On Salafism
Concepts and Contexts
Azmi Bishara


Chapter 1


THE TERM SALAFISM (SALAFIYYA) RAISES MORE CRITICAL QUESTIONS than common usage suggests. It is this issue that I am interested in when I repose the question, What is Salafism? This question might appear simple, but it is nonetheless useful to deconstruct it and consider it in depth due to the widespread careless, simplistic, and reductionist use of the term. This book explores and answers this question critically.

The simplest and most succinct definition of Salafism is the return to original sources—the Qurʾan and the Sunna (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s daily life and practice)—and the rejection of “innovation” (bidʿa and muḥdathāt). However, Salafism is not a single or singular phenomenon. If we dig deeper, we discover that the term Salafism is a purely historical designation that refers to a variety of Sunni and Shiʿi “Salafisms.” Within each of these threads, one can identify several “sub-Salafisms” or even distinct schools of thought. Although the dominant usage today, whether in Middle Eastern studies or in Islamists’ own texts, refers to a homogeneous and coherent body of ideas, historically the return to the righteous Salaf was not always a part of the production of a specific ideology.

Just as there was a surge of interest in Islamism following the rise of al-Qaeda and its various offshoots in the wake of 9/11, Salafism has become topical again with the rise of ISIL. While politicians and the media across the West have attempted to understand Salafism and “political Islam,” or “Islam” as a whole (!), they have done so by arbitrarily projecting their preconceptions onto the diverse range of ideas, facts, institutions, and histories that make up Islamic heritage. The monolithic conception of Islam and religious doctrine has led not only to simplistic generalizations and stereotypes but also to the ignoring of important sociocultural and political factors that shaped the formation and rise of such movements.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand groups like ISIL without examining the context in which they emerged, including their struggle with Arab and Muslim cultures and societies, Arab regimes and states, and what they consider the West. This struggle takes place against a complex backdrop of issues in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including different patterns of modernization and the advent of new sociocultural phenomena, the emergence of the modern state and its crisis under authoritarian regimes, the emergence of sectarianism, the complex relationship between memory and history, the national question, issues of integration, and the Palestine question.

What is currently considered a Salafi tradition in Islamic heritage has not always been known by this name. In the writings of the early generations of Hanbalis in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE,1 they commonly referred to themselves as Ahl al-Athar (People of Narration).2 The close association of this term with the Hanbali school meant that the Hanbalis themselves came to be known as Aṣḥāb al-Āthār or Athariyyūn (Narrativists).3 The Athariyyūn followed the example of al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ (the righteous ancestors), namely the companions of the Prophet and the following generations of (“sincere” or “faithful”) successors immortalized in the formulaic conclusion to all Sunni prayers and sermons: “O God, bless the Prophet Muhammad, his family, his companions, their successors, and their sincere followers, until the Day of Judgment.”

We should be wary of moving from mechanical projection of class analysis to a history-of-ideas approach that treats contemporary political Islamic movements as a natural continuation of a stream of ideas and traditions with its own autonomous history. The Islamists themselves claim that they represent no more and no less than the protracted history of an idea, the tradition of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamāʿa. Different parties do not form part of the Sunna or the Jamāʿa, which are both inimical to partisanship. The term Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamāʿa itself was only adopted by the Ahl al-Hadith stream of jurists at a later stage when the Ismaʿilis and Muʿtazilas also claimed the title which was, until the 420s AH, used only rarely in theological contexts, but not as a concept that designates a specific school of thought.

The term initially referred to Ahl al-Hadith jurists who accepted more dubious hadiths (not transmitted by a chain of credible narrators), preferring such hadiths to reasoned opinion as a guide for making juristic judgments and rejecting the primacy of rational inference in interpreting the Qurʾan. Later it became associated with a cluster of specific juristic positions. Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 1037 CE / 429 AH) was the first Sunni theologian to use the term Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamāʿa in a way that framed his understanding of the other Islamic confessions. He defines Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamāʿa as those who “hold that the blessings of paradise are eternal for its residents and hellfire eternal for the infidels; accept Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and ʿAli as imams; give high praise to the righteous ancestors (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ) of the religious community; rule that it is obligatory to pray the Friday prayer behind any Imam who has renounced those who do not keep the basic tenets of the religion (ahl al-ahwāʾ al-ḍālla); rule that it is obligatory to derive legal rulings from the Qurʾan, the Sunna and the consensus of the Prophet’s companions . . . and say that it is obligatory to obey the Sultan in everything that is not a sin.”4 Is this a sufficient foundation from which to understand the historical specificity of Islamist movements? If it were, then it would be impossible to imagine that a contemporary Islamist extremist group calling itself Ahl al-Sunna would distinguish itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh wa al-Daʿwa. And yet we find the Yemeni Salafi Muqbil Ibn Hadi al-Wadiʿi (1933–2001 CE) explaining his group’s choice of name: “We were only called Ahl al-Sunna because we thought that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh wa al-Daʿwa espoused innovation. . . . Ahl al-Sunna are those who follow the Prophet’s words, choices, and actions.”5

“Archeological” investigations of history often produce findings at odds with prevalent conceptions of Salafism. A good example is the discrepancy between the historical development of the concept and terminology of Salafism and the way Salafism is reproduced and consumed even in academic circles. I single out contemporary Middle Eastern studies, which has abandoned the historical archeology of classical Islamic texts that underpinned the work of classical Orientalists. Under the influence of radical epistemological critiques of traditional Orientalism, some post-Orientalist academics have disavowed Orientalism in its entirety, including its conclusions regardless of their soundness and accuracy. Doing so has led to an enduring ignorance of historical texts and the origins of some of the concepts under investigation in contemporary research. The general shift toward “area studies” directed at Western readers and decision-makers tends to ignore both classical and contemporary Arabic texts (except in studies of modern ideologies, such as “Islamism”). The works of classical Orientalists produced valuable knowledge even when they were intended to provide expertise both to decision-makers and more broadly. By contrast, recent works (with a few excellent exceptions) rely mainly on preexisting schemas or selectively adopted textual fragments.

