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Alexander Thurston

Abstract

In independence-era Northern Nigeria, different segments of the modernizing elite contended over defining the place of Islam in society. This article argues that the case of Northern Nigeria disrupts scholarly periodizations of twentieth-century Islamic thought and activism that depict the 1950s and 1960s as a time of secularist dominance. The specificity of Muslim communities’ experiences of colonialism and decolonization helped shape the role Islam played in different societies during this period. This article develops this thesis by examining the semiautonomous Northern Nigerian regional government’s program of sending young, Arabophone Muslim scholars to Arab and British universities between 1954 and 1966. The overseas scholarships system was to be the culmination of British colonial efforts to produce ‘modern’ Muslim judges and teachers. However, Arabophones’ experiences overseas, and their ambivalent relationship with the Northern government after their return highlight the unintended consequences of colonial policies and of scholarship winners’ encounters with the broader Muslim world.

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Alexander Thurston

In the mid-1990s, the world’s most successful jihadi group – the group that came closest to overthrowing an Arab regime – was Algeria’s Groupe islamique armé (Armed Islamic Group, GIA). Here I argue that the GIA was the first major armed group to prioritize adherence to Salafi theology over the jihadi strategic objective of building a “big tent.” The GIA used the vocabulary of Salafism to justify killing rivals and would-be allies and eventually turned against the Algerian population itself. In part one, I re-read GIA sources, particularly the group’s London-based newsletter Al-Anṣār, to show how the GIA sidelined potential allies in the name of purity. In parts two and three, I examine the effects of this approach. Through analysis of counter-texts by the GIA’s ideological and theological rivals, I demonstrate how their rejection of the GIA sharpened disagreements about what it meant to be a Salafi-jihadi.


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Alexander Thurston

This article examines how use of the Prophet Muḥammad’s Khuṭbat al-ḥāja (Sermon of Necessity) became a distinguishing marker of Salafism. To understand the Sermon’s role, the article draws on the notion of “coded language,” messages that communities use to communicate with insiders while excluding outsiders. The article analyzes the content of the Sermon and describes its spread among Salafīs. The Sermon was championed by Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914-99), who played a pivotal role in shaping Salafī practice. Relating the Sermon’s spread to methodological debates about studying Salafism, the article suggests that the Sermon furnishes one empirical criterion that can be used to date Salafism’s crystallization to the mid-twentieth century. The article closes by examining how jihādīs selectively use the Sermon to “Salafize” their speech, and by discussing how instances of opposition to the Sermon’s use were connected to debates over the validity of Salafism and the status of al-Albānī.