*A longer version of this article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor, Volume VIII, Issue 44 - December 2, 2010.

When commentators analyze Salafism, it is crucial to distinguish between mainstream Salafism and the kind of revolutionary Salafism promoted by al-Qaeda. To do otherwise is to lump together peaceful communities and violent revolutionary jihadists. This distinction has become increasingly important over the last few years as mainstream Salafism has emerged as an important counter to the ideology of violent jihadist groups often pledged to follow al-Qaeda. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the wellsprings of both versions of Salafism, have established programs to reunite revolutionary jihadists with the Sunni Muslim mainstream in their respective countries. In the war of ideas both programs have already been successful in educating the Muslim public about the way contemporary violent jihadists have deviated from the tradition they claim to be following. We may have further opportunities to judge the efficacy of these programs because they seem to be spreading. In 2006 Libyan authorities began discussions about the meaning of jihad in Islam conducted by Muslim scholars with incarcerated members of al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyah al-Muqatilah bi Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - LIFG), known for its ties to al-Qaeda. These discussions led to the 2009 release of some of its older members from prison. The distinguishing characteristic of the members who were released was their renunciation of violence in a document that became known as al-Muraja‘at (“the Revisions”). The Revisions did not change the ultimate goals of these men; rather the document used arguments based on Islamic law to demonstrate that the violent overthrow of Arab and Muslim governments is illegitimate. [1] On November 16, 2010 pan-Arab daily Dar al-Hayat reported on a movement in three Algerian prisons among adherents of “Salafist jihad” to re-examine the use of violence. If successful, the article suggests, this tentative step in the direction of disarmament might be looking at the LIFG’s renunciation as a model. It is important to note, however, that without strong security operations as leverage, programs leading to revisions would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible.

Towards a Definitions of Salafism

Salafism spreads a very broad tent. Trying to frame a definition that captures all who call themselves Salafist is bound to be inaccurate to some extent. Salafism is a Sunni movement that entails adherence to the example of the earliest generations of Islamic predecessors, the salaf. Strict Salafists insist that Islamic law, the Shari‛ah, must be based on the Holy Qur‛an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad alone, although Salafists also argue that issues not settled in the sacred traditions may be addressed using human reason. Salafists generally reject those traditions that evolved after the Salaf as innovations and therefore forbidden. This results in many Salafists opposing Shi‛ism and often taking a dark view of Sufism, the mystical tradition in Islam.. Salafist scholars of all stripes look to the great fourteenth century religious scholar Ibn Taymiyya for inspiration. Salafism as a theological position, however, does not require taking any specific political position.

In Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab states of the Gulf (with the notable exception of Shiite majority Bahrain), Salafism is the majority’s preferred version of Islam. In the Arabian Peninsula and especially in Saudi Arabia, Salafism can be traced to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’sreformist approach was meant to be a rational enterprise that opposed superstition as well as innovation in religion. His view did narrow the field concerning who should be considered a Muslim, but his focus was the chaotic eighteenth century tribal rivalry within the Arabian Peninsula, not the world at large. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s theology thus does not support al-Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad. His heirs today are the religious scholars who are the pillars of the modern Saudi state and al-Qaeda’s enemies. The Saudi population overwhelmingly prefers its religious institutions and scholars to the revolutionary Salafism of Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda attacks these mainstream Saudi clerics with the vitriol they usually reserve for the United States.

In a parallel movement, Salafism was rediscovered more than a century later in Egypt. The term Salafism was used by Rashid Rida (1865-1935) to describe the thought of his mentor, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). The Salafism of Muhammad Abduh, like that of his Arabian predecessor, was at its base rational. If Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was on the conservative end of the Salafist spectrum, Abduh was at the liberal end. Abduh wanted to show how Islam could be reconciled with modern thought. [2] In Abduh and Rida’s thinking, the reason that the Middle East had fallen behind Europe in science and quality of life was that Muslims had lost the true meaning and basis of Islam and had turned instead to traditions that were little more than superstitions. Thinkers like Abduh were appalled at colonial-era Egyptian society, which they believed tried to imitate Europeans. Abduh’s version of Salafism urged Egyptians and other Muslims to rely on their Islamic roots to modernize on a culturally authentic basis. Over time Abduh’s followers became more rigid, but education was always at the center of their modernizing agenda.

Revolutionary Salafism

Salafism is al-Qaeda’s great cloak and cover; members of al-Qaeda are Salafist and would claim to hold the same set of beliefs as most Salafist communities. Al-Qaeda’s Salafism, however, is revolutionary, a concept adopted from the Egyptians Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982), but one that had its origins in the work of the Pakistani Islamist Syed Abul A‛ala Maududi (1903-1979). Maududi claimed that Islam is not merely a religion; it is a “revolutionary ideology and program, which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world.” [3] Sayyid Qutb adopted this and other Maududi concepts, which were later interpreted by al-Qaeda to mean that no current Muslim Government is truly Islamic. Muhammad al-Salam Faraj pushed Qutb’s concept of jihad further to create a worldview that argued that jihad should be waged against all Muslim governments. Al-Qaeda embraced this view as well and then moved beyond it to the doctrine of America as the first target of jihad. Al-Qaeda argues that jihad against all Americans and all current Muslim leaders is an obligation of each Muslim personally. This doctrine is the crucial difference that separates revolutionary Salafism from the mainstream version of Salafism that is the moving force within Islam today.

Defeating the Ideology of Revolutionary Salafism

An ideology like Salafist-Jihadism cannot be overcome by kinetic operations alone. Leaders who are killed or captured become martyrs; military defeat of insurgent groups drives the ideology underground but does not destroy it. Fed on the revolutionary writings on classic guerrilla warfare, jihadist strategists counsel retreat from overwhelming force but never surrender. The relatively new programs leading to renunciation of violence by jihadists need encouragement without naïve expectations. Governments may choose to release those who renounce violence or keep them in prison. Without religious education programs conducted by respected Muslim religious authorities for those who surrender and for the general public, the counterterrorist efforts of security services will have no lasting effect.

Revolutionary Salafists and mainstream Salafists mean different things when they use the term jihad. Revolutionary Salafists support eternal violent jihad until the world accepts their ideology. Mainstream Salafists support violent jihad to protect Muslim lands from invasion or imminent threat. Mainstream Salafists proselytize the world without recourse to violence. Those who do not see the distinction strengthen al-Qaeda’s hand. If al-Qaeda and its allies can argue with impunity that they are merely protecting Muslim land from the Americans or the French, for example, young Muslim men might find a fatal attraction to the call to take up arms. On the other hand, if traditional Salafist scholars argue that the engineers of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers are wrong on religious grounds (as the Islamist scholars of the Mardin Conference in Turkey did in March), the public at large may get the message. If more ideologues issue religiously reasoned renunciations of al-Qaeda’s violent path, young recruits may develop their own questions.


1. Camille Tawil, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s revisions: one year later,” Magharebia.com, July 23, 2010.
2. Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought In The Liberal Age, Oxford, 1967, p.56.
3. Abul A‛ala Maududi, “Jihad in Islam,” The Holy Koran Publishing House, Beirut, 1980, p.5; Maududi originally delivered this essay as an address on April 13, 1939.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.