Editor note: This article is part of a lengthy study by Dr. yasir Qadi, that will be republished here, with the author’s permission, as a series of articles.*
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.
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 (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) 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’.
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 thesalaf 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 alulūhiyyah) 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. 748/1328). 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 (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
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:
1. 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.
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 amadhhab in times of necessity, obliging him to go with the dalīl (stronger evidence) when it is made known to him.
By and large, Sunnī Islam has considered adherence to amadhhabrecommended or obligatory for a lay Muslim, and this is also founds 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.
2. Dissociation fromahl 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 infintum, 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).
3. Theological position on ‘īmān’ (faith) and whether actions constitute a requisite part ofīmānor 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.
4. 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:
- 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 progovernment.
- Questioning and advising the ruling authority is an extension ofal-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.
- 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.
5. The issue oftakfīr (deeming the belief of a Muslim to be invalid) and in particulartakfīr 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 majorkufr. 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 intokufr, 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 thejihadist-Salafī movements, which leads us to our next point.
6. Position with respect tojihād.
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.
 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.
* The original article was published in MuslimMatters in April 2014.