Skip to main content

ALMA Reviews Blog: ‘Withdrawn’/‘Retreatist’ Salafism: A Radically ‘Different’ Type – the case of Tunisia

Forthcoming working paper: ‘Withdrawn’/‘Retreatist’ Salafism: A Radically ‘Different’ Type – the case of Tunisia. (“Le Salafisme ‘retraitiste’ : Un type radicalement « autre » Étude de cas en Tunisie”)

By Dr Soufiane Jaballah, Lecturer in Sociology, Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences, University of Sfax, Tunisia

Salafism is one of the most influential contemporary Islamic ideologies (Bano 2021, p. 3). It can be described as a scripturalist, literalist, fundamentalist, transnational Sunni Islamic movement centred on an orthodox theology (or ‘aqīda) stressing a return to the authentic beliefs and practices of the first three generations of Muslims – al-Salaf al-Sāliḥ (“pious ancestors”) – and a particular conception of tawhīd, or God’s oneness and thus complete submission to God. A growing scholarship now analyses the basic tenets of Salafi doctrine, Salafism’s popular appeal, its relationship with politics and violence, and its nature as both a transnational and local phenomenon.

Dr Soufiane Jaballah’s thought-provoking work, based on his doctoral research, directly engages with the question of Salafism’s relationship to politics. This link between Salafism – a conservative theological movement – and party politics, political organisation and political activism is one of its “most puzzling, slippery and fascinating aspects” (Meijer 2009, p. 17). Can Muslims adhere to the doctrine of tawhīd and still submit to political power, including that emanating from a ruler or political system that does not impose and/or follow Islamic law (shari‘ah)? In other words, should Muslims revolt against the ruler or criticise the regime, or focus instead on proselytisation (da‘wah) and promoting religious education (tarbīyya)?

