Lafif Lakhdar: Against the Salafi 'Worship' of Ancestors
In light of recent posts on the problematic issue of theocracy -- and with an eye to the current political events in Tunisia -- there's an interesting article by the Tunisian expatriate reformer Lafif Lakhdar, "Moving From Salafi to Rationalist Education," in The Middle East Review of International Affairs (Volume 9, No. 1, Article 3, March 2005). Lakhdar very cleverly designates Salafi Islam as predicated upon the worship of ancestors, the Salaf (predecessors) having been the first three generations of Muslims, especially Muhammad's companions, those whom current-day Salafi Muslims are enjoined to pattern their lives after:
This worship of ancestors has been strongly present in the collective Islamic sub-conscience, and it prevented the acceptance and comprehension of the sciences, and especially the humanities, as well as the values of modernity. Moreover, the text [-- a salafi religious textbook used in Saudi Arabia --] instructs pupils to reject the right of disagreement. Muslims other than salafis are treated as heresiarchs or deviators; thus enemies. A student therefore becomes ripe for the execution of all sorts of symbolic and bloody violence; he can burn others with fire as Omar allegedly did, and behead those who disagree with him as Khalid beheaded the faqih al-Gaad Ibn Derham (a ruler of Damascus under the Umayads, known for adopting ideas of Mu'tazela, which was a movement proposing the interpretation of faith through rational thought). This shows how education could lead to an incitement for terror.Lakhdar is clever here because he knows that for Salafis, the greatest sin is shirk, i.e., associating with God that which is not God, namely, the sin of idolatry. By making the Salaf, the ancestors, into perfect role models that one may not deviate from, one is, in effect, being idolatrous. Lakhdar doesn't state this explicitly, unless I missed it, but it's implied in the expression "worship of ancestors." The alternative to an idolatrous Salafi Islam -- and Islamism generally -- is a rational approach to Islam:
[A]n educational project aimed at preparing new generations properly must produce citizens equipped for the contemporary age, who think independently of their forefathers and who are good at using logical reasoning instead of leaning on the authority of the text. They should accept, without any complication or feeling of guilt, the rational and human institutions, sciences and values of their age, even those which contradict with their ancestors' heritage and tradition.To accomplish this, Lakhdar suggests a number of reforms: separation of religion and state, comparative study of religions, critical thinking, historical readings of religious texts, acceptance of human rights, and so on. But how does one get there? Lakhdar suggests:
A new reading of Islam has to be adopted in school curricula and religious discourse. It should recognise, as its starting point, that the spiritual message of Prophet Muhammad was confined to preaching: "But if they turn their backs, verily unto thee belongeth preaching only" (Surat 3). That the Prophet's message was restricted to preaching is shown in 13 verses, all of which were in the Koranic chapters revealed at Medina. The concept was expressed in different ways in many verses such as: "Wherefore warn the people; for thou art a warner only" (Surat 88). Thus the spiritual message of the Prophet of Islam was limited to reminding. As for domination or governance, it is the mission of earthly rulers. Verses of spiritual Islam, based upon preaching and reminding, converge with the Biblical verse which was the foundation of separating the temporal and the spiritual in Christianity: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's." But after migrating to Medina, Muhammad became a prophet, an army leader, and a chief of a core of a confederation he called Umma (nation), a Hebrew word meaning tribe. Consequently, Muhammad's political and military practices as well as the Koranic verses which codify them are not trans-historical but temporal and limited to the era which produced them. Verses on jihad, war, physical punishment and earthly dealings were temporal and are no longer consistent with Muslims' and non-Muslims' needs and interests or with present-day requirements and values.This sounds fine . . . so long as the "needs and interests or . . . present-day requirements and values" call for a peaceful Islam, but what if Islam in the world today is comparable to Muhammad in Medina? What is to prevent an Islamist from arguing that Islam today has emigrated to the modern world and therefore must -- like Muhammad in emigrating from Mecca to Medina -- strive to achieve temporal power and remake modernity in the image of Islam?
Salafis will undoubtedly argue that this is the case, i.e., that Islam's aim is not only spiritual but also temporal, and how does one prove them wrong?