Popular media tosses the word Salafism as lightly as they dwell on the weather forecast on a nice summer day! The concepts and implication relevant to Salafism suffer from a crude oversimplification. This is further reinforced by the fragility still inherent in the Tunisian start-up democracy and its start-up free press. There is more to Salafists than “salafis are men with beards and white dresses”. There is also more to Salafism than Salafism is reactionary and regressive.

Because I am nice (!!!??? :p) this dogmatic view of a large and diverse group is going to be refuted.

I shall try to keep my essay short enough. The reader will have to excuse me and keep in mind that this is a synopsis of a lengthy philosophical research. If certain arguments or concepts remain obscure, please feel free to contact me for clarifications (being nice again!!??).

General definitions and concepts :

The word Salaf itself technically denotes the righteous muslims during the 300 first years of Islamic history, approximately starting from year 600. This is based on the prophetic saying: ‘’the most righteous people shall live my century, then the one following, then the one following.’’[1] These people are considered most righteous because of the proximity they enjoy with the prophetic sources.

Salafism in general, is the movement seeking salvation through the guidance and model of the righteous Salaf. Two major subgroups exist within Salafism: Jihadi Salafism, believing that armed struggle is the best way to attain a truly Islamic life. The other branch is Scientific Salafism, which attempts to replicate the logical structures behind Islamic ruling of the Salaf.

Salafism a “progressive force”:

One of the major attributes to Salafism in Islamic thought is its methodological quest. Early Salafist scholars were faced with growing divides between Islamic philosophies. Thus they attempted to answer these issues with an increased rationality. Salafism’s attempt at formulating a method through which knowledge should be evaluated became the backbone of the “Scientific method” in Islamic thought.

This is a major contribution as Salafism rationalized Islamic thought: Not only were the outcomes of a cogitation to be evaluated, but also the method upon which it was obtained. There is an attempt at creating a universal method, a method that is Godly in nature rather than based on emotional stimulus. In practice, this means that Salafism encourages the use of logical computations. As surprising as it sounds, by attempting to formulate Godly methods of thought, Salafism enables Islamic thought with order and rationality. Another example of this rationality is the disregard for “false battles”: Salafists usually refuse to discuss whether God has a Hand or not…

Another “progressive” aspect of Salafism in Islamic thought is its unifying drive. Salafism reinforces the monotheistic aspect of Islam. It calls for humans to be freed from the influence of any human power. Salafist have always fought bitterly against attempts to create intermediate powers between subject and their god.

Moreover, Salafism has a formidable capability to rejuvenate itself. A striking example is the success of the Nour Salafist party in Egypt elections. Salafists in Egypt have refused to adhere to the political process for years. After the revolution it only took a few months for the Nour to organize and win an impressive 2nd place in the elections. Armed Jihadi Salafist groups have also proved to become increasingly flexible: The “Jihadist movements of Egypt” successfully reviewed their reliance on Violence as a mean for change. So called “revisions” have led the movement to accept, embrace and use cinema and other means that were considered unholy. During the formation of its new democracies, revolutionary countries (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) need such adaptation prowess in order to reach necessary consensus.

Salafism a”regressive force”:

Pluralism is still hard to accept for many Salafists. There are tendencies within the movement to negate the legitimacy of other schools of thought. Much of the Salafist discourse assumes that there is no possibility to err or at least that Salafists will always be closer to the truth. When designating themselves, the Salafist phraseology  is a romanticized and idealized one. Words such as the “pure” and the “righteous” and terms relevant to the sacred are used in near self-veneration. This self-veneration, even though it hasn’t reached unsupportable levels, is still dangerous. For if one group starts to believe with too much zeal that their party is incapable of error, errors will not be corrected and the movement becomes destructive both for its environment and itself.

Often enough, Salafist morality refuses to take into account the advances in different scientific and human studies fields. Thus Judgment of the present is often distorted and outdated. Given the inevitable linguistic changes, the judgments obtained as a result of Salafist methods could indeed be just “what it would have been” 14 centuries ago. “Al Jabri” clearly diagnosed this unhistoricality: “Salafist understanding of heritage in a non-historical one, thus it can only produce only one genre of understanding of heritage: heritage centered one. Heritage contains it but it cannot contain heritage. It is heritage repeating itself. ”

As a way of concluding:

As a relatively new movement to the wider public sphere, Salafists are still underrepresented in public platforms. The use of secondary sources is all too prevalent when issues relate to Salafism.

There is indeed some truth in the general belief that Salafism is a threat to Islamic societies. Nevertheless, Salafism is a much more complex philosophy with very important progressive sides.

And more broadly: Only time will reveal the constructive potential of the bearded men in white dresses. Or not.


[1]  “Salafism, A blessed historical period, not an Islamic branch” by ‘Dr. Mohamed Said Ramadan’ page 9.