Congressional Research Service and the Question of Expertise


By Yasser Harrak

The CRS reports (2008 - 2009) were meant to give a cut-and-dry definition of Wahhabism, Salafism, Sunnism and Shi'ism for members and commitees of Congress. There are obvious limitations in the treatment of this topic, by Middle Eastern Affairs analyst Christopher M. Blanchard, that raise questions on the quality of data made available for Congress.

I have identified some misconceptions with regards to some of the themes in the mentioned reports listed in brief as follow: 

Misconception 1:  The author stated: ``Salafiyyah is not a unified movement, and there exists no single Salafi “sect.” However, Salafi interpretations of Islam appeal to a large number of Muslims worldwide who seek religious renewal in the face of modern challenges`` (Blanchard 2008). There is no study proving  that the majority of Muslims are challenged by modernity, nor is there one proving the attractiveness of Salafiyyah to Muslims seeking religious reform. In fact, Sufism was  the dominating force in North Africa, Central Africa, Central Asia and East Asia up until Western protected Saudi radicalism was spread in the Muslim world .  British author and commentator, known for her books on comparative religion Karen Armstrong, blames the Wahhabization of the Muslim world on Saudi Arabia (Armstrong 2015). In addition,  Blanchard failed to mention the passive Salaffiyah branches like the Madkhalia and the Ilmiya.

Misconception 2: The author stated:``all Muslims are expected to live in accordance with the five pillars of Islam: (1) shahada—recital of the creed “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”; (2) salat—five obligatory prayers in a day; (3) zakat—giving alms to the poor; (4) sawm—fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan; and (5) hajj—making a pilgrimage to Mecca once during a lifetime if one is physically and financially able``( Blanchard 2009).
Blanchard talks about Suni Islam`s 5 pillars being a matter of consensus among Muslims . If we take just the two largest branches of Islam we will see that they have different pillars. The 5 pillars in Twelver Shiism are known as Usul Al-dine (the Roots of religion) that make one a Muslim or a non-Muslim. They are : (1) Al Wahdania — belief in the oneness of God; (2) Al`adl—belief in the justice of God; (3)Alrisala— belief in the messengers of God; (4) Al-Imammat— belief in the appointed infallible interpreters of the messengers of God; (5) Almiàd—belief in the day of judgement. Prayers and fasting and the like are considered in Shiism to be Furuà Al`din (the branches of religion). If,for instance, you do not pray in Sunni Islam`s jurisprudence you are a  Kafir or Murtad  (apostate). This remains mostly theoretical, however. In Shiism, if one does not pray , do the Hadj or give alms etc.. he is only considered Fasiq (lascivious) from the jurisprudence  stand point, and only theoretically. This is not to mention the many other sects of Islam.

These misconceptions could have been caused by the data found in sources used by the author. In my estimation, some of the sources referred to by the author are not authoritative in the study of Islam. The quality of studies provided to an important body such as Congress is very critical in shaping public and foreign policies, therefore, a revamp at the CRS level is needed to ensure better data for better policies.



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