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Understanding The Political Ideology Of Salafism And Its Theology Of Supremacism, Exclusivism And Violence - Part 1

By Grace Mubashir, New Age Islam

24 April 2022

Salafi Movements (Often Referred To As Wahhabism) Represent A Diverse Community

Main Points:

1.    Salafism is a branch of Sunnite tradition.

2.    Efforts of Salafi movements to institutionalize the new creed got materialized with the Establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

3.    Salafis are united by a common creed which provides guidelines for applying religious teachings to contemporary issues.


Salafism is a branch of Sunnite tradition. Salafi movements (often referred to as Wahhabism) represent a diverse community. All Salafi sects propound a puritanical approach to the religion intended to eschew innovation by strictly emulating the model of Prophet Mohamed and the first generation of Muslims. It is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist movement started with Ahmed ibn Hanbal (780-855). Later ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) popularized the movement through his reform activities and put the postulates for the future evolutions. With the  advent of Mohamed ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) in Najd (in present day Saudi Arabia) Salafism was transformed from passive theological discourses into active political activism with diverse strategies. Efforts of Salafi movements to institutionalize the new creed got materialized with the Establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 under the theological aegis of Salafi scholars and helped Salafism gaining ascendancy in the Muslim world. Imperial forces exploited the radical movement to fight against the soviet ambitions in the region. Osama bin Laden was an American protégé dispatched to expel the Red Bears from Afghanistan with the support of America, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Abundance of petro dollars of the Saudi Kingdom generously imported this hate ideology into various parts of Muslim world making serious fissures in the religious peaceful status quo.

Salafis are united by a common creed which provides guidelines for applying religious teachings to contemporary issues. This creed concentrates on the stern adherence to the concept of pristine Tawhid (oneness of God) and emphatic rejection of human subjectivity in the jurisprudence, human reason and logic to interpret the religion. From this Salafi perspective there is only one true religion in the world and only one legitimate religious interpretation in Islam; Islamic pluralism does not exist. In terms of political participation and social engagements Salafi movements could be classified into three; namely

·       Purists: As the name suggests, “purists” are primarily concerned with maintaining the purity of Islam as outlined in the Qur’an, Sunna, and consensus of the Companions (Ijma). They believe that the primary emphasis of the movement should be on promoting the Salafi creed and combatting deviant practices, just as the Prophet fought polytheism, human desire, and human reason. Until the religion is purified, any political action will likely lead to corruption and injustice because society does not yet understand the tenets of faith. The proper method for implementing the creed is therefore propagation (Da’wa), purification (Tazkiyya), and religious education or cultivation (Tarbiya).

·       Politicos: Older scholars dominate the purist faction and attempt to monopolize religious authority by arguing that they alone have the depth of religious training, knowledge, and experience to render judgments about complex issues. Because the purists control the state religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, including the Council of Senior Ulama (Scholars), they enjoy considerable influence over government policy and have used their positions to promote purist interpretations of Islam. Their authority, however, was challenged during the 1980s and 1990s by a group of young, more politically minded Salafi scholars, here referred to as “the politicos.” The politicos argued that they have a better understanding of contemporary issues and are therefore better situated to apply the Salafi creed to the modern context. They generally stop short of declaring revolution, unlike the Jihadis, but are highly critical of incumbent regimes. Although the politicos control fewer resources and assets, they have clearly shaken the purist grip over Islamic interpretation and put the older generation of scholars on the defensive.

·       Jihadis: The jihadi faction, those supporting the use of violence to establish Islamic states, emerged during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. This conflict functioned as a dangerous incubator by exposing Saudi Salafis (and others) to the radical and politicized teachings of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and related splinter groups (the Islamic Group, Islamic Jihad, etc.) in a context of military training and warfare. Unlike the politico exposure to Ikhwani analysis at the universities, the Jihadis received their political training on the battlefield. As a result, their introduction was imbued with an emphasis on politics as warfare, something they later brought back to their own countries.

To sum up, Split in Salafi movements is not in thought but it is in strategy while applying inherently subjective human interpretation to new issues and problems. Stubbornness of Salafi creed on monolithic manifestation of ultimate truth makes the Salafi movement good recipe for violence and hatred stunting national growth. As solution, Salafism needs to be reconstructed in order to complete is historical reform mission opposing many blind superstitions crept into the religion while neutralizing the radical elements posing threat to harmony and peace.     

