The Salafi movement or Salafist movement or Salafism is an ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century. It advocated a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf).
The majority of the world’s Salafis are from Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. 46.87% of Qataris and 44.8% of Emiratis are Salafis. 5.7% of Bahrainis are Salafis and 2.17% of Kuwaitis are Salafis.
Salafis are the “dominant minority” in Saudi Arabia. There are 4 million Saudi Salafis since 22.9% of Saudis are Salafis (concentrated in Najd). The Salafi movement is often described as synonymous with Wahhabism, but Salafists consider the term “Wahhabi” derogatory. At other times, Salafism has been deemed a hybrid of Wahhabism and other post-1960s movements. Salafism has become associated with literalist, strict and puritanical approaches to Islam – and, particularly in the West, with the Salafi Jihadis who espouse violent jihad against those they deem to be enemies of Islam as a legitimate expression of Islam.
Academics and historians have used the term “Salafism” to denote “a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the 19th century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas” and “sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization.” However contemporary Salafis follow “literal, traditional … injunctions of the sacred texts”, looking to Ibn Taymiyyah rather than the “somewhat freewheeling interpretation” of 19th century figures Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida.
Observers differ over whether Salafi are Sunni Muslims and whether they are Wahhabis. Self-described Salafis believe they are Sunni Muslims, while traditionalist Sunni critics claim that Salafis are the same as Wahhabis, a sect unto their own and different from orthodox (i.e. traditional) Sunni Muslims. The basis of this claim is that Salafis do not acknowledge or follow any of the four schools of thought (Madhhab) to which other Sunni Muslims adhere. They have their own beliefs and laws, their own leaders and systems, a religion with strict and so-called extremist ways.
In legal matters, Salafis are divided between those who, in the name of independent legal judgement (ijtihad), reject strict adherence (taqlid) to the four Sunni schools of law (madhahib), and others who remain faithful to these.
Salafism takes its name from the Arabic term salaf (“predecessors”, “ancestors”), used to identify the earliest Muslims, who, its adherents believe, provide the epitome of Islamic practice. They consider a hadith that quotes Muhammad saying, “The best of my community are my generation, the ones who follow them and the ones who follow them.” as a call to Muslims to follow the example of those first three generations, known collectively as the salaf, or “pious Predecessors” (السلف الصالح as-Salaf as-Ṣāliḥ). The salaf are believed to include Muhammad himself, the “Companions” (Sahabah), the “Followers” (Tabi‘un), and the “Followers of the Followers” (Tabi‘ al-Tabi‘in).
Since the fifth Muslim generation or earlier, Sunni theologians have used the examples of the Salaf to understand the texts and tenets of Islam. At times they have referred to the hadith to differentiate the creed (Aqidah) of the first Muslims from subsequent variations in creed and methodology (Madhab), to oppose religious innovation (bid‘ah) and, conversely, to defend particular views and practices.
According to Bernard Haykel, “temporal proximity to the Prophet Muhammad is associated with the truest form of Islam” among many Sunni Muslims.
Salafis view the Salaf as an eternal model for all succeeding Muslim generations in their beliefs, exegesis, method of worship, mannerisms, morality, piety and conduct: the Islam they practiced is seen as pure, unadulterated and, therefore, the ultimate authority for the interpretation of the Sunnah.
Salafis believe that the Qur’an, the Hadith and the consensus (ijma) of approved scholarship (ulama), along with the understanding of the Salaf us-salih, are sufficient guidance for the individual Muslim. The Salafi da’wa is a methodology, but it is not a madh’hab in fiqh (jurisprudence) as is commonly misunderstood. Salafis may be influenced by the Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali or the Hanafi schools of Sunni fiqh.
Salafis condemn certain common practices among Muslims such as polytheism (shirk) and tawassul of religious figures. In North African cultures for instance, historically there were practices to venerate the graves of Islamic prophets and saints, and to use amulets to seek protection.
Salafis place great emphasis on practicing actions in accordance with the known sunnah, not only in prayer but in every activity in daily life. For instance, many are careful always to use three fingers when eating, to drink water in three pauses, and to hold it with the right hand while sitting.
In legal matters, Salafis are divided between those who, in the name of independent legal judgement (ijtihad), reject strict adherence (taqlid) to the four schools of law (madhahib) and others who remain faithful to these. Salafi scholars from Saudi Arabia are generally bound by Hanbali fiqh and advocate following an Imam rather than having individuals try to interpret and understand scripture alone.
