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date: 17 July 2024



  • Joas WagemakersJoas WagemakersUtrecht University


Salafism is a branch of Sunni Islam whose modern-day adherents claim to emulate “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ; often equated with the first three generations of Muslims) as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible. Different scholars of Islam throughout time have striven to emulate the early Muslim generations in the legal sphere, in theological matters, or in both. The ideas espoused by these scholars have more or less culminated in the Wahhabi movement that started on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century, which in turn helped spread a Salafi message to the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds and even beyond. As such, the trend now referred to as Salafism came about, expressing itself ideologically in teachings that are meant to present the trend as exclusively and meticulously adhering to the example of the salaf, while rejecting all other sources of influence. Practically, Salafism can be divided into three branches: quietist Salafism, whose adherents shun political activism and concentrate on “cleansing” and teaching Islam in all its “purity”; political Salafism, which does concentrate on political commitment as an integral part of Islam through contentious debates, parliamentary participation, and founding political parties; and Jihadi-Salafism, whose followers seek to overthrow supposedly apostate regimes in the Muslim world through violent jihad. Although the term “Salafism” is heavily contested among Salafis—with adherents of one branch often not allowing the application of the label to be applied to the other branches—its various ideas and manifestations show that Salafism is quite a diverse phenomenon.


  • Islamic Studies
  • Religion and Politics

Defining Salafism

The core meaning of the term “Salafi” is “like the salaf” or “salaf-like.” In defining the trend that Salafis collectively form, which we now know as Salafism, it is sensible to take this basic meaning as a starting point. According to several famous ḥadīths, the Prophet Muhammad claimed that “the best of my community” (khayr ummatī) or “the best people” (khayr al-nās) are “my generation [qarnī] and then the ones who follow them [thumma lladhīna yalūnahum] and then the ones who follow them [thumma lladhīna yalūnahum].”1 On the basis of such texts, one could argue that the first three generations of Islam were the best ones the religion has ever seen (and will ever see). These three generations—sometimes with additions from later times—have become known among many Sunni Muslims as “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ). In defining whom modern-day Salafis are and what they stand for, we could therefore say that Salafism, as a worldwide trend in the 20th century, represents those Sunni Muslims who claim to be “like the salaf” and, as such, say they emulate the “pious predecessors” as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible.

The people labeled “Salafis” in this article do not always refer to themselves that way nor are they in agreement about who—besides themselves—is a Salafi. The term “Salafism” is therefore hotly contested among adherents to this trend, which makes it difficult to say what percentage of Muslims worldwide may be labeled “Salafis.” This contestation is related to two different factors. First, the term “Salafism” is often associated with terrorism and violence in media discourse, both in the West and in the Muslim world, particularly since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Many Salafis reject such acts of violence and often insist on not being associated with the perpetrators of these attacks by rejecting the latter as worthy of the label of “Salafis.” Second, “Salafi,” referring as it does to what they believe are the best generations of Islam, has come to acquire an aura of religious authority. It is, in other words, a term that gives the impression of purity and authenticity to its bearers, thereby making it a desired label to apply to oneself. Despite such contestations, a relatively clear trend of Muslims whose teachings are claimed to be geared entirely to emulating the salaf can be discerned.

Precursors to Salafism

What sets modern-day Salafis apart from other contemporary Muslims is their claim to emulate the salaf in a very detailed way that is applied in every sphere of life. Given their belief that Islam should be directed entirely toward living like “the pious predecessors,” Salafis claim that their ideas and teachings amount to nothing more or less than Islam in all its purity. Although Salafis have made this emulation of the salaf their focal point and, as such, emphasize it to a far greater extent than other Muslims do, a much more general focus on paying special attention to the first three generations of Islam—and especially the Prophet Muhammad—can be discerned among broader groups of Sunni Muslims. These, although not always full-blown Salafis themselves according to the criteria used in this article (i.e., those of modern-day Salafis), can be said to have acted as precursors to the 20th-century trend we now know as Salafism.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 ce, believers could no longer rely on his living example to guide them in their lives. Instead, in their search for answers to their questions on religion, they had to base themselves on the Qurʾān, the memorized practices (sunan, sing. Sunna) of early believers (including the Prophet), these people’s considered opinion (raʾy) and the consensus (ijmāʿ) of Muslim scholars (ʿulamāʾ). One group of early Islamic scholars who advocated using all of these sources in answering questions and who allowed for input from ʿulamāʾ themselves, were referred to as “the people of considered opinion” (ahl al-raʾy) because of their emphasis on their own scholarly views as a source for establishing legal rulings.

The Traditionists

In opposition to these ʿulamāʾ, another group known as “the people of the [Prophetic] tradition” or “traditionists” (ahl al-ḥadīth) emerged. One of the best-known exponents of this group was Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (780‒855), the eponymous “founder” of the Ḥanbalī school of Islamic law (sharīʿa). The ahl al-ḥadīth claimed that, in the absence of the Prophet, the large (and growing) number of traditions ascribed to Muhammad were a better, purer, and more authentic source of what Muslims should or should not do than the opinions of the scholars. As such, a debate between the ahl al-raʾy and the ahl al-ḥadīth came about that was not decided in favor of either party, but did lead to a realization among the former group that the traditions (ḥadīths) ascribed to the Prophet could not be ignored. Under the guidance of especially Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (767‒820), the eponymous “founder” of the Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law, a middle way was found between the different approaches that incorporated both the Qurʾān and the Sunna of the Prophet as major—though not the only—sources of a single legal system that developed into various schools (madhāhib, sing. madhhab). The result became the legal basis of what can be considered orthodox or mainstream Islam as adhered to by most Sunni Muslims.2

The ahl al-ḥadīth’s approach to Islamic law was a key legal point for them that set them apart from orthodox Sunnis. While the latter strive to live pious lives according to the rules of their respective madhāhib, which truly value and greatly appreciate the Qurʾān and the Sunna but combine them with other sources of law, the ahl al-ḥadīth focused entirely on these two texts at the expense of almost everything else in the legal sphere. Although modern-day Salafism mostly distinguishes itself from other trends in Islam in the theological realm by adhering to what its adherents see as a Salafi creed (ʿaqīda) and therefore encompasses much more than this legal approach, its views of the madhāhib are often similar to those of the ahl al-ḥadīth.

