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  • Henri Lauzière


For nearly a century of scholarship, uncertainties and paradoxes have beleaguered interpretations of the origins and meaning of Salafism (al-salafiyya). Although academics and journalists alike are well aware of the various definitions and conflicting narratives of Salafism, relieving some of the confusion that beclouds the term continues to prove difficult. Given that concepts are fluid and relational, this state of affairs may seem inevitable. Yet there are reasons to believe that the current confusion surrounding Salafism is in part attributable to faulty scholarship and that consequently the substance and history of this religious orientation will remain unnecessarily puzzling so long as the production of knowledge about Salafism goes unexamined. In that sense, recent scholarly efforts to remedy the situation by providing deeper insights into the intellectual, geographical, and political diversity of Salafism have produced mixed results, for they have largely overlooked two of the most persistent epistemological problems that are at the root of much of the present-day ambiguity.

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Corresponding author

Henri Lauzière is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; e-mail:


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Author's Note: I am grateful to Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies and its postdoctoral fellowship program for providing me with the opportunity to complete this project.

1 Rougier, Bernard, ed., Qu'est-ce que le salafisme? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008); Meijer, Roel, ed., Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). The latter volume includes a noteworthy chapter by Bernard Haykel.

2 Shahin, Emad Eldin, “Salafiyah,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, ed. Esposito, John L. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5:2835; Méténier, Édouard, “Que sont ces chemins devenus? Réflexion sur les évolutions de la salafiyya irakienne de la fin du XVIIIe au milieu du XXe siècle,” in Le courant réformiste musulman et sa réception dans les sociétés arabes, ed. al-Charif, Maher and Kawakibi, Salam (Damascus: Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2003), 85113; Al Juhany, Uwaidah M., Najd Before the Salafi Reform Movement: Social, Political, and Religious Conditions During the Three Centuries Preceding the Rise of the Saudi State (Reading, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 2002); Abu-Rabiʿ, Ibrahim M., Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 6572. Abu-Rabiʿ based his analysis on the works of Arab intellectuals who use Salafism very loosely. For a typical example with respect to Moroccan history, see Baddu, ʿAbd al-Jalil, al-Salafiyya wa-l-Islah (Tangier, Morocco: Siliki Ikhwan, 2007).

3 For a review of this problem in European intellectual history, see Frängsmyr, Tore, À la recherche des Lumières: une perspective suédoise, trans. Battail, Jean-François and Battail, Marianne (Bordeaux, France: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 1999), 13, 1622. The expression “Renaissance Enlightenment” comes from Wade, Ira O., The Intellectual Origins of the French Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971).

4 Shinar, P. and Ende, W., “Salafiyya,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (hereafter EI2) (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960–2005). This subnarrative continues to inform contemporary studies. See Haddad, Mahmoud, “The Manarists and Modernism: An Attempt to Fuse Society and Religion,” in Intellectuals in the Modern Islamic World: Transmission, Transformation, Communication, ed. Dudoignon, Stéphane A., Hisao, Komatsu, and Yasushi, Kosugi (London: Routledge, 2006), 5573. Outside of Western scholarship, see ʿImara, Muhammad, al-Imam Muhammad ʿAbduh: Mujaddid al-Dunya bi-Tajdid al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Wahda li-l-Tibaʿa wa-l-Nashr, 1985), 8788; and al-Fasi, ʿAllal, “al-Haraka al-Salafiyya fi al-Maghrib,” in Durus fi al-Haraka al-Salafiyya: al-Mashriq wa-l-Maghrib al-ʿArabi, ed. Faʾiq, Muhammad et al. (Casablanca, Morocco: Manshurat ʿUyun, 1986), 129.

5 Al-Rasheed, Madawi, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3; Bernard Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” in Global Salafism, ed. Meijer, 34, 45–47; Arnaud Lenfant, “L'évolution du salafisme en Syrie au XXe siècle,” in Qu'est-ce que le salafisme?, ed. Rougier, 161–178.

6 al-Buti, Muhammad Saʿid Ramadan, al-Salafiyya: Marhala Zamaniyya Mubaraka la Madhhab Islami, 2nd ed. (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 234–35.

7 ʿImara, Muhammad, al-Salafiyya (Sousse, Tunisia: Dar al-Maʿarif li-l-Tibaʿa wa-l-Nashr, n.d.), 1216; Rougier, ed., “Introduction,” in Qu'est-ce que le salafisme?, 7–12.

