Islamic Studies Arab Salafism
David Commins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0139


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.

Reference Works

Concise and authoritative entries in reference works on Islam provide the beginner with reliable introductions to Salafism’s historical development, major concepts, and significant personalities. The major reference for the field of Islamic studies is Bearman, et al. 1954–2009. It may take the reader some time to get accustomed to the transliteration of non-Western names and terms, but the range of topics in this massive work makes it worth the effort. CD-ROM and online editions facilitate cross-referencing entries. For a less comprehensive but more accessible introduction to modern Islam, Esposito 2009 is a reliable and handy reference. Readers primarily interested in trends since the late 20th century may consult Moussalli 1999 for thumbnail sketches on individuals, groups, and terms. Oxford Islamic Studies Online is a searchable database containing concise introductions to concepts and personalities.

  • Bearman, P. J., Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, eds. The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Rev. ed. 12 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1954–2009.

    Entries by leading scholars provide essential information about major thinkers in the Salafist tradition from the premodern era and the modernist phase. Excellent for reading guides to primary sources and important secondary works.

  • Esposito, John L., ed. Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

    This electronic database gives the reader access to several major reference works on Islam published by Oxford University Press, including Esposito 2009. With a subscription, the reader can quickly browse entries on major Salafist thinkers and find suggestions for further reading.

  • Esposito, John L., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Rev. ed. 6 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    This source covers the entire Muslim world since 600, with entries on personalities, countries, movements, and institutions. Its entries for Salafism and various Salafist figures include useful guides to further reading.

  • Moussalli, Ahmad S. Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalist Movements in the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1999.

    This reliable guide by an authority on contemporary Islamic thought places Salafist personalities and groups in the context of related movements. The bibliographical essay is highly recommended.

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