Blind Emulation versus Independent Interpretation

While the ahl al-ḥadīth never became a dominant trend in Sunni Islam, its focus on going back to the Qurʾān and the Sunna in the legal sphere rather than relying on a broader set of legal sources always seems to have found individual adherents throughout the Muslim world. This often expressed itself in rejecting the ʿulamāʾ’s blind emulation (taqlīd) of the schools of Islamic law and, instead, advocating that scholars use independent and direct interpretation of the Qurʾān and Sunna (ijtihād), while lay Muslims could rely on taqlīd or could even use ijtihād themselves. Important scholars advocating these approaches include, respectively, Aḥmad b. Taymiyya (1263‒1328) and his student Muḥammad b. Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292‒1350), both of whom are major sources of inspiration to Salafis today.3

Perhaps less directly influential for modern-day Salafism, but equally adamant in their refusal of taqlīd were the scholars Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm b. al-Wazīr (d. 1436) and Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Ṣanʿānī (1688‒1768). Both hailed from Yemen and rejected taqlīd when they believed authentic traditions of the Prophet went against Islamic legal views as expressed by ʿulamāʾ. Similarly, Shāh Walī Allāh (1703‒1762) from the Indian subcontinent—though less negative about the role of the madhāhib for the Muslim community (umma) as a whole—did see excessive taqlīd as a cause of Muslims’ straying from Islam’s original message.4 These three scholars, in turn, strongly influenced the Yemeni scholar Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Shawkānī (d. 1834) and the Indian/Pakistani ahl-e ḥadīth movement,5 respectively. The former as well as the latter not only rejected taqlīd in many cases but also were in close contact with and influential to the Arabian movement started by the religious reformer Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703‒1792) that proved to be a great source of influence to modern-day Salafism.6


The focus on the salaf (and especially the Prophet Muhammad), at the expense of other sources of Islamic law, was thus adopted by the ahl al-ḥadīth and individual scholars throughout the Middle Ages, culminating in the Wahhabi movement that started through a pact between Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and the tribal leader Muḥammad b. Saʿūd (1710‒1765). Together, these two men conquered large parts of the Arabian Peninsula, with Ibn Saʿūd assuming most of the political and military leadership, while Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s primary contribution was providing the overarching belief system that united the tribes under the command of the former. As such, an ideology that could be described as a Najdi (Central Arabian) version of Salafism was spread across the Arabian Peninsula.7

Although Wahhabi scholars also advocated a return to “the pious predecessors,” as other scholars had done in the legal sphere, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and his followers did not so much do this in legal terms but focused mostly on theology and “cleansing” the creed of Islam from deviant influences that it had acquired throughout the centuries. Reaching back to the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya and others, who had held views on Islamic theology that were similar to what they espoused, Wahhabi scholars sought to restore the alleged purity of Islam under the guidance of the Saudi rulers. Because of this addition of a clear theological dimension to the desire to emulate the salaf, Wahhabism can be said to represent the first truly Salafi movement (as defined in this article), although it took until the 20th century before this turned into the fully fledged worldwide trend we know today. Wahhabism has, however, provided the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the ideological underpinnings of the state since the 18th century.8

Modernist Salafis

Attempts to return Islam to the supposed purity of the salaf—legally, theologically, or sometimes both—have thus been part of Islam for centuries. Wahhabism on the Arabian Peninsula, moreover, gave actual Salafi scholars and adherents a territorial base in Saudi Arabia that has lasted until today. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, another trend came to the fore that has also become known as Salafism. This trend, mostly associated with the Iranian activist and thinker Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838‒1897) and the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849‒1905), was modernist in nature and sought to reconcile the teachings of Islam with the challenges of modernity. Research has shown that neither of these two men likely saw themselves as actual Salafis, however. They did not refer to their modernist reformism as “Salafism,” and, perhaps most important, held views quite at odds with those of the modern-day movement known as Salafism.9

Reformers who may be labeled “modernist Salafis” did exist, however, and could be found in Syria and Iraq in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Men such as Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Alūsī (1856‒1924) from Baghdad and the Damascene Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (1866‒1914) held ideas that were not exactly like Wahhabism, but did share its claim to go back to the salaf in all its teachings. For modernist Salafis, this expressed itself in an admiration for scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, a strong tendency to reject taqlīd, and an aversion to what they saw as man-made additions to Islam. Yet the objective of these modernist Salafis was different from those of the Wahhabis. While the latter wanted to return to the salaf to “purify” Islam, the former stressed their focus on “the pious predecessors” to strip the religion of elements they deemed backward in order to “modernize” Islam.10 It is doubtful that modernist Salafis ever formed a real trend as such and, because their modernist bent is so different from “purifying” Salafism, they will not be dealt with any further in this article.

