(Hussein Isa / Flickr)

October 01, 2009


Salafism is an unfolding transformative movement within Sunni Islam, first rising to prominence in the second half of the twentieth century and then providing the ideological foundations for further radical Islamist movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Its basic proposition is that legitimacy, whether in the religious, social, or political realms, must be explicitly derived from early Islamic precedents.

 The intellectual roots of Salafism can be traced back to the formative period of Islam as a religion and as a civilization. The antecedents of modern Salafism were vocal scholastic formulations of a conservative understanding of the faith. Despite current representations that highlight their impact, they were far from being the dominant approach within the scholastic tradition. The first six centuries of Islam witnessed a vibrant discussion among a multitude of schools of thought, informed in particular by Hellenistic philosophy and rationalism. The precursors to today’s Salafism then were Ahl al-Hadith, who largely refrained from participation in these debates and instead developed critical methods in the collection and validation of authoritative traditions intended to serve as a basis for the construction of Islamic dogma. 

The first age of Islam, one of imperial expansion, cultural assimilation, and intellectual creativity, ended in the thirteenth century with the collapse of the “universal” Islamic state and the emergence of a new configuration of regional Islamic empires. The intellectual dynamism of the first age was replaced by a more structured and traditionalized dogma and praxis. Islamic scholasticism coalesced into three main parallel disciplines—jurisprudence, theology, and mysticism—with frequent affinities and occasional intersections among them. Outside of the Shi‘i tradition, four schools of jurisprudence (Maliki, Shafi‘i, Hanafi, and Hanbali, collectively referred to as “Sunni") emerged in various Islamic locales, while three major systems of theology (Ash‘ari, Maturidi, and Athari) formalized their own versions of the Islamic creed. The Hanbali-Athari affinity, a result of the literalist origins of both schools, was further strengthened by the two groups’ shared resistance to organized mysticism—which they dismissed as innovation. 

In the second age of Islam, mysticism, in the form of Sufi orders (Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Shadhili, Rifa‘i, Tijani, etc.), and its accommodation of diverse local practices were the most visible religious expressions of the Muslim faith. Throughout the Muslim world, Islamic scholasticism revolved around combinations of schools of jurisprudence, theology, and mysticism (Maliki-Ash‘ari-Tijani and Hanafi-Maturidi-Naqshbandi, as examples), with the Hanbali-Athari compound lacking a formal mystical component.

Two pivotal figures prepared the foundations of modern Salafism: the fifteenth-century scholar Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah and the eighteenth-century leader Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. A prolific author, Ibn Taymiyyah injected a new dynamism into the closed hermeneutical approach of Ahl al-Hadith while rejecting the multilayered pluralism of Islamic scholasticism as an undue compromise affecting the purity of the faith. More significantly, Ibn Taymiyyah introduced doctrinal concepts that define Salafism today, in particular his distinction between God’s Divinity (Uluhiyyah) and God’s Lordship (Rububiyyah). In his view, the latter is ideological and theological, while the former is practical and more encompassing. According to Ibn Taymiyyah, Islam as true monotheism necessitates the recognition of both, with the corollary that any authority (religious, social, or political) that is to be recognized as legitimate must be explicitly rooted in the Qur’an and/or the validated traditions of the Prophet. In his own time, Ibn Taymiyyah was a controversial figure with limited impact. His disciples, however, expanded his line of argumentation and helped his ideas become more prominent. 