8 Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought,” 38.

9 Meijer, ed., “Introduction,” in Global Salafism, 4.

10 Taymiyya, Ibn, Majmuʿ Fatawa Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya (Beirut: Matabiʿ Muʾassasat al-Risala, 1997), 33:177. In this passage, Ibn Taymiyya first discusses how the Jahmis (al-jahmiyya) misinterpreted the attributes of God and then examines how another group, the Salafis (al-salafiyya), had a correct understanding. For similar examples, see Ibn Taymiyya, Majmuʿ Fatawa, 6:379; idem, Darʾ Taʿarud al-ʿAql wa-l-Naql, ed. Muhammad Rashad Salim (Riyadh: Jamiʿat al-Imam ibn Saʿud al-Islamiyya, 1980), 2:8; and idem, Bayan Talbis al-Jahmiyya fi Taʾsis Bidaʿihim al-Kalamiyya (n.p.: Muʾassasat Qurtuba, 1980), 1:122.

11 Taymiyyah, Ibn, Ibn Taymiyyah Expounds on Islam, trans. and ed. Ansari, Muhammad ʿAbdul-Haqq (Riyadh: Muhammad Ibn Saʿud University, 2000), 30.

12 See how al-Buti, who is a Sufi, approaches the question. Al-Buti, al-Salafiyya, 189.

13 The word is also used in the plural. On the Internet, see the exhaustive compilation by the Saudi-based Salafi scholar Milfi al-Saʿidi: (accessed 12 January 2010).

14 In addition to the passages previously mentioned, see Ibn Taymiyya, Majmuʿ, 4:149, 16:471; al-Dhahabi, Tadhkirat al-Huffaz, 4th ed. (Beirut: Dar Ihyaʾ al-Turath, 1969), 4:1431. In another biographical dictionary, al-Dhahabi (d. 1374) writes that the famous hadith scholar al-Daraqutni (d. 995) was a Salafi who did not get involved in theological speculation and arguments. Idem, Siyar Aʿlam al-Nubalaʾ, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnaʾut (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risala, 1985), 16:457.

15 Kathir, Ibn, al-Bidaya wa-l-Nihaya (Beirut: Maktabat al-Maʿarif, 1966), 13:333; al-Hadi, Ibn ʿAbd, al-ʿUqud al-Durriyya min Manaqib Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, ed. al-Fiqi, Muhammad Hamid (Cairo: Matbaʿat Hijazi, 1938), 87, 217; Makdisi, George, Ibn Qudama's Censure of Speculative Theology (London: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial, 1962), 7.

16 For more details on the methodological underpinnings of Salafi theology, see Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought,” 38–42.

17 Asma Asfaruddin cautions against falling into this pitfall when interpreting the word shiʿī. See Asfaruddin, Asma, Excellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002), 284.

18 See Nafi, Basheer M., “Abu al-Thanaʾ al-Alusi: An Alim, Ottoman Mufti, and Exegete of the Qurʾan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34 (2002): 466. Nafi nonetheless acknowledges that the word salafī had a primarily theological connotation.

19 Kathir, Ibn, Tabaqat al-Fuqahaʾ al-Shafiʿiyyin, ed. al-Baz, Anwar (al-Mansura, Egypt: Dar al-Wafaʾ, 2004), 1:17, 185, 311. Many other jurists are listed as Ashʿaris.

20 al-Saffarini, Muhammad ibn Ahmad, Kitab Lawaʾih al-Anwar al-Bahiyya wa-Sawatiʿ al-Asrar al-Athariyya (Cairo: Matbaʿat Majallat al-Manar al-Islamiyya, 1905–1906), 1:18–19; Nuʿman Khayr al-Din al-Alusi, Jalaʾ al-ʿAynayn fi Muhakamat al-Ahmadayn (n.p.: n.p., 1881), 25–26, 83; al-Alusi, Abu al-Thanaʾ, Ruh al-Maʿani fi Tafsir al-Qurʾan al-ʿAzim wa-l-Sabʿ al-Mathani, 2nd ed. (Beirut: Dar Ihyaʾ al-Turath al-Islami, 1970), 1:60, 87; al-Kawakibi, ʿAbd al-Rahman, Umm al-Qura (Cairo: al-Sayyid al-Furati, 1899), 10, 70; Rashid, Rida, Tafsir al-Qurʾan al-Hakim al-Shahir bi-Tafsir al-Manar (Beirut: Dar al-Maʿrifa, 1970), 1:251–55.

