Taliban and Salafism: a historical and theological exploration

The Taliban, like other sociopolitical movements, is not reducible to Islamic doctrines.

Sayed Hassan Akhlaq
1 December 2013

Since September 2011, the Taliban has become synonymous with Muslim extremism and Salafism in the minds of many. When the world hears about young girls being burned with acid for attending school, strictures against music and the destruction of ancient cultural artifacts in the name of Islam, people often assume that these actions represent the logical conclusion of Salafist doctrine.

But whence did the Taliban inherit these ideas? Salafist theology was not passed down generation to generation unadulterated from its creation more than a millennium ago. Like a child's game of "telephone," it has mingled with other ideologies and become distorted by each teacher's attempts to mould it. If we follow Salafism's lineage from its beginning, we find that the Taliban’s version of it bears only a passing, twisted resemblance to the original philosophy.

Words are windows into worlds. The Taliban speak to us from a world concerned not only with the Afghan people but also international soldiering. But what about Salafism?  From which world does it speak to us?

We can begin our search with the definition and origin of word “Salaf”; an Arabic term from the Quran (43:46) which means “the precedent,” and refers to examples for Islamic practice.  The Prophet Muhammad, as described by Imam Al-Bukhari’s (810-870) writings - the most important Islamic document after the holy Quran for the Sunni sect - declares that his companions, his generation and two later generations were the most exemplary Muslims.  From this context was born the concept of al-Salaf al-Salih, "the pious predecessors."

After the death of the prophet Muhammad, new political tendencies arose in Islamic society as the Islamic realms and caliph expanded, and the faith faced new questions, problems, and schools of thought. Different cultures and traditions led Muslim scholars to ponder the relationship between reason (“Aql”) and revelation (“Naql”): secular works and sacred ideas, respectively.  The first Islamic school of theology, "Mutazelah,” arose in this environment in the eighth century. It was a liberal, humanist and rational school that favoured reason over revelation, based on their reading of the Quran and Islamic precedents.  It dealt foremost with Islamic creeds and beliefs rather than Muslim rules and practices.  This school of thought was dominant in Iraq, especially the cities of Basra and Kofa.

During this time, which covered the first generation after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, a renowned Muslim scholar of Afghan descent was born in Kofa: Imam Abu Hanifah (699-767).  Later he became founder of one of the four great schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) dealing with daily Muslim practices.  This school - called Ahl al-Rai, literally “school of opinion” - formed opinions on contemporary subjects using analogies with commonly accepted Islamic laws, a departure from the later “school of Hadith” - Ahl al-Hadith - which focused on a series of texts by Mohammed’s contemporaries regarding the prophet’s life and teachings.  According to al-Sharia, (teachings and jurisprudence governing Islamic life and practices), Abu Hanifah has been considered the leader of non-Arab Muslims in the eastern Islamic world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran’s Sunnis, since his emergence.

The Taliban is at least three steps removed from this early basis for Salafism:

- First, Islamic Textualism, led by Imam Hanbal (780-855) and Imam Al-Bukhari, appeared in opposition both to Mutazilah, which applied rationality to Islamic creeds, and Ahl al-Rai, which applied rationality to Islamic practices. Textualism rejected the critical role of reason both in creeds and jurisprudence. This school of thought was dominant in Hijaz, west of present-day Saudi Arabia. The seeds of Salafism were sown here - in contrast to the philosophy and even the rationality of Islamic theology  - as a narrative of the battle between the secular and the sacred. At that time practitioners called themselves “Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’a”, the followers of the Islamic traditions and society, while Qadhi Abud al-Jabbar (935-1025), the great Mutazila Theologian, called them “Ahl Ah- Hadith wa al-Tashbih”, the followers of the Hadith and anthropomorphism.

This extremist form of textualism did not mesh easily with Afghan culture. Afghans at the time continued to follow the path of Abu Hanifa in Islamic jurisprudence and adopted a moderate form of Mutazelism after the teachings of Imam Maturidi (893-941), a kind of combination of reason and revelation, giving each its due.

