Rashid Rida (d. 1935) was the first scholar to popularize the term ‘Salafī’ to describe a particular movement that he spearheaded. That movement sought to reject the ossification of the madhhabs, and rethink through the standard issues of fiqh and modernity, at times in very liberal ways. A young, budding scholar by the name of al-Albānī read an article by Rida, and then took this term and used it to describe another, completely different movement. Ironically, the movement that Rida spearheaded eventually became Modernist Islam and dropped the ‘Salafī’ label, and the legal methodology that al-Albānī championed – with a very minimal overlap with Rida’s vision of Islam – retained the appellation ‘Salafī’. Eventually, al-Albānī’s label was adopted by the Najdī daʿwah as well, until it spread in all trends of the movement. Otherwise, before this century, the term ‘Salafī’ was not used as a common label and proper noun. Therefore, the term ‘Salafī’ is a modern term that has attached itself to an age-old school of theology, the Atharī school.
I believe that the Salafī movement is a human movement, like all other movements of Islam. That is because Allah did not reveal the ‘Salafī movement’; rather He revealed the Qur’an, and sent us a Prophet . The Salafī movement is as human as the people who are a part of it are, which means its mistakes will be the mistakes of humans. This also explains why there is no ‘one’ Salafī movement, but rather a collection of miscellaneous movements that all can be gathered under the rubric of Salafism. I believe that no one movement can claim to be the exact understanding of Islam, and while some no doubt are closer to the truth in some matters than others, every movement is human and fallible. I do not believe any one sect, group or theology has a monopoly of the truth.
The Salafī movement as a whole has some noble ideals that it strives to achieve, but one cannot ignore its many faults as well. Someone might ask, “Is it not possible to divest Salafism of these negatives, retain its positive elements, and redirect it in a better course?” Indeed, that is what many within the movement seek to do, and in all honesty, I support such efforts, in Salafism and in all trends in Islam. However, the question becomes: when so many methodological mistakes and negativities are associated with a label, and the label itself no longer reflects what it originally aspired to, then why continue to identify oneself with it? This is especially the case when one realizes that this label has no intrinsic religious value and was in fact popularized only very recently in Islamic history.
Because of this, I no longer view myself as being a part of any of these Salafī trends discussed in the earlier section. For those who still wish to identify with the label, I pray that you recognize the faults listed above and work to rectify them. Those who choose to abandon such a label have every right and excuse to do so as well. Islam is broader than any one label.
While after more than two decades of continuous research, I do subscribe to the Atharī creed, and view it to be the safest and most authentic creed, Islam is more than just a bullet-point of beliefs, and my ultimate loyalty will not be to a humanly-derived creed, but to Allah and His Messenger, and then to people of genuine īmān and taqwa. Hence, I feel more of an affinity and brotherhood with a moderate Deobandi Tablighi Maturidi, who might differ with me on some issues of fiqh and theology and methodology, but whose religiosity and concern for the Ummah I can relate to, than I do with a hard-core Salafī whose only concern is the length of my pants and my lack of quoting from the ‘Kibār’ that he looks up to. Such a moderate Sufī, as well, will see me as a fellow believer in Allah and His Messenger, with trivial differences, whereas the standard hard-line Salafī will have already pigeonholed and classified me based on his pre-conceived perceptions, and his only concern will be to ‘warn against me’. And while I might agree with the hard-core Salafī that Allah has indeed istawā ‘alā al-arsh (risen over the Throne) in a manner that befits Him, his myopic narrow-mindedness of the problems facing the Ummah, and self-righteous arrogance, and his cultish mentality, will be major turn-offs for me personally, and harmful to the Ummah as a whole. Hence, I do feel more of an affinity with a moderate Sufī who reads more Qur’an than I do and is more conscious of his earnings being ḥalāl than I am, than I do with a fanatic Salafī from whom no religiosity is seen other than quoting creeds and refuting ‘deviants’. That doesn’t make the Sufī ‘right’ in his theology; it is merely is an indication that Islam, and Islamic allegiances, are broader than some issues.
