprising to find that on each point of law there are ten different opinions and a considerable amount of debate among the various legal schools of thought.  Various puritan theological movements in Islamic history resolutely rejected this juristic tradition, which reveled in indeterminacy and debate.  Among those extremist groups were the Khawarij, the Qaramita, the early Almohads, and the Assassins.  The earmark of these puritan movements was their intolerant theology that displayed extreme hostility not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims who belonged to different schools of thought or even remained neutral.  Each of these movements considered either an opponent or indifferent Muslim to have gone out of the fold of Islam, and as therefore a legitimate target of violence.  Significantly, the preferred method of violence by these groups, with the possible exception of the Almohads, was stealth attacks and the dissemination of terror in the general population. 


Muslim jurists reacted sharply to these groups by considering them to be corrupters on the earth and the enemies of humankind.  They were designated as muharibs (literally, those who fight society), and such a designated group was not to be given quarter or refuge by anyone or at any place.  In fact, Muslim jurists argued that any Muslim or non-Muslim territory that sheltered such a group is to be considered hostile territory that may be attacked by the mainstream Islamic forces.  A muharib was defined as someone who attacks defenseless victims by stealth, and spreads terror in society.  Although the classical jurists agreed on the definition of this crime, they disagreed as to what type of criminal acts would be considered crimes of terror.  For instance, many jurists included rape, armed robbery, assassinations, arson, and murder by poisoning as crimes of terror and argued that such crimes must be punished vigilantly regardless of the theological or ideological motivations of the criminal.  Most importantly, these doctrines were asserted as religious imperatives so that regardless of the desired goals or ideological justifications, the terrorizing of the defenseless was recognized as a moral wrong and an offense against society and God.


The Demise of the Classical Tradition


It is often stated that terrorism is the weapon of the weak - those who are incapable of raising standing armies and waging conventional warfare tend to utilize it.  It is notable that the classical juristic discourse was developed at a time when the Islamic civilization was supreme, and this supremacy was reflected in the benevolent and moralistic attitude of the juristic class.  Pre-modern Muslim juristic discourses navigated a course between anti-functional and non-opportunistic principled thinking and real-life pragmatic concerns and demands.  Ultimately, these jurists spoke with a sense of urgency, but not desperation.  One finds that power and political supremacy were not the sole and singular pursuits.


Much has changed in the modern age - the Islamic civilization has crumbled, and the traditional institutions that once sustained the juristic discourse have all but vanished.  Furthermore, the normative categories and moral foundations that once mapped out Islamic law and theology have disintegrated leaving an unsettling epistemological vacuum.  More to the point, the juristic discourses on tolerance towards rebellion and hostility to the use of terror are no longer part of the normative categories of contemporary Muslims.  Contemporary Muslim discourses either give lip service to the classical doctrines without a sense of commitment or ignore and neglect them all together.  There are many factors that contributed to this modern reality.  Among the pertinent factors is the undeniably traumatic experience of Colonialism that dismantled the traditional institutions of civil society. [5]  In addition, the emergence of highly centralized despotic, and often corrupt, governments and the nationalization of the institutions of religious learning contributed to the undermining of the mediating role of jurists in Muslim societies.  The fact that nearly all charitable religious endowments became state controlled entities, and Muslim jurists in most Muslim nations became salaried state employees de-legitimated the traditional clergy and effectively transformed them into what may be called “court priests.”[6]  Moreover, the establishment of the state of Israel, the expulsion of the Palestinians, and the persistent military conflicts in which Arab states suffered heavy losses all contributed to a widespread siege mentality and a highly polarized and belligerent political discourse.  Perhaps most importantly, Western cultural symbols, modes of production, and normative social values aggressively penetrated the Muslim world seriously challenging inherited normative categories and practices, and adding to a profound sense of socio-cultural alienation. 


