The modern use of the term Salafism is ambiguous and confusing. This ambiguity becomes apparent when many Salafis themselves are not entirely clear about what Salafism entails, assuming that it is simply to follow the Qur’an and Sunna– a problematic definition as it implies that other Muslims do not. Furthermore, due to the ambiguity of the term, Salafism, in its broader iteration, is claimed by all Muslims, in that the universal Islamic ideal is to imitate the Prophet and the early pious Muslim community (al-salaf al-salih). Because the very term Salafism connotes authenticity and legitimacy, every Muslim is a Salafi as they are obliged to follow the Prophet and his Companions in practicing Islam. Hence, non-Salafi Muslims today reject Salafis’ exclusivist claim on the term, arguing that other Muslims too may also have a claim to the term as non-Salafis are also followers of the al-salaf al-salih.
While Salafis themselves have failed to provide a universally accepted definition of the term “Salafism,” scholars and observers have also struggled with delineating what the term means –, the pivotal question of who or what group qualifies as Salafi, therefore, remains in dispute. In recent years and especially after the incident of 9/11, the study of Salafism has attracted much attention and many individuals, not all of them scholars, began to conduct research and write on modern Salafism. It is fair to argue that Western writers and media have failed to provide an accurate description and analysis of Salafism, while some writings on Salafism have been based on mere assumptions. Despite conclusions to the contrary, Salafism is neither alien to Islam nor a deviation of the religion. Salafism is but one of the many manifestations of Islam like Sufism and the different movements within the broader Sunni or Shi’I Muslim tradition.
Salafism and Madhabs
“Salafism is not a movement or an organization with a hierarchy and does not operate under the leadership of a singular figure in a highly structured organization. Neither is Salafism a school of thought like the extant Sunni schools of fiqh…” Salafism is not a movement or an organization with a hierarchy and does not operate under the leadership of a singular figure in a highly structured organization. Neither is Salafism a school of thought like the extant Sunni schools of fiqh (Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’i and Maliki schools). Contrary to the claim that Salafis reject the four Sunni “schools of fiqh” (madhab). Salafis can emerge from within the Maliki, the Shafi’i, the Hanbali, or the Hanafi schools of jurisprudence. Many Salafis accept the teachings of all the four madhabs if their rulings are supported by clear and authenticated evidences from the Qur’an and sunna. They are not divided on the question of adherence to the four established madhabs. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah followed the Hanbali School. Some of his students (such as Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) and al-Dzahabi (d. 1348)) followed the Shafi’i school. Other students, (such as Ibn Abi al-Izz (d. 1390)) followed the Hanafi School. Some Salafis assert that Muslims do not need to follow a specific madhab but are allowed to. By saying ‘do not need to’, Salafis mean that those who follow the madhab would not be committing a sin. However, if a Muslim is knowledgeable in Islamic law, he is at liberty to follow any madhab and select the opinion that suits him best, but if he is neither well-versed in Islamic law, nor aware of the opinions of the scholars, he should seek proper guidance from the learned scholar., Many Salafis, therefore, believe in the authority of the four imams. In their writings, Salafis quote the imams of the madhabs, such as Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820) and Imam Malik (d. 755). Salafis recognize these imams as the salaf. For example, scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al Qayyim, whose works are often referred to by modern Salafis, and who are widely accepted as having been major proponents of Salafism, often quoted and endorsed many views of Abu Hanifa (d. 767).
“And yet some Salafis do not encourage others to follow the teachings of a particular madhab.”And yet some Salafis do not encourage others to follow the teachings of a particular madhab. Most Salafis, however, especially Saudi Wahhabis, are followers of the Hanbali madhab. Modern Salafism denotes a religious inclination or tendency towards a set of ideas and identity. Identity in this case means a belief system (ideology) that reflects the moral, social and political interests and commitments of the Salafis, and constitutes their ideology of how the world and its system should work. This belief system is based on a pure, undiluted teaching of the Qur’an, the sunna of the Prophet and practices of the al-salaf al-salih. Indeed, Salafism is not a new doctrinal phenomenon, but one that has its origins in early theological and legal debates. Its basic proposition is that legitimacy, whether in the religious, social, or political realms, must be explicitly derived from religious sources and early Islamic precedents.
What Differentiates a Salafi from a non-Salafi?
As a belief system based on original sources, one could argue, Salafism is a mainstream movement. What then is the fundamental difference between a Salafi Muslim and a non-Salafi Muslim? The question cannot produce straight-forward explanations due to the ambiguity of the term “Salafism” and the complex nature of the phenomenon.