21 Quoted in Ibn ʿAbd al-Hadi, al-ʿUqud al-Durriyya, 117.

22 Nafi, “Abu al-Thanaʾ al-Alusi,” 466, 488. In the endnotes, Nafi cites the statement twice from two different medieval authors (al-Karmi and Ibn ʿAbd al-Hadi).

23 Al-Dhahabi, Siyar Aʿlam al-Nubalaʾ, 16:433; Rajab, Ibn, al-Dhayl ʿala Tabaqat al-Hanabila, ed. al-ʿUthaymin, ʿAbd al-Rahman ibn Sulayman (Riyadh: Maktabat al-ʿAbikan, 2005), 1:147. The first expression refers to the exegete Ibn Shahin (d. 995), who reportedly used it to describe his personal legal stance. The second expression was used by Ibn Taymiyya in his praise of the Hanbali Sufi scholar ʿAbdallah al-Ansari (d. 1088).

24 al-Samʿani, Abu Saʿd al-Tamimi, al-Ansab, ed. al-Yamani, ʿAbd al-Rahman ibn Yahya al-Muʿallimi (Hayderabad, India: Matbaʿat Majlis Daʾirat al-Maʿarif al-ʿUthmaniyya, 1976), 7:167.

25 Ibid., 1:114.

26 Laoust, Henri, Le califat dans la doctrine de Rashid Rida (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1986), 255.

27 The notion of quasi-character (quasi-personnage) is from Ricoeur, Paul, Temps et récit (Paris: Seuil, 1983), 1:275, 278–80.

28 Laoust, Henri, “Le réformisme orthodoxe des ‘Salafiya’ et les caractères généraux de son orientation actuelle,” Revue des études islamiques 2 (1932): 175.

29 The Encyclopaedia of Islam arbitrarily connects the emergence of the salafiyya (Salafism) in various parts of the Muslim world with the influence of ʿAbduh and his ideas. See P. Shinar and W. Ende, “Salafiyya,” EI2. The ideas and principles of Salafism are further discussed in the article on reform (iṣlāḥ), where the history of the salafiyya (the Salafis) is virtually interchangeable with that of Islamic reformism since 1884, the year in which al-ʿUrwa al-Wuthqa was published. See A. Merad, “Islah,” EI 2. For other examples, see Kerr, Malcolm H., Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad ʿAbduh and Rashid Rida (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1966), 23; Badawi, M. A. Zaki, The Reformers of Egypt (London: Croom Helm, 1978); and Brown, Daniel, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 30, 149.

30 Schulze, Reinhard, A Modern History of the Islamic World, trans. Azodi, Azizeh (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000), 176.

31 Revue du monde musulman, 36 (1918–19): 325; 59 (1925): 281, 312–13.

32 This is particularly striking in the eighth volume of al-Manar dating from 1905. In one obituary, al-Afghani is merely presented as a philosopher. See al-Hilal 5 (1897): 562.

33 Al-Manar 5 (1902): 405.

34 Weismann, Itzchak, “Between Sufi Reformism and Modernist Rationalism: A Reappraisal of the Origins of the Salafiyya From the Damascene Angle,” Die Welt des Islams 41 (2001): 231.

35 A few relatively more ambiguous passages do exist, such as al-Kawakibi's lone statement that religious reform should derive from “the moderate Salafi wellspring” (ʿalā al-mashrab al-salafī al-muʿtadil). However, such statements are too rare and never sufficiently explicit to explain the entire conceptual edifice of Salafism qua Islamic modernism. See al-Kawakibi, Umm al-Qura, 140. Elsewhere in the book, Salafi epithets are clearly used as theological markers.

36 al-ʿAjmi, Muhammad ibn Nasir, al-Rasaʾil al-Mutabadala bayna Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi wa-Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi (Beirut: Dar al-Bashaʾir al-Islamiyya, 2001), 47, 60, 70–71, 163.

37 Ibid., 115, 190.

38 Rida, Rashid, al-Wahda al-Islamiyya wa-l-Ukhuwwa al-Diniyya wa-Tawhid al-Madhahib (Cairo: al-Maktab al-Islami, n.d.), 10.

