chapter  3
59 Pages

Pure bodies, purer hearts

Part II explores the Salafis’ varied and, on occasion, unusual interpretations of Sunni Islam’s ritual purity rules. Of interest here are not only the textual interpretations, as these are laid out in the texts of their scholars, but the ground-level responses that these interpretations spark within the Cairene settings in which my research was carried out. I endeavour throughout to situate this ethnographic datawithin the wider academic debates on the subjects of both ritual purity and Salafism. This chapter begins with a description of Salafism in Shubra (Ch. 3.1). Hailing

not only from the ranks of Ansar al-Sunna and al-Gam‘iyya al-Shar‘iyya, but also from the area’s once popular revolutionary groups, attention is drawn to the diversity of individuals here. The second, extended section explores the specific meanings ascribed to tahara as these were explained to me by Salafi teachers during fiqh classes (Ch. 3.2). As shall soon become clear, tahara law is here set out primarily in terms of the spiritual and theological benefits (fada’il) that it allows believers to accrue. From the outset, however, it should be noted that on at least one occasion my analysis extends beyond the field of fada’il al-tahara/al-wudu’.1 That is to say, in choosing subjects for discussion, the only guideline I imposed upon myself was to limit my discussion to matters raised during classes on tahara. As will become increasingly clear, this never proved too great an imposition: there is surprisingly little within the wider scope of Islamic law, morals, and ethics that is not at least touched upon during the Salafis’ discussions of purity. This second section was written with two overall aims. First, as just suggested,

I wish to explore the fluid and complex relationships between theological axioms, socio-religious realities, and religious practices within these concrete Salafi settings. In terms of methodology, my intention throughout this chapter is to strike a balance between the kind of socio-structuralism adopted by Douglas, according to which all forms of ritual (and indeed religious) behaviour is explained according to underlying societal patterns and hierarchies, and the performance-focused analyses of scholars such as Mahmood and Hirschkind, who are concerned mainly with the ways in which, through its gradual habitualization, the human body participates in the creation of meanings. In this second section, my approach is closer to that of Douglas. For, while not

attributing fundamental meanings to social hierarchies of any kind, I endeavour to show how ritual purity beliefs prioritize those behaviours and dispositions that are perceived to be in harmony with the Salafis’ vision of an ideal Muslim community. Accordingly, the members of this community should not engage in deceit or treachery, experience illicit sexual desires, or rage against other members precisely because it is felt that it is these sins, more than others, that characterize wider Egyptian society and most threaten the integrity of Salafi communities. Thus, much as Douglas would expect, ritual instruction and (to a considerable degree) practice consciously reflects – and is justified in response to – widespread dissatisfaction at these pervasive social and moral injustices. Taking the minor ritual of purification, wudu’, as our key ritual act and the chapter’s main focus, I proceed under the assumption that the Salafi specialists employ the domain of ritual practice to articulate and contest these injustices. This goal is not secondary to their spiritual and political aims, but concomitant with them. Among the variety of meanings ascribed to the concepts and practices of ritual purity, then, there emerges a strong desire within these Salafi settings to promote a unified and harmonious Muslim (Egyptian) community. This section’s second aim, which is perhaps more ambitious, is to explore

the ways in which the discussions on tahara that are entertained in Shubra overlap with, and participate in, traditional discourses regarding the same purity-related themes. In delving into the cultural and textual histories that both pre-date and influence Salafi attitudes, I seek to problematize Olivier Roy’s theory on Salafism, which views it as a force that is inherently antagonistic to the notions of tradition and culture. In tension with that idea, I prefer to convey a representation of Shubra’s Salafis as sculptors, even re-generators, of Cairene ritual and theological traditions – although many Salafis themselves would object to this representation. Indeed, rather than dismissing popular and Sufi thinking from Egyptian culture, as the Ansar al-Sunna elites claim to have achieved, a significant percentage of Salafi purity materials and perspectives are shown to have been drawn from these domains. Of course, unless we share Roy’s conviction that Salafism actually achieves everything it sets out to do – by way of creating a blank slate – this observation should not surprise: over time, the beliefs and practices of most religious communities invariably evolve, as new ideas and influences are thrown into the mix. The field of tahara presents a test case through which to analyse these processes in a modern Egyptian context. The above reflections lead us into the chapter’s third section (Ch. 3.3).

There, I move outside of the Salafis’ methodology to explore the appeal of Salafi ritual instruction through the lens of tahara. In so doing, I owe a great deal to Mahmood’s emphasis on ritual as a performative phenomenon. Focusing on the classroom, I explore how one shaykh’s interactions with his students during his lessons on tahara enable the concretizing of a specifically Salafi worldview. Ironically, given Mahmood’s suggestion that we move away from hierarchical readings of ritual action, it is in this stage of analysis that

I locate the greatest potential for hierarchization through the Salafis’ ritual strategies.