The significant difference between a Salafi and a non-Salafi is not about adherence to the Qur’an, Sunna and the Salaf — which form the fundamental and most important ideals about the Salafi ideology – but how adherence is defined and how this translates into one’s daily-life. In other words, the difference between the Salafis and non-Salafis i is about interpretations, understandings of religious texts, methodology and approach.
“As a belief system based on original sources, one could argue, Salafism is a mainstream movement. What then is the fundamental difference between a Salafi Muslim and a non-Salafi Muslim? The question cannot produce straight-forward explanations due to the ambiguity of the term “Salafism” and the complex nature of the phenomenon.”
As Joas Wagemakers observes, “it is the strictness and methodology with which Salafis try to live up to the standard set by the salaf and their willingness to gear their teachings and beliefs towards that goal…that distinguishes them from other Sunni Muslims.’ In addition, the fact that it is a heterogeneous movement inclusive of multiple orientations makes it more difficult to define Salafism and determine who the Salafis are. ,
Diversity within the Salafi Movement
Salafis consist of various sub-cultures and orientations – from moderate to extreme and from quietist to political activist to jihadist (or violence-oriented). While most Salafis are unanimous in matters of aqidah (theology), they are divided on issues of jurisprudence and politics.. For example, Tariq Abdel Haleem outlines eight groups of modern Salafis.
Quintan Wiktorowicz writes that Salafis are broadly divided into three groups: the purists, the politicos and the Jihadis. The purists, he argues, focus on purification of the faith through education and propagation, while the politicos emphasize application of the Salafi creed to the political arena and the Jihadis take a militant approach and argue that the current context calls for violence and revolution. Similar to the categories laid down by Wiktorowicz, Omayma Abdel Latiff believes there are three main currents of Salafism today: (1) al-salafiyyah al-ilmiyyah, or scholarly Salafism, which is concerned with the study of the Holy Text and Islamic jurisprudence; (2) al-salafiyyah al-harakiyyah, or activist Salafism, which describes both politically active Salafist groups and those groups that are not politically active but occupy a place in the public sphere through charity work and networks of social support and religious education institutes (this current also includes al-salafiyyah al-islahiyyah, or reformist Salafism); and (3) al-salafiyyah al-jihadiyyah, which concerns itself with implementing jihad.
Similarly, Samir Amghar observes that Salafism in Europe is divided into three streams. The first is “revolutionary Salafism,” which places ‘jihad’ at the heart of religious beliefs. The second is “predicative Salafism,” which bases its actions on preaching and religious teachings. The last is “political Salafism,” which organizes its activities around a political logic. Each one of these currents, Amghar argues, maintains a specific relationship with European societies, Muslim societies and the means – including jihad – of hastening the eventuality of the Islamic state.
Bernard Haykel identifies three groups of Salafis in terms of political engagement: (1) “Salafi Jihadis,” like those in the al-Qa’ida organization who call for violent action against their adversaries and existing political leaders; (2) “Salafi Harakis,”who advocate non-violent political activism and (3) “Scholastic Salafis (al-salafiyyah al-ilmiyyah),” who adopt a quietist approach and a more traditional outlook, arguing that all forms of overt political organization, action, and violence are forbidden. The modern Salafi groups and factions are not limited to the given categories, which are not exhaustive. Interestingly, an individual can be a Salafi and adopt the Salafi methodology without being affiliated or ascribed to any Salafi group. Some Muslims also adopt the Salafi way in select matters.In other words, they are Salafis at certain times and non-Salafi at others.
“Interestingly, an individual can be a Salafi and adopt the Salafi methodology without being affiliated or ascribed to any Salafi group. Some Muslims also adopt the Salafi way in select matters.In other words, they are Salafis at certain times and non-Salafi at others.”
Due to the complexities of modern Salafism, categories and groups at times overlap. Furthermore, many of the groupings or labels mentioned above are considered derisive and therefore, are dismissed out of hand by Salafis. The categories are, at best, fluid and rough approximations of the personalities and issues that divide modern Salafis. However, the labels are significantly more nuanced than the categories currently used by Western policy makers, analysts and law enforcement agencies to discuss establishment Salafis, Jihadis and those in between. These Salafi groups refer to different religious scholars and texts for legitimacy and intellectual guidance. These interpretations then carry profound implications on the political, social and economic behavior of their followers.
