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

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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.


To “Cleanse” Islamic Tradition

To Muslims all over the world, the Qur’an is the literal word of God. This status is not accorded, however, to the sunna, the custom or practice of the Prophet as embodied by the huge collection of traditions (hadīths) that tell believers what Muhammad supposedly said, did, allowed, forbade or rejected. Not only is the make-up and canonisation of this collection of traditions contested, for example between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims, but its status as a source of Islamic law is also not agreed upon. Some believers throughout Islamic history – such as the early-Islamic ahl al-hadīth (people of the tradition) and their latter-day ideological successors – have emphasised the importance of basing one’s legal judgements on the practices of the Prophet as transmitted through hadīths, rather than on the verdicts of scholars, who used such traditions as merely one of the sources of Islamic law (sharia). In the end, the Qur’an and the sunna became the most important – though not the only – sources from which most Muslim scholars derived their legal system.

For Salafis, the reliance on sources other than the Qur’an and the sunna in the Islamic legal tradition is a major problem. Because they believe ulama have wrongly relied on extra-textual sources – like their own considered opinion (ra’y) – rulings that cannot entirely be traced back to the Qur’an and the sunna supposedly crept into the religion, resulting in a slow but steady drifting away from “the pious predecessors,” thereby sullying Islam’s “purity.” This realisation has led Salafis – most famously the Syrian scholar Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914-1999) – to try to “cleanse” Islamic tradition from such supposed bida‘. This has sometimes meant separating “false” hadīths from “authentic” ones so as to get a better and clearer picture of the life of Muhammad that Salafis deem so worthy of emulation;[2] at other times it has meant altogether rejecting the blind emulation (taqlīd) of the schools of Islamic law (madhāhib) that represent the accumulation of scholarly legal thinking. As such, Salafis have a tendency to circumvent centuries of Islamic scholarly tradition and reach back to the original sources instead, which they approach through direct interpretation, independent of the Islamic schools of law (ijtihād).[3]


Between Revelation and Rationalism

Like the exact stature and weight given to the textual sources of Islam in the formation of Islamic law, the precise importance Muslims should attach to the actual text of the Qur’an relative to other sources of inspiration has been debated among scholars for centuries. These debates often focussed on the question of the extent to which one should allow the alleged revelation (wahy) of the Qur’an to be complemented by rationalism (‘aql). Should one, in other words, simply follow the Qur’anic text – even if this provided conflicting answers to one’s questions or, in fact, no answers at all – or was there also room for a certain amount of human reasoning based on one’s own intellect? Different trends within Islam answer this question in rather divergent ways.

The question of revelation versus rationalism – although it was really virtually always a combination of both – was at least partly inspired by the rise of rational Greek philosophy among Muslims, with men such as Avicenna (d. 1037) and Averroes (d. 1198) being perhaps the most important Islamic exponents of this trend. Although Muslim philosophers maintained that their use of logic (mantiq) did not contradict revelation – provided it was properly understood, of course – the prominent scholar Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) thought differently and contested their conclusions. Al-Ghazālī and other scholars did not entirely reject logic, however, and rationalism as a means of arriving at conclusions was incorporated into Islamic speculative theology (kalām) as espoused by, for example, the mediaeval Mu‘tazila movement. The latter nevertheless held several beliefs that they arrived at through their application of ‘aql (reason) that were highly controversial, such as the belief that the Qur’an was created. A more moderate integration of rationalism in Islam was presented by Abū l-Hasan al-Ash‘arī (874-936) and his followers, who combined revelation with rationalism in a way that was more in tune with the former but did not dismiss the latter altogether. To Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) and his followers, however, this did not go far enough. They insisted on an even greater reliance on revelation, at the expense of rationalism.[4]


God’s Eyes and Hands

With regard to reading the sources, these groups differed from one another. This is clearly illustrated in their interpretation of Qur’anic verses about the attributes of God and this is also where we begin to see that reading such texts “literally” does not always yield the same interpretation. The Qur’an refers to several characteristics of God, such as his having eyes (e.g. 54:14), a face (55:27) and hands (e.g. 38:75). One could, of course, read such verses “literally” and take them at face value, as anthropomorphists (mushabbiha) and corporealists (mujassima) did, and assume that God has eyes similar to human beings’. That would seemingly clash, however, with the verse stating that “like Him there is naught” (42:11). If indeed nothing is comparable to God, how can his eyes resemble ours?

