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On Salafi Islam: What Exactly is ‘Salafism’? Part-1


By Dr. Yasir Qadhi

02 September 2014

1. Definitions: What is Salafī Islam?

What exactly is ‘Salafism’? In the absence of a unanimously agreed upon definition, I propose to elucidate the modern Salafī phenomena via an outline of its beginnings, an assessment of its particular characteristics, manifestations of it in various contemporary groups, and a discussion of its positive and not so positive contributions to Islam and our global society.

Within the context of our modern World, or to be more precise over the last half a century, the term ‘Salafī’ has come to designate an Islamic methodology, the aspirational objective of which is the emulation of the Prophetic example via the practices and beliefs of the earliest generations of Islam. This is because the first three Islamic generations, in being closest to the era of Muammad (Sallallāhu ‘Alayhi Wa Sallam) and the period of revelation, are understood to best embody the Prophetic Sunnah, and thus a pristine Islam.

Inasmuch as the term refers to a methodology, it would be fair to say that it does not specify any one particular or distinct community or group of believers. The generic nature of this term is further illustrated by the fact that more than a dozen distinct groups either identify themselves as Salafī, in that they believe themselves to be on the Salafī Manhaj (methodology), or they do not object to the term being ascribed to them even if they themselves do not use it. Whilst saying this however, it is worth noting that every one of these groups considers the correct application of the term exclusive to itself, alleging that all other claimants are not representative of ‘true Salafism’. This being the case, an outline of the various points of agreement and disagreement amongst the multiple strands of Salafī Islam is a prerequisite to a comprehensive understanding of ‘Salafism’.

 1.1 Points of Consensus among Salafī Movements

There are some general characteristics that are present in all manifestations of Salafism, without exception. In particular:

1) They consider themselves alone as correctly espousing the teachings and beliefs of the Salaf al-Sāli. In particular, they affirm the theological creed that was narrated from them (typically called the ‘Atharī’ creed’)

2) They categorically reject any possibility of metaphoric or symbolic interpretation of the Divine Names and Attributes (Tawīd Al-Asmāʾ Wa’l-Sifāt), a hallmark of the sects such as the Muʿtazilah and the Ashāʿirah

3) They absolutely affirm God’s exclusive right to be worshipped (Tawīd Alulūhiyyah) and refute anything that may compromise this directly, or lead to its being compromised. Hence, syncretic practices of certain Sufīs (e.g., extreme saint veneration, intercession of the dead, etc.) are condemned.

4) They oppose all reprehensible innovations (Bida) and dissociate from those who ascribe to them (Ahl al-Bida). There is especially staunch opposition to Shīʿism, particularly because of the Shīʿite doctrine of dissociating from most of the Companions.

5) They respect and take recourse to the legal and theological opinions of Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya (d. 748/1328). It is important to note, however, that Ibn Taymiyya cannot, and is not, considered a progenitor for the modern Salafī movement, as they view themselves as having no one single founder after the Prophet Muammad (Sallallāhu ‘Alayhi wa Sallam).

 1.2 Points Of Contention Among Salafī Groups

While there is general agreement on the above, there are numerous issues in which disagreement abounds, and each point of contention is manifested in a spectrum of opinions. Foremost amongst these issues are:

1. Position with respect to the validity and necessity of following one of the jurisprudential schools (Madhāhib):

The numerous Salafī strands hold conflicting positions with regard to the ruling on adhering to a particular Madhab, so much so that it has been a source of tension amongst them.

a. Impermissible: opposition to the canonization of the schools of law was historically a feature of the āhirī school (of Ibn azm, d. 456H). The modern revival of this ‘anti-Madhab’ trend can be traced back to Muammad ayāt al-Sindhī (d. 1163) who influenced al-anʿānī (d. 1182), al-Shawkānī (d. 1250), iddīq asan Khān (d. 1307), [1] and, most recently, ir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 2000). All of these individuals were decidedly anti-Madhhabist.

b. Discouraged but not invalid: some Salafī movements permit the lay person to follow a Madhab in times of necessity, obliging him to go with the Dalīl (stronger evidence) when it is made known to him. [2]

c. Permissible: By and large, Sunnī Islam has considered adherence to a Madhab recommended or obligatory for a lay Muslim, and this is also founds in some strands of Salafī Islam. Muammad b. Abd al-Wahhāb (d. 1206),[3] champion of the ‘Najdi Da‘wah’ was influenced by al-Sindhī in theology but remained a committed follower of the anbalī school of law, considering the practice of Islam’s rites and rituals within the paradigm of a Madhab to be both valid and praiseworthy.

