Shaykh Yasir Qadhi’s recent lecture Rethinking Salafism: Shifting Trends and Changing Typologies Post Arab Spring at Georgetown University. The lecture starts at 3:40.
This post will cover 4 topics:
- Definitions: What is Salafī Islam?
- Positive contributions of the Salafī trend
- Criticisms of Salafism
- Concluding remarks
1. Definitions: What is Salafī Islam?
What exactly is ‘Salafism’? In the absence of a unanimously agreed upon definition, I propose to elucidate the modern Salafī phenomena via an outline of its beginnings, an assessment of its particular characteristics, manifestations of it in various contemporary groups, and a discussion of its positive and not so positive contributions to Islam and our global society.
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Within the context of our modern World, or to be more precise over the last half a century, the term ‘Salafī’ has come to designate an Islamic methodology, the aspirational objective of which is the emulation of the Prophetic example via the practices and beliefs of the earliest generations of Islam. This is because the first three Islamic generations, in being closest to the era of Muḥammad and the period of revelation, are understood to best embody the Prophetic Sunnah, and thus a pristine Islam.
Inasmuch as the term refers to a methodology, it would be fair to say that it does not specify any one particular or distinct community or group of believers. The generic nature of this term is further illustrated by the fact that more than a dozen distinct groups either identify themselves as Salafī, in that they believe themselves to be on the Salafī manhaj (methodology), or they do not object to the term being ascribed to them even if they themselves do not use it. Whilst saying this, however, it is worth noting that every one of these groups considers the correct application of the term exclusive to itself, alleging that all other claimants are not representative of ‘true Salafism’. This being the case, an outline of the various points of agreement and disagreement amongst the multiple strands of Salafī Islam is a prerequisite to a comprehensive understanding of ‘Salafism’.
1.1 Points of consensus among Salafī movements
There are some general characteristics that are present in all manifestations of Salafism, without exception. In particular:
1) they consider themselves alone as correctly espousing the teachings and beliefs of the salaf al-ṣāliḥ. In particular, they affirm the theological creed that was narrated from them (typically called the ‘atharī’ creed’)
2) they categorically reject any possibility of metaphoric or symbolic interpretation of the Divine Names and Attributes (tawḥīd al-asmāʾ wa’l-ṣifāt), a hallmark of the sects such as the Muʿtazilah and the Ashāʿirah
3) they absolutely affirm God’s exclusive right to be worshipped (tawḥīd al-ulūhiyyah) and refute anything that may compromise this directly, or lead to its being compromised. Hence, syncretic practices of certain Sufīs (e.g., extreme saint veneration, intercession of the dead, etc.) are condemned.
4) they oppose all reprehensible innovations (bidʿa) and dissociate from those who ascribe to them (ahl al-bidʿah). There is especially staunch opposition to Shīʿism, particularly because of the Shīʿite doctrine of dissociating from most of the Companions.
5) they respect and take recourse to the legal and theological opinions of Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328). It is important to note, however, that Ibn Taymiyya cannot, and is not, considered a progenitor for the modern Salafī movement, as they view themselves as having no one single founder after the Prophet Muḥammad .
1.2 Points of contention among Salafī groups
While there is general agreement on the above, there are numerous issues in which disagreement abounds, and each point of contention is manifested in a spectrum of opinions. Foremost amongst these issues are:
- Position with respect to the validity and necessity of following one of the jurisprudential schools (madhāhib):
The numerous Salafī strands hold conflicting positions with regard to the ruling on adhering to a particular madhhab, so much so that it has been a source of tension amongst them.
a) Impermissible: opposition to the canonization of the schools of law was historically a feature of the Ẓāhirī school (of Ibn Ḥazm, d. 456H). The modern revival of this ‘anti-madhhab’ trend can be traced back to Muḥammad Ḥayāt al-Sindhī (d. 1163) who influenced al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 1182), al-Shawkānī (d. 1250), Ṣiddīq Ḥasan Khān (d. 1307), and, most recently, Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 2000). All of these individuals were decidedly anti-madhhabist.
b) Discouraged but not invalid: some Salafī movements permit the lay person to follow a madhhab in times of necessity, obliging him to go with the dalīl (stronger evidence) when it is made known to him. 
c) Permissible: By and large, Sunnī Islam has considered adherence to a madhhab recommended or obligatory for a lay Muslim, and this is also found in some strands of Salafī Islam. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1206), champion of the ‘Najdi da‘wah’ was influenced by al-Sindhī in theology but remained a committed follower of the Ḥanbalī school of law, considering the practice of Islam’s rites and rituals within the paradigm of a madhhab to be both valid and praiseworthy.
- Dissociation from ahl al-bidʿa.
Theoretically, all Salafīs dissociate from religious innovations and those who adhere to and propagate them. However, the scope and method of how this dissociation is implemented at the practical level varies from group to group and from scholar to scholar.
