Salafism and Wahhabism; A Jihadist Doctrine?

US Failure in Bringing Democracy to Iraq - Salafi-Jihadist Case Study


The Salafi-Jihadist doctrine is one of the most destructive and defining movements of the world today. Numerous researches have contributed towards understanding the underpinnings of the resilient but pragmatic takfir (excommunication, a Muslim’s declaring of another Muslim as disbeliever) and jihad doctrines and violent method of Salafi-Jihadism (Farrall, 2011). Nevertheless, the term Salafism is generally not understood well by the public and most individuals commonly equate it with violence or radicalism. Moreover, the terms Salafism and Wahhabism are generally used interchangeably, while however, Wahhabism is a branch of Salafism which have an extreme application of takfir, violence and militant jihad. The subset of Salafi tradition is Salafi-Jihadism however, not all Salafis are Wahhabis.

In spite of the movement’s justification of takfir and militant-jihad, Salafi-Jihadism continues to be appealing to some segments of society, which this research examines. In this paper, the appeal of Salafism will be discussed with reference to the cases of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (with particular focus on al-Qaida).

This paper is divided into four sections, the background of the Salafi-Jihadist approach will be discussed, then the existing literature will be reviewed and common themes among the literature will be analyzed in order to determine the common arguments and the alternate viewpoints in the existing literature. In the third section, attractiveness of Salafi-Jihadi movement to youths and young adults will be discussed in reference to claims in the literature. The fourth section will provide a conclusion as to what the appeal of the Salafi-Jihadi movement is and how it can be prevented.

The idea of Salafi-Jihadism

As branch of Sunni-Islam, the term Salafism (al-Salaf al-Salih) implies moral and religious replication of Islam’s first three centuries. To Salafis, this is the most puritanical period. The Salafi designation, as elaborated by Meijer (2014), claims to be the authentic version of Islam and is engaged in purifying the Muslim-society. Salafism advocates the traditions of the “salaf”, that are part of the three Muslim generations that include the generations of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the companions of the Prophet (PBUH), the Sahabah, the successors of the Sahabah known as the Tabiun and the successors of the Tabiun (Gauvain, 2010). It is the belief of Salafis that both manifest action and inner faith can contribute towards a true belief in Islam (ibid).

Olivetti (2002) argues that the principal distinction between Wahhabis and Salafis is based on the extent to which the focus on ijtihad is done in the formulation of legal opinions. However, some of the authors including Hafez, Phelps and Robinson claim that the Wahhabis are the followers of Hanbali school of thought, whereas Salafis reject imitation or taqlid (imitation) of the orthodox schools of law known as madhhab (Phelps, 2011; Hafez, 2009; Robinson, 2017). Wahhabism’s extreme use of takfir also differs it from other types of Salafism’s to a certain extent. Takfir is a more radical and extremist representation of the beliefs and has additional beliefs which include justification to kill and the right to declare the killing of the non-believers (Olivetti, 2002). Salafi-jihadists (Takfiri-jihadists) deny that any governments are legitimate to rule except their own and reject the traditional rules of practicing jihad, and instead opt for suicide as a legitimate means of way for jihad (Oliveti, 2002). These additional beliefs of this group define them as Takfiri jihadists. The jihadists argue that there should be a close war with the state government and local government and an international war against the Western civilization (Olivetti, 2002).


Appeal of Salafism

The existing literature includes various arguments about why Salafism has been appealing to the masses. The portrayal of a jihadist is that of a violent and brutal member of a group maintaining a lifestyle centered on Dark Ages and wearing sinister “ninja” costumes (Robinson, 2017). The stereotype portrayed is actually far from the reality, because Salafism is a modern phenomenon which has materialized the concepts of radicalism (into a political system). Salafists communicate and spread their message through social media, Internet and various other modern technologies (Gauvain, 2010).

