Susanne Olsson. Foto: Niklas Björling.

Susanne Olsson


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Works at Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies
Telephone 08-674 79 16
Visiting address Universitetsvägen 10 E, plan 7
Room E 783
Postal address 106 91 Stockholm 106 91 Stockholm

About me

I am a Professor in the history of religions. My PhD thesis in history of religions (Uppsala University, 2004) focused on the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi and his interpretation of Islam, often called Occidentalism. It is published as "Islam and the West in the Ideology of Hasan Hanafi" (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2006).

I have also analyzed TV-shows on satellite channels led by the Egyptian “preacher” ‘Amr Khaled ("Preaching Islamic Revival: ‘Amr Khaled, Mass Media and Social Change in Egypt", London: I.B.Tauris, 2015). One research project concerned questions related to juridical interpretations related to minority Muslims and to Salafi oriented Islam in both a global and European context. This is presented in the book “Minority Jurisprudence in Islam: Muslim Communities in the West”. (London: I.B.Tauris, 2016).

Moreover, I have conducted research on contemporary Salafi Islam in Sweden, mainly focusing on Puritan Salafism, promoting piety and a Salafi lifestyle among minority Muslims.


I am currently working on a project entitled “Medieval and Contemporary Islamic Fundamentalism: Program of Action and Othering.” The purpose of this project is to pursue a historically situated and comparative analysis of medieval and contemporary fundamentalist (Wahhabi, Hanbali, Salafi) Islamic interpretations, with the thematic focus being “othering”, which concerns how people are categorized into “us” and “them” through the accusation of having committed infidelity (takfir) and even the advocation of violence, which is understood as legitimately striving (jihad) to defend “authentic Islam”. This is related to the “program of action” (manhaj), which includes how the out-group should be treated.

The chain of authority among contemporary fundamentalists is based on revelation (the Qur’an and Sunnah), most often mediated through scholars of knowledge from medieval times. Medieval Hanbali authors that are used among contemporary fundamentalist interpreters are, for example, al-Khallal (d. 923), al-Barbahari (d. 941) and Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328). Contemporary Hanbali authors that are used in this project rely on their texts in order to address the contemporary situation. They, in their turn, greatly influence Salafi interpretations in Europe, who use them as sources of legitimacy to question and revise the authority of all Sunni schools of law, including the Hanbali. A motivation to include medieval authors as empirical material in this project is thus that they are used as authoritative among contemporary interpreters, with regard to both Hanbali and Salafi orientations, and their impact on questions relating to “othering” should not be underestimated.
Considering the theme “othering”, the medieval authors wrote with a sense of urgency and anxiety about loss of “authentic Islam” motivated by their view that people had deviated from “the straight path” and they intended to remedy this. They were polemical against all “others”. Certain volatile individuals and movements in Islamic history furthered the legal phrase “al-amr bi al-ma‘ruf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar” (commanding good and forbidding evil) to answer the question of who should “correct” who, what should be corrected, and when, why and how this should be done. For example, Barbahari agitated against those he considered committing innovation (bid‘ah), which included Shi‘ites, Sufis and dogmatic theologians (mutakallimun), and even “ordinary Muslims” not abiding to a Hanbali lifestyle (as he interpreted it). He was a charismatic leader who conducted a pietistic struggle to transfer his view of a moral vision onto society, which erupted in violence and led to his subsequent murder. His struggle must be understood in relation to ‘Abbāsid Baghdad, following the inquisition (mihnah) and the many interpretations of Islam that flourished, which caused fragmentation and conflicts regarding interpretative authority.

In the material there are elaborations on how they represent authentic Islam, and a rejection of others who do not accept their truth. All the authors call for an immediate and fundamentalist return to revelation, and they are both apologetic and polemic. The view of being morally superior supports a division of people into “us” and “them”. This leads to an interpretative stance that requires loyalty to the past and upholding the socio-moral values of the past, regardless where one lives. The interpreters appear as custodians of “tradition”, where the Prophet and the “pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-saliḥ) are considered to be the only moral paragons worth imitating (ittibaʻ). The advocated mode of conduct can thereby be referred to as “Traditionalist resistance”, which includes self-denial of the right to convey criticism and advocating moral chastisement through “commanding good and forbidding evil”. Even though they participate in selected societal institutions, such as marriage and having a profession, they struggle to maintain distance to the morally corrupt society surrounding them, as they perceive it, in order to preserve spiritual and moral purity. It is a moral vision connected to social activism, but one which often promotes political quietism based on the authority of the medieval Hanbali community that in most cases was loyal to the political authorities; it only legitimated the “correction” of others considered deviant, not political leaders.

This attitude is found today as well. However, some contemporary fundamentalist interpreters argue that “correction” should be used against political leaders as well, and that it is a duty incumbent on Muslims, where some promote active advice and some promote violence. Several other juridical concepts and phrases are expanded on in the process of “othering”, for example, al-wala’ wa al-bara’ (allegiance and disavowal), which is used to legitimate the way in which the out-group (including political leaders) is treated; in some cases, this manifests itself with passive hatred and avoidance,  while in others with hostile and violent “othering”.

The use of “othering” as an analytical concept denotes a general psychological and sociological process that goes on in several directions, irrespective of power relations. The category of “the other”, as it is used in diverse contexts, is fluid and influenced by diverse factors. How “the other” is characterized and should be treated has a direct relation to the dual potential of motivating collective violence and quietism. Various groups display different forms of othering in discourse and practice. Some groups promote passive avoidance and mental or even physical emigration (hijrah); others are expressively hostile and even violent to those defined as outsiders. Still others choose a missionary zeal and confront others in order to “correct” and “direct” them towards the “truth.” Such efforts are often expressed through nonviolent proselytization (da‘wah), which is increasing among Salafi influenced groups and individuals in Europe. In additional cases, “othering” involves the demand to “active aversion” from members of the in-group toward outsiders, which may result in verbal abuse or, in some cases, physical violence.

Last updated: May 16, 2017

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