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Salafism or the Quest for Purity

Quran Students [hashem_Pixabay]

Salafism is considered by its adherents as the purest Islam, both a cozy refuge for believers and an unassailable fortress for the enemies

Last update: 2018-08-01 16:54:58

What is Salafism? Salafis will very often answer: “It is the truth. I used to be a Sufi, a Muslim Brother, a secular, … but now I’ve finally found the truth”. This statement perfectly reflects what I refer to as the quest for purity: Salafism is considered by its adherents as the purest Islam, both a cozy refuge for believers and an unassailable fortress for the enemies.





The word Salafism comes from al-salaf al-sālih (“the pious predecessors”), a term usually designating the first three generations of Muslims, according to a tradition (hadīth) of the Prophet: 

“The best people are those living in my generation, then those coming after them, then those coming after them”.[1]

Since these salaf are the best that Islam, or humanity, has to offer, if you want to be a good Muslim you must follow, imitate, emulate or act in accordance with them. That is what Salafis claim to do very meticulously, acting or believing to act in the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad.

The present form of Salafism appeared in the 20th century. Intellectually, this current is still very dependent on Wahhabism, which started in the 18th century in present-day Saudi Arabia; ideologically, however, it also refers to Medieval scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), who pre-date the Wahhabi movement by centuries. In certain cases, contemporary Salafis have very similar – if not identical – opinions to these Medieval thinkers, even though the latter did not consider themselves as Salafis or, at least, they did not understand Salafism the way we understand it today.



Salafi textualism vs. Sunni traditionalism


As mentioned above, the basic idea of Salafism consists in following Muhammad and the pious predecessors as closely as possible. A first, controversial question immediately arises: How can Muslims know what Muhammad would do in a certain circumstance? Since he is no longer alive, they are faced with an alternative: they can base their answer either on the living practice of the community or its textual tradition. They can follow Muhammad through the “Medinan practice”, like the first real Islamic State of the Caliphs and the first fully-fledged Muslim school, the Ahl al-ra’y,[2] or they can follow him as the Ahl al-hadīth did,[3] stressing the traditions of the Prophet and sticking to their text. The latter is the Salafi option.

But even if one takes the decision of relying on the texts, does one read them through rational, speculative theology? Or does one take them literally? Sunni Muslims, including Salafis – as I am adducing Salafis are Sunnis – have different opinions on this, but generally speaking, Salafism has a very literalist approach as it gives absolute priority to hadith. For instance: if the Scripture affirms that to be pious you must pray five times a day, a good Muslim cannot be “extra pious” praying six times a day, because that would represent a bid‘a (religious innovation); watches must be worn exclusively on the right wrist since, according to Muhammad, the right hand is for pious things while the left hand is for dirty duties; etc.

Small booklets illustrate all ritual phrases a good Muslim must say on all different occasions, e.g. putting on new clothes for the first time, entering or leaving a house, going to bed, waking up in the morning, etc. Salafis strictly follow these rules, since all these sentences have a textual basis and even the most insignificant act or saying attributed to Muhammad or the salaf, according to them, has a great importance and must be followed.


Law and Theology In the domain of sharia (Islamic law), one can juxtapose Sunni traditionalism with Salafi originalism. Sunnis believe that most questions have already been adjudicated by the different juridical schools or madhāhib, while new questions can be solved within the juridical framework set out by the scholars of the past. These should be emulated through taqlīd. On the other hand, Salafis refuse to follow the juridical schools, since they appeared later than the pious predecessors. They go for the text, the hadith, and they try to interpret it directly (what they call ijtihād or “independent interpretation of the textual sources”). Therefore, and unlike what is usually believed, Salafis do practice ijtihād. The difference with other forms of ijtihād lies in the fact they consider the text to be a source of strict imitation rather than a source of inspiration.

When it comes to theology, we can distinguish between the Sunni compromise and the Salafi literalism. Sunni Muslims, in general, allow some extra-textual means to address theological questions. The issue of free will might represent a good example. A person drops a pen: while someone may affirm that he/she took the decision to drop it, someone else may believe that God had that person drop it.  From a Sunni compromise perspective, God created gravity – deciding that pens would fall – while the actual decision to drop the pen is in part ascribable to the person. Thus, there is some room for human input within a broader divine framework. Similar questions concern natural phenomena. Why does the sun rise in the East? Most Muslims would answer that God has decided so. But then does God decide to have the sun rise in the East every day or does He put some sort of law in nature that makes the sun rise in the East every day? The resulting worldviews are significantly different.

