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  • Localising Salafism: Religious Change among Oromo Muslims in Bale, Ethiopia by Terje Østebo
  • Haggai Erlich (bio)
Localising Salafism: Religious Change among Oromo Muslims in Bale, Ethiopia, by Terje Østebo Leiden: Brill, 2012; pp. 362. $182.00 cloth.

Today, Salafism has become a code word for Islamic fanaticism, a violent rejection of Western civilization, and the resorting to terrorism of the kind associated with radical Islamic organizations and individuals across the globe. The meaning of the term “salaf,” or rather al-salaf al-salih, is “the righteous fathers of Islam,” namely, the first group of believers who followed and helped the Prophet in his time, and the next two generations, which still saw the light of providence. Today’s Salafis believe that denying later innovations and returning to the norms of that period will restart history and result in the victory of Islam over the heretical West. However, when the term salafiyya was introduced in the early twentieth century it had a very different meaning. For the pioneers of Islamic modernism, like Rashid Rida and his teacher Muhammad Abduh, returning to the model of the Prophet’s days meant reviving ijtihad—the right to initiate, innovate, and reinterpret ancient texts in a way that would lead toward scholarly openness and social and political progress. (Incidentally, Rida, the pioneer of Salafiyya, was a strong admirer and supporter of Ethiopia‘s [End Page 199] independence, from the aftermath of the battle of Adwa to the days of Mussolini’s aggression.) Indeed, between Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida on one hand and the terrorists of Al-Qaida and ISIS on the other, through the century between them and across the diverse Islamic worlds, Salafiyya acquired many faces. In this context, Terje Østebo’s book provides another reminder that Islam is diverse, multifaceted, and changing.

Østebo spent the years 2005 to 2007 in Bale, an important region in southern Ethiopia inhabited mostly by Oromo people. The majority of these people adopted Islam, mainly during the nineteenth century, and were conquered and annexed to what was a Christian empire at the end of that century. The Oromos’ popular Sufi Islam was based on local traditions and Oromo culture (chapters 3–4), not on imported concepts or texts. As reconstructed by Østebo (chapters 5–6), Salafiyya was imported mostly from Saudi Arabia beginning with the 1940s, and was also adapted in accordance with local social and cultural dimensions. During the period of Mangistu Haile Mariam’s communist dictatorship (chapter 7), Salafiyya in Bale worked to enhance local Oromo identity, which helped the spread of Salafiyya following the establishment of Ethiopia’s current federal regime in 1991 (chapter 8). Chapters 8 and 9 discuss what the author calls the fragmentation of the Salafiyya movement in contemporary Bale. The main split, he analyzes, was caused by the rise of a new generation of young Salafis, who resented what they saw as the old guard’s moderation and passive acceptance of Islam’s secondary role in Ethiopia. Adopting the name “Ahl al-sunna” (the people of the Sunna), they now pose a challenge to the Ethiopian regime, to the Sufis in Bale, and primarily to the old guard of local Salafis, whom they accuse of corruption, of keeping Saudi money to themselves, and of avoiding proper political activity and religious militancy. (“Ahl al-sunna” is also a term reflecting diversity. In the Somali context, for example, it is the name of the local anti-Salafi organization.)

Some cases of Islamic radicalism, violence, and terrorism, and of countermeasures by the locals and by the regime are well researched and recorded. Ultimately, Østebo’s main thesis is that Salafism is a very diverse phenomenon, and in a local version it can be apolitical. He asserts that even though the Salafi model is seventh-century Mecca, and inspiration and resources derive from twentieth-century Saudi Arabia, it is the local Oromo background that gives the dominant strand of local Salafiyya its apolitical nature in Bale. In advancing this idea, Localising Salafism [End Page 200] strongly proves the argument of diversity. It systematically analyzes the dialogue between dimensions of Oromo ethnic identity, cultural legacies, and cultural structures on the one hand, and...


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