At the normative legal level, two developments became particularly relevant to the withering away of Islamic jurisprudence.  Most Muslim nations experienced the wholesale borrowing of civil law concepts.  Instead of the dialectical and indeterminate methodology of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim nations opted for a more centralized, determinative, and often code based systems of law.[7]  Even Muslim modernists, such as Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri, Abd al-Qadir Udah, Muhammad Abu Zahrah, and Subhi al-Mahmasani, who attempted to reform Islamic jurisprudence were heavily influenced by the civil law system, and thus sought to resist the indeterminate fluidity of Islamic law and increase its unitary and centralized character.  But not only were the concepts of law heavily influenced by the European legal tradition, but even the ideologies of resistance employed by Muslims were laden with third world notions of national liberation and self determination.  For instance, modern nationalistic thought exercised a greater influence on the resistance ideologies of Muslim and Arab national liberation movements than anything in the Islamic tradition.  The Islamic tradition was re-constructed to fit third world nationalistic ideologies of anti-Colonialism and anti-imperialism rather than the other way around.


While national liberation movements such as that of the Palestinian or Algerian resistance resorted to guerilla or non-conventional warfare, modern day terrorism of the variety promoted by Bin Laden is rooted in a different ideological paradigm.  There is little doubt that organizations such as the Jihad, Tanzim al-Qa’idah, Hizb al-Tahrir, and Jama’at al-Muslimin were influenced by national liberation and anti-colonialist ideologies, but they have anchored themselves in a theology that can be described as puritan, supremacist, and thoroughly opportunistic in nature.  This theology is the by-product of the emergence and eventual dominance of Wahhabism, Salafism, and apologetic discourses in modern Islam.


Puritan Islam in the Contemporary Age


The foundations of Wahhabi theology were set into place by the 18th century evangelist Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1787).  With a puritanical zeal, Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of all the corruptions that he believed had crept into the religion.  Wahhabism resisted the indeterminacy of the modern age by escaping to a strict literalism in which the text became the sole source of legitimacy.  In this context, Wahhabism exhibited extreme hostility to all forms of intellectualism, mysticism, and any sectarianism within Islam.  The Wahhabi creed also considered any form of moral thought that was not entirely dependent on the text as a form of self-idolatry, and treated humanistic fields of knowledge, especially philosophy, as “the sciences of the devil.”  According to the Wahhabi creed it was imperative to return to a presumed pristine, simple, and straightforward Islam, which was believed to be entirely reclaimable by a literal implementation of the commands and precedents of the Prophet, and by a strict adherence to correct ritual practice.  Importantly, Wahhabism rejected any attempt to interpret the Divine law from a historical, contextual perspective, and, in fact, treated the vast majority of Islamic history as a corruption or aberration from the true and authentic Islam.  The dialectical and indeterminate hermeneutics of the classical jurisprudential tradition were considered at best to be mere sophistry.  Furthermore, Wahhabism became very intolerant of the long-established Islamic practice of considering a variety of schools of thought to be equally orthodox.  Orthodoxy was narrowly defined, and Abd al-Wahhab, himself, was fond of creating long lists of beliefs and acts which he considered hypocritical and the adoption or commission of which immediately rendered a Muslim an unbeliever. 


In the late eighteenth century, Al Saud family united itself with the Wahhabi movement and rebelled against Ottoman rule in Arabia.  Egyptian forces, however, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali in 1818 quashed this rebellion.  Nevertheless, Wahhabi ideology was resuscitated once again in the early 20th century under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz b. Sa’ud who adopted the puritanical theology of the Wahhabis and allied himself with the tribes of Najd, thereby establishing the nascent beginnings of what would become Saudi Arabia.  Importantly, the Wahhabi rebellions of the 19th and 20th centuries were very bloody because the Wahhabis indiscriminately slaughtered and terrorized both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Mainstream jurists writing during this time period, such as the Hanafi Ibn Abidin (d. 1837) and the Maliki al-Sawi (d.1825), described the Wahhabis as a fanatic fringe group and labeled them the “modern day Khawarij of Islam.”[8]  Traditional jurists treated the Wahhabis as a deviant group that is too fanatic for mainstream Islam.