 2. Dissociation from Ahl al-Bidʿa.

Theoretically all Salafīs dissociate from religious innovations and those who adhere to and propagate them. However, the scope and method of how this dissociation is implemented at the practical level varies from group to group and from scholar to scholar.

Those with the strictest stance on this issue inevitably cast a wide net of ‘guilt by association’: if person B associates with known deviant A, then person B is declared deviant. If person C then associates with deviant B, now he too becomes a deviant, ad infintum, ad nauseum. The unfortunate, though predictable, product of such disaffiliation and judgment is the precipitation of further division and splintering within this brand of the Salafī community.

This methodology is the defining group of the ‘Madkhalīs’ (students of the Saudi Shaykh Rabīʿ bin Hādī al-Madkhalī), who legitimise this practice by considering it an extension of the science of Al-Jarh Wa’l-TaʿDīl (the science of ‘adīth criticism’ whereby adīth specialists deem narrators to be reliable or not). While in recent years the popularity of the Madkhalī strand has waned considerably, many non-Madkhalī Salafīs continue to adopt a hard-line attitude on this point, refusing even to invite persons of different viewpoints to their conferences and gatherings.

However, some Salafī scholars and groups adopt a more lenient stance in this regard, and are willing to allow co-operation with some non-Salafī communities (for example, allowing cooperation with Deobandis, but not Shīʿīs).

 3. Theological position on ‘Īmān’ (faith) and whether actions constitute a requisite part of Īmān or are subsidiary to it.

The discussion of Īmān and what it connotes is a relatively modern question, one that arose in the latter part of the 90s when Sh. al-Albānī stated that he did not consider actions to be a necessary part of Īmān.[4]The standard Salafī position prior to this, and the explicit position of Ibn Taymiyya and the scholars affirming Atharī theology, was that certain actions are a necessary requirement of faith and the absence of such actions contradicted the presence of Īmān.

 4. The level of allegiance and obedience toward an Islamic ruler (āʿAt Walī Al-Amr), and the amount of political activism allowed.

This point is a vast and convoluted one, and perhaps the most obvious issue of disagreement to those outside of the movement. The levels of political activism and political dissent, and the necessity of allegiance and loyalty to the Muslim rulers, and the ‘Islam’ of an illegitimate ruler, are theological ‘grey’ areas that various Salafī scholars have attempted to negotiate in today’s ever volatile political climate. The positions can be summarized as follows:

a. Criticizing a legitimate ruling authority is doctrinally prohibited tantamount to sin and deviation. Some Salafīs, in particular the ‘mainstream’ Saudi Salafīs and Madkhalīs, are extremely pro-government.[5]

b. Questioning and advising the ruling authority is an extension of Al-Amr Bi’l-MaʿRūf Wa’l-Nahy ʿAn Al-Munkar (‘advising the good and forbidding evil’). Some Salafīs view voicing opposition to government policy as a legitimate and necessary extension of the Islamic notion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, and equate it with the Islamic principle of attempting to prevent an oppressor from committing his oppression. Examples of this are the awa scholars of Saudi Arabia, who will be discussed below.

c. Questioning the legitimacy of all rulers of Muslim lands. There are some Salafī groups who consider all the rulers of Muslim lands (or: only those who do not rule by the Sharīʿah), to be illegitimate and regard them as disbelievers, whose legitimacy should be contested, perhaps by force. [6]

5. The issue of Takfiri (deeming the belief of a Muslim to be invalid) and in particular Takfiri of the rulers who don’t judge by the laws of the Sharīʿah (al- Hukm Bi Ghayr Mā Anzal Allah). [7]

