The Challenge of Absence: Writing a History of Salafī practice

By Aaron Rock-Singer

In the previous essay, I argued that periodicals constitute a vital source for reconstructing the process by which particular legal rulings emerge as authoritative, as well as for tracing the extra-legal factors that drive such developments. In this essay, I continue to explore periodicals as a source of Islamic law by examining a significant methodological obstacle: the challenge of absence. Specifically, how does one trace legal history –whether key concepts, practices or positions – before they come to be recognized as central?

Tracing such pre-histories – or, put differently, the intellectual and social questions that precede the formation of a given legal position – is often complicated by the sources themselves. In his study of the Babylonian Talmud, historian Moulie Vidas argues that “quotation [of prior Rabbinic authorities] is ‘destructive’ and ‘aggressive’ in the sense that it destroys continuity. Applied to the Talmud, the transformation of tradition into quotations disrupts the chain of tradition.”[1] Put differently, citation of past authorities through quotation reveals a very specific slice of the history of a particular question, yet does so unmistakably from the vantage point of the present. One finds such a dynamic in the fiqh literature, too, where prior authorities in a given madhhab are cited in a manner that reflects very particular questions at hand, often in novel ways.[2]

The issue, however, is not merely whether we should as, Vidas argues, understand citation as a practice that is primarily synchronic rather than diachronic. Instead, an additional challenge that one faces in writing a legal history of Salafism is that the normative commitment by scholars of this movement to continuity with the Prophetic model can easily transform an internal category into an analytical framework. Put differently, Salafīs’ self-understanding as deriving all law from the Qur’ān and Sunna can morph into a basis for studying Salafism, with deviations from these sources glossed as an example of pragmatism. Yet, while it is certainly important to acknowledge how Salafīs understand themselves and impossible to appreciate the power of their claim to authenticity without reference to this self-understanding, legal historians must simultaneously explore the extent to which such claims to continuity are accurate.

It is here that the question of absence becomes particularly significant. To illustrate this point, I will focus on the origins of distinctly Salafī facial hair, which is distinguished by a trimmed mustache and a beard that extends a minimum of a fist in length (al-qabḍa).  If one were to read a Salafī pamphlets on facial hair – a spate of which appeared beginning in the 1980s across countries such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia – one could easily come to the conclusion that Salafīs derive their legal position from both a particular set of ḥadīth reports.  To return to Vidas’s argument, as Salafīs adopted the fist as a minimal measurement during the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, one might further imagine them as working within the Sunni fiqh tradition even as they deny the influence of madhhab-aligned scholars. And all of this would be true, at least in part.

A turn towards periodicals and to the specific timing of these pamphlets, however, forces us to question an approach that pivots on legal methodology alone. Specifically, if we are to privilege Salafism’s interpretative approach –a commitment to deriving all law from the Qur’ān and Sunna –then how can we make sense of the fact that Salafism emerges as an intellectual and social project in the 1920s and 1930s, while the pamphlets that define the Salafī understanding of facial hair only appear half a century later? A potential counter to this question would be to argue that the Salafī concern with facial hair simply reflects a changing ideological environment. Yet, facial hair in 1930s Egypt was a key site of ideological debate, with both secular nationalists and Islamists articulating distinct visual models, whether Ḥasan al-Bannā’s closely trimmed beard the effendi combination of a clean-shaven face and mustache.  The absence of a clear Salafī vision of facial hair in the 1930s is thus notable.