Those with the strictest stance on this issue inevitably cast a wide net of ‘guilt by association’: if person B associates with known deviant A, then person B is declared deviant. If person C then associates with deviant B, now he too becomes a deviant, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The unfortunate, though predictable, product of such disaffiliation and judgment is the precipitation of further division and splintering within this brand of the Salafī community.
This methodology is the defining group of the ‘Madkhalīs’ (students of the Saudi Shaykh Rabīʿ bin Hādī al-Madkhalī), who legitimise this practice by considering it an extension of the science of al–Jarh wa’l-taʿdīl (the science of ‘ḥadīth criticism’ whereby Ḥadīth specialists deem narrators to be reliable or not). While in recent years the popularity of the Madkhalī strand has waned considerably, many non-Madkhalī Salafīs continue to adopt a hardline attitude on this point, refusing even to invite persons of different viewpoints to their conferences and gatherings.
However, some Salafī scholars and groups adopt a more lenient stance in this regard, and are willing to allow co-operation with some non-Salafī communities (for example, allowing cooperation with Deobandis, but not Shīʿīs).
- Theological position on ‘īmān’ (faith) and whether actions constitute a requisite part of īmān or are subsidiary to it.
The discussion of īmān and what it connotes is a relatively modern question, one that arose in the latter part of the 90s when Sh. al-Albānī stated that he did not consider actions to be a necessary part of īmān. The standard Salafī position prior to this, and the explicit position of Ibn Taymiyya and the scholars affirming Atharī theology, was that certain actions are a necessary requirement of faith and the absence of such actions contradicted the presence of īmān.
- The level of allegiance and obedience toward an Islamic ruler (ṭāʿat walī al-amr), and the amount of political activism allowed.
This point is a vast and convoluted one, and perhaps the most obvious issue of disagreement to those outside of the movement. The levels of political activism and political dissent, and the necessity of allegiance and loyalty to the Muslim rulers, and the ‘Islam’ of an illegitimate ruler, are theological ‘grey’ areas that various Salafī scholars have attempted to negotiate in today’s ever-volatile political climate. The positions can be summarized as follows:
a) Criticizing a legitimate ruling authority is doctrinally prohibited tantamount to sin and deviation. Some Salafīs, in particular the ‘mainstream’ Saudi Salafīs and Madkhalīs, are extremely pro-government.
b) Questioning and advising the ruling authority is an extension of al-amr bi’l-maʿrūf wa’l-nahy ʿan al-munkar (‘advising the good and forbidding evil’). Some Salafīs view voicing opposition to government policy as a legitimate and necessary extension of the Islamic notion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, and equate it with the Islamic principle of attempting to prevent an oppressor from committing his oppression. Examples of this are the Ṣaḥwa scholars of Saudi Arabia, who will be discussed below.
c) Questioning the legitimacy of all rulers of Muslim lands. There are some Salafī groups who consider all the rulers of Muslim lands (or: only those who do not rule by the Sharīʿah), to be illegitimate and regard them as disbelievers, whose legitimacy should be contested, perhaps by force.
- The issue of takfīr (deeming the belief of a Muslim to be invalid) and in particular takfīr of the rulers who don’t judge by the laws of the Sharīʿah (al-ḥukm bi ghayr mā anzal Allah).
Once again, there is a spectrum of opinion:
a) rulers of Muslim lands who judge by secular laws are believers. Some scholars, such as the previous Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Bāz (d. 1999) and Shaykh al-Albānī, held the view that a ruler who judged by secular laws is still a believer (unless certain conditions, difficult to verify, exist). They argued that this is a sin that does not in itself expel them from the fold of Islam.
b) such rulers are treated as Muslim, and obeyed for the greater good of the community, but their action of ruling by other than Allah is major kufr. This is the view of many middle-of-the-road Salafīs, such as Shaykh Muḥammad b. Sāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn (d. 2001).
c) rulers of Muslim lands who rule by secular laws have fallen into kufr, and their rule is illegitimate and their belief negated; hence allegiance to them is null and void. This group consists of the hard-liners, represented by figures like Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī and Abū Musʿab al-Sūrī, whose writings inspire the jihadist-Salafī movements, which leads us to our next point.
- Position with respect to jihād. Whilst the majority of groups championing Salafism are pacifist, there are minority voices within the overall ‘Salafī movement’ who adopt a more ‘militarist’ position. They consider a military jihād a binding obligation, either on some segments of the Ummah, or on all eligible members of the Ummah. They focus on either or both of the following:
(i) removing secular rulers from Muslim lands.
(ii) maintaining perpetual conflict against non-Muslim governments that have militarily intervened in Muslim lands.
Typically, and understandably, the last three points (i.e., the question of ruling by other than Allah, challenging the belief of the Muslim non-Sharʿī ruler, and the issue of jihād) are intrinsically interconnected. Those holding the harshest views on the legitimacy and belief of a ruler who judges by other than the law of God inevitably adopt the most radical position in pronouncing takfīr and thus lay the foundations for necessitating military jihād.