Salafis, as previously said, are strictly literal: if the Qur’an states that God did something, this action is ascribable to God only, leaving no space for human will. But if the Qur’an does not state something directly, it cannot be inferred from the context. On the issue of free will, Salafis tend to say that God is in control of anything, but he has a wisdom far beyond anything we can understand. He may be unjust to our own standards, but He is so much higher, bigger, better than us, that we cannot understand Him.

In conclusion, both legally and theologically we face here a strong opposition between two views: (Sunni) traditionalist vs. (Salafi) fundamentalist. Following Michael Cook’s metaphor[4], we can think of religion as a river coming down from the mountain, taking with it all kind of dirt: traditionalists, that is Sunni scholars, accept everything the river is taking with it as building blocks; fundamentalists instead, go upstream, back to the source of the river, towards clean water.


Religious authority The majority of Sunni Islam gives great importance to the silsila (chain) of teachers: each scholar has learnt from his teacher who, in turn, learnt from his teacher, and so on, all the way back to the Prophet. Salafis, for their part, refer directly to the pious predecessors. Such an approach is more radical, since it drastically breaks with tradition; at the same time, it is democratizing, allowing anyone to join this ‘pure’ knowledge. In the Internet era, you don’t need to be the “student of someone”, because everything is just a few clicks away from you. However, even though Salafis claim to go directly to the sources, they are led to take only one correct answer to any questions. In practice therefore there is little space for personal interpretation.



The three Dimensions of Tawhīd


The most central aspect in the Salafi creed is tawhīd (“Unity of God”). This concept is crucial for the whole of Islam, but for Salafis it signifies much more than just “monotheism”. For them it implies three different dimensions. The tawhīd al-rubūbiyya (“the Unity of Lordship”) indicates that God is the one and only Lord and Creator. This first dimension, however, does not set apart Muslims from Arabian polytheists, the latter ultimately believing in a single Creator too. It is the tawhīd al-ulūhiyya (“the Unity of Divinity”, also known as tawhīd al-‘ibāda “the Unity of Worship”) that distinguishes believers from polytheists, suggesting that God should be the only object of worship and implying that praying on someone’s grave or at some saints’ shrine is shirk (polytheism or associationism). Finally, the tawhīd al-asmā’ wa-l-sifāt (the Unity of the names and the attributes of God) denotes the absolute uniqueness of God in all his names and attributes. This is the dimension through which Salafis distinguish themselves from other Muslims: to them God is not only one, He is also unique.

The Qur’an says that God has some body parts (God’s face, Q 55:27; God’s eyes Q 54:14; God’s hands Q 38:75). However, Q 42:11 affirms: laysa ka-mithlihi shay’un, “there is nothing like unto Him”. Numerous scholars would therefore interpret these organs as being metaphoric: the eye is God’s “insight”, His hand is God’s “power”, etc. Salafis, instead, accept the texts as they are written, but at the same time they maintain that we do not know what God’s eyes, legs, hands look like, because “there is nothing like unto Him”.

Such theological debates generate interesting anecdotes: the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta once visited a mosque in which Ibn Taymiyya was preaching, saying:

“God will come down from Heaven, as I will come down right now”

And he took a single step down the pulpit. With his act, Ibn Taymiyya was pretending to do something that God Himself would do. However, how can you act like God, if He is unique?



Striving for purity


The aforementioned legal, theological and authoritative differences clearly show the Salafi firm will to be separated from the majority of Sunnis, who have supposedly deviated from the straight path. Salafis, therefore, call themselves the “sect saved [from hellfire]” (al-firqa al-nājiya) or “the victorious group” (al-tā’ifa al-mansūra). This image is taken from a notorious hadith stating that “a group (tā’ifa) from my community will remain committed to the truth”.[5] This is the tā’ifa Salafis claim to be.

