A Sign Of Change? Maliki Ulema Partners Against Sahel Extremism

By J. Millard Burr
Monday, February 11th, 2013 @ 3:08AM

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Extremism halts charity, and creates fear of religion; [it puts] pressure on Muslims and occupies people with controversies at the expense of work and construction in life. 

Algerian imam,

Magharebia 02 February 1913

In late January religious leaders from Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania met at Algiers to found The League of Ulemas of the Sahel.  A regional body of religious scholars of the Maliki rite, its aim is to discourage Sahelian youth from taking the path of Salafist radicalism.  According to Algerian imam Youcef Mechri, the new body’s secretary-general., they plan  to work with mosques and youth centers to educate youth about the dangers of extremism.

The imams “unanimously” denounced crimes committed in Islam.  As Niger’s imam Boureima Abdou Daouda, the League president put it:

We are convinced that only religion can provide a moral solution to the  multidimensional crisis and the evils that threaten us. We must defend religious references in our region to cut off the preachers of violence and destruction,”Sheikh Mouadou Sufi of Burkina Faso added: “Everybody knows that our religion teaches us neither violence nor terrorism, but the love of others and tolerance. What is happening in northern Mali [are] serious violations such as forced marriage, amputation of hands and stoning. [They] are a result of misinterpretation of the Qur’an.”   

While it might be tempting to laugh off the gathering as just another Muslim conclave where words will most likely and easily outnumber deeds, the Maliki League is potentially a strong voice of reason in a region that threatens to spin out of control. The importance of reaching and serving as a guide to youth is already well-understood in Morocco, which for unexplained reasons did not send a delegation to the founding of the League despite its large number of Maliki. (See “For years Moroccan ulemas guide youths,” Magharebia, 27 June 2011.)

A poll found that, while a majority of Moroccan youth believe in religious co-existence, they are hardly as supportive of their own ulema. Religious scholars are lacking in both education and charisma, and many are seen as practicing the worst sort of extremism. More than a half have received either all or the bulk of their education in a Koranic school (madrassa) — a situation itself very common throughout the Sahel.

To enhance the “spiritual security of the nation,” the government’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs has instituted a training program for imams that involves an effort to make sermons more topical and germane to the modernization occurring everywhere in Morocco.


Steps to enhance imam training has also been initiated recently in Mauritania. On 6 January 2012 a nationwide sermon, or “khutbah,” was sponsored by the  Malaki-dominated Association of Ulemas, during which the imams joined together “to denounce extremism and the use of violence” undertaken in the name of Islam. The event occurred just days after the close of a conference sponsored by the youthful, scholarly, and charismatic mufti Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hassan Al-Dedew, perhaps the most impressive imam to emerge in the Mahgreb in recent years.

Al-Dedew reminded the ulemas that it was their paramount responsibility “to assume their responsibilities in fighting” the evil of extremism.

The Association of Ulemas has the strong backing of President Abdel Aziz. He has imposed a practice of mosque oversight, and, at a late-2012 meeting with the ulema, warned against “the use of mosques for political ends” and the issuance of “unfounded fatwas.”


The Maliki League has much work ahead of it, as it must directly confront recent publications that extol the essence of the mujahideen and declare all who oppose their ideology to be Takfir, or apostates to Islam.

A recently published 600-page tome titled “Issues of the Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence] of Jihad,” published by Egyptian Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Ali (aka, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir) is the most recent Salafist ouvre to make its mark. (Among others see, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet”, “Fursan That Riyyat al-Nabi” by Ayman al-Zawahiri.) It has been labeled the “Fiqh of Blood” (“The Theology of Blood”) by some critics. It denigrates the positions held by the Hanbali and Maliki schools of Islamic jurisprudence when it comes to the issue of jihad (in this case meaning holy war). Throughout the book, Al-Ali himself issues dictates that are little short of a religio-judicial sentence, or fatwa.

The Pakistan-educated cleric uses the hadith and verses from the Koran to reach a conclusion that anyone found outside the Muslim community and not enjoying the right to protection may be killed, including women and children. With regard to the distinction between civilians and combatants, Al-Ali believes that there is none because Islam does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, only between Muslims and infidels.

