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Salafi Source Readings between al-Qaeda and the Isis

Salafis and their readings of the sources are not as straightforward as they may seem, because the text does not necessarily result in a clear-cut and obvious interpretation. Even within the most violent religious extremists current there are important differences. And old Al-Qaeda, Scriptures to hand, does not see eye to eye with Isis on many issues.

The term “Salafism,” referring to the trend within Islam whose adherents claim to emulate “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-sālih) as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible, is sometimes associated with labels such as “ultra-orthodox,” “extreme,” “radical” and even “terrorist” in media discourse, both in the West and in the Arab world. Given Salafis’ own claims that they merely represent Islam in all its supposed purity and simply follow the sources, the Qur’an and the Sunna, such labels may not necessarily be applicable to them, however. Yet the term “fundamentalist” certainly is, considering Salafis’ strong tendency to reject the religious “innovations” (bida‘) that Islamic tradition has allegedly accumulated throughout the centuries and their belief that one must go back to the very beginning of Islam in all aspects of life. 1



If Salafis are indeed fundamentalists in this sense, how does that relate to their reading of the sources, particularly the Qur’an? Salafis are often described as people who read Islam’s holy book “literally,” but what does that mean in practice? Moreover, does a literal reading of the Qur’an necessarily yield a uniform explanation of the book’s verses in different contexts? This article focuses on Salafi source readings by first dealing with how Salafis view scripture and how this differs from the ideas other Muslims have on their textual sources. It then moves on to two specific Qur’anic verses, namely 8:12 and 47:4, to illustrate that a literal reading of the Qur’an does not necessarily result in a clear-cut and obvious interpretation. As such, it shows that Salafis are not only more diverse in their reading of the sources than some may suggest, but also that the Qur’an is a more dynamic text than many would have us believe.



1Michael Cook’s definition of fundamentalism in his most recent book can quite neatly be applied to Salafis, for example. See Michael Cook, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2014), pp. 371-380.



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