Nevertheless, there were three main factors that contributed to the survival and, in fact, the thriving of Wahhabism in contemporary Islam.  One, by rebelling against the Ottomans, Wahhabism appealed to the emerging ideologies of Arab nationalism in the eighteenth century.  By treating Muslim Ottoman rule as a foreign occupying power, Wahhabism set a powerful precedent for notions of Arab self-determination and autonomy.  Two, as noted above, Wahhabism advocated the return to the pristine and pure origins of Islam.  Accordingly, Wahhabism rejected the cumulative weight of historical baggage, and insisted upon a return to the precedents of the rightly guided early generations (al-salaf al-saleh).  This idea was intuitively liberating for Muslim reformers since it meant the re-birth of ijtihad, or the return to de novo examination and determination of legal issues unencumbered by the accretions of precedents and inherited doctrines.  Three, and most importantly, the discovery and exploitation of oil provided Saudi Arabia with high liquidity.  Especially post-1975, with the sharp rise in oil prices Saudi Arabia aggressively promoted Wahhabi thought around the Muslim world.  Even a cursory examination of the predominate ideas and practices would reveal the widespread influence of Wahhabi thought on the Muslim world today.


Wahhabism, however, did not spread in the modern Muslim world under its own banner.  It is important to note that even the term “Wahhabism” is considered derogatory to the followers Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab since Wahhabis prefer to see themselves as the representatives of Islamic orthodoxy.  In other words, according to its adherents, Wahhabism is not a school of thought within Islam, but is Islam, itself.  The fact that Wahhabism rejected the use of a school label gave it a rather diffuse quality and made many of its doctrines and methodologies immanently transferable.  Wahhabi thought, for instance, exercised its greatest influence not under its own label, but under the rubric of Salafism.  In their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis (adherents of Salafism), and not Wahhabis. 


Salafism is a creed founded in the late 19th century by Muslim reformers such as Muhammad Abduh, al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida.  Salafism appealed to a very basic and fundamental concept in Islam, and that is Muslims ought to follow the precedent of the rightly guided precedent of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih).  Methodologically, Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinions.  In many ways, Salafism was intuitively undeniable, partly because of its epistemological promise.  The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (precedent) of the Prophet.  In doing so, Muslims ought to re-interpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound to the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations.  As originally conceived, Salafism was not necessarily anti-intellectual, but like Wahhabism it did tend to be uninterested in history.  By emphasizing a presumed golden age in Islam, the adherents of Salafism idealized the time of the Prophet and his companions, and ignored or demonized the balance of Islamic history.  Furthermore, by rejecting juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition as a source of authoritativeness, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that deconstructed any notions of established authority within Islam.  Effectively, anyone was considered qualified to return to the original sources and speak for the Divine Will.  By liberating Muslims from the burdens of the technocratic tradition of the jurists, Salafism contributed to a real vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam.  Importantly, Salafism was founded by Muslim nationalists who were eager to read the values of modernism into the original sources of Islam.  Hence, Salafism was not necessarily anti-Western.  In fact, its founders strove to project contemporary institutions such as democracy, constitutionalism, or Socialism unto the foundational texts, and to justify the paradigm of the modern nation-state within Islam.


What one might describe as the liberal age of Salafism came to an end in the 1960’s.  Post 1975, Wahhabism was able to rid itself of its extreme intolerance, and proceeded to co-opt Salafism until the two became practically indistinguishable.  Both theologies imagined a golden age within Islam; this entailed a belief in a historical utopia that is entirely retrievable and re-producible in contemporary Islam.  Both remained uninterested in critical historical inquiry and responded to the challenge of modernity by escaping to the secure haven of the text.  And, both advocated a form of egalitarianism and anti-elitism to the point that they came to consider intellectualism and rational moral insight to be inaccessible and, thus, corruptions of the purity of the Islamic message.  Wahhabism and Salafism were beset with contradictions that made them simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic and, most significantly that (especially in the 1980s and 1990s) infested both creeds with a kind of supremacist thinking that prevails until today.


