Who gets to interpret scripture? Is God’s speech clear enough for everyone to understand, or does interpreting God’s speech require expertise? Are Muslims required to understand their religion through traditional scholarly institutions or approach scripture directly? These questions have been at the center of one of the most contentious and pervasive debates in Islam in the last two centuries, one that I address in my forthcoming book Salafism and Traditionalism: Scholarly Authority in Modern Islam.
Traditionalism is an institutional understanding of Islam that developed over centuries. Traditionalists believe that one must follow an interpretation of Islam that adheres to the methodologies found in the four Islamic legal schools. On the other hand, Salafis base their religious authority upon neither school of law nor teacher, but only on scripture as it was understood by the first three generations of Muslims. Salafis view themselves as a group that is purifying the syncretic practices that crept into the faith over the many centuries. They blame tradition, the use of weak and fabricated narrations about the Prophet, and blind adherence to legal schools as the reasons for the decline of Islamic civilization. They believe that all Islamic teachings must be based on authentic scripture. They do not present their understanding of Islam as belonging to a particular methodology of a legal school, but rather as a pure and untainted understanding of God’s words.
At the forefront of the Salafi movement was a self-taught scholar name Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī’s (d. 1999). Albānī was the most influential Salafi of the 20th century. He is a towering figure in Salafi circles and many Salafis view him as the representative of authentic Islam. Despite being self-taught, Albānī had an encyclopedic knowledge of Prophetic legal traditions (ḥadīth). He wanted to fix what Traditionalists got wrong. Albānī spent his life refuting and debating Traditionalists scholars. He portrayed Traditionalists as blind followers of scholarly tradition. He presented his followers with a version of Islam that was based only on authentic scripture. His strong conviction and excellent debate skills attracted many young Muslims to Salafism. The Salafi movement eventually grew to compete in size and influence with some of the Muslim world’s largest movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Traditionalism was nevertheless a popular method of understanding Islam for centuries. Traditionalists were unnerved by Albānī’s approach because it collapsed any division between the scholarly class and those with no religious training. If everyone is to approached scripture directly then scholars are no longer the gatekeepers to “authentic” Islamic knowledge. They blamed Albānī for encouraging untrained Muslims to interpret scripture for themselves which often resulted in unorthodox or decontextualized interpretations of religion. He was so influential that Traditionalist scholars from Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Pakistan, and Egypt all felt the need to refute Albānī. This debate occupied many scholars in the mid to late 1900s.
The different approaches between Salafis and Traditionalists is not limited to scholars but is also a sensitive topic to many lay Muslims around the world. The question of how Muslims are to approach scripture, whether it is through scholarly institutions or direct interpretation of texts, is one that causes heated debates even among common Muslims. The tensions between these two groups typify a particular religious phenomenon in contemporary Islam and the larger methodological problems of textual interpretation. My book examines these debates that have wider ramifications on how Muslims, who make up almost a quarter of humanity, understand their faith.