Small Wars Journal

Salafi Jihadism - An Ideological Misnomer

Wed, 07/19/2017 - 12:37pm

Salafi Jihadism - An Ideological Misnomer

Sajid Farid Shapoo

Salafism, which for the majority of the twentieth century remained distinctly apolitical, has become a vehicle for political and social nihilism of Islamic State or Daesh. At the same time, there exist Salafi groups like Costa Salafis who have made attempts to counter the ideological intolerance which has come to be associated with Salafism, by rejecting violence as an instrument to impose the Salafi view.[i]  It comes as a paradox of sorts that both Daesh, with its nihilistic worldview, and Salafyo Costa, with its conciliatory approach, can manage to find a place under the umbrella of Salafism.

Salafis are not a homogenous entity; neither is Salafism a monolith. It consists of various strands and orientations – from moderate to extreme, from quietest to politically active and from peaceful Costa Salafis to the radical jihadists. There are many peace-loving and quietist Salafis that can be mapped on the Salafi canvas. Though such groups have rigorous religious standards for themselves that guide their behavior, their interaction with the society is not based on imposing those standards coercively on anyone else.

Modern Salafism and Wahhabi Influence

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Jamal ud din Afghani, an Islamic scholar of  Persian origin, led a modernist Islamic revivalist movement against colonialism by emphasizing that Islam and modernity were not necessarily at odds with each other.[ii] Afghani and later his disciples Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, both from Egypt, started a movement aimed at ridding Islam of certain innovative practices, which they claimed went against the spirit of Islam. This new breed of Muslims reformers who adhered to the strict scriptural understanding of Islam but at the same time embraced rationalism and Western modernity were ironically labelled as Salafis and their movement as Salafiyya by the Western scholars of that time. Interestingly these reformers never called their movement as Salafiyya. Rashid Rida preferred to call his reform movement as ‘Movement for Balanced Reform’.[iii] There is no ambiguity that both Afghani and Abduh and Rida to a large extent saw themselves as reformers and sought to reconcile the teachings of Islam with the challenges of modernity.[iv] For these modern scholars, Salafism was not necessarily a strict theological conception which was non-rationalist, non-metaphorical Madhhab al-Salaf (doctrine of forefathers) as explicated by Ibn Taymiyya,, the 13 century Islamic scholar, but became synonymous with balanced reform.

Though not much is known about Jamal-ud-din Afghani’s views about Wahhabism, Muhammad Abduh repeatedly criticized the Wahhabis for their approach of opposing the intellectual and social objectives of Islamic modernism. It was, therefore, surprising that Rashid Rida during the later years of his life, made a dramatic shift towards Wahhabism and grew closer to the Wahhabis and their ideational approach. The fall of the caliphate and colonial usurpation of most of the Arab states created a huge vacuum for the Islamic trend towards modernity and independence. With the Sharif of Mecca throwing in his lot with the British, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the Najdi ruler of Arabia, appeared to Rashid Rida, as the only genuine Muslim chieftain who could bring the Muslim world together. Rida saw that ibn Saud had the potential to become the political arm of the reform movement.[v] For Rida, Islamic unity was fundamental. Rida’s support for Abdul Aziz ibn Saud was mainly out of political necessity to ensure unity of the Islamic world under a strong ruler. John Willis writes, ‘his(Rida’s) framing of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance as an exemplar of salafi reformism, was a defensive tactic directed at the world Muslim community’.[vi]

Moreover, the defeat of several Arab states in the 1967 Arab-Israel war led to de-legitimization of Arab Socialism espoused by Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thus the demise of an alternative ideology provided fertile ground for Wahhabism and Salafism. Salafism thus spread across the Muslim world and even beyond the Arab countries. There were other factors also which account for Wahhabi influence on Salafism. The rise of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia saw many Arabs immigrating into Saudi Arabia to find jobs. This created a large workforce in the oil towns. The Saudi regime, in order to indoctrinate this workforce, invited a number of Salafi scholars from abroad. The workforce took Salafi -Wahhabi ideas with them when they returned to their home countries, sometimes even resulting in the founding of Salafi organizations.[vii]

Beginning of Salafi Jihadism

In the 1970’s there were systematic attempts at the idealization of purist Salafism to recast it as a totalizing system reminiscent of the Islam of Sayyid Qutb. Salafism emerged as a worldview that focused heavily on religion and its relation to politics. This was the Qutbian shadow casted over Salafism. Though it is unquestionable that the Muslim Brotherhood (Qutb was a member of Brotherhood) had profound Salafi influence but traditional Salafis have been highly critical of Brotherhood[viii], the reasons of which are beyond the scope of this essay.