Muslims are supposedly secure in their livelihood in all circumstances, while infidels are not — under any circumstance. Ultimately, the killing of infidels is allowed — including women, children and the aged — even if they live with Muslims. And beheading is permissible and even “favored by God and his Prophet.” Lest one think that Shia Muslims get off easy, the author encourages their killing and punishment. He claims they are an even more sinister threat to Islam than all its other enemies.

The nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Mujahir was given while the Egyptian served as an Afghan-Arab mujahid in the war for Afghanistan. During that event, he preached in the Islamists’ Khalden camp. Thus, it is not surprising that issues of the “Fiqh of Jihad” has found special favor among al Qaeda in general and its leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ironically, the whereabouts of Abu Abdullah is presently unknown. It was rumored that he was captured by U.S. troops when he travelled to Iraq. However, the Salafis claim he is being held in an Iranian prison.


The compilation of the Shari’a (Islamic legal code) was completed just prior to the tenth century. Over time there were created four systems of legal thought: The Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. The Hanbali is the largest gathering of the four and predominates in India, Pakistan, and generally throughout the nations that once formed part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Maliki rite developed in Medina, and it was based on the sayings of the prophet (the Hadith) that circulated there. Today, it predominates in Upper Egypt, the Sahel, and in parts of West Africa. In Mauritania its precepts are incorporated along with the legal system brought to it as a colony by France. Much the same circumstance has occurred in other former French colonies.

The Shafi’i rite is called a synthesis of the Hanifi and Maliki systems. It predominates in the Indian Ocean region and in Indonesia.  Finally, the Hanbali derives from the jurist and theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) and demands strict observance.  It has the smallest number of followers. Nonetheless, it serves as the official legal system employed in Saudi Arabia.

It is commonly claimed that the “substantive differences among the four rites are minor except in matters of ritual.” An example should suffice: A difference within the rites is noted with regard to their response to women and prayer. The orders all agree that no woman can act as an imam (i.e. leader) to men; however, while the Shafi’i, Hanafi and Hanbali do not allow a woman to serve as an imam at any time, at specific events in the month of Ramadan followers of the Maliki rite allow a woman to lead prayers before other women if no male among the congregation knows the Koran by heart, and if the woman chosen is adept in the knowledge of the Koran.


Athari, or textualism, is considered one of the three Sunni schools of aqidah.  The word aqidah derives from the Arabic ‘aqada or ‘aqd, to tie/bind, and it refers to the early ties that bound the ummah together before the development of the sunna (records of the actions and sayings of Muhammed) and interpretation and regionalism set in.

To place aqidah in its present context, one observer explains that to understand much of what is happening in the Muslim world today events must be visualized within the conflict of a 500-year-old balance-of-power struggle involving Turkey and Iran, or, to use their terms, Othmanli and Safawi.

When Shi’ism is in decline and less of a threat, Sunnis tend to gravitate to their four traditional schools of legal thought.  However, in times of Shi’a expansion, the Sunnis de-emphasize their legal differences and migrate to an early common concept of “the true path” of Mohammed and his disciples (the Ansar). This “textualist” trend, places an emphasis on aqidah over Maliki, Shafi’i, etc.

Textualism itself opposes theological speculation. Thus, it rejects literalism, allegory and metaphor, or any attempt to toy with the attributes of Allah mentioned in the Koran and the Sunna. The elements of textualism were codified by Islamic scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who is today best known for the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Its adherents believe that they follow in the tradition of the first three generations of Muslims (the Salaf), and they follow what they believe is a balanced or “middle path of Islam.” They are purposeful, yet hardly as bloodthirsty as some modern Salafeen (e.g., al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, etc.,) in their adherence to what they believe is the truth.

Considered a classical approach, athari is represented by such prominent Sunni scholars as Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi — the spiritual mentor of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) — who has developed the theory of  Wasatiyya (i.e., moderation) in contemporary Islam, and the noted  Mauretanian of the Maliki rite, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hassan Ad-Dedew.

Further Reading

QIBLA: Have Salafis Taken Over the Muslim World and Muslim Communities

Bouallem Ghamrasa: Algerian Salafi Leader to Launch New Party

ANSmed: Tunisia: imams accuse Ennahda of helping Salafis

Magharebia: Algerian government curbs extreme religious practices

SUNNIFORUM: Algeria banned “Wahhabi literature?”

Amel Boubaker: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Algerian Salafi Networks

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, ACD/EWI Exclusive

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