This article is on an Islamic movement. For the article on the group of early Muslims, see Salaf

Salafi ("predecessors" or "early generations"), is a Sunni Islamic school of thought that takes the pious ancestors (Salaf) of the patristic period of early Islam as exemplary models. Early usage of the term appears in the book Al-Ansab by Abu Sa'd Abd al-Kareem al-Sama'ni, who died in the year 1166 (562 of the Islamic calendar). Under the entry for the ascription al-Salafi he stated, "This is an ascription to the salaf, or the predecessors, and the adoptation of their school of thought based upon what I have heard." He then mentions an example or more of people who were utilizing this ascription in his time. However, an even earlier ascription of the term Salaf was used by Muhammad who noted, "I am the best Salaf for you.

Salafis view the first three generations of Muslims, who are Muhammad's companions, and the two succeeding generations after them, the Tabi‘in and the Taba‘ at-Tabi‘in, as examples of how Islam should be practiced. This principle is derived from the following Sunni hadith by Muhammad:

The people of my generation are the best, then those who follow them, and then those who follow the latter (i.e. the first three generations of Muslims).

The principal tenet of Salafism is that Islam was perfect and complete during the days of Muhammad and his companions, but that undesirable innovations have been added over the later centuries due to materialist and cultural influences. Salafism seeks to revive a practice of Islam that more closely resembles the religion during the time of Muhammad. Salafism has also been described as a simplified version of Islam, in which adherents follow a few commands and practices.

Salafism is often used interchangeably with "Wahhabism". Adherents usually reject this term because it is considered derogatory and because they believe that Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab did not establish a new school of thought nor self-describe themselves as such. Typically, adherents used terms like "Muwahidoon," "Ahle Hadith, or "Ahl at-Tawheed."


The word "Salaf" is an Arabic noun which may be translated as "(righteous) predecessor" or "(pious) ancestor. In Islamic terminology, it is generally used to refer to the first three generations of Muslims: the Sahabah, the Tabi‘in and the Taba‘ at-Tabi‘in. These three generations are looked upon as examples of how Islam should be practiced.

Usage of phrase was noted by early Islamic scholars, including As-Sam'aanee who said: "As-Salafi: this is an ascription to the Salaf and following their ways, in that which is related from them." In commenting upon as-Sam'aanee's saying, Ibn al-Atheer noted: "And a group were known by this ascription." Thus the term Salafi, and its ascription to the group, was a matter known in the time of early Islamic scholars.

Other scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyyah have noted:

There is no criticism for the one who proclaims the madhab of the Salaf, who attaches himself to it and refers to it. Rather, it is obligatory to accept that from him by unanimous agreement (ittifaaq) because the way (madhdhab) of the Salaf is nothing but the Truth (al-Haqq).

Association with Wahhabism

The terms "Wahhabism" and "Salafism" are often used interchangeably. Wahhabism has been called a "belittling" term for Salafi, while another source defines it as "a particular orientation within Salafism," an orientation some consider ultra-conservative.

Scholar Trevor Stanley states that while the origins of Wahhabism and Salafism "were quite distinct" - "Wahhabism was a pared-down Islam that rejected modern influences, while Salafism sought to reconcile Islam with modernism" - they both shared a rejection of "traditional teachings on Islam in favor of direct, ‘fundamentalist’ reinterpretation." But despite their beginnings "as two distinct movements", the migration of Muslim Brotherhood members from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Saudi King Faisal's

embrace of Salafi pan-Islamism resulted in cross-pollination between ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings on tawhid, shirk and bid‘ah and Salafi interpretations of ahadith (the sayings of Muhammad).

Distinctive beliefs and practices

Just who, or what groups and movements, qualify as salafi is disputed. Some define the term broadly, including the Muslim Brotherhood (who include the term salafi in the min nahnu (about us) section of their website), and the Deobandi Others exclude the Muslim Brotherhoodand the Deobandi since they believe these groups commit religious innovations (bid'ah), or worse.


Whichever definition is used, Salafis idealize an uncorrupted, pure Islamic religious community. They believe that Islam's decline after the early generations is the result of religious innovations (bid‘ah) and that an Islamic revival will result through the emulation of the three early generations and the purging of foreign influences from the religion.