The Spread of Salafism

Salafism champions the strict emulation of the salaf, which sets it apart from orthodox or mainstream Sunni Muslims, who do not imitate “the pious predecessors” directly but view them through the prism of the Islamic scholarly tradition as embodied by the madhāhib and their ʿulamāʾ. Orthodox Sunnis nevertheless see the Prophet Muhammad and his companions as examples after which they should model their lives. Although this is a different and more general approach toward early Islam than Salafis advocate, it does show that orthodox Sunnis also attach great importance to the actions of the Prophet and his companions. As such, Sunnis can be said to be somewhat susceptible to Salafism as an approach that remains within the Sunni tradition and seemingly only stresses one aspect of it—the role of the salaf—above all else. This is not to say that orthodox Sunnis are all potential Salafis; in fact, some orthodox Sunnis are quite opposed to the Salafi approach of Islamic tradition.11 It does mean, however, that Sunnis’ admiration of “the pious predecessors”—even if only generally—facilitates the spread of Salafism among them, especially given Salafis’ allegedly greater authenticity and purity resulting from their concentration on the salaf.

The spread of Salafism in the 20th century and its emergence as a worldwide trend (rather than an ideology espoused by individuals or local movements such as Wahhabism) should be explained in this context of general Sunni proclivity toward the salaf. Although indigenous Salafi scholars and movements in various places have undoubtedly contributed to the rise of Salafism, the most important factor in the trend’s spread has been the influence of Wahhabism since the 1950s. This influence has been due to three factors. First, there was the rise of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf. Because of the booming oil business since the second half of the 20th century, many Arabs emigrated to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries to find jobs there. Apart from employment, they also often found Wahhabi ideas there, influencing their own beliefs, which they subsequently took with them when they returned to their home countries, sometimes even resulting in the founding of Salafi organizations.12 Second, in response to the anti-monarchical rhetoric from socialist Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s and revolutionary post-1979 Iran, Saudi Arabia actively started pursuing a policy of spreading Wahhabism as a conservative counter-narrative, backed up by money made in the oil industry.13 Third, the defeat of several Arab states in the June 1967 war with Israel and, by extension, the de-legitimization of Arab socialism, as espoused by Egyptian President Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣir (Nasser; r. 1954‒1970), led to a search for an alternative discourse, which provided fertile ground for Wahhabism.14 As such, Salafism was spread across the Muslim world and even beyond when Middle Eastern Salafis moved to European countries and elsewhere to preach their message there.

Salafi Theology

The spread of Salafism through Wahhabi propaganda from Saudi Arabia was meant to act as a conservative antidote to more radical ideologies from Egypt and Iran (after the 1979 Islamic Revolution). Yet present-day Salafism can be quite radical itself in the sense that its adherents sometimes advocate overthrowing regimes in the Muslim world or support terrorist attacks, while other Salafis abhor such violence. This suggests that Salafism is not a homogeneous trend but quite diverse. Part of this diversity can be ascribed to theology, which is the most important aspect in which Salafis seek to emulate “the pious predecessors,” but which is also one of the most internally contested aspects of their broader ideology.

Salafi theological views are often framed in opposition to other movements and trends within Islam, including ones that no longer exist as such. In fact, Salafis often seem to make their theological case by pointing out whom they are not and what they reject, rather than saying what they stand for themselves, which is perhaps not surprising given that Salafis distinguish themselves through their claim to salaf-inspired “purity.” Generally speaking, in theological issues Salafis have a strong tendency to rely on what believers consider inerrant revelation (waḥy) as expressed in the texts of the Qurʾān. Simultaneously, they reject the excessive spiritualism associated with Sufism, the “deviant” doctrines of the medieval rationalist Muʿtazila movement, the supposedly compromised and sullied message of what might be termed orthodox Sunni Ashʿarī/Māturīdī theology, and the allegedly extremist views on faith (īmān) and unbelief (kufr) by the Murjiʾa and Khawārij, both of them early Islamic trends. This has resulted in a Salafi ʿaqīda that is both distinct from those of others in several of its aspects and also supposedly accords with what the salaf believed.

The Unity of God

The first half of the Islamic confession of faith (shahāda) states that “there is no god but God.” Given the centrality of what Muslims call the unity of God (tawḥīd) in all of Islam, the belief in one deity is certainly not unique to Salafis. The latter do, however, give a very specific meaning to tawḥīd that distinguishes them from other trends within Islam in order to make clear that Salafism is entirely innocent of any form of polytheism (shirk). More precisely, Salafis distinguish “the unity of lordship” (tawḥīd al-rubūbiyya), “the unity of divinity” (tawḥīd al-ulūhiyya, also known as tawḥīd al-ilāhiyya or tawḥīd al-ʿibāda “the unity of worship”) and “the unity of [God’s] names and attributes” (tawḥīd al-asmāʾ wa-l-ṣifāt). While the former refers to the English word “monotheism” in the sense that it denotes the belief that there is only one Lord and Creator, the latter two require some explanation because they clearly distinguish Salafis from some other Muslims.