Once again, there is a spectrum of opinion [8]:

a. rulers of Muslim lands who judge by secular laws are believers. Some scholars, such as the previous Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Bāz (d. 1999) and Shaykh al-Albānī, held the view that a ruler who judged by secular laws is still a believer (unless certain conditions, difficult to verify, exist). They argued that this is a sin that does not in itself expel them from the fold of Islam.

b. such rulers are treated as Muslim, and obeyed for the greater good of the community, but their action of ruling by other than Allah is major Kufr. This is the view of many middle-of-the-road Salafīs, such as Shaykh Muammad b. Sāli al-ʿUthaymīn (d. 2001).

c. rulers of Muslim lands who rule by secular laws have fallen into Kufr, and their rule is illegitimate and their belief negated; hence allegiance to them is null and void. This group consists of the hard-liners, represented by figures like Abū Muammad al-Maqdisī and Abū Musʿab al-Sūrī, whose writings inspire the jihadist-Salafī movements, which leads us to our next point.

6. Position with respect to Jihād. Whilst the majority of groups championing Salafism are pacifist, there are minority voices within the overall ‘Salafī movement’ who adopt a more ‘militarist’ position. They consider a military Jihāda binding obligation, either on some segments of the Ummah, or on all eligible members of the Ummah. They focus on either or both of the following:

(i) Removing secular rulers from Muslim lands.

(ii) Maintaining perpetual conflict against non-Muslim governments that have militarily intervened in Muslim lands.

Typically, and understandably, the last three points (i.e., the question of ruling by other than Allah, challenging the belief of the Muslim non-Sharʿī ruler, and the issue of jihad) are intrinsically interconnected. Those holding the harshest views on the legitimacy and belief of a ruler who judges by other than the law of God inevitably adopt the most radical position in pronouncing takfīr and thus lay the foundations for necessitating military jihad.

1.3 Some prominent Salafī groups [9]

1. Mainstream Saudi Salafism. This is the largest and most prominent of the Salafī groups, as exemplified by the majority of Saudi clerics. These clerics typically adhere to a Madhab (almost always the anbalī one), are pacifist, and loyal to their rulers. This group, as represented by the Saudi scholarly community, avoids blanket Takfiri, and remains vocally critical of extremist Jihād groups.

2. Shaykh al-Albānī’s Jordanian strand of Salafism. Another significant group in terms of adherents, they are extremely anti-Madhhabist, and advocate for a strictly Dalīl-based jurisprudence. Politically, they are quietest, actively avoiding anything to do with rulers or jihadist Salafīs, although perhaps their revocation of the latter is not as pronounced as that of the first group. This group also tends to be the most literalist in fiqh and strict in its application of the concept of Bidʿa to practices that most other Salafīs would view as innocuous (for example, giving Adhān inside the Masjid, or having marked rows on the carpets, or having other than three steps on the Minbar, and so forth).

3. The awa movement of Saudi Arabia has been involved in peaceful political reform, without calling for overthrowing the rulers. Clerics like Shaykh Salman al-Oadah, and Shaykh Safar al-awalī before him, are representative of this trend. For the most part, this group has proven to be politically savvy and extremely active on social media; as a result of this, they have garnered some measure of mass appeal amongst the more educated youth. Their concern for Muslims has been manifested in their active involvement in fighting the social problems in their societies.

4. The Madkhalī trend is a smaller sub-sect of the Saudi Salafīs. They are a unique strand and more of an exception to the general Salafī trend. Their methodology is inherently the most divisive. This trend tends to almost exclusively concentrate on other individuals and whether those individuals are on the correct Salafī path or not. The Madkhlīs are continuously splintering amongst themselves, based on who in particular is currently ‘on’ or ‘off’ the Manhaj. In terms of relevance, they are a dwindling community, as evidenced in the shrill desperation of their hysterical refutations and the minimal impact these refutations make.[10]

5. Egyptian Salafism – also representing a wide spectrum of views – has, for the large part, been in some disarray since the Arab Spring. Typically, Egyptian Salafīs have been most influenced by the Jordanian-Albānī branch, and hence are extremely literalist in Fiqh. There is also a Madhkhalī equivalent amongst Egyptian Salafīs. One also finds, as in all countries, that they have radically different political orientations. The most significant branch, the Noor Party, has adopted a staunchly pro-Sisi position, while others remain apolitical, and some have come out criticizing the current regime. We are currently witnessing a huge overhaul in Egyptian Salafism, and it is too early to fully assess the various positions being adopted and the nuances that will emerge.[11]

