Clarifying Islamic Terms

Carol Iannone

In this post from First Things, Mark Movsesian offers an explanation for the terrible destruction of the centuries old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the fundamentalist Muslim group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq. This was reported in the media last week and a video of the explosion can be seen online. The action may seem mystifying, since Jonah, an Old Testament figure, is also revered in Islam and even mentioned in the Koran. Movsesian argues that the destruction of the tomb was aimed not at Christians, as some have said (because of Jonah as a prototype of Jesus), nor at the Bible generally, but mainly at Muslims—Muslims deemed by ISIS to be insufficiently pure and devout, who indulge in a form of idolatry when they venerate the graves and shrines of prophets and holy men, such as the Tomb of Jonah.

Movsesian is likely right about that, especially since the tomb was housed in a mosque, but, according to an article by Center for Islamic Pluralism director Stephen Schwartz that appeared in Academic Questions’ special issue on Islam (“The Terrorist War against Islam: Clarifying Academic Confusions,” Spring 2011), Movsesian may be incorrect in stating that ISIS belongs to the Salafi branch of Islam. Rather it should be associated with another Islamic movement that we once heard much of, although, strangely, no more—Wahhabism.

While it is true, as Movsesian writes, that Salafism is “a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims—the salaf—who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after,” followers of this movement, according to Schwartz, do not oppose the veneration of the graves and shrines connected with the prophets, such as the Tomb of Jonah, at least not to the point of destroying them. Furthermore, Salafism, which began in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, does not sanction the right to decide who is or is not sufficiently Islamic. Those beliefs derive from Wahhabism, a severely restrictive version of Islam that started in the eighteenth century and is practiced in Saudi Arabia today. (In fact, it became part of the Saud family’s conquest of Arabia, which took place over many decades and was abetted by T.E. Lawrence and the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.) 

According to Schwartz, the Wahhabists have usurped the Salafist label as a kind of camouflage, because Wahhabism is despised by many Muslims who are familiar with its harsh destructiveness, while Salafism is revered. Schwartz’s view may not meet with agreement everywhere, but it deserves to be part of the debate. 

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