Genealogy Of Salafi Movements: A History Of Religious Intolerance And Violence

Is Islam compatible with the new global initiatives for peace and does Islam offer solution to the followers are well discussed. Islam which advocates peace has been falsely construed by radical elements to incite war and social antagonism. It is to be sadly admitted that Islamic sharia’ is abused to sanction physical annihilation of diversity, a requirement that God stipulated to work each other for mutual prosperity and to destabilize the democratic secular governments. As noted by Majid Khadduri, mass emotional appeal of fanatical scholars causes the occasional invoking of selective sharia’ laws to prop up the terrorism and spiritual aggression. Islam is rooted in universal peace and brotherhood, but historical Islam is abundant with incidents that demonstrate the theological support for pluralism and coexistence. Sufism, peaceful and assimilative spiritual stream of Muslims, enlivened the great pluralistic ideals of Islam wherever it is found. The great dilemma of Muslim world caused by Salafi distortion is about the nature of Islam, whether it is monolithic or pluralistic. According to mainstream Muslims, Islam is both universal in belief and local in practice. Islam suggests uniform and universal laws like belief in one God and Messenger but the practical manifestations are different in various parts to suit the legitimate concerns of the people. Thus, Islam allows for a great deal of integration into local culture and formation of indigenous traditions compatible with the universal teachings of Islam, a key reason behind the spontaneous spread of Islam.

Negation of local cultural traditions preached by Sufis as bid’a (religious innovation) and perceiving imagined global communities faithful makes the core of Salafism. This approach disproving pluralism, compounded with other characteristics of radical revolutionary movements renders Salafism a great challenge to intra and interreligious dialogues and harmony, placing the religious chauvinism above national interests and peoples welfare. Salafi belief in exclusive religious truth leads the adherents to stamp tags of apostasy and heresy upon others making the opponents legitimate targets of violence. Doctrinal intransigence rid the Salafi movements of the religious responsibility of national integration and civilizational dialogues making them highly susceptible to elimination drive of perceived non-believers. Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, ascribed lack of development to the Salafi puritanical missions in Muslim world.

Salafism has made inroads in all countries especially in places where Muslims are a  minority or oppressed community. Through migration from Asia and Africa Salafism reached Europe in seventies. Fundamentalist Salafi scholars funded by Saudi Arabia were dispatched to all parts of world to preach the hate ideology of Salafism. Book by David Commins titled The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia has minutely tracked the trails of Wahhabi expansion in various parts of world. Physical violence, jihad, was widely exercised by Salafism to confront disbelief breaking away from the tradition of Islam engaging in intellectual discourses.

Assaf Moghadam argues that violence and jihad are intrinsic to the puritanical teachings of Salafism as it believes non-believers deserve either submission or death. Salafi history began with the bloody warfare against Arabian tribal people being accused of innovative religious practices like Milad, celebration of prophet’s birthday and venerating the saints and holy graves. Salafi dogma of keeping a safe distance from the unbelievers in order to keep the faith unadulterated has triggered conflicts with Christians in Nigeria and Sudan and in many European countries. Al Qaeda, Lashkar e Taiba, Shabab ul Muslimeen, ISIS and other radical fundamentalists that constitute the new global jihadi movement are not theological outliers of Salafism. Detailed analysis of Salafi radical movements form political abstinence to violence has been deeply studied by Quintan Wiktorowicz in his study titled ‘A Genealogy of Radical Islam’.

India has and will fall victim to the venomous ideology of Salafism. Lashkar e Taiba, Indian Mujahideen, student’s Islamic Movements of India (SIMI) are few organizations that occasionally cripple the peaceful life of Indians. This context solicits candid appreciation for various Salafi movements in Kerala which carried out many reform activities while developing moderate social approach to religious harmony. Strategies should be made to empower the moderate Salafism. Even Separatists movements in the Kashmir valley are linked to the growth of radical Islamism. Suicide bombings and civilian killings are allowed in jihadi Salafi ideology in conflicts against the infidels. Antique structures of global heritage are not exempt from the Salafi fury against the polytheism and shirk (association of partners with God) like ancient city of Timbuktu of Male, Palmyra buildings of Syria and Bamiyan Buddhist statue of Afghanistan. Intra religious conflicts caused by Salafi anti-Shiism and anti-Islamist movements still wreak havoc in the Middle East. A fortified invisible apartheid wall has been erected by Salafism as the region was bifurcated on the lines of two sects. Yemen and Syria bears the grave brunt of Salafi ideology as it produced trails of destruction. Salafism inculcates an ideology of religious hatred and antipathy that prevents successful religious engagements.

Dogmatic Salafism And Religious Discords

Salafi ideology rooted in ultra-conservatism exhorts religious divisions and pluralistic engagements are met with strong legal inhibitions. All Salafi factions hold same belief but are different in practical severity. It is highly imperative to understand these discourses in the Salafi Manhaj (method) to help concerned authorities to establish more accommodative moderate path based on intellectual engagements. To neutralize the people affected with radical Salafi ideology contextual reading of texts need to be enhanced. Contextualization of Islamic politics against the imitation of Prophet and disciples in letter and spirit is very critical due to the reason that Islamic violence is often ascribed to strict textual reading without regarding the social evolution. As nations after nations fall victim to Salafi outrages it is incumbent upon world communities to defuse the violent identity and transform into more moderate versions. Such a movement to soften the ideological vehemence of Salafism through an interfaith dialogue initiative was started by Saudi king Abdulla in 2008 but it failed to harmonize the Salafi adherents due to the staunchest criticisms by Salafi scholars accusing the Kingdom of deviating from the true monotheism.


An occasional New Age Islam columnist, Grace Mubashir is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi


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