Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Salafism: An Introduction

Specials- Salafism
Cairo, Egypt. Photo AFP

What is Salafism? Precise use of the term is needed because there is a tendency to equate it with Islamism: that is, the idea that Islam should be implemented as a political system with Islamic law being the main or sole source of rulings and legislation. Such a conflation ignores the diversity of views within Salafi trends toward political ambitions of and relations with the state.

The term Salafism (Arabic: salafiya) comes from the Arabic root s-l-f, which has connotations of precedence. In this context, the word means practicing Islam on the basis of the correct precedents, namely, the Koran, the authentic and sound sayings and practices ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunna) and the understanding of the religion as it existed among the salf (the predecessors), often defined as the first three generations since the inception of the Muslim community.

However, this position does not mean that anything that came after the first three generations (i.e. up until around the 9th century) is automatically discarded. In fact, Salafi discourse frequently cites as authoritative the writings of subsequent scholars who are seen as having upheld the understanding of Islam as it existed among the predecessors.

Examples of those scholars include the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah (frequently dubbed ‘the Sheikh of Islam’) and the 18th-century figure Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who founded the Wahhabi trend in what is now Saudi Arabia. While a Salafi trend emerged in Egypt in the 19th century, the Wahhabi trend has been an important influence on Salafism in the modern era, even though Salafism and Wahhabism are sometimes treated as two different phenomena. In fact, it would be more accurate to treat Wahhabism as a type of Salafism.

The most prominent aspect of Salafi thought is a hardline view on upholding the principle of tawheed (monotheism) and rejecting shirk (idolatry). Thus, Salafis forbid visiting graves and shrines of awliya (pious people) and performing circumambulation around them. They also forbid seeking the intercession of awliya, since such actions are deemed tantamount to worshipping one besides God and therefore constitute shirk. Salafis affirm strong opposition to practices deemed bida (innovations) and people who practice such innovations (e.g. Sufis), while warning against other Muslim sects like the Shia who are deemed to be heretical.

Yet Salafi views of politics and relations with the ruling authorities differ widely, ranging from a strict ‘quietist’ perspective to Salafi jihadism. Of course, many Salafi actors like the  al-Nour Party in Egypt fall somewhere between these two extremes.

An example of the strict quietist trend is the work of Abu Khadeejah, director of Birmingham’s Salafi Mosque in the United Kingdom, who holds that the ruler should be obeyed regardless of whether the he is righteous or sinful. Indeed, he argues that “rebellion against the tyrannical Muslim ruler is forbidden, even if his character is like that of a devil, even if he does not practice the Sunna.”

ِAbu Khadeejah bases this principle on a hadith (saying) ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Sahih Muslim collection of hadiths, in which the prophet said that there would come after him rulers “not guided by my guidance and not following my Sunna, and there will rise among them men whose hearts are the hearts of the devils in human bodies”. When asked what one should do in such a situation, the prophet reputedly said: “You hear and obey the ruler, even if your back is beaten and your wealth is taken, hear and obey.”

However, the principle of obedience is general and not absolute. Thus, the ruler should not be obeyed for an act in which he commands the Muslim to disobey God. If the ruler commits an act of kufr (disbelief) or shirk, then there should only be rebellion against that ruler if the Salafi scholars deem that ruler to be a disbeliever and that he can be removed by the people without bringing about greater harm.

Given this general approach to politics, it is unsurprising that Abu Khadeejah strongly denounces Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir that have an inherently revolutionary character. Damning them as innovators, Abu Khadeejah affirms that “it is forbidden to join them or to aid them in their proselytizing”.

It should be emphasized though that this quietist approach does not mean that these Salafis reject the idea of promoting their worldview and seeking to convert others to it through dawah (proselytizing). It also does not mean that these Salafis support notions of democracy. Ideally, they would like to live in a society that applies the rulings of Islam and Islamic law.

At present, the most notable controversy created by the influence of quietist Salafis is Libya, where the quietists are generally referred to as Madkhalis, a reference to the Saudi scholar Rabee al-Madkhali, who promotes the quietist approach expressed in Arabic as taat wali al-amr (obeying the ruler). Once associated with support for Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya prior to 2011 on the basis of obeying the ruler, Madkhalis have become involved on both sides of the current civil war in the country.

In east Libya, Madkhalis have joined the ranks of military strongman Khalifa Haftar (who is explicitly supported by al-Madkhali) and played a prominent role in his ‘Operation Dignity’ against Islamists and Salafi jihadists. In west Libya, Madkhalis have joined the security forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. In both parts of the country, Madkhalis have been accused of using their influence to promote their worldview and attack religious rivals such as Sufis.

At the other end of the Salafi spectrum is ‘Salafi jihadism’, which includes groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). For example, in its pamphlet entitled ‘This is our Doctrine and This is our Methodology’, IS affirms (like Abu Khadeejah) that the principles of the religion are derived from the Koran, Sunna and the understanding of the just predecessors (al-salf al-salih) of the first three generations.

By comparison, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, which was prominent during that country’s civil war in the 1990s, repeatedly stressed in its manifesto that it adhered to the ‘Salafi methodology’. The Salafi jihadists would certainly not disagree with their quietist counterparts on issues like hostility to Sufi practices. Scenes of jihadists demolishing Sufi shrines are all too familiar.

However, the jihadist approach to politics is radically different. Arguing that the present rulers of the Muslim world are apostates as they do not rule by God’s law and espouse political ideas deemed contrary to Islam (e.g. nationalism), IS and other Salafi jihadists argue that the deviation from a society governed in its totality by the rulings of Islam has been the cause of the Muslim world’s decline in the modern era.

They argue that the ‘apostate’ rulers are due no obedience, but rather must be overthrown through armed struggle, replacing their systems and artificial borders with a caliphate founded ‘on the prophetic methodology’ that spans the Muslim world. In this regard, Salafi jihadists are hostile to Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, not because they are revolutionary in nature but because they have tried to work within political systems and are seen as having made unacceptable compromises on principles.

Salafi jihadists have disagreed among themselves on issues of tactics and specifics of doctrine. Examples of these internal controversies include how far takfir (excommunication/declaring others to be non-Muslim) should be applied to those who profess affiliation with Islam, how quickly Islamic law and rulings should be applied in areas that come under their control, the degree to which one should cooperate with other insurgent actors against a common enemy, whether the focus should be on holding territory or pursuing guerrilla warfare in a given situation and whether it is acceptable to have any kinds of relations with states in the conventional international order.

It is in the Syrian civil war that these debates have become most prominent, not only with the IS-al-Qaeda split that emerged but also the dispute between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda. Both IS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have roots as al-Qaeda affiliates but have now officially ended relations with al-Qaeda. While IS is seen as reflecting the more extreme end of Salafi jihadism, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has tended in a more ‘moderate’ direction, adapting itself to the context of Syria’s insurgent-held north-west.