Tawḥīd al-ulūhiyya refers to the belief that only God may be worshipped and that popular practices like the veneration of “saints” or Shiite imams or the seeking of intercession with God from deceased family members or scholars are forms of polytheism. On the basis of Q. 9:31 (“[Jews and Christians] have taken their rabbis and their monks as lords [arbāban] apart from God”; translation by A. J. Arberry), Salafis also believe that following legislative systems other than the sharīʿa is a form of unbelief, although they differ on the gravity of this and what consequences it should have. Tawḥīd al-asmāʾ wa-l-ṣifāt, finally, refers to the belief that God is entirely unique in all his characteristics. Salafis read verses from the Qurʾān about God’s physical attributes (eyes, hands, etc.; see, e.g., Q. 54:14; 38:75; 67:1) literally and reject the metaphorical explanation of such verses by the Muʿtazila, yet they also believe that “like Him there is naught” (Q. 42:11; translation by A. J. Arberry). Salafis reconcile these seemingly contradictory verses by accepting that God apparently has these characteristics but without speculating as to what they look like exactly. This line of thinking squares mostly or even entirely with the Ḥanbalī approach of “not [asking] how” (bi-lā kayfa), but contrasts with Ashʿarī/Māturīdī theology, which allowed for somewhat more speculation on this subject.15


The concept of tawḥīd al-ulūhiyya is not uniformly interpreted by Salafis. Related to this lack of unity is the question of what constitutes faith. Some prominent Muslim scholars, like Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān b. Thābit (d. 767) and the Ḥanafī scholar Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 933), believed that faith is found in people’s hearts and speech only, not in acts.16 The early Islamic Murjiʾa (“postponers”) held similar beliefs17 and, on top of this, also claimed that the judgment of Muslims’ faith should be postponed and left to God, hence their name.18 This position meant, in effect, that acts did not influence the presence or level of a Muslim’s faith at all as long as they were not supported by corresponding beliefs or speech.

A second position in the debate on what constitutes faith was held by, for example, the Muʿtazila, Ḥanbalīs, and the early Islamic Khawārij trend. All of these stated that faith did include acts and that these should, in fact, be seen as an integral part of it. That position meant that acts could have an impact on īmān, irrespective of whether they were supported by corresponding beliefs and/or speech. This resulted in the position that Salafis also hold nowadays, namely, that faith is expressed through belief (iʿtiqād) or assent (taṣdīq) in the heart (bi-l-qalb), speech (qawl) or verbal affirmation (iqrār) that shows this faith with the tongue (bi-l-lisān), and corresponding acts with the limbs (al-aʿmāl bi-l-jawāriḥ).19


Differences between Salafis and those they agree with on the different elements of faith become apparent once one focuses on the opposite of īmān: unbelief. Salafis believe that sins can take place on three levels of faith: first, they distinguish “the soundness of the religion” (ṣiḥḥat al-dīn), which refers to parts of Islam that are so basic to the religion—like the belief in the existence of one god—that any violation of them (e.g., by bowing to an idol) is immediately labeled kufr; second, Salafis recognize “the compulsory of the religion” (wājib al-dīn), which pertains to tenets of Islam whose rejection is seen as a major sin (kabīra, pl. kabāʾir), but not as kufr (such sins include drinking wine); and third, “the perfection of the religion” (kamāl al-dīn) denotes things that are commendable (mustaḥabb) and whose violation is not sinful at all.20

Sins on the first two levels of faith are divided into two forms of unbelief: major unbelief (kufr akbar) and minor unbelief (kufr aṣghar). The latter consists of major sins that are not committed out of actual unbelief, but because of temptation, bribery, or other factors that do not reflect kufr in a Muslim’s heart. If such a sin, however, is of the utmost gravity (like the aforementioned prostration before an idol) or is underpinned by unbelief in one’s heart or speech, it is elevated to the level of kufr akbar. Salafis distinguish three ways of showing that a sinful act is supported by actual unbelief: if a Muslim makes clear that he or she (1) acted out of conviction (iʿtiqād), despite realizing that Islam prohibits this act; (2) permitted him- or herself to do something (istiḥlāl) by turning something forbidden (ḥarām) into something that is allowed (ḥalāl); or (3) expressed negation (jaḥd or juḥūd) of Islam through a certain act. If Muslims consciously support their sinful acts with such means—even if they are “merely” major sins—Salafis believe such people are guilty of major unbelief. This is a clear distinction between Salafis and the Khawārij, who are said to have labeled any major sin kufr, irrespective of the intentions of the culprit. Apart from this relative carefulness by Salafis in labeling something kufr akbar, they also recognize that there are general obstacles to reaching this verdict, such as if a Muslim made an honest mistake (khaṭaʾ) or acted out of compulsion (ikrāh) or ignorance (jahl), to name but a few.21


The concepts of faith and unbelief are not just divisive between Salafis and others but also between Salafis themselves. This becomes particularly clear when one looks at the logical extension of this debate on īmān and kufr: excommunication (takfīr, calling Muslims unbelievers (kuffār, sing. kāfir)). This concept is contentious among Salafis anyway, but even more so when applied to the political rulers of Muslim countries because of their unwillingness to apply the sharīʿa at the state level. Given that Salafis generally believe, on the basis of Q. 9:31, that not following the laws of Islam is like worshipping other “lords” and thus a violation of the tawḥīd al-ulūhiyya, they see the application of positive law or man-made laws (qawānīn waḍʿiyya) as a form of unbelief. Exactly what type of unbelief this is and whether the culprit is thus a kāfir or merely a fāsiq (sinner)22 is an issue that greatly divides Salafis.