Abstaining from Bidah or Newly invented matters in the Islamic creed

Salafis maintain that bidah or innovation in the Islamic creed can cause considerable rifts amongst Muslims and future generations of Muslims. They explain that Muslims in one part of the world who engage in bidahs, such as circumambulating around shrines of saints, celebrating Muhammad's birthday, or commemorating the day of the death of a saint ("urs"), may not receive their newly invented practice with much welcome in other areas of the Islamic world where the practice is totally foreign, thus sparking dogmatic division. Salafis further assert that actions stemming from a practice rooted in bidah will not result in any reward in spite of a worshiper's good intentions and, are dangerous to the Islamic creed since they replace or corrupt the religious practices ("Sunnah") of Muhammad. Salafis assert that if such practices increase a devotee's faith, Muhammad would have known about it and assuredly directed Muslims to do such acts since he was the best worshiper amongst mankind and most dutiful. In showing textual support for the impermissibility of bidah or innovation in the Islamic creed, Salafis frequently quote Prophet Muhammad who emphasized: "Every innovation is misguidance and going astray." Salafis maintain that Muhammad also warned against the People of Innovation, from befriending, supporting, or taking from them, as Muhammad noted: "Whoever innovates or accommodates an innovator then upon him is the curse of Allah, His Angels, and the whole of mankind." Salafis often quote many companions of Muhammad including Ibn Abbas who said: "Indeed the most detestable of things to Allah are the innovations," and, Ibn Umar who said: "Every innovation is misguidance, even if the people see it as something good."

Earlier generations of Muslims like Imam Malik conveyed similar sentiment: "Whosoever introduces into Islam an innovation, and holds it to be something good, has indeed alleged that Muhammad (sallallaahu ’alayhi wa sallam) has betrayed his message." Imam Malik then stressed: "Read the saying of Allah – the Most Blessed, the Most High: This day I have perfected your Religion for you, completed My favour upon you and I have chosen for you Islam as your Religion. [Al-Maa‘idah 5:3]. Malik then concluded: "So that which was not part of the Religion at that time, cannot be part of the Religion today...And the last part of this Ummah cannot be rectified, except by that which rectified its first part."

Similarly, Abu Hanifa emphasized: "Adhere to the athar (narration) and the tareeqah (way) of the Salaf (Pious Predecessors) and beware of newly invented matters (in Religion) for all of it is innovation." Likewise, Shaikh Saalih Aal ash-Shaikh, Minister of Islamic Affairs of Saudi Arabia, stated: "Muslims are of two groups: Salafis and Khalafis. As for the Salafis, then they are the followers of Salafus Saalih (first three generations of Muslims). And as for the Khalafis, then they are the followers of the understanding of the Khalaf and they are also called Innovators - since everyone who is not pleased and satisfied with the path of the Salafus Saalih, in knowledge and action, understanding and fiqh, then he is a khalafi, an innovator.

Staunch Monotheism

Particular emphasis is given to monotheism - (tawhid); many Muslim practices which have now become common are condemned as polytheism (shirk). Salafis believe that widespread Muslim practices such as venerating the graves of Islamic prophets and saints to be shirk. Salafis in general are opposed to both Sufi and Shi'a doctrines, which Salafis regard as having many aspects of shirk, bid`ah and impermissible intercession of religious figures.

Prohibition of Kalam

Salafis reject the application of discourse and debate in the development of Islamic theology (a doctrine known as "kalam"). They consider this process as a foreign import from Greek philosophy (such as Plato and Aristotle) and alien to the original practice of Islam. Imaam adh-Dhahabee (d. 748H) said:

It is authentically related from ad-Daaraqutnee that he said: There is nothing more despised by me than kalam (innovating speech and rhetoric). I say: He never entered into kalam, nor argumentation. Rather, was a Salafee (a follower of the Salaf).

Salafis, similar to adherents of orthodox denominations of Islam, place great emphasis on ritual not only in prayer but in every activity in daily life -- many are careful to always use three fingers when eating, drink water in three pauses with the right hand while sitting, make sure their galabea or other garment worn by them does not extend below the ankle -- so as to follow the example of Muhammad and the companions and make religion part of every activity in life.

Comparison with Islamism

Salafism differs from the earlier contemporary Islamic revival movements of the 1970s and 1980s commonly referred to as Islamism, in that (at least many) Salafis reject not only Western ideologies such as Socialism and Capitalism, but also common Western concepts like economics, constitutions, political parties, revolution and social justice. Muslims should not engage in Western activities like politics, "even by giving them an Islamic slant. Instead, Muslims should stick to traditional activities, particularly Dawah. Salafis promote Sharia rather than an Islamic political program or state.


Salafism is a movement, and like the Sufis, Salafis can come from the Maliki, the Shafi, the Hanbali, or the Hanafi. Salafis are divided on the question of adherence to the four recognized schools of legal interpretation (madh'habs).

