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What is Salafism?

By Dr. Adis Duderija,

University Pf Melbourne, Islamic Studies

Often we hear about Salafism or Salafi Muslims in the media. The term/concept Salafism has become salient recently with the electoral success by various ‘Salafi’ Muslim parties in Egypt or the chaos in Maldives. However, the concept is poorly understood. What does the concept mean in the Islamic tradition? This article is an excerpt (minus the references) on Salafism from my recently published book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam…. ( and in it I briefly explain what Salafism as a concept means in the Islamic tradition.

The concept of Salafism in the Islamic tradition has several dimensions to it. One pertains to its implications regarding what is considered to be an ‘authentic’ methodology of interpreting the Islamic tradition. The second element pertains to a Sunni political doctrine regarding the role of the Companions of the Prophet in the midst of socio-political chaos that characterised early Islam. The third dimension pertains to the manner in which the Islamic tradition is conceptualized  based on a particular view of the nature of history and time.

Let us examine each of these.

First of all, the notion of the ‘sacred past’ in the Islamic tradition has found its expression in the notion of Salafism. The concept of Salafism refers to not only to the notion of how the Islamic tradition is to be conceptualized and interpreted but also concerns the questions of reading of history and the nature of time. In Islamic jurisprudence the phrase as –salaf as-salih has different meanings as “every group has defined salaf according to its own orientation and school”. According to one definition the term as-salaf as-salih refers to the “early Mujahid scholars of the Schools” (madhahib) who are accepted and imitated, such as, depending upon the madhhab, Abu Hanifa and his companions Abu Yusuf and Al-Shaybani (Hanafi madhhab), or Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal (Hanbali madhhab), the Companions of the Prophet and the tabi’in (Successors).” The second definition found in the Shafi’i madhhab defines as-salaf as-salih as those who came first in the history of the Muslim community (awa’il hadhihi al-umma). According to another definition as-salaf as-salih refers to the Companions, the Successors and the immediate followers of the Successors who are encompassed by the hadith of the Prophet: “The best of the community is my century, then the one that follows it, then the one that follows that. According to Imam al-Suyuti (d.911/1505), one of the most prolific pre-modern Sunni Muslim writers, the era of the as-salaf as-salih is a time spanning approximately up to 220 years Hijri before “innovations appeared en masse, the Mutazilah let their tongues loose, the philosophers raised their heads, the people of knowledge were put on trial for saying that the Qur’an was created, and the state of affairs changed radically.” Another definition of the as-salaf as-salih defines the concept as those who lived before the year 400 Hijri and the khalaf as the subsequent generations of Muslims. Therefore, given the various definitions of as-salaf as-salih generations and who belongs to them the concept of Salafism is not precisely defined in the Islamic tradition.

Salafism, as an Islamic precept, seems to have been developed in the late second century Hijri. As a concept the genesis of the Salafi mind-set is best understood in the light of the political and theological schisms that took place in the Muslim community in the first century Hijri . At that time, the concept of Salafism was used as an anchoring point for various ideologically competing groups who were all eager to show that their views, unlike those of others, were consistent with those figures who were held in high esteem during the inception of the Muslim community. This is, for example, evident in the use of word as-salaf as-salih in treaties attributed to Hasan al-Basri’s (d. 110/ 728 )  to support the doctrine of free will to which he, unlike his interlocutors , considered as being a doctrine espoused by  the as-salaf as-salih . This quest for religious legitimacy by linking one’s theological, political or legal views to that of the as-salaf as-salih would, thus, imbibe these factions with the sense of normativeness, credibility and authoritativeness.