Other Salafi scholars, however, believe that taqlid is unlawful. From their perspective, Muslims who follow a madhab without searching personally for direct evidence may be led astray. The latter group of scholars include Rashid Rida, al-Khajnadee, Muhammad Abduh, Saleem al-Hilali and Nasir al-Din al-Albani.
At the far end of the spectrum of belief, some Salafis hold that adhering to taqlid is an act of polytheism.
Opposition to the use of kalam
Modern-day proponents of the Athari school of theology largely come from the Salafi (or Wahhabi) movement; they uphold the athari works of Ibn Taymiyyah. For followers of the Salafi movement, the “clear” (i.e. zahir, apparent, exoteric or literal) meaning of the Qur’an, and especially the prophetic traditions, has sole authority in matters of belief. They believe that to engage in rational disputation (kalam), even if one arrives at the truth, is absolutely forbidden.
Atharis engage in an amodal reading of the Qur’an, as opposed to one engaged in Ta’wil (metaphorical interpretation). They do not attempt to conceptualize the meanings of the Qur’an rationally, and believe that the “real” modality should be consigned to God alone (tafwid). In essence, they accept the meaning without asking “how” or Bi-la kaifa. Salafi scholars strongly oppose the practice of kalam, dialectics, or speculative philosophy in theology. They believed that these practices are heretical innovations in Islam that oppose the fundamental aspiration to follow the original methodology of the Salaf us-Saliheen with regards to Aqidah.
Historians and academics date the emergence of Salafism to late 19th-century Egypt. Salafis believe that the label “Salafiyya” existed from the first few generations of Islam and that it is not a modern movement. To justify this view, Salafis rely on a handful of quotes from medieval times where the term Salafi is used. However, these quotes provide dubious and weak evidence for their claim since the term “Salafiyya” and its derivatives are not commonplace in medieval and pre-modern literature.
One of the quotes used as evidence and widely posted on Salafi websites is from the genealogical dictionary of al-Sam’ani (d. 1166), who wrote a short entry about the surname “al-Salafi” (the Salafi): “According to what I heard, this [surname indicates one’s] ascription to the pious ancestors and [one’s] adoption of their doctrine [madhhabihim].” The scholar Lauzière comments that, “al-Sam’ani could only list two individuals—a father and his son—who were known by it. Plus, the entry contains blank spaces in lieu of their full names, presumably because al-Sam’ani had forgotten them or did not know them.” Further, he states that “al-Sam’ani’s dictionary suggests that the surname was marginal at best, and the lone quotation taken from al-Dhahabi, who wrote 200 years later, does little to prove Salafi claims.”
In the modern era, however, many Salafis adopt the surname “al-Salafi” and refer to the label “Salafiyya” in various circumstances to evoke a specific understanding of Islam that is supposed to differ from that of other Sunnis in terms of creed, law, morals, and behavior.
Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab
Modern Salafists consider the 18th-century scholar Muhammed bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab and many of his students to have been Salafis. He started a reform movement in the remote, sparsely populated region of Najd. He advocated purging practices such as shrine and tomb visitation, which were widespread among Muslims. ‘Abd al-Wahhab considered this practice to be idolatry, representative of impurities and inappropriate innovations in Islam. He evangelized in areas in the Arabian Peninsula during the 18th century, calling for a return to the practices of the early Muslims. His works, especially Kitab at-Tawhid, are still widely read by Salafis around the world today. The majority of Salafi scholars still cite them frequently.
Trends within Salafism
Some who have observed trends in the Salafist movement have divided Salafis into three groups – purists, activists, and jihadis. Purists focus on education and missionary work to solidify the tawhid; activists focus on political reform and re-establishing a caliphate through the means of evolution, but not violence (sometimes called Salafist activism); and jihadists share similar political goals as the politicians, but engage in violent Jihad (sometimes called Salafi jihadism and/or Qutbism).
“Purists” are Salafists who focus on non-violent da’wah (preaching of Islam), education, and “purification of religious beliefs and practices”. They dismiss politics as “a diversion or even innovation that leads people away from Islam”.
They never oppose rulers. Madkhalism, as an example, is a strain of Salafists viewed as supportive of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Taking its name from the controversial Saudi Arabian cleric Rabee al-Madkhali, the movement lost its support in Saudi Arabia proper when several members of the Permanent Committee (the country’s clerical body) denounced Madkhali personally. Influence of both the movement and its figureheads have waned so much within the Muslim world that analysts have declared it to be a largely European phenomenon.