Another hadith states that just like Jews split into seventy-one sects and Christians into seventy-two, Muslims will split into seventy-three, all of them destined to hellfire, except one.[6] Obviously, Salafis claim to be that group. Their distinctive and exclusive nature is best captured by the term ghurabā’ (“strangers”) which they apply to themselves. This word, inferred from several hadiths,[7] conveys the idea of being in this world without being of this world, making Salafism a non-geographical fortress: wherever they go in the world, they have one identity, they are first and foremost Muslims. They are never at home except in Islam. Not surprisingly, ghurabā’ is also the title of a famous Salafi nashīd or “religious hymn”.


Innovation vs. renovation Deeply connected with the quest of purity is the fight against religious innovations. Salafis try to cleanse Islam from all sorts of bida‘ (“religious innovations”) not conforming with the practice of the salaf. Two distinctions are necessary here. First, bida‘ (sing. bid‘a) refers only to “novelties” within Islam: for instance, Salafis consider technology as being something new but neutral, since it does not add anything to Islam and it can be used for good purposes.

The second distinction is between bid‘a and tajdīd (“religious renewal”): scholars like Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb – the 18th century religious reformer who founded Wahhabism – are often judged to be mujaddid, since they “renewed” the pure message of Islam, without adding any religious innovation. Following this example, Wahhabism can be defined as the Najdī (Central Arabian) version of Salafism, i.e. a version of Salafism characterized by a local aspect, shaped by geographical reasons. In fact, since the Najd region is mainly desert, it was never colonized by any foreign power and that may have inspired the reluctant Wahhabis’ attitude towards strangers. Moreover, Wahhabism is traditionally more focused on literalist theology than on ijtihad in Islamic law.

Thus, there exists a laudable tajdīd, aiming to go back to the sources of Islam and reversing the mounting tide of innovations, and numerous Salafi scholars spent their lives attempting to cleanse religion from all kinds of supposed bid‘a. A notorious contemporary example is Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 1999): he sifted through all his knowledge of hadiths, trying to date them back to Muhammad, while rejecting all traditions for which he could not quote an incontrovertible source.


Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ This expression represents another major Salafi principle, meant to preserve purity. Al-walā’ (loyalty) corresponds to friendship, partnership, cooperation, while al-barā’ (disavowal) means “being innocent” and “having nothing to do with something (considered illicit)”. For Salafis this is an everyday principle, concerned with very practical things: some examples might help to understand the point.

Non-Islamic holidays such as national holidays are banned for Salafis and so is the Prophet’s birthday (Mawlid al-Nabī), for he himself never celebrated it. This is an area where there is a lot of friction between Salafis and other Muslims. Greeting people is also a controversial subject: Salafis would mostly not wave, because the Prophet and his companions are said never to have done so to each other. Furthermore, they would solely use the religious formula “al-salām ‘alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) to greet, answering in turn “wa ‘alaykum al-salām wa rahmatullāh wa barakatuhu” (Peace, God’s Mercy and His Blessing be upon you”). All non-religious greetings such as “Good morning” are avoided. Furthermore, in case of a non-Muslim greeting, a Salafi should limit his answer to “wa ‘alayk” (“to you”), because several hadiths[8] narrate that the Jews of Medina used to distort the Islamic greeting and say al-samm ‘alaykum’ (“poison be upon you”). Muhammad therefore instructed his followers not to answer by wishing someone peace, but to simply reply wa ‘alayk (‘and upon you’)”. However, some of the most important Salafi scholars of the 20th century have written that if a non-Muslims wishes you “al-salām” and you clearly hear the l, then you can wish peace back; but if you don’t hear the l or you are not sure, the answer must be wa ‘alayk.

One of the most distinctive feature of Salafis is their way of dressing. This rests on the fact that several hadiths[9] recommend to wear shorter pants, because they are less likely to swipe over the floor, while “trailing the lower garment […] is conceit and God does not like conceit”. Finally, Salafis insist that only strictly Islamic names can be given to new born babies (Muhammad, Fatima, Hasan…), while non-specifically Muslim names are to be avoided. As may be inferred, Salafis have a hadith for any occasion. Being a Salafi is imitating the Prophet Muhammad in the tiniest detail. This is how you show your piety.

Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ also has a political dimension. In a conflict, Muslims should always side (al-walā’) with other Muslims, no matter who is right or wrong. The US intervention in the Gulf War (1990-1991) is an interesting example: threatened by Iraq, Saudi Arabia invited US troops (i.e. unbelievers) to its territory, seeking protection from a probable Iraqi attack. Even though Saddam Hussein was considered an apostate, Sunni Muslims represented an important component of the Iraqi army. Therefore, numerous Salafis considered Saudi Arabia’s alliance with a non-Muslim country against Iraq to be an illicit form of walā’.


Faith (Īmān) vs Unbelief (Kufr) The practical principle of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ recalls another important dichotomy, al-īmān wa-l-kufr: faith and unbelief.  According to Salafis, faith consists of three elements: belief of the heart, speech of the tongue, acts of the limbs. They also believe it is a flexible concept: faith decreases when you act against Islam and vice-versa. Furthermore, Salafis distinguish three levels of faith: sihhat al-dīn (“the soundness of the religion”), referring to the essential concepts of Islam like the tawhīd; wājib al-dīn (“the compulsory of the religion”), including important Islamic norms, such as the prohibition of drinking wine; kamāl al-dīn (“the perfection of the religion”), denoting some aspects which are commendable.

This classification raises a very controversial issue in the Islamic world: takfīr (“excommunication”). Islamic scholars have always been very cautious with this tool since it might take a short step from excommunication to killing the kāfir. A famous hadith states indeed: “Whoever changes his religion, kill him”.[10]

For their part, Salafis identify two kinds of unbelief: kufr akbar (“major unbelief”) includes all sins at the first level of faith (e.g. denying that the Qur’an is the word of God) and sins at the second level of faith (e.g. eating pork) that are supported by i‘tiqād (conviction), istihlāl (active self-permission of doing something illicit knowing it is prohibited) and jahd (expressed negation of the Islamic message). Sins at the second level – without conditions of conscious intent – and sins at the third level (i.e. minor sins) are considered kufr ashgar (minor unbelief). While kufr akbar is reason to pronounce takfīr over a Muslim, minor unbelief is not. In other words, a Muslim who does not pray while admitting that he is neglecting a religious duty, remains a Muslim. But if he states that there is no need to pray, then he falls into major unbelief. 

The distinction between faith and unbelief plays a very practical role in politics too. Even though Jews and Christians theoretically profess the Unity of Lordship which is the first level of monotheism, Salafis consider them as polytheists because “they have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides God” (Q 9:31). According to some Salafis, this passage also implies that following a man-made system of laws is equivalent to follow different gods. Both Muslim countries (like Egypt) and non-Muslim countries (like the US) that are not based on Islamic law are consequently ruled by polytheists. Yet, other Salafis recognize that poor countries are forced to deal with other nations and they are obliged to adopt foreign law systems for economic reasons. Since this choice is forced upon these countries, you cannot blame them. Nonetheless, a country that consciously exchanges sharia for an entirely different system of law – for example adopting a secular Constitution – is ruled by unbelievers.



Groups and trends


Salafis are not a homogeneous group; they are actually quite divided. The overwhelming majority of them are quietist, apolitical and mostly focused on education and missionary activities. They feel safe inside their own castle. A second category are political Salafis, who differ from quietist Salafis on one point only: for them, political activism, demonstration and parliamentary participation is compulsory. Finally, there is a minority of jihadi Salafis, who sometimes embrace weapons. They are anti-political, considering the entire system to be wrong, and wishing to overthrow the so-called apostate rulers of the Muslim world and replace them with “true” Muslims.

Even though “jihadi” applies only to the last category, quietist and political Salafis believe in jihad too, both as a military and a spiritual action. However, only jihadi Salafis consider that jihad should be directed at apostate Muslims in the Islamic world.



The fascination of Salafism


Becoming a Salafi is very easy: it might be as simple as praying once in a Salafi mosque suggested by a friend and deciding to join them. What makes this religious movement so appealing? Probably the fact that Salafism is very simple. Within its framework, every question has an answer – usually one correct answer only – while very few areas allow legitimate disagreement. Moreover, every answer is accessible to all Muslims. While in the traditional Islamic world knowledge was reserved for the élite, Salafis want it to be open to everyone. They insist on memorization of texts, but they consider them to be self-evident. According to their detractors, Salafis use the Qur’an and the hadiths as a phone book: they look for a very specific answer to a very specific question.