Four different positions can be distinguished in the debate over the excommunication of the rulers. The first could be said to be that of (among others) the Murjiʾa, who would not pronounce takfīr over such acts at all, since they excluded acts from faith altogether. This means that they believed neglecting to apply the sharīʿa had no effects on a Muslim’s faith. The second position would be that of some Salafis, who argue that not applying Islamic law is a major sin and thus a form of minor unbelief, except when it is supported by iʿtiqād, istiḥlāl, or juḥd. The third position is held by other Salafis, who agree with the second position but hold that some rulers’ application of non-Islamic laws is so structural and systematic that it constitutes a total exchange (tabdīl) of laws, thus ensuring that no further proof of that ruler’s unbelief is necessary to label this act major unbelief and to apply takfīr. A fourth position is that of the Khawārij, whom are said to have excommunicated people for any major sins, regardless of whether the sins were underpinned by intentions of unbelief or not. Thus, Salafis do not agree entirely on how to deal with rulers’ breaches of the sharīʿa and how to label the culprits. It is clear that Salafis distinguish themselves from both the Murjiʾa and the Khawārij, although this has not stopped Salafis who differ on this point from vilifying each other as “neo-Murjiʾa” and “neo-Khawārij” to de-legitimize the others’ ideas on the issue of takfīr.23

Ideological Instruments of Exclusiveness

Considering the alleged purity of “the pious predecessors” that Salafis strive to emulate so meticulously in their theological ideas, it is perhaps not surprising that their worldview is one in which they try to remain faithful to their own beliefs while guarding these from outside influences. This results in a certain exclusiveness that Salafis express through their belief that they are “the sect saved (from hellfire)” (al-firqa al-nājiya) or “the victorious group” (al-ṭāʾifa al-manṣūra). These terms are derived from ḥadīths claiming that Jews and Christians have split up into 71 or 72 sects (firqa), while the Islamic community would split up into 73 sects, “all of which are in hell, except for one. That is the group [jamāʿa].” Such a reference to a special “group” also appears in a ḥadīth mentioning that “a group [ṭāʾifa] from my umma will remain committed to the truth (ʿalá l-ḥaqq).”24

Because the “sect” or “group” described in such ḥadīths is clearly set apart from others in a positive way as the one exclusively adhering to the truth, it is not surprising that Muslims want to associate with this group and portray themselves as its adherents. Salafis are no exception in this regard and they therefore also claim that these terms apply to them. For Salafis, “the truth” mentioned in one of these ḥadīths is obviously Islam as espoused by “the pious predecessors.” Salafis also strongly associate this with not following what they perceive to be deviant branches of Islam and, instead, staying on “the straight path” (al-sirāṭ al-mustaqīm). This term, which can also be found in Q. 1:6, has long been part of Salafis’ vocabulary as a means to stay “pure” in their beliefs and customs.25

Strangers and Strange Elements

One term Salafis use to describe their position as “true believers” amidst so many people who deviate from their views is “strangers” (ghurabāʾ). This concept refers to ḥadīths stating “Islam began as a stranger [inna l-Islām badaʾa gharīban] and it will return as it began [wa-sayaʿūdu kamā badaʾa], as a stranger” or slightly different words. These words are meant to have a positive connotation, Salafis believe, on the basis of one ḥadīth, which adds “so good tidings [ṭūbá] to the strangers [al-ghurabāʾ].”26 Even more explicitly positive is another ḥadīth stating: “Be in the world [kun fī l-dunyā] as if you are a stranger or a traveller [ʿābir al-sabīl].”27 Because of the exclusiveness that Salafis attach to their views, the term ghurabāʾ is a label that Salafis often apply to themselves. Moreover, this term also embodies the idea that “true” Muslims do not really belong anywhere else but in Islam. As a result, any opposition that Salafis may encounter in society against their “strict” or “exclusive” views can be seen as confirmation that they are the “strangers” referred to in these ḥadīths and that they therefore must be on the right path.28

While “strangers” is a positive term among Salafis, “strange elements” or “innovations” (bidaʿ, sing. bidʿa) certainly are not. Salafis believe that, throughout the centuries, many of these man-made additions to the religion have entered Islam because of Muslims’ use of sources outside the Qurʾān and the Sunna, such as scholars’ own views, the consensus of the ʿulamāʾ, speculative theology (kalām), and rationalism (ʿaql). As a result, both Sunni doctrine and Islamic law have supposedly become polluted. Salafis therefore focus part of their attention on the “cleansing” (taṣfiya) of Islam of such things and, for example, make a considerable effort to weed out what they see as false ḥadīths from books of Qurʾānic exegesis (tafsīr) and Islamic law (fiqh) in order to restore the religion to the “purity” it had in the days of the salaf. None of this means, however, that Salafis are entirely against renewal (tajdīd). They, in fact, support the latter as a revival of “true” Islam, which is believed to happen at the turn of every century but does not add anything new to the religion, while bidaʿ are actual human additions to the beliefs of “the pious predecessors.”29

Loyalty and Disavowal

Given Salafis’ stress on keeping their beliefs “clean” from outside influences, they need a strong sense of commitment to their own group and everything it stands for while at the same time keeping outside influences at bay. The most important ideological instrument used by Salafis to bring this about is “loyalty and disavowal” (al-walāʾ wa-l-barāʾ). Walāʾ refers to the loyalty and faithfulness Salafis claim one should have toward God, Islam, and other Muslims, while barāʾ denotes the disavowal and rejection one must display toward everything that deviates from these.

