On Salafi Islam: Prominent Groups (Part 2)

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.


Points discussed in Part 1 and 2:

1. Definitions: What is Salafī Islam?

1.1 Points of consensus among Salafī movements

1.2 Points of contention among Salafī groups


1.3 Some prominent Salafī groups [9]

1. 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.

2. Shaykh al-Albānī’s Jordanian strand of Salafism. Another significant group in terms of adherents, they are extremely anti- madhhab ist, 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).

3. 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.

4. 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.[10]

5. 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.[11]

6. 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[12] 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.

7. 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.


[9] 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.

[10] 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 widespread 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.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

About Dr. Yasir Qadhi
Yasir Qadhi was born in Houston, Texas and completed his primary and secondary education in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He graduated with a B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston, after which he was accepted as a student at the Islamic University of Madinah. After completing a diploma in Arabic, he graduated with a B.A. from the College of Hadith and Islamic Sciences. Thereafter, he completed a M.A. in Islamic Theology from the College of Dawah, after which he returned to America and completed his doctorate, in Religious Studies, from Yale University.Currently he is the Dean of al-Maghrib Institute, the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center, and a professor at Rhodes College, in Memphis, TN.