Activists are another strain of the global Salafi movement, but different from the Salafi jihadists in that they eschew violence and different from Salafi purists in that they engage in modern political processes. Due to numerical superiority, the movement has been referred to as the mainstream of the Salafist movement at times. This trend, who some call “politicos”, see politics as “yet another field in which the Salafi creed has to be applied” in order to safeguard justice and “guarantee that the political rule is based upon the Shari’a”. Al–Sahwa Al-Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening), as example, has been involved in peaceful political reform. Safar Al-Hawali and Salman al-Ouda are representatives of this trend. Because of being active on social media they have earned some support among more educated youth.
It’s very simple. We want sharia. Sharia in economy, in politics, in judiciary, in our borders and our foreign relations.— Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, the son of Omar Abdel-Rahman, Time magazine. October 8, 2012
“Salafi Jihadism” was a term invented by Gilles Kepel to describe those self-claiming Salafi groups who began developing an interest in (armed) jihad during the mid-1990s. Practitioners are often referred to as “Salafi jihadis” or “Salafi jihadists”. Journalist Bruce Livesey estimates Salafi jihadists constitute less than 1.0 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims (i.e., less than 10 million).
Another definition of Salafi jihadism, offered by Mohammed M. Hafez, is an “extreme form of Sunni Islamism that rejects democracy and Shia rule.” Hafez distinguished them from apolitical and conservative Salafi scholars (such as Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen, Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd Allah ibn Baaz and Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh), but also from the sahwa movement associated with Salman al-Ouda or Safar Al-Hawali.
An analysis of the Caucasus Emirate, a Salafi jihadist group, was made in 2014 by Darion Rhodes. It analyzes the group’s strict observance of tawhid and its rejection of shirk, taqlid, ijtihad and bid‘ah, while believing that jihad is the only way to advance the cause of Allah on the earth.
Despite some similarities, the different contemporary self-proclaimed Salafist groups often strongly disapprove of one another and deny the other’s Islamic character.
Views on extremism
In recent years, the Salafi methodology has come to be associated with the jihad of extremist groups that advocate the killing of innocent civilians. The European Parliament, in a report commissioned in 2013 claimed that Wahhabi and Salafi groups are involved, mainly via Saudi charities, in the support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world. Some Salafi scholars appear to support extremism and acts of violence. The Egyptian Salafi cleric Mahmoud Shaaban “appeared on a religious television channel calling for the deaths of main opposition figures Mohammed ElBaradei – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.” The popular salafi preacher Zakir Naik speaking of Osama bin Laden, said that he would not criticise bin Laden because he had not met him and did not know him personally. He added that, “If bin Laden is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him,” and that “If he is terrorizing America – the terrorist, biggest terrorist – I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorizing the terrorist, he is following Islam. Whether he is or not, I don’t know, but you as Muslims know that, without checking up, laying allegations is also wrong.”
Other salafis have rejected the use of violence. The Saudi scholar, Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen considered suicide bombing to be unlawful and the scholar Abdul Muhsin al-Abbad wrote a treatise entitled: According to which intellect and Religion is Suicide bombings and destruction considered Jihad?. Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani stated that “History repeats itself. Everybody claims that the Prophet is their role model. Our Prophet spent the first half of his message making dawah, and he did not start it with jihad”.
Salafism is sponsored globally by Saudi Arabia and this ideology is used to justify the violent acts of Jihadi Salafi groups that include Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Al-Shabaab. In addition, Saudi Arabia prints textbooks for schools and universities to teach Salafism as well as recruit international students from Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Africa and the Balkans to help spreading Salafisim in their local communities.
Some other Islamic groups, particularly some Sufis, have also complained about extremism among some Salafi. It has been noted that the Western association of Salafi ideology with violence stems from writings “through the prism of security studies” that were published in the late 20th century and that continue to persist.
Regional groups and movements
Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism)
Wahhabism is a more strict, Saudi form of Salafism, according to Mark Durie, who states that Saudi leaders “are active and diligent” using their considerable financial resources “in funding and promoting Salafism all around the world.” Ahmad Moussalli tends to agree with the view that Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, saying “As a rule, all Wahhabis are salafists, but not all salafists are Wahhabis”.