Between Apologetics and Supremacy


It is fair to say that the most predominant intellectual response to the challenge of modernity in Islam has been apologetics.  Apologist discourses were widespread throughout the 20th century, and they continue to thrive in the present time.  Such apologetics consisted of an effort by a large number of commentators to defend and salvage the Islamic system of beliefs from the onslaught of Orientalism, Westernization, and modernity by simultaneously emphasizing both the compatibility and supremacy of Islam.  Apologists responded to the intellectual challenges coming from the West by adopting pietistic fictions about the Islamic traditions; such fictions eschewed any critical evaluation of Islamic doctrines, and celebrated the presumed perfection of Islam.  A common heuristic device of apologetics was to argue that any meritorious or worthwhile modern institutions were first invented and realized by Muslims.  Therefore, according to the apologists, Islam liberated women, created a democracy, endorsed pluralism, protected human rights, and guaranteed social security long before these institutions ever existed in the West.  Nonetheless, these concepts were not asserted out of critical understanding or ideological commitment, but primarily as a means of resisting Western hegemony, affirming self-worth, and empowerment.  The main effect of apologetics, however, was to contribute to a sense of intellectual self-sufficiency that often descended into moral arrogance.  To the extent that apologetics were habit forming, it produced a culture that eschewed self-critical and introspective insight, and embraced the projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence and arrogance.


In many ways, the apologetic response was fundamentally power-centered.  Its main purpose was not to integrate particular values within Islamic culture, but to empower Islam against its civilizational rival.  Muslim apologetics tended to be opportunistic and rather unprincipled, and, in fact, they lent support to the tendency among many intellectuals and activists to give precedence to the logic of pragmatism over any other competing normative demands.  Invoking the logic of necessity or public interest to justify a variety of courses of action, at the expense of normative moral imperatives, became common practice.  Effectively, apologists got into the habit of paying homage to the presumed superiority of the Islamic tradition, but marginalized this idealistic image in everyday life.

Post 1970’s Salafism adopted many of the premises of the apologetic discourse, but it also took these premises to their logical extreme.  Instead of simple apologetics, Salafism responded to the feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising and arrogant symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims, but also against Muslim women.  Fundamentally, however, Salafism, which by the 1970s has become a virulent puritan theology, further anchored itself in the confident security of texts.  Nonetheless, contrary to the assertions of its proponents, Salafism did not necessarily pursue objective or balanced interpretations of Islamic texts, but primarily projected its own frustrations and aspirations upon the text.  Its proponents no longer concerned themselves with co-opting or claiming Western institutions as their own, but under the guise of reclaiming the true and real Islam, they proceeded to define Islam as the exact antithesis of the West.  Accordingly, whatever the West was perceived to be, Islam was understood to be the exact opposite. 


Of course, neither Wahhabism nor Salafism is represented by some formal institution; they are theological orientations and not structured schools of thought.  Therefore one finds a broad range of ideological variations and tendencies within each orientation.  Nevertheless, the lapsing and bonding of the theologies of Wahhabism and Salafism produced a contemporary orientation that is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism, alienation, and frustration.  The synchronistic product of these two theologies  is one of profound alienation not only from the institutions of power of the modern world, but also from the Islamic heritage and tradition.  The outcome of the apologist, Wahhabi and Salafi legacies is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeatism, disempowerment, and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-à-vis the nondescript “other” – whether the other is the West, non-believers in general, or even Muslim women.  In this sense, it is accurate to describe this widespread modern trend as supremacist for it sees the world from the perspective of stations of merit and extreme polarization.  It is important to note, however, that this trend does not only de-value the moral worth of non-Muslims alone, but also those that it considers inferior or of a lesser station such as women or heretical Muslims.


