Who Are the Salafis?

A look at the school of thought inspiring a controversial group By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, May 2011)

Contrary to popular perception, Salafis — unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad or Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya — are not a faction, but a school of thought comprising individuals who follow a dogmatic approach to Islam.

Salafism is a form of al daawa (the call), and its adherents do not follow a specific leader or guide. They do share, however, the rules and curriculum that none of them deviates from — but the degree of observance of these rules and what they see as the uncompromising tradition of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ranges from extreme to moderate.

To understand the way they think, one understand how this fikr (thought) seeped into Egyptian society. The root of the word Salafis comes from the word salaf or ancestor and refers to the first three generations of Muslims who are considered exemplar models. The full reference is sometimes Al-Salaf Al-Saleh, or the Pious Ancestors — a phrase that is also remnant of early Islam.

The Salafi movement first emerged with Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal during the Abbasid era, circa the eighth century AD. The prominent scholar is also the founder of the Hanbali school of Islamic thought, credited with influencing the

rise of Salafism.

Following Ibn Hanbal came Ahmed Ibn Taymiyyah, who appeared after the fall of the Abbasid empire. He was stricter than Ibn Hanbal in terms of keeping to the verbal tradition of the earliest generations of Islam, down to the details of everyday living.

A third person who influenced the evolution of the Salafi movement, especially in its modern form, is Mohamed Ibn Abdel Wahhab, the 18th-century Saudi thinker and scholar who founded Wahhabism. The term Salafi first appeared in Egypt in the 19th century in Al-Azhar University through scholars such as Imam Mohamed Abdou and Gamal Eddin Al-Afghany.

Many believe that Salafism was imported by Egyptians returning home after living and working for decades in the Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia. This ideology is clearly manifested in conservative dress codes such as the niqab (face veil) for women and white ankle-length robes for men.

 

Beliefs

 

In a nutshell, Salafis follow what they consider the purest form of Islam, seeking to emulate the version practiced during the time of the Prophet, Al-Sahaba (his companions), and the two generations following them.

They do not advocate violence, but are partial towards jihad. They do not believe in the separation of religion from rule, since they advocate politics and economics should be inspired by Sharia.

They do not approve attempts of innovation and favor of a more literal understanding of Islamic laws.

A common misconception, however, is that Salafis prohibit Muslims from visiting graveyards. They allow visiting the dead, but prohibit visits to shrines, practicing rituals or making supplication to the dead. They also do not approve of building mosques around them.

 

Role in Post-Mubarak Egypt

 

Salafis have built grassroots support in the past couple of decades, gaining popularity among various socioeconomic classes.

As with many other religious movements, Salafi practices and movements were tightly controlled under Mubarak’s rule. Their sheikhs were present in mosques, but their tongues were tied. Salafis satellite channels, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, were mostly popular among adherents only.

Following the revolution, Salafis have become more visible. A group that has never taken part in the political life, the Salafis are now trying to create a political force. Ironically, they had always criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for focusing on politics arena, as opposed to religion.

Many citizens are concerned about the rise of Salafis, especially over signs of extremism spotlighted in the mainstream media. Some Salafi sheikhs have also taken a stance against those who voted ‘no’ on the March 19 constitutional referendum, claiming that Article 2, which guards Egypt’s Islamic identity, would be scrapped. et

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