A few centuries later, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab sought the application and enforcement of Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas through a powerful Arabian chieftain: the ancestor of the Saudi royal family. While his experiment was (temporarily) defeated by an expeditionary force dispatched by Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, the founder of the modern state of Egypt, it was romanticized by intellectual reformers who valued its attempt at a return to the original purity of the faith. Nineteenth-century Egyptian cleric and modernist reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh—a towering intellectual figure in modern Arab thought—paid homage to Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab by emulating al-Salaf al-Salih (the virtuous ancestors, or companions of the Prophet), a concept advocated by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The unstated dissonance between the two, however, was in their fundamental understanding of the nature of Islam. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab sought an unyielding regimentation on the basis of his solemn mistrust of human reason and his conviction that history is by necessity a regressive degeneration from the ideal set by the Prophet. In opposition to this ultra-traditionalism, ‘Abduh’s reformist modernism assumed a natural compatibility between reason and revelation and posited instead that the accumulated scholasticism constituted a burdensome impediment to a progressive unfolding of history. 

The global integration of the nineteenth century provided a backdrop for a considerable transformation in the religious configuration of the second age of Islam. The metamorphosis ushered in by the twentieth century was of momentous proportions. In much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, the imperial order was replaced by a seemingly precarious nation-state system that, in reality, was quite resilient. Jurisprudence retreated to accommodate the emergence of civil and constitutional orders; theological discussions receded while secular ideological pursuits defined much of the intellectual debates of the century; and mysticism lost its dominance, and apparently even its relevance, in an increasingly globally informed popular culture. Mainstream Sunni scholasticism gradually adjusted to the new reality by diluting its dogmatic stand while, as a by-product, conceding the custodianship of much of the textual corpus to its minority faction that rejected the compromise. While Sunni Muslim societies may have both thrived and struggled in the early parts of the twentieth century, Sunni Islam as a religious super-system was considerably disjointed by the ongoing adjustment to the changing socioeconomic and cultural realities. One expression of this super-system did persist, first in the margins and then at the center of the Sunni realm: the Hanbali-Athari combination, rephrased as nondenominational Salafism. 

The emergence of modern Salafism can be traced to a multitude of objective and subjective factors, including the idiosyncratic survival of ultra-traditionalism in Saudi Arabia; the discovery of oil and how its generated wealth translated into considerable soft power for the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf; the trials and tribulations of the experimentations with alternative grand narratives (such as liberalism, nationalism, and leftism); and the emergence of Islamism, with its stress on activism. 

Today, modern Salafism has made inroads into most Sunni societies, and with few exceptions it has been able to recruit only a minority of Muslims. While presenting itself as a nondenominational sect within Sunni Islam, Salafism, whether explicitly or implicitly, seeks to eradicate or radically transform many of the manifestations of the Islamic faith in Muslim societies. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century appropriation and integration of social and political systems is rejected as un-Islamic by modern Salafists, as are all mystical expressions and theological formulations other than the Athari creed. 

While presenting itself as a “return” to Islamic ideals, modern Salafism is an ideology that has rephrased selected scholastic formulations from the Islamic heritage as normative rules for absolute implementation. Four concepts lie at the core of the modern Salafist system: (1) al-wala’ wa-l-bara’: loyalty to faithful Muslims and repudiation of non-Muslims; (2) al-hakimiyyah: the exclusive divine source of political authority; (3) al-amr bi-l-ma‘ruf wa-l-nahi ‘an al-munkar: the active injunction to adhere to virtue and abstain from vice; and (4) al-jihad fi sabil illah: defensive (and offensive, when possible) military action to propagate the faith. Each of these concepts, as presented by modern Salafism, constitutes a severe challenge to the lived faith of most Muslims across eras and locales. Carried to their ideological fulfillment, these concepts may respectively yield the following ideals: (1) isolationism and communal segregation; (2) a rejection of representative governance and civil law; (3) a restrictive social regimentation and an inhibition of personal freedom; and (4) open global warfare. While the implementation of Salafism is mitigated by a number of factors (leadership discretion, effects of the outcome of failed actions, etc.) according to the doctrine itself, Salafism is openly irredentist in its claim on the totality of Muslims and radical in its rejection of political and social orders not based on the Islamic corpus. As such, Salafism has provided the intellectual foundations for jihadist and terrorist movements that dismiss its mitigating factors.