Although classical Orientalism was epistemologically constrained by an East-West dichotomy often tinged with an overt or covert sense of superiority, we can learn a lot from the studies that it produced. To be sure, the paradigmatic approach criticized by Anouar Abdel-Malek (1924–2012 CE), Bryan Turner (b. 1945 CE), and Edward Said (1935–2003 CE) permeated historiography, the social sciences, linguistics, and (in particular) anthropology.6 Orientalists think of Muslims as “religious beings” and Islam as an autonomous and monolithic entity that, while complex, is incompatible with modernity and enlightenment and that has “essential traits” that are permanent and fixed. This stereotypical view—tied to the West’s monopoly on knowledge and power and based largely on anecdotal evidence that confirms its existing prejudices—was characteristic of a larger field that encompassed the writings of travelers, diplomats, and academics as well as Western literary impressions of and fascination with an imagined Orient. Nonetheless, some Oriental scholars have understood Arabic better than many critics of Orientalism. Many Orientalists have respected Arabic and other indigenous languages and have edited and published classical manuscripts. By doing so, they have benefited Arabophone culture more than many critics of Orientalism, who often fail to quote a single classical Arabic writer, let alone a modern Arab scholar, in their work. While all scholarship should be critiqued from epistemological, factual, and methodological perspectives, select Orientalist scholarship needs to be distinguished from the rest for its valuable contributions.

All this leads us to question another concept connected to Salafism and used in contemporary literature on the Middle East: fundamentalism. Many contemporary scholars consider fundamentalism synonymous with Salafism in its precise terminological sense, and they believe that fundamentalist is an appropriate designation for all of today’s Islamist movements on the basis that they are revivalist trends both in terms of religious awakening and of commitment to fundaments of Islamic doctrine.

However, fundamentalism is not unique to Islam, structurally or historically, as counterparts and parallels can be found in Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. The English term originates in the US. In the beginning of the twentieth century CE, American Protestant churches in Southern California began to advocate for a return to religious “fundamentals” in response to burgeoning modernization and secularism.7 Indeed, a growing oil industry, Hollywood, and extreme forms of consumerism have made Protestants increasingly concerned about the threats that communism, liberalism, and Darwinism posed to their religion. A series of free volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth provides intellectual grounding for the term.8 Funded by the ultrareligious Stewart brothers, these volumes present an intellectual defense of Christianity, ranging from the story of the creation and the Trinity to the miracles of Jesus. As this religious revivalism became increasingly popular, it spread from Southern California to strongholds of religiosity in the South and the center of the US. It is no wonder that American academic research on fundamentalism, which proliferated during the 1980s and 1990s CE, defines it as “a strategy or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group.”9

If it is appropriate to speak of Christianities rather than Christianity and Islams rather than Islam, then it is even more appropriate to recognize that multiple fundamentalisms also exist, even within a single religion. Fundamentalism is a way of thinking, a perspective, and an approach. It is not a self-contained social or even religious phenomenon, unless it is tied to a particular mode of religiosity, for example that of a religious establishment,10 a folk religiosity (in today’s terms I would prefer mass religiosity,11 which is more vulnerable to ideological formulations of religion), or an activist political mode. Different forms of fundamentalism tend to arise from the desire to preserve or strengthen an existing identity against newer identities produced by major social transformation. Indeed, these movements may seek to adapt by reaffirming fundamentals in a “purer” form. Within a single religion, there are various sources of consciousness that inform the “return” to what are deemed the fundamentals, leading to interaction with and modification of multiple modes of religiosity.

This contemporary concept of fundamentalism, typically translated into Arabic using the word uṣūlī, is completely at odds with the traditional Islamic usage of that word. Uṣūlī in classical usage is not taken from social science scholarship. Rather, it is an adjective referring to the fundamentals of jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh), namely the method or “science” guiding the development of practical legal rulings on matters of worship or daily conduct based on the fundamental principles of the Shariʿa. It may also refer to the principles/fundamentals of the faith (as in uṣūl al-dīn), which might be termed theology. In classical Islamic discourse, the term uṣūlī connotes independent thought, reasoned opinion, and the use of intellectual reasoning to derive rules or judgments from the basic principles of religion and religious text (ijtihād). In Shiʿi terminology of the eighteenth century CE, the term uṣūlī was used to describe the school of religious jurisprudence that defended scholars who advocated the use of rational reasoning to derive judgments from religious fundamentals against the akhbārīs (those who rely on akhbār, i.e., reported traditions), who asserted that the Qurʾan and the Hadith (and sayings of Shiʿi imams) were the only sources of religious judgments. The classical term thus refers to a process and conceptualization far removed from the prevalent contemporary understanding of fundamentalism, which tends toward strict religiosity and submission to the fundaments of the faith against religious laxity, a pluralist interpretation of these fundaments and their distortion by modern society and state. It is equally far removed from the use of the term in contemporary Islamic studies, where fundamentalism and Salafism are treated as identical. Using the Arabic word uṣūlī as a synonym of the English term fundamentalist causes unnecessary confusion in the Arab cultural context unless preceded by an extensive explanation of its origins.


