The Regress of Knowledge: Understanding the Concept of Salafism in Traditional Islam

The term Salafism like jihad has been absorbed into mainstream Western media discourse, especially with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Much of the use of this term, however, is conceptually shrouded in confusion even in academic circles.

Contemporary discussions on Salafism in the academia can be broadly categorized under those that grapple with the subject from the perspective of political science, and those who do so from a religious studies perspective.

The former tend to discuss the concept in a fleeting manner usually by not much more than identifying Salafism’s theoreticians, such as Abdul Wahhab and Ibn Taymiyya and focus instead on the political, economic and the social dimensions behind the rise of Salafi movements. There is, accordingly, little interest in the conceptual genealogy but also the contested meanings of the concept of Salafism in the Islamic tradition.

In the area of religious studies, the concept of Salafism has gained increased attention since 9/11. In this body of work, the concept of Salafism has been theorized in a more nuanced manner. One thinks particularly of the work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, and more recently of Frank Griffel and Henri Lauziere.

In this article I argue that the concept of Salafism in traditionalist Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (and, to a lesser extent, in theology) pertains to a number of interrelated phenomena:

Highly contested and continuously appropriated approaches to Islamic epistemology and hermeneutics characterized by heavy textualism in at least two variant forms madhhab and ahl-hadith based;

An outlook / worldview that emerged among the post-righteous generations of Muslims (as-salaf as-salih/salafi, from which the concept of Salafism is derived) which tried to make sense of the various theological, political, moral and social schisms that occurred in immediate post-prophetic period, culminating in a particular soteriology whose linchpin was the joint concept of the sacred past and the retrogressive nature of time and history;

The theological cum epistemological doctrine of ‘adalat al sahaba (collective probity of Prophet’s Companions) which serves as a defence of Sunni theology and/or response to the competing theological paradigm embodied by Imamate (Shi’i) theology.

I argue that such a conceptualization of Salafism is imperative if we are to understand and counter the religious narrative promoted by the scholars associated with the Islamic State, including their employment of Salafism in justifying religiously sanctioned violence.

Salafism as epistemology

Early Muslim history was characterized by a number of very significant and, for subsequent generations of Muslims, traumatic schisms, both religious and political in nature. As a result, a number of competing theological and political doctrines among Muslims emerged which posed not only a serious political but also salvific problem for the subsequent generations of Muslims who were intent on establishing the correct parameters of doctrines, beliefs and practices considered to be in accordance to the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet.

One aspect of this struggle for religious legitimacy among the post-righteous generations of Muslims (as-salaf as-salih), chronologically speaking, was by linking one’s theological, political or legal views to that of the as-salaf as-salih. This would, in turn, imbue these competing factions with the sense of normativity, credibility and authority.

As a corollary, the concept of Salafism or what I also term a salafi worldview can be conceptualized in terms of the idea of the “emulation-worthiness” of the first century religious and political authorities who were perceived as having remained faithful to the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet in relation to ‘aqida (beliefs), manhaj (methodology) and ‘ibada (worship) in contrast to those who are deemed( from a perspective of a particular group of Muslims) to have deviated.

Moreover, towards the end of the second Islamic century, this salafi-embedded worldview started to shape the epistemological boundaries of the Islamic thought, particularly in relation to the increased importance of Sunna and its documentation in the form of written reports about the early Muslim community (hadith/akhbar) though a chain of narrators whose ultimate linchpins were the Companions of the Prophet. In this context, in Sunnism, the mechanism that was developed to authenticate Sunna depended entirely epistemologically on upholding the collective moral probity of all of the Prophet’s Companions, as well as adopting an expansive definition of a “Companion.”

The increased epistemological importance of the salafi worldview is evident, for example, from the fact that the founders or initiators of the various Islamic sciences sought the ideas and the views among the as-salaf as-salih as intellectual antecedents in order to bestow legitimacy to their respective disciplines. Moreover, we find that the epithet salafi, designating a person who is pious or possessing various kinds of noble characteristics and virtues features (but not a developed legal theory or systematic theology) frequently in various writings of Muslim scholars.

The centrality of this concept of the imitation of the salaf in the Sunni Islamic tradition can be further gleaned from the fact that Muslim scholars’ views regarding the salaf has significant implications regarding whether or not their views could be considered part of Sunni orthodoxy. It also had a profound effect on the nature of Islamic law.

It is also worth noting that the identity and the chronological cut off point of as-salaf as-salih in Islamic jurisprudence has had different meanings, as various groups have defined salaf according to their own orientation and school of thought. Therefore, given the various definitions of as-salaf as-salih generations (and who belongs to them), this aspect of the concept of Salafism is also contested in the Islamic tradition.

It is important to highlight that there have been ongoing disagreements over who the salaf are, and on the basis of which methodology (manhaj) can we understand or have access to authentic knowledge about them, even within traditional Sunnism. The two major contenders are the so-called madhab-based and the ahl-al hadith-based approaches. However, the salafi-embedded worldview I here describe is shared by both, including the salafi/jihadist groups such as the ISIS who, as I have argued elsewhere, in terms of their manhaj are virtually identical to the ahl-al hadith.

Salafism as sacred past

The idea of a “sacred past” is, of course, not peculiar to Muslims and it can take a number of different forms. For example, in the European context, it was expressed in the form of nineteenth-century nationalism.

What we could call the Salafi mindset seems to have emerged in the late-second century of the Islamic calendar. As testified by the definition used by Al-Suyuti, the genesis of the Salafi mind-set is best understood in the light of the political and theological schisms that took place in the Muslim community in the first century Hijri. At that time, the concept of Salafism was used as an anchoring point for various ideologically competing groups who were all eager to show that their views, unlike those of others, were consistent with those figures who were held in high esteem during the inception of the Muslim community.

