Commenting On The Problem With “Salafism” | Pergas Blog



Commenting On The Problem With “Salafism”

01 December 2018 2:01 am // Written by Umm Maryaam

Earlier this year, I came across an article published in a local newspaper (18 June 2018) reporting on an academic book launch on Salafism in Lebanon by a well-known research fellow from an established research institutes based in a prestigious local university.[1]

It was moderated by a highly regarded academic, known as a highly respected scholar specialising on Islam in southeast Asia.

The author of the article focused on the topic that was discussed in the book launch, namely the influence of Salafism on the promotion of intolerance among Muslims.

While the book that was launched focused on Lebanon, the article cast a spotlight on the implications of Salafism in Southeast Asia. It also further discussed possible solutions to address the rising concern of a seemingly increasingly intolerant Islam in the region attributed to Salafism.

In this commentary, I would like to raise several points related to the abovementioned article. First is the complexity behind the term “Salafism”, with reference to several authoritative academic studies on the subject. Second, I will briefly discuss the current predominant narrative on Salafism in the region. And finally, I seek to highlight the repercussions of a non-critical approach of understanding the term, including its possible contribution to Islamophobic sentiments and right-wing political discourses.

Defining Salaf

The direct translation of the Arabic term Salaf is “predecessor”. According to common understanding, this would refer to the first three generations of Muslims, hence the generations of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions.

In contemporary context, and if we apply the definition of Salaf as described, we then refer to Muslims who attempt to closely follow the ways these three early generations of Muslims lived Islam, one which, benefitting from the guidance of the Prophet himself and those who were close to him, is also the Islam.

The Islam which, in the mind of a Muslim in today’s society centuries after the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet, is an idealised version.

Here, already, a problematic arises. Would this then not refer to all Muslims in general, since all Muslims would then subscribe to the teachings of the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah (path or model of the Prophet) and consensus of his companions?

I argue that the term ‘Salafi’ today is essentially a construct referring to one who rigidly adheres to a purist religious doctrine based on a literalist interpretation of the Quran and Sunna rejects any form of religious innovation (bid`ah).

‘Salafism’, as with other ‘-isms’, is arguably an ideology. Lately, it is conventionally used to refer to the disregard for a contextualisation of religious doctrine presumably renders subscribers of Salafi religious ideology intolerant of others’ views and this exclusivist worldview makes it difficult to coexist with others in society, including non-Salafi Muslims and non-Muslims.

By extension, and as suggested by the discussion highlighted in the article, ‘Salafism’ is hence a key factor motivating violent extremism.  But who decides what is a common conventional understanding or application of the terms? What feeds this predominant narrative of the Salafi ideology?

Problematising contemporary usage of the terms Salaf, Salafi (movement) and Salaf-ism

While the term ‘Salaf’ can be defined without much complications, what we should be concerned and critical about is the constructed label, what it implies, the motivations or explanations behind such labelling and the implications if we adopt associated narratives without question.

Scholars often refer to a Salafi movement, to connote a more complex and broader entity. It is within this broader category that important distinctions are made. Wictorowicz (2006) for example points out different types of Salafis, ranging from the purist, politico and jihadis.[2] Thus, one could picture the Salafi movement as a non-monolithic spectrum, ranging from the quietist or pacifist Salafis who differ from the Salafi-Jihadis who feel that the use of violence is fully justified.

He explains that while these sub-groups all subscribe to a common religious creed, their preferred approach in addressing contemporary social and political realities greatly differ. Such differences account for intra-community conflicts and factionalisation.

Likewise, a more recent study on Salafism by Henri Lauzière (2015) speaks of two different intellectual streams— a more modernist current that is reformist in nature and attempts to reconcile Islamic belief with the Western model of progress, and a literalist school of thought focusing on perfecting puritan and literalist religious practice.[3] Lauzière’s historical analysis maps out the various trajectories that have taken place within the broader Salafi movement, also emphasising its non-monolithic nature and an evolutive nature.[4]

The grand narrative of the day cannot be separated from a security agenda, especially since Al-Qaeda. However, as discussed above, it in fact focuses on only one aspect: Salafism as an ideology and the exclusivist Salafi-jihadi approach.