39 Rida, Rashid, Yusr al-Islam wa-Usul al-Tashriʿ al-ʿAmm (Cairo: Matbaʿat al-Manar, 1928), 77.

40 Al-Manar 11 (1908): 95.

41 Al-Manar 7 (1904): 51–52; 11 (1908): 205, 740–42; 29 (1928): 66–67.

42 Al-Manar 8 (1905): 5.

43 Al-Manar 16 (1913): 749.

44 Although his collaborators regarded him as a Salafi during his lifetime, the theological stance of Tahir al-Jazaʾiri is open to question. His take on the Muʿtazilis is particularly intriguing. See Escovitz, Joseph H., “‘He was the Muhammad ʿAbduh of Syria:’ A Study of Tahir al-Jazaʾiri and His Influence,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 18 (1986): 297301. On the rationalist and modernist outlook of Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi, see Commins, David, Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 6588.

45 al-Khatib, Muhibb al-Din, “Mudhakkirat Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib,” in Min Siyar al-Khalidin bi-Aqlamihim: Ahmad Shawqi, Muhammad al-Bashir al-Ibrahimi, Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib, ed. Suwaydan, Hasan al-Samahi (Damascus: Dar al-Qadiri, 1998), 9092.

46 Ibid., 91.

47 Ibid., 97–98.

48 Ibid., 91–92.

49 Ibid., 94; di Tarazzi, Filip, Tarikh al-Sihafa al-ʿArabiyya (Beirut: al-Matbaʿa al-Adabiyya, 1913), 2:52–56.

50 Al-Khatib, “Mudhakkirat,” 96, 126.

51 Ibid., 119.

52 Ibid., 141–42.

53 See the advertisement at the end of Sina, Ibn, Mantiq al-Mashriqiyyin wa-l-Qasida al-Muzdawija fi al-Mantiq (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1910), unpaginated.

54 al-Khatib, Muhibb al-Din and Qatlan, ʿAbd al-Fattah, Taqwim al-Majalla al-Salafiyya li-Sanat 1336/1918 (Cairo: Matbaʿat al-Nahda, 1918), unpaginated.

55 Al-Zahraʾ 2 (1926): 87; Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, “Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib: A Portrait of a Salafist-Arabist (1886–1969)” (M.A. thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1991), 51.

56 Al-ʿAjmi, al-Rasaʾil al-Mutabadala, 190. The actual terms that al-Alusi uses are salafī and khalafī. He links the latter to the Jahmis and Muʿtazilis.

57 al-Farabi, Abu Nasr, Mabadiʾ al-Falsafa al-Qadima (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1910); Sina, Ibn, Asbab Huduth al-Huruf (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1913); idem, Mantiq.

58 See the advertisement at the end of Ibn Sina, Mantiq, unpaginated.

59 Al-Farabi, Mabadiʾ, vi.

60 See Wood, Richard, al-Islam wa-l-Islah (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1912), 611.

61 Al-Manar 13 (1910): 470–72; al-Hilal 18 (1910): 607. Reviews from al-Muqtataf and al-Muqtabas are quoted at the end of Ibn Sina, Mantiq, unpaginated.

62 Qatlan, ʿAbd al-Fattah, Fihris Maktabat al-Manar (Cairo: Matbaʿat al-Manar, 1914), 5; al-Fath 14 (1939): 6.

63 Al-Khatib, “Mudhakkirat,” 156–57.

64 Al-Khatib and Qatlan, Taqwim al-Majalla al-Salafiyya, 2. Since 1910, al-Khatib and Qatlan had been in the habit of translating the back covers of their publications into English with the line “Published by the Salafyah [sic] Library.” In January 1918, Qatlan slightly changed the English title of al-Majalla al-Salafiyya to “Salafiyah Review” (with an “i”).

65 Al-Majalla al-Salafiyya 1 (1917): 93.

66 Al-Majalla al-Salafiyya 2 (1918): 63–64.

67 Al-Khatib and Qatlan, Taqwim al-Majalla al-Salafiyya, 81–93.

68 See his March 1909 letter to Anastase-Marie de Saint Élie reprinted in Massignon, Daniel, ed., Autour d'une conversion: Lettres de Louis Massignon et de ses parents au père Anastase de Baghdad (Paris: Cerf, 2004), 57.

69 Revue du monde musulman 34 (1916–18): 329–31.

70 Revue du monde musulman 36 (1918–19): 325.

71 Rocalve, Pierre, Louis Massignon et l'islam (Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1993), 157; Revue du monde musulman 36 (1918–19): 272; 59 (1925): 312.