- The second step was a transition from “Ahl Al-Sunnah wa Al-Jama’a” to primary “Salafism," a precursor to Wahhabism.  This movement began with Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), who claimed to be returning to Salaf, following Imam Hanbal, and rejecting human knowledge and the search for the truth including theology and philosophy, as well as Sufism and logic.  He claimed he was trying to purify Islamic monotheism of later adulterations.  This school was institutionalized in the public domain by Ibn Taymiyyah's follower, politician Bin Abdul-al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who established the sect commonly called Wahhabism, though followers prefer to call themselves Salafists because of al-Wahhab’s personal and ideological unpopularity.

The Wahhabists aimed to purify Islam, not only from adulterations such as national customs and regional cultures, but from all affects of human intellect, and even from human interpretations of the holy Quran.  While they could recite the Quran, they relied on the texts of Hadith to understand Mohammad’s teachings. The movement thus produced many scholars of the Hadith, but no Quranic scholars! In an era of progress and forward thinking, the age of enlightenment and reason, Wahhabism sent the Islamic world plummeting back in time, following older traditions in both creeds and jurisprudence.

The 1744 pact between Bin Saud and Bin Abd al-Wahhab marked the emergence of the first Saudi state. The state's theology was marked by a new concept called “Takfir,” which declared that self-proclaimed Muslims who did not follow Wahhabism were not truly Islamic, and which oversaw the expansion of preexisting injunctions against “bed’a,” or heretical religious interpretation of new innovations. The Wahhabists attacked Karbala (1802), Ta’if (1803), and Najaf (1806), killing many Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, for what Wahhabists considered adulterations of Islam or polytheism, and in the process destroyed many historical and cultural artifacts.

- Salafism evolved again when it was reincarnated by Al-Afghani (1838-1897), a philosopher from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. This flavour of Salafism was followed by Egypt’s Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and spawned present-day Islamist movements, including the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood and Afghan Mujahidin. 

Here Salafism returned to Islam’s earliest era, the Golden Age of Islamic civilization rather than focusing on the first three generations of Islam, to explore the potential for modern Muslims’ lives. In this school of thought, Salaf and the past are not sources for imitation, but for motivation and guidance.  They aimed for purification of thought and practice as well, but also aimed to apply Salafism to as-of-yet unimagined future possibilities. They began to integrate reason and revelation, prioritizing reason over previous interpretations of al-Sharia when the two conflicted. Abduh is often categorized as Maturidi, but his ideas approach neo-Mutazila-ism.

Al-Afghani's followers respected theology and read philosophy. While Wahhabism had emphasized the Hadiths and defined themselves in opposition to different denominations within the Islamic world, these new Salafists interacted with western modernity. Influenced by eighteenth century enlightenment thinkers, they attempted to bring Islamic thought face to face with the western world. Subsequently, here we find a tendency to extend Islamic doctrines into socio-politico and economic affairs.

Al-Afghani's Salafism is distinguished by its social, political and economic readings of Islam that oppose both local despotism and corrupt Islamic states, and western political and cultural imperialism. Though he admired some aspects of western civilization such as modern science and technology, Al-Afghani's followers modified them to integrate Islamic values. For example, they sought to base Islamic democracy on a kind of parliamentarianism modeled on the Islamic Shura. Some reports claim that al-Afghani was involved in the Afghan government for a brief period of time. As Afghanistan began to modernize, Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), the father of Afghan journalism, was greatly influenced by al-Afghani. The Afghan Mujahidin also claimed him, and said they were following in his footsteps.