The concepts of freedom create an appeal of Salafism and the concept that are used in the Salafist expression include modern concepts of equality, contrary to what the stereotypes convey. Mendelsohn (2011) suggests that Salafi-Jihadism offers to its potential followers an attractive approach towards life and afterlife that can become reality for them once they assert action and strong will. He argues that the followers of Salafi-Jihadism see the purpose of their struggle as the betterment of humanity and the creation of a utopian world where authenticity and purity will prevail. The followers of Salafi-Jihadism see their struggle as the struggle for the betterment of humanity and for the creation of a utopian world where authenticity and purity will prevail. Haykel (2014) argues that the fundamentalists believe that by following Salafi-Jihadist approach they will obtain their utopia. Sayyid Qutb had outlined three steps for reaching the Islamic utopian world: eman (having faith), hijrah (having the will and action to immigrate to an Islamic society) and jihad (the establishment of religious practice in the state).

The utopia that is offered by Salafism draws on the ideas that have been widely discussed among the intellectuals in relation to the Muslim majority countries which adds to the appeal of Salafism. It is argued that the Muslim-world has been experiencing a weakening of morality and strong leadership. The political and economic weakness of Muslim majority countries, and the stigmatization of the Muslims in the West contribute towards an atmosphere where young individuals become further detached from the teachings of Islam, and even begin to question their existence. In this context, the Salafi-Jihadism address to the apparent need for justice and leadership, especially for the young Muslims in the modern Middle East.

In regard to how the Salafi-Jihadist movements make their case legitimate in the eyes of the Muslim population, by the use of particular hadiths. The preachers of the Salafi-Jihadist theology use particular hadiths for supporting their cause and attracting fellow Muslims. At the same time, they attract followers by interpreting the verses according to their own theology which only further simplifies things. The potential followers take the reference of the Salafi-Jihadist approach in the context of the Hadiths literally and without question (Farrall, 2011). The aspect which the followers are not aware of is that the verses from the Holy Quran and the Hadiths which are used for the Salafis support are open for reasonable interpretation. This is because there tend to be two types of verses within the Holy Quran; literal versus, from which the Shari’a is derived and the verses which are reasonably open for interpretation from which culture and Islamic wisdom are derived (Olivetti, 2002).  Thus, the Salafis use the interpretation of the verses which best suits their cause and do not recognize the distinction between the types of Quranic verses.

The Salafi-Jihadist practitioners attract followers by falsely interpreting the verses according to their own theology. Salafism draws on ideas that have broad range of coverage and intimacy with the intellectuals and that resonate well with areas that have Muslim majority. The Muslim world is experiencing a weakening of morality and strong leadership. The weakness, alienation, and stigmatization of the Muslims with the teachings of Islam contribute towards an atmosphere where young individuals are detached from the teachings of Islam and begin to question their existence. The reason for this weakening of morality within Muslim society is the lack of religious values and practices (Warburg, 2009). In case of the modern Middle East, Salafi-Jihadists provide the perceived need for justice and leadership to the young Muslims who are in need for a ‘just cause’. Salafi-Jihadism provides an apparent sense of meaning with the aid of fixed system of clear norms and values to follow and practice, precisely what the young Muslims require.  The Salafi community and orientation are so appealing for the young adults that they feel complete and obtain a sense of belonging by being a part of it. The glory and name obtained from the conquest, seems to appeal youth both Muslim and non-Muslim (Haykel, 2014).

Salafi-Jihadist Case Study
Salafi-Jihadist Case Study


Salafism in Egypt

The Salafis in Egypt have been able to position themselves with Egyptian norms and cultural values to a considerable extent. Salafism is popular in Egypt because of the coherence with Egyptian culture, values and ideology. The Salafi ideology has been adopted by the Muslim-Egyptian society at all virtual levels (Gauvain 2010; Mendelsohn, 2011). The Salafi appeal for the Muslim-Egyptian society came from the sync that the Salafi ideology created with that of Egyptian tradition/culture. There are two satellite channels; al-Rahma and al-Nas which bring the Salafi ideology into the Egyptian media and the life of an average Egyptian should not be underestimated. The enduring appeal of Salafism lays in the fact that it is not alien to the Egyptian tradition (Stein, 2011).