During the 1960s and 70s, growing Islamic sentiment combined with rapid modernization resulted in the growth of a pietistic and isolationist Salafi movement within Saudi Arabia. Juhayman Al Utaybi led a faction of this movement against the Saudi Wahhabi regime which believed that mainstream schools of Islamic thought, including Wahhabism, needed to be purified of innovations and misperceptions ended in the siege of Mecca in 1979.[ix] Juhayman and his men laid siege of  the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and demanded the removal of the Saudi regime. The siege ended with capture and finally execution of Juhayman but his movement inspired and influenced other rejectionist Islamist groups. While al-Utaybi can in no way be considered the father of modern jihadist ideology, some jihadist clerics including Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi, who came across al-Utaybi's teachings, borrowed his ideas and tried to weave those in a new narrative.[x]

Within the traditional Salafiyya, there started emerging two trends. One was based on sound scholarship and saw Salafism as a movement to revive the religious faith of all Muslims through teaching and practices. This majority group of Salafis was quietist and advocated that for Salafism to remain uncontaminated, it should stay away from politics.[xi] The other group with clear political overtones aimed to set up a true Islamic system based on Sayyid Qutb's concepts of Hakimiyya (Sovereignty of God). This subcategory has been labeled as Salafist Jihadist by the scholars of various backgrounds. They are at times called Takfiris too, for their over-reliance on the concept of Takfir (apostasy/excommunication), expanded by Ibn Taymiyya but popularized by Qutb. Takfiris believe that even, if a Muslim commits apostasy he is liable to be killed or excommunicated.  The doctrine of Salafi Jihadism encompasses a fight for Muslims liberation across the national boundaries.

Jihadi Salafism or Salafi Jihadism is more of a superficial term, which does not signify any specific strand of Salafism. Even Jihadi ideologues refrain from using the term for themselves. Salafi Jihadism comes across as a hybrid construction, deeply rooted in the cultural and political divisiveness of the last three decades of the twentieth century. Madawi Rasheed contends that Salafi Jihadism is a product of tradition and modernity, and thus it is desperate to anchor itself in an authentic Islamic tradition, yet reflecting serious borrowing from the discourse of Western Modernity.[xii] Though most Jihadists apparently follow Salafism or Wahhabism, they borrow heavily from Sayyid Qutb’s concept of Jahiliyya (age of ignorance), Hakimiyya (Sovereignty of God) and Takfir (excommunication). Mainstream purist Salafis criticize Al Qaida and Daesh for being Qutbists rather than Salafis. Such dissension within Salafism and also Salafi Jihadism is indicative of an ideological fluidity which is confounding.

There is no unanimity on the origins of Salafi Jihadism yet some scholars have underlined the influence Egyptian Islamist groups and Juhayman’s movement as the precursors of Salafi Jihadism.[xiii] Two of the well-known scholars of Salafi Jihadism, Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al Filistini, draw heavily from the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Maqdisi has accepted that his work on the idea of Al Wala Wa al Bara (loyalty towards believers, disloyalty to others) as being heavily influenced by Sayyid Qutb and Juhayman’s writings.[xiv] Maqdisi spent a couple of years in the early eighties in Kuwait with former members of Utaybi's Ikhwan.[xv]

Salafi Jihadism and the Kharijite Doctrines

The twin concepts of ‘loyalty towards believers and disavowal of others’ (Al Wala Wa al Bara) and Takfir (excommunication) are the cornerstones of Salafi Jihadism today. Both these ideas, however, do not form part of the traditional Salafi narrative. Mainstream Islamist scholars reject these concepts as doctrinal deviations. It is interesting to note that Ibn Taymiyya did not use the phrase Al Wala Wa al Bara but his writings discuss the idea behind it. However, the evidence to suggest the practice of these concepts by the earliest Muslims (Salaf us Saliheen -pious ancestors) is thin. The origin of the concept Al Wala Wa al Bara (loyalty to believers and disavowal of others) can be traced back to pre-Islamic Bedouin tribes who used it in making  alliances with other tribes (based on loyalty) and rejecting (disavow) those who were outside the alliance.[xvi] Its use during the early period of Islam was more in the sphere of alliance formation. The act of expulsion called tabarru was later used by Muslims to break alliances with non-Muslims.[xvii] Surprisingly within the Islamic community, this concept was first used by Kharijites to show loyalty towards a fellow Khawarij while disavowing outsiders. Kharijites were a group of people who rejected the peace negotiations between Ali (fourth Caliph) and Muwaiya (founder of Umayyad dynasty) in the battle of Siffin (657 A.D.). They committed crimes against both Alids (followers of Ali) and Muwaiyites. Kharijites are considered a deviant sect both by Shi’is and Sunnis.

