In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Salafism

  • Introduction
  • Imami/Twelver Shiʿite “Salafism”

Islamic Studies Salafism
Jonathan A.C. Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0070


News reports often mention the “Wahhabi movement” or “Wahhabi Islam” without providing any context. This controversial modern Islamic movement actually represents part of a larger phenomenon in Islamic thought: Salafism. The Salaf are the pious forbearers of Islam, usually understood as the first three generations of the Muslim community (as opposed to the Khalaf, or the later generations). The Arabic adjective Salafi and the English noun Salafism taken from it are complex terms that refer to a trend in Islamic thought that places particular emphasis on a return to the piety and principles of the Salaf as the only correct understanding of Islam. Although all Muslim scholars look to the Salaf as role models, the majority believe that the institutions and historical developments that scholars have accepted within thought and practice over the centuries represent legitimate expressions of Islam. Establishing and adhering to schools of law (madhhab), adopting the Near Eastern traditions of Greek logic and speculative theology, and the emergence of Sufi brotherhoods were all accepted by mainstream Sunni and Shiʿite scholars. The Salafi strain in Islamic thought, however, has questioned the authority and legitimacy of these developments, preferring to emphasize of role of hadith and the literal ways of the Salaf over such historical adoptions. Although this conservative and iconoclastic trend has always existed in Islamic thought, it is most commonly identified with two periods: the burgeoning of classical Salafism with the 14th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), and the Salafism of the 18th-century movements of revival and reform. This early modern incarnation of Salafism in turn gave birth to two trends in Salafism that have flourished until today. Despite their common use of the term Salafi, these two modern movements are in fact very different, and they will be referred to here as modernist Salafism and traditionalist Salafism. Both classical Salafism and modern Salafism have clashed with the mainstream of Islamic thought, which will be referred to, for the sake of convenience, as Sunni or Shiʿite orthodoxy. Due to its controversial nature, writings on Salafism often feature heavy biases that need to be taken into consideration. Furthermore, there is scholarly disagreement over whether the term Salafism really represents a unified phenomenon; that is, is the “Salafism” of Ibn Taymiyya really the Salafism of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) or Muhammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905)?

Classical Salafism

The orientation towards the Salaf and a textualist commitment to hadith instead of speculative reasoning characterized the ahl al-hadith movement of 9th-century scholars like Ibn Hanbal (d. 855). Classical Salafism represented a revival of Hanbali thought in the 14th century, specifically at the hands of the very influential Hanbali scholar of Damascus, Ibn Taymiyya, and his chief acolyte, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1351). Although both scholars have remained controversial figures, they are also without a doubt two of the most influential thinkers in Sunni Islam.

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