One last point, and an important disclaimer.
Those who have long held grudges against the Salafīs will, understandably, use this article to cast further aspersions against the movement. That, in essence, translates into all other trends in Islam: from the progressives and modernists to the Shīʿites and Sufīs and Ashʿarīs. The fact that someone like myself, who was for a time associated with the movement, is pointing out mistakes that these other groups verbalized will naturally cause them to rejoice. For all of those who wish to exult, realize that my theology is still the same as it was two decades ago, and that your movements are just as human as Salafism.
In other words, I believe that each and every movement of Islam is a human one, with positives and negatives, and while some movements are closer than others to the Prophet’s Sunnah in some areas, no one movement with its human scholars can ever claim to be the representative of our Prophet , and officially represent the religion of Allah, on earth. Amongst all the movements, the Salafīs do have some great contributions in the area of creed, but that does not make them the champions of truth in each and every area of Islam. We should take the good from them, and correct their mistakes whenever possible, in a wise and gentle manner. And whoever wishes to reform the movement from within, my prayers and thoughts are with him, but we all have our niche, and I find myself more useful and enthused benefitting the broader Ummah.
As for the disclaimer: I shall always retain respect for a movement that has shaped me immensely, and whose scholars I benefitted from and genuinely admire, even if I disagree with some methodological issues. Therefore, if anyone feels that there is undue harshness at places in this article, I do sincerely apologize for that, for it is not my intention to insult or malign. Perhaps, if harshness is felt, it may be attributed to the fact that I expected better from a movement that claims to follow the salaf of this Ummah, but that I feel falls far short of that noble goal. It is my earnest desire that the Salafī movement in particular, and in fact all movements of Islam in general, live up to the pure ideals that our religion calls for, and our Prophet demonstrated.
In the end, the best speech is the Speech of Allah, and the best guidance is the guidance of His Messenger; and all righteous and sincere Muslims, Salafīs and non-Salafīs, are attempting our best to understand and implement, to the best of our abilities, the best of all Speech, and the best of all guidance.
A note to my detractors: It is un-Islamic to quote one sentence from this article and portray it as representative of my entire opinion. Context is crucial, otherwise even the Qur’an and Sunnah can easily be misunderstood. Feel free to differ, but please link to the entire article, and let educated readers decide my views for themselves as they read the complete article, and see my praise alongside my criticisms of the movement, and the disclaimers in the end.
Download PDF of On Salafi Islam by Dr. Yasir Qadhi.
 Ṣiddīq H. Khan was the inspiration for the Ahl-e-Hadees movement of the Indian subcontinent.
 This can have the rather unfortunate effect of thrusting such lay individuals into the arena of adjudicating religious verdicts (tarjīḥ) while lacking even the most rudimentary tools necessary to engage in such an endeavor.
 The term ‘Wahhābī’ is a label that is sometimes used by the detractors of the movement. It is considered to be derogatory and is used as a slur, hence it is avoided in this article. Additionally, it is not befitting for Muslims to coin a derogatory term from one of the names of Allah (viz., al-Wahhāb).
 This issue became highly controversial, especially after a refutation was written against al-Albānī by the ‘Ṣaḥwa’ scholar Shaykh Safar al-Hawali, entitled Dhahirat al-Irjāʿ, in which he charged al-Albānī with inclining towards the heretical position of the Murjiʿa (a theological sect of early Islam that excluded actions from the definition of faith). This caused a huge rift in two strands of Salafism in the late 90s: the mainstream Saudi strand and the Jordanian-Albānī strand, headed by Shaykh al-Albānī. This rift has still not fully healed, although it is not as significant as it was a decade ago.
The term Ṣaḥwa comes from a word that denotes ‘activism’, and is used to describe a more politically active strand of Saudi Salafism that emerged after the contentious political events of the early 1990s and the first Gulf War. Ṣaḥwa scholars strongly opposed the War and the intervention of the Americans, thus causing a rift between the mainstream Saudi clerics who wished to follow the ruler’s decision to invite the troops.