The Kharijite use of Al Wala Wa al Bara had a profound impact on the religious validity of this concept and early Islamic scholars were not keen to incorporate the Wala and Bara in the theological narrative. Interestingly the concept, Wagemakers says, was later adopted and practiced by Shi’is to show love and affection for their Imam (developed in loyalty) while ‘bara’(disavowal) came to be used for denouncing the first three caliphs. The counter intuitive use of Wala and Bara by Shi’is was probably a demonstration of rejection of Kharijite doctrines. The term tabarru is still used by Shi’i to denounce the first three caliphs. It is also interesting to note that Sunni scholars including Ahmad Ibn Hanbal( Wahhabis follow Hanbali school) and his followers called the idea of Al Wala Wa al Bara a bidda (innovation) either for its non-usage during Muhammad’s time or probably as a reaction to its association with Kharijites and Shi’i.[xviii]

Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi, advocated loyalty(Wala) for the Millet-Ibrahim (religion of Abraham) and disavowal (Bara) polytheist and infidels.[xix]  Maqdisi’s interpretation of the concept marked a distinct shift from earlier Salafi scholars by incorporating the concept of Takfir (apostacy/Excommunication) in Al Wala Wa al Bara. Maqdisi posited that Muslims who followed man made laws and obeyed present day political leaders were committing infidelity(shirk) and thus were committing Takfir or apostasy. The repudiation of both man-made laws and apostate Muslim leaders as tawaghit (apostates rulers), was a completely new dimension to Al Wala Wa al Bara.[xx] Maqdisi, thus presented a binary view of Al Wala Wa al Bara to distinguish between good and evil . The journey of Al Wala Wa al Bara from its pre-Islamic origin to its use by early heterodox sects and finally its usurpation by radical Salafis is, therefore, one of the interesting paradoxes which has come to be associated with Jihadi Salafism.

Like Al Wala Wa al bara, there is scant evidence on the use of Takfir during the early years of Islam. Though Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab considered the action of Abu Bakr (first caliph) against the tribes who refused to pay Zakat (alms tax), as a practice of Takfir, there is a vast body of scholars who deny that Abu Bakr ever used the word.[xxi] The earliest known practice of Takfir can again be traced back to Kharijites, who used it against their opponents.[xxii] For them any Muslim who followed Ali or Muwaiya ceased to be a Muslim and was said to have committed Takfir therefore liable to be killed.  It is intriguing that two of the cardinal concepts of Salafi Jihadist have their origin in the Kharijite doctrines. Many Salafi scholars including Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz have issued statements calling Salafi Jihadist groups like Daesh as an extension of Kharijites. The self-proclaimed pious strand of Islam is thus considered by many as following the practices of a completely deviant strand; it is not surprising that many traditional Muslim scholars have written treatises comparing Salafi Jihadist with Kharijites.[xxiii]

Another interesting aspect of Salafi Jihadism is that the traditional Salafi scholars debunk it as a Salafi hybrid and that it is far removed from the traditional Salafism. In fact, quietists Salafis often reject labeling groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh as ‘Salafis,' claiming   these organizations as antithetical to Salafism and its method (manhaj).  It is, therefore, ironic that the very groups that have probably done more to bring Salafism to people's attention are precisely those organizations that most Salafis utterly abhor.


The growth of an extreme variant, which today is known as Salafi Jihadism, that advocates violent overthrow of the existing political order, is an anathema to the traditional Salafis. This group draws heavily from the ideology and teachings of Sayyid Qutb, who is not even considered a Salafi by orthodox Salafis.[xxiv]

Salafism as a uniform ideology also poses a doctrinal problem. Salafi Jihadist reject democracy as it contradicts the Salafi interpretation of tawhid (oneness of God) and Hakimiyya (Sovereignty of God); Allah is the only legislator, and everything that deviates from his law is deemed inferior. Yet we have Salafi political parties in Egypt (Nour Party) and other parts of the world who partake in the democratic legislative system. 

A large majority amongst Salafis consist of quietist and political Salafis, who reject the violence of Jihadists. Salafi Jihadist have adopted doctrines which have their roots in Islamic heterodox sects. As a result, there are deep doctrinal fissures between traditional Salafis and Salafi Jihadists. It, therefore, becomes all the more important to guard against the careless use of the term Salafi or Salafi Jihadist as a uniform label.

End Notes

[i] Zhody, Nhada. "Salafyo Costa, Salafi Group, Works to Counter Intolerance." The Huffington Post., 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2017

[ii] Rahnema, Ali. Pioneers of Islamic revival. Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.pp 11.

