AbstractModern-day terrorist groups are widely identified as Salafi. Yet, the often-insinuated causal link between Salafism and violence or ultraconservatism is not tenable, and botches any attempt to understand both Salafism and militancy. More generally, the temptation to score polemical points in perennial theological disputes between Sunnis and Shi’a, Wahhabis and Sufis, Salafis and Ash’aris, and conservatives and progressives serves to obscure a most desperately needed understanding of the growing nightmare that is terrorism. Apart from turning obscure disputes into war cries, such tendentious scholarship—suffer as it does form the fallacy that theology determines social reality—fails to see the flexible and complex roles ideologies play in fueling social and military movements and overlooks real and growing sources of violence.

Understanding Salafism has acquired an urgent significance for modern scholarship, often for unfortunate reasons. Salafism has been marked as a dangerous form of Islam by the masters of the modern world, and scholars and academics often have little choice but to fall in line. Once, a newly minted FBI officer (who took me for an influential and informed member of the local Muslim community), asked me whether we had any “Salafis” in the community and what I thought of them—insinuating that we ought to keep an eye on them—before going on to describe the threat they pose to us all. Such is the context of power and motivations in which scholars, no matter how much we try to look away or pretend otherwise, must do our work. In addition, a methodological dilemma, fraught with important political and religious implications, looms over the question of how to define Salafism. Understanding its relationship to violence, itself tangential to my concerns here, depends on how we resolve this question.

The Salaf and Salafism

There is no denying that many of today’s militant jihadis are Salafis. Yet, there are many knots in the problem that links Salafism to militancy, the undoing of which is beyond the scope of this essay. However, we cannot do without trying to untangle one of the knots—how we define and distinguish Salafism from other Muslim movements. In order to bring out the limitations of defining modern Salafism by appeal to “tell-tale” signs of militancy, let us consider the following scenario.

A charismatic figure on the margins of the Islamic world, agonized by the depraved condition of the Muslim community, calls for reviving the doctrine of pure monotheism (tawhīd) and reform. He unites nomadic tribes under his leadership to wage war against the existing rulers and communities for their sinful and heretical practices. In the process he sternly and violently imposes religious norms, implements an exaggerated regime of “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” condemns unthinking adherence to inherited legal norms (taqlīd) (the staple of the existing religious establishment), condemns irja’ (laxity toward sin), and most crucially, excommunicates his Muslim adversaries and cites their “apostasy” as an excuse to declare jihad against them. Ultimately, his successors succeed in establishing a powerful dynasty over a large and prosperous stretch of territory. Many more populations that formally identified as Muslims in the past now become fervently religious and religiously literate under this new ideology. Not long after that, one finds the successors of this fanatic outburst borrowing soldiers from a great and aggressive Christian power to fight off other Muslims.

If you thought I was describing the Wahhabi movement of Muhammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792) of Najd, you guessed wrong. I had in mind a powerful reformer of 12th century North Africa, Ibn Tumart (d. ca. 1130), about seven centuries earlier. Even the name the two charismatic reformers used for their movements was identical: al-Muwahhidun (the Monotheists), which in Ibn Tumart’s case came to be anglicized as “Almohads.”

However, Ibn Tumart differed from Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb in one chief respect: he was militantly Ash’ari—reportedly a student of al-Ghazali, and a graduate of the Nizamiyya madrasa of Baghdad. Accordingly, the “correct monotheism” in Ibn Tumart’s philosophically extreme Ash’arism meant absolute assertion of divine transcendence. The traditional theology of the Maliki Almoravids of the Maghreb was condemned as anthropomorphic (Fletcher 1991).

Other important differences include the fact that, unlike Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Ibn Tūmart declared himself to be Mahdi al-Ma’sum, or “the infallibly guided one” (perhaps influenced by the other millenarian movement in the region such as the Fatimids that had made similar claims two centuries earlier and still held power in Egypt), and engaged in ritual cleansing of his own ranks by killing off tribal members accused of disloyalty (who, according to Ibn Khallikān, tended to be the older tribal members). The great Spanish jurists al-Shātibī (d. 1388) reported that Ibn Tūmart executed people for eighteen types of errors, which included denying his infallibility. Unsurprisingly, his opponents, the Almoravids, called him a Khārijite (i.e. outside the fold of orthodox Islam), just as Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s opponents were to do. Khārijites were a fanatic militant sect that emerged in the first century of Islam. They excommunicated other Muslims and legitimated fighting and killing them as apostates, and were deemed outside the pale of normative Islam by all Muslims unanimously; not only Sunni and Shi’a, but the Ibadis—the moderate sect of the Khārijites that survives until today—also agreed on the cardinal error of the Khārijite extremists.