However, many scholars and critics distinguish between the old form of Saudi Salafism (termed as Wahhabism) and the new Salafism in Saudi Arabia. Stéphane Lacroix, a fellow and lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, also affirmed a distinction between the two: “As opposed to Wahhabism, Salafism refers […] to all the hybridations that have taken place since the 1960s between the teachings of Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab and other Islamic schools of thought”. Hamid Algar and Khaled Abou El Fadl believe, during the 1960s and 70s, Wahhabism rebranded itself as Salafism knowing it could not “spread in the modern Muslim world” as Wahhabism.
Its largesse funded an estimated “90% of the expenses of the entire faith”, throughout the Muslim World, according to journalist Dawood al-Shirian. It extended to young and old, from children’s madrasas to high-level scholarship. “Books, scholarships, fellowships, mosques” (for example, “more than 1,500 mosques were built from Saudi public funds over the last 50 years”) were paid for. It rewarded journalists and academics, who followed it and built satellite campuses around Egypt for Al Azhar, the oldest and most influential Islamic university. Yahya Birt counts spending on “1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centres and dozens of Muslim academies and schools” at a cost of around $2–3bn annually since 1975. To put the number into perspective, the propaganda budget of the Soviet Union was about $1bn per annum.
This spending has done much to overwhelm less strict local interpretations of Islam, according to observers like Dawood al-Shirian and Lee Kuan Yew, and has caused the Saudi interpretation (sometimes called “petro-Islam”) to be perceived as the correct interpretation – or the “gold standard” of Islam – in many Muslims’ minds.
Salafis are often called Wahhabis, which they consider a derogatory term.
Indian subcontinent (Ahl-i Hadith movement)
Ahl-i Hadith is a religious movement that emerged in Northern India in the mid-nineteenth century. Adherents of Ahl-i-Hadith regard the Quran, sunnah, and hadith as the sole sources of religious authority and oppose everything introduced in Islam after the earliest times. In particular, they reject taqlid (following legal precedent) and favor ijtihad (independent legal reasoning) based on the scriptures. The movement’s followers call themselves Salafi, while others refer to them as Wahhabi, or consider them a variation on the Wahhabi movement. In recent decades the movement has expanded its presence in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
Syed Nazeer Husain from Delhi and Siddiq Hasan Khan of Bhopal are regarded as the founder of the movement. Folk Islam and Sufism, commonly popular with the poor and working class in the region, are anathema to Ahl-i Hadith beliefs and practices. This attitude toward Sufism has brought the movement into conflict with the rival Barelvi movement even more so than the Barelvis’ rivals, the Deobandis. Ahl-i Hadith followers identify with the Zahiri madhhab. The movement draws both inspiration and financial support from Saudi Arabia.
There are 5 to 6 million Salafis in Egypt. Salafis in Egypt are not united under a single banner or unified leadership. The main Salafi trends in Egypt are Al-Sunna Al-Muhammadeyya Society, The Salafist Calling, al-Madkhaliyya Salafism, Activist Salafism, and al-Gam’eyya Al-Shar’eyya. Since 2015 the Egyptian government has banned books associated with the Salafi movement.
Al-Sunna Al-Muhammadeyya Society, also known as Ansar Al-Sunna, was founded in 1926 by Sheikh Mohamed Hamed El-Fiqi (d.), a 1916 graduate of Al-Azhar and a student of the famed Muslim reformer Muhammed Abduh. It is considered the main Salafi group in Egypt. El-Fiqi’s ideas were resentful of Sufism. But unlike Muhammed Abduh, Ansar Al-Sunna follows the tawhid as preached by Ibn Taymiyyah.
Salafist Call is another influential Salafist organisation. It is the outcome of student activism during the 1970s. While many of the activists joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a faction led by Mohammad Ismail al-Muqaddim, influenced by Salafists of Saudi Arabia established the Salafist Calling between 1972 and 1977.
Salafist Call created the Al-Nour Party after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It has an ultra-conservative Islamist ideology, which believes in implementing strict Sharia law. In the 2011–12 Egypt parliamentary elections, the Islamist Bloc led by Al‑Nour party received 7,534,266 votes out of a total 27,065,135 correct votes (28%). The Islamist Bloc gained 127 of the 498 parliamentary seats contested, second-place after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Al‑Nour Party itself won 111 of the 127 seats. From January 2013 the party gradually distanced itself from Mohammad Morsi’s Brotherhood government, and came to join the opposition in the July 2013 coup which ousted Morsi. A lawsuit against the party was dismissed on 22 September 2014 because the court indicated it had no jurisdiction. A case on the dissolution of the party was adjourned until 17 January 2015. Another court case that was brought forth to dissolve the party was dismissed after the Alexandria Urgent Matters Court ruled on 26 November 2014 that it lacked jurisdiction.