Back to the Taliban

After these centuries of evolution, we finally come to the Taliban. We can begin once again by exploring the meaning of the word Talib, the singular form of Taliban. Talib is an Arabic term that means “student,” especially a religious one.  The term recalls the role of religious schools, called madrasses in Pakistan, that have shaped the Taliban.  These schools were offshoots of an Indian school, Deobandi Dar al-Ulum. Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762), the great Sufi and Muslim scholar, was the spiritual father of this traditional school. Dar al-Ulum is located in a small town called Deoband, in the Uttar Pradesh province of India. It is considered the second most important center of Islamic (namely Sunni) learning in the world, after Al-Azhar in Cairo.

The madrassa professed three goals: promoting the central role of religion in personal and social life; freedom from oppression both by colonial masters and homegrown dictatorships; and simplicity and hard work. The school was founded on 30 May 1866. Its first student, Mahmud al-Hassan, later called Shaykh al-Hind or "leader of India," led a resistance movement supported by both Muslims and Hindus. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a Muslim organization based in India, was founded in 1919 by the “Ulema,” who were Islamic scholars of the Madrasa. Mawlana Abdul Kalam Azad, a well known freedom fighter, product of a madrassa education and ally of the Indian National Congress, played an important role in the liberation of India. In 1937, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam split off from Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and made its home in modern-day Pakistan.

Although it is a traditional Islamic school, Jamiat Uleme-e-Hind absorbed some of the features of modern institutions, such as the division of students into classes, attendance registers and written examinations.  The school divided its study of Islamic sciences and schools of thoughts into subject areas: Sharia (law) study based on Imam Abu Hanifa's teachings; the Sunnat (traditions and the Hadith); the Sufi path; and Theology of Maturidi.

Here we see an amalgamation of reason, revelation and intuition (Kashf wa Shuhod). Jamiat Uleme-e-Hind reduced Sufism to “Zuhd,” or asceticism; theosophy to acumen and practical wisdom; and theology to dialecticism. The Deobandi school of thought is thus a far cry from Taliban extremism and the focus on appearances. We also find in its curriculum a sea of inconsistencies as it tries to take the conflict out of inherently contradictory schools of thought. For example, it applies reason to jurisprudence, but not to creeds (as Mutazila and Maturidiya did), and not to socio-politico-economic modern events (as the Salafists who followed al-Afghani did).

This self-contradictory nature of Deobandi is at its most apparent in Afghanistan’s Taliban. The Taliban received Deobandi's teachings second-hand at the schools in Pakistan, far from the original madrassa in India. The main Deobandi school in India has distanced itself from the Taliban and their violent activities in Afghanistan. It has condemned suicide attacks, opposed the destruction of shrines and schools, and has called the former Taliban regime “un-Islamic.”

However, the Pakistan campus has not followed Jama’at Uleme-e-Hind’s lead. Many of the Afghan Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, studied at Deobandi Madrassas in Pakistan, namely the Dar Ulum Haqqania Madrasa in Akora Khattak in Peshawar. These Taliban augmented their studies with texts from Mujahedin teachers and were more strongly influenced by Wahhabism and followers of al-Afghani than Jama’at Ulema-e-Hind. What's more, most members of the Taliban did not complete their studies. We note that the word Talib means "student," not "graduate."

There is an Afghan and Dari proverb that says, “The semi-religious scholar is an infidel and a semi-physician is a killer”.  After 9/11, the Taliban's support for violence has been on display for the whole world to see, but Afghans have fully experienced this violence for the entire period of Taliban governance through the regime's destruction of historical artifacts such as the ancient Buddhas, the mass killing in Takhar, Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan, and most importantly in destroying both the humanist and rational aspects of Islam, as well as any secular face of Afghan culture.

The Taliban, like other sociopolitical movements, is not reducible to Islamic doctrines. The role of western policy in Afghanistan, the weaknesses and collapse of the Mujahedin, the activities of neighbouring countries, the actions of those affiliated with the Soviet state, the mentality of Afghan people, tribalism and racism - all had a hand in shaping the Taliban. Today, all of those factors have proven far more significant than the impact of the diluted traces of Salafist theology on the movement.

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