[iii] Dudoignon, Stéphane A., Hisao Komatsu, and Yasushi Kosugi, eds. Intellectuals in the modern Islamic world: transmission, transformation, communication. Taylor & Francis, 2006.p.28

[iv] Salem, Ahmed Ali. "Challenging Authoritarianism, Colonialism, and Disunity: The Islamic Political Reform Movements of al-Afghani and Rida." American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 21.2 (2004): 25-54.

[v]  Rahnema, Ali. Pioneers of Islamic revival. Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.pp 11.

[vi] Willis, Debating the Caliphate, pp. 711-732

[vii] Commins, David. "From Wahhabi to Salafi." In Saudi Arabia in Transition, New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 2015p.150

[viii] Leiken, Robert S., and Steven Brooke. "The moderate Muslim brotherhood." Foreign Affairs (2007): 107-121.

[ix] Allison, Marisssa. Militants Seize Mecca: The Effects Of The 1979 Siege Of Mecca Revisited (n.d.): n.  pag. Http:// University of Mary Washington. Web. 31 May 2017. <>

[x]   Wagemakers, Joas. A quietist jihadi: the ideology and influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012.p.32

[xi]  Lacroix, Stephane. "Between revolution and apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albani and his impact on the shaping of contemporary Salafism." Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement (2009): 58-80

[xii]   Al-Rasheed, Madawi. The local and the global in Saudi Salafi discourse. Vol. 14. Hurst and Company, 2009. p. 306.

[xiii]  Hegghammer and Lacroix. The Meccan Rebellion: The Story of Juhayman Al-ʻUtaybi Revisited.   Amal Press, 2011

[xiv]  Wagemakers, Joas. "A purist Jihadi-Salafi: the ideology of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi." British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 36.2 (2009): p:285

[xv]  Ibid

[xvi] Wagemakers, Joas. "The Transformation of a Radical Concept: Al-Wala'wa-l-Bara'in the Ideology of Abu Muhammad al- Maqdisi." (2009). p 83

[xvii] Wagemakers, "The Transformation, p.84

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Ibid p-89

[xx] Wagemakers, Joas. "Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi: a counter-terrorism asset?." Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 3 (2006): 52-66.

[xxi] Hafez, Mohammed M. "Takfir and violence against Muslims." Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic and Ideological Fissures (2011): 25-46.

[xxii] Law, Randall D., ed. The Routledge History of Terrorism. Routledge, 2015.

[xxiii] Kenney, Jeffrey T. Muslim rebels: Kharijites and the politics of extremism in Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2006.

[xxiv] Publications, Salafi. "The Heresies of Sayyid Qutb in Light of the Statements of the Ulamaa (Part 1)." Salafi Publications. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.


About the Author(s)

Sajid Farid Shapoo is a highly decorated Indian Police Service officer at the rank of Inspector General (Two Star General) with 18 years of progressively senior experience in sensitive and high profile assignments across India. He has in-depth experience in law enforcement and counterterrorism, having supervised many important terror related investigations to include conspiracy in the Mumbai terror attacks, the Patna serial blasts, the Bodh Gaya serial blast, and many more.

He is among the rare officers who have been twice conferred with the Gallantry Medal, the highest bravery award, by the President of India. He is also a recipient of the Police Medal for Meritorious Services. Sajid Shapoo is also a recognized national resource person on Al Qaeda and Lashka-e-Tayeba.

He is currently pursuing his Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University , New York.



Sat, 07/22/2017 - 5:06pm

Readers may find this review of a recent book by Shiraz Maher (of ICSR @ Kings College London) of use:

The last passage for economy of effort: QUOTE Of course each of these Salafi interpretations of Islamic concepts are hotly contested within the Muslim world, and indeed Salafism itself is not monolithic. Moreover none of these particular readings of them can be called ancient, they have emerged only in recent centuries or in some cases decades. It cannot then credibly be argued that the phenomenon of terrorism which AQ and ISIS have unleashed on the world is something which is intrinsic to or innate in Islam qua Islam. Nonetheless these concepts which the Salafi-Jihadists have reworked are ancient and are innate to the religion so, as historian Tom Holland said in another context, have been unexploded bombs waiting to be set off by someone malevolent enough to do so. QUOTE ENDS

Shiraz's book is 'Salafi–Jihadism: The History of An Idea'. See the publisher's website:

With several reviews here:…


Thu, 07/20/2017 - 12:07pm

My understanding is that the Salafist brand of Islam can be extremely pacifist or Jihadist depending on the selection of those who travel to Yemen or other schools to study. And there is no preference given as a guide at some of these "schools". no one is disparaged for choosing one path or the other. And that is the problem.