November 13th 2008 · Prague Watchdog / Alexander Vasilyev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Salafism: Theory and Practice

Salafism: Theory and Practice

We are publishing this article as a discussion paper because we believe that it contains a number of points that require additional supporting evidence (for example, the author's certainty that Dokka Umarov was behind the minibus explosion in Vladikavkaz appears to us somewhat – let us say – premature).

Nevertheless, the subject of North Caucasus Salafism is highly topical, and we invite all those who would like to participate in the discussion to do so.

The editors.

By Alexander Vasilyev, special to Prague Watchdog

When on June 22, 2006 Dokka Umarov assumed the post of President of “Independent Ichkeria” after the death of his predecessor, Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, he issued a public statement in which, among other things, he said: “I... will resolutely stop all attacks on civilian targets and persons”.

Bearing in mind this high-sounding phrase, which was coupled with references to “the norms of international law” in the building of relations between Russia and Chechnya (after the latter had acquired independence), against the backdrop of the recent terrorist act in Vladikavkaz it is reasonable to wonder how far it may be possible to compare the “theory” (the statement) and “practice” (the terrorist act) of contemporary Caucasian Salafism as represented by Umarov and his supporters in the “Caucasian Emirate” project.

In order to do this, one needs to understand the degree to which the doctrinal base of modern Salafism is related to terrorist activity. In other words: can what happened in Vladikavkaz be regarded as an exceptional example of armed groups acting in disobedience to their commanders, or is it an organic part of the Salafist doctrine they profess and, indeed, an inevitable consequence of its practice?

To answer this question we must address both the origins of the Salafist movement and its modern activists, such as Sheikh ibn Djibrin.

The doctrine (akida) of the Wahhabi school of thought (its second name – Salafism – is derived from the concept of as-Salaf-as-Salih, and refers to a group of righteous associates of the Prophet Muhammad whom the Wahhabis claim to follow) was established in the Muslim world by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab on the basis of the writings of the fourteenth century theologian ibn Taymiya, who throughout his entire life was accused by his "professional colleagues" of anthropomorphism (tashbih) and, at the same time, of insisting on the absolute transcendence of the divine person. In the conception of ibn Taymiya and ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, God appears in relation to the world and his own creations as an indifferent being, an outside observer who lacks any personal presence not only in man (the “spark of God”, or fitra, emphasized by the followers of Muslim mysticism), but also in the world of creatures.

The call of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab found wide acceptance among the leaders of the Arabian Peninsula’s disparate clans as a convenient ideology to unite the warring tribes against Turkish expansion, which had brought Sufi mysticism with it. The contrast-ridden imperatives of a world view lacking shades of grey and based on a division between black and white, on the separation of the forbidden (haram) and the permitted (halal), of Muslims and infidels (kafir), the “territory of Islam” (Dar al-Islam) and the “territory of war” (Dar al-Harb) served as a convenient cover for the robbery and looting to which neighbouring Muslim tribes and peoples – consanguineous Arabs, and also the Turks and Persians – were subjected.

Because non-Muslim faiths and denominations were not popular in the region of the Arabian peninsula, and Wahhabi expansion was inconceivable without an armed seizure of new lands and resources, the only option was to register some Muslims as “deviationists” (ahl-al-bida, supporters of innovation), or “apostates” (murtad), whose crime (irtidad) is punishable by death under Sharia.

Moreover, ordinary Muslims visiting the graves of their ancestors could be declared to be adherents of innovation. “Apostates” might be the advocates of any form of cooperation with non-Muslim rulers (including those who rejected violent methods of implanting Sharia law in countries with a non-Muslim majority). This is particularly mentioned in the writings of Ibn Djibrin, a modern preacher of Salafism, in the commentary to a fatwa condemning the activities of another theologian, Imam Halabi. Halabi represents the moderate tendency in Salafism which, with calls to follow the example of the righteous associates of the Prophet, defends non-violent methods of propaganda and refutes the accusation of kufr (unbelief) made against all who have not openly renounced Islam, regardless of the degree of their delusion. In the same fatwa Ibn Djibrin accuses Halabi of paying insufficient attention to the Koranic “ayat of intimidation”. Thus, from a text clearly written in black and white we see that methods such as intimidation, violence, every form of moral and physical oppression and even robbery and murder have been inextricably intertwined with the history of Wahhabism/Salafism right from the time of its foundation to this very day.

