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'Salafi Groups' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article explains the term Salafi, one of a number of Islamic theological orientations mentioned in G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque, Ingrid Mattson's The Story of the Qur'an and other books. The article by Bernard Haykel is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.



From the 1970s onward, a number of Sunnī groups emerged, claiming to adhere to Salafī doctrines and to be engaged in purifying Muslim society in accordance with these. The designation Salafī is prestigious among Muslims, because it denotes an authentic version of Islam, but it is also highly contested and subsumes a number of differing groups. These are often associated with a religious scholar, a political activist, or a radicalized splinter faction emerging out of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Wahhābī movement. Salafism, which is often equated with Wahhābīyah, is also the official version of Islam that is adhered to and promoted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. One of the ways that Salafī groups can be differentiated is through the form of political engagement they advocate and adopt: 1. some call for violent action against the existing political order and for the establishment of a unitary state in the form of the caliphate (jihādīs); 2. others argue for nonviolent political activism in Muslim, and non-Muslim, countries (harakīs); and 3. a third group is identified by a quietist posture and a more traditional outlook (taqlīdīs), arguing that all forms of overt political organization and action, let alone violence, are forbidden because this can lead to civil strife (fitnah) between Muslims, and moreover obedience to Muslim rulers is religiously mandated. Salafīs are also divided by the degree to which they follow, or reject, the teachings of one of the orthodox schools of law (madhhab), or put differently, how important they consider ijtihād to be in legal matters. The Wahhābīs, for example, tend to be followers of the Hanbalī school, whereas other Salafīs completely reject taqlīd (“imitation”) of any madhhab, preferring instead to deal directly with the sources of revelation (al-ʿamal bi-l-dalīl) every time they want to obtain an Islamic judgment or opinion. What unites these groups, however, is a commitment to particular theological doctrines that are associated with the premodern group known as the Ahl al-Hadīth. This involves, among other things: 1. a return to the authentic beliefs and practices of the first three “generations” of Muslims—the Salaf al-Sālih (“pious ancestors”)—a period that is understood to have started with the revelation of the Prophet Muḥammad (ca. 610 C.E.) and to have ended around the time of Ahmad ibn Hanbal's death (855 C.E.); 2. an emphasis on a particular understanding of tawhīd (God's oneness), which Salafīs divide into at least three categories of belief and action (tawhīd al-rubūbīyah, the universal recognition of God's absolute oneness and lordship; tawhīd al-uluhīyah, the believers’ acceptance of Allah as the one God; and tawhīd al-asmāʿ wa-l-sifāt, the unity of God's names and attributes); 3. claiming that the only valid sources of authority are the Qurʿān and sunnah of the Prophet Muḥammad (the latter is equated with the canonical Sunnī ḥadῑth collections) and the consensus of the Prophet's companions; 4. arguing that a strict constructionist interpretation of the Qurʿān and sunnah is sufficient to guide Muslims for all time and through all contingencies, and that these sources are perspicuous. Salafīs claim to be members of the only victorious group that will be saved in the Hereafter (al-tāʿifah al-mansura and al-firqa al-najiya). They also believe that for God's sake they must show loyalty and provide succor to fellow Muslims and evince hatred and enmity toward non-Muslims (al-walāʿ wa-l-barāʿ). Depending on context and circumstance, Salafīs have been willing to engage in the practice of takfīr, which involves declaring fellow Muslims who do not share their beliefs to be infidels (kuffār). This is one aspect of their program of purification. Often the latter are accused of beliefs or practices that Salafis deem to be reprehensible innovations (sing. bidʿah) that were unknown during the time of the Salaf. The traditional targets of Salafī attacks are the Shīʿah, the Sūfīs, any persons who visit gravesites, and finally, followers of Ashʿarī theology. Salafīs use pejorative terms to refer to these groups, such names as Rawāfid (“rejectors”) for the Shīʿah and Quburiyyun (i.e., believers in the dead lying in graves), and consider them to be the greatest enemies of Islam. The recently more politicized Salafīs have added to this list of enemies any Muslim who subscribes to modern ideologies such as nationalism, democracy, socialism, and more significantly any rulers, governments, or systems of rule that do not strictly apply Islamic law and teachings. Republican and secular regimes, for instance, are considered to be “systems of infidelity and idolatry” (anzimat kufr wa taghut) because they do not make God the Sovereign (hākimīyat Allāh). The salient point about takfīr is that it legitimizes the use of violence against the person or entity that is deemed to be non-Muslim, and one consequence of this is that armed rebellion against a nominally Muslim-led state (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt) is considered not only legitimate but a religious duty. The Salafī practice of takfīr has engendered a backlash from more traditional Muslim religious authorities who accuse them of being misguided and in error (dalal), and to partake of the heresy of the Kharijites.

