“Each muslim is a bit of a salafist,” dixit Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam. He refers to himself as a salafist. During an interview on 25 December with Tijs van den Brink on the programme ‘Dit is de dag’, Aboutaleb explained that strictly speaking ‘salaf’ means pastor, and that a salafist is someone who eagerly wants to be like his pastor.
In Islam a salafist is someone who aims to live – often in detail – following the example of Mohammed. According to Aboutaleb there are also christians trying to live like Jesus, meaning that Christianity has its own salafists. This way Aboutaleb not only turns salafism into something that we can all understand, but also something that seems harmless: salafists are no different from pious christians.
The question not asked by Van den Brink is whether there is a difference in following Mohammed or Jesus. Apparently he unquestioningly takes it that the differences between Jesus and Mohammed are irrelevant. What Jesus is to christians, is Mohammed to muslims. I wonder if this is true. If I start from the definition given by Aboutaleb, and accept for now that christians can also be salafists, does it matter whether you follow Jesus or Mohammed?
No secularisation in the time of the Prophet
Tradition has it that Mohammed was both a religious and a political leader. He was also a warlord. It appears that during his life he islamised the major part of the Arabian Peninsula, bringing it under his control. Early Islam did not know separation of Church and State. This is hardly surprising from an anthropological perspective. In non-Western societies various functions are often combined: law, leadership and religious leadership are often the responsibility of a single person. In early Islam this was Mohammed’s. According to theologian Mohamed Ajouaou “there was no secularisation in the time of the Prophet.”
The fact that Mohammed was also a warlord becomes important if we examine the nature of salafism. If salafists also follow Mohammed in this respect, then this suggests that they are prepared to use violence for Islam. It is also conceivable that they condone the use of violence by people of their own faith. Salafism does not say that each muslim should become a martyr. If you are a young and attractive muslima you can serve Islam much better by appearing on tv, wearing a smile and a headscarf. One the other hand, becoming a martyr is a much appreciated thing in Islam. Giving your life for Islam is the ultimate sacrifice you can make. If according to Ruud Koopmans there are 100,000 muslims in the Netherlands saying that “under specific circumstances I am personally prepared to use violence for my faith,” this means that apart from those 100,000 there are also muslims condoning the fact that their religious brethren are prepared to use violence, even if they themselves are not prepared to follow their example.
The many-sidedness of Mohammed
Marcel Hulspas describes Mohammed as a very many-sided man:
“So Mohammed foresaw everything, and performed miracles, and Allah always supported him. He was a revered leader, a just man, brave in battle, generous towards the losers, a collector of female beauty, a hero on the battlefield, […] forgiving one moment, ruthless the next.”
An image emerges of Mohammed as a kind of James Bond. Just like Bond, who is a gentleman next to a womanizer but also a cold-blooded fighting man disposing of much technical expertise, Mohammed’s person harbours these and more, and sometimes even more contradictory qualities. His talents are so many-sided that mere mortals cannot fathom their depth. Perhaps that is why it is mostly forbidden to depict Mohammed.
According to Bart Schut it is a paradox that Mohammed – despite being human – in daily practice is no less revered than many gods in other religions. Although the teaching states that Mohammed is human and not divine, in reality there is some sort of hierarchy in Islam: it is certainly forbidden to depict Allah, and Mohammed comes in second place. The superhuman versatility of Mohammed has a divine origin. The many-sidedness of Allah is reflected in His ninety-nine names.
Since Mohammed is so many-sided, there also also many ways to follow him. Thus the many-sidedness of Mohammed is also reflected in the muslim community. In this respect it is important that muslims mutually recognize each other’s ways of following Mohammed. Who opts for peaceful jihad therefore also recognises violent jihad, and vice versa. This makes it possible that peaceful and violent jihad – without collaborating – are still pulling at the same end of the rope. For instance, after a terror attack politicians may be inclined to meet the demands of the more moderate muslims. Or, the plea by an imam for more tolerance is aired so short after an attack in Nieuwsuur that it also nips the justified outrage in the bud.
Who follows Christ is not prone to violence
And what about the following of Christ? What we know about Christ mostly comes from the gospels, highly edited stories recorded scores of years after his death, and aiming to underpin the right of existence of Christianity in the Roman Emprire. We can only speculate what kind of man Christ really was. Fik Meijer attempts to reconstruct the historical Christ through the image of Jesus resisting Roman rule. The ambtition to become King of the Jews has to be taken literally for the most part. ‘Christ’ means something like ‘the anointed one’, reflecting this claim to kingship.
But whatever his political ambitions, Jesus was not able to realise them, because pretty soon he ended on the cross. If the gospels were being written at a time when it was important to remain acceptable to the Roman rulers, it would be wise to deny any political ambition, resulting in the gospels in statements such as: “My kingdom is not of this world,” and “Then give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God what belongs to God.” The systematic separation of Christ and any societal reality has created the image of a somewhat unrealistic person who cannot do harm but only good. Who follows such a Christ these days is not prone to violence.
Does it matter?
A christian salafist is therefore not prone to violence, whereas an islamic salafist can be inspired to use violence. So there is really a difference in who you follow: Jesus or Mohammed.