Another tenet expressed by ibn Taymiya and elaborated by ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, concerning the need for “submission to any Muslim ruler” (regardless of offences committed by the latter) intensifies the picture of a totalitarian Salafist society built on a rigid hierarchy of power with unquestioning obedience. An important role in the Wahhabi world order is played by the collective (jamaat), and the concept of justice in the relations between people and even in the salvation if their souls is to some extent “collectivized” in the sense that there are increasing references to “infidel communities”, “infidel states”, and the like. There seems to be a deliberate ignoring of the fact that fellow Muslims also live in these territories and that each person is an individual and requires a corresponding approach – something which, incidentally, is also expressed in the Koran: “A burdened soul cannot bear the burden of another soul.”

In the context of the quasi-atheistic conception of transcendentalism (the notion of “divine personal absence from the world”) and a thoroughly maximalist approach to the tenets of Islamic law (fiqh) that is coupled with extreme pragmatism and rationalism, Salafist metaphysics harmonizes easily with the project of the Communist International, with its dialectical materialism and intent to “fan the global conflagration”, regardless of the victims. And it is logical that without directly denying that each person is responsible only for their own sins, Salafist ideologists still tend to see North Ossetia, for example, as an “apostate tribe”, a “tribe of collaborators” (with the current Russian government) – in other words, a “territory of war” (Dar al-Harb), in which all means of repression and intimidation are good and permitted.

Thus, even if the Salafists’ direct decrees (fatwa) cannot easily be reconciled with a few dozen “random” innocent victims who are slain out of tactical considerations, then at least Salafist ethics as such can fulfil that role. Against the backdrop of the ontological hatred for all who are “alien” (i.e non-Salafist), a hatred characteristic of the totalitarian sectarian mindset, little value can be placed on the references to “norms of international law”, which are, of course, indispensable given the urgent need to find foreign allies.

Such is the theory of Salafism, its doctrinal nature, thanks to which it appears before us more in the form of a political project akin to a new jihadist International than as a religious world view. What is more, in a country where Salafist slogans have made possible the merger of disparate tribes and the formation on a wave of Salafist-inspired of Arab nationalism within a central state (Saudi Arabia), Salafism has naturally become the state ideology and can now “afford” to take a more moderate form, without fearing rivals in either the spiritual or the political sphere.

When it comes to the Salafist cells in foreign countries (including those of the Caucasus), the situation is rather different. There the very survival of those cells depends on the success of the “Islamic Call” (daavat) propaganda campaign, the main stages of which are the drawing to the ranks of new supporters, the maintenance of their numbers and the exporting of the Salafist ideology to neighbouring territories.

At a time when the Caucasus has seen the development of tough competition in the religious sphere, in the form of the region’s traditional Sufi ideology, when some Caucasian republics (North Ossetia, for example) are experiencing a strengthening of the position of the Orthodox Church, Salafism with its primitive ideology of “the absent God” really has no alternative but to emulate the Communist International in its organizational structure and methods of repression of the individual for the sake of the collective identity, and to copy the strategy and tactics of the leftist forces. It focuses on the building of an “earthly paradise” (for the Salafists this is replaced by the creation of the “ideal community of social justice for Muslims modelled on the community led by the Prophet Muhammad and his righteous associates” (salaf), at the same time making a clear demarcation on the principle of “us and them” (“Those who are not with us are against us,” we should remember, was one of the first slogans of the young Soviet republic).

Such an approach cannot fail to evoke a response among the lower social strata of the populace, who in the Caucasus of today form the majority. In the dreams of justice which the state has not yet been able to relay, people are being saturated not only with ideology, but also with an organically inherent hatred of the “other”. Moreover, the destruction of those who are “against us” is now a necessity, for otherwise, seen from a political point of view, the Salafist structures would not differ much in the eyes of their ordinary followers from those of the Madkhalites and other kinds of Murdjiites and Sufis whom they regard as collaborationists.

One is therefore forced to a single conclusion: that terror is a prerequisite for the survival of Salafism as a political structure. It does not matter what considerations may have guided Dokka Umarov when in 2006 he referred to the norms of international law. Whether he sincerely believed that he would be able to strike a compromise with the values of civilized society, or whether he was simply showing cunning, out of a desire to please potential allies, does not matter: historical necessity will sooner or later force all Salafists – wherever they do not constitute a majority and are not in a position of power – to take the path of terrorism. And for as long as Salafist cells exist all over the world, the terrorist attack in Vladikavkaz will be far from the last of its kind.

The illustration is borrowed from the website

(Translation by DM)


 · An Emirate lost between the unbelievers (PW, 12.9.2008)
 · We have taken up arms to establish laws (interview with Movladi Udugov, PW 24.7.2008)
 · Dokka Umarov: A Hawk Flies to the Ichkerian Throne (PW, 20.6.2006)



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