The history of Salafism is complex. Academic objectivity still demands that we speak of multiple and varied Salafisms up to the contemporary period. An inventory of Salafisms would include reformist, proselytizing, jihadist, learned, Sunni, Shiʿi, etc. Does the term Salafiyya (Salafism) refer to a “blessed” period,as Muhammad Saʿid Ramadan al-Bouti described it in the title of a book,12 rather than an “Islamic school of thought”? Is it simultaneously a doctrine of jurisprudence and a theological stance? Is it only the latter? Or is it a tendency found in all Islamic madhabs (schools of jurisprudence), Hanbali or otherwise?

These questions provide a key entry point to understanding the relationship between Wahhabism and Salafism. Wahhabism—also known as Najdi Salafism—is distinguished by its total identification of Salafism with Hanbalism, setting it apart from the Salafism of the classical Ahl al-Athar among the Ahl al-Hadith (followers of the Prophet’s sayings and deeds) or Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamāʿa (followers of prophetic tradition and the consensus among Ahl al-Hadith) in the ninth century CE and after, and likewise from the Salafism of Ibn Taymiyya between the late thirteenth century and the mid-fourteenth century CE. This post–Ibn Hanbal13 Hanbalism reimagined him as a “Hanbali” in the same way that post–al-Ashʿari Ashʿarism reimagined al-Ashʿari himself as an Ashʿari,14 as did Imami Shiʿism with Imam Jaʿfar Ibn Muhammad Ibn ʿAli Ibn Abi Talib (82–147 AH / 702–765 CE), known as Jaʿfar al-Sadiq, and his successors.15 The process of reimagining usually includes reinventing the deeds and sayings of a figure who is retroactively considered the renowned founder. Specifically, followers integrate and construct this figure’s ideas into coherent teachings of a school of thought, a confession, or an ideology. Doing so generates a constellation of meanings that, while novel, are inspired by and rooted in what came before, as is generally the case in the history of ideas, where ideas and concepts extend roots into the past in search of authenticity. Modernist secular ideologies are not exempted from this discursive practice. Communists, for example, deal with Karl Marx (1818–1883 CE) as if he was a Marxist and the arguments and counter arguments in the discussions among the dogmatic adherers to Marxism as an ideology must be justified by quotations and interpretations of his writings.

Before it came to be relatively narrowly defined as a specific doctrinal and religious creed, the term Salafism was even vaguer than that of fundamentalism.16 However, the recent and divergent phenomena known as Salafism have proliferated and multiplied to the point that the concept has almost burst open at the seams. Modern scholars often assert that these modern trends emerged from a single “original” current, thus justifying the practice of lumping them together under a single label of Salafism.

In its original sense, the term Salafism meant exclusively adhering to the Qurʾan and Sunna. Scholars would draw on the sayings and actions of the Prophet, the generation of the Prophet’s companions (particularly the first four “rightly guided” caliphs), and the generation of “successors” (tābiʿūn) who followed them as a model of how to apply the provisions of the Qurʾan and the Sunna in practice. This is naturally a diffuse definition; according to the principle of “consensus” (ijmāʿ), for a point to qualify as “guidance” it had to be the subject of universal agreement among the Salaf themselves. Determining what points enjoyed such a consensus is controversial, as the question of who is included in the consensus always produces different answers. Does it refer to the companions alone, excluding the second and third generations of successors? Or does it refer to all those described in the famous Hadith as “the finest of generations”?

Contemporary Salafism, however, does not engage with these subtleties, and might even see them as superfluous. It prefers general formulas like “the Salaf said,” “the Salaf did,” and “this is the way of the Salaf.” Salafism typically gives text and narration precedence over reason or opinion based on rational evidence whenever there is a conflict,17 hence the sharp polarization between Ahl al-Hadith and Ahl al-Raʾy (proponents of opinion) from the third century AH onward. In addition to relying on the literal meaning of texts and narrations, the Salafi approach emphasizes emulation of the personal conduct of the Prophet Muhammad in his daily life as described in the narration and biography books (Kutub as-Siyar)18 as well as that of the rightly guided caliphs and leading companions, or the imams in the case of the Shiʿa.

Relying on the Qurʾan, the Sunna, and the recorded statements of the companions and the successors means that anything else is heretical innovation (bidʿa), “all heretical innovation is a deviation from the right path, and all such deviations lead to hell.” Shiʿi and Sunni authorities concur on this point. The claim that Shiʿism differs from Sunnism because it has maintained the tradition of reasoning in matters of religious law (ijtihād) does not detract from this structural alignment, or more accurately, epistemological unity. They too make a distinction between those who looked to prophetic narrations (akhbārīs) and those who looked to the fundaments (uṣūlī), who as we have noted were willing to accept ijtihād. The two currents have been in intense conflict since the eighteenth century CE. The Shiʿi proponents of narration are directly parallel to the Sunni Hanbalis. In any case, it is debatable whether the uṣūlīs have a substantial body of religious law, and it is also debatable to claim that the Shiʿa maintained this practice while Sunnis abandoned it. This is another oversimplification akin to the simplistic accounts of Salafism and fundamentalism discussed earlier. The original Shiʿi authorities (mujtahidūn) are closer to what Hadith “sciences” call “a mujtahid within the madhab.”19 Specifically, they innovate within the limits set by their particular jurisprudential tradition rather than really “independent” authority, except in radical cases. They are distinct from the Sunni Ahl al-Hadith inasmuch as they accept rational discretion (raʾy) as one of the basic elements of religious law; while discretion was central to the broad Sunni current represented by Abu Hanifa al-Nuʿman Ibn Thabit (699–767 CE / 80–150 AH), Uthman al-Batti (d. 760–761 CE / 143 AH), and Rabia al-Raʾi (d. 753 CE / 136 AH), this current was ultimately eclipsed by the atharīs. Shiʿi authorities went further than their Sunni counterparts in recognizing a greater role for independent reasoning in religious law, thus splitting into akhbārīs and uṣūlīs, whose religious law involves ijtihād and little more than contextualizing the sayings of their imams and drawing analogies.

