Communities that are socially and politically oppressed are often scapegoated and, in return, scapegoat other groups. Trying to challenge the accusations against it, a victimized community may volley unwarranted blame, like a hot potato, onto another vulnerable community. This typically involves blaming other social, political, or religious groups for the problems it has been accused of creating. Scapegoating is both vicious and ignorant, because it tries to establish innocence at the expense of other innocents.

Scapegoating in the Muslim community is particularly rife today, especially as it relates to Salafism. In reaction to accusations that Islam promotes “extremism,” many Muslims have sadly chosen to lob the same false accusations against another group of Muslims—Salafis. This includes blaming Salafism for the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). While this may seem like an easy way to circumvent the social and political pressures of Islamophobia, it only reaffirms hatred of Muslims, as well as the pernicious idea that Islam is innately violent.

So many Muslims are openly scapegoating Salafis partly because they themselves do not fully understand what Salafism is, or what the vast majority of self-identified Salafis believe. Salafism, broadly speaking, is an Islamic movement that focuses on teaching tawhid (Oneness of God), emulating the sunna (customs and teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers, and eliminating bid’a (heterodox innovations) from the religion. Everything else—from political views to methods of da’wa (proselytization)—is not central to the doctrine, and, therefore, cannot be treated as defining Salafism. Any analysis that blames Salafism or Salafis for either “terrorism” or “fanatical theological interpretations,” which does not relate to its three central features, is of little intellectual value and should be rejected. The rejection should be even more absolute where the interpretation contradicts mainstream Salafist perspectives on these issues.

Salafism and ISIS

Many non-Muslims strongly believe that ISIS is both a consequence and reflection of “Salafi teachings”—a narrative which is often found in news articles, television interviews, and even academic settings. In other words, they believe that “Islamic conservatism” is the root source of global terrorism, which is an implication that is as patently misinformed as it is bigoted. As Muslims (particularly in the West) are increasingly asked to answer for and explain ISIS, they have sadly responded by endorsing the false assumption that Salafism is causally linked to the rise of extremism. In order to appease liberal fears of Islam, and distance themselves from ISIS’s barbarity, they have thrown the entire Salafist movement and its adherents under the bus.

In reality, however, ISIS’s theological justifications for terrorism are hardly related to the fundamental principles of Salafism (i.e. tawhid, the sunna, and eliminating bid’a). Rather, the beliefs of ISIS and other such groups have everything to do with the corrupted, misread, and decontextualized doctrines of takfir (excommunication) and jihad (struggle). In terms of takfir, this entails enforcing “zero-sum,” maximalist boundaries around who is considered a Muslim, and who is a kafir. With regard to jihad, it becomes a justification to sanction the wanton killing of any and all individuals who fall “outside Islam”—even if they identify as Muslim.

While those who espouse these corrupted doctrines also uphold the three defining features of Salafism, it is no less true that there are countless Salafis (arguably the vast majority) who adhere to quietist or non-violent understandings of takfir and jihad, and reject ISIS. That most “jihadists are Salafis does not mean that Salafism produces “jihadis.” At most, the two phenomenon are correlated

This distinction between correlation and causation applies to other Muslim groups as well. Consider, for example, that many of the bizarre innovations (i.e. bid’a) in worship existing in the Muslim community today can be traced back to Sufi groups from the Ash’ari school of thought. Does this mean Ash’ari thought necessarily leads to bid’a? Certainly not. There are countless Ash’ari scholars and groups that uphold the central principles of Sufism, and reject heterodox innovations. There may be correlation between Ash’ari thought and bid’a but no causation. We owe Salafism the same intellectual honesty.

Indeed, it would be foolish and simply incorrect to call ISIS a “Salafi” group. The majority of Islamic scholars today (including Salafi scholars), consider ISIS to be khawarij—or outside the fold of the tradition. While a Muslim murderer (Salafi or not) would likely know that his actions are wrong, khawarij believe their killings are divinely sanctioned and rewarded in this life and the next. A Muslim criminal would recruit others to his cause likely in a clandestine manner—seeking out the corrupt and lascivious in the dark alleys of society. Khawarij, by contrast, recruit directly from the pulpit, and appeal to the masses through their unquestionably maniacal readings of scripture.

