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Salafi - Salafi (Arabic: Salafiyyah meaning predecessors or previous generations) - A name used to denote various branches of Islam, which have in common the notion that the earliest forms of Islam were the purest and most correct, and that Islam must be reformed by returning to those forms of Islam. The tradition has a long lineage.  Muhammad said, "So fear Allah and have patience. And I am the best Salaf (predecessor) for you." [Saheeh Muslim: no. 2450], and others also based their authorities on the practices of predecessors.

Therefore in the most literal sense, Salafism is "fundamentalism" and some forms of Salafism are identical with Islamism or Jihadism. There are at least three types of Muslim groups or movements who claim to be Salafi or are called Salafi:

1- Conservatives like the Wahhabi

2- Radical Islamists (or "Jihadists") such as Al-Qaeda

3- Liberal reformers like Muhammad Abduh  and Jamal_al-Din Al-Afghani

Salafi fundamentalists are not necessarily all violent nor do all schools insist on interfering in political affairs. Some authorities class reformers such as Jamal_al-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh as Salafists because they returned to early sources, but this construal is often not accepted by others (especially non-westerners), because both Afghani and Abduh favored reform by Ijtihad - innovation. They were only "Salafi" in the sense that they wanted to disown much of Sha'aria law and returnt o what they considered to be "first principles," in order to liberalize Islam. 

Most typically Salafism refers to a number of different flavors of beliefs, most notably, the "Wahhabi" or "Muwahhidun " extremists. Salafism is a characterized by a kind of pantheism (seeing god in everything) - "Tawhid," which also means monotheism. While Islamist extremists like Sayyid Qutb and Abul ala Maududi believed in Tawhid in the pantheistic sense (Allah and Islam is in everything or Allah is everything) , they have been criticized severely by Salafists for Ijtihad - innovation. Qutb in particular has drawn criticism for rejecting the Madh'hab, the traditional Islamic schools of Fiqh (jurisprudence), for propagating the use of Takfir - declaring everyone who disagrees with him to be heretical, for declaring active Jihad even against non-Muslim states that do not challenge Muslims, for advocating social and economic reforms that are abhorrent to traditionalists, and perhaps most importantly, for advocating overthrow of Muslim governments. 

The Salafi (in this sense of Wahhabi, conservative) attitude toward governance seems to be that it must allow the full practice of Islam as a personal religion within the state, as exemplified by Saudi virtue police for example, but not that Islam must run the state itself or that the state must further Jihad against non-Muslims. Furthermore, they do not see Islam as a religion that must further social or economic reform. That differentiates this variety of Salafism from Islamism. A Salafi group has published an extensive critique of the Muslim Brotherhood: Historical Development of the Methodologies of the Ikhwan al Muslimeen and their effect on contemporary Salaafi Dawah. They maintain that Muhammad Abduh, Hassan al-Banna and Muhammad Rashid Rida created an activist movement that was gowned as Salafiyyah, making false ascriptions to Salafiyyah.

While some Salafi may become Jihadists or Islamists, and may represent the "pool" from which extremists are drawn to groups like Al-Qaeda, they are not the same ideological or theological beliefs. The term "Salafi-Jihadist" that seems to have come into use by some is seemingly inappropriate, because it doesn't describe an actual theological or ideological school.

Ami Isseroff

Revised, December 19, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: Wahhabi Islamism Qutb, Sayyid History of Islam and the Arabs Maududi, Abul ala  Al-Banna, Hassan Muhammad Rashid Rida

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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