Islam and Terrorism in the Modern Age


In the wake of the terrorist attacks against the United States several commentators posed the question of whether Islam somehow encourages violence and terrorism.  Some commentators argued that the Islamic concept of jihad or the notion of the dar al-harb (the abode of war) is to blame for the contemporary violence.  The problem with these arguments is that they are largely anachronistic and orientalist.  They project Western categories and historical experiences upon a situation that is very particular and fairly complex.  One can easily locate an ethical discourse within the Islamic tradition that is uncompromisingly hostile to acts of terrorism.  One can also locate a discourse that is tolerant towards the other, and mindful of the dignity and worth of all human beings.  But one must also come to terms with the fact that what I have called supremacist puritanism in contemporary Islam is dismissive of all moral norms or ethical values, regardless of the identity of their origins or foundations.  The prime and nearly singular concern is power and its symbols.  Somehow, all other values, traditions, and normativities are made subservient.    






[1] On the prevalence of the phrase “political Islam” among various academic commentators, see for example, Nazih N. M. Ayubi, Political Islam: religion and politics in the Arab world (London ; New York: Routledge, 1991); Fawaz A. Gerges, America and political Islam : clash of cultures or clash of interests? (Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Martin S. Kramer, Political Islam (Beverly Hills : Sage Publications, 1980); Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, trans.  Carol Volk (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994).


[2] On this topic generally, see, Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islamic Law and Muslim Minorities: The Juristic Discourse on Muslim Minorities from the 2nd/8th to the 11th/17th Centuries,” Journal of Islamic Law & Society 22, no. 1 (1994): 141-187.


[3] On these points, see, Khaled Abou El Fadl, “The Rules of Killing at War: An Inquiry into Classical Sources,” The Muslim World 89 (1999): 144-157.


[4] On the general characteristics of the educational system in Islamic history, see George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges : Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981); Jonathan Porter Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo : A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).  For a discussion of the ways in which the technical training of jurists contributed to the construction of a juristic culture, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).


[5] Allan Christelow, Muslim Law Courts and the French Colonial State in Algeria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); J.N.D. Anderson, “Modern Trends in Islam: Legal Reform and Modernisation in the Middle East,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 20 (1971): 1-21, reprinted in Islamic Law and Legal Theory, ed. Ian Edge (New York: New York University Press, 1996): 547-567; Cleveland, A History, 61-98; Jasper Yeates Brinton, The Mixed Courts of Egypt, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Ruth Mitchell, “Family Law in Algeria before and after the 1404/1984 Family Code,” in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice, eds. R. Gleave and E. Kermeli (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997): 194-204, 194-196.  Of course, at times, Colonial powers took over the implementation of Islamic law as in the case of the Anglo-Muhammadan law experience in India.  Syed Ameer Ali, Muhammadan Law (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1986), 1-4; Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (London: Oxford University Press, 1964; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 94-97; Coulson, History, 164-172.  On the impact on Colonialism on the institutions of Islamic law in India see, Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law:  Crime & Justice in Early Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 52-3, 60-70, 294-6, 300.


[6] For an example of this in Muhammad Ali’s (r. 1805-1848) Egypt, see Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, Women and Men in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 136, 141-142.


[7] See, J.N.D. Anderson, Islamic Law in the Modern World (New York: New York University Press, 1959); idem, Law Reform in the Muslim World (London: Athlone Press, 1976); Wael Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul al-Fiqh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 207-211.


[8] Muhammad Amin Ibn 'Abidin, Hashiyat Radd al-Muhtar, vol. VI (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi, 1966), p. 413; Ahmad al-Sawi, Hashiyat al-Sawi 'ala Tafsir al-Jalalayn, vol. III (Beirut: Dar Ihya' al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d.), pp. 307-308. See also Ahmad Dallal, "The Origins and Objectives of Islamic Revivalist Thought, 1750-1850," Journal of the American Oriental Society 113, no. 3 (1993): 341-359.