6. Takfīrī Salafīs: These typically emphasize Takfiri issues, in particular making Takfīrī against non-Sharʿī rulers, but do not call for jihad against them since (from their perspective) the time is not right and the conditions are not appropriate. This group characteristically highlights the travesties of Western foreign policies against the Muslim people and their lands and the hypocritical positions of Muslim authorities. There is an overarching preoccupation with the notion of Walāʾ Wa-L-Barāʾ (loyalty and disloyalty), which is manifested most in their defence of all Muslim groups who fight against the West, regardless of the legitimacy of their tactics. Their frequent and casual resort to Takfīr has often resulted in their levelling the charge of hypocrisy (Nifāq) and disbelief (Kufr) on their critics. This group shares much with the Madkhalīs in terms of manners and harshness but remains staunchly opposed to them because of their difference of opinion on Muslim governments. Some contemporary personalities subscribing to this particular strand of Salafism include Abū Muammad al-Maqdisi and Abū Musʿab al-Sūrī; they have a small yet dedicated following in the West (primarily composed of young men[12] influenced by the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated by a targeted US drone attack in 2012). While most members of this group do not actively engage in Jihād themselves, their writings lay the foundations for the position of the next group.

7. Radical jihadist Salafīs: Encompassing radical theological and political positions, this ‘strand’ of Salafism includes militant organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS. While I have differentiated between these last two categories, many would correctly point out that they are a continuum, without a clear dividing line separating them. It is worthy of mention, here, that though they may espouse some strain of the Salafī methodology in their theological positions, they are typically condemned by all other Salafīs on account of their militancy. Additionally, these groups emphasize issues that most others Salafīs don’t (such as their version of Jihād) and ignore issues that mainstream Salafīs would discuss. (For the record, it should be noted that these groups originated from a union of splintered sub groups of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Salafism in the early 1980s – hence, technically, they are not of ‘pure’ Salafī origin).

The cursory and incomplete list above demonstrates the problem in attributing the term ‘Salafī’ to any one of these designated groups. The existence of so much disagreement between the various strands of Salafīs highlights the very real problem of describing as ‘Salafī’ any of the above issues as one collective whole: none of these individual groups is representative of Salafism in its entirety.

 2. Positive Aspects of Salafism

Salafism, in representing a methodology espousing the aspiration toward a pristine Islam, has been a positive force. There was a time in the 90s when the Salafī methodology, as represented by popular international English-speaking clerics, attracted large segments of Western youth.

Some Positives Of The Salafī Movement Are:

1) Primacy of the Sacred Texts. The Salafī methodology of taking recourse to the Qur’an and Sunnah challenges Muslims to approach the Sacred Texts for guidance and understanding, and not just spiritual blessings. This is in stark contrast to some other traditionalist schools that discourage their adherents from deriving any meanings or rulings for fear of misunderstanding them, so much so that some Muslim sects claim that adīth books should never be read except by specialists and perhaps even discourage an active and academic study of the Qur’an.

2) Encourages critical engagement with modern customs and cultures in light of the Qur’an and Sunnah, with a marked emphasis on solid evidence, as opposed to what Shaykh so-and-so said or what one’s forefathers practiced. As such, Salafism appears to be liberating from the confines of ‘cultural Islam’, offering an avenue toward an unadulterated universal Islam that transcends time and place, and is true to that practiced at the time of revelation.

3) It eschews the syncretism of superstitious practices prevalent in folk-versions of Islam, such as the unfounded veneration of saints or the invoking of other than God for one’s needs. In this regard, it can be said that Salafism aims to offer a pristine, unmolested framework within which the rituals of Islam ought to be practiced.[13]

4) adīth authentication. An undeniable effect that Salafism has had across most Islamic movements is an awareness of the necessity to verify the authenticity of adīth. Even those who oppose Salafism are now more precise and exact when quoting Hadīths in their books, and verifying them with verdicts of classical and medieval scholars. This is an extremely positive contribution, and one that can be credited as a legacy of Shaykh al-Albānī and his writings.