Finally, their appeal comes from their great claim of “authenticity”: they believe that every answer they give can be directly proven by the Sunna and the Qur’an. Sunni Muslims instead are divided into madhāhib (Islamic law schools). To answer a question, a scholar will study the issue from his legal perspective and he will give a response according to the methodology of his school. Salafis, for their part, will quickly quote some hadiths and reply:

“The Prophet says this; do you think you know better than the Prophet?”

Their answer – in the era of instant communications – is much faster. It is more attractive to young people.

The constant emphasis on “authenticity” naturally leads Salafism to claim to represent not only a branch or a local Islam, but rather pure Islam. That is why Salafis sometimes refer to themselves as Muslims tout court, claiming that there is only one Salafism – they do not recognize the three subdivisions mentioned above – and that this Salafism is Islam. In other words, Salafis refuse the idea of “an Islam adapting to people” and uphold the ideal of “people adapting to (their pure) Islam”, not influenced by context or time.

Thus, we come back to the idea of an Islam-fortress, with thick walls protecting from outside. When I was in Jordan for my research, I spent time in a Salafi mosque attending lessons. There I felt the warmth exhuming from Salafi speech, the real bonds that were being created, and this despite the fact that I was an outsider. In non-Muslim countries, young Muslims, who may have suffered from Islamophobia or discrimination in the job market because of their religion, can retreat into this safe and cozy fortress. In a Middle Eastern dictatorship, you can try to fight corruption, you can stand in Tahrir Square in Cairo and participate in the revolution, you can try to be an activist. Until now, it has not worked. As an alternative, you can retreat to your simple, authentic and pure Salafi castle, keeping the rest outside. It is a tempting option to many.



Further readings

  • Roel Meijer (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s new religious movement, Columbia University Press, New York 2009
  • Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge – New York 2012
  • Joas Wagemakers, Salafism in Jordan: Political Islam in a Quietist Community, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge – New York 2016
  • Francesco Cavatorta and Fabio Merone (eds.), Salafism After the Arab Awakening Contending with People’s Power, Hurst, London 2017



[1] Sahīh al-Bukhārī, Kitāb al-shahādāt, Bāb 9 Lā yushhad ‘alā shahādat jawr idhā ushida.

[2] Ahl al-raʾy or ashāb al-raʾy, were the proponents of the use of independent legal reasoning to arrive at legal decisions. Moreover, they stressed the importance of the ‘living tradition’ within the community of believers, usually on a regional basis (practice of Medina, practice of Kufa etc.).

[3] Ahl al-hadīth or ashāb al-hadīth considered the Qur’an and sound hadiths to be the only authority in matters of law and creed. They tended to reject independent reasoning.

[4] Michael Cook, Ancient Religion Modern Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2014, p. 373.

[5] Sahīh al-Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Manāqib, Bāb 27 Su’āl al-mushrikīn an yuriyahum al-nabī āya… / Bāb 28.

[6] Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitāb al-Fitan, Bāb 17 Iftirāq al-umam.

[7] E.g. Sahīh Muslim, Kitāb al-Īmān, Bāb 65 Baynān anna l-islām bada’a gharīban wa sa-ya‘ūd gharīban…; Sahīh al-Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Riqāq, Bāb 3 Qawl an-nabī “Kun fī d-dunyā ka’annaka gharīb aw ‘ābir sabīl”.

[8] See, e.g. Sahīh Muslim, Kitāb al-Salām, Bāb 4 An-nahy ‘an ibtidā’ ahl al-Kitāb bi-s-salām wa-kayf yuradd ‘alayhim.

[9] See, e.g. Sunan Abū Dawūd, Kitāb al-Libās, Bāb 27 fī qadr mawdi‘ al-izār.

[10] See for instance Jāmi‘ al-Tirmidhī , Kitāb al-Hudūd, Bāb 25. Mā jā’a fī l-murtadd.

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