Wiktorowicz (2006) described the diversity of Salafi positions towards politics through a taxonomy that remains very influential in scholarly attitudes towards Salafism. As Jaballah observes, so-called “quietist” Salafis, ostensibly the focus of Jaballah’s research in Tunisia, view politics as a diversion that threatens to degrade the purity of Islam. Constituting in many ways the ideal-type of and largest cohort within Salafism, “quietists” mainly focus on propagating the Salafi creed and fighting deviant practices through daʿwah (proselytising), religious education and cleansing Islam of “impurities” (al-Tarbīyya wa-l-Taṣfīyya). Further, they typically speak out in support of respecting incumbent regimes (wālī al-Amr). By contrast, “politico” Salafis speak out on political issues and openly criticise Muslim rulers for their un-Islamic behaviour. Finally, “jihadi” or “revolutionary” Salafis argue that the current context calls for revolutionary violence. 
Scholarship on Salafism’s link to politics has tended to focus on the emergence of Salafi political parties and political activism, especially since 2011/12 following the emergence of Salafi politicians and political parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In doing so, however, academic inquiry into the nature of Salafi links to politics tends to overlook “quietist” Salafis – a tendency that Jaballah’s research on Tunisia helps to correct. Furthermore, in Tunisia, “jihadi” or “revolutionary” Salafis came to dominate the Tunisian public scene following the 2011 revolution (Cavatorta 2015) that unseated the long-time autocratic President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Consequently, there has been little scholarly work on “quietist” Salafism in Tunisia (cf. Merone, Blanc and Sigillò (2021) and Blanc (2021)). Drawing on neighbourhood-level ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with ostensible “quietist” Salafis in the Mourouj 1 district of Greater Tunis between 2017 and 2020, Jaballah’s work shows that Tunisia can be a rich and instructive context to nuance scholarly taxonomies of Salafi activism and to advance our understanding of trajectories among contemporary Salafis who claim that they “don’t do politics”. 
Expanding on work by Georges Balandier and Emile Durkheim, Jaballah draws our attention to the specific features of his Salafi interlocutors in Tunis. In rebuking “politics”, these Salafi actors are clearly not “politico” Salafis who advocate participation in formal politics. In disavowing all forms of violence, neither are they “jihadi” or “revolutionary” Salafis who engage in revolutionary upheaval. Accordingly, Jaballah’s Salafi participants might appear to resemble the third sub-type of Salafis – “quietists” – given their rejection of politics and violence. Jaballah disagrees, however: these Salafis in Tunis are also not “quietists”. After all, he contends, “quietists” are focused on activities of religious proselytisation (da‘wah) and education directed at local communities and wider society. Yet these Salafis in Tunis, he maintains, in fact criticise and withdraw not simply from politics and violence, but in fact from all forms of religious proselytisation and “mobilisation, collective action or organisation” (p. 3). Indeed, they allege that such practices are irreconcilable with “true Islam” (p. 2), an Islam that they understand to be focused simply on (Salafi) individuals correcting their own individual religious beliefs and rituals. Consequently, Jaballah concludes, they “do not seek to change... society”. Rather, their overriding goal is instead “to change their [own] habits, [and] to educate themselves in [matters of] religion according to the Salafi prism” (p. 3). 
Jaballah’s central argument here, then, is that his Salafi participants do not fit into existing categories of Salafism. The received three-part Salafi taxonomy within academic scholarship – whereby all Salafis are thought to fall within the categories of either “quietist”, “politico” or “jihadi”/”revolutionary” – cannot account for the specific characteristics of these Salafis in Tunis. Instead, he proposes that a new, fourth, category of Salafism – “retraitiste”, or “retreatist” and “withdrawn” – is required to capture their withdrawal even from religious proselytisation and education vis-à-vis society. Whilst they follow “quietists” in rejecting politics, “quietist” Salafis, he maintains, are, at their core, a proselytising current centred on da‘wah. Yet “retraitiste” Salafis do not engage in proselytising, properly understood, Jaballah contends; “we cannot speak, theoretically and practically, of proselytism without the existence of a form of organization, of mobilization, and of a clear and coherent strategy of preaching” (p. 3). For Jaballah, unlike “quietists”, “retraitiste” Salafis do not “intentionally seek out individuals to recruit” (ibid.) unless these individuals have shown an interest in conversion to Salafi Islam. Thus the “retraitistes” reject any form of mobilisation and group organisation in the service of expanding their membership base, on the grounds that this “is in dissonance with the[ir] doctrine” (p. 3).
At times, Jaballah’s work would have benefitted from more clarity on whether and, if so, to what extent this purported “retraitiste” Salafi opposition to “all forms of proselytization” (da‘wah) constitutes Jaballah’s own analytical conclusions or whether it in fact (also) represents how his research participants themselves self-categorised. Additionally, I would have been interested in understanding how exactly these Salafis in Tunisia are connected to a broader transnational Salafi network centred on the global Salafi authority figure of the Saudi scholar Rabi‘ al-Madkhali. For instance, how were al-Madkhali’s ideas and judgements drawn upon, invoked and even rethought in the context of these specific Salafi circles embedded in the contemporary politics and specific history of contemporary Tunisia?
Additionally, his arguments hang to some extent on a particular conception of daw‘ah, one in which meaningful (Salafi) proselytisation must always involve “organisation, mobilisation, and a clear and coherent strategy of preaching” (p. 3). Yet other scholars working on Salafism clearly understand proselytisation in a less restrictive sense. Here it encompasses everyday reform-oriented practices of “invitation” by Salafi individuals who reject the organisational directives and structure (that Jaballah considers central to da‘wah) on the grounds that group institutionalisation and thus the hierarchy and authority of intra-group leaders(hip) negates the absolute dominion of God. After all, proselytisation can also be directed by the individual (Salafi) on a case-by-case basis vis-à-vis other individuals – family, friends, neighbours – in ways that perhaps need not require group organisation and in ways that may disbar interactions with “reluctant” convertees and the danger to moral purity that this is thought to include.  
Jaballah’s is a theoretically ambitious and empirically rich contribution, one that is a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on Salafism in the Southwest Asian and North African region, and in Tunisia in particular. The careful study of “quietist” Salafi trends helps to expand scholarly work that still too often disregards “quietist” inclinations and that typically focuses instead on Salafi-jihadi violence and Salafi political actors, particularly since the 2011/12 “Arab revolts”. Jaballah’s work invites important theoretical reflections on the central dilemma of contemporary Salafi actors – how to discharge their duty to Islamise society (in a Salafi sense) and simultaneously comply with prohibitions that forestall activism and group organisation that might endanger their own religious purity. 


Reviewed by: Guy Eyre

Additional works cited:

Bano, Masooda. 2021. Salafi Social and Political Movements: National and Transnational Contexts. Edinburgh University Press.

Blanc, Théo. 2021. “Opportunity, Ideology, and Salafi Pathways of Political Activism in Tunisia.” Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, 1–20.

Cavatorta, Francesco. n.d. “The Rise and Fall of Uncivil Society? Salafism in Tunisia After the Fall of Ben Ali.” Middle East Institute.

Jaballah, Soufiane. Forthcoming. “Le Salafisme ‘retraitiste’ : Un type radicalement « autre » Étude de cas en Tunisie.”

Meijer, Roel. 2009. Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement. Oxford University Press

Merone, Fabio, Théo Blanc, and Ester Sigillò. 2021. “The Evolution of Tunisian Salafism after the Revolution: From La Maddhabiyya to Salafi-Malikism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 53 (3): 455–70.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan. 2006. “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29 (3): 207–39.
Published works by Jaballah: Jaballah, Soufiane, Réflexions socio-anthropologiques sur le devenir salafiste en Tunis, Tunis, Éditions Mots Passants, 2022.


To all contributions of the ALMA Reviews Blog

Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe

News Type:
General News