The Madkhalīs are at opposite ends of the Saudi Salafī spectrum to the Ṣaḥwa scholars, and derogatorily label this group as ‘Qutbis’, in reference to the political thought of Syed Qutb, and his brother Muhammad Qutb, who was an advisor to Safar al-Ḥawalī (someone who can perhaps be viewed as the ‘founder’ of the Ṣaḥwa).
 Many outsiders don’t understand the rationale behind this and claim that this is because the Saudi government ‘funds’ them. While funding no doubt played a role, most of the non-Saudi Salafīs who follow this position have not benefited from Saudi oil money. Hence, to be fair to this movement (and with the disclaimer that I find this view religiously untenably and morally repugnant), this view is based on the classical Sunnī doctrine of ‘obeying the legitimate ruler’. This doctrine has been extrapolated to implicate even criticizing a legitimate ruler in public. Additionally, there is an overt sentiment present in most group members that despite all of its flaws, the Saudi monarchy in particular ‘protects tawḥīd and defends the Sunnah’ and hence all other faults should be overlooked in the face of attacks against it. Hence, critics of the government are taken to be critics of protectors of tawḥīd.
 This theological position logically results in takfīr, the next point of contention.
 Each of these views (and scholars) has nuances and caveats for the positions that they champion. I am well aware of these nuances and have not intentionally left them out; however, this article is not a dissertation and hence is not the place to go into conditions and details and exceptions. The goal here is to present a simplistic overview; interested readers are asked to look into the nuances of each of these views.
 A disclaimer here is necessary: these groups, and their positions, are not completely distinct or isolated; there can be some overlap between these positions, and a particular person or scholar can exhibit characteristics from multiple sub-groups.
 The Madkhalī strand of Salafism has waned considerably due to a number of factors: Firstly, their brand of Salafism proved so intolerable and caused such tangible damage to the entire Salafī movement that most other Salafiī clerics not associated with the movement (and even some associated with it) were forced to clarify the extremism inherent in it. Secondly, many who jumped on the Madkhalī bandwagon themselves left either this sub-movement, or Salafism, or even religiosity; this practice became so wide-spread that a term was coined to describe it: ‘Salafī burnout’. Lastly, Madkhalism was, for a period of time, championed and promoted by the Saudi government (this was during the late 1990s and early 2000s), because of its strong pro-government stance. However, when the detrimental side-effects of the movement increased, the government itself subtly withdrew its promotion of the clerics of Madkhalism, and it eventually only remained alive and active in non-Saudi Western ethnicities, typically converts or non-practicing immigrant Muslims of lower educational backgrounds who found comfort in suddenly having the ‘power’ to challenge more reputable clerics.
 I have not listed other countries here and used Egypt as an example. A similar spectrum of movements can be found in almost all countries, including Western lands, where political stances of Eastern Salafīs become important for their Western counterparts. It is not uncommon to sometimes come across two American converts heatedly arguing over the correct theological stance to take regarding a Saudi political decision, for example.
 I have dealt with the angst of both the Madkhalīs and the takfīrī Salafīs personally; hence obviously I am not a neutral writer regarding these movements. Nonetheless, I do say to these Salafīs of the latter category: while as a rule you have more intelligence, and more īmān, than the Madkhalī strand, you lack wisdom in understanding the long-term effect of your actions and support, and you share with the Madkhalīs the quickness and harshness in judging others who happen to disagree with you. Just because a person disagrees with your tactics does not imply that he is siding with an enemy of Islam. Also, it would be wise for you to see the age, collective maturity, experience and wisdom of those in your own ranks. Why is it that one rarely finds older, more mature people in your movement – people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who have dedicated their lives to Islam and whose faith and services cannot be doubted? Do you really believe that a teenager or a young man in his early twenties is more qualified to chart a course forward for the Muslims living in the West than those double or triple in age? Lastly, be careful of reading your prejudices and preconceived notions into other people and clerics, for it is very possible that you criticize in a person a flaw or opinion that does not actually exist and will have to answer to Allah for your false allegations. It is foolish to create enemies of people who are not your enemies, and it will be harmful to you in this world and possibly the next.
