CONTEMPORARY SALAFISM emerged as a form of radical religious reform, aiming to displace the heritage of traditional Muslim scholarship. But while religious reform has long been a feature of the Islamic world in the modern period, the Salafist formula for this reform is retrograde. It sets itself against all other religious currents within and outside of Islam, against the competing political and intellectual currents of liberalism and secularism, even the epistemological foundations underpinning modernity. It is important to make the association of Salafism with the current rise in religious extremism. Salafist doctrine is isolationist and damages social cohesion. Its educational and cultural orientations prime the mentality of its followers to uncompromising, radical interpretations that deliberately override the interests and rights of the ‘other.’ The exportation of Salafist culture, in the form of Wahhabism, has been condemned by Muslims scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar university as the cause of terrorism, the rejection of diversity, the oppression of women and religious minorities, as well as the destabilization of Muslim States.

For although the Salafist method is primarily focused on doctrine and religious practice, it exhibits at least the language of what one might term ‘proto-politics’. It assumes that its programme for reform must apply to behaviour in the public sphere as the pietistic requirements of the community are seen to be ill-served by the political and social structures of the state. To insulate itself meanwhile from contamination, Salafism advocates non-participation in political life and effectively promotes a parallel society, all of which has political implications.

The Salafist discourse is the arena from which militant forms of Islam develop. Jihadists (who refer to themselves as ‘Jihadi-Salafists’) capitalize on its narrowed cultural and doctrinal spectrum and on the groundwork Salafism lays towards rejectionism and social exclusivity, by extending the culture of alienation beyond the social, doctrinal and intellectual levels, to the political level in the elaboration of the new identity of the Islamic Umma.

Salafist doctrines, and Islamist political ideas based on these doctrines, are increasing their grip to the point where they are de facto becoming the norm. The more Salafism gets to define the ‘centre-ground’ of Islamic belief the more damage it will wreak to social cohesion, to political stability and the progress of human rights. The articles in this section challenge Salafism’s claim to authenticity and moral authority.

Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari

When God Almighty addressed Muhammad with the words: Wouldst thou (Muhammad) compel men until they are believers?[1] that was a declaration of Islam's confirmation of the right to difference, and its support for religious pluralism and the strong guarantee granted to humankind of their choice of belief and worship. If the Prophet did not have the right to impose his religion upon others by force, and that his only recourse was to Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation,[2] then it follows that an ordinary man has even less right to impose his opinion on others.


Yusuf Aba al-Khayl

The Companions of the Prophet and the early Tābiʽūn[1] used to read the texts of the Qur’ān according to what they thought God Almighty meant by it, doing so directly and determining the meaning through a live interaction with the living vocabulary of the text. The same went for the Companions who lived at the time when the Qur’ān was revealed, in a language they lived with on a daily basis, employing the mechanisms of positive interpretation that did not depart from the Arab linguistic and cultural norms in which the Qur’ān was revealed.


Fakhir al-Sultan

The late Egyptian thinker Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd argues that the mechanisms which govern the large part of religious discourse are the same, whether they manifest themselves in moderate or extremist discourse. He maintains that these mechanisms underpin the intellectual premises of discourse to such an extent that they converge with them, so that the one cannot be distinguished from the other.