- Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea by Shiraz Maher
Although much has been written about Jihadi-Salafism since the events of “9/11,” no author has really attempted to write a comprehensive overview of Jihadi-Salafi ideology in a single book. Shiraz Maher, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, has attempted to do just that. Maher states that “there are five essential and irreducable features of the Salafi-Jihadi movement: tawhid [the unity of God], hakimiyya [sovereignty], al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ [loyalty and disavowal], jihad and takfir [excommunication, declaring someone an unbeliever]” (pp. 13-14). To each of these, he subsequently dedicates two chapters. The [End Page 177] extent to which he has succeeded in explaining these effectively largely depends on the audience the author had in mind.
If the book, which “is essentially [Maher’s] PhD thesis” (p. xii), was intended as an academic work for scholars of Salafism, it is somewhat disappointing because of the many errors found in its pages. These are apparent in the inconsistent transliteration of many Arabic phrases as well as Maher’s use of names. The Arabian scholar Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), for example, is often referred to as “‘Abd al-Wahhab” (the name of the man’s father), or even just “Wahhab.” The author is somewhat vague on the use of Arabic sources (p. xvi), but it is clear that — as far as I could see — no texts in the original Arabic are mentioned in the footnotes or the bibliography, suggesting that the author has relied entirely on translations. For a book focusing on an ideology that is often expressed in Arabic, this is a liability anyway, but it is particularly frustrating in combination with the fact that Maher never mentions the URLs of texts or clips downloaded from the Internet. For academics who want to consult these sources, this means they simply have to “Google” them in translation.
Perhaps more serious than the above is that the author seems not to have fully grasped the depth of some of the concepts he discusses. This is particularly clear in the chapters on takfir. Maher states, for example, that according to Jihadi-Salafis, “[f]aith is necessary but insufficient. It must be accompanied by acts” (p. 72). This suggests that acts are a necessary addition to faith, not part of it. Yet most of the discussion on iman (faith) and kufr (unbelief) in Islam revolves around the question of whether acts are part of faith and, in turn, of whether a sinful act can thus decrease (or even take away) someone’s faith. Maher’s mistake in this regard is also clear on page 80, where he states that Abu Hanifa, the “founder” of the Hanafi school of Islamic law, “said [that] no sin — even major ones such as kufr akbar — automatically negate an individual’s faith.” The author not only mixes up “major sin” (kabira) with “major unbelief” (kufr akbar) here, but he also fails to distinguish between sins in general and sinful acts. His statement that, according to Abu Hanifa al-Nu‘man (702–772), “there is no need for works” is equally mistaken since it suggests that Abu Hanifa did not care about acts; he did, but did not claim they constituted part of faith, which is a significant difference. Maher’s claim that “[i]rja’ [the postponement of judgement about a person’s faith partly made possible by excluding acts from the definition of faith] remains a key characteristic of quietist and introverted Salafis today” (p. 80) is something that Jihadi-Salafis may like to believe, but is actually more complicated. What makes such errors more glaring is that these issues have been dealt with in the secondary literature already, as has almost everything else in the book.
If, however, Maher’s book was not written for specialists on Salafism, but for policy-makers and analysts of jihadism, radicalization, and terrorism — and Maher’s own background at ICSR may...