The widely accepted simplistic identification of Salafism with Wahhabism ignores the problematic relationship between the two. Wahhabism represents, in fact, a specific reimagined version of Salafism, that is, atharī or Hanbali Salafism. This is a post–Ibn Hanbal Hanbalism that reimagines Ibn Hanbal by reconstructing his sayings (actual or ascribed) and narratives, which are not without contradiction and variations. As a consequence, Hanbalism became simultaneously a juristic and theological school.20 Hanbali Salafism, like Shiʿi Imami Salafism, emerged as a simultaneously juristic and theological doctrine. Most other Islamic schools of law took much longer to evolve an affinity with a specific theological doctrine, with a gestation period lasting more than 150 years. This applies to the association of Ashʿari theology with the Shafiʿi and Maliki schools of jurisprudence, Māturīdi theology with Hanafism, and so on. Sunni Hanbali Salafism’s and Shiʿi Imami Salafism’s early and intimate connection of legal doctrine and theology makes these schools into a “confessional doctrine,” distinguishing them from other forms of Salafism. All juristic-theological confessionalisms have deeply rooted Salafi aspects. However, Hanbali Salafism is unique in viewing itself as pure Salafism, in both legal (uṣūl al-fiqh) and theological (uṣūl al-dīn) terms.21

The term Salafism as currently popular in Middle Eastern studies is understood as referring to a puritanical model of religiosity, an early form found in the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century CE. But this form is neither specific to the Peninsula nor to Sunni Islam because it encompasses the Shiʿi world as well. That is, it is not just Sunni but also Shiʿi.

The term remains a source of confusion because of its multiple uses: at certain times it signifies conservatism and return to the Salaf, and at others it signifies the defense of Muslim identity and culture while still accepting the values of progress and freedom. This is especially true of modern religious reformism in the Muslim world, where Salafism was reclaimed or reconstructed as the return to an imagined foundation, or “origin,” free from “heretical innovations,” “impurities,” and “innovations” (bidʿa). Every reformation demands a return to the fundamentals of religion and the emulation of pious predecessors in a quest to rid religion of foreign impurities. These impurities, according to this version of modernist reformist Salafism, distort the fundaments of religion and impede progress and adaptation to modernity. Impurities and innovations include superstition and practices widespread in folk religiosity, such as miracles, expectations, and the intercession of saints. The modernist littérateur Taha Husayn (1889–1973 CE) gives an amusing account of an argument he had with his father when he returned to his small Egyptian village after a year studying at al-Azhar, where he had become a disciple of the reformer Abduh. Hearing his father recite supplications to saints and holy men from a popular book, the young Taha Husayn condemned the prayers as heretical nonsense. “Is this what they teach you at al-Azhar?” his father responded angrily. “Yes,” the young man said, “and I also learned at al-Azhar that much of what you read in this book is prohibited according to religion (ḥarām), damaging, and of no benefit. People should not pray to prophets and saints. There should be no intermediary between God and man, for that is a kind of idolatry.”22 In the case of young Taha Husayn, the same aversion to received customs and superstitions and the same education to return to the uncorrupted fundaments spurred the onset of an evolution that led to philosophical rationalism and liberalism after studying in France. In the case of other disciples of Abduh, this was a consistent track of reformist Salafism.

Allal al-Fassi (1910–1974 CE) is a good example of the functional relationship between reformist Salafism and modernity. Al-Fassi combined advocacy of democracy and nationalism with a reformist perspective that advised adherence to “the best of the authentic Islamic legacy from the Salaf.” Abduh pioneered this modern reformist stance. Abduh had many disciples, including modernists, who split in the 1920s CE into liberal Egyptian nationalists and Salafi followers of his disciple Rashid Rida (1865–1935 CE), who further developed Abduh’s reformist stance but placed greater emphasis on Salafism and less emphasis on commitment to the imperative of reform. They asserted that Rida was Abduh’s closest and most faithful disciple and was often tasked by Abduh with answering questions on his behalf. He collected and published the biography and writings of Abduh in three volumes (under the title Tārīkh al-Ustādh al-Imam Muhammad Abduh, 1931). Rida “emphasized the purely religious legacy of Abduh . . . and presented the Salafi as an Islamic intellectual committed to political and social activism, hostile to Sufi practices, radically divergent from the class of the ʿulamaʾ [Muslim religious scholars who have specialized knowledge of Islamic law and doctrine], and finally as representative of an urban petty-bourgeoisie far removed from the governing classes.”23 This was the Salafism of an Arab urban life dramatically transformed by modernization. It advocated orthodox religious practices and an end to heretical innovations and “magical” elements that were alien to the spirit of Islam and responsible for entrenching backwardness. It defended Islam’s ability to reroot itself by returning to its origins in the face of the modernist waves buffeting the ship of Islamic tradition. It also emphasized Islam’s capacity to incorporate many aspects of modernity by linking them either to the spirit or intentions of Islam’s teachings.