Disagreements and disputes within these groups are apparent. Can a “good” Muslim listen to music? Should a “good” Muslim refrain from buying Israeli goods and products? Is it acceptable for a “good” Muslim to fight to overthrow a Muslim government that fails to implement the shari’a completely? Each Salafi subset provides adherents with different answers and religious justifications to these and other questions, but the categorization provides nothing more than a rough topography of the Salafi terrain to assist observers speak in more nuanced terms about the ideological trends of modern Salafism.
Roel Meijer (ed), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, p 2. For writings that links Salafism to violence, see for example Quintan Wiktorowicz, “The New Global Threat: Transnational Salafis and Jihad,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 8, No. 4, (December 2001), 13-38; Quintan Wictorowic and John Kaltner, “Killing in the Name of Islam: Al-Qaeda’s Justification for September 11“, Middle East Policy, vol. 10, no. 2, (2003), 76-92.
 Interview with a Salafi imam (anonymous), Cairo, Egypt, April 2007 and interview with Shaikh Hassan Al-Shaikh, Sanaa, Yemen, July 2010.
The Hanbali School of thought is the strictest and most conservative school in Islamic jurisprudence. Many modern followers of the school are notable for their literalist and constructionist approaches. This explains why Saudi Salafis/Wahhabis are very strict in their approaches and practices of Islam.
 Joas Wagemakers,, A Quietist Jihadi, The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, 5.
 International Crisis Group, Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don’t Mix? (September 2004).
See Tariq Abdelhaleem, The Counterfeit Salafis, Deviation of the Counterfeit Salafis from the Methodology of Ahlul Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah,
Wiktorowicz argues that all three factions share a common creed but offer different explanations of the contemporary world and its concomitant problems and thus propose different solutions. The splits are about contextual analysis, not belief.
Al-Salafiyyah al-Jihadiyyah is a term used in current political Islamic discourse referring to the ideology of Salafis who advocate violence against their adversaries in the name of Jihad. The term has grown in popularity in recent years, but as Hegghammer says, its precise origins remain unclear. Al-Salafiyyah Al-Jihadiyyah is also known as “Global Jihad” or “Global Salafi Jihad”. See Hegghammer, Thomas, “Jihad-Salafis or Revolutionaries?: On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islamism”, p. 251 and Al-Rasheed, Madawi, “The Local and Global in Saudi Salafi-Jihadi Discourse”, p. 301 both articles in Roel Meijer, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement.
Omayma Abdel Latiff, “Trends in Salafism”, in Michael Emerson, Kristina Kausch and Richard Youngs (eds), Islamist Radicalisation: The Challenge for Euro-Mediterranean Relations, Centre for European Policy Studies, 2009, 69-86.
Samir Amghar, “Salafism and Radicalisation of Young European Muslims”in Samir Amghar, AmelBoubekeur, Michael Emerson (eds) European Islam: Challenges for Public Policy and Society, Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies, 2007, 38–51.
 In Saudi Arabia these Salafis are known as the Sahwis (the Awakening Ones) and Sururis, but their presence is also felt in Yemen and Kuwait.
According to Haykel this group of Salafis includes the official recognized scholars of Saudi Arabia, the Jamis and Madkhalis and are also identified with the teachings of Nasir al-Din al-Albani.
See Bernard Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action” pp.48-50 (from Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement).
For example, while many may see Sa’id Hawwa (d. 1989), the famous Muslim writer and preacher from Syria as a Salafi, others do not consider him as one although he draws on some ideas prevalent in the Salafi ideology like anti-Shi’ism. See Itzchak Weismann, Sa’id Hawwa: The Making of a Radical Muslim Thinker in Modern Syria, Middle Eastern Studies vol. 29, October 1993 pp. 601-23. Another example is Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926). While many do not consider al-Qaradawi a Salafi, some observers categorize him as a “Salafi reformist” (See Nafi, Basheer, “Fatwa and War: On the Allegiance of the American Muslim Soldiers in the Aftermath of September 11”, Islamic Law and Society, Volume 11, Number 1, 2004, Brill, 78 and 97) and at times al-Qaradawi adopts Salafi positions on certain matters. For example, al-Qaradawi believes that the acceptance of secularism by Muslims means the abandonment of shari’a. The call for secularism among Muslims, according to al-Qaradawi, is atheism and a rejection of Islam. He concludes that secularism’s acceptance as a basis for rule in place of shari’a is clear apostasy. This is believed to be a typical Salafi position. See Andrew F. March,Are Secularism and Neutrality Attractive to Religious Minorities? Islamic Discussions of Western Secularism in the “Jurisprudence of Muslim Minorities” (Fiqh Al-Aqalliyat), Islamic Law and Society, 2009, pp 2821-54.