American journalists routinely report on Islamist extremists such as the group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, without mentioning one of the key doctrines that inspires them.
Whether translated loosely as “us vs. them” or more precisely as “allegiance-disassociation,” “wala wal-bara” is a foundational doctrine of Salafism, the Sunni purist movement that has become a major force in Middle Eastern politics.
In the Salafis’ understanding, “wala” means the allegiance that Muslims must give only to God, the Prophet Muhammad, and fellow Salafis while “bara” refers to disassociating with anything un-Islamic or anything that threatens belief in the One God (“tawhid”).
It is crucial to note, however, that the Salafis do not come in a one-size-fits-all: only a minority are militants. Yet, according to the Singapore-based counterterrorism expert, Mohamed Bin Ali, all strands of the Salafi movement believe that the us vs. them doctrine is an obligatory part of faith.
Salafis replace the core Quranic message of mercy for all of humanity with their tribal notion of morality in putting forward an absolute notion of “allegiance-disassociation.” To do so, they give precedence to the human-transmitted Hadith (reports on the words of the Prophet Muhammad) as well as the words of a 13th-century scholar who wrote “the dissimilarity between the Muslims and non-Muslims must be total.”
Bin Ali says this meaning of wala wal-bara is a new one that has become “the basis of extremist Salafist ideology that calls for the killing and elimination from the earth of the ‘kuffar’ (unbelievers).”
He quotes the extremist Salafi ideologue and leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, stating: “As for wala wal-bara, its meaning is, in condensed form, a total and complete break with the West and its civilization, and perpetual war against it until its final defeat.”
The us vs. them doctrine enables these radical extremists to sleep peacefully at night even while they flagrantly abuse the rights of others, including those of moderate Muslims who do not subscribe to the extremist Salafi view of jihad.
In addition, they cover up the fact that the Quran was revealed for all of humanity (al-Zumar 39:41) and that the Prophet was a “mercy to the worlds” (coincidentally the Arabic term “kufr” that some Salafists frequently employ to discredit others, both Muslim and non-Muslim, also means to “cover up”).
Not only do they forbid American Muslims from integrating with those elements of mainstream American culture that do not contradict Islamic teachings, they ignore the fact that Islam has always flowed through distinct cultures and was able to integrate with non-Arabic speaking peoples in Central Asia, Europe, and East Asia, among others.
The form of Islam they follow also holds a negative view of other faiths, which is at odds with the Quran’s actual description of wala to mean “protector” or “friend,” and bara to mean “released from obligation.” The Quranic chapter al-Maidah 5:55 says: “Your friend (wali) is only God and his messenger and those who have believed” while al-Mumtahinah 60:4 states: “I am released from obligation (bara) to you and what you worship.”
According to Princeton University scholar Bernard Haykel, Salafism “legitimizes the use of violence against the person or entity that is deemed to be non-Salafi. One consequence of this is that armed rebellion is considered not only legitimate, but a religious duty incumbent upon the individual believer.” The end result is that all of humanity — minus the Salafis — is fair game.
In Islam, this is a minority perspective at best. Traditional Muslims worldwide subscribe to the idea of a middle, or moderate community (“ummatan wasatan“) who are “witnesses to humanity.” (al-Baqarah 2:143) As the majority, we have to realize that the Salafists are hijacking the Quran.
The price of its ransom is to develop discernment (“furqan“) and a critical reading of the Quran as an antidote to blind, uninformed interpretations. Muslims everywhere should intellectually engage with the Quran, open it, study it, “own” it, and take it back in any language that they understand as they continue to listen, recite or memorize the Arabic for spiritual reward.
If groupthink is the disease, what I call Quranic critical thinking brings the self-awareness that is the cure. Quranic critical thinkers recognize that extreme views are seldom correct. As moderation is the key, practicing fair-mindedness requires a balanced view, and we become conscious of the Quran’s many questions, including: Will you not be reasonable? (al-Baqarah 2:44)