As founder and publisher of the reformist journal Al-Manār—and against a political backdrop that included the French occupation of Syria, the Anglo-French partition of the Levant, the failure of the Hashemite project of a united Arab kingdom24—Rida began an intellectual shift away from Abduh’s intellectual and educational Salafi reformism toward the militant Salafi reformism of al-Afghani.25 The Islamist element gradually eclipsed the reformist element in his thought. Rida felt that the separation of the caliphate from political power (sultanate) in 1922 CE was simply a prelude to the abolition of the caliphate entirely in 1924.26 After these events, Rida began to advocate for the restoration of the caliphate. Rida’s beliefs stood in contrast to Abduh’s teachings. Indeed, Abduh believed that the idea of Islamic unity in one state was madness: “As for the endeavor to unify the Muslims, as they are in their current situation—it has not crossed anyone’s mind, and if someone were to advocate it, he would best be committed to an asylum. The true aim of advocating for the religious bond . . . should be understood as simply the desire of the Muslims to help each other to reform what is corrupt in their beliefs or unsound in their actions, and mutual defense against the famines, oppression, and misfortune befalling them.”27

Echoing al-Afghani with some modifications, Rida advocated for a return to text and tradition as well as an intense political activism. While al-Afghani believed that politics was limited to petitioning and advising rulers, Rida engaged with political associations regardless of whether they were popular or secular in character. His politics focused on writing, thereby giving expression to the modern public-associational political activism of the last two decades of the Ottoman state. Rida helped establish the Ottoman Party for Administrative Decentralization in February 1913 and was involved in developing its manifesto.28 He was also deputy chairman of the Syrian Congress (1919–1920 CE), which drafted a constitution that was secular except in matters of personal status law. At this point, the Muslim Brotherhood had not yet emerged; matters of personal status and Shariʿa had yet to become the focus of a mass party politics and used as a tool to mobilize the urban masses and in particular the middle classes.

In the latter part of his career, Rida began to admire the Islamic awakening in the Arabian Peninsula led by the third Saudi dynasty under ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Al Saʿud (Ibn Saʿud) (1875–1953 CE) and the Wahhabis, who promoted a return to the Qurʾan and Sunna and reliance on some writings of Ibn Taymiyya and his close disciple, Shams al-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abi Bakr Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292–1350 CE / 691–751 AH). They fought against heretical innovations and social phenomena that had “infiltrated” Islam from other traditions and religions. Rida praised Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s rejection of unthinking obedience to tradition and saw religious reform as a matter of rooting out “blind imitation” of a particular school of jurisprudence (madhab) and jurisprudential partisanship.

Other turn-of-the-century intellectuals in the Levant and Egypt also praised the “simplicity” and “authenticity” of the Wahhabi movement and Ibn Saʿud, whom people addressed by his first name, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz, without ceremony. Even the liberal Taha Husayn characterized Wahhabism along these lines. For him, it was “no more than a powerful call for the sincere and pure Islam cleansed of all taint of polytheism (shirk) and idolatry. . . . It is a revival of Arab Islam and a rejection of the products of ignorance and mixing with non-Arabs.”29 Taha Husayn was particularly interested in the revival brought about by Wahhabism in the printing of classical juristic texts and the competition between Wahhabis and Zaydis of Yemen to print them in Cairo and elsewhere. He thought that, if the Turks and the Egyptians had not joined forces against the Wahhabis and had used weapons the Wahhabis were unfamiliar with, “it is probable that this doctrine would have united the Arabs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AH as the appearance of Islam had united them in the first century AH. However, what is of interest to us about this doctrine is its impact on the intellectual and literary life of the Arabs. . . . It awakened the Arab soul and gave it an ideal it loved and fought for with sword, pen, and tongue.”30

Despite Rida’s admiration for Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, he criticized the Wahhabis’ extremism, particularly their animosity to other Muslims and their tendency to alienate others.31 Similarly, Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi (1866–1914 CE)—a pioneer of the modern scientific and religious renaissance in the Levant in the late nineteenth century CE who considered Salafism a theological term—wrote that, unlike the moderate Salafis in Iraq, the Hijaz, Greater Syria, and Egypt, the Wahhabi followers in historical Saudi Arabia were “Salafiyya in creed” but were “dominated by harshness (al-jafāʾ) and extremism (al-ghulū).”32

Rida was thus a critical admirer of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as a man whose project had a clear Islamic identity and was rooted in the “pristine” teachings of Islam. He may also have taken too seriously Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s rejection of partisan “madhabism.” In fact, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab fused a Salafi understanding of Islam with a juristic-theological amalgam of imagined Hanbalism.

Here we can distinguish the Salafism of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab from reformist Salafism, which believed firmly in the capacity of Islam to engage with issues of the modern Muslim individual, state, and society and thus formed an intellectual base for a model of political-activist religiosity with roots in both Salafism and reformism.

Rida, like other Reformers, advocated religious law (Shariʿa) because he believed that Islam, correctly interpreted, suited every age. By contrast, Wahhabi and other regressive nonreformist Salafisms—which have emerged in both premodern contexts (like Wahhabism itself) and in modern contexts (like jihadi Salafi movements)—believe that every age should be tailored to their idiosyncratic understandings of Islam. Many Salafi reformist schools were impressed by Wahhabism’s ability to mobilize communities en masse and inspire an Islamic revival. In particular, Salafi reformists admired Wahhabism’s rejection of heretical innovations and its propagation of Islam in a tribal desert community where religious influence was weak and religiosity low. However, Salafi reformism was not aware of, nor did it follow, Wahhabism’s shift from attempting to move past madhabs to becoming a distinct madhab in its own right. Wahhabism’s rejection of imitation was based not on advocacy of the original and independent interpretation of the Qurʾan and renewal against blind emulation but rather on zeal for the imagined past, rejection of all innovation as heresy, and what it believed to be the original simple religion. Wahhabi Salafis claimed that they were not against derivation of religious rulings through ijtihād, which they viewed as valid until Judgment Day. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab scorned the extensive list of qualifications for those seeking to exercise ijtihād, commenting that they “may not have been fulfilled even by Abu Bakr and Umar” (the first two caliphs).33 But this was only in theory. Wahhabism was strongly opposed to any ijtihād that did not conform to its specific methodology. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab made a few exceptions, including that “there is nothing unacceptable about ijtihād concerning prayers seeking the Prophet’s intercession.”34 This is unquestionably a contradiction, as it advocates ijtihād against ijtihād.