This problem was not just related to the attributes of God, but also had implications for one’s method of reading scripture. The various trends and scholars mentioned above each had their own way of reading the sources to solve this. The Mu‘tazila interpreted verses about God’s physical attributes in a metaphorical way (ta’wīl), equating them with broader characteristics such as insight and power, rather than real eyes and hands, implying that they were willing to depart from the literal text of the Qur’an. Hanbalis, on the other hand, did read these verses literally and accepted that God apparently has eyes and hands that are real but nevertheless different from the forms that these body parts take in human beings or animals. They thus accepted the texts as literally true, but without resorting to anthropomorphism and – crucially – “without asking how” (bi-lā kayfa) this could be explained. The Ash‘ari trend in Islam, which can be said to represent Sunni orthodoxy, took a middle way that was similar to the Hanbali line, but which allowed for more speculation on the form of God’s attributes.[5]

Salafis’ views on this revolve around the concept of tawhīd al-asmā’ wa-l-sifāt (the unity of [God’s] names and attributes). Given Salafis’ stress on returning to Islam as espoused by “the pious predecessors,” they rely heavily on the earliest concepts of the religion, including the unity of God. As such, they believe that God is not only unique in the sense of being the only deity, but also in all his attributes. They therefore largely or even entirely follow the Hanbali line of thinking on this issue, arguing that the texts on God’s attributes must be read literally, but must simultaneously be reconciled with Qur’anic verse 42:11. They do so by accepting the verses “without descriptive designation” (bi-lā takyīf). Salafis’ closeness to Hanbalis in this respect is not surprising, since both groups accept the supremacy of the supposed revelation over speculative theology and rationalism and want to rely on a literal reading of the Qur’an as much as possible.[6]

So Salafis read the Qur’an literally. However, that does not always mean that texts are clear and unambiguous, even if they seem to be. A similar interpretational difference rooted in a literal reading of the text can be seen in two explanations of Qur’an 8:12 and 47:4, which speak of cutting people’s heads off and have been used to justify the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. Interestingly, these two interpretations are taken from one scholar supporting IS and another supporting al-Qaeda. Although these groups have strong differences of opinion on certain matters, they are nevertheless quite alike in the sense that they are both organisations within the trend of Jihadi-Salafism, which I define as the branch of Salafism whose adherents believe that jihad should not just be waged against non-Muslims from outside the Muslim world, but also against the supposedly “apostate” rulers of Muslim countries themselves.


Beheading in the IS View

On 19 August 2014, the video in which American journalist James Foley was shown being beheaded, apparently by British IS-fighter Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi (d. 2015), was posted on YouTube. The video attracted world-wide attention and shocked many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In an apparent effort to justify this act for the former group, an article was published the day after the video was posted, 20 August 2014, in which the beheading of Foley was explained. The author, a pro-IS writer by the name of Husayn b. Mahmūd who regularly writes about issues related to the Islamic State, sought to defend both the killing of Foley itself and the manner in which this was done on Islamic grounds.[7]

Ibn Mahmūd claims that the Islamic State’s killing of James Foley was entirely justified according to the sharia. The reason for this, he states, is that Foley (“an American Christian”) “entered the state of Islam – while knowing it is ‘the state of Islam’ – without a covenant (‘ahd).” In classical Islam, this term refers to, among other things, the agreement or alliance between an Islamic state on the one hand and a non-Muslim party on the other, allowing the latter to pass safely through or to do business with the Islamic state. Such a person would be considered a musta’min (possessor of amān (safe conduct)) and was not allowed to be harmed.[8]

Applying the classical concepts of ‘ahd and amān seamlessly to the present-day Islamic State, Ibn Mahmud claims that because Foley did not have such an agreement with IS, he was rightly seen as an enemy alien (harbī). He goes on to state that “the scholars agree without exception on the permissibility of killing the enemy alien unbeliever (al-kāfir al-harbī), that his possessions and blood are allowed [to be taken] and the majority [of scholars also agree] on the permissibility of killing him if he is captured.” Thus, killing Foley was not at all out of the ordinary, Ibn Mahmud claims, asking sarcastically: “Were the soldiers of the [Islamic] State expected to pat this American enemy alien on the back?”

As for the actual method of killing Foley, Ibn Mahmūd states that this should not be controversial either. Although he acknowledges that the permissibility of the transportation of people’s heads is not agreed upon by the scholars, he claims that beheading non-Muslim enemies is. Stating that this is a means to “sow fear in [the enemies’] hearts,” he claims that beheading non-Muslim adversaries was ordered by God himself in Qur’an which partly states: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks (darb al-riqāb), then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads” (47:4). He then cites several classical scholars who point out that this verse really deals with beheading people and also quotes one exegete who relates this to the Qur’anic verse which partly states: “so smite above the necks (fa-dribū fawqa l-a‘nāq), and smite every finger of them” (8:12). Ibn Mahmūd then states that the Prophet Muhammad did not forbid beheading people in general either and only stopped others from doing so in specific cases. Thus, to Ibn Mahmūd, beheading James Foley was entirely justified according to the Qur’an.


