The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted Moroccan scholar Muhammad Al-Touzi for a lecture on “The Self-Taught Intellectual and the Formation of Salafist Puritanism” as part of its on-going Seminar Program, on December 20, 2017.  Dr. Al-Touzi began his exposition setting forth a dual methodological framework in which the first prong takes up the study and analysis of the practices of “Islam” as such, rather than as they are practiced by Muslims, while the second methodological prong adopts a comparative sociological perspective, comparing Islam with other religions, particularly with regard to puritanism/asceticism and Salafism.

The “Archimedes' principle” of Al-Touzi’s approach derived from a long text by German sociologist Max Weber on the salvation of the individual intellectual via harmony between his or her interior and external worlds, which placed premium value on his gifts of reading, writing and religious puritanism or asceticism.  Drawing comparison with Protestantism in its reading of religious scripture and puritanism/salafiyya, with its encouragement of personal ownership and mastery of a generalized one-dimensional reading of the holy text, al-Touzi explained that schools, working within the framework of the national state, played a key intermediary role in narrowing the gap between “high” and “popular culture,” foreshadowing a somewhat similar development in the context of the 19th century Arab Renaissance in Egypt.

Based on Max Weber’s text, Al-Touzi derived a theoretical framework for understanding the rise of puritanical Salafism in the Arab region. He analyzed three case studies from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, showing that these all shared common features in their concern for the religious text and the religious text alone;  rigid espousal of literal readings of the text;  rejection of any metaphysical questioning; adoption of an “either – or” logic; and disregard for any hint of consideration of the historical or the cultural elements in their inherited Islam. In other words, the religious “given” is utterly a-historical and a-cultural. The scholar drew a startling additional parallel between this puritanical Salafiyya and positivism.

At the end of this analysis Al-Touzi singled out the Moroccan experience of  “maqaasid al-salafiyya” (the underlying intentions of puritanism explained) in which the state undertakes to guide the religious establishment according to the precepts of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, the Junayd order of Sufism, and the Ash’arite interpretation of the Islamic creed--all three comprising firm and historically sustained constants in Morocco, encoded by the jurist Abdul Wahid Bin Aashir in his famous “fi ‘aqd al-‘ash’ari wi fiqh malik wa fi tariqat junayd al-salik” [On al-Ash'ari’s contract, the of Malik’s jurisprudence and the clear path of Junayd]. This approach values form above content, and procedural dimensions above spiritual.