Arab Salafism

David Commins

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:
Arab Salafism

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The term Salafism is derived from the Arabic phrase al-salaf al-salih, which means “the pious ancestors,” customarily defined as the first three generations of Muslims. Salafists believe that Muslims have strayed from correct belief and worship and that it is necessary for them to return to the way of the pious ancestors for the sake of individual salvation and collective welfare. In their view, Islam was corrupted by ritual innovations and theological heresies imported by converts from other religions, but they do not agree on what exactly Muslims would revive were they to restore Islam in its pristine form, owing to the diversity of ideas that one can mine in the early Islamic sources. While there is not a unified Salafist school of thought, most Salafists have emphasized two themes. The first is theological correctness in the name of combating external rationalist and antinomian/Sufi influences. The second is the elimination of customs in worship they deem illegitimate innovations. The pivotal personality for establishing this trend was Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, whose life coincided with the peak of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad during the 9th century. A broader conception of Salafism encompassing the full range of religious sciences, including ethics and politics, emerged in the life and thought of the Syrian Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya. Centuries later his intellectual originality and bold activism continue to inspire Muslims to take up the Salafist cause. Around the turn of the 20th century, Muslim modernists proposed that returning to the way of the pious ancestors meant injecting flexibility into law, social customs, and political institutions. In modern times, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi tradition claims the Salafist mantle for its strict theological doctrine and enforcement of conformity with its conception of correct worship and public behavior. In the last few decades of the 20th century, a Wahhabi-inflected Salafist current has spread in Muslim societies and Muslim communities in the West. Its proponents do not regard the modernists as Salafists, faulting them on theological grounds. Most contemporary Salafists are devoted to rigorous observance of correct belief, worship, and personal conduct, and they view other Muslims as either lax or misguided. A minority of contemporary Salafists belong to a militant tendency emphasizing the duty of jihad against foreign enemies and infidel rulers.

Article.  5093 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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