In short, while similar in nearly every way, theologically Ibn Tūmart was the polar opposite of Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb. While the latter sought inspiration from Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, the patron-saint of the Salafis, the former was inspired by Hujjat al-Islam Imam al-Ghazālī, the grand master of anti-Salafis. The assumption that militant piety in the name of monotheistic revivalism is a unique feature of Salafism must be set aside.

Salafism, simply put, is a form of Sunni Islam that aspires to the model of the earliest Muslims (“the salaf”). Literally, the “salaf” means the forebears, and refers to the companions of the Prophet (“the Companions”) and the succeeding two to three generations (“the Successors”). The designation of these early Muslims as a group to be emulated is based on a well-attested hadith in which the Prophet says, “The best of you [in another report, of humankind] is my generation, then those who follow them,” saying the last phrase twice or thrice (reported by al-Bukhari, Muslim, and others on the authority of multiple companions).

More generally, “salaf,” for Sunnis, came to refer to those personages of the first three centuries who embraced all of the Companions as probative in their truthful transmission of the Prophet’s teachings. In contrast, the Shi’a counted among the pious forebears only those companions who aligned with the fourth Caliph, ʿAli, excluding those who sided with Muʿawiya or those who stayed neutral.

Since most Muslims—certainly all Sunni Muslims by definition—aspire to follow the earliest Muslims in this particular way, this description of Salafism does not say much. “Salafiyya,” the term that I am translating as “Salafism,” in the words of one historian, Henri Lauzière, “is first and foremost a label that Sunni purists use to designate their approach to Islam,” one that is marked by “a rigorist creed and religious methodology that share a ‘family resemblance’ (to use Wittgenstein’s expression) to Wahhabism or are intimately linked to the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia” (Lauzière 2010: 370). Furthermore, he writes, “contemporary Salafis articulate a very demanding interpretation of monotheism, which has the consequence of making unbelief more likely” and “an expansive definition of innovation (bidʿa), which narrows the scope of acceptable Islamic practice” (Lauzière 2010: 370). Salafist ideas, he further suggests, have deep roots in Sunni theology. Jonathan Brown similarly observes:

Islam is an inherently iconoclastic faith, and claims to authority or institutional stability outside of the Quran and Muhammad’s authoritative precedent (Sunnah) rarely go uncontested.  The crystallization of the Late Sunni Tradition led to a pronounced, iconoclastic reaction against its rigidity and dominance.  Always present in Islamic thought, this iconoclastic movement burgeoned in the early 1300’s in the scholarly centers of Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo.  In particular, the prolific writings of the Damascene firebrand Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and his compatriot al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) epitomized this Salafi ethos.  When temporal power shifted to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, manifestations of conservative iconoclasm and reform gained popular support there as well in the form of the Kadızadeli movement in the first half of the seventeenth century (Brown 2012).

The primordial manifestation of this scripturalist tendency in Islam was the rise or consolidation in the 3rd AH/9th CE century of traditionalism against the rationalist syncretism of the intellectual elite that came to be known as kalam (lit., speech or discourse). Kalam had its origins “in Christological debates [that is, debates about the nature of Christ] and was then absorbed into Muslim practice through the mediation of the Arab Christian milieu in Syria and Iraq” (Treiger 2014: 32). As Muslim rulers and intellectuals began to absorb this foreign discourse epitomized in the enlightened and despotic caliphate of al-Ma’mun (d. 218 AH/833 CE), Sunni Islam emerged as a nativist religious reaction against the foreign influences that permeated the Abbasid court culture. The salaf, including the eponymic founders of the four Sunni legal schools rejected kalam and condemned its practitioners as those given to whim and desire (ashāb ahwā’).

