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Salafism is a modern Islamic movement which seeks to reform Sunni Islam through a return to scripture (the Quran and hadith) and the ways of the salaf al-salih (lit. "pious predecessors"; the name of the movement is taken from here), or the first three generations of Muslims (Muhammad and his sahaba or "companions", the tabi'un or "successors", and the tabu' al-tabi'een or "successors of the successors"). The movement seeks particularly to replace (through ijtihad) what it perceives to be the excessive interpretive apparatus of the traditional madhhabs (schools) of Islamic law with direct references to scripture. The Salafi movement also seeks, for similar reasons, to replace the Aristotelian theology of mainstream Sunnism as expressed by Asharism with the more scripturalist and literalist theology of the salaf. Salafis generally consider classical Islamic discourse to be rife with hermeneutical artifacts which lack a clear basis (which, for them, amounts to bid'ah, or illegal "religious innovation") and, in this sense, the Salafis can be described as puritanical.[1]

The Salafi movement is diverse in its expressions since, unbound by traditional interpretive apparatuses, any number of groups can and do contest what precisely scripture itself says on any number of topics. It is for this reason that the Salafi movement comparable to Protestant movement in Christianity. Modern Islamic movements as diverse as Islamic modernism, Madkhalism, and Salafi-Jihadism, insofar as they all consider themselves to be liberated from the norms of traditional Islam, can all be described as the products or at least partial-products of Salafism. Salafism, understood as a general tendency to favor direct citations of scripture over legal manuals, has also had an impact on the modern practice of Islam well beyond movements which openly self-identify or are identified as Salafi. This "external" impact of Salafism beyond its own borders is most clearly seen among Muslim diasporas whose practice of Islam is not regulated by a state and thus open to the influence of freely-distributed publications funded by governments such as Saudi Arabia's - in this capacity, Salafism has also become a prominent political tool.

The movement has its roots in the 18th century Wahhabi movement led by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab in the Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula, and was further elaborated by a number of 19th and 20th century intellectuals including, perhaps most prominently, Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935) - both of whom can be broadly described as "progressive". The most well known and influential Salafi figures of more recent times, however, are of a markedly different and conservative strain - these include Muhammad b. al-Uthaymeen (d. 2001), Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), Saleh al-Fawzan, and Abd al-Aziz b. Baz (d. 1999), but also individuals as diverse as Bilal Philips, Zakir Naik, Anjem Choudary, Anwar al-Awlaki (d. 2011), Osama b. Laden (d. 2011), and even Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid, who founded the world's most popular fatwa website (IslamQA, also the second most popular Islamic website in the world).


Key figures

Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab


  1. C.E. Bosworth; E. van Donzel; W.P. Heinrichs et al., eds, (1995), "Riba", Encyclopaedia of Islam, 8 NED-SAM (New Edition [2nd] ed.), Leiden: E.J. Brill, pp. 900-909, ISBN 90 04 09834 8, 1995