Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a doctoral candidate at the Islamic and Middle East Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh and senior analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research
Since the twin tower bombings of 2001, media narratives on terrorism often portrayed Islam as the chief propagator of violence across the world. While much of this narrative evolved over the years, new narratives began to identify Salafism within Islam as the real root cause of terrorism. While there exists some reasoning to this view, nuanced discussions are often eschewed in favor of exaggerated hypotheses and headlines. This trend slowly permeated to other parts of the world as well with many different news outlets branding Salafism as the new threat to Islam in India. This article therefore challenges this assumption by presenting a more accurate picture of institutional stances on violence, terrorism, and jihad, by Salafist organizations in India.
Salafism Globally and in India
Salafism refers to the form of Islam that emphasizes the importance of reverting to the understanding of religion espoused by the first three generations of Islam — the Salaf us Saalih (the pious predecessors). While different types of Salafists exist with varying political preferences and jurisprudential understandings, a few common narratives stand out.
First, Salafists often eschew any visits to the graves of prophets and religious men as a form of blasphemy. Second, they also abhor Sufi practices, often blaming them for corrupting Islam in various countries. Third, Salafists uphold the superiority of the Quran and the Sunnah (actions and statements of the prophet), over the four established schools of law for jurisprudential proofs. Thus, they are often called Ghair Muqallideen (those who don’t follow the school of laws blindly) or La Mazhabiya (those who don’t follow one of the four madhabs). Stemming from this, they often have slight differences in prayers and other rituals of Islam, although, at times, it also coincides with some schools of law. 
Due to their revolutionary approach to Islamic practices and their zeal to correct wrong practices, Salafists often end up opposing other Muslim groups leading to antagonism across the world. One of the most famous Salafist figures is Ibn Abdul Wahhab, an eighteenth-century religious figure who, along with Mohammed Ibn Saud, conquered large parts of Saudi Arabia and attempted to reform Islamic practices in the Arabian Peninsula. His brand of Islam known as Wahhabism — similar to but not the same as Salafism — drew intense criticism across much of the Muslim world for his pivotal role in destroying graves of religious individuals (which he claimed became shrines of worship) Salafists are also known to be far more exclusivist, often preferring to disavow other Muslims if they feel they are engaging in blasphemous activities. 
In recent times, they became infamous in media narratives due to the 9/11 attacks and the rise of jihadist groups. Al Qaeda, with its habit of declaring Muslim rulers as apostates, derived many of their rulings from scholars associated with Salafism such as Ibn Taymiya, a thirteenth-century reformer, and Ibn Wahhab.
These narratives also slowly cropped up in India. India is home to an estimated 20 million Salafists (out of a total of 180 million Muslims) with various organizations cropping up in the South and the North. In the North, its main branch is the Jamiat Ahle Hadeeth Hind which traces its roots back to the eighteenth-century reformer, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi. The organization split into different branches with factions spilling over to Pakistan and Bangladesh. Its main goal was to focus on the Quran and the Hadeeth as sources of jurisprudence and its followers often tried to combat what they termed as “erroneous” beliefs about Islam such as visiting graves of saints, celebrating the prophet’s birthday and other Sufi practices. 
In the state of Kerala in the South, another reformist movement also emerged in the early twentieth century similar to (and influenced by) the reformist movement started by Rashid Rida in the Middle East. Its main goal was to provide education to all Muslims — especially women —and also revert back to the understanding of Islam espoused by the first three generations of Muslims.
While the origin of both groups was different, their trajectories coincided in the late 1970’s due to the prevalence of Saudi funding across the world to combat the Iranian narrative of ‘revolution’. During this time, Salafist organizations began to spread far more, setting up more mosques and educational institutions. Their literature became more confrontational as well, often accusing other Muslims in India of blasphemy, probably because they now had the financial backing to go up against a numerically larger group of people.
Salafist Narratives on Terrorism
With the rise of both Al Qaeda and, later on, the Islamic State, the spotlight turned onto counterterrorism issues and ideological narratives globally and in India since 2014. Special attention has been given to Salafism in India with various media commentators warning about the dangers of Salafism — mostly characterizing it as new and Saudi funded. However, most of these commentaries often fail to capture the full nuance of Salafism in the nation. Moreover, the fact that while some Muslims who joined the Islamic State in India were from Salafist backgrounds, many others were not and were radicalized online as opposed to via local Salafist masjids/madrassas.
The fact that the main Salafist organizations (the JAH and KNM) were not involved in radicalizing many Muslims was not surprising. This is because various scholars within the organization have spoken up against terrorism, violence, and armed Jihad. An analysis of close to 20 different videos in three different videos demonstrated several views on terrorism which broadly aligned with one another.
For instance, Imam Asghar Ali Mahdi Salafi, the head of the MJAH in India, proclaimed that Islam was a religion of peace and terrorist groups often brainwashed youth. However, beyond this simple rebuttal, other Ahle Hadeeth scholars went into more detailed refutations. For example, Bangalore-based scholar, Abdul Haseeb Madani, spoke in length about terrorism — specifically ISIS — and provided various yardsticks to judge an organization after which he concluded that groups like the Islamic State were from the ranks of the Khawarij (historically extreme Muslims who even disputed with the prophet Mohammed). Such views were also reflected by prominent Ahle Hadeeth scholars such as Faseehudin Hyderabaid, Abu Zaid Zameer, and Wasiullah Abbasi (a Saudi-based Indian Salafist who once lectured Lashkar e-Taiba’s head, Hafiz Saeed, against conducting violence).