According to Ammar Ali Hassan of al-Ahram, while Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood agree on many issues such as the need to “Islamize” society and restricting private property rights by legally requiring all Muslims to give alms, the former has nevertheless rejected the flexibility of the latter on the issue of whether women and Christians should be entitled to serve in high office, as well as its relatively tolerant attitude towards Shia Iran.
In France, in 2015 police say that salafism is represented in 90 out of 2500 investigated religious communities, which is double the number compared to five years earlier.
Salafism is a growing movement in Germany and estimates by German interior intelligence service show that it grew from 3800 members in 2011 to 7500 members in 2015. In Germany, most of the recruitment to the movement is done on the Internet and also on the streets, a propaganda drive which mostly attracts youth. There are two ideological camps, one advocates political salafism and directs its recruitment efforts towards non-Muslims and non-salafist Muslims to gain influence in society. The other and minority movement, the jihadist salafism, advocates gaining influence by the use of violence and nearly all identified terrorist cells in Germany came from salafist circles.
In 2015, Sigmar Gabriel, Vice-Chancellor of Germany, spoke out, saying “We need Saudi Arabia to solve the regional conflicts, but we must at the same time make clear that the time to look away is past. Wahhabi mosques are financed all over the world by Saudi Arabia. In Germany, many dangerous Islamists come from these communities.”
In November 2016, nationwide raids were conducted on the Salafist True Religion (Islamist organization).
Salafism is opposed by a number of Hui Muslims Sects in China such as by the Gedimu, Sufi Khafiya and Jahriyya, to the extent that even the fundamentalist Yihewani (Ikhwan) Chinese sect, founded by Ma Wanfu after Salafi inspiration, condemned Ma Debao and Ma Zhengqing as heretics when they attempted to introduce Salafism as the main form of Islam. Ma Debao established a Salafi school, called the Sailaifengye (Salafi), in Lanzhou and Linxia. It is completely separate from other Muslim sects in China. Muslim Hui avoid Salafis, even if they are family members. The number of Salafis in China are not included on percentage lists of Muslim sects in China. The Kuomintang Sufi Muslim General Ma Bufang, who backed the Yihewani (Ikhwan) Muslims, persecuted the Salafis and forced them into hiding. They were not allowed to move or worship openly. The Yihewani had become secular and Chinese nationalists; they considered the Salafiyya to be “heterodox” (xie jiao) and people who followed foreigners’ teachings (waidao). After the Communists took power, Salafis were allowed to worship openly again.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Many religious buildings were destroyed in the Bosnian War during the 90s and mosques were frequently rebuilt with the aid of funds from Saudi Arabia in exchange for Saudi control which became the starting point of the wahhabist influence in Bosnia. Due to the wahhabism that came along with Saudi aid to rebuild the mosque and along with Gulf-trained imams mandated by the salafist influence, all-covering veils such as niqab and burqa have become more prevalent and the issue of polygamy was debated in parliament due to pressure from islamist groups. In a 2005 study, a tiny 0.00125% out of the 97% of the moderate mainstream Sunni Muslim populations of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 3,000 to 5,000 identified themselves as wahhabist.
An attempt at Salafist expansion among the Muslim Chams in Vietnam has been halted by Vietnamese government controls, however, the loss of the Salafis among Chams has been to be benefit of Tablighi Jamaat.
Representatives from the mosque in Gävle are promoting this variant of Islam, which in Sweden is considered extreme. According to researcher Aje Carlbom at Malmö University. The organisation behind the missionary work is Swedish United Dawah Center, abbreviated SUDC. SUDC is characterised as a salafist group by a researcher of religious history at Stockholm University and it has many links to British Muslim Abdur Raheem Green. According to professor Mohammed Fazlhashemi, salafists are opposed to rational theology and hate shia Muslims above all. Further Fazlhashemi states that salafism requires women to be relegated to second class citizens as they would be forbidden from leaving the home without a male companion as well as being excluded from education and the workplace. Three Muslim community organisations in Malmö invited reportedly antisemitic and homophobic salafist lecturers such as Salman al-Ouda. One of the organisations, Alhambra is a student at society Malmö University.