All Salafīs draw inspiration from the same premodern scholarly authorities. The towering figure for them is the medieval Syrian scholar Taqī al-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328 C.E.), who legitimized both takfῑr against individuals and groups as well as rebellion against a state that is not ruling in accordance with the sharīʿah. As such, Salafīs can be considered Taymīyah in inspiration and to descend from his particular theological and legal tradition. Other scholarly writings to which Salafīs often refer are those of Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350 C.E.), Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792 C.E.), and Muḥammad al-Shawkānī (d. 1834).

While drawing on the premodern traditions of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth and of Ibn Taymīyah mentioned earlier, a number of Salafī groups have been influenced also by the Muslim Brotherhood's organizational teachings and political concepts, especially those of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). Here the two most important ideas are Qutb's hākimīyah (God's sovereignty, which he adopted from the writings of the Indo-Pakistani intellectual Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī [d. 1979]) and Jāhilīyah (idolatrous condition). Some Salafīs, for instance, have added a new creedal principle to their theology, that of tawhīd al-hākimīyah (the oneness of God's sovereignty, which is often subsumed under tawhīd al-uluhīyah). The Salafīs use these principles to excoriate modern governments and the existing sociopolitical order, whether locally, regionally, or internationally. Any government that does not make God's rulings supreme and bases its rule on idolatrous foundations (e.g., nationalism) is deemed to be un-Islamic and a legitimate target of attack. Salafī groups have taken from the Muslim Brotherhood a conceptual framework and vocabulary as well as a political consciousness that enable them to criticize the predicaments of the Muslim world and to offer solutions for these. For Salafīs the central problem lies in the ummah's deviation from the principle of tawhīd, and they therefore prescribe a method or path (manhaj) for accomplishing God's oneness in belief and practice. Under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, this path now includes forms of organized activism such as extracurricular activities for school and university students, as well as the establishment of formal ranks and hierarchies of authority within the group, including, sometimes, the formation of a vanguard (talīʿah) to lead the effort. Because of this, Salafī groups subscribe to a hybrid ideology, with varying emphases, which combines elements of the Ahl al-Hadīth and Muslim Brotherhood teachings.

The first self-styled Salafī group to emerge in Saudi Arabia was established in Medina in 1975 under the name of al-Jamāʿat al-Salafīyah al-Muhtasiba. This was a pietistic movement that sought to enforce, in vigilante style, ritual law on other Muslims and to destroy all images and photographs in public places. It is out of this movement that Juhayman al-ʿUtaybi and his Brethren were to emerge in messianic rebellion against the Saudi state with their takeover of the great mosque in Mecca in 1979. In Egypt, a Salafī group named the Islamic Jihad Group (Jamāʿat al-Jihād al-Islāmī) was established in 1979 by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj (d. 1981), who was implicated in President Anwar el-Sadat's assassination. Faraj's written work, The Missing Religious Duty (al-Farīdah al-ghāʿibah), is shot through with Salafī ideas, and especially the teachings of Ibn Taymīyah about when rebellion becomes obligatory. Al-Qaʿida is also considered a Salafī-Jihādī group because its creedal statements draw almost exclusively on Salafī ideas and writings, whereas its militant tactics have more in common with the more radical splinter groups that emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qutbist legacy. Various militant groups in Algeria, including the Salafī Group for Preaching and Combat and more recently al-Qaʿida in the Islamic Maghrib, are also Salafī in matters of belief. A less violent manifestation of Salafism is associated with the so-called Awakening Shaykhs of Saudi Arabia. These are Salafīs that have been inspired by the teachings of the Syrian activist Muḥammad Surur Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, who combined in his writings a compelling mixture of Salafī theology and Muslim Brotherhood activism in order to effect social and political change. Because of his influence, these Salafīs are known as Sururīs. Yet other Salafīs are grouped around individual scholars and do not subscribe to violent action, preferring quietism and obedience to the established governments. Among these are the followers of the late Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albanī (d. 1999) in Jordan and Muqbil al-Wādiʿī (d. 2001) in Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, such nonviolent Salafīs are known as Jāmīs or Madkhalīs, after the names of the two scholars Muḥammad Aman al-Jāmī and Rabīʿ al-Madkhalī, respectively, both of whom taught at the Islamic University in Medina. Although they are united by a particular theology and a hermeneutics of scriptural sources, Salafī groups are numerous and often in contestation with each other, especially over matters of political action and the means of effecting reform of Muslim society.


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Haykel, Bernard. "Salafī Groups." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #215: 'Salafi Groups' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 18, 2024