Perhaps the best contemporary description of this nascent movement (that was to become known as “Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama`a”) comes from the matchless prose of their arch-enemy, the Muʿtazili essayist, al-Jāhiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), who labeled them al-Nābita, literally, the “nobodies,” the rootless leaders of the masses, the demagogues. He describes the Sunni movement as a consolidation of various groups aligned against the Muʿtazila and their rational discourse on theology (kalam). The followers and supporters of their new movement, he writes, included “worshippers (ʿubbād), jurists (fuqahā’), hadith people (ahl al-hadīth), and ascetics.” These figures had been closing ranks against the Mu’tazila and their discourse of kalam, “accusing them of sedition, fitna, innovation, bid’a, disbelief, kufr, and calling them ‘the people of heresies’ (ashāb ahwā’)!” (al-Qādī 1993: 53). Al-Jāhiz could not know, but it appears that he could sense, that those he scorned will soon become the dominant force in Islamic history. He would have been shocked, however, to find that only a century onward this movement of anti-intellectualist scripturalists he so despised would adopt his favorite discourse of kalam for its own purposes.

Already a diverse “umbrella” movement united temporarily against Ma’mun’s imposition of kalam, and inspired by the heroic model of Ahmad b. Hanbal, Sunnism starting in the 4th AH/10th CE century would recruit from the ranks of its rivals its ardent defenders who adopted methods of kalam, the Ashʿarīs in the west and Matūrīdīs in the east. Thanks to the need for rational defense of Sunni doctrines, as well as to the powerful political support provided by the legendary vizier, Nizām al-Mulk (d. 485 AH/1092 CE) in the east and the military warrior and founder of Almohad movement, Ibn Tūmart (d. 524 AH/1130 CE) in the west (i.e. North Africa), Ashʿarism spread across Islamic lands starting in the 11th century. It came to replace the original anti-kalam attitude of Sunnism. Although the anti-kalam theology would now become identified with the Hanbali madhhab (school of thought), in reality it would continue to exist as a minority tradition in the other three Sunni madhhabs, erupting to dominance in certain times and places, just as a minority of Hanbalis would engage in kalam and accept its premises. This anti-kalam scripturalism is the central strand that makes up today’s Salafism.

Exploring Definitions

How precisely is contemporary Salafism connected to this anti-kalam scripturalism? According to Lauzière, historical roots do not explain what Salafism is and how a particular group of scholars in the early 20th century come to label themselves as Salafis. The premodern forebears of contemporary Salafis never identified themselves as being part of a Salafist school or movement, and it is therefore anachronistic to designate Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) or al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) as Salafis.

Another kind of definition, offered by Frank Griffel, defines Salafism conceptually, as any of the “contemporary Sunni reform movements that criticize manifestations of Sunni Islam which are based on Sufism, Ashʿarism, and traditional madhhab-affiliations to the Shāfiʿī, Hanafī, and Mālikī schools” (Griffel 2015: 186). Following German historian Reinhard Schulze’s account of the modern Islamic world, Griffel sees Salafism as a modern phenomenon that is a reaction to European modernity that seeks to restore true Islam of the early Islamic golden age of the Salaf (let’s call this “restorationism”). Whether that restoration is interpreted in a modernizing or conservative vein is not essential to this definition, which is what allows it to include modernizing reformists as well as ultraconservatives, regardless of how they designate themselves.

Both of these definitions consider Salafism a modern phenomenon, and while acknowledging the premodern models of such restorationism (Griffel) or its theological roots (Lauzière), they do not invest much effort in exploring them. A recent debate between the two scholars revolves around the question of whether the century-old Western tradition of labelling Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849 – 1905) as “Salafis” is justified. Griffel defends it, based on his definition, whereas Lauzière, based on a thorough historical investigation of publications (and publishers) from the period, has demonstrated that the Salafi movement emerged only in 1920s, and hence did not include the aforementioned modernizers.