In Hässleholm the Ljusets moské (translated: “the mosque of light”) is spreading salafi ideology and portray shia muslims as apostates and traitors in social media while the atrocities of the Islamic state are never mentioned. In 2009 the imam Abu al-Hareth at the mosque was sentenced to six years in jail for the attempted murder of a local shia muslim from Iraq and another member set fire to a shia mosque in Malmö.
In 2017 Swedish Security Police reported that the number of jihadists in Sweden had risen to thousands from about 200 in 2010. Based on social media analysis, an increase was noted in 2013.
Similar to Saudi Arabia, most citizens of Qatar adhere to a strict sect of Salafism referred to as Wahhabism. The national mosque of Qatar is the Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque named after the founder of Wahhabism. Similar to Saudi Arabian sponsorship of Salafism, Qatar has also funded the construction of mosques that promote the Wahhabi Salafism.
Unlike the strict practice of Wahhabi Salafism in Saudi Arabia, Qatar has demonstrated an alternative view of Wahhabism. In Qatar, women are allowed by law to drive, non-Muslims have access to pork and liquor through a state-owned distribution center, and religious police do not force businesses to close during prayer times. Also, Qatar hosts branches of several American universities and a “Church City” in which migrant workers may practice their religion. The adoption of a more liberal interpretation of Wahhabism is largely credited to Qatar’s young Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Yet, Qatar’s more tolerant interpretation of Wahhabism compared to Saudi Arabia has drawn backlash from Qatari citizens and foreigners. The Economist reported that a Qatari cleric criticized the state’s acceptance of un-Islamic practices away from the public sphere and complained that Qatari citizens are oppressed. Although Qatari gender separation is less strict than that found in Saudi Arabia, plans to offer co-ed lectures were put aside after threats to boycott Qatar’s segregated public university. Meanwhile, there have been reports of local discontent with the sale of alcohol in Qatar.
Qatar has also drawn widespread criticism for attempting to spread its fundamental religious interpretation both through military and non-military channels. Militarily, Qatar has been criticized for funding rebel Islamist extremist fighters in the Libyan Crisis and the Syrian Civil War. In Libya, Qatar funded allies of Ansar al-Sharia, the jihadist group thought to be behind the killing of former U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens, while channeling weapons and money to the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group in Syria. In addition, Qatar-based charities and online campaigns, such as Eid Charity and Madid Ahl al-Sham, have a history of financing terrorist groups in Syria. Qatar has also repeatedly provided financial support to the Gaza government led by the militant Hamas organization while senior Hamas officials have visited Doha and hosted Qatari leaders in Gaza. Qatar also gave approximately $10 billion to the government of Egypt during Mohamed Morsi’s time in office.
Non-militarily, Qatar state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera has come under criticism for selective reporting in coordination with Qatar’s foreign policy objectives. In addition, reports have condemned Qatar’s financing of the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in Europe as attempts to exert the state’s Salafist interpretation of Islam. Reports of Qatar attempting to impact the curriculum of U.S. schools and buy influence in universities have also spread. The nearby Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have been among the countries that have condemned Qatar’s actions. In 2014, the three Gulf countries withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar referencing Qatar’s failure to commit to non-interference in the affairs of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Saudi Arabia has also threatened to block land and sea borders with Qatar.
Worldwide there are roughly 50 million Salafists, including roughly 20 to 30 million Salafis in India, 5 to 6 million Salafis in Egypt, 27.5 million Salafis in Bangladesh and 1.6 million Salafis in Sudan. Salafi communities are smaller elsewhere, including roughly 10,000 in Tunisia, 17,000 in Morocco, 7,000 in Jordan, 17,000 in France and 5,000 in Germany.
It is often reported from various sources, including the German domestic intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst), that Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement in the world.
As opposed to the traditionalist Salafism discussed throughout this article, academics and historians have used the term “Salafism” to denote modernists, “a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the 19th century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas” and “sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization.” They are also known as Modernist Salafis. However contemporary Salafis follow “literal, traditional […] injunctions of the sacred texts”, looking to Ibn Taymiyyah rather than the “somewhat freewheeling interpretation” of 19th-century figures Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida.
