Salafism is considered the most conservative sect of Islam, with Saudi Arabia being the most prominent Salafi country. While Salafism in the 21st century is often linked with violence and jihadists, Salafism’s roots go back centuries to nonviolent Muslims who believed in strict adherence to the Qur’an.
Salafis express their reverence for the first three generations of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers by enacting their teachings in their daily lives.
In this article, we will explore the characteristics, history, and modern significance of Salafism. Let our religious experts guide you through the basics of Salafism and its role in the Muslim world today.
What Is Salafism?
Salafism is a school of Sunni Islam, rooted in the belief that the most pure and authentic form of Islam was practiced by the “Salaf,” the earliest three generations of Muslims, who were closest to the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime.
Salafist Muslims are often considered the “ultraconservatives” of the religion, as they believe in strict and pure adherence to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafi Muslims are especially adamant about monotheism and worshipping the one true god. In Salafi beliefs, even praying to saints or visiting shrines is forbidden.
Salafi Muslims are generally less inclined to engage in public discourse and politics, though some Salafis — especially in Kuwait and Egypt — have engaged in political movements in their countries. Many Salafis consider the participation in the political system as a sin against Islam.
– Salafism Definition: What Does It Mean?
The word Salafi means “Salaf-like,” reflecting the belief in mirroring the practices of earlier generations, that Salafists call their “pious predecessors.”
This belief comes from several ḥadīths that state that the Prophet Muhammad declared that the best of his people were his current community. According to the Prophet, each generation’s purity to the religion would gradually decline over time.
Salafism can be defined as more of a set of intellectual ideals and values than a distinct branch of the religion. Many Salafi Muslims today incorporate the lifestyles of the Prophet and first generations of Muslims, such as wearing their pants cuffed at the ankle and brushing their teeth with “miswak,” a twig from the Salvadora persica tree that has cleaning properties.
The appearance of many modern Salafi Muslims — whether in their native countries or in diaspora — is characterized by robes, long beards, and head scarves.
– Salafism and Wahhabism
Wahhabi Islam is the far-right subset of Salafi Islam, with Saudi Arabia being the dominant Wahhabi Islamic nation. Wahhabism is rooted in a strict and literal interpretation of the Qur’an, with many Wahhabi Muslims condemning all that don’t adhere to strict Islamic traditionalism. Although not violent, this is the most intolerant fringe of Salafism.
In Saudi Arabian society, citizens are taught from an early age that Wahhabi Islam is the only path towards righteousness and salvation, whereas having a relaxed practice of Islam or practicing other religions, like Christianity or Judaism, is heretical.
Saudi Arabian Wahhabis put those who do not adhere to strict Salafism into three categories:
- Kafirs: They are deniers of god or, simply put, the disbelievers. In general, this term refers to non-Muslims or atheists, but sometimes it can also indicate other Muslims with which the interlocutor has a divergence of opinion on doctrinal matters.
- Mushrak: Those who worship more than one god. Literally translated, the term means “polytheist.” According to the beliefs of Wahhabism, even tombstones and statues lead to polytheism, as they entail the adoration of idols.
- Enervators: Muslims who do not have a strict adherence to Salafi Islam. Among the unacceptable acts that enervators commit there is, interestingly, the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
– The Roots of Wahhabism
Wahhabism’s roots stretch back to the mid-18th century, when the Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began advocating for reforming Islam, making it stricter throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
Since the acceptance of Wahhab’s teachings by emir Muhammad ibn Saud in 1744, the Saudi royal dynasty has actively sponsored the Wahhabi movement economically.
In the 1970s, charities run by wealthy Wahhabi Saudi Arabians began funding Wahhabi schools and mosques throughout the Middle East and beyond. Due to Wahhabism’s strict ban on shrines and sacred objects, many of Saudi Arabia’s holy sites have been destroyed by the government.
Influential Figures of Salafism
The history of Salafism is scattered with eminent theologists and intellectuals. Let’s see together how these figures influenced the Salafi ideology.
– Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal is often considered one of the most influential figures in Sunni Islam. Hanbal lived from 780 to 855 AD and created the Hanbali school of Islam, which stressed replacing human interpretations of Islam with strict adherence to the Qur’an and hadiths.
This school of Sunni Islam is still cited as the righteous form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Some scholars have pointed out that there is some contradiction with the Saudi Arabian reverence for the Hanbali school, as Hanbal allowed some acts that aren’t allowed in strict Saudi Salafism today, such as visiting shrines.
– Ibn Taymiyya
Ibn Taymiyya (1263 – 1328 AD) is often cited as the biggest influence on Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. Taymiyya was a member of the Hanbali school of Islam and preached many of the same ideas of puritan Islam that Hanbal did before him.
Taymiyya lived in modern-day Turkey during the Mongol invasions of the region, and openly declared holy war on them, which has provided inspiration for many Salafi Jihadists. Taymiyya condemned the visitation of holy shrines and worshiping saints, along with many other controversial ideas that led to his persecution and imprisonment throughout his lifetime.
– Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792 AD) was the founder of Wahhabi movement and its linkage with the Saudi royal dynasty, which is still existent today. Wahhab stressed adherence to strict adherence to the Qur’an and hadiths instead of relying on interpretation.