Consider, for example, the following verse from the Quran: “Whoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed; they are the disbelievers” (5:44 al-Ma’ida). ISIS and its many followers regularly recite this passage to justify their murderous actions against anyone who is a “disbeliever” as “coinciding with the true way of Islam.” Some argue that ISIS’s approach toward the verse is a “Salafi reading” of the Quran, but this is simply inaccurate. The Quranic passage, when read in its entirety, is clearly only about non-Muslims (the Jews of Medina) in a very specific context.

A case of murder between two Jews was brought to the Prophet (pbuh). At the time, the Jews had altered their punishments for homicide—which had been a life for life, an eye for eye—to favor the rich tribes amongst them. When the Prophet (pbuh) heard that a rich Jewish murderer had paid a minimal amount of blood money for killing a poor individual, he objected to it, citing Jewish law to substantiate his indignation, on the basis of Allah’s words in surat al-Ma’ida: “Indeed, We sent down the Torah, in which was guidance and light. The prophets judged by it for those who were guided, as did the rabbis and scholars…So do not fear people but fear Me, and do not trade My verses for meager gains. Whoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed; they are the disbelievers.”

ISIS and other likeminded khawarij often counter this reading by arguing that anyone who abandons the Sacred Law is “equally as kafir” as the Jews of Medina, and should be treated as such. On the surface, this may seem a sound response, but without any real support from authorities respected by the Salafist tradition, it is acceptable only in an intellectual vacuum.

Both the most knowledgeable of the Prophet’s companions in tafsir (exegesis), Ibn Abbas, and the most cited and revered resource for modern Salafis, Ibn Taymiyyah, read this passage entirely differently from ISIS’s interpretation.[1] They note that the same sura offers two other denunciations for those who legislate by something other than the Sacred Law. Those who reject the very source of the Sacred Law, as the Jews did, are the non-believers (kuffar, the plural of kafir), while those who believe in the Prophet (i.e. Muslims) but turn away from the Sacred Law out of laziness, selfish interests, belief that it is outdated, or that there is something superior to it, are oppressors (zalimin) or heretics (fasiqin). In other words, those who disregard God’s law are not all kuffars, as ISIS claims.

As this example demonstrates, there is a substantial difference between a “Salafi” reading of scripture, and a straightforwardly bogus reading of scripture. ISIS is involved in the latter, not the former.

The Blame Game

There are many strong, sensible criticisms of Salafism which exist within the Muslim community. But, these criticisms, as harsh as they may be, still consider Salafis to be part of the ummah. While these critics may disagree with Salafist thought, they acknowledge its roots in legitimate scholarship. This is the fundamental, epistemological difference between criticisms of Salafism that occur from “inside” the Islamic tradition, and those which occur from the “outside.”

It is important that Muslims understand the consequences of their words and actions when speaking about Salafism and ISIS. While many secularists and thinkers from the liberal tradition are damning Salafism and blaming it for all that is wrong with Islam (including the rise of ISIS), we must be careful not to indulge them. More often than not, these individuals are closeted Islamophobes. Why should we stand by them as they heedlessly bash our coreligionists for crimes they have not committed?

Ultimately, the fact Muslims irresponsibly conflate ISIS with Salafism, without any evidence, is an unfortunate indication that legitimate debate and disagreement in the Muslim community has descended into blameworthy partisanship (hizbiyya) and extremism (ta’assub). As Muslims, part of our moral obligation in da’wa (i.e. the preaching of Islam) is to use our tongues and pens to expose false ideas (shubuhaat). It is also incumbent upon us to remember Allah’s word to “not let the hatred of a people…lead you to be unjust” (5:2 al-Ma’ida).

Antagonizing Salafis is in direct contradiction to these principles. It is not only zulm (oppression), but also cowardly and ineffective. Muslims must become more sensitive to the fact that scapegoating is an intellectually and morally decrepit act, from which they must separate themselves.


[1] Majmu Fatawa Ibn Taymiyya, vol. 2, pg. 272.

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  • John Bestevaar

    My investigations lead me to hypothesize that in the field of human language any large or small set of words can be interpreted to mean whatever you wish them to mean. After that one only has to put upon them a attractive and persuasive face. Your audience will then do whatever you ask of them.