Salafis lay claim to be the purifiers and defenders of the Muslim-tradition in Egypt which further attracts the Egyptians to the Salafi cause. According to the Azhari scholars, there is an apparent victory which Salafis have in the Egyptian society over the Sufis (Gauvain, 2010). Gauvain argues that the general public prefers to perceive themselves as following the path of Salafi ideology over the Sufi, which requires its own textual and spiritual justifications(ibid).

Critics such as Stein (2011) provides an alternate point of view that the current Salafi movement in Egypt is unwelcomed in many ways and is “anti-Egyptian”. They argue that Salafi movement has been adopted by uneducated Egyptians who would rather adopt it as a cultural heritage from Saudi Arabia rather than embracing their own culture. The argument against the appeal of Salafism in regard to cultural and traditional ideology has been made by Gauvain (2010) as he states that those who perceive that the appeal of Salafi-Jihadist movement lies in the similarity of cultural ideology are those that are non-academic and are increasingly conservative with having a temptation to join radicalism.

Other critics, like Mustafa Salama, have dismissed Salafism as mere hysteria that will fade away in time (Torelli, 2012). He argues that the Salaf-Jihadist movement cannot be similar to the Egyptian culture in terms of ideology because, in reality, the Salafi-Jihadist movement is not only fragmented, but also not uniform, as the Salafis have different ideologies internally as well. Furthermore, Wagemakers (2008) suggests that Salafism is not just about having specific preferences about politics or foreign policy, but it is also about running the state with the practices of returning to the original Islamic community founded on the principles of Islam.

Moreover, Salafi stance regarding women is in agreement with that of majority of Egyptians which makes the appeal of the Salafi theology more promising. The Salafis in Egypt are incredibly insensitive towards women (Schwedler, 2011). From the question of whether a woman can step outside her house for grocery to working, the attitude of Salafi scholars is that of religious orthodoxy. This patriarchal stance is perceived as a necessary and preventive measure against feminism and other non-Arab, secularist and non-Muslim voices. Salafis are of the view that women should remain at home, take after the children and should be financially dependent on men. This appeal of Salafism is centered upon patriarchy and resonates with the views of middle-class Egyptians (Gauvain, 2010).

Salafism and Wahhabism

The rebranding of Wahhabism as Salafism by Salafists is the main appeal of Salafism in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, which was created through the collaboration of the house of Saud with the Wahhabi movement, has majority of the population as followers of Wahhabism (Mendelsohn, 2011). This reformist movement belonged to the Sunni school of thought in the eighteenth century and was influenced by the Hanbali jurisprudence (ibid). Olivetti (2002) argues that the Wahhabi movement attached importance to the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah, rose to prominence, and became the prototype of modern Salafism in its practices and theology. Haykel (2014) further expands on this idea by stating that the turn towards Salafism in Saudi Arabia began in 1971, when an article regarding the doctrine and life of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’ was written by a member of the AI al-Shaikh. In the article it was written that the followers of ‘Abd al-Wahhab’ preferred to be known as al-Muhammadiyyun or the al-Salafiyyum. This is a clear example of the rebranding of Wahhabism as Salafism which was accompanied by the integration of Saudi Arabia with that of the Muslim-world (Haykel, 2014). Thus, the ideology of Salafism is in similarity with Wahhabi ideology in such a way that Wahhabism is considered the prototype of modern Salafism.

Wahhabism and Al-Qaeda

While examining the current literature on the Salafi-Jihadist movement, one theme that is clear throughout the research is that the momentum of the Salafi-Jihadi movement has increased with the decrease in the effectiveness of Al-Qaeda. Joffé (2016) argues that it is not the detailed rhetoric regarding religion which has created the appeal of Salafi-Jihad, but rather the sense of revenge and vengeance that a majority of individuals have against a world that is indifferent to them and creates anomie. Bergen (2002), however, gives an alternate view regarding this appeal and states that the main effectiveness of the Salafi-Jihadist movement is not just its ability to convey the message of resistance, but its ability to operate the complexities of administration of territories and state. The combination of these two forms an essential pillar of Salafi-Jihadi appeal.