Wahhab especially preached about the monotheism of Islam. Despite his conservatorism, he promoted ijtihad (independent reasoning while studying the scriptures.) This may seem in contrast with the rigorous interpretation of sacred scriptures that Salafis believe.
However, despite their orthodoxy, Salafi Muslims reject the idea of “taqlid”, or blind imitation, and believe in personal reflection and re-elaboration of the interpretations of Islam.
Purists of Salafism, also called quetists, strive to spread Salafism through nonviolent preaching and education. Many Salafi purists tend to avoid being involved in political matters and do not seek to gain political power. On the contrary, they believe being involved in worldly politics would tarnish their pure adherence to Islam.
Salafi purists often live in isolated communities and carry out their preaching in localized capacities. The story of Muhammad’s preaching in Mecca and the surrounding areas is a major influence for Salafi purist thought, as the Prophet remained peaceful in his preaching despite fighting constant oppression.
The purists are against all Western influence in the Islamic world, but do not believe that violence is the answer to preserving pure Islam.
Salafi activists also participate in nonviolent preaching, but they actively take part in political matters. They aim to establish Sharia law in their countries through nonviolent means, thus believing that Salafism must be brought into the political sphere of the Islamic world.
Political Salafism emerged in the Middle East especially at the time of the Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia allowed U.S. troops to invade Iraq and Kuwait from within its borders. Many young political Salafists saw this through the lens of Western colonization, and warned that a growing American presence in the region would dilute the purity of Islam.
While purists focused on theological problems, like the blasphemous worshipping of saints, political Salafists were more focused on secular threats that could threaten Muslim society, such as Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and American inventions in the Middle East.
While Salafis tend to be nonviolent, there have been many extremist Salafi groups that have sprung up across the Middle East and elsewhere since the mid-1990s. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is often cited as the starting point of many extremist Salafi movements.
Many nations have pointed out that wealthy Saudi Arabian charities and elites directly fund Salafi and Wahabi jihadist groups.
Prominent Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been often cited as Salafi extremists, which has brought connotations of violence and terrorism to the term “Salafism.”
Salafi Jihadism During the Arab Spring
The 2011 Arab Spring sparked a violent chapter of Salafi Jihadism that would characterize the 2010s throughout the Middle East. After the Egyptian President Mubarak’s toppling in 2011, there were instances of violent Salafi attacks on Coptic Christians throughout Egypt. During the same year, there was also an instance of a Salafi protest in Jordan that turned violent.
The unrest caused by the disintegration of state control in countries like Libya and Syria has caused a surge of Salafi extremists to spring up across the region. The Islamic State, which in the mid 2010s controlled multiple prominent cities and territory in Syria and Iraq, is the most brutal and extreme of Salafi jihadist groups.
Salafism Around the World Today
Out of Egypt’s total population of 82 million , around five to six million are Salafi Muslims. Salafism is most prominent in Saudi Arabia, but it can be found in many countries beyond the Middle East. For example, in 2002, a Salafi mosque opened in Birmingham, United Kingdom.
There has also been a significant spread of Salafism into China, which has been perceived as a threat by the Chinese government. There has been a notable increase in the spread of Salafist ideology in many European countries, especially Germany.
Salafism and Sufism: What Is the Difference?
As we approach the end of the article, it is important to clarify a concept that generates a lot of confusion amongst people who are curious about Islam: What is the difference between Sufism and Salafism?
Sufism and Salafism are both schools of Sunni Islam. In fact, they are the most ancient and important schools of Islamic thought, dating back to the 11th and 13th century, respectively.
The opposition between these two streams of thought is based on the fact that Salafism is scripturalist, meaning that sacred scriptures are the only source of righteousness in Islam, and thus should be followed to the letter, while Sufism has a more spiritual approach to salvation.
Sufists believe in the continuous improvement of the human soul, following the example of Islamic saints — that, as you will remember, Salafi Muslims do not worship.
Another difference is that, when it comes to legal matters, Sufists follow predetermined proceedings and traditions. On the contrary, Salafis are more open to a vivacious debate about doctrines and rituals that belong to the legal sphere.
We have covered all the basics of the Salafi movement and its beliefs. Let’s go over the most important concepts once again:
- Salafism revolves around strict adherence to the Qur’an and the belief that the first three generations of Muhammad’s followers were the purest Muslims.
- Salafists stress the monotheistic belief in the oneness of god, with many conservative Salafists condemning the worshiping of saints and visiting of shrines.
- Wahhabism is the ultra-conservative sect of Salafism, most prominent in Saudi Arabia.
- Salafi purists seek to preach their message of a strict adherence to the Qur’an but prefer to stay out of political systems.
- Salafi activists condemn the use of violence to promote puritan Islam and have direct involvement in the political system. Most activists of Salafism strive to implement Sharia law in their countries.
- Salafi Jihadists use violence and terrorism to achieve their goals. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda are considered the two most notorious Salafi Jihadist groups of the 21st century.
Salafism is a centuries-old belief system that plays a significant role today in the Muslim world. While violent Salafi groups have often gotten the most attention in international media, the overwhelming majority of Salafi Muslims simply want to live peacefully, honoring the purest form of their religion.