In practice, Salafis use al-walāʾ wa-l-barāʾ in three ways. The first of these is the most common and encompasses the strict commitment that Salafis display toward Islam in the social and personal sphere. This is expressed through the use of Muslim names for children rather than, for example, English ones; the celebration of the feast of the breaking of the Ramaḍān fast (ʿīd al-fiṭr) and the feast of sacrifice (ʿīd al-aḍḥá) while shunning other feasts and holidays (including the birthday of the Prophet); greeting fellow-Muslims in the properly Islamic way rather than just saying “hello”; and so on. Such rules have the potential, of course, to keep Salafis away from others entirely, which—especially in a non-Muslim context like in Western countries—can hamper the integration of their communities in society.30 In fact, Salafis often claim that if Muslims cannot live as fully fledged believers in their home countries, they should—like the Prophet himself is said to have done when he fled from Mecca to Medina in 622—make a hijra (emigration) to a Muslim country.31

A second, more controversial form of al-walāʾ wa-l-barāʾ includes a political interpretation of the concept, which states that Muslims must never engage in asking non-Muslims for help (al-istiʿāna bi-l-kuffār) or give help to non-Muslims against fellow-believers (iʿānat al-kuffār), especially in times of war. This type of al-walāʾ wa-l-barāʾ can be seen as entailing strong political solidarity among Muslims while simultaneously avoiding any diplomatic or military ties with non-Muslim countries. This dimension of the concept became particularly prominent when Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to ward off a potential Iraqi invasion of its land, invited 500,000 (mostly non-Muslim) American soldiers to defend the kingdom against the (mostly Muslim) Iraqi army, which led to protests in Saudi Arabia itself and rejection among Salafis elsewhere.32

The final form of al-walā wa-l-barāʾ is the legal one, which states that Muslims’ loyalty to God should also extend to his laws, meaning that the sharīʿa should be applied in full and that “man-made laws” should be rejected outright. This last dimension is far less common than the first two.33

Salafism in Practice

Apart from the differences in theology, Salafis are also divided on their method (manhaj) of how to apply their views in practice. The term manhaj has been applied by Salafis to roughly three areas. The first is their method of reading the Qurʾān and the Sunna. Unlike other Muslims, who apply extra-textual means to interpret these sources, Salafis read these sources literally, such as in the example of God’s attributes. As such, they distinguish themselves from the Muʿtazila (and, to a lesser extent, from orthodox Sunnis following an Ashʿarī/Māturīdī theology), who apply rationalism, metaphorical interpretation (taʾwīl), and speculative theology (kalām) to the texts.

Second, their manhaj with regard to worship (ʿibāda) is to stay away from the veneration of “saints” and rituals such as the commemoration of the martyrdom of Ḥusayn, which they see as veiled forms of shirk. In this way, Salafis differentiate between their method of worship and other forms of popular religion as well as Shiite customs.

Third—and most important—Salafis use the term manhaj to indicate their method of dealing with politics and society. Whereas the other two forms of manhaj distinguish Salafis from other Muslims, this third dimension shows the fault-lines among Salafis themselves because it makes clear how they differ in their engagement with societal affairs, political questions in their countries, and the regimes under whose rule they live. It is for this reason that Salafis are often divided along the lines of this third dimension of manhaj.34 Although theological differences also exist between Salafis, it is their engagement with politics and society that makes them most distinct from one another in practice. As such, three branches of Salafis can roughly be distinguished: quietist Salafis, political ones, and Jihadi-Salafis, each of which can be divided into separate sub-branches.

Quietist Salafis

Probably the majority of Salafis worldwide consists of quietists: Salafis who are politically quietist in the sense that they stay away from political activism such as running for parliament, attending political demonstrations, signing and presenting petitions, engaging in political debates, and founding political parties. To quietist Salafis, such activities are merely a diversion that leads people away from the eternal message of Islam. Instead, Salafis, on the one hand, focus on “cleansing” Islamic tradition in a process that they claim will bring them closer and closer to reaching the supposed purity of the salaf, while, on the other hand, teaching this allegedly pristine form of Islam to their adherents through education (tarbiya) and missionary activities (daʿwa).35

Quietist Salafis’ reasons for not engaging in political activism include more than just the fickle nature of politics. To quietists, activities such as demonstrations, political parties, and debates on contentious political issues divide the umma and—more important—cause strife (fitna), which can only lead to bigger problems (instability, chaos, or even civil war) than the ones people were trying to solve in the first place. This does not mean that quietists do not care about politics or about the political problems facing Muslim countries, however. Eventually, they believe, an Islamic state or caliphate will arise and “Islamic” policies will be applied, but not before society is ready for it, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. For the time being, quietists therefore advocate religious solutions to political conflicts, calling on Muslims to be pious and remain faithful to Islam rather than to take political action or frame conflicts in sectarian terms, pitting “good” Sunni Muslims versus “deviant” Shiites, thereby building on anti-Shiite feelings that are broadly shared among Salafis of all types.

The series of revolutions and revolts that have taken place in the Arab world since 2010 (the “Arab Spring”) is a case in point that clearly shows quietists’ unwillingness to support political activism: quietist Salafis have broadly rejected these uprisings as causing fitna, feeling vindicated—though not happy—when the revolts in several countries turned into armed conflicts in which sometimes thousands of people were killed. All of this means that quietists are rather subservient to the existing regimes and unlikely to rise up against them. Sometimes quoting Q. 13:11 (“God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves”; translation by A. J. Arberry), thereby indicating that dictatorial rulers will only adjust their behavior once they are intrinsically motivated to do so, quietist Salafis advocate only giving discreet advice (naṣīḥa) to rulers. In practice, however, most quietist Salafis rely on a policy of “listening and obedience” (samʿ wa-ṭāʿa), neatly summing up their attitude toward the rulers. Quietists differ in their exact relationship with the rulers of their countries, and they can be divided into three categories: aloofists, loyalists, and propagandists.36

