Citation for Salafi

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"Salafi." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


"Salafi." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


The term Salafi applies to certain Islamic reform movements, most notably one that arose in Egypt in the early 1900s. The name has its roots in the Arabic word salaf, meaning “ancestors.” Salaf generally refers to Muslims who lived during—or within three generations of—the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims consider such individuals to have practiced a pure form of Islam. Reformers who title themselves after the salaf promote a return to a society based on the Muslim values of the early community. They believe that Islam has changed for the worse since the time of Muhammad . Salafi movements strive to reform Islam by promoting the beliefs and practices of the Prophet. The modern Salafi movement continues to have a major influence on the Islamic world.

Early Development of Salafi.

After Muhammad died in the early 600s, Muslims became increasingly divided as to the interpretation and application of the teachings of the Qur'an. Some scholars, such as the Mu'tazili, favored reason in the effort to understand revelation. They argued that Muslims had free will, the capacity to choose between good and evil, and should not blindly rely on religious edicts. Many Muslims became outraged, stating that God alone has power, that human beings are predestined, and that obedience to the law is therefore the only route to eternal reward. This and similar controversies led to an emphasis on following the opinions of the Salaf. The first person associated with this position was the jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal ( 780 – 855 ).

A member of the last generation of salaf, Ahmad ibn Hanbal inspired confidence from later Muslims, as well as from his own peers. He valued revelation over reason but argued that Muslims could interpret divine scripture based on their understanding of the actions of the Prophet and his companions when no precedent existed in the Qur'an or hadith. He set strict guidelines for the use of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and restricted the use of qiyas (reasoning by analogy, or comparison based on similarities). Ibn Hanbal also promoted a return to pure Islam based directly on the Qur'an, the sunnah, and the ijma (consensus) of the salaf.

Ahmad ibn Hanbal gained many followers, including the scholar Ibn Taymiyah (died 1328 ), who established a clear distinction between the changeable and unchangeable aspects of Islam. He held that the Prophet had established certain beliefs and rituals not subject to alteration. Social aspects of Islam, however, such as education and rules governing behavior, could adapt to the times. Ibn Taymiyah rejected unthinking adherence to tradition and maintained that Muslims had to balance sacred sources with their own reasoned judgment in order to understand and live according to God's law. He viewed Islam as more flexible than his predecessors, and he inspired later Salafi groups to do the same.

Salafi Movements in the Modern Age.

In the 1700s, several reform movements emerged to address what many Muslims viewed as the “moral decay” of the Islamic community. The most important of these was the Wahhabi movement, founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab ( 1703 – 1792 ). Ibn Abd al-Wahhab promoted many of the ideas expressed in the teachings of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyah. He encouraged Muslims to purge the Arabian Peninsula of what they considered un-Islamic practices and to build an Islamic society modeled on the one founded by the Prophet. The Wahhabi and other Salafi movements advocated moral and social reform and greater unity among Muslims. The Salafis, however, promoted a strict interpretation of Islam and remained rooted in the past.

The Islamic scholars Jamal al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh established the modern Salafi movement in Egypt in the late 1800s. It shared many features of the earlier movement, advocating the restoration of Islamic beliefs and culture in society. It differed from the other groups, however, in its efforts to adapt Islam to the modern world. Al-Afghani and Abduh portrayed Islam as compatible with reason and science, and they worked to apply the scripture to modern-day conditions. They struggled to rid the community of what they considered a centuries-old mentality of taqlid (imitation) and jumud (stagnation).

Al-Afghani and Abduh focused on ridding the Islamic world of European colonial domination. Faced with the overwhelming strength of the Western powers, they searched for the causes of the apparent decline of Islam. They blamed Muslim passivity on the adoption of foreign concepts and practices, a lack of unity among Muslims, and the political despotism that plagued some Muslim countries.

In suggesting solutions to these problems, founders of the modern Salafi movement looked to the writings of Ibn Taymiyah. Like Ibn Taymiyah, they criticized Sufis for practicing certain rituals, such as saint worship, which they considered corrupt and damaging to Islam. They also proposed sweeping reforms in science, education, language, and law. They sought to combine traditional Islamic and Western education in order to give Muslims a more prominent role in world affairs, root out European influences from law, grant women greater rights, and reform politics. In addition, al-Afghani and Abduh promoted Pan-Islamic feelings. They criticized leaders who used Islam to justify their absolute rule, calling for greater representation of Muslims in government, as well as greater unity for Muslims throughout the Islamic world.

Influence of Salafi Movements.

The modern Salafi movement spread from Egypt throughout the Muslim world. It influenced several other Islamic movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the modern Salafi movement, the Muslim Brotherhood promoted a return to pure Islam within modern society. More critical of the West, however, the brotherhood took a more activist approach to ending colonial domination. The Jamaat-i Islami, founded in Pakistan by Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi ( 1903 – 1979 ) proceeded along similar lines.

Other Salafi movements, known as the al-Salafiyun, have a greater connection with the earlier Salafi movements than with the modern one. More recent Salafi groups advocate radical programs of opposition to Western culture and Western domination. They represent an important part of the violent Muslim movements of the late 1900s. See also Abduh, Muhammad; Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-; Ibn Hanbal ; Ibn Taymiyah ; Mawdudi, Sayyid Abu al-Ala; Modernism; Muslim Brotherhood; Mu'tazili; Revelation; Wahhabi.

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