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Conquering Custom in the name of God: The Salafi Expansion of the Boundaries of Worship

September 23, 2020 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

This is a past event. Click here to view the recording and access the audio transcript.

Aaron Rock-Singer is a historian of the modern Middle East, with a research focus on 20th century Islamic movements and states. I use the tools of social and intellectual history to trace the emergence and performance of particular projects of piety and, more broadly, the ways in which men and women employ their bodies to challenge the prescriptive visions of religious elites to regulate daily practice. In my first book, Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival (Cambridge, 2019), I drew on ideologically diverse Islamic magazines from this period to chart the rise of an Islamic Revival in 1970s Egypt within a larger global story of religious contestation and change.

My second book, entitled In the Shade of the Sunna: Salafi Piety in the Twentieth-Century Middle East, is under contract with the University of California Press. This study explores Islam’s fastest growing movement through a transnational lens with a particular emphasis on Egypt. Moving beyond a focus on specific organizations or commitment to the boundaries of particular nation states, it traces the emergence and consolidation of distinctly Salafi social practices between 1926 and present. To do so, it draws on over 150,000 pages of Salafi print media found in traditional archives, used-book markets and contemporary Salafi websites. Based on these sources, it explores the development of particular practices as a lens to understanding Salafism’s internal dynamics of authority, its relationship to Secularism and Islamism, and the unacknowledged reinvention of the Sunna by pious Muslims in the modern period. Threaded throughout the project is an argument that Purist Salafism’s defining practices can only be understood within a global story of the distinctly performative demands of modern visions of gender, communal membership, and piety. Alongside careful analysis of the texts that Salafis hold dear, the project tells a story of how and why precise religious practice becomes a measure of faith and of how the signifying purpose of particular practices to other Muslims and non-Muslims alike comes to exceed and even overshadow their ethical function

The 20th century saw a wave of universalizing ideological claims, most notably in the context of the Cold War.  In tandem, activists of varied ideological allegiances throughout the Global South sought to challenge colonial rule and to define post-colonial independence by articulating alternative models of knowledge and sovereignty alike. In my presentation, I will explore this development through the lens of perhaps the fastest growing Islamic movement today, known as Salafism. While this trend is most prominently seen in Salafi-Jihadi groups today such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, the vast majority of Salafis reject both political participation and revolutionary ambitions.  Instead, I will focus on the development of Egypt’s leading quietist Salafi movement, known as Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya (Proponents of the Prophetic Model). Specifically, I will show how between 1930 and 1980, Egyptian Salafis, in conversation and competition with Islamic thinkers and activists throughout the Middle East, sought to articulate a totalizing vision of society by expanding the boundaries of what was considered worship of God (ʿibāda) and narrowing the space for local customs (ʿāda).  This transformation, in turn, would undergird the necessity of applying a Salafi “approach” (manhaj) to all aspects of life.


September 23, 2020
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm