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Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea.

In Salafi-Jihadism: The Story of an Idea, Shiraz Maher offers a clear and accessible way to comprehend a topic that is by essence exceptionally complex to follow: the Salafi-Jihadism movement. This movement has been one of the hardest subjects to deconstruct and at the same time the world struggles to understand how this movement is affecting the global politics. It is important to stress that Maher chooses Salafi-Jihadism among several reactionary political movements based on Islam because it is considered Islam’s latest, and perhaps “most successful,

political religion” (27).



Maher is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of

Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College London, and teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In addition, he is an assiduous writer for the New Statesman, frequently writing on the Islamic State and the broader Middle East; his knowledge of the subject can be observed as he guides specialists in his field, as well as informed readers, to trace the evolution of the key ideas of Salafi-Jihadism. Maher does not directly provide answers to the questions he postures in his book. Instead, he introduces key thinkers from a wide spectrum of opinions within Islamic history that aims to clarify core concepts of the mainstream tradition of Salafi-Jihadi thought that has mobilized masses around the world. By presenting history from an intellectual standpoint, Maher tries to adopt the debates with dispassionate observation, which is often noted in contemporary post-9/11 literary material. Some of Maher’s central intentions in this book include the examination of the Salafi-Jihadis’ soteriological position as well as their practices that try “to emulate Islam’s supposedly golden era,” (7) while producing an absolutist and rigid doctrine with an authoritarian position embedded with “the need to confront existing Muslim regimes,” (205).


From the beginning of the book, the author makes a precise distinction between Salafism and Salafi-Jihadism. The former, in its simplest construction, is a philosophical outlook which seeks to revive practices from the pious predecessors of the first three generations of Islam as a redemptive philosophy, while the latter “confront their worldview presenting themselves as violent-rejectionists,” (11). This ‘revival’ that seeks to bring Muslims back to what Salafism defines as “pure” and “authentic” also comes with an ideological component that competes within

Islamic precepts for dominance of its theological position. By refusing to follow an ideological doctrine, radical rebellion rises from within the Salafi-Jihadis toward not only other Muslims but also against the modern-nation state, constitutional politics, and the secular international order. Maher provides a clear picture of the tensions within the movement by “highlighting intra-Salafi debates and disputes over orthodoxy” (12).


At first glance, Salafi-Jihadism: The Story of an Idea may not be a book written in a

succinct way, but it thrives with details which create a timeline that connects events for the reader to understand the foundation of the Salafi-Jihadis’ goals. Though historical in structure and framed within 11 chapters, Maher’s text collects scholarship from theorists across a vast range of Islamic history to explain how we have arrived at the political, religious, and cultural situation we are currently in. To accomplish that, the author focuses on five keen and irreducible features of the

Salafi-Jihadi movement: jihad; takfīr; al-walā’wa-l-barā’; tawhīd; and hākimiyya, and dedicates two chapters to each one of them. Maher explicitly highlights that these five characteristics have been “shaped and interpreted by the Salafi-Jihadis in unique and original ways” (14).


Chapters two and three introduce the first feature of the Salafi-Jihadi movement: jihad, which Maher describes as “the least understood Islamic concept in public consciousness today” (31). The development of ideas, intellectual trends, or socially constructed words may change or their meanings may fade over time due to societal contexts, but jihad, as an Islamic concept, is still well-known for practitioners of Islamic holy war since the Qur’an first mandated it. However, the concept did not exist during the original events of Islamic revelation to the Prophet Muhammad.

It was only later that jihad was sanctioned for protection and territorial quest. Here is when its definition implies an ‘obligation of fighting’ while its nature falls under the categories of “offensive and defensive,” (35) also generally accepted by the normative Islam. Therefore, the place that jihad occupies in the Salafi-Jihadism has an innate purpose to protect and promote the religion; this has given Jihadism the position of protector of Islam from threats as well as an intrinsic part of the faith. Just like its emergence in other movements, jihad developed as a response to persecution and oppression, requiring defensive measures to declare war outside the state-to-state frame. Maher addresses that, in today’s world, the Salafi-Jihadi argument centres on

the fact that classic Islamic thought has been contaminated by Western-secular views as well as corrupted Muslim regimes with close ties to democratic states. Events such as Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that brought American troops to the Gulf, the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia which led to the construction of military bases, and more recently the invasion of Iraq by the U.S., were sufficient elements to strongly back up their moral-theological position for the crusade.