 In many says, Salafīs wish to do with Sufism and folk-Islam what the Protestant Reformation aimed to do with Catholicism (with obvious dissimilarities as well of course).
 This is the view of almost all non-Muslim academics who specialize in Islamic theology, from Ignaz Goldziher to Richard M. Frank, George Makdisi and Joseph van Ess. While it is true that most of these names are dismissive of the Atharī creed because they view it as being overtly simplistic, they acknowledge that this trend of proto-Sunnism pre-dates the kalām trend of Ashʿarism.
Some modern Ashʿarites, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to paint an incorrect picture of this reality, in which it is alleged that Ibn Taymiyya ‘founded’ a new understanding of Islam. In my own personal library, as I write these lines, I can see around a dozen theological treatises in my bookshelf written before al-Ashʿarī, all of which affirm Allah’s Attributes completely and unconditionally, and refute kalām. One may disagree with Ibn Taymiyya, but one cannot historically deny that the general creed that Ibn Taymiyya preached pre-dates him by at least five centuries.
 My doctoral dissertation at Yale, which was an analytical study of Ibn Taymiyya’s magnum opus entitled Averting the Conflict Between Reason and Revelation, began with an introductory chapter of around a hundred pages in which I documented the rise of the Asharite school. In it, I clearly demonstrate that the school began as a small, outcast movement, was initially persecuted by other movements, and due to historical reasons (which I delineate there in detail), eventually, manage to supplant the dominant Atharī creed and become the official creed of the Seljuqs and later Islamic dynasties. The claim of modern Ashʿarīs that they have always been the dominant understanding of Sunnism is historically untrue.
 It has been my contention that if Allah had not blessed the Atharī creed with someone of the caliber of Ibn Taymiyya as a defense lawyer and public advocate, it would have long dwindled into a minuscule movement. On a personal note, the towering personality and sharp insights of Ibn Taymiyya have had a profound impact on my own thought as well, and I consider him to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, intellectual minds that our Ummah has ever seen. Sadly, almost all Salafīs suffice in reading Ibn Taymiyya (while they themselves are not qualified to understand some of his own writings, particular those sections that deal with Hellenistic thought and falsafa), but don’t dare follow Ibn Taymiyya’s footsteps. Had Ibn Taymiyya been alive today, he would not have written the works that he did; rather, he would have paid attention to the intellectual threats the Ummah is currently facing. Ibn Taymiyya wrote in response to the challenges of his day; modern Salafīs are, for the most part, unwilling to venture outside of the territories and ideas that Ibn Taymiyya wrote about seven hundred years ago and face the challenges of our day.
 I have spoken at length about the topic of understand the ḥadīth of the seventy-three groups, and explained that it has been misunderstood by many groups. You can find one such lecture here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fDXifZ5jnY.
 The odd and rare khuṭba here and there on these topics does not mitigate the fact that addressing such issues are not central to the Salafī call, despite the fact that these issues are rampant in those societies. This is not meant only as a criticism of Saudi clergy: the same goes for all other societies as well.
 This understanding of seemingly attempting to erase the very existence of women clearly has no precedent in the lives of the salaf: the Companions, men and women, knew each other’s names very well and conversed with one another if there was a need to do so. Again, this is not to deny the very real Islamic etiquette that direct interactions between the opposite genders should be minimal, for a legitimate need, and with proper decorum. But once again, as with theology, Salafīs take a concept that might have some legitimacy and then pervert and distort it to an exaggerated level.
 Yes, it does exist in a handful of descriptions in classical and medieval Islam, but it is undeniable that the term was not in vogue, nor did it have the connotations it does now.