Conversely, modern Salafi reformism advocated a vision that shifted dialectically between defending Islam within the tide of modernity and accommodating progress and development, with the goal of helping people “change themselves so that God would change them,” as the Qurʾan puts it. Modern Salafi reformism was protestant in a certain sense, in that it called for action and reform so that God and Islam might help those who help themselves, and so that God’s law would be implemented by achieving justice and equity.

In the classical reformist definition, Salafism is an appeal to the Salaf not just in terms of a return to the texts in order to discover their judgments in specific issues but also in terms of their spirit and their openness and readiness to adapt to change and engage in disciplined reasoning concerning issues that the ancestors and their texts did not face. Returning to the ways of the Prophet and his immediate disciples and descendants meant eradicating degeneracy, superstition, and myth, thereby opening the doors of ijtihād to achieve progress. In this sense, the Prophet and his righteous successors (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ) mark an authoritative starting point for progress. In reformist Salafism, the return to the teachings and statements of the Prophet and his successors is advocated for the sake of progress, which is derived from their spirit and the overall objectives or aims (maqāṣid) of the Shariʿa. By contrast, Wahhabism aimed to reproduce an imagined “correct, original Islam” and sought to return to the teachings of the Prophet and his successors. In this sense, Salafi thought in the Wahhabi mold offers an ideology of regressive consciousness based on an inevitable decline of history in which each age is worse than what came before.

This emphasis on the underlying orientation of Shariʿa objectives over established rulings is what distinguishes modern religious reformism from Wahhabism, which did not emerge in the context of encounters with the modernity nor the “West” through colonialism or otherwise. Reformist figures like al-Fassi offer independent reasoned judgments in the context of the overall objectives of the Shariʿa. For example, al-Fassi believed that democracy is the modern form of consultation (shūrā), a concept in the Qurʾan that encourages Muslims to decide their affairs in consultation with each other. He wrote, “I do not need to remind you that humanity’s first experience of government limited by consultation of the masses—and not just a particular class—came from the pure spring of Islam, when [the Prophet] Muhammad Ibn Abdullah laid down the Constitution of Medina, which was the first constitutional declaration guaranteeing the rights and duties of all citizens without discriminating according to color, language, or race.” For al-Fassi, who in the process of adapting his understanding of early Islam to democracy projected modern concepts on the first Muslim community of the first century AH, “shūrā is obligatory; equality in rights and duties is law; and individual responsibility before the law is a legitimate right upheld by the people.”35 Al-Kawakibi—a Syrian reformist and author of the second half of the nineteenth century CE who explored issues of Pan-Arabism, Islamic identity, and despotism—similarly read democracy into sacred texts and early Islam. Meanwhile, Rida displayed greater historical awareness by recognizing how contemporary democracy influenced scholars’ interpretation of shūrā as democracy:

O Muslim, do not say that this kind of governance is one of the fundamentals of our religion derived from the Qurʾan and the biographies of the rightly guided caliphs, rather than from interaction with the Europeans or reflections on the condition of the Westerners. Were it not for awareness of the experience of those people, neither you nor those like you would have thought it part of Islam. Were it really the case (that the principles of democracy were derived directly from Islamic teachings), then the earliest proponents of democracy should have been in Istanbul, Egypt, and Marrakesh. However, it is they who, for the most part, are the greatest supporters of tyrannical personal government, while most advocates of limited government by consultation (shūrā) are those familiar with Europe and the Europeans, and they have been preceded in this by the idolaters.36

But what does al-Kawakibi, Rida, and al-Fassi’s modern reformist Salafism have in common with regressive Salafis like al-Wadiʿi?37 What does it have in common with that of Abu Qatada al-Filastini (b. 1959 CE), a key figure in al-Qaeda, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (1971–2019 CE), the leader of ISIL? Not much. To understand these divergent Salafisms and how they are connected, we must examine the historical, sociopolitical, and cultural context in which they emerged and the interaction of ideas that drove their development. It is a matter of understanding the dialectic between the epistemological and the historical.


1. The Hanbali current, named for Ibn Hanbal, first emerged in Baghdad, although Hanbali centers subsequently emerged in Palestine, Damascus, and modern Saudi Arabia (which officially recognizes the Hanbali school as the basis of Shariʿa law in the country). Unlike other Sunni schools, Hanbalism encompasses both doctrine and jurisprudence. Although the scholars of the Hanbali current occasionally disagree over how to interpret his positions, they are united in believing that the Qurʾan is uncreated and that the holy texts are the primary source of law and should take priority over independent reasoning in all cases—even if their provenance was dubious, as was the case with many traditions.

2. Athar literally means “trace” or “impact,” perhaps also “legacy” in a broader sense. In this context, the trace that the Prophet left, his legacy, is the Hadith.

3. An athar (pl. āthār) is a brief narrative recounting the deeds or opinions of the early generations of Muslims. Āthār are thus a key source for those seeking to imitate the Salaf.

4. Note that the recognition of ʿAli as an imam dates only to the late third century AH, and even then was contested. See Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, Schisms and Sects (Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq) (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2009).