In chapters four and five, Maher explores the origins and emergence of takfīr as a concept within Islam, used to fuel sectarian violence within the Salafi-Jihadi movement. A brief way of explaining takfīr could be by drawing a comparison to that of excommunication in the Catholic Church, or, as Maher puts it, “concerns itself with the question of who is a Muslim” (72) and the judgment that defines who is a disbeliever, or kafir. This assessment, which delineates whether or not a Muslim is validated as such, goes beyond the mere intention to preserve a homogenous set

of values. It is also used to ensure that “its adherents are active, rather than passive, agents” (74) in the ummah, or community. The seeming subjectivity by targeting anyone deemed to be opposing the jihad movement arises when assessing the intention of an act, which is often subject to interpretation. The idea of takfīr links faith and action (you can only prove your faith by acting it out) to preserve what this movement describes as the ‘authentic’ Islamic faith. And again, when this structure is in jeopardy, the movement confront its enemies with takfīr, which is a “doctrine

needed to fuel what is otherwise a straightforward struggle for power,” (106).


In the book’s sixth and seventh chapters, Maher provides a valid effort to define and explore the concept of al-walā’wa-l-barā’, which is challenging to classify linguistically and conceptually. Leaving technicality aside, the author circumscribes the idea in its most basic construction as “loyalty and disavowal” that acts in similar fashion to takfīr by drawing a line “between the Salafi-Jihadi doctrines of Islam and everything else,” (111) which once again serves the purpose of protecting what is believed to be the core of Islam. When Maher presents the development of the concept of al-walā’wa-l-barā’, he digs into its origins by offering the historical-political events that created it, and also the ways it has been used as a tool to repress aggressors. When societal confrontations arise and they pose a threat to the religious model, there

is a political landscape that aids those transformations. Social movements, such as Salafi-Jihadism, counteract the threat by expressing dissent; however, the Salafi-Jihadis’ position appears to present themselves as “the custodians of a pure form of Islam,” (141). The fear of losing one’s identity is not just circumscribed within the Islamic theological debate; distinguishing beliefs of particular circle of faith from other groups which protects cultural bonds can be observed across the wide

spectrum of organized religion. The concept of al-walā’wa-l-barā’, used as a tool by political actors to delegitimize opponents, is presented by Maher as another example of an idea that has been driven and shaped by conflict “into an increasingly doctrinaire and demanding idea,” (141).


The next feature of the Salafi-Jihadi movement examined by Maher is found in chapters eight and nine: tawhīd, or the doctrine of monotheism and the omnipotence of God. It is a significant pillar of Islam as it engages the relationship between individuals and God. There is an analogous relation to takfīr (faith and action), where positive acts represent the practical manifestation of faith, which is the requirement of tawhīd, or the essence of God. This view is much the same way as their more mainstream Salafi counterparts. What Maher reveals in these chapters is the manner in which some jihadist ideologies have cultivated tawhīd as a militaristic doctrine “in relation to its most practical component: tawhīd al-uluhiyaa, (157). Furthermore, the

argument of Salafi-Jihadi theorists regarding these ideas is that they are impossible to establish in everyday life unless is taken to the battlefield. Within this context, we see ‘fear’ only directed to no other than God; the total submission ignores the fear of death, especially throughout a battle, as an “emancipated and liberating action of the true believer”, (165).


Regarding the concept of hākimiyya, or the securing of political sovereignty for God, Maher takes the last two chapters to illustrate the idea of an Islamic State within the Muslim world and why fundamentalists have rejected modern politics to favour Islamic models. Salafi-Jihadi theorists have developed the concept of hākimiyya as a separate branch of tawhīd, which takes matters of power and authority to the level of doctrinal significance. In his text, the author researches how the tension for Islamic authority has evolved over time, starting with reformist movements that eventually open a path to more reactionary ones. As addressed previously and throughout his book, Maher highlights the Salafi-Jihadis’ blame of the Western political order for

the moral decline in the world,; he also details how much Islamic political thought was profoundly shaped by colonial experience. In addition to the criticisms of capitalism and communism due to removing God from politics, secularism is therefore considered associated with social degradation, just as democratic participation is viewed as religion, which is the antithesis of Islam.


While Salafi-Jihadism: The Story of an Idea borders on being too technical for the common reader, it is in many ways a remarkable text suitable for the curious observer as well as the academic one. Shiraz Maher’s purpose in this book succeeds in contextualizing Salafi-Jihadism’s global-political emergence and aspirations that regained power as a retaliation for either colonial domination, domestic repression and corruption, or civil war. Salafi-Jihadism, despite being a “broad and complex religious ideology,” (207) remains an extremely resilient soteriology. Maher’s

contribution to clarify this phenomenon within a historical frame creates an instrumental tool of knowledge that contributes to the deeper understanding of contemporary Islamic discourse.


Shiraz Maher. Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xi + 277 p.

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