According to Lauzière’s account, the pioneers of the self-professed reformist Salafi trend (al-salafiyya al-islāhiyya) were the Syrians Rashīd Ridā (d. 1935), Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimi (d. 1914), Tāhir al-Jazā’irī (d. 1920), the Iraqi Mahmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī (d. 1924), and their fellow travelers. In a 1909 correspondence, al-Qasimi and al-Alusi identify themselves as “Salafis” in a theological sense: “They conceived of the Salafis as a transnational community of past and present Muslims from all walks of life—scholars, businessmen, and rulers—who adhered to the Hanbali creed, focused on the scriptures, and deferred to the works of Ibn Taymiyyah” (Lauzière 2010: 375). But this theological tendency had been labeled “Salafi” since medieval times, he notes. For instance, his disciple and fellow traditionalist al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) described Ibn Taymiyyah as being on “the path of the Salaf” (al-tarīqa al-salafiyya) (Griffel 2015: 194). But, for Lauzière, this descriptor was not analogous to a school of law, and one could, therefore, be a Hanafi or Shafi’i in law and a Salafi in theology by virtue of one’s opposition to kalam. It is in the 1920s, he contends, that modern Salafism is born, when Rashid Rida constructs Salafism as not only a theological approach but also a school of law, thus turning it into a self-sufficient entity and declaring of his own transition from Hanafism to Salafism (Lauzière 2010: 375). This observation by Lauzière is significant. Lauzière further defends his restriction of Salafism to those who self-designate as such in a particular time and place by invoking an instructive analogy, that of the Enlightenment: we can spot enlightened individuals, who upheld reason against tradition, at any point in history and in any culture, but the “Enlightenment” is a proper noun that refers to a rationalist intellectual movement of 18th century France and Germany. Speaking of the “Enlightenment” in any other time or place would be erroneous. We cannot, by the same logic, speak of the “classical Salafism” or say that Salafism has existed in many times and places in the Islamic past.

Persuasive as many of Lauzière’s observations are, his contention that Salafism is a recent phenomenon poses difficulties. Apart from an old label (“Salafi”) applied to the confluence of a number of preexisting tendencies in a new context, nothing significantly new happens in the reformist circles of the early 20th century. The roots of these reformers are solidly fixed in thinkers of earlier decades. Because of this lack of engagement with conceptual similarities and links, such a definition fails to capture the significance of, among others, the 18th and 19th century revival of traditionalist scholarship in Yemen and India. Consider, for instance, Siddīq Hasan Khān (d. 1890) of the Ahl-e-Hadis movement of South Asia, who helped cultivate the heritage of Yemen’s revivalists both in law and theology and built strong relations with scholars both in the Arabian Peninsula and Syrian reformists. The movement traces its links to its pre-Wahhabi traditionalist revival going back to Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Walī Allāh, and “today runs a network of thousands of madrasas throughout the subcontinent and retains close links with Wahhabi scholarship in Saudi Arabia” (Brown 2012).

The Enlightenment analogy is questionable for another reason. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers who were distinctly interested in breaking away from tradition and could take pride in their novelty and originality, the Salafis are invested in quite the opposite. This is apparent in their obsessive concern to draw on scripture, the example of the salaf, and earlier methodologies, ideas, and authorities. They are insistent on seeking out precedence for every problem that may confront a believer.

Lauzière’s nominalist definition faces additional difficulties. For certain groups may no longer carry the label “Salafi” even as they continue to uphold the theology and practical attitudes associated with Salafism, whereas others may claim the label even without having any attachment to the defining theological commitments. Susanne Olsson, a European scholar, finds that a Swedish Salafi group (the Swedish United Daʿwah Center, SUDC), which has all the tell-tale signs of Salafism (emphasis of monotheism, opposition to taqlīd, emphasis on Prophetic Sunna such as long beards, white robes, etc.) without identifying as “Salafi,” defines its Islam as “a just and peaceful religion” that “promotes a universal and equal brotherhood (and sisterhood),” “direct relation with God,” in addition to pragmatism, individual responsibility, rationalism, and openness to science (Olsson 2014: 194). All this shows that one can exhibit all the Salafi commitments without identifying as Salafi. Furthermore, the theological as well as legal contentions of the reformist Salafis have arguably so widely and deeply penetrated all modern Muslim discourses, even of those groups bitterly opposed to extreme forms of Salafism, that insisting on limiting Salafism to only those groups that self-identify as such may obstruct rather than help understanding.

Finally, what further complicates the challenge of defining Salafism through self-identification is that there is no unified “Salafi” movement today. Rather, Salafism is a broad intellectual current or tendency that varies greatly from one time to another, from one place to another, and even one group that claims its mantle to another. For instance, I have shown elsewhere the greatly varied beliefs of different Salafi groups on the question of democracy—the reformists (like Yusuf al-Qaradawi or Ahmad al-Raysuni, who do not identify as Salafis but share its key commitments, including deference to Ibn Taymiyyah) being democracy’s only champions among conservative Muslims, and the jihadist-Salafis being its most adamant opponents (Anjum 2016).