Such opinions were also reflected in Malayalam language speeches by Salafists. For example, Abdullah Koya Madani, the head of the KNM, mentioned that anyone suspected of extremism in their organization was first reprimanded, then counselled and eventually expelled if they continued to harbor similar views. Other scholars who spoke on this topic belonged to splinter groups of the KNM, such as the Wisdom Global Islamic Mission which organized a four-hour workshop on refuting Islamic State ideology. Others, such as Zakariya Swalahi and Abdur Rauf Madani (prominent Salafist scholars in Kerala), have gone on record to condemn the group as Khawarij, among others. Even the South Karnataka Salafi Movement (SKSM) — a subsidiary branch of the group in the neighboring state of Karnataka — released videos of non-Muslim speakers condemning groups like the Islamic State. This is in addition to various campaigns launched by these Salafist groups that work on community-level counternarratives against terrorism.
While it is not possible to go into the full details of the speeches, a few common narratives stand out. Firstly, while largely sticking to a similar theme regarding terrorism and violence, there were subtle nuances in the discourse depending on who spoke about it. For instance, due to the intense scrutiny brought down on Muslims in states like Kerala and Karnataka (specifically its capital Bangalore), scholars from these places were slightly more defensive in their outlook and even spoke about the need for Muslims to serve their own communities rather than go abroad. This was also evident during my own discussions with religious scholars and activists bases in parts of India who often scoffed at the idea of youngsters disregarding local problems to ‘solve problems’ in foreign countries where they were unable to speak the language or know the context.
Second, it was also interesting to see the sources of the justifications. In most speeches, scholars largely referred to the Quran and Sunnah (practices and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), whereas some others relied on Saudi scholars’ fatwas. One scholar in particular, Abdul Basheer Madani, narrated at least ten different fatwas from scholars in Saudi Arabia who derided violent actions and offensive jihad, bringing to the fore the importance of Saudi influence in trying to provide counternarratives to radical terrorist groups. In some other places, the speeches even referred to non-Muslim activists for credibility, demonstrating their flexibility to work outside of the religion.
Third, the justifications of their stances were numerous in nature. While many scholars out and out rejected violence as a part of Quranic directives, others adopted a strategic outlook arguing that it was counterproductive to engage in violence. Yet, others asserted that such actions could not be undertaken without the permission of valid rulers, illustrating the importance of process in taking such decisions. Others tried to project themselves as nationalist, rendering jihad in foreign conflicts irrelevant to Indian interests.
Fourth, apart from denouncing the terrorist groups itself, Salafists in India had a few other grouses in common with each other (regardless of the language). The first was with the media. This discourse evolved over the years. While some of the speeches of Salafists in the 2000’s often tried to redefine what terrorism was, and how the media often jumped to portray Muslims as terrorists, speeches from the mid 2010’s incorporated new complaints mainly to do with how the media never reported on the various rebuttals provided by Muslims (and Salafists) against terrorist groups.
At the same time, Salafist speeches also blamed their grievances on both the Western world and Israel. The fact that Israel was not targeted by the Islamic State over the last few years was often cited as proof of some Israeli involvement in the creation of the IS. Moreover, some speakers outright condemned Western nations for financing and arming terrorist groups (sometimes bordering on conspiracies) across the Middle East. Such views are reflected amongst many Indian Muslims who often debate whether the Islamic State was real or just an Israeli creation.
Understanding the Reasons for Salafist Opposition to Violence
Regardless of the truth of some of the claims, there are several reasons as to why Salafists generally opine against violence in India. The more obvious reason has to do with the fact that they are a minority within an already beleaguered minority. Unlike Muslims in other nations, adopting any position that is facilitative to violence will invite immense blowback from government authorities. This is especially important since Muslims are (often wrongly) overrepresented in prisons and cases related to terrorism and national security.
However, this is not the only reason. Indeed, it is also important to look through Salafist history to note that many of these organizations gave significant importance to the idea of India and nationalism. This was reflected in one faction of the Ahle Hadeeth movement which, for example, argued against the idea of a nation for Muslims only (Pakistan) in the 1940’s before the partition. Moreover, Salafists often like to claim that figures such as Abul Kalam Azad — a freedom fighter and the first president of the political party Indian National Congress (INC) — as their own. Azad is particularly important due to his conceptualization of Muslim loyalty to India right after independence. Moreover, the KNM in Kerala is also deeply entrenched in local politics, often contributing leaders to the state party, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which often joins hands with the Indian National Congress as a coalition to take on the ruling party of Kerala. Given the historical stances, the importance attached to freedom fighters and the invested position of Salafists in states such as Kerala, their anti-terrorism stance would generally make sense.
Simultaneously, readers should also note that Salafists often don’t antagonize non-Muslims as much as they do Muslims. It is more common to see Ahle Hadeeth platforms hosting speakers from Hindu groups such as the Arya Samaj rather than from Barelvi or Deobandi organizations. Many speeches and debates uploaded on the internet and hashed out in scholarly literature in the pre-internet decades involve Muslims from other sects rather than non-Muslims. Consequently, while mainstream media does end up typecasting Salafists, it is also quite common to see non-Salafists such as Barelvis, and other Muslims, castigating Salafists as extremists/terrorists. Part of the reasons stem from the Salafists’ abilities to challenge traditional beliefs held by these groups and part of it is rooted in their exclusionary policies.
Media houses and Muslims organizations within India often hold Salafists responsible for spreading extremism and terrorism across the nation. While some of their claims are due to the exclusivist behavior of Salafists, it is important to realize that not all terrorists joining groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda belong to official Salafist organizations. As this paper has shown, on an institutional level, Salafists have spoken out against terrorism coherently and frequently. Whether this is also advocated on a private level remains to be seen, however, what is important to realize is that anybody inclined to extremist ideas will not find support among Indian Salafists speeches online, especially if they belong to the large corpus of Indians who speak regional languages as opposed to just English or Arabic.
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