The adherents to one sub-branch of quietist Salafism can be labeled “aloofists” because they are aloof from political action and ties with the rulers altogether. Strongly independent and entirely focused on “cleansing” Islamic tradition and calling on others to join them in emulating the salaf, aloofist quietists can be described as the most purely apolitical Salafis because of their total rejection of getting involved in political activism and relationships with regimes in any way, even if the latter is merely limited to discreet advice. It is not clear how big this sub-trend within quietist Salafism is, possibly because its adherents are ideologically motivated to maintain a low profile, but it is closely associated with the strongly independent-minded Albanian-born scholar Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914‒1999), who grew up in Syria and eventually became the leading scholar of the quietist Salafi community in Jordan.37 Another scholar who may be associated with this trend, though perhaps less fully than al-Albānī, is the Yemeni Muqbil b. Hādī al-Wādiʿī, who was the leader of the Salafi community in his country until his death in 2001.38

The second sub-branch of quietist Salafism is made up of “loyalists,” a reference to their loyalty to the regimes of the Muslim world. Although these quietists are as unlikely to engage in political activism as their aloofist fellow-quietists, they can be called upon to support their regimes when the latter need them. This attitude is particularly clear in Saudi Arabia, where there is an official scholarly Salafi establishment that is made up of ʿulamāʾ who are not engaged in parliamentary action, political debates, or demonstrations in the streets, but whose religious legitimization is needed by the regime to justify its policies. As such, these scholars do engage in giving the rulers discreet advice and—although they may not always agree with their political leaders—can be relied upon to support them in times of need. This trend is more widespread than just in Saudi Arabia, but is perhaps best exemplified in the careers of Saudi scholars like ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Bāz (d. 1999) and Muḥammad b. Ṣāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn (d. 2001), who both held top positions in the official scholarly Salafi establishment in Saudi Arabia.39

The third and final sub-branch of quietist Salafism is slightly different from the second one and can be labeled “propagandists” because they take their loyalty to especially the Saudi regime to such heights that they have a tendency to see love of the kingdom almost as an article of faith and tend to denounce all who dare criticize the Saudi state. Associated mostly with the Saudi ʿulamāʾ Muḥammad b. Amān al-Jāmī (d. 1996) and particularly Rabīʿ b. Hādī al-Madkhalī (b. 1932), this trend often engages in refuting political and radical Muslim thinkers and their ideas, a process known as “wounding and setting right” (al-jarḥ wa-l-taʿdīl). It is especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) as well as the more politically committed (and therefore critical) Salafis that are the target of these refutations.40 Because of their highly visible character and the support they receive from the Saudi state, propagandists are quite popular among quietist Salafis in various European countries, such as France41 and the Netherlands.42

Political Salafis

Unlike the apolitical quietists, political Salafis do engage in activities such as demonstrations, founding political parties, writing and presenting petitions, and political debate. They sometimes even run for parliament in elections. Although their basic ideology is the same as that of other Salafis, they are much more politically savvy, a tendency that partly has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood‒inspired movement known as “awakening” (ṣaḥwa) that started in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s under the influence of exiled Brothers and came to prominence in the decades afterward. Under the leadership of scholars such as Salmān al-ʿAwda (b. 1955) and Safar al-Ḥawālī (b. 1950), this trend became particularly well known after it was heavily involved in the protests against the Saudi invitation of 500,000 American troops onto its soil and the attempts to seek political and religious reform afterward.43

Another important source of engaging with politics can be found in the Kuwaiti Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (Jamʿiyyat Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-Islāmī). Between 1981 and the early 1990s, it acted as an umbrella for all kinds of Salafi activities in Kuwait, including political action. The scholar most responsible for this was Abū ʿAbdallāh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAbd al-Khāliq (b. 1939), who sees Islam as including much more than the activities that quietists focus on and also believes politics is part of religion. Although his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s decision to invite 500,000 American soldiers onto its soil in 1990 led to his removal from the Jamʿiyyat Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-Islāmī and the subsequent transformation of this organization into a quietist Salafi one, Ibn ʿAbd al-Khāliq’s influence among Salafis in Kuwait and elsewhere—particularly Lebanon—has remained.44

Political Salafism, as rooted in the Saudi and Kuwaiti experiences and in indigenous trends in other countries, has led to basically two types of politicos among Salafis whose exact positions are not just shaped by ideology but also—and perhaps even more—by political circumstances. On the one hand, there are those who debate politics, do not reject demonstrations, and believe Salafis should get involved in contentious issues in society, but who do not run for parliamentary office or try to found political parties because they do not want to or are not allowed to. The ṣaḥwa movement in Saudi Arabia can be seen as an example of this trend, as can the Book and Sunna Society (Jamʿiyyat al-Kitāb wa-l-Sunna) in Jordan.45 On the other hand, there are those political Salafis who have, in fact, taken the leap into parliamentary work and have actually founded political parties through which they run for elections. These include some political Salafis in Kuwait and their Muslim Community Party (Ḥizb al-Umma),46 as well as the more recently established Light Party (Ḥizb al-Nūr) in Egypt, which was founded in the aftermath of the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Ḥusnī Mubārak in 2011.47 Both trends have spread to other parts of the Muslim world as well as European countries, through the migration of some of their primary exponents or the spread of their ideology.48


The term “Jihadi-Salafis” suggests that this group consists of the Salafis who support or wage jihad. This is not entirely correct, however, since all Salafis believe jihad—in its spiritual, social, and military forms—is a legitimate concept in Islam, not just Jihadi-Salafis. What sets the latter apart from other Salafis is the belief that military jihad should not just—in what may be termed a “classical jihad”—be waged between Muslims and non-Muslims to defend or expand the abode of Islam (dār al-Islām) but also to fight against what they perceive to be the apostate rulers in the Muslim world itself. The latter, Jihadi-Salafis believe, have forfeited their claim to being Muslims and deserve to be killed for their application of laws other than those of the sharī‘a. This revolutionary type of jihad deviates from the classical one and is rooted ideologically in the writings of radical Muslim Brotherhood thinkers like the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb (1906‒1966) as well as Salafi writings that have been radically reinterpreted.49