It appears to me, therefore, that a focus on concepts rather than self-identification is better able to capture Salafism and its connections across space and time. One would have to concur with Jonathan Brown’s conclusion that:

Although the moniker ‘Salafi’ would not appear until the modern period, its medieval forerunner so clearly merits the same description that referring to it anachronistically as Salafi is both accurate and immensely useful (Brown 2012).

The existing approaches that attempt to identify Salafism’s conceptual center, however, have not been entirely satisfactory. Griffel’s aforementioned definition understands Salafism primarily as a reaction to European ascendance, which not only misidentifies the phenomenon, but also ends up lumping together widely disparate groups committed to restoring some early glory of Islam, while at the same time ignoring both intellectual similarities and organic connections Salafism bears to its salafi antecedents. If we are going to understand Salafism as a general phenomenon, we have to do better.

Another important attempt is by Bernard Haykel, who correctly argues for the continuity of contemporary Salafism with premodern trends and in particular Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings. But, what is it exactly that unites Salafism transhistorically? Here, Haykel offers some common but not entirely accurate generalizations. These are, (i) a return to the authentic practices and beliefs of the pious predecessors, the salaf; (ii) monotheism (tawhīd); (iii) actively fighting unbelief; (iv) the Qur’an and Sunna as the only valid sources of religious authority, (v) ridding Islam of heretical innovations, and (vi) a belief that specific answers to all questions are found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah (Haykel 2009: 41-2). Elsewhere, Haykel adds that Salafism displays distinctive emphasis on theology as opposed to law:

The focus on theological differences, as opposed to legal ones, is important because theology in Islam does not entertain a tolerance for a multiplicity of equally valid, but obviously different, beliefs—only one view is correct, and on this basis it becomes possible to exclude and excommunicate the adherents of other views (Haykel 2009).

As the table below shows, all of these traits have been widely shared by a variety of movements from all different theological backgrounds in Sunni Islam.

More specifically, whereas (i) adherence to the “salaf” has been a rallying cry of modern Salafism, it has played a crucial role even in those schools, like Ashʿarism, in which the “khalaf” (the non-salaf, the scholars who came later) were at times thought to have surpassed the achievements of the salaf. Such self-confidence, I have argued elsewhere, was frequently punctuated by misgivings, and erstwhile champions of the khalaf like al-Juwayni, al-Ghazali, and al-Razi would often retract their confidence and concede the superiority of the way of the Salaf (Anjum 2011).

The same is true of (ii) the call to return to pure monotheism—a rallying cry for Islamic revivalists of all ages. But an important caveat is in order here. There are in fact two understandings of monotheism that have been at times at odds: the affirmationist monotheism (ahl al-ithbat), which affirms God’s scriptural attributes without ascribing modality to them, and negationist monotheism, which emphasizes divine transcendence (tanzīh) through the intellectual enterprise of kalam. The sole distinguishing feature of all Salafism, as noted by Lauzière and others, has been the Hanbalite theology of affirmationist monotheism so ardently defended by Ibn Taymiyyah. But, as the opening anecdote of Almohads shows, both types of monotheism have given rise to militant (not to mention non-militant) revivalist movements. If Salafism is simply “affirmationist monotheism,” it has no inherent connection to militancy. Understandably, scholars trying to deduce Salafism’s social and political traits for security-minded concerns would find this indeterminacy unsatisfying.

As for (iii) fighting unbelief and heretical innovation, even militantly, that too is standard fare, and its limits and modalities are debated within Salafi and non-Salafi circles alike. Consider the words of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111)—doubtlessly one of the most revered scholars of Islam, especially by those who position themselves against Salafis—in his Ihyā’ `Ulūm al-Dīn (taken from Omar Anchassi):

The eighth grade: when [the individual forbidding wrong] cannot enact this duty on his own and is in need of [gathering] armed supporters. It may be that the dissolute sinner [fāsiq] likewise calls on his supporters, such that the two groups confront each other and fight…and the utmost extent of this involves gathering [armed] volunteers for the sake of God’s pleasure and repelling disobedience to Him. And just as we permit soldiers to gather together and fight whoever they will of the disbelievers, overpowering them thereby, likewise do we permit overpowering the people of corruption [fasād]; for there is no harm in killing a disbeliever, and if a Muslim dies [in the course of such a battle] he is a martyr. Likewise, there is no harm in killing a dissolute sinner who takes up arms to defend his conduct; and if the individual forbidding wrong in such a circumstance is unjustly killed, so is he a martyr.