Moreover, Bergen (2002) states that Al-Qaida is at a loss when it comes to confronting the leadership of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, which reflects the belief that recreation of the ideal Islamic society of the caliphate is desirable and achievable. Al-Qaida, however relies on the brutal practices which suppresses dissent and creates unbalancing opposition. Robinson (2017) also states that the brutal approach and resistance of Al-Qaida has become its own undoing, which coincides with the argument presented by Bergen (2002) that the main weakness of Al-Qaida lies in its lack of effectiveness in managing the state system and that is the strength of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, as it holds the appeal of the caliphate rule which can provide a draconian system of law that will administer the complexities of modern day life. Mendelsohn (2011) regards the main blunder of Al-Qaida to be the crippled and weak strategic planning and rigid as well as lagging ideology. This ideology, according to Mendelsohn (2011), is the main focus of the popular revolution of Salafi-Jihadi movement happening in the Middle East. The main reason behind the success of Salafi-Jihadi movement and its appeal is that it is not inspired by Al-Qaida and the leaders of the movement demonstrate little interest in the agendas of the group. Hafez (2009) states that the Salafi-Jihadist movement undermines the claims of Al-Qaida that change can only be brought upon by violence, resistance, or insurgency.

The Salafi-Jihadi movement is also widely appealing and attractive to young adults and youth today from different perspectives. Phelps (2011) makes it clear that for young adult Muslims, the ideological claims and style of the Salafis preachers tend to be rather embarrassing. However, an alternate view has been presented by Warburg (2009), who states that, although youth might not openly claim to dwell on the ideology of Salafi movement, there are many converts belonging to the category of young adult age among the very few Salafi-Jihadists in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq who claim that Islamic ideology is under attack and should be defended with violence. This shows that it is not just the theological perspective of Islam that drives young individuals to follow fundamentalism or to radicalize. Instead there is the feeling and experience of alienation, hopelessness, blocked mobility, lack of belonging or inclusivity in the community and impotence with life that makes Salafism so enticing. Thus, the Salafi community and orientation is so appealing for the young adults that they feel complete and obtain a sense of belonging by being a part of it. Lastly, the glory and name obtained from the conquest, seems to appeal youth both Muslim and non-Muslim (Reynolds and Hafez, 2017).


A number of important points emerge from the analysis of literature on the enduring appeal of Salafism-Jihadism that are critical to the future developments in Middle East. It should first be underscored that Middle Eastern Salafism is not a foreign import, but it is a representation of the political and religious demands of a sector of the population. Some authors argue that Salafi-Jihadists are the by-product of Al-Qaida and the legacy of Salafism depends on making its appeal attractive to the impoverished communities in Middle East in which a part of the population, no matter how small, will be radicalized to the extent of becoming Salafi-Jihadi followers. The followers of Salafi-Jihadism see their struggle as the struggle for the betterment of humanity and for the creation of a utopian world where authenticity and purity will prevail. The jihadists argue that there should be a close war with the state government and local government and an international war against the Western civilization.


On the other hand, some scholars point out that Salafi-Jihadi doctrine become appealing in some countries due to the similarities between the premises of the movement and the rooted cultural values and practices of the host society, such as patriarchy. This essay argues it is a combination of both at play. Preventive steps must be taken in order to ensure that the youth does not participate in radical ideology such as the Salafi-Jihadi movement. Awareness should be raised regarding the Salafist ideology, radicalization process and the quest for personal identity which most individuals find lacking. Moreover, it is also necessary to raise awareness regarding alarmist views and beware of raising a culture of suspicion because this can also lead to alienation and a sense of depravity among individuals who then sought after a fundamentalist approach to life. The masses that fall prey to Salafi thought should be made aware of the fact that Salafism contradicts the values of coexistence and democracy and the principles of basic rights given by Islam. Muslims in the Middle East should be guided through campaigns regarding prevention of Salafist ideology because prevention is education in the form of democracy.



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