In tracing its historical development, one will most likely be directed down the path of the post-Iranian Revolution in 1979, up to the tragic events of 9/11 with Saudi petro-dollars serving as the catalyst for the propagation of Wahhabism, referred to as a type of Salafism. What follows is the spread of this dangerous ideology spreading outside of the Middle East. In the West, for example, the term ‘Salafism’ has become co-terminous with conservative Islam, even in mainstream media due to sensational value or simply irresponsible reporting.

Salafism in Southeast Asia, as highlighted in the book launch discussion as reported in the TODAY article, has gained popularity in the past three decades or so due to Arabisation and influence of returning students who studied in religious institutions in the Middle East.

Numerous academic studies have confirmed this trend. But even this needs to be further problematised. While there is no denying that the influence of Salafi Islam has increased, one should not over-exaggerate its extent. Granted that the Salafi-Jihadi ideology has played a role in motivating numerous terrorist acts in the region, there has also been strong resistance against it, perhaps far more than the support it gets (Hassan, 2010; Hellyer, 2017).[5]

Salafism in Southeast Asia also tends to be of the quietist and pacifist type which focuses on personal religious practice and piety rather than as an ideology for political and social activism. Furthermore, a single Muslim may be influenced by both Sufi and Salafi influences to different degrees, in different aspects of their religious life (Hassan and Mostarom, 2011).[6]

Conclusion: Adopting a critical approach

On both traditional and social media platforms space may be limited to permit an in-depth discussion. Nevertheless, and especially when the information is meant for public consumption and can shape public opinion, it is important to hint to the existing nuances and encourage critical thinking at the very least.

As a receiver on the other end of such reports of academic discussions, forums, seminars or even conferences, one needs to bear in mind that what is being read is solely from the perspective of the one who is reporting. Thus, it may also be framed and coloured by the reporter’s own worldview and biases. This is not to say that such reports should be dismissed as inaccurate. On the contrary, such efforts in communicating critical discussions to a more general public brings critical topics out, beyond the confines of the audience in attendance at what is usually a limited setting.

The onus however, is on the reader to be extra critical of the additional layer that is presented to him and this should then encourage more research and further reading into important topics, and should naturally make for more profound reflections and discussions in a broader social setting.

For Salafism, one needs to be aware that is in fact highly complex topic. Dismissing this or giving the wrong impression that it is a monolithic religious group may have serious implications: feeding Islamophobic sentiments by encouraging suspicions and broadbrushing, and even affecting policy formulation indirectly due to influence on public opinion.

I conclude this commentary by returning to a point raised in the initial article. The author highlighted the call that the “Islamic community” needed to act and to adopt a philosophical approach in Islamic education to address Salafism, beyond relying on government intervention which can only be limited to restricting Salafi materials.

However, it is more complex than that, especially if an uncritical and unconstructive grand narrative is being constructed and propagated by actors and platforms beyond just the Muslim community.

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Opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not represent Pergas’ official stand unless if Pergas explicitly says so.


[1] Mokhtar, F. “Islamic community ‘must act to counter growing influence of Salafism’, Today, 18 June 2018, Singapore, available at: [accessed 13 November 2018].

[2] For further details, see Wictorowicz, Q. “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2006, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 207-239.

[3] For further details, see Lauzière, H., The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

[4] See for example Shavit’s (in Shari‘a and Muslim Minorities: The Wasati and Salafi Approaches to Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat al-Muslima) analysis of minority communities in the West and their attitudes towards Wasati and Salafi sources for Islamic guidance and religious law in a Western social and political context. He argues that different groups within the communities draw inspiration from these two main streams but not on exclusive terms. They tend to instead selectively refer to jurists from the different schools of thought.

[5] See for example, Hassan, N., “The failure of the Wahhabi campaign: Transnational Islam and the Salafi madrasa in post-9/11 Indonesia”, Southeast Asia Research, vol. 18, no. 4, December 2010, pp. 675-705; Hellyer, H. A., “Saudi’s purist salafi drive into Southeast Asia”, Atlantic Council, 10 March 2017, available at: [accessed 13 November 2018)

[6] See for example, Hassan, M. H. and Mostarom, T. R., “A Decade of Combating Radical Ideology: Learning from the Singapore Experience (2001-2011)”, RSIS Monograph, no. 20, Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2011.

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