5. Muqbil Ibn Hadi al-Wadiʿi, The Exit from Strife (Al-Makhraj min al-Fitna) (Sanaa: n.p., 1982), 20.

6. Anouar Abdel-Malek, “Orientalism in Crisis,” Diogenes, no. 44 (Winter 1963), 104–12; Bryan Turner, Marx and the End of Orientalism (New York: Routledge, 1978); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

7. For an important study on the sources of modern American fundamentalism, see Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 116 (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

8. The Bible Institute of Los Angeles published these ninety essays in twelve volumes between 1910 and 1915 CE. They were written to defend the Protestant denominations’ perceptions of Christian religious fundamentals against contemporary intellectual trends such as liberalism, socialism, the theories of evolution and natural selection, and Catholicism.

9. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, introduction to Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance, Fundamentalism Project, vol. 3, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 3.

10. In countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, the official religious bodies promote their own versions of pro-regime fundamentalism.

11. Patterns of mass religiosity are different than those of folk religiosity that were studied extensively. This is not the place to elaborate on mass religiosity, suffice to note that due to simultaneous atomization, conglomeration, and alienation of individuals and mass media, it is more vulnerable to the influence of modern ideological Islamism—whether political, Salafi, or other—and to that of popular preachers in the mass media—whether they are conservative, reformist, or other.

12. Muhammad Saʿid Ramadan al-Bouti, The Salafists: A Blessed Era More than an Islamic Sect (Al-Salafiyya: Marḥala Zamaniyya Mubāraka Lā Madhhab Islāmī) (Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1990).

13. It should be noted that Ibn Hanbal’s books weren’t written directly by him but by his son and followers, who recorded his sayings.

14. Ash‘arism is named for Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari (874–936 CE/260–324 AH), a former Muʿtazilite who subsequently broke with that school. Al-Ash‘ari adopted a middle course between Muʿtazilism and Hanbalism, maintaining that some of God’s traits were incontestable while others were subject to interpretation and that while the meaning of the Qurʾan was timeless and uncreated, the wording was not. Thanks to the patronage of the Seljuks, Ayyubids, and Mamlūks, Ash‘arism eventually became the leading doctrinal school of the broader Ahl al-Sunna current, followed closely by the Hanbalis and the Māturīdis, a position it retains today.

15. Jaʿfar al-Sadiq “the truthful,” was retroactively considered the sixth imam by the Twelver Shiʿa. He is recognized as a significant authority by various non-Shiʿi scholars: Abu Hanifa described him as the “most knowledgeable in law” of anyone he had ever seen, and although he is not mentioned in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, he does appear in Bukhari’s Al-Adab al-Mufrad and is cited as a source by various other collectors of prophetic traditions. The Shiʿa attribute various sayings to him, some of them legal and some of them doctrinal, but many of these are disputed by Ahl al-Sunna. In this context, Jaʿfarism is used as another name for Twelver Shiʿism. It is founded on the distinctive beliefs that the twelve Shiʿi imams after the Prophet Muhammad were innocent of sin, that they had the right to make laws, and that the twelfth imam did not die but “went into occultation” and will return for the end of times. Jaʿfaris also believe that ʿAli Ibn Abi Talib was explicitly named as Muhammad’s successor but that the companions contravened this order after the Prophet’s death, a position shared with other Shiʿa. Ahl al-Sunna generally accept Jaʿfari jurisprudence but reject its doctrinal positions, especially considering the imamate one of the fundaments of religion.

16. The Saudi Salafi scholar Salih al-Husayyin sees fundamentalism as a synonym for extremism and a threat to human minds, spirits, talents, and belief. He maintains that the creed of the Salaf was moderate. See Salih Ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Husayyin, Complete Works of Shaykh Salih Ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Husayyin (Al-Aʿmāl al-Kāmila li-Faḍīlat al-Shaykh Ṣāliḥ Ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ḥuṣayyin), ed. Raed al-Samhouri (Doha: Forum for Arab and International Relations, 2014), 568–69.

17. Ibn Taymiyya discusses this issue in precise detail in the introduction to his Darʾ Taʿāruḍ al-ʿAql wa al-Naql. See Taqi al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad Ibn Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya al-Harrani, The Agreement of Reason and Revelation (Darʾ Taʿāruḍ al-ʿAql wa al-Naql), ed. Muhammad Rashshad Salim, vol. 1 (Riyadh: Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, 1991).

18. From the singular sira which means “course of life” or “a biography.”

19. Muhammad Abu Zahra, History of the Islamic Schools in Politics and Doctrine and the History of Schools of Jurisprudence (Fiqh) (Tārīkh al-Madhāhib al-Islāmiyya fī al-Siyāsa wa al-ʿAqāʾid wa Tārīkh al-Madhāhib al-Fiqhiyya) (Cairo: Dār al-Fikr al-ʿArabi, 2009), 340–1.

20. See George Makdisi, Hanbali Islam (Al-Islām al-Ḥanbalī), trans. Saoud El-Mawla, foreword by editor Radwan al-Sayed (Beirut: Arab Network for Research and Publication, 2017), 70. Originally published in two articles: George Makdisi, “L’Islam Hanbalisant” (“Al-Islam al-Ḥanbalī”), Revue des Études Islamiques 43, no. 1 (1974): 45–76; George Makdisi, “L’Islam Hanbalisant” (“Al-Islam al-Ḥanbalī”), Revue des Études Is-lamiques 42, no. 2 (1975): 211–44. Compare with Wael Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 127–28.

21. Analyzed by George Makdisi in Makdisi, Al-Islam al-Ḥanbalī.

22. Taha Husayn, The Days: Autobiography of Taha Husayn (Al-Ayyām) (Cairo: Hindawi for Education and Culture, 2012), 178–9.

23. Hichem Djait, Islamic Culture in Crisis (Azamat al-Thaqāfa al-Islāmiyya) (Beirut: Dār al-Tali‘ah, 2000), 77.

24. The final act of his life was meeting Prince Saʿud Ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz. He died on his way back.

