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Who Are the Players? The Salafis

According to, a player is a person or group involved and influential in an area or activity. I am covering in this blog who are the leading influencers in Islam and what they do. In Islam, a religion with 1.8 billion adherents, I surmise that there are only five types of players. Last week, I discussed the Islamists. This week, I will cover the Salafis.

Salaf, in Arabic, means “ancestor.” Salafism is a branch of Sunni Islam, and Salafis are pious Muslims who want to establish and govern Islamic states based solely on the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet as understood by the first generations of Muslims close to Muhammad. This movement is ideologically akin to the early Puritan movement in England as well as America. To purge their practice of modern influences, they try to emulate the founders of the faith – the Prophet Muhammad's contemporaries and the two generations that came after his death in A.D. 632. Young Salafis, for example, often dress in sandals and robes like those worn in seventh-century Arabia.

Several very significant and traumatic schisms, both theological and political, characterized early Muslim history. As a result, several competing religious and political doctrines emerged among Muslims, which posed problems for the religion's governance. One dominant theme that emerged was the desire to be like the first generations that surrounded Muhammad and his companions – the epithet “Salafi” designates a pious person or possessing various kinds of noble characteristics and virtuous features reminiscent of the Prophet's time.

For example, according to the Bukhari’s hadith, men should wear beards. Those most closely associated with beards are the Salafis. The leading case for beards in the hadith is linked explicitly to set the Muslims apart and distinguish them based on clothing and outward appearance from polytheists, Jews, and Christians. According to the sunna, the Companions carefully trimmed their beards, and Muhammad, himself, encouraged short or no mustaches. With the rise of political Islam, the beard, especially a full beard in the Salafi tradition, is recognized as a sign of deep piety. In the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State, beards are mandatory. ISIS even added a prohibition on mocking the beard, using the Qur’an (9:65-66) to justify their rationale. In 2014, the U.S. military released a new policy outlining how religious service members might apply for a waiver to wear a beard as a way of expressing religious views.

The Salafist interpretation of Islamic doctrine tends to be literal and originalist. Salafism focuses on eliminating idolatry (shirk) and affirming God’s Oneness (tawhid). Salafis see themselves as the only authentic Muslims, and they have distinct views and opinions about religion and politics:

  • Salafis are religious, not political activists.

  • Salafis avoid political or organizational allegiances because they divide the Muslim community and distract Islam's study.

  • Salafis believe it is not permissible to revolt against a Muslim government.

  • Salafis tend to see the concept of jihad in defensive terms – aiding Muslims under attack rather than waging war for aggressive purposes. Salafis and jihadis agree that any jihad can only be defensive, but they have radically different notions of what constitutes defense.

Salafis reject association with organizations or people willing to compromise religious purity for political objectives. They refuse acceptance of more liberal and inclusive groups willing to recognize some good even in so-called “deviant” teachings. The “purists” categorically reject the Islamists for embracing members who contaminate the religion with discouraged practices (such as democracy or usury). Not only will they not communicate with them, but they also reject funding from any source that has deviant organizations among its grantees. Ironically, this implies that the most “radical” of the Salafis would be the most immune to jihadist teachings, while the “more moderate” Salafis may be open to jihadist overtures.

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