 From a historical point of view, the earliest usage of the terms as-salaf as-salih is therefore to be understood as a particular outlook of the post- as-salaf as-salih generations of Muslims on the early historical events that took place after the Prophet’s death regarding the issues considered unresolved in the Qur’an and Sunna as well as the means of getting to terms with the above mentioned political and doctrinal schisms that plagued the nascent Muslims community. This salafi  doctrine proved particularly important for the  formation of  what now is largely considered ‘mainstream’ Sunnism ,at times referred to as Ahl-Sunna wa Jama’ah, (The People of Sunna and Muslim  Majority Community )  in the fourth century. Its significance was in its function of serving as a political mechanism which purported to cleanse all of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad of any partaking in or responsibility for the ensuing conflicts and violence between various Muslim factions that threatened to disintegrate the very social fabric of the nascent Muslim community. This was also important for the development of Hadith criticism studies since the methodology adopted by the muhaddithun based on isnad  relied on the  sound character of Companions who transmitted these Hadith.  As a corollary, the Salafi worldview can also be conceptualised in the idea of the “emulation-worthiness” of the first century religious and political authorities who were perceived as having remained faithful to the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet (i.e. Sunna) in relation to ‘aqidah (beliefs), manhaj and ‘ibadah (worship) in contrast to those who deviated from them. Moreover, towards the end of the second Islamic century this Salafi-embedded worldview started to shape the epistemological boundaries of the Islamic thought soon becoming a norm ( for reasons I outlined in the book). This is evident, for example, from the fact that the founders or initiators of the various Islamic sciences sought the ideas and the views among the as-salaf as-salih as intellectual antecedents in order to bestow legitimacy to their respective disciplines. In this context a prominent scholar of Islam I. Goldziher asserts that

As such the imitation of the salaf, the pious ancestors who formed their habits under the eyes and on the example of the prophet, became the ideal of pious Muslims. Gradually Salafi, i.e. the one who imitates his ancestors, becomes the supreme title of praise in pious society.

The concept of Salafism as “an invariable element within the Islamic conscience, has also formed the conceptual foundation for the adoption of the madhahb and ahl-hadith based approaches to the Islamic tradition.” The former , termed ‘genuine traditionalism’   attempts “to neutralise the evolutionary effects linked with the tension between an ideal past and a present always on this side of the ideal past” and the latter,  salafiyya , ancient and modern, which  continually endeavours to update the changes –conceived as necessary alterations in relation to deviations and innovations ( bid’ah), –believed to be necessary  in view of restoration in all respects of the ideal past ( more or less freely defined in relation to demands of each particular period)  of the salaf.

As such these two approaches constantly challenged and continue to challenge each-other to the present times competing for ‘authenticity’(asala) as evident in the contemporary debates between the so called ‘khalaf’ or madhhab-based scholars  and that of the ‘salaf’ or the ahl-hadith based  scholars.

The concept of Salafism in pre-modern Islamic thought   is also embedded in a particular understanding of time and history, and their relation to the present (and future). This notion is derived from a reading of few ahad ahadith going back to the Prophet Muhammad in which he reportedly asserted that the best people were his  generation and then  the next and then the  following and so on and that there was no year or day except that which followed was worse than it. According to this understanding it was the Sunna, rather than the Koran, which instituted one of the  most characteristic traits of the Islamic vision of history by imposing the idea a priori that  this history was said to have been inevitably  followed by a period of relaxation of standards, deviation and finally of division.

Moreover, according to this Salafi mindset time is not conceived as in itself the medium and instrument of change, but rather as reappearance, re-enactment, after a period of abeyance, degradation, descent into superstition and irrationalism

This Salafi-embedded worldview evident in both the madhhab and ahl-hadith –based thought, therefore, sees the past to provide all the answers and constantly imposes itself upon the present.  In other words the authenticity of Muslim identity can only be established by returning to a fixed point in historical time, that of the Prophet and the early Muslim community.

From the above discussion on Salafism we can conclude that the concept refers to several interrelated phenomena. Firstly, it signifies   a particular methodology of interpreting the Islamic tradition as a way of distinguishing it from other approaches considered not to be based on the (supposedly) as-salaf as-salih manhaj.  Secondly, it is a religio-political doctrine purporting to bestow an amnesty on all of the Companions of the Prophet in the midst of socio-political chaos that characterised early Islam in order to validate the methodology of Hadith criticism developed by the muhaddithun. Lastly, it denotes an approach to conceptualizing the Islamic tradition premised on a pre-supposition of a regressive view of the nature of history and time.

In summary, Salafism is a contested concept that underpins a particular approach to interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna, a particular worldview and a particular interpretation of early Islamic history.

Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History,