1.3 Some prominent Salafī Groups
- Mainstream Saudi Salafism. This is the largest and most prominent of the Salafī groups, as exemplified by the majority of Saudi clerics. These clerics typically adhere to a madhhab (almost always the Ḥanbalī one), are pacifist, and loyal to their rulers. This group, as represented by the Saudi scholarly community, avoids blanket takfīr, and remains vocally critical of extremist jihād groups.
- Shaykh al-Albānī’s Jordanian strand of Salafism. Another significant group in terms of adherents, they are extremely anti-madhhabist, and advocate for a strictly dalīl-based jurisprudence. Politically, they are quietest, actively avoiding anything to do with rulers or jihādist Salafīs, although perhaps their revocation of the latter is not as pronounced as that of the first group. This group also tends to be the most literalist in fiqh and strict in its application of the concept of bidʿa to practices that most other Salafīs would view as innocuous (for example, giving adhān inside the masjid, or having marked rows on the carpets, or having other than three steps on the minbar, and so forth).
- The Ṣaḥwa movement of Saudi Arabia has been involved in peaceful political reform, without calling for overthrowing the rulers. Clerics like Shaykh Salman al-Oadah, and Shaykh Safar al-Ḥawalī before him, are representative of this trend. For the most part, this group has proven to be politically savvy and extremely active on social media; as a result of this, they have garnered some measure of mass appeal amongst the more educated youth. Their concern for Muslims has been manifested in their active involvement in fighting the social problems in their societies.
- The Madkhalī trend is a smaller sub-sect of the Saudi Salafīs. They are a unique strand and more of an exception to the general Salafī trend. Their methodology is inherently the most divisive. This trend tends to almost exclusively concentrate on other individuals and whether those individuals are on the correct Salafī path or not. The Madkhlīs are continuously splintering amongst themselves, based on who in particular is currently ‘on’ or ‘off’ the manhaj. In terms of relevance, they are a dwindling community, as evidenced in the shrill desperation of their hysterical refutations and the minimal impact these refutations make.
- Egyptian Salafism – also representing a wide spectrum of views – has, for the large part, been in some disarray since the Arab Spring. Typically, Egyptian Salafīs have been most influenced by the Jordanian-Albānī branch, and hence are extremely literalist in fiqh. There is also a Madhkhalī equivalent amongst Egyptian Salafīs. One also finds, as in all countries, that they have radically different political orientations. The most significant branch, the Noor Party, has adopted a staunchly pro-Sisi position, while others remain apolitical, and some have come out criticizing the current regime. We are currently witnessing a huge overhaul in Egyptian Salafism, and it is too early to fully assess the various positions being adopted and the nuances that will emerge.
- Takfīri Salafīs: These typically emphasize takfīr issues, in particular making takfīr against non-Sharʿī rulers, but do not call for jihād against them since (from their perspective) the time is not right and the conditions are not appropriate. This group characteristically highlights the travesties of Western foreign policies against the Muslim people and their lands and the hypocritical positions of Muslim authorities. There is an overarching preoccupation with the notion of walāʾ wa-l-barāʾ (loyalty and disloyalty), which is manifested most in their defense of all Muslim groups who fight against the West, regardless of the legitimacy of their tactics. Their frequent and casual resort to takfīr has often resulted in their leveling the charge of hypocrisy (nifāq) and disbelief (kufr) on their critics. This group shares much with the Madkhalīs in terms of manners and harshness but remains staunchly opposed to them because of their difference of opinion on Muslim governments. Some contemporary personalities subscribing to this particular strand of Salafism include Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī and Abū Muṣʿab al-Sūrī; they have a small yet dedicated following in the West (primarily composed of young men influenced by the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated by a targeted US drone attack in 2012). While most members of this group do not actively engage in jihād themselves, their writings lay the foundations for the position of the next group.
- Radical jihādist Salafīs: Encompassing radical theological and political positions, this ‘strand’ of Salafism includes militant organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS. While I have differentiated between these last two categories, many would correctly point out that they are a continuum, without a clear dividing line separating them. It is worthy of mention, here, that though they may espouse some strain of the Salafī methodology in their theological positions, they are typically condemned by all other Salafīs on account of their militancy. Additionally, these groups emphasize issues that most others Salafīs don’t (such as their version of jihād) and ignore issues that mainstream Salafīs would discuss. (For the record, it should be noted that these groups originated from a union of splintered sub groups of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Salafism in the early 1980s – hence, technically, they are not of ‘pure’ Salafī origin).
The cursory and incomplete list above demonstrates the problem in attributing the term ‘Salafī’ to any one of these designated groups. The existence of so much disagreement between the various strands of Salafīs highlights the very real problem of describing as ‘Salafī’ any of the above issues as one collective whole: none of these individual groups is representative of Salafism in its entirety.