25. Al-Afghani was probably the most influential Muslim intellectual of the nineteenth century CE. Although an Iranian-born Shiʿi scholar, he was more influential in Sunni regions, in which he stayed after being expelled from Istanbul in 1871 CE / 1288 AH, until he was expelled to India in 1879 CE / 1296 AH. There he met Abduh, who became one of his closest disciples, and later traveled with him to Paris in 1883, where they began to publish the magazine Al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa, which became a very influential organ, even though it lasted for only eighteen months. Al-Afghani had influential political roles in Afghanistan (where he was expelled in 1868 CE / 1285 AH), Iran (deported in 1892 CE / 1310 AH, after three years as advisor to the shah), and India. He died in Istanbul in 1897 CE / 1315 AH, where he was a virtual prisoner of the Sultan.

26. See Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 [1962]) 184.

27. Muhammad Abduh, “A Reply to Hanotaux’s Latest Talk” (“Radd ʿAlā Ḥadīth Hānōtō al-Akhīr”), Al-Mu’ayyid 29 (July 29, 1900 CE / Rabīʿ al-Awwal, 1318 AH); and Fahmi Jadaan, The Foundations of Progress among Islamic Thinkers in the Modern Arab World (Usus al-Taqaddum ʿInd Mufakkirī al-Islam fī’l-ʿĀlam al-ʿArabī al-Ḥadīth), 2nd ed. (Beirut: Arab Enterprise for Studies and Publishing, 1981), 273.

28. Ottoman Party for Administrative Decentralization, “Communiqué of the Ottoman Party for Administrative Decentralization,” Al-UMRAN 18, no. 725 (February 24, 1913 / Safar 28, 1331 AH), 4. The OPAD was founded in Egypt in 1912, and prominent in it were a group of Levantines residing in Egypt: Rafiq al-Azham (1867–1925 CE) (Damascus), Rida (Tripoli), Shibli al-Shamil (1850–1917 CE) (Lebanon), Iskander Ammun (1857–1920 CE) (Lebanon), Sami al-Jaridini (1881–1950 CE) (Lebanon), Haqqi al-Azm (1864–1955 CE) (Damascus), and al-Khatib (Damascus). Al-Azham was party chairman, Ammun deputy chairman, and al-Azm party secretary. Although the party was headquartered in Cairo, it had a policy of opening branches in any Ottoman town or city where ten people could be found who supported the party’s key policy of decentralized government. Although membership in the party was open to all Ottomans who believed in decentralization, it was primarily an Arab party. See Muhammad Izzat Darwaza, On the Modern Arab Movement: History, Memoirs and Commentaries (Ḥawl al-Ḥaraka al-ʿArabiyya al-Ḥadītha: Tārīkh wa Mudhakkirāt wa Ta‘līqāt), vol. 1 (Sidon, Lebanon: Matba’ah al-‘Asriyyah, 1950), 34.

29. Taha Husayn, Literary Life in the Arabian Peninsula (Al-Ḥayā al-Adabiyya fī Jazīrat al-‘Arab) (Damascus: Maktab al-Nashir al-ʿArabi, 1935), 34–5.

30. Husayn, Literary Life, 37.

31. See Muhammad Rashid Rida, “The Eighth-Year Prologue” (“Fātiḥat al-Sana al-Thāmina”), Al-Manār 8, no. 1 (1 Muharram 1323 AH / March 7, 1905 CE): 1.

32. Henri Lauzière, “The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of Conceptual History,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010), 376. See Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi, “The Second Study on al-Muʿtazila” (“Al-Baḥth al-Thānī fī al-Muʿtazila”), Al-Manār 16, no. 10 (1913 CE / 1331 AH): 749.

33. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb, “Majmūʿat Rasāʾil fī’l-Tawḥīd wa’l-Īmān” (“Essays on Monotheism and Faith”), edited, introduced, and explained by Ismaʿil Ibn Muhammad al-Ansari, in Writings of Sheikh Imam Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb (Mu’allafāt al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb), prepared by ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Ibn Zayd al-Rumi, Muhammad Baltaji, and Sayyid Hijab, vol. 1, part 1 (Riyadh: Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, 1976), 396; see also Ahmad al-Qutban and Muhammad Tahir al-Zayn, Imam al-Tawḥīd Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb, rev. ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Ibn Baz (Alexandria, Egypt: Dār al-Iman, 2001), 139; see also Abd al-Mun‘im Ibrahim, Commentary on the Book of Monotheism by Sheikh al-Islam Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb (Mughnī al-Murīd: Al-Jāmiʿ li-Shurūḥ Kitāb al-Tawḥīd li-Shaykh al-Islām Muhammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb) (Mecca: Maktabat Nizar Mustafa al-Baz, 2000), 2421.

34. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb, “Fatwas and Jurisprudences” (“Fatāwā wa-Masā’il”), in Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb: Concise Biography and Fatwas (Mukhtaṣar al-Sīra wa al-Fatāwā), ed. Salih Ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Atram and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Razzaq al-Dawish, vol. 4 (Riyad: Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Da’wa and Irshad, 1998), 68.

35. Abd al-Qadir al-Shawi, Salafism and Nationalism (Al-Salafiyya wa al-Waṭaniyya) (Beirut: Mu’asassat al-Abhath al-ʿArabiyyah, 1985), 133.

36. Muhammad Rashid Rida, “The Pros and Cons of Europeans in the East: Despotism,” (“Manāfiʿ al-Urūbbiyyīn wa-Maḍārruhum fī al-Sharq: Al-Istibdād,”) Al-Manār 10, no. 4 (March 1907 CE / Muharram 1325 AH): 283.