This mixing of ideas between various types of jihad partly occurred in Afghanistan in the period 1979‒1989, when the Soviet Union occupied that country to support the communist government there and, as a result, unleashed a wave of Afghan and Arab resistance to this occupation. Out of this group of “Afghan Arabs,” which centered on the Palestinian-Jordanian Muslim Brother ʿAbdallāh ʿAzzām (1941‒1989), the terrorist organization al-Qāʿida (“the Base”) arose in the 1990s. Although led by the Saudi Usāma b. Lādin (1957‒2011), the latter’s deputy and eventual successor, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (b. 1950), came up with a new form of jihad labeled “global jihad,” which entailed taking the fight to the Western backers of “apostate” regimes in the Muslim world to get them to withdraw their support, leaving the leaders in Islamic countries weak and easy to topple. It is in this ideological context that attacks such as the ones on September 11, 2001, and the July 7, 2005, bombings in London should be seen.50

Although al-Qāʿida became the primary exponent of Jihadi-Salafism and most important advocate of global jihad after 2001, this organization was supported and provided with justification of its general ideology by a host of scholars around the world, including the Palestinian-Jordanian Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī (b. 1959), his countryman Abū Qatāda al-Filasṭīnī (b. 1960), and the Syrian-British Abū Baṣīr al-Ṭarṭūsī (b. 1959). Moreover, the popularity of this organization among Jihadi-Salafis outside the Afghanistan/Pakistan-region combined with the American-led war against the group’s bases in Afghanistan ensured that it developed into several local branches. These often engaged in renewing the revolutionary jihad against the regimes in their own countries and/or fought the American military stationed there. This was the case in, among other countries, Saudi Arabia,51 Yemen,52 and—perhaps most important—Iraq. The latter, led by the Jordanian militant Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī (1966‒2006), was responsible for many hundreds of deaths among American soldiers, who were there in the context of the America-led war in Iraq that started in 2003, but also among Shiites in various places around the country.53

Al-Qāʿida in Mesopotamia—as the Iraqi branch of the organization was referred to—later developed into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI; al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī l-ʿIrāq) and, after the civil war in Syria that started in 2011 provided the organization with a foothold in that country, the Islamic State in Iraq and Shām (Greater Syria; ISIS; al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī l-ʿIrāq wa-l-Shām). On June 29, 2014, the organization, under the leadership of the Iraqi Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī (real name: Ibrāhīm ʿAwwād Ibrāhīm ʿAlī al-Badrī al-Samarrāʾī; b. 1971) even went so far as to announce the establishment of a caliphate and changed its name again, this time simply into “the Islamic State” (IS; al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya).54 The idea that a new caliphate had arisen on the basis of Jihadi-Salafi ideas excited many people and, indeed, thousands of Muslim men and women flocked to Syria and Iraq—for different reasons—to support IS, but many Jihadi-Salafi scholars (not to mention mainstream Sunni ʿulamāʾ, who reject Jihadi-Salafism altogether) were quite dismayed. To them, the use of violence by IS—which sometimes included beheadings and burning people alive—as well as that organization’s exclusive claim to have re-established the caliphate were explicitly rejected by many Jihadi-Salafi scholars as premature, unwise, illegitimate, and even unbecoming of Jihadi-Salafism as a whole.55

The rise of IS and its widely displayed violence have put the media spotlight firmly on a branch of Salafism that many of the broader trend’s adherents do not want to associate with in any way. In fact, quietists often reject labeling groups such as al-Qāʿida and IS as “Salafis,” claiming that such organizations have nothing to do with the salaf and, by extension, Salafism whatsoever. To them, their manhaj of “cleansing” and teaching Islam without getting involved in political activism—let alone terrorism—is the only correct method of emulating the salaf. It is therefore ironic that the very groups that have probably done more to bring Salafism to people’s attention are precisely those organizations that most Salafis utterly abhor.

Further Reading

  • Bonnefoy, Laurent. Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity. London: Hurst, 2011.
  • Cavatorta, Francesco, and Fabio Merone, eds. Salafism after the Arab Spring. London: Hurst, 2016.
  • Commins, David Dean. Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Commins, David. The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.
  • Gauvain, Richard. Salafi Ritual Purity: In the Presence of God. London: Routledge, 2013.
  • Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Lacroix, Stéphane. Les Islamistes saoudiens: Une insurrection manquée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010.
  • Lauzière, Henri. The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
  • Lav, Daniel. Radical Islam and the Revival of Medieval Theology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Meijer, Roel, ed. Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement. London: Hurst, 2009.
  • Pall, Zoltan. Lebanese Salafis between the Gulf and Europe: Development, Fractionalization and Transnational Networks of Salafism in Lebanon. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013.
  • Rougier, Bernard, ed. Qu’est-ce que le salafisme? Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008.
  • Steinberg, Guido. Religion und Staat in Saudi-Arabien: Die wahhabitische Gelehrten, 1902–1953. Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2002.
  • Wagemakers, Joas. A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Wagemakers, Joas. Salafism in Jordan: Political Islam in a Quietist Community. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.


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  • 21. Joas Wagemakers, “An Inquiry into Ignorance: A Jihādī-Salafī Debate on Jahl as an Obstacle to Takfīr,” in The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam: Essays in Honour of Harald Motzki, ed. Nicolet Boekhoff-van der Voort, Kees Versteegh, and Joas Wagemakers (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 301–327.

  • 22. Q.: 5:44–47.

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