This is, for example, evident in the use of word as-salaf as-salih in treaties attributed to a renowned figure of early Islam, Hasan al-Basri’s (d. 110/ 728), to support the doctrine of free will to which he, unlike his interlocutors, considered as being a doctrine espoused by the as-salaf as-salih. Recent research suggests that the concept of Salafism was also developed in relation to the rival ascending and ever more systematically developed Imami theology.

I will say more about this when I examine the function of Salafism as what I refer to as anti-Shi’I oppositional dialectics. As briefly alluded to above, this quest for religious legitimacy by linking one’s theological, political or legal views to that of the as-salaf as-salih would, thus, imbibe these factions with the sense of normativeness, credibility and authoritativeness. The same holds true for the contemporary usages of Salafism.

From a historical point of view, the earliest usage of the terms as-salaf as-salih is therefore to be understood as a particular outlook of the as-salaf as-salih generations of Muslims on the early historical events that took place after the Prophet’s death regarding the issues considered unresolved in the Qur’an and Sunna as well as the means of getting to terms with the above mentioned political and doctrinal schisms that plagued the nascent Muslims community. This salafi doctrine proved particularly important for the formation of what now is largely considered “mainstream” traditionalist Sunnism in the fourth / fifth century of the Islamic calendar.

Salafism as retrogressive history

I have already noted that over time the imitation of the salaf became a very important element of what it means/meant to be a pious Sunni Muslim as the salaf were considered to embody the original example of the Prophet (Sunna) that was subsequently more or less corrupted or in danger of becoming so.

One of the important phenomena that emerged from this is the idea that process that I elsewhere described as “hadihtification of Sunna” and traditionalisation of Islamic thought as encapsulated in the premise that the Sunna of the Prophet could only be preserved and be remained faithful to only by means of sahih (sound) hadith as authenticated by the early classical hadith specialists (muhadithun) such as Bukhari and Muslim.

From the preceding discussion, we can thus deduce that the concept of Salafism in pre-modern Islamic thought is also to be conceptualized by means of a particular understanding of the concept of history and time namely, their regressive nature and their relation to the present and future. It is encapsulated by the idea of the imperative of going back to ideal model of the Prophet’s Sunna that only existed in the past and that was for all purposes embodied in the sahih hadith narrations.

This salafi embedded worldview is, itself, often justified on the basis of a few isolated hadith going back to the Prophet Muhammad in which he reportedly asserted that the best people were his generation and then the next and then the following and so on and that there was no year or day except that which followed was worse than it.

It is important to highlight again that this Salafi-embedded worldview evident in both the madhhab and ahl-al hadith-based thought, therefore, defers to the past to provide all the answers and constantly imposes itself upon the present. In other words, the authenticity of Muslim identity can only be established by returning to a fixed point in historical time – that of the Prophet and the early Muslim community.

Salafism as a response to Imamate theology

Another important element of the concept of Salafism is its anti-Imamate orientation, which highlights the strong sectarian origins of the concept. In this sense it is rooted in the doctrine of ‘adala al-Sahaba, the collective integrity of the Companions that in classical Sunnism evolved over a number of centuries becoming widely affirmed sometime in the fifth century Hijri.

This doctrine was very much reflective of the idea of “multiple and competing articulations of community and authority in the sectarian atmosphere of the later medieval period.” It finds its roots in the theology of Murji’ism according to which it is not only possible but also desirable to make a distinction between faith and practice and “postpone judgements” regarding the “status” of a sinner.

One such significant competing conceptualization theological / sectarian and political in nature to Sunnism was that of Shi’ism of course and its Imamate theology which challenged, among others, the doctrine of ‘adala al-Sahaba. To Sunnis, the Imamate-based theology which persisted, even if peripherally, as a challenge to the Sunni social and doctrinal domination, was clearly diametrically opposed to the concept of the ‘adala al-Sahaba and as such unacceptable.

At this junction it is in order to highlight that the doctrine of ‘adala al-Sahaba also plays an important epistemological role in traditionalist Sunnism. This is because it forms a linchpin in the process of traditional textualist methodologies of authenticating Sunna of the muhaddithun on the basis of the isnad-based system whose entire integrity depends on the (individual) probity of the Sahaba.

In this context it is worthy to remind ourselves that the separate forms of canonized Sunni and Shi’I hadith collections different exactly on this assessment of the probity of the Sahaba.


From the above we can conclude that the concept of Salafism emerged from the sectarian context of early Islam and is characterized by an epistemologically regressive outlook / worldview of the post-salaf communities of Muslims who attempted to appropriate the concept on the basis of differing but partially overlapping mixture of epistemology, methodologies and hermeneutics.

These attempts at appropriation were motivated by not only for the purposes of claiming normativity and authenticity but also for the purpose of attaining salvation as the salaf were seen as extensions of Prophet’s legacy, the Sunna, as the surest, if not the only, way of attaining salvation.

Salafi Jihadist groups such as ISIS are also Salafis in the sense described above and because they do this poses some real questions how effective traditional Sunnism (not to mention Salafism), especially in the long run, is in terms of offering an effective counter religion based narrative to that of ISIS.

Adis Duderija is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, and a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue, Griffith University. In addition to two sole authored monographs on progressive Islam published in 2011 and 2017, he is also the co-author (with Halim Rane) of Islam and Muslims in the West: Major Issues and Debates, and (with Alina Alak and Kristin Hissong) of Islam and Gender: Major Issues and Debates.

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