72 For example, see Wilson, Samuel G., Modern Movements among Moslems (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1916), 158, 160.

73 Massignon cites the Salafiyya Bookstore in Revue du monde musulman 4 (1910): 295, 687.

74 Massignon, Daniel, Le voyage en Mésopotamie et la conversion de Louis Massignon en 1908 (Paris: Cerf, 2001), 17; al-ʿAjmi, al-Rasaʾil al-Mutabadala, 169–70, 200; Revue du monde musulman 57 (1924): 245; Massignon, Louis, “My Meetings with Maulana Azad,” in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: A Memorial Volume, ed. Kabir, Humayun (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1959), 2728.

75 Stoddard, Lothrop, The New World of Islam (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921), 86.

76 The Moslem World 12 (1922): 21.

77 Laoust, “Le réformisme orthodoxe,” 175, 178, 222. On the first page, Laoust cites Massignon's 1919 remarks.

78 Gibb, Hamilton A. R., Modern Trends in Islam (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1947), 29, 35, 133.

79 Contrary to common wisdom, neither Hourani's, AlbertArabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) nor Adams', CharlesIslam and Modernism in Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933) mentions “Salafism” or salafiyya. These concepts are absent from the two books.

80 One reformer who had access to Revue du monde musulman and encountered Massignon's use of Salafi labels is al-Athari, Muhammad Bahjat, Aʿlam al-ʿIraq (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Salafiyya, 1926), 199.

81 Stoddard, Lothrop, Hadir al-ʿAlam al-Islami, ed. Arslan, Shakib, trans. Nuwayhid, ʿAjjaj (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Salafiyya, 1925), 1:173–74.

82 al-Dijwi, Yusuf, Kalima fi al-Salafiyya al-Hadira (Damascus: Maktabat al-Qudsi wa-l-Budayr, 1930), 27.

83 Al-Khatib, “Mudhakkirat,” 170.

84 Nuwayhid, ʿAjjaj, Sittun ʿAman maʿa al-Qafila al-ʿArabiyya, ed. al-Hut, Bayan Nuwayhid (Beirut: Dar al-Istiqlal, 1993), 41.

85 Muhammad, Hammadi ibn ʿAli, Awaʾil al-Matbuʿat al-Saʿudiyya: Qaʾima Mukhtara (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Malik Fahd al-Wataniyya, 1999), 41, 46, 48, 53, 58.

86 He must not be confused with his famous relative, Muhammad Husayn Nasif, who died the same year in Taʾif. See Maghribi, Muhammad ʿAli, Aʿlam al-Hijaz fi al-Qarn al-Rabiʿ ʿAshr li-l-Hijra (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Tihama, 1981), 1:215, 268.

87 Tashkandi, ʿAbbas ibn Salih, al-Tibaʿa fi al-Mamlaka al-ʿArabiyya al-Saʿudiyya, 1300h–1419h (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Malik Fahd al-Wataniyya, 1999), 182–91.

88 Muhammad, Awaʾil al-Matbuʿat al-Saʿudiyya, 59, 64.

89 Descartes, René, Maqal ʿan al-Manhaj li-Ahkam Qiyadat al-ʿAql wa-li-l-Bahth ʿan al-Haqiqa fi al-ʿUlum, trans. and ed. al-Khudayri, Mahmud Muhammad (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Salafiyya, 1929).

90 See the book reviews in al-Zahraʾ 3 (1926): 77, 536, 602.

91 Al-Fath 3 (1929): 664, 775.

92 Laoust, “Le réformisme orthodoxe,” 182, 190.

93 Ibid., 176, 178.

94 al-ʿAziz, ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd, Musnad (Multan, Pakistan: Matbaʿat al-Dukhaniyya, 1921), 1.

95 Muhammad, Awaʾil al-Matbuʿat al-Saʿudiyya, 39; Jundi, Adham Al, Aʿlam al-Adab wa-l-Fann (Damascus: Al Jundi, 1954), 1:225; al-ʿAjmi, Muhammad ibn Nasir, ʿAllamat al-Sham ʿAbd al-Qadir ibn Badran al-Dimashqi: Hayatuhu wa-Atharuhu (Beirut: Dar al-Bashaʾir al-Islamiyya, 1996), 49.

96 Al-Fath 12 (1937): 566.

97 Schulze, A Modern History, 95–96.

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