History of Salafism

From the perspective of the Salafis themselves, their history starts with Prophet Muhammad himself. They consider themselves direct followers of his teachings, and wish to emulate the piety of the first three generations of Islam (the Salaf). All later scholars are merely revivers (not 'founders'). Modern scholars may only come to teach (or remind) us of the instructions of the original followers of Islam. From the perspective of some others, however, the history of Salafism started a few hundred years ago, the exact time and place still being a matter of discussion.

Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din, Rashid Rida

From a perspective widely shared by scholars of Islam, the history of Salafism started in Egypt in the mid 19th century among intellectuals at al-Azhar University, the preeminent center of Islamic learning, located in Cairo. Prominent among them were Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935). These early reformers recognized the need for an Islamic revival, noticing the changing fortunes in the Islamic world following the Enlightenment in Europe. Al-Afghani was a political activist, whereas Abduh, an educator, and head of Egypt's religious law courts, sought gradual social reform and legal reform "to make sharia relevant to modern problems." Abduh argued that the early generations of Muslims (the salaf al-salihin, hence the name Salafiyya, which is given to Abduh and his disciples) had produced a vibrant civilization because they had creatively interpreted the Quran and hadith to answer the needs of their times.

Other self-described Salafi disavow these early figures. One prominent Salafi website, for example, describing itself as promoting "the creed and manhaj of the salaf us-saalih - pure and clear, includes claims that al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh were "known freemasons and ... [show] great misguidance in their ideologies." It alleges they were interested in an "anti-colonial political movement" rather than "orthodox Islam" or "the way of the Salaf," but their call was deceptively surrounded with slogans of `returning back to the way of the forefathers.` These divisions introduce controversy concerning the proper founders and proponets of the `Salafiyyah` movement.

Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab

Many self-described Salafi today point instead to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab as the first figure in the modern era to push for a return to the religious practices of the salaf as-salih or "righteous predecessors". His evangelizing in 18th century Saudi Arabia was a call to return to what he believed were the practices of the early generations of Muslims. His works (especially Kitab at-Tawhid) are still widely read by Salafis around the world today, and the majority of Salafi scholars still reference his works frequently. After his death, his views flourished under the generous financing of the House of Saud and initiated the current worldwide Salafi movement. Regardless, it should still be pointed out that the terms "Salafi" and Wahhabi are not necessarily synonymous. Wahhabism has been variously described as a subset of Salafism, a derogatory synonym for Salafism, or a formerly separate current of Islamic thought that appropriated "language and symbolism of Salafism" until the two became "practically indistinguishable" in the 1970s.

Current disagreements

In recent years attention has been given to the "jihadi" Salafism of Al-Qaeda, and related groups calling for the killing of civilians, and opposed by many Muslim groups and governments, including the Saudi government and Muslim Brotherhood. Debate continues today over the appropriate method of reform, ranging from violent "Salafism jihadism" to less politicized evangelism. Despite some similarities, the different contemporary self-proclaimed Salafist groups often strongly disapprove of each other and deny the others Salafi character.


Salafism, or at least the so called "puritanical" forms of it, has been recently criticized by Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA School of Law. El Fadl noted that the Salafi methodology "drifted into stifling apologetics" by mid-20th century, a reaction against "anxiety" to "render Islam compatible with modernity," by its leaders earlier in the century. Salafi writers would allegedly claim, for example, that "any meritorious or worthwhile modern institutions were first invented and realized by Muslims." The result was that "an artificial sense of confidence and an intellectual lethargy" developed, according to Abou El Fadl, "that took neither the Islamic tradition nor" the challenges of the modern world "very seriously. Abou El Fadl, Khaled, The Great Theft Harper San Francisco, 2005, p.52-56

Contemporary Salafis

Spread and effect

For rootless immigrants and disaffected second-generation youths in Europe, salafism provides the attraction of the authentic. For those living in the squalid metropolises of the Middle East, it offers an emotionally rich alternative to the slogans of Arab nationalism. Salafism appeals to younger Muslims as a way to differentiate themselves from their wrong beliefs of parents and grandparents because it is seen as pure, stripped of the local, superstitious, and customary usages of their families' countries of origin. It confers a sense of moral superiority. Salafism has a potent appeal because it underscores Islam's universality.

Salafism insists on the absolute truth of Muslim scripture and what might be called a strict constructionist brand of sharia or religious law. Salafism may have had more appeal than secularism by appropriating secularisms' traditional role of defending the socially and politically weak against the powerful. The spread of Salafism has prompted political leaders in the Middle East to accommodate a greater role for religion in public policy.

Older authorities accepted by modern Salafis as Salafi Imams

Arabian Peninsula


Greater Khorasan

Greater Syria

Some Notable modern Salafi scholars




Saudi Arabia




External links

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