At this point, we are left with two options: one is to trace how Salafīs draw on prior sources, both the ḥadīth corpus and the fiqh literature, and the other of which is to grapple with how Salafīs discussed facial hair and the key terms relating to it in the half century prior to taking a defined position on this question. The former approach is valuable in elucidating the sources on which the 1980s project to articulate a distinctly Salafī understanding of facial hair draws, yet, to return to Vidas, underscores the “destructive” nature of such citation. Accordingly, I’ll turn to the second approach here, specifically to a May 1940 article by Muḥammad Ḥāmid al-Fiqī (d. 1959), published in Anṣār al-Sunna al-Muḥammadiyya’s journal, al-Hadī al-Nabawī, in which the organization’s founder emphasized that the beard constitutes an “adornment of masculinity” (zīnat al-rujūla) and specified that a man “leave it, so that it accumulates and grows plentiful” (ḥattā yukaththira shaʿruhā wa-yatawaffar).[3] That al-Fiqī saw the beard as legally required is not in question, yet his definition of its length would have done little to distinguish Salafīs from other pious Muslims and cites ḥadīth reports only as it pertains to the obligation to grow the beard, rather than its length. Indeed, the absence of a defined position on this issue is all the more notable in light of the fact that two of Anṣār al-Sunna’s competitors – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya – had already articulated their positions on this question.[4]

Just as important to understanding both the significance of the beard and its basis is what linked Anṣār al-Sunna and its ideological competitors. Let us begin with the question of textual proofs: on the specific question of the fist as a necessary length, Salafī scholars published in the 1980s and 1990s cite a ḥadīth attributed to one of the Prophet Muḥammad’s Companions (and the son of the second Caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb), Ibn ʿUmar (d. 73/693). In this ḥadīth report, Ibn ʿUmar is said to have trimmed his beard to the length of the fist whenever he performed the Ḥajj and ʿUmra pilgrimages. To return to the 1930s, however, Salafīs were not the sole Islamic movement to cite this ḥadīth as the basis for a beard of a specific length: in a 1944 article in the Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn, a scholar who belonged to the Brotherhood, al-Sayyid Sābiq (d. 1968), cited the same ḥadīth report to endorse a closely trimmed beard along the lines of that worn by Ḥasan al-Bannā (d. 1949).[5] While al-Sābiq used this report to justify trimming the beard more broadly, Salafīs would draw on it to justify the fist as a minimal measurement. What we have here is a case in which scholars from two different movements cited the same proof text in radically different ways.

Salafīs, of course, would eventually come to claim a beard, and proudly at that.[6] Beginning in the 1970s, in conversation and competition with activists in Islamic movements driven by students whether in Egypt (the Jamāʿa Islamiyya) or Saudi Arabia (the Ṣaḥwa movement), the movement’s elites came to define what they considered to be a properly Islamic model of facial hair. The point at which distinct facial hair came into view for Salafīs is an important story and one that I tell in detail in In the Shade of the Sunna.

Yet, this “pre-history” of Salafī claims to a distinct beard – of al-Fiqī’s vague measurement, of clearly articulated claims by competing Islamic movements, and of the secular-nationalist model of a shaved beard and mustache – is essential to understanding how and why Salafīs saw beards as a powerful mode of public identification decades later.  Such a story, however, could not be told through reliance on pamphlets or Salafī legal collections. Instead, the granular process by which Salafīs came to focus on the visual power of facial hair can only be told through Islamic periodicals.


[1] Moulie Vidas, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 15.

[2] On this point, see Junaid Quadri, Transformations of Tradition: Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021) and Jocelyn Hendrickson, Leaving Iberia Islamic Law and Christian Conquest in North West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).

[3] Muḥammad Ḥāmid al-Fiqī, “Min Sunan al-Fitra,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 15 Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1359/May 1940, 13-21, at 18.

[4] Aaron Rock-Singer, In the Shade of the Sunna: Salafi Piety in the 20th-Century Middle East (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2022), 174-76.

[5] Al-Sayyid Sābiq, “al-Ṭahāra,” al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn, 24 Rajab 1363/15 July 1944, 18-19.

[6] Rock-Singer, In the Shade of the Sunna, 179-95.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Aaron Rock-Singer, The Challenge of Absence: Writing a History of Salafī practice, Islamic Law Blog (Feb. 21, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Aaron Rock-Singer, “The Challenge of Absence: Writing a History of Salafī practice,” Islamic Law Blog, February 21, 2023,

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