Aaron Rock-Singer published his second book this past summer, In the Shade of the Sunna: Salafi Piety in the 20th-Century Middle East with the University of California Press as well as a new open-access article, “The Rise of Islamic Society: Social Change, State Power, and Historical Imagination,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History.
An interview about his book, with Faculty Director Steven Brooke:
What is the book about? How would you define “Salafism?”
The book is about the emergence of Salafism as a mass movement over the course of the 20th century. In the book, I argue that Salafis are defined by three key characteristics: a particular approach to Islamic theology preserved by the Hanbali school of jurisprudence b) a commitment to deriving all law from the Quran and the authoritative account of the Prophet Muhammad’s life (known as the Sunna) and c) distinct social practices (with the last of these being the focus of my book)
What spurred you to write this book?
This book emerged out of an article on Salafism and gender segregation that I began as a graduate student working on the rise of the Islamic Revival in 1970s Egypt. When I came across calls to gender segregation in the 1970s, I assumed this position to be a longstanding one among Salafis, but soon discovered that it was not. And, as I got into the study of Salafism more broadly, I realized that there was a strange disjuncture in the academic literature: most scholars of this topic focus on theology and law, yet Salafism’s significance derives from its success as a social movement that has reshaped the goalposts of religiosity for Muslims globally.
Can you describe some of your sources? How did you access them?
I draw on a massive collection — roughly 150,000 pages in total –of Islamic periodicals, Salafi and non-Salafi, from across the Middle East with a particular focus on Egypt. I gathered some of these sources during my own visits to the region, particularly Egypt, while others required the help of colleagues from Medina to Leiden to access. In contrast to other scholars of Salafism, who tend to focus on multi-volume collections that pertain to theology and law, I embraced periodicals as a key source for telling a granular history of Salafism’s emergence as a social movement generally and its focus on distinct bodily practices in particular.
What was the thing that most surprised you during the research and writing process?
I did not go into the project expecting that the bulk of Salafi social practices would emerge from the 1970s on. This ended up being an empirical finding with significant theoretical implications for how we understand Salafism’s interpretive project –often glossed problematically as “literalism” –and opened up a new set of questions for me regarding theology, law and social change.
How does this research help inform your teaching, and vice-versa?
One of the challenges that I pose to myself in any research that I do is whether I can explain why it matters to students and whether they can, in turn, think about the broader theoretical questions of the work in relation to their own life. A focus on embodied social practice has been particularly fun in this regard!
What lessons can scholars of other religions, or other disciplines, take from this study of Salafism?
This is a story about Salafism, but it’s also one of Islam and modernity (and really, of Religion and modernity). There’s a very understandable desire to situate religious movements vis a vis their own history and broadly defined tradition, but it’s also possible to neglect the ways in which such movements are ideologically-linked to counterparts in other religions (and to their secular competitors!)
What’s the next project?
There’s a few projects that I’m currently excited about, one a monograph length project on Islam and politics in Mandate Palestine, as well as an article that I’m working on about Salafi hermeneutics, thinking through how Salafi legal theory is understood and how it relates to actual legal practice. In the long-term, I’m also worked with an old friend and colleague, Simon Fuchs, on a trans-regional history of Islamic movements between the Middle East and South Asia in the 20th-century.