The paradox: is postmodernism to blame for the rise of Salafism?5 min read
Postmodernism, as a philosophical, socio-political and cultural movement, emerged in the 1970s as a critique of, and counter to, the Modernist Universalism that had remained dominant in Western societies since the 19th century.
Having been developed by a number of different thinkers, including Michel Foucault, Michael Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida, postmodernism comprises a diverse range of perspectives and approaches.
As a consequence of its heterogeneity, postmodernism, as a concept, is hard to define. However, it can be said to encompass two main critiques of modernism.
- First, while modernism rests on the idea that there exists a universal, absolute truth, postmodernism postulates that all knowledge is relative.[i] On this basis, postmodernism is sceptical of all political or religious authority that lays claim to the absolute truth.[ii]
- Second, and related to the first critique, while modernism holds that Western Enlightenment rationality is the only way of achieving “modernity”, postmodernism maintains that the path to progress can be heterogeneous and multidirectional.[iii]
In the last four decades, postmodernism has become a central component of both Western culture and intellectual thought, encouraging greater acceptance for the voices and the knowledge of the non-Western “other”. Interestingly, the growing influence of postmodernism has been accompanied by the rise of another movement that rejects the hegemony of Western conceptions of what can be considered “modern” social norms and constructs. This movement is none other than Salafism, which, in its present form, is a highly conservative branch within Sunni Islam that calls for a literalist reading of the Qur’an and Hadith and for the “purification” of Islam from all kinds of Western influence.
Salafism, however, is born from a Saudi political context that responds to Western hegemony, and can hence not be detached from this discussion. It is also far less “open-minded” than typical postmodern movements: hence we call this phenomena – this unintended causal link between postmodernism and Salafism – a “paradox”.
Over the years, Salafism has inspired the establishment of Salafi-jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh. Given that postmodernism and Salafism gained prominence during similar time periods, it is worth looking at how both these movements are, at once, both aligned and in tension with one-another.
For both postmodernists and Salafis alike, the “modern” is highly subjective. Postmodernism encourages people to practice modernity in a non-linear way, and accordingly, people in the postmodernist world are more likely to live their everyday lives according to their own tastes and preferences, rather than following rigid social constructs such as those embodied in modernism.
Likewise, Salafis believe that Islam, in what it perceives as its “purest form”, requires that pre-modern Islamic rituals be carried into the modern day, and that the imposition of Western ideas of progress on Islamic societies (rather than the passage of time in and of itself) obstructed the practice of a purer and more ideal form of Islam. In this sense, Salafis do not differentiate between the pre-modern and the modern; according to them, the pre-modern should remain embedded in the modern.
On this basis, one can perhaps argue that postmodernism, by encouraging the deconstruction of the “modern” in the second half of the 20th century, may in fact have facilitated the rise of Salafism, albeit unintentionally.
At the same time, however, it is also important to understand how, despite being similar in this way, postmodernism and Salafism also diverge in one major respect. As mentioned earlier, postmodernism is founded on the idea that all knowledge is socially constructed and that absolute truth cannot and does not exist. In contrast, Salafis believe that the Qur’an and Hadith should be interpreted literally, and are totally opposed to any form of bid’ah (innovation) in the interpretation of Islamic texts.
Henceforth, Salafis, by virtue of their belief in an absolute truth, are in fact more similar to modernists and more different from postmodernists.[iv]
This realisation is confusing given Islam’s direct link to Platonic philosophy which holds that an absolute, metaphysical truth exists but can never be fully validated due to the fallibility of human perception. Finally, unlike postmodernism which is sceptical of all religious doctrines, Salafism is sceptical of all but one religious doctrine.
Thus, one may wonder why this discussion of Salafism in relation to the modern and the postmodern is relevant. As we know, Muslims today face considerable marginalisation in many Western societies. To a great extent, this marginalisation has resulted from confusion in the Western world about whether Salafism, which is perceived as presenting an existential threat to Western values, really represents Islam in its purest form.
This confusion, in itself, represents the contradictions within postmodernism. On the one hand, postmodernism is critical of the hegemonic nature of universal modernism, therefore hypothetically creating greater space and legitimacy for Salafism.[v] On the other hand, postmodernism has arguably hegemonised “modern” Western values, and its dislike for the concept of “absolute truth” simultaneously positions it in opposition to literalist ideologies like Salafism.
In a world where Salafism is often, out of ignorance, believed to reflect “real” Islamic values, it can be argued that the strange position that Salafism holds in relation to postmodernism contributes to the estrangement of Muslims, mainly because these Islamic values are considered incompatible with postmodern values.
This relationship arguably illustrates that, on an intellectual level, postmodernism, which frames itself as being more tolerant than modernism, could benefit from a greater degree of self-reflection to its unintended consequences.
[i] Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Postmodernity and the Emergence of Islamist Movements,” International Review of Social History 42, no. 01 (1997): 87.
[iv] M. Hazim Shah Ibn Abdul Murad, “Islam and Contemporary Western Thought: The Case of Islam and Postmodernism”, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 13, no. 2 (1996): 251.
[v] Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Postmodernity and the Emergence of Islamist Movements”, 87.