In the beginning, Salafi Islam is non-political ideology. But it’s morphed into a political and religious ideology adopted by Islamists. The Jihadis are obsessed with a confrontation with the West. But Al-Qaeda represents a thoughtful, planned approach while ISIS wants that fight, right now.

What is Salafism?

Salafis are fundamentalists. They want to return to the original ways of Islam. ‘Salafi’ comes from Arabic, ‘as-salaf as-saliheen.’ A phrase that refers to the first three generations of Muslims (starting with the Companions of the Prophet), known as the Pious Predecessors.

What do Salafis believe?

According to Middle East Institute scholar Hassan Mneimneh, there are four guiding principles to Salafism.

Four concepts lie at the core of the modern Salafist system: (1) al-wala’ wa-l-bara’: loyalty to faithful Muslims and repudiation of non-Muslims; (2) al-hakimiyyah: the exclusive divine source of political authority; (3) al-amr bi-l-ma‘ruf wa-l-nahi ‘an al-munkar: the active injunction to adhere to virtue and abstain from vice; and (4) al-jihad fi sabil Allah: defensive (and offensive, when possible) military action to propagate the faith.

What do these beliefs mean in a modern world?

Mneimneh believes the four core principles turn in these four modern realities.

(1) isolationism and communal segregation

(2) a rejection of representative governance and civil law

(3) a restrictive social regimentation and an inhibition of personal freedom

(4) open global warfare

It’s unfolding in front of the world, a transformative movement that is gaining prominence in the Muslim world. Its intellectual roots are in the very roots of Islam. It believes in a recreation of the original Muslim faith and civilization. It is a very conservative interpretation of the faith.

Salafism was not a dominant force among religious scholars and clerics for most of Islam’s history. Only in modern day has Salafism gained traction. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been born out of a perfect storm of western expansion and influence into the Middle East, Islamism, Jihadism.

But, Salafism has existed in Islam from the beginning.

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AEI’s Critical Threat Project describes their origin in detail: the first six centuries of Islam witnessed a vibrant discussion among a multitude of schools of thought, informed in particular by Hellenistic philosophy and rationalism. The precursors to today’s Salafism then were Ahl al-Hadith, who largely refrained from participation in these debates and instead developed critical methods in the collection and validation of authoritative traditions intended to serve as a basis for the construction of Islamic dogma.

The first age of Islam was, at the time, a pinnacle of civilization. Islam saw imperial rule and expansion. They assimilated other cultures. They possessed intellectual creativity. The first age of Islam was a great civilization, but came to a crashing end at the end of the 18th century as the caliphate was broken down from its all encompassing rule. Smaller factions broke out and regional Islamic empires formed.

Modern Salafism can be traced to the emergence and discovery of oil alongside ultra-conservatism that survived through Saudi Arabia. That discovery of oil generated massive income that was turned into serious soft power of religious clerics in Saudi Arabia. The same goes for the gulf states, where wealth and control of an economy via oil, led to soft power of ultra conservatives injecting themselves into the clerical establishment.

Salafism has provided the intellectual framework for jihadis and modern day Islamist terrorists. This movement like others could die and fade away. But, they aren’t. Conditions in the world are as such that it’s extremely difficult to mitigate this threat in any timeframe aside from a long term, strategic one.



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