Book review: Authority of Hadith in Contemporary Salafism

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 13 Aug 2012

The influence of the 'Albanian sheikh' on the Salafist movement

Albanian sheikh
The Albanian sheikh

Sultat Al-Hadith fil Salafia Al-Moaasera (Authority of Hadith in Contemporary Salafism), by Steven Lacoro, translated by Omreya Sultani, Alexandria: Marased Series, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2012. 26pp.

The Center for Future Studies at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has so far published eight booklets in its series titled Marased (Trackers). The series aims to provide academic papers that track the most important new social phenomena, especially within Arab and Islamic religious sociology.

This booklet has one shortcoming; the French author, Stefan Lacoro, and the translator, Omreya Sultani, are never introduced in the booklet, and the text lacks a single footnote or explanation, unusual for supposedly rigorous papers.

Despite that, the French orientalist's study is of great importance. The authority of hadith (statements or behaviours of the Prophet Mohammed passed down through generations orally) is among the most critical topics related to contemporary Salafism.

Lacoro analyses the influence of the "Albanian sheikh", Sheikh Mohamed Naser Addin Al-Albany, and his school of Salafism, describing him as "one of the most notable figures in contemporary Salafism" and "the hadith expert of his era."

The sheikh was born in Albania in 1914, but his family left the country in 1923 as soon as the first secular government was formed there, settling in Syria. The young boy learnt Arabic and then spent all his spare time reading books. He gained his religious knowledge by studying alone, and not through teachers.

During his twenties, he was influenced by reformist thought after reading Al-Manar (Beacon) magazine, considered at the time the main forum for Islamic reformist thought, and he became hostile to Sufism and to popular Islamic rituals, calling for rejection of such traditions and a return to the use of hadith.

The Albanian's name spread in Syria first during the 1950s, and in 1960 he was appointed to teach at the newly-established Islamic University at the Madinat in Saudi Arabic, following years of close security monitoring while in Syria.

He caused controversy during travels in Saudi Arabia, where he had found fame, and was forced to leave soon after publishing his book The Hijab of the Muslim Woman, since he argued against some of the commonly-known hadith and for a woman's right to expose her face.

In 1967 he was jailed by the Syrian authorities, and upon his release went to Jordan. In 1975 his reputation was restored slightly when he was appointed to the Supreme Council for the Islamic University at Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Such was his influence on ideological and political thought in Saudi Arabia that followers of his ideas included groups which occupied the holy mosque in Mecca for two weeks in 1979, to protest the increasing role of new factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sahwa (Awakening) group in Saudi religious space.

Thirteen years after the death of the Albanian sheikh, many of his followers remain among Salafists in countries like France, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Lacoro asserts that the Albanian's discourse was quick to reach the most marginal social groups who are usually excluded by aristocratic Wahhabism.

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