A crystal is not made of ice, but is a more complex composite of atoms or ions. A leopard is not a cross between a lion and a panther, but a creature more untameable than either. And a pontiff is no builder of bridges. The Argentine short story writer, Jorge Luis Borges, observed these ironies of etymology in his 1940 essay on the description of a fascist. Today, the Muslim man everyone is trying to describe is ‘the Islamist’. An Islamist is not made of Islam, Borges might have noted. He is a more complex composite of ideas and influences.
An Islamist is not a cross between Islam and some ‘ism or ocracy’ but a creature that escapes taming by either. Increasingly, the Islamist is called a ‘salafist’, an acolyte of the salaf, Islam’s first generation. In truth, the salafist is the most novel of Muslims, his infamous aversion to bid’a, ‘innovation’, in fact precipitating the most extraordinary intellectual innovation. He is less a spiritual fundamentalist – like the muftis of the famous seminary of Deoband, India, or the Ayatollahs of Qom, Iran, self-effacing in ethereal expectation of the afterlife – than a materialist, motivated by that worldly amour-propre behoving only an inhabitant of the present day. The Islamist stands not in the tradition of Islam’s flat-earth cosmologists, Islam’s iconoclastic photography-forbidders, who know only the Qur’an; he stands instead in the cosmopolitan tradition of the first to call themselves ‘Salafists’. These were the nineteenth- century reformers like the itinerant, whisky-swilling, polyglot Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97) or the respectful correspondent of Tolstoy, the Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), both canonical figures in the Islamist tradition, yet whose examined lives barely correspond to the vision both Westerners and Muslims now have of fanatics and philistines.