Aaron Rock-SingerMar 17, 2023
In the Shade of the Sunna
Salafi Piety in the Twentieth-Century Middle East
University of California Press 2022
Who are the Salafis, and what are the roots of Salafism? What does it even mean to be Salafi? Why is Salafism concerned with ethics of visibility and bodily regulation? Why, when, and how did Salafism become significant?
In his latest book, In the Shade of the Sunnah: Salafi Piety in the 20th Century Middle East (University of California Press, 2022), Aaron Rock-Singer explores these questions and many more about Salafism. Rock-Singer situates Salafism as a movement whose core logic is shaped by questions that emerge distinctly during modernity even though the movement derives its claims to legitimacy from claims to continuity with early Islamic history. In other words, Salafism is a distinctly modern project that is not rooted in the Islamic legal, textual, or ethical tradition, given that many Salafi practices aren’t rooted in Islamic texts. As a result, Salafis finds themselves in a challenging textual position when seeking religious, textual justification for some practices, such as gender segregation or not praying in shoes. How, then, does Salafism legitimate and ground itself? How is their claim to authenticity premised on continuity with the Islamic seventh century?
To answer these questions, Rock-Singer takes a few specific issues, such as gender segregation, beards, the length of the robe or pants, as potent ideological sites that are connected in significant ways to Salafism’s project to regulate social space. These issues were not applied in the early 20th century or prior but became significant in the mid to late 20th century in a specific social and political context. So, for instance, the beard matters not just because it’s an attempt to emulate the Prophet Muhammad but because it’s a visual way of identifying the commitment to emulating Muhammad, to make clear who a Salafi is.
In our discussion today, Aaron talks about the origins of this book, its major contributions and findings, the roots of Salafism, its ideas of worship and tawhid (i.e., oneness of God), Salafism’s textual and political challenges, the significance of the regulation of social space, questions of authenticity and continuity, and the issues of beards, praying in shoes, gender segregation, and the length of one’s robe according to Salafi practice.
Shehnaz Haqqani is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Mercer University. She earned her PhD in Islamic Studies with a focus on gender from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Her dissertation research explored questions of change and tradition, specifically in the context of gender and sexuality, in Islam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.