Finally, (iv) the notion of the exclusive and comprehensive authority of scripture (the Qur’an and Sunnah)—properly qualified—has been the foundation of all Sunni jurisprudence. The question of comprehensiveness, namely, that all normative acts can find their normative judgment in these two sources immediately or through derivation, has also been largely settled since Imam al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820). The exceptions to, or qualifications of, this authority are as readily granted by the Salafis as well as others, and hence this point cannot serve as a useful line of demarcation.

Similarly, the practical emphasis on creed over practice has been the key concern of a number of revivalist trends, as the following table shows.

So much for the standard list of Salafi traits. Even if these beliefs are defined in the specific ways the contemporary Salafis do, they comprise at best a heuristic laundry list, rather than a unanimous manifesto of the Salafi movements past and present.

Table of Reformist Groups in Islamic History that Exhibit Family Resemblances

Salafism and Ibn Taymiyyah

Finally, nearly all academic scholars associate, correctly I might add, Salafism to the pivotal medieval figure of Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328). But, just because two things are associated does not mean they are equivalent to each other. Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas are widely accepted, debated, and cited today by Muslims across the world, including by groups that are not identified as Salafis. In their introduction to Ibn Taymiyyah and His Times (2010), the editors Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed note, “Ibn Taymiyyah was, by almost universal consensus, one of the most original and systematic thinkers in the history of Islam” (p. 19). He brought together traditionalism and rationalism in such a way that defies easy description. A master of the traditional science of hadith and reports of the Salaf, he also delved into rational discourses with such rigor, independence, and originality that worried his traditionalist friends and disciples on the one hand, and was seen as threatening by the religious establishment on the other.

The “Late Sunni Tradition”—a label Jonathan Brown has applied to the conservative stabilization of Ashʿari kalam, taqlid, and Sufism in the post-Mongol Syro-Egyptian world—successfully suppressed Ibn Taymiyyah’s iconoclastic questioning until about the 18th century, when his legacy began a meteoric rise. In the 19th century Ottoman Damascus, for instance, Ibn Taymiyyah’s legacy was revived by a number of proto-Salafi figures, among them accomplished ʿulama and Sufis, independently of, and in a way that sharply contrasts with, the way his legacy was being invoked by the Wahhabis in Najd (Weismann 2001).

To appreciate the spread of Ibn Taymiyyah’s “intellectual Salafism,” consider the words of prominent contemporary Maliki jurist, Ahmad al-Raysūni, whose intellectual genealogy includes the great traditional jurist Ibn ʿĀshūr (d. 1973) and reformist-Salafi freedom-fighter, ʿAllāl al-Fāsī (d. 1974):

We in the Islamic West [North Africa] are Mālikīs and the school of Ashʿarism is the most widespread… yet, I must say that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the greatest scholars of Islam and Muslims. I do not hesitate to place him next to Imams Malik, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad, and al-Shafiʿi, [who were] the highest authorities of Islam … with respect to his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of the sciences of the Sharia, in both types of sciences, those pertaining to revelation as well as reason, such as in logic, the philosophy of the ancients, the sciences of languages, and so on. … Without contention and without doubt, Ibn Taymiyyah was the revivalist of the eighth century. … No one has surpassed him in his knowledge and profundity, and in particular in his revivalist efforts. In fact, I put forth another claim, which is that he is the revivalist of this modern era as well. I say this after extensive, direct experience with the discipline of Islamic tradition, having seen contemporary books, researches, and theses in the universities across the world, as well as with Islamic movements. I say with confidence that Ibn Taymiyyah is the most cited scholar in all of the Islamic world, and in the Arab world in particular. He is invoked more frequently than Imams Malik, Abu Hanifa, and has greater influence than Imam Ahmad, Imam al-Shatibi, Ibn Arabi, and al-Ghazzali. This is why I posit that Ibn Taymiyyah is a great authority and revivalist among the authorities and revivalists of this modern era.

