Salafiyya is the name given to those who follow the ideas and practices of the righteous ancestors (al-salaf al-salih). This “salafi” approach rejects later traditions and schools of thought, calling for a return to the Quran and the sunna as the authentic basis for Muslim life. The salafi approach emphasizes the application of ijtihad (independent, informed judgment) and rejects taqlid (adherence to established precedents and conformity with existing traditional interpretations and institutions).
The “righteous ancestors,” or salaf, are usually considered to be the first three generations of Muslims, including the immediate companions of the Prophet. Because of the closeness of these salaf to Muhammad, later Muslims regarded the former’s transmissions of the Prophet’s traditions, their informed practice as believers, as having special authority. Major figures in the definition of the salafi perspective and approach are Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), the founder of the Hanbali School, and Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328).
The fundamental concern of modern Salafiyya, who recognize that Muslim power and influence is in decline relative to the West, is the relationship between Islam and modernity.
The goal of the movement is to make Islam a dynamic force in the contemporary world. The modern Salafiyya invoked the classic themes: a call for a return to the Quran and the sunna, a rejection of the medieval authorities (taqlid), and an affirmation of the necessity of independent, informed thinking (ijtihad). In the modern context, this involved an emphasis on the compatibility of reason with revelation, and of Islam with modern science. It also entailed a call for moral social reform.
However, by the end of the twentieth century, the term Salafiyya also came to be applied to extremist movements that advocated violent jihad against existing regimes and social orders, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and that did not adhere to a rigid and literalist understanding of the Quran and sunna. This new Salafiyya often differed from the time honored salafi approach of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya by rejecting independent analysis (ijtihad).
Among those involved in the definition and establishment of the modern Salafiyya, the best-known are Jamal al-Din al- Afghani (1839–1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905). Abduh created the broad intellectual foundations for modern Salafiyya. First in exile and then as Grand Mufti of Egypt, he shaped the thinking of generations of Muslim intellectuals.
The theological core was an emphasis on tawhid, which is the assertion of the singleness of God and the comprehensive unity of God’s message. Tawhid was the basis for showing the compatibility of Islam with modern science and revelation with modern reason. Consistent with the earlier Salafiyya, Abduh advocated the informed, independent analysis of the Quran and sunna.
The new Salafiyya did not involve direct opposition to European imperial rule over Muslims. Rather, it saw internal Islamic reform as the first priority, and the key to the implementation of its goals was education and scholarship. Abduh provided the inspiration for many educational reforms and al-Manar, the journal published by his follower and associate, Rashid Rida (1865–1939), was read throughout the Muslim world. Following Abduh’s death, Rashid Rida became the most visible international articulator of Salafi thought, becoming active in organizing Pan-Islamic congresses and, after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, in working for the establishment of a modern Arab caliphate. He came to view the efforts of Abd al-_Aziz Ibn Saud to create a state in the Arabian Peninsula based on the puritanical reform traditions of the Wahhabiyya as representing an important manifestation of the reforms necessary for all Muslim societies.
Other important Salafi-modernist movements developed in the late nineteenth century, sometimes relatively independently and sometimes in close coordination with the group around Abduh. In South Asia, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898) emphasized the importance of understanding nature as a reflection of God’s revelation in his teachings, and established the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College (which later became Aligarh Muslim University). As the Russian Empire completed its conquest of Muslim areas in the nineteenth century, another Islamic modernist movement, “Jadidism,” developed there under the leadership of Isma_il Gasprinskii (1851–1914). He created a new school curriculum for Muslim children, and his journal, Tarjuman, was important in creating a modern, cohesive sense of identity among Muslims living in Russia.
Many movements throughout the Muslim world were directly inspired by the Abduh tradition, and were in communication with it. In North Africa, Salafis organized movements like the Association of Algerian Ulema under Abd al- Hamid Ibn Badis (1889–1940). Salafi intellectuals and organizations became important parts of Muslim life in Syria and Iraq as well, and in Egypt and many other parts of the Muslim world. In Southeast Asia, the Shi_a Imami, which became one of the largest organizations in the Muslim world, was formed in 1912 to advocate specifically Salafi-style reform, especially through education.
Throughout the twentieth century, individuals and groups built on and developed the modernist Salafi traditions in many different directions. In South Asia, the work of Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) provided a critical synthesis of modern and Islamic thought in his book, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and other works. At the same time, he worked for the creation of Pakistan. Some forms of nationalism were presented in Salafi form, as in the development of the Dustour Party in Tunisia and the drive toward liberal nationalism in Egypt in the first half of the century.
Later, Mahmud Shaltut (1893–1963), as shaykh of al-Azhar University, confirmed the Abduh tradition at the heart of the Islamic scholarly establishment, and scholars like Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988) further developed modernist methodologies in historical and philosophical studies. By the end of the twentieth century, the term Salafi came to be applied to a very different type of Islamic revivalism. When an ideology of violent jihad against existing Muslim societies and secular modernity developed, it started with a Salafi-style call for a return to the purity of faith exemplified by the righteous ancestors. As this message was developed by later activists, however, the emphasis was placed on militant action, rather than on intellectual effort. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the term was widely applied to advocates of violent jihad. Terrorists like those who destroyed the World Trade Center, along with Usama bin Ladin and his organization, al-Qaida, are called Salafi, as are militants throughout the Muslim world. The older style of Salafi modernism was also significant at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The intellectual content of curricula in Islamic schools and international Islamic universities around the world reflects much of the tradition of Abduh, while organizations like the Muhammadiyya in Indonesia remain a significant part of political and social life.