I had mounting concerns when I landed in the land of the Nile in 1999. I had grasped, towards the end of my research at the Centre for West Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the opportunity to be trained in religion, history, culture and politics at Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s first universities.
Despite its acclaimed civilisational legacies, Egypt is where extremist ideologues such as Sayyed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda were born and brought up. As my studies included tracing the trajectory of extremism, I was supposed to interview the leaders of these organisations. After talks with the Brotherhood leaders, I realised that the organisation, touted as a terror behemoth, had transformed itself into a social democratic movement. I saw a pragmatic organisation that had forsaken much of its dogmatism.
At the same time, I had misgivings about the salafis there, the successors of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, pioneers of modern Muslim reformation. I suspected the salafis had come to represent a closed and rigorous pattern of faith. I shared my misgivings with Muhammad Salim Al-Awa, general secretary of a global council for Muslims scholars. He said in anguish that, for years, the salafis had been receding to a literal Islam, with no scope for the context or spirit of the faith.
It is not a crisis of salafis alone. The whole world will have to bear the brunt of their literalism. Movements ranging from Taliban to Al Qaeda, and now to Islamic State, are all born in the selfsame morass of letter-worshipping salafism.
The natural outcome of this text fetishism, with no respect for the text’s context, could be seen in the salafism of Kerala. The youth who disappeared from Malabar quite mysteriously are the product of misguided salafis who have long forsaken the stream of salafism advanced by reformer Vakkom Abdul Khader Moulavi.
A majority of modern salafis believe in a utopian, puritan Islam and rely on online sources for guidance. Intoxicated with puritan Islam, their faith is fast turning into a dire psychological disorder. They are not motivated by any mainstream religious movement, but by a network of kindred, misguided youngsters. Several promising students of medicine and engineering have reportedly terminated their education, citing the lack of an Islamic ambience for their studies.
In the skewed belief of these youth, Darul Islam is where all the migrations should end—an ideal Islamic state where there is no blasphemy or polytheism, where there is no ambience or educational system unfit for their faith, and where there is neither music nor movies. Such a state is ideologically buttressed by seminaries like Darul Hadith al Khairiyyah, established by Sheikh Muqbil Ibn Hadi in Dammaj in Yemen. The trend is now widely described as Dammaj salafism, whose several variants are spread by the salafi fringe groups the world over.
The setting up of a village of goatherds at Athikkad in Nilambur in Kerala is an example of ideologically ill-motivated salafis trying to recreate the pastoral communal life of the Prophet era. The spate of migrations to the village, which has been widely reported, is undertaken by likeminded, spiritually deranged renegades.
Ashraf A. Kadakkal teaches Islamic history at the University of Kerala.