Since Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings are so widely used by groups ranging from modernizing reformists to ultraconservatives and jihadists, his legacy cannot be identified with any one kind of Islamic interpretation. Ibn Taymiyyah’s following includes the reformist ulama from the Syrian-Egyptian Rashīd Ridā (d. 1935), to the contemporary Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, the Egyptian-Qatari jurist known for his flexible and even liberal approach to jurisprudence. His approach, he insists, has been inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah more than anyone else. Even the anti-traditionalist Pakistani savant, Fazlur Rahman, greatly admired and amply drew on Ibn Taymiyyah. Yet also, the ultraconservative Salafis that I have labeled as “Atharis”—chiefly the followers of the famed hadith scholar Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albani (d. 1999), Wahhabis, and militant jihadists—consider Ibn Taymiyyah as one of their chief authorities. Given the great variety of ways in which his ideas are combined with any number of other factors, academics are increasingly recognizing the limits of the notion that contemporary Salafism was uniquely shaped by Ibn Taymiyyah, and his disciple Ibn al-Qayyim. The writings of these two prodigies, although extremely important to the Salafis, themselves have no such unitary effect let alone agency. Rather, their output is “a repository that is selectively employed by different actors for all sorts of purposes in accordance with their respective agendas” (Krawietz and Tamer 2013: 4).

One may be tempted to assume that whereas a variety of groups use Ibn Taymiyyah partially and selectively, the Athari Salafis and Wahhabis are somehow more fully committed to his teachings. This notion is frustrated by the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah is just one among many authorities that inform contemporary Salafis as well as Wahhabis. The Wahhabis are primarily Hanbalīs in law, whereas Ibn Taymiyyah operated, especially toward the end of his life, as a mujtahid mutlaq (a school-independent authority) who differed from traditional Hanbalism on both actual rulings (furūʿ) and principles (usūl) (Matroudi 2010). He adopted an approach that incorporated his knowledge of all the madhāhib (schools) of legal thought. Furthermore, as noted earlier, he was a rationalist, and differed in his approach and method from the traditionalism of the fideistic Atharis. Nor was Ibn Taymiyyah opposed to all taqlid as some contemporary Salafis are. A near-total rejection of taqlid can be attributed to other sources, such as the Yemeni Zaydi-turned-Sunni savant, al-Shawkani (d. 1834), the Indian Ahl-e-Hadis movement, and al-Albani. Finally, Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb himself rejected arguments from Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim presented by his brother and others against the Wahhabi takfir of other Muslims (Commins 2006: 23-4).

To make a long story short, although various groups of Salafis and Wahhabis take Ibn Taymiyyah as their most important authority in certain limited creedal issues, they are neither alone in doing so nor limited by his teachings. This is not to say they distort him, but that they reconstruct him according to their abilities, interests (which are far more limited than his own had been), and agendas (which are always local and varied). As Shaykh Ahmad Raysūnī has pointed out, these groups refer to Ibn Taymiyyah because his opinions have had a tremendous currency across the Muslim world for over a century, and if one is going to deal in or counterfeit a currency, one looks for what sells best and lasts. When his opinions contradict their understanding and need, they are not shy to reject them, arguing that we are not his muqallids (blind followers) anyway—an argument he would have approved on the condition that those who made it were qualified. In a radically transformed world, that qualification is not easy to come by.


This essay has shed light on the theoretical and practical challenges involved in defining and identifying Salafism. It has located Salafism in the long arc of Islamic history as an iconoclastic impulse to restore scriptural primacy, closely allied to, but not coterminous with, Hanbalī theology and varying levels of opposition to kalām and taqlīd. Salafism has appeared in vastly different manifestations, and is not distinguishable from other forms of Sunni Islam in any political, social, or cultural commitments.


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Commins, D. The Wahhabi Mission, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

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Lauzière, H. “The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of Conceptual History,” Int. J. Middle East Stud. 42 (2010), 369-389.

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  • Nadim Mahjoub

    If I was to give a score to this essay, it would be 50100. It a good essay in terms of arguments and counter-arguments, etc. I have learnt a few things from it. However, I find such a way of writing too horizontal as if ideas emerge from people’s minds with no connection to real life in their respective societies. I do not accept the excuse that I often hear: “Dealing with the social, economic, political, class, background of ideas is beyond the scope of this essay.” A history which we can learn from is a history that is holistic with its interactive components and ingredients. Otherwise, it is sterile. I recall reading Assef Bayat, for example, analysing the Islamic movements in Iran and Egypt or Karen Armstrong dealing with how “Religion Fights Back” or how “Jihād” went global. There is a background, there is the vertical and horizental. I have been disappointed here. I will though read the other essays.