5) A general and more comprehensive awareness of the branches of academic Islam. An average Salafī would be cognizant of the role of Uūl al-Fiqh, the importance of Mutala al-adīth, the basic structure and scope of ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, and so forth. It is safe to say that an average follower of Salafism is more aware of the academic disciplines underpinning Islam than an average follower of any other tradition.

6) Salafīs have an enviably pure theology. Any objective researcher will find that the Atharī creed is the earliest documented Sunnī creed, pre-dating the Kalām based creeds of the Ashāʿirah and Māūrīdiyah.[14] This is manifested in numerous theological treatises that still exist from the late second and early third Islamic centuries (some of which predate ʿAqīdah al-aāwīyyah). The Atharī creed was the dominant strand of Sunnī Islam in the fourth and fifth Islamic centuries,[15] and although it came to be limited to the anbalī School of the sixth century as a result of political changes, it received a reviving boost from the ever phenomenal Ibn Taymiyya, from whom it still continues to receive vigor.[16]

7) Dispersal of Islamic knowledge and the revitalization of the Islamic libraries.

Salafism has contributed immensely to research via the mass printing of thousands of edited manuscript works, on all sciences of Islam. Even detractors of Salafism take recourse to books printed at Salafī publishing houses, and academics continue to benefit from their online Islamic search engines, electronic repositories, and forums. Any Islamic library in the world today will have a good percentage of works edited and printed by Salafīs because Salafism concerns itself with the classical tradition of Islam.

8) Avoidance of most shirk and innovations in rituals. No matter what its faults, as a whole, the Salafī movement has avoided falling into most categories of shirk, and its over-cautious vigilance against innovations has safeguarded for it an enviable purity in the rituals of Islamic worship. Erring on the side of extreme caution (while no doubt problematic in its own light) saves the Salafī creed from the more egregious examples of heresies that most other movements suffer from.

In all of this, Salafism is a dynamically oriented movement that aims to empower individual Muslims via direct access to the Qur’an and Sunnah, and thus equips its adherents with knowledge to challenge authoritarianism, question blind-allegiance, and correct the corruption of cult-leaders. No wonder then that Salafism, as a methodology, appeals to the rational and inquisitive mind, and sits comfortably with the human Firah.

 3. Some Criticisms of the Movement

The Salafī movement, like any other, is as fallible as the people who adhere to it. The abstract notion of ‘Salafism’ (as a Platonic Universal) does not exist outside of the very real and tangible world that humans inhabit; and since all humans are prone to error, the Salafī movement has also manifested some errors and inconsistencies in its claim to follow the earliest of generations.

The understanding of the Salaf includes many fundamental issues that are completely neglected or even contradicted by contemporary Salafī groups. Additionally, there is a methodological flaw in attempting to extrapolate a Salafī position (meaning: a position that the Salaf would hold) about a modern issue that the Salaf never encountered. The ‘Salafī position’ (meaning one that is held by some scholars of the modern Salafī movement) with respect to questions on citizenship in nation-states, democracy, the role of women in today’s society, the permissibility of voting, and the issue of Jihād in the modern world, etc., are merely personal opinions (Fatwa) of the scholars who pronounce them and cannot be representative of the views of the first three generations of Islam.

An important disclaimer before I begin my list. As I list these points, I stress that for each one, one can find plenty of exceptions on an individual level, and even in some strands of Salafism. When I list these points, I am speaking on a holistic level, fully realizing that there are inherent problems associated with such sweeping generalizations. While the positives that I listed in the previous section abound in all strands, these negatives that follow are not as universal, nor, for the most part, are they explicitly encouraged.

Nonetheless, I stand by what I say: that the criticisms that follow are observable trends in the movement as a whole, and exceptions (and they are plenty) are because those individuals that are free of them have managed to overcome these problems in manners that the movement as a whole does not embrace or teach.

I must also state that of the primary reasons in listing these criticisms is so that Salafīs themselves may reflect on them, and eventually work to minimize them. I pray that a time comes when these generalized criticisms become the exceptions to the rule; however, as I write these lines, these criticisms are prevalent and symptomatic of most strands of the movement.


URL of Part 2:‘salafism’?-part-2/d/98999