On Salafism
Concepts and Contexts
Azmi Bishara


Contents and Abstracts
Chapter 1: What Is Salafism?
chapter abstract

This chapter aims to deconstruct the term Salafism, which is used in a careless, simplistic and reductionist way. Salafism, it argues, is a purely historical designation that refers to a variety of Sunni and Shia "salafisms," rather than a single phenomenon. The chapter also asserts that Orientalist studies of Islam are epistemologically constrained by stereotypes and a viewpoint that tends towards a simple dichotomy of East and West, often tinged with latent or overt racism. It further emphasizes that Islamic movements cannot be understood without examining the socio-cultural context in which they emerged. It further identifies the differences and commonalities among the various types of Salafis, and the difference between two types of "return," or appeal, to the Salaf: that of the Reformists, and that of puritan and Jihadi Salafis. The chapter also examines the concept of "fundamentalism," which is often used as synonymous with Salafism.

Chapter 2: On Apostasy
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This chapter examines the practice of takfīr—the branding of an individual or a group as infidel—including the facile categorization of entire groups as infidels. The chapter traces the genesis of takfiri groups and ideas across the centuries. It shows how disagreement among Salafis has reached the point of division and mutual takfīr. It argues that while takfīr can only be about doctrine, disagreements made non-doctrinal issues into doctrinal ones. Therefore, the chapter explores modern groups' shifting interpretations of classical texts, and splits within the trends over these interpretations. Salafis generally hold that primary religious texts are self-explanatory and literally true. They do not need interpretation but must be taken as self-evident. These groups may tolerate differences in limited areas of ritual and law, but not in theology. Their intolerance is at the root of the stagnation that has affected some parts of the Muslim world.

Chapter 3: Religious Associations and Political Movements
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This chapter sheds light on the early proliferation of Salafi groups outside the Arab Peninsula, including quietist forms in Egypt and the Levant, which were not always Hanbali, challenged modernization at the state level, and sought to impose social control on liberties. It highlights that there was no iron wall between Salafism and Sufism when it came to religious revival. However, Salafi associations were set up in the cities to provide an outlet for religious enthusiasm that could compete with Sufism. This early form of popularizing Salafism and Reformism both overlapped and diverged on many issues. This chapter argues that all Salafi movements are modern in the sense that they are ideological movements that emerged in the modern world, using modern means and terminology to organize, and as a result of the pressures of the modern world itself. They reject modernism ideologically while making instrumental use of its products.

Chapter 4: Wahhabism in Context
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This chapter discusses Wahhabism and its evolution. It argues that Wahhabis did not go back to the past in search of a reconciliation of religion and modernity. Rather, they returned to an imagined past in order to restore it. Wahhabism shows that when a Salafi-type religious movement is transformed into an establishment supported by the state, it will generate into a dissident Salafism motivated by many factors. The chapter further highlights the vast difference between Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who viewed obedience to the ruler as a pillar of organized Islamic society; and "modern" salafi-jihadists, who declare the ruler an infidel and permit revolt against him. The chapter also examines the way Wahhabism's cooptation by the Saudi state had led to the rise of dissident Salafism that has fed the violent groups.

chapter abstract

This chapter asserts that differences between Islamist movements cannot be explained simply with reference to juristic disagreements over how to understand the Qur'an and the Sunna. Rather, we must take account of currently existing social and political realities, including struggles for leadership. Islamic movements must also be understood in light of their relationship with various patterns of religiosity: popular, institutional, political, etc. Further, this chapter observes that Islamist movements are not conservative; truly conservative Islamic thought is hostile to any attempt to impose so-called religious utopias on reality, just as conservative secular thought is opposed to the application of revolutionary utopias. True conservative Islamic thought accepts the ideal, but not its application to reality. Rather, it tends to view this ideal past as a moral compass by which the Muslim is guided.