The origins of contemporary Salafism in the modernist “Salafi Movement” of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh is noted by some, while others say Islamic Modernism only influenced contemporary Salafism. However, the former notion has been rejected by majority. According to Quintan Wiktorowicz:
There has been some confusion in recent years because both the Islamic modernists and the contemporary Salafis refer (referred) to themselves as al-salafiyya, leading some observers to erroneously conclude a common ideological lineage. The earlier salafiyya (modernists), however, were predominantly rationalist Asharis.
Inspired by Islamic modernists, groups like Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami etc. are called Salafis in this context. Muslim Brotherhood include the term salafi in the “About Us” section of its website.
In this context “in terms of their respective formation, Wahhabism and Salafism were quite distinct. Wahhabism was a pared-down Islam that rejected modern influences, while Salafism sought to reconcile Islam with modernism. What they had in common is that both rejected traditional teachings on Islam in favor of direct, ‘fundamentalist’ reinterpretation. Although Salafism and Wahhabism began as two distinct movements, Faisal’s embrace of Salafi (Muslim Brotherhood) pan-Islamism resulted in cross-pollination between ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings on tawhid, shirk and bid‘ah and Salafi interpretations of ahadith (the sayings of Muhammad). Some Salafis nominated ibn Abd al-Wahhab as one of the Salaf (retrospectively bringing Wahhabism into the fold of Salafism), and the Muwahideen began calling themselves Salafis.”
In the broadest sense
In a broad sense, Salafi (follower of Salaf) means any reform movement that calls for resurrection of Islam by going back to its origin. In line with Wahhabism they promote a literal understanding of the sacred texts of Islam and reject other more liberal reformist movements such as those inspired for example by Muhammad Abduh or by Muhammad Iqbal.
Scholars from Al-Azhar University of Cairo produced a work of religious opinions entitled al-Radd (The Response) to refute the views of the Salafi movement. Al-Radd singles out numerous Salafi aberrations – in terms of ritual prayer alone it targets for criticism the following Salafi claims:
- The claim that it is prohibited to recite God’s name during the minor ablution [Fatwa 50]
- The claim that it is obligatory for men and women to perform the major ablution on Friday [Fatwa 63]
- The claim that it is prohibited to own a dog for reasons other than hunting [Fatwa 134]
- The claim that it is prohibited to use alcohol for perfumes [Fatwa 85].
One of the authors of al-Radd, the Professor of Law Anas Abu Shady states that, “they [the Salafis] want to be everything to everyone. They’re interested not only in the evident (al-zahir), although most of their law goes back to the Muhalla [of the Ẓāhirī scholar Ibn Hazm], but they also are convinced that they alone understand the hidden (al-batin)!”
The Syrian scholar Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti wrote a number of works refuting Salafism including Al-La Madhhabiyya (Abandoning the Madhhabs) is the most dangerous Bid‘ah Threatening the Islamic Shari’a (Damascus: Dar al-Farabi 2010) and Al-Salafiyya was a blessed epoch, not a school of thought (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1990). The latter is perhaps the most famous refutation of Salafism in the twentieth century.
Numerous academic rebuttals of Salafism have been produced in the English language by Khaled Abou El Fadl of the UCLA School of Law, Timothy Winter of Cambridge University and G.F. Haddad. El Fadl argues that fanatical groups such as al-Qaeda “derive their theological premises from the intolerant Puritanism of the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds”. He also suggests that the extreme intolerance and even endorsement of terrorism manifest in Wahhabism and Salafism represents a deviation from Muslim historical traditions. El-Fadl also argues that the Salafi methodology “drifted into stifling apologetics” by the mid-20th century, a reaction against “anxiety” to “render Islam compatible with modernity,” by its leaders earlier in the century.
According to the As-Sunnah Foundation of America, the Salafi and Wahhabi movements are strongly opposed by a long list of Sunni scholars. The Saudi government has been criticised for damaging Islamic heritage of thousands of years in Saudi Arabia. For example, there has been some controversy that the expansion projects of the mosque and Mecca itself are causing harm to early Islamic heritage. Many ancient buildings, some more than a thousand years old, have been demolished to make room not only for the expansion of the Masjid al-Haram, but for new malls and hotels. Though some Salafis who attended a lecture by The City Circle in the UK, were equally as opposed to it as other Muslims. The Salafi movement has been linked by Marc Sageman to some terrorist groups around the world, like Al-Qaeda.
German government’s statement on Salafism
German government officials have stated that Salafism has a strong link to terrorism but have clarified that not all Salafists are terrorists. The statements by German government officials criticizing Salafism were televised by Deutsche Welle during April 2012.