Beheading in al-Qaeda’s View

Read literally, the verses cited above – particularly when seen in the context that Ibn Mahmūd describes – seem to speak for themselves and do, indeed, appear to justify Foley’s beheading on Islamic grounds. The Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi sheikh and al-Qaeda-supporter Abū Mahmūd al-Filastīnī views these verses entirely differently, however. In a treatise dedicated entirely to refuting “the ones who think that killing as slaughter is according to [the Prophet Muhammad’s] sunna,” he sets out to rebut some of the claims mentioned above without naming IS explicitly, although it is clear who he means. Citing Qur’an 21:107 (“We have not sent thee, save as a mercy (rahmatan) unto all beings”), he claims that mercy (rahma) is a central part of the Qur’an and the Islamic message to mankind. According to al-Filastīnī, this concept, in turn, must pervade everything Muslims do, citing a hadīth in which Muhammad states that “God has prescribed perfection (al-ihsān) in everything. So if you kill, kill well, and if you slaughter, slaughter well […].” This means, al-Filastīnī states, that Muslims must show mercy in everything they do, even when they kill others.[9]

With regard to beheading someone, al-Filastīnī states that the scholars differ on this, but that nobody claims it was the custom of the Prophet. Al-Filastīnī states that it is false to claim that the Prophet and the first caliphs enjoyed this practice or turned it into a habit. He is even more adamant in his treatment of the two verses cited by Ibn Mahmūd as justification for beheading Foley. According to al-Filastīnī, these verses are not applicable to such a beheading since smiting enemies’ necks, as the verses state, merely constituted the way in which people killed at the time. This does not, however, make this method the preferable way to kill according to the sunna, al-Filastīnī states.

Moreover, the reason people used this method to kill others in the time of the Prophet was because it was the easiest for the attacker and the least painful for the person killed, thereby expressing the overarching Islamic concept of mercy. Al-Filastīnī also finds evidence for his point of view in the texts, which – like Ibn Mahmud – he reads literally. What the actual texts of the verses say, al-Filastīnī states, is that one should “smite” (fa-dribū or darba) enemies’ necks, ensuring a quick death without torture. The beheadings we have seen in the past few years, however, are examples of slaughtering (dhabh), not smiting, he claims. Thus, apart from the fact that al-Filastīnī is no supporter of beheading people anyway because of what he sees as the lack of compelling Prophetic evidence for this practice, he also believes that the specific verb used in the two Qur’anic verses confirm his point of view that the slow and painful slaughter of men such as James Foley is illegitimate from an Islamic point of view.[10]


The Depth of the Qur’an

The statement that Salafis read the Qur’an literally is true and sets them apart from several other groups throughout Islamic history. They take this attitude so far that it even means they sometimes simply accept the text of the Qur’an without truly understanding its meaning. Yet this conclusion does not entail that Salafi source readings are always the same or clear-cut. Apart from contextual factors influencing Salafi interpretations, the two Jihadi-Salafi readings of Qur’an 8:12 and 47:4 have shown that two groups that are as close to each other ideologically as IS and al-Qaeda can still differ quite a bit: a supporter of the former claims these verses prove the legitimacy of beheading the American journalist James Foley in 2014, while a supporter of the latter claims they prohibit it. This not only shows that Salafis and their readings of the sources are not as straightforward as they may seem, but also that even the literal text of the Qur’an has a depth that may not be evident at first glance, but is nevertheless there.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Michael 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.

[2] Kamaruddin Amin, “Nasiruddin al-Albani on Muslim’s Sahih: A Critical Study of his Method,” Islamic Law and Society 11, 2004, no. 2, pp. 149-176.

[3] Jonathan A.C. Brown, “Is Islam Easy to Understand or Not? Salafis, the Democratization of Interpretation and the Need for the Ulema,” Journal of Islamic Studies 26, 2015, no. 2, pp. 117-144.

[4] Oliver Leaman, “The Developed Kalām Tradition,” in Tim Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008), pp. 77-86.

[5] Nader el-Bizri, “God: Essence and Attributes,” in Ibid., pp. 121-131.

[6] Mohammad Gharaibeh, “Zur Glaubenslehre des Salafismus,” in Behnam T. Said and Hazim Fouad (ed.) Salafismus: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Islam (Herder, Freiburg, 2014), pp. 110-124.

[7] Husayn Ibn Mahmud, Mas’alat Qat‘ al-Ru’ūs (, 20 August 2014 (accessed 3 November 2014)). This link no longer works, but the article is still available on (accessed 8 February 2016).

[8] Joseph Schacht, “‘Ahd” and “Aman,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam – New Edition, Vol. I, ed. H.A.R. Gibb et al. (Brill, Leiden, 1986), pp. 255, 429-430.

[9] Abū Mahmūd al-Filastīnī, Tabdīd al-asinna fī l-radd ‘ala man zanna anna l-qatl dhabhan sunna, 18 September 2014). This website is no longer available, but the document can be downloaded from (accessed 8 February 2016).

[10] Al-Filastīnī was not alone in drawing such conclusions and his statements represented a far broader belief among supporters of al-Qaeda than just his personal view. See, for example, Joas Wagemakers, “What Should an Islamic State Look Like? Jihadi-Salafi Debates on Jihad in Syria,” The Muslim World (forthcoming).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Joas Wagemakers, “Salafi Source Readings between al-Qaeda and the Isis”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 55-63.

Online version:
Joas Wagemakers, “Salafi Source Readings between al-Qaeda and the Isis”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: