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Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220


What Do We Mean By Salaf? Connecting

Muammad Abduh with Egypts Nr Party in
Islams Contemporary Intellectual History
Frank Griffel

Yale University

In contemporary academic literature, the word Salaf has a variety of meanings. Most
importantly, Western academic literature of the 20th and 21st centuries applies the
word to (1) an Islamic reform movement founded by Jaml al-Dn al-Afghn (d. 1897)
and Muammad Abduh (18491905) in the last decades of the 19th century and (2) to
contemporary Sunni reform movements that criticize manifestations of Sunni Islam
which are based on Sufism, Asharism, and traditional madhhab-affiliations to the
Shfi, anaf, and Mlik schools. In a 2010-article Henri Lauzire argued that the use
of the word Salaf to describe these two movements is an equivocation based on a
mistake. While the movement of contemporary Salafs may be rightfully called by that
name, al-Afghn and Abduh never used the term. Only Western scholars of the 1920s
and 30s, most importantly Louis Massignon (18831962), called this latter movement
salaf. This paper reevaluates the evidence presented by Lauzire and argues that
Massignon did not make a mistake. The paper describes analytically both reform movements and draws the conclusion that there is a historic continuity that justifies calling
them both salaf. The paper draws an analogy from the use of the word socialist in
European political history, which first applied to a wider movement of the late 19th
century before its use was contested and narrowed down in the course of the 20th.

salafiyya Islamic reform movements Nr Party Anr al-Sunna al-Muammadiyya
Wahhabism l madhhabiyya tawd ahra Muammad Rashd Ri (1865
ISSN 0043-2539 (print version) ISSN 1570-0607 (online version) WDI 1
Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220
koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/15700607-00552p02

What Do We Mean By salaf?


1935) Muammad mid al-Fiq (18921959) Muammad Nir al-Dn al-Albn


When after the revolution of February 2011 Egypt held its first democratic election of a parliament later in that year, there was an element of surprise. The
success of a political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwn
al-Muslimn) was widely anticipated. The coalition led by the Freedom and
Justice Party (izb al-urriya wa-l-Adla), the party representing the Muslim
Brotherhood, indeed gained 46% of seats in the Peoples Assembly (Majlis alshaab), Egypts lower house of parliament.1 Few political observers, however,
had expected a second coalition of Islamic parties, the so-called Islamic
Block (al-Kutla al-Islmiyya) to win an additional 24% of parliamentary seats.
The Islamic Block, which got 123 seats in the assembly, was a coalition of three
parties that, although themselves committed to Islamic values, were opposed
to the Muslim Brotherhood. The biggest of these three parties was izb al-Nr,
The Party of Light, taking 107 of the 123 seats and leaving the Building and
Development Party (al-Bin wa-l-Tanmiya), a political offshoot of the militant
al-Jama al-Islmiyya (The Islamic Group) of the 1980s and 1990s, a distant
The success of the Nr Party, which by itself gained about 25% of the popular vote, was unexpected. About a month after the elections for the Peoples
Assembly had ended, the Islamic Block could topple its earlier success during
the election of the Shura Council (Majlis al-shra), the upper house of parliament. In February 2012 it won more than 28% of the popular vote and gained
45 out of 180 elected seats. One year after the revolution of February 2011, Nr
was Egypts second most popular party, far outperforming any of the secular
groups, which all gained less than 10%, and surpassed only by the Freedom and
Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Observers pointed out that unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which was an
active force in Egyptian politics since its foundation in 1928, the Nr Party had
just been formed in the summer of 2011, after the revolution of that year, and
that the parliamentary elections held from November 2011 to January 2012 were
the first it had ever run for. The Nr Party was founded in Alexandria as the
political wing of the informal religious organization Salaf Mission (al-Dawa
1 The coalition Democratic Alliance for Egypt (al-Taluf al-dmuqr min ajl Mir) consisted
of eleven political parties, including socialist ones and even a left-leaning Nasserist. Seven
parties of this coalition gained seats in the parliament; 213 of its 235 seats went to the Freedom
and Justice Party.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



al-Salafiyya), which is one of two major Salaf organizations in Egypt.2 The

other, more significant group is the Jamat Anr al-Sunna al-Muammadiyya
(Organization of the Supporters of Muammads Sunna), which has its main
base in Cairo. The latter was founded in 1926, even before the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has a long history as a religious movement.3 Initially a scholarly
organization of conservative teachers at al-Azhar,4 Anr al-Sunna alMuammadiyya developed in the 1970s into a wider religious organization
strongly opposed to the official Asharite discourse of that leading Islamic seminary. Although present as a religious and social phenomenon since at least the
1970s, before the revolution of 2011 the Egyptian Salafiyya movement has not
been the subject of significant critical research.5
Contemporary Salafists Main Concerns: tawd and ahra
Al-Dawa al-Salafiyya, the mother organization of the Nr Party, was founded
in the 1970s by students at the faculty of medicine at Alexandria University. It
broke away from the then dominant kind of Islamic student groups that were
either associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with one of the militant
jihd-organizations of the time. Al-Dawa al-Salafiyya took a stance against violence and refused to engage in formal politics.6 Its quietist, or rather obedient
position towards governing authorities, made the organization acceptable to
the Mubarak regime, which often tried to use it to undermine the influence of
the Brotherhood. In the early years of the new millennium, the Mubarak
2 Stphane Lacroix, Sheikhs and Politicians: Inside The New Egyptian Salafism, Brookings
Doha Center. Policy Briefing. 11 June 2012, (last accessed 22 January
3 Amad Zaghll Shala, al-la al-salafiyya al-muira f Mir (Cairo: Maktabat Madbl,
2011), 20860.
4 It was founded by Muammad mid al-Fiq (18921959), a prominent conservative scholar
and student of Muammad Rashd Ri who continued writing Tafsr al-manr after Ris
death. See Shala, al-la al-salafiyya al-muira f Mir, 20912.
5 Since 2011 it has drawn much more attention, both in scholarly literature as well as the news
media. On the political strategies of the Salaf parties in Egypt and the break-away of izb
al-Waan (Nation Party) from the Nr Party in January 2013 see Jacob Higilt and Fida Nome,
Egyptian Salafism in Revolution, Journal of Islamic Studies 25 (2014): 3454. The article covers
events up to June 2013. In July 2013, the izb al-Nr supported the military coup against the
presidency of Muammad Murs (1951). Like other Islamic movements, it has since suffered
severely from the political repercussions of that event.
6 Lacroix, Sheikhs and Politicians.

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What Do We Mean By salaf?


regime allowed several Salaf preachers to launch TV channels that would be

broadcasted on state-controlled Egyptian satellites making some of its clerics
household names among ordinary Egyptians.7
Although some Salaf activists had a history of open opposition to the
Mubarak regime and were keen to endorse and participate in the revolution of
January 2011, the Salaf movement as a whole stood aside when Mubarak fell.8
Overall, the movement is described as apolitical, an impression that results
from its goals and priorities. In an insightful article, Noah Salomon explains
the differences between the political engagement of parties associated with
the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism and of salafiyya activists.9 Salomon
did anthropological fieldwork in the Sudan, which is an interesting case because since 1989 it is ruled by a military dictatorship that is committed to the
political program of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the course of this article I will
refer to the political and religious positions of the Muslim Brotherhood and its
offshoots as Islamic fundamentalism.10 It is characterized by the attempt to
create a truly Islamic society through the coercive power of the nation state.
Muslim fundamentalists aim at controlling the authority that a modern nation
state concentrates and use it to turn the semi-secular societies of the Muslim
world in ones that reflect truly Islamic values. The most important political


Ibid. and Higilt and Nome, Egyptian Salafism in Revolution, 39. The satellite TV channel
al-Ns, founded in 2006 and active until the military coup in July 2013, was considered a
mouthpiece of Salaf thinking. The Salaf sheikhs Muammad Abd al-Maqd (1947)
and Muammad usayn Yaqb (1956) were some of its prominent TV personalities.
Other prominent Salaf TV-sheikhs in Egypt are Ysir Burhm (1958), leading member of
al-Dawa al-Salafiyya and co-founder of the Nr Party, or Muammad assn (1962) of
On the dispute between so-called Qubis (oppositional activists) and Madkhals (accommodationialists) within the contemporary Egyptian salafiyya before 2011 see Richard
Gauvain, Salafi Ritual Purity: In the Presence of God (London and New York: Routledge,
2013), 3747. See also idem, Salafism in Modern Egypt: Panacea or Pest?, Political Theology (Sheffield, UK) 11 (2010): 80225.
Noah Salomon, The Salafi Critique of Islamism: Doctrine, Difference and the Problem of
Islamic Political Action in Contemporary Sudan, in: Global Salafism: Islams New Religious
Movement, ed. R. Meijer (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009), 14368.
This choice of language follows a by now established practice in English literature on
political Islam and should not be understood as a statement that these group are more
committed to Islams fundamentals than others. Here, the term Islamic fundamentalism does not claim to convey analytic content. The reader should take it merely as reference to a clearly identifiable political and religious movement that in Sunni Islam is
represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamat-i Islm in Pakistan and
their offshoots.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



tool of Islamic fundamentalism is shara, though others such as compulsive

education or social engineering are not rejected either.11 Sudan saw the implementation of some of these policies after the coup of General Umar asan
al-Bashr (1944) in 1989.
The Salaf groups in Sudan oppose the Muslim fundamentalist government
because they are skeptical that politics could be a means toward creating an
Islamic society.12 While Salafists have the same ultimate political goal as the
Muslim fundamentalists, namely the establishment of both an Islamic state
and a truly Islamic society, the two groups have diametrically opposed political strategies as to how to reach this goal. An impious society, according to the
Salaf position, will not achieve the creation of an Islamic state. While fundamentalists first aim at establishing an Islamic state that would then, in a second step, lead to an Islamic society, Salafists reverse that relationship and
argue that creating an Islamic society is the precondition for any Islamic state.
A truly Islamic society, in turn, relies on the prior purification of the doctrinal
commitments and practices of the individual.13 This causal chain from doctrinal and ritual purification of the individual to the formation of Islamic collectives and from there to an Islamic society leads only in its last step to the
Islamic state. It requires that any political action aimed at establishing the Islamic state must start with doctrinal and ritual reform on the level of the individual and his or her collective. Aqda, religious doctrine, and ahra, ritual
purity, are the two pillars on which the political philosophy of the Salaf movement in the Sudan rests. Dawa, mission or proselytizing is the principal
vehicle to establish what for Salafists counts as correct aqda and the right
practice of ahra. This is why Salaf movements often appear to be apolitical
and quietist. In reality, however they turn the private into the political. Aqda
and ahra can also be translated as ideology and political action. Like radical leftist groups of the mid-20th century, contemporary Salafs argue that
there can be no lasting reform of the society unless the individual reforms first.
Unlike those leftist groups, however, Salafs tend to reject coercive power to
achieve the reform of the individual. Every Muslim is required to make a deliberate and conscious decision to change.


Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford Univ.
Press, 1993), 23445.
Salomon, The Salafi Critique of Islamism, 148. See also Noah Salomon, In the Shadow of
Salvation: Sufis, Salafis and the Project of Late Islamism in Contemporary Sudan (Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Chicago, Divinity School, 2010). Salomon did his fieldwork in
Sudan 200507 among followers of the Sudanese branch of Anr al-Sunna al-Muam
Salomon, The Salafi Critique of Islamism, 150.

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What Do We Mean By salaf?


Muslim fundamentalist groups are often willing to compromise on what

they regard is true Islam in an attempt to unite different Muslim groups and
integrate them into their project. This is not equally true for Salaf groups, who
often insist on the right kind of theology. They tend to reject, for instance, the
pre-modern notion of tolerating a wide range of Muslim doctrinal positions
within a Muslim society14 and are openly intolerant to almost all non-Salaf
Muslims, particularly Shiites, Sufis, and the Asharite religious leadership at institutions such as madrasas, universities, or state-run religious associations.
Muslim unity is important for Salafs in Sudan, writes Salomon, but unity only
around a singular truth, for all Muslim sects are damned to hellfire, the Prophet says in a famous adth, except for one.15 In fact, contemporary Salafs are
often willing to excommunicate (takfr) Muslims on the basis of doctrinal deviation.16
A recent anthropological study among followers of Anr al-Sunna alMuammadiyya in Cairo reiterates the conclusions reached in Sudan and
shows that many also hold true for Egypt. Richard Gauvain did most of his
fieldwork in the years directly before the revolution of 2011. Under the authoritarian Mubarak regime, any kind of open political activity was suspicious and
often led to sanctions. Egyptian Salafs adapted to this by focusing on ritual
purity (ahra) on which they produce a staggering amount of literature. The
concerns for ritual cleanliness are, Gauvain concludes, a reaction to the Salafs,
general frustrations at the degree of corruption in Cairene society.17 The rituals of purity create boundary lines between insiders and outsiders of the Salaf
groups and they emphasize the authority of its leader, who is usually a charismatic male sheikh. Outsiders are attracted to these groups and may be com14



On the practice and legal justification of doctrinal tolerance in pre-modern Islam see
Frank Griffel, Apostasie und Toleranz im Islam: Die Entwicklung zu al-azls Urteil gegen
die Philosophie und die Reaktionen der Philosophen (Leiden: Brill, 2000).
Salomon, The Salafi Critique of Islamism, 152f. Two of the six canonical collection of
adth among them, however, neither al-Bukhr nor Muslim b. al-ajjj report that
the Prophet has said, [] and my community (ummat) will split into 73 sects, only one
of them will be saved. When asked which is the saved sect (al-firqa al-njiyya), the
Prophet answered: Those who believe what I and my companions believe in (m ana
alayhi wa-ab), or, in another version, The broad mass of the people (al-sawd
al-aam), or, in a third, the community (al-jama). See Josef van Ess, Der Eine und das
Andere: Beobachtungen an islamischen hresiographischen Texten, 2 vols. (Berlin: de
Gruyter, 2010), 1:743.
Bernard Haykel, On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action, in Global Salafism: Islams
New Religious Movement, ed. R. Meijer (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009), 3357, 40.
Gauvain, Salafi Ritual Purity, 260.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



pelled to vote for them because these sheikhs are perceived as liminal figures
who appear to stand outside the margins of Egyptian political life yet reach
into it by eloquently speaking the truth about their society.18 Gauvain explains that Salafs are perceived as, defending quintessentially Egyptian values, such as religiosity, honesty, moral integrity, strict segregation between
men and women and between Muslims and Christians, and so forth. For many
Egyptians, they are highly, even uniquely qualified to speak for them.19 Another prominent French observer, Olivier Roy, presents Salaf Islam which he
calls Islamic Neofundamentalism as a product and at the same time an agent
of globalization and explains its success with its rejection of a cultural notion
of Islam in favor of Islam as a religion. For Salafs, religion is above all a strict
code of explicit and objective norms of conduct []. The Salaf focus on ritual
rejects other conceptions of Islam as a culture or civilization and thus responds to a crisis of identity that, Roy feels, is being experienced by Muslims all
over the world.20
Salaf political action responds directly to the religious imperative of earning reward in the afterlife. The concern with religious salvation produces the
focus on ritual purity which often translates into religious ethics and on
religious doctrine (aqda). In Salaf Islam, there is a close connection between
ritual purity and holding correct religious conviction. Consider this passage
from Ibn Abd al-Wahhbs (d. 1206/1792) al-Qawid al-arbaa (The Four Principles of shirk), a foundational text of Salaf instruction:
So when you know that God created you to worship Him, then know that
worship (ibda) is not considered worship except with tawd, like the
prayer is not acceptable prayer except with purity (ahra). So, if shirk


Ibid., 265.
Ibid., 263.
Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Umma (London: Hurst & Co., 2004),
25772; quote from p.265. Roys Neofundamentalism, however, is not the same as Salaf
Islam, as he regards the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of Islamic Neofundamentalism. As an offshoot of the Deobandi reform movement in 19th and early 20th centuries North-India, the Taliban do not conform to the Salaf pattern of reform but promote
the revival of a distinctly non-Salaf notion of shara that combines a conservative understanding of anafite fiqh with tribal laws. Others too make the mistake of counting the
Deobandi reform movement in North-India as well as the Taliban among Salaf Islam,
see, e. g., Roel Meijer in his introduction to Global Salafism: Islams New Religious Movement, ed. R. Meijer (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009), 132; 2, 5f.

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What Do We Mean By salaf?


enters into worship, it is not accepted, just as impurity destroys purity if

it enters into it.21
Having the right kind of religious doctrine (aqda) here expressed by the notion of tawd and having observed the rules of ritual purity are both preconditions for valid worship; and only valid worship offers some hope of salvation.
Since reaching salvation is the goal of all human life, and also of political life,
performing rituals that are welcome by God is of utmost importance. The term
tawd, i.e. believe in Gods singularity and His unity, describes the cornerstone of Salaf religious doctrine. A proper understanding of Gods singularity
means that no other being other than Him shall be worshipped, no other human, not material wealth, not worldly power or institutional authorities,
and particularly not the graves of bygone humans. In their aqda, Salaf groups
follow the doctrinal works of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) and his student
Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751/1350). Ibn Taymiyya is considered to have
established correct positions on all disputed questions of Muslim theological
debate, be it the divine attributes, the dual character of human actions as
chosen by humans and created by God, on divine predestination, or on reconciling reason with the literal wording of revelation.22 He left an extremely large
corpus of writings, often characterized by a polemical attitude towards all
other theological positions, most importantly against Asharite theology,
which was the most widespread and influential in his environment.23 Many



Ibn Abd al-Wahhb, al-Qawid al-arbaa, in: idem, Kitb al-Tawd, ed. A. M. Shkir
(Cairo: Dr al-Marif, 1974), 24349; 243. Engl. trans. in idem, An Explanation of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhabs Four Principles of Shirk, trans. A. A. Y. Qadhi (Birmingham:
Al-Hidaaya Publishing, 2002), 23.
The critical study of Ibn Taymiyyas theological work has only just begun and has not yet
produced any comprehensive monograph. The closest to that are the two collective volumes Ibn Taymiyya and His Times, ed. Y. Rapoport and S. Ahmed (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010) and Islamic Theology, Philosophy and Law: Debating Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn
Qayyim al-Jawziyya, ed. B. Krawietz and G. Tamer (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2013). Other valuable studies are Jon Hoover, Ibn Taymiyyas Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism (Leiden: Brill,
2007) and Henri Laoust, Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Ta-d-dn Amad b.
Taimya (Cairo: Institut Franais dArchologie Orientale, 1939). For an interesting selection of translated English texts by Ibn Taymiyya see, Against Extremism, texts translated,
annotated and introduced by Y. Michot, foreword by B. Lawrence (Beirut/Paris: Albouraq
Editions, 2012).
In his writings, Ibn Taymiyya refers to Asharites and Asharism as jahmiyya, a pejorative
label that initially referred to the followers of the heterodox theologian Jahm b. afwn
(d. 128/74546), who was not an Asharite and whose ideas on the divine attributes and on
determinism were rejected by almost all other Muslim groups. This deliberate equation

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contemporary Salafs do not consider it necessary to engage in detailed theological debates given their conviction that Ibn Taymiyya has already won these
fights.24 Based on the preeminence of Ibn Taymiyyas theology, Bernard Haykel
rightfully stresses a remarkable continuity and consistency in Salaf doctrine.
This leads him to argue that the contemporary salafiyya movement is not as
others have described it a mere phenomenon of the modern period of Islam
but rather a continuation of Ibn Taymiyyas reform theology from the 8th/14th
century. Haykel points out that the phrase the method of the salaf, or the
way of the salaf (al-arqa al-salafiyya) has been used by biographers of Ibn
Taymiyya to describe his reformist attitude.25 There is a consistent use of
al-salaf al-li as well as al-salafiyya by students and followers of Ibn
In this article, I argue in favor of the view that the contemporary salafiyya
movement is indeed a modern phenomenon and that it cannot be solely described as a continuation of a movement that began in the 8th/14th century
with the activity of Ibn Taymiyya. Before I present my arguments, however,
I need to address an ambiguity about the use of the term salafiyya in Western
scholarship that goes back to competing claims of Muslim scholars about the
salafiyya at the beginning of the 20th century.
Reinhard Schulze on salafiyya and neo-salafiyya
Reinhard Schulzes Geschichte der islamischen Welt im 20. Jahrhundert is an impressive attempt to combine the social, political, and intellectual history of
modern Islam. First published in 1994, it appeared 2000 in an English translation under the title A Modern History of the Muslim World. Schulzes work was
novel in its attempt to combine economic developments, politics, as well as
theology and religious thinking in the Islamic world during what is sometimes
called the long 20th century, a period that begins with the consolidation of
Western colonial domination in the later decades of the the 19th century. In


between Asharism and jahmiyya in Ibn Taymiyyas work has led to significant confusion
among his readers and followers as to who the jahmiyya are.
Haykel, On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action, 40.
Ibid., 43. Haykel points to the historian al-Dhahab (d. 748/1348), a contemporary of Ibn
Taymiyya, who thus describes his attitude in a brief biography of him. See Caterina Bori,
A New Source for the Biography of Ibn Taymiyya, BSOAS 67 (2004): 32148; 333. A maybe
even earlier use of al-arqa al-salafiyya in connection with Ibn Taymiyyas method is in
a letter of Ibn Murr, one of his disciples. See Caterina Bori, The Collection and Edition
of Ibn Taymyahs Works: Concerns of a Disciple, Mamluk Studies Review 13 (2009): 4767;
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that regard the book is still unsurpassed by any other work in German, French,
or in English. The book, however, introduces its readers to an odd choice of
terminology that ultimately limits its success.26 In the chapter on the early part
of the 20th century, Schulze describes two sets of Muslim thinkers and activists, first, the members of a movement called salafiyya, who became active in
the last two decades of the 19th century, and about two generations later, beginning with the mid-1920s, a second group of, what Schulze calls, neo-sala
fiyya intellectuals. Schulzes thinkers and activists of the neo-salafiyya are what
I in this paper call Muslim fundamentalists. In 1994, when Schulzes book first
appeared, the terminology of fundamentalism was still new and contested.
There were and there still are now scholars both in the West and in Muslim
countries who reject the label of fundamentalism due to its origin in literature
on Protestant Christians in America.27
Schulze translates salafiyya as classicism and describes its goal as a return
to the pure Islam of the founding fathers (al-salaf al-li). Like the classicism
in 19th century European literature and art, salafiyya, so Schulze, sought a
timeless aesthetic and intellectual ideal, derived from an origin that was pure
of all temporal circumstances. In the Islamic context this could only be the
early Islamic period.28 Schulze further describes the salafiyya as a movement
of Muslim ulam, set out to work out a new Islamic theory of modernism.29
Their goal was to reconcile modernity with Islamic theology and provide an
access to the modern world by way of Islamic culture. The salafiyya of the late
19th century was an elitist movement created by a group of modernist Muslim
scholars who tried to integrate themselves into the colonial state and use its
structures and educational institutions to reform Islam from within the state.30
The key figure of this movement was Muammad Abduh (18491905), who in
his ideas about the role of reason and religion in society was heavily influenced
by European Enlightenment.31 According to Schulze, however, nationalism,


Schulze had used this terminology before in Islamischer Internationalismus im 20. Jahrhundert (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 90 and index, where it is introduced in greater detail.
See e. g. the beginning pages in Sadik J. al-Azm, Islamic Fundamentalism Reconsidered:
A Critical Outline of Problems, Ideas and Approaches, South Asia Bulletin 13 (1993): 93121
and 14 (1994): 7398. Reprinted in idem, On Fundamentalism: Collected Essays on Islam
and Politics (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2014), 33156.
Reinhard Schulze, A Modern History of the Muslim World (New York: New York University
Press, 2000), 18.
Ibid., 90.
Anke von Kgelgen, art. Abduh, Muammad. EI3, (last accessed 29 April
2014). See also eadem, Averroes und die arabische Moderne: Anstze zu einer Neubegrn
dung des Rationalismus im Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 72ff. Muammad Abduh reconciled

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



liberalism, and socialism created stronger discourses than the salafiyya and
contributed to its political demise.
Following the failure of the salafiyya, a younger generation of Muslim activists created a new momentum when they rejected the colonial state as the vehicle for reform. This new generation of Muslims, whose archetype was asan
al-Bann (190649), positioned themselves outside of the colonial state and
aimed at taking it over and transforming it into an Islamic one.32 Independence after the Second World War led to a split in the movement of neo-sala
fiyya. While some, such as Alll al-Fs (191074) in Morocco gave up their
opposition to the state and tried to work from within the newly independent
republics, others, such as Sayyid Qub (190666) held the same attitude to the
semi-secular nation state that asan al-Bann held towards the colonial one,
and again others, such as Ab l-Al Mawdd (190379) developed a mixed
Schulzes analysis is intriguing since he was the first who adequately and
correctly, I think, captures the principal difference between the political attitudes of the generations of thinkers surrounding Muammad Abduh, who
died 1905, and that of asan al-Bann, who was born shortly after Abduh died.
What I would like to focus on here are the names Schulze has chosen for these
two different attitudes. The word neo-salafiyya is Schulzes creation,33 trying to
express the great similarity of asan al-Banns or Alll al-Fss thinking with
that of Muammad Abduh, yet also expressing the one key difference in the
formers new attitude of rejecting the colonial state and its institutions.
In portraying the triad of Jaml al-Dn al-Afghn (d. 1897), Muammad
Abduh, and Muammad Rashd Ri (18651935) as the intellectual backbone
of the modernist Muslim reform movement in Egypt, Schulze followed earlier


his strong admiration for the European Enlightenment with his Islamic identity by claiming that Protestant Christianity which he believed carried the Enlightenment was,
with the exception of belief in Muhammads prophecy and its rites of worship (ibda),
different from Islam in name, but not in meaning. See Muammad Abduh, Risl
al-Tawd, in al-Aml al-kmila li-l-Imm Muammad Abduh, ed. M. Amra, 6 vols. (Beirut: al-Muassasa al-Arabiyyah li-l-Dirst wa-l-Nashr, 197274), 3:351475; 464; Engl. trans.
The Theology of Unity, trans. I. Musaad and K. Cragg (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966), 150.
Schulze, A Modern History of the Muslim World, 95.
More recently, the label neo-Salaf has been used to describe the new kind of Salafiyya
activism in Egypt and other places that engages in satellite TV channels and party politics.
See Higilt and Nome, Egyptian Salafism in Revolution, 37f. Basheer M. Nafi, Salafism
Revived: Numn al-Als and the Trial of Two Amads, WI 49 (2009): 4997, 94, uses
neo-Salafiyya as a general reference to the rise of Salaf Islam in the 20th century. Both
these uses are unrelated to that of Schulzes.

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predecessors, most influential among them Albert Houranis (191593) Arabic

Thought in the Liberal Age of 1962. Houranis liberal age begins 1798 with the
creation of the first colonial state in the Arab world and ends in 1939, when the
generation of asan al-Bann, the first to reject the legitimacy of that state,
comes of age. In Schulzes parlance the liberal age of Hourani can also be
described as the age of the salafiyya attitude of reforming Islam and Islamic
societies from within the colonial or quasi-colonial state. Although Hourani
never uses the word salafiyya in his book, he characterizes Muammad
Abduhs goal of political reform as re-creating the society that existed among
the salaf al-li. Hourani writes about Abduhs ideal society:
His imagination is fixed on the golden age of Islam, the first generation of
obedience and the rewards of obedience political success and an intellectual development almost without a parallel in the speed and manner
of its flowering. The early umma, the community of the elders, the salaf,
was what the umma ought to be. It remained so throughout the first centuries, for when Abduh talks of the salaf, he does not use the term in a
technical sense to mean the first generation of friends and disciples of
the Prophet; he uses it more generally to refer to the central tradition in
Sunni Islam in its period of development: the great theologians of the
third and the fourth Islamic centuries, Ashari, Baqillani, Maturidi, are
also salaf.34 If this perfect society in the end decayed, it was for two reasons. First there came into Islam elements alien to it: the philosophers
and extreme Shiis brought in the spirit of excess, and a certain type of
mysticism obscured the essential nature of Islam. [] There was another
way in which the umma declined. Even those who preserved the essentials of the faith began to loose their sense of proportion and forget the
difference between what was essential and what was not.35
Later on in his book, when Hourani writes about Abduhs student Rashd Ri,
he clarifies the formers notion of the salaf. For Abduh, the salaf were, in a


Hourani points to a passage in one of the last works of Muammad Abduh, al-Islm wa-lNarriyya maa l-ilm wa-l-madaniyya (Beirut: Dr al-adtha, 1988), 181, who bemoans
the Muslimss, neglect [] of the religious sciences and the critical reading (naar) of the
sayings of their salaf. Abduh continuous that nobody is reading or even critically editing
the books of these three scholars, who lived between the late 4th/10th and early 5th/11th
century, as well as those of Ab Isq al-Isfarn (d. 418/1027). The passage continuous by
discussing more broadly the merits of classical Islamic literature.
Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 17981939 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1987), 149f.

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general way the creators of the central tradition of Muslim thought and devotion, from the Prophet to al-Ghazali [].36 Rashd Ri who according to
Hourani, was more rigid in stressing the Sunni element in his thinking described his ideal of Islam as what,
was taught by the Prophet and the Elders (salaf): a comparatively simple, easily intelligible system of doctrines and practices of which the
knowledge is contained in the Quran and the traditions of what the
Prophet and his companions said and how they lived.37
For Rashd Ri the salaf were only the first generation of Muslims who had
known Muammad.
But Rashd Ri is not at the center of this controversy. After the First World
War his positions turned more and more conservative and given that he is often seen as the teacher of Muammad mid al-Fiq (18921959), the principal
founder of Anr al-Sunna al-Muammadiyya in the 1920s, his credentials as a
member of or at least a sympathizer with the salafiyya are not seriously
disputed. The case is quite different with Muammad Abduh. Contemporary
Salafists reject that he has any connection with their movement. They rather
regard him as a stern defender or even one of the principal inspirations of all
of the different groups that make up their doctrinal enemies, namely the traditionalist Asharites, the Muslim modernists, as well as secularist political actors. This may indeed be true and yet there is, as Hourani has already explained,
still a strong sense of Salafism in Abduhs thinking. Consider the following passage from one of his autobiographic texts, where he combines an almost Kantian definition of Enlightenment38 with the notion of Salafism:
I spoke out on behalf of two great causes. The first was the liberation
of thought (tarr al-fikr) from the shackles of blind emulation (qayd
al-taqld), the understanding of religion according to the way of the salaf
of the umma before the appearance of dissention, the return of religious
learning to its original sources, and the consideration of religion from the
vantage point of the scales of human reason that God has given [us] so
that we may repel the excesses of religion, diminish its confusions and
stumbling, and complete Gods wisdom in preserving the order of the

Ibid., 230.
Ibid., 230.
Immanuel Kant (17241804) defined Enlightenment in 1784 as follows: Enlightenment is
mans emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use
ones understanding without guidance from another.

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human world. [] The second cause I spoke out for was the reform of the
style of Arabic language [].39
Both Abduhs and Ris declared goal was the recreation of the Islam of the
salaf in their respective meanings. Referring to their movement as salafiyya
is, therefore, not all too farfetched despite the fact that neither Hourani nor
Charles Adams in his earlier study of Abduh ever do so.40 That, however, was
done thirty years before Houranis book by the young Henri Laoust (190583)
in his programmatic article The Orthodox Reform of the Salafiya and the
General Characteristics of Its Recent Orientation of 1932. In this article, Laoust
offers a staggering amount of largely undigested information about networks
of reformist thinkers who published in the major Arabic journals of the 1920s
and early 1930s. The principal focus of his article is on the journal al-Manr,
which was founded in 1898 by Abduh and Rashd Ri.41 Laoust gives his readers the impression that all the Arab intellectuals that he introduces are in one
way or another disciples of Muammad Abduh and Jaml al-Dn al-Afghn.
He claims mistakenly that already in their own journal al-Urw al-wuthq
(The Strongest Bond), published around 1883, Abduh and al-Afghn had
used the label of salafiyya.42
While the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, published between
191336 has no article on salafiyya,43 the second edition, has a substantial one




Muammad Abduh, Tarjamat nafsihi, in: Muammad Rashd Ri, Tarkh al-ustdh
al-Imm al-Shaykh Muammad Abdh, 3 vols. (Cairo: Mabaat al-Manr, 132450 [1906
31]), 1:919; 11. Reading l-naradda, wa-l-naqallala, and wa-l-natamma. English translation
in Malcolm H. Herr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muammad Abduh
and Rashd Ri (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1966), 108.
Charles C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt: A Study of the Modern Reform Movement
Inaugurated by Muammad Abduh (London, Oxford Univ. Press, 1933). Throughout his
book Adams translates the term salaf into English so that the importance of that concept
does not become clear to his readers. Adams stresses, however, that for Abduh, [] the
beliefs and practices of the early Muslims are once more to be adopted, without admissions or omissions, and that, returning to the simplest and most essential form of Islam,
would be a basis upon which all Muslims could and should unite (ibid., 174f.).
On the foundation of al-Manr see Umar Ryad, A Printed Muslim Lighthouse in Cairo:
Al-Manrs Early Years, Religious Aspiration and Reception (18981903), Arabica 56
(2009): 2760; 28, 43.
le titre de Salafiya. Henri Laoust, Le rformisme orthodoxe des Salafiya et les charactres gnraux de son orientation actuelle, REI 2 (1932): 175224; 175.
Encyclopaedia of Islam: A Dictionary of the Geography, Ethnography and Biography of the
Muhammadan Peoples, ed. M. Th. Houtsma et alii, 4 vols. (London/Leiden: Luzaq & Co. /
E. J. Brill, 191336).

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by Pessah Shinar and Werner Ende that covers reform movements in North
Africa as well as Syria and Egypt. It was published in 1995 and defines salafiyya
as, a neo-orthodox brand of Islamic reformism, originating in the late 19th
century and centred on Egypt, aiming to regenerate Islam by a return to the
tradition represented by the pious forefathers [].44 Pessah and Ende identify Muammad Abduh and Muammad Rashd Ri as the principal leaders
of this movement. There is, therefore, a strong tradition in Western academic
literature to call the reform movement of Muammad Abduh and his disciples
salafiyya, a tradition that goes back to at least the early 1930s.
Massignon and a Misunderstanding?
Yet this is not the salafiyya movement of the Nr Party or of Anr al-Sunna
al-Muammadiyya. Muammad Abduh was a modernist thinker, influenced
by the European Enlightenment and committed to liberal reform. Nothing of
that can be said about the salafiyya activists who gained 21% of the seats in
Egypts first democratically elected parliament. From the outset it appears that
in Western literature the word salafiyya is, today at least, an equivocal term or
a homonym, a word that has two or more meanings, like the English word
bank which can mean a place to sit on or an institution that lends money.
This ambiguity in the meaning of salafiyya led Henri Lauzire to argue that
Western academics made a crucial mistake and mis-identified the salafiyya
among various Islamic movements of the early 20th century. According to
Lauzire, this mistake occurred first in 1919 when the French scholar Louis
Massignon (18831962) identified Jaml al-Dn al-Afghn and Muammad
Abduh as leaders of the salafiyya.45 Later, in 1925, Massignon added Rashd
Ri to this group.46 Lauzire calls this faulty scholarship and flawed47 and
he claims that Massignons mistake stems from his attempt to make sense of



Pessah Shinar and Werner Ende, art. Salafiyya, in: EI2 8:90009; 900. On p.907, Ende
introduces Schulzes concept of the Neo-Salafiyya as a characterization of the Muslim
Brotherhood. Its history is accordingly part of the history of Salafiyya in Egypt.
Louis Massignon, Questions actuelles: Les vraies origines dogmatiques du Wahhbisme,
RMM 36 (191819): 32026; 325.
Louis Massignon, Notes documentaires et references bibliographiques sur la souverainit et le caliphate en Islam: 9. Opinion des rformistes modrs (salafiya): Chekh
Rchid Rid, RMM 59 (1925): 312f. Henri Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism From the Perspective of Conceptual History, IJMES 42 (2010): 36989;
Ibid., 369, 374.

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the literary output of a particular printing press in Cairo, al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya. The Salafiyya Bookstore was active between 1909 and the mid-1930s and it
was committed to publishing books on religion, science, literature, history, and
society. Its program included conservative Muslim authors such as al-Suy
(d. 911/1505) just as much as rationalists such as al-Frb (d. 339/95051) or Ibn
Sn (Avicenna, d. 428/1037), whom they all counted, implicitly at least, among
the salaf. Its program of salafiyya is, therefore, closely connected to Muammad
Abduhs understanding of who al-salaf al-li were. The two owners of the
press can be described as belonging to the wider circle of Abduhs followers.
At the same time, they also had connections to the more conservative, Ibn Tay
miyya-inspired circles of reform in Damascus. In fact, they adopted the name
al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya from a more conservative exponent of the Muslim
reform movement, hir al-Jazir (18511920), the founder of the hiriyya
Library in Damascus, who had suggested it to them.48
According to Lauzire, the bookstore and press marks, the first time sala
fiyya was ever used as a slogan for commercial purposes.49 It was clear to Massignon that the Salafiyya Bookstore was committed to the same intellectual
project as that of Muammad Abduh, namely resurrecting Islams past grandeur and showing that true Islam is on par with Western thinking. It promoted
the label salafiyya first in Egypt, then in the Arab world, and finally overseas,
where Massignon interpreted the activity of this press. Lauzire considers it a
mistake that Massignon understood an element in the name of that press,
salafiyya, as a label for the whole intellectual current it was a part of. This was
the reform movement of Muammad Abduh and his students.50 From Massignons mistake, so Lauzire, is it only a short step to Henri Laousts landmark
article of 1932, which according to Lauzire spreads a mistaken idea about the
identity and affiliations of leading scholars of the salafiyya among European
I must admit that I cannot see where Massignons mistake lies. He observed
that followers of Muammad Abduh claimed the label salafiyya for his
movement by adopting it for the publishing company that promoted Abduhs
ideas. This together with the fact that Abduh does indeed speak about a


On his role in the emerging salafiyya movement at the turn of the 19th century see Itzchak
Weismann, Between f Reformism and Modernist Rationalism: A Reappraisal of the
Origins of the Salafiyya from the Damascene Angle, WI 41 (2001): 20637, and Joseph H.
Escovitz, He was the Muhammad Abduh of Syria: A Study of Tahir al-Jazair and His
Influence, IJMES 18 (1986): 297301.
Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 378.
Ibid., 380.
Ibid., 383.

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revival of the salaf al-li led Massignon to adapt the word salafiyya as a
meaningful analytical category. His initial article of 1919 describes a certain
pattern of reform that he sees being supported by a number of Muslim movements of the 19th century, among them the Wahhb movement, the ahl-i ads
in India and that of al-Afghn and Abduh.52 Massignon was, of course, wrong
when in a brief sentence at the beginning of a 1925 article he described the
salafiyya as being founded by Sheikh Abduh.53 But his earlier article of 1919
made it clear that al-Afghn and Abduh were not the originators and Massignon in no way claimed that they or Rashd Ri owned this label exclusively.
Quite the opposite, Massignon always presents them as examples of a wider
and broader movement of Salafist reform.
Lauzire is right when he points out that, primary sources do not corroborate the claim that they (scil. Muammad Abduh and his associates) either
coined the term [salafiyya] or used it to identify themselves in the late 19th
century.54 Yet at the same time Lauzire concedes that Muammad Abduh
occasionally used the term salafiyya with positive connotations.55 This happened late in his life, in the first decade of the 20th century, when the term
slowly comes into use. In fact, it appears that none of the reform movements
of the 1870s and 1880s claimed the word salafiyya for themselves and that the
term is not frequently used among intellectuals in Cairo, Damascus and other




In Questions actuelles: Les vraies origines dogmatiques du Wahhbisme, 325, Massignon

says, le grand movement intellectual musulman modern de Salafiyah, partisans de
lIslam primitive [] est n dans lInde. According to Massignon, the movement developed with Sayyid Amad Barelv (d. 1831) and Shh Isml (d. 1831), two early forerunners
of the ahl-i ads in North-India as well as iddq asan Khn (183290), the leader of the
ahl-i ads. Al-Afghn and Abduh adapted the movement and it spread from India to
Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and even the Maghrib and Java. Earlier, the Earl of Cromer,
the British consul general in Egypt 18831907, had in his memoirs already compared
Abduhs reform movement with another Indian movement, namely the Islamic modernism of Sayyid Amad Khn (181798). For him Abduh was the founder of a school of
thought that was, similar to that established in India by Syed Ahmed, the creator of the
Alighur College. The Earl of Cromer, Modern Egypt, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan and Co.,
1908), 2:180.
Le parti des salafiya, fond par Chekh Abdoh []. Massignon, Notes documentaires et
references bibliographiques sur la souverainit et le caliphate en Islam. 9. Opinion des
rformistes modrs (salafiya): Chekh Rchid Rid, 312. Cf. Lauzire, The Construction
of Salafiyya, 374.
Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 374: [] the amount of time and energy
required to find any Salafi epithet in the writings of al-Afghani and Abduh is inversely
proportional to their alleged status as proponents and even founders of Salafism.
Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 374.

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metropolises of the Arab world before the second and third decade of the 20th
Contemporary salafiyya as the Combination of Two Intellectual
For Lauzire the fact that Abduh invoked the pious ancestors (salaf) does not
constitute a sufficient justification for calling him part of the salafiyya. Many
Muslim reformers before and after him did that. It is rather a red herring, Lauzire argues, and distracts from the main issue that al-Afghn and Abduh were
both modernist thinkers.56 There were, however, within the wider reform circles of the early 1900s intellectuals who referred to the doctrine of the salaf
(madhhab al-salaf) as an ideal and who used the word salaf to describe themselves and their associates. These were scholars and activists such as Abd alRazzq al-Br (18371917), Jaml al-Dn al-Qsim (18661914), and hir
al-Jazir, all of Damascus, or Mamd Shukr al-ls (18571924) of Baghdad.
These scholars were significantly more conservative than Abduh and al-Af
ghn and directly inspired by the writings of Ibn Taymiyya. Jaml al-Dn alQsim had a strong influence on Rashd Ris more literal understanding of
the salaf as the first generation of Islam.57 Lauzire points out that unlike alAfghn or Abduh, Rashd Ri used the noun al-salafiyya as a plural or a collective that refers to a theological group, a group that according to Ri stands
in marked opposition to Asharism.58
Whether or not Abduh and al-Afghn could or should be labeled as salafiyya, it seems quite clear that they are not part of the kind of salafiyya that the
Nr Party in Egypt represents. What then is the intellectual pedigree of the
contemporary salafiyya movement in Egypt and in the Sudan? Rashd Ris
positioning of salafiyya against Asharism offers an important clue. When Islam moved out of its post-classical period into the transition to modernity,
both Asharism and Mturdism were the ruling Sunni intellectual currents.59

On Jaml al-Dn al-Qsim see David Commins, Islamic Reform: Politics of Social Change in
Late Ottoman Syria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 6588.
Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 375.
While Mturdism was prevalent in Turkey most importantly in its intellectual capital
Istanbul and in some parts of Central Asia, Asharism was dominant in all other Sunni
parts of the Muslim world. The theological differences of these two theological traditions
are subtle and hardly relevant in the context of this article. Turkey and Central Asia are
not centers of contemporary Salafist activism, which is why Salaf polemics are first and

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Asharite theology, which was founded in the 4th/10th century in opposition to

Mutazilism, began its slow but steady rise towards becoming the dominant
theology within Sunnism during the mid-5th/11th century. Students in madrasas and seminaries from Morocco to India studied the standard textbooks of
Asharite as well as Mturd theology written mostly during the Il-Khnid period in the 7th/13th and 8th/14th centuries. These works, such as al-Bayws
(d. c. 716/1316) awli al-anwr and Aud al-Dn al-js (d. 756/1355) Kitb alMawqif f ilm al-kalm, and al-Taftazns (d. 793/1390) Kitb al-Maqid became centrepieces of kalm instruction. Together with the commentaries and
the super-commentaries on these works, they were part of almost all education in Muslim madrasas up to the mid-20th century.60 In Egypt, al-Azhar was
and still is the beacon of that tradition, maintaining an Asharite curriculum in
theology up to this day.
Hand in hand with Asharism comes a commitment to one of the four
schools of law. After the early 7th/13th century, almost all of those who were
Shfiites and Mlikites in fiqh were also Asharites in theology. Even among the
anafite fuqah, there were many Asharites. anbalism was the only school
of Islamic law that was and is almost entirely opposed to Asharite theology.
Shortly before a number of Muslim countries experienced violent confrontations with European colonialism, two developments challenged the domination of Asharite theology among the intellectuals of Islam. The first was the
emergence of the Wahhb movement in central Arabia after 1157/1744. It
strengthened anbalism in many ways. First, as a religious movement by focusing on the prevention and prohibition of certain religious practices, particularly the visitation of tombs that had been legitimized and often promoted
in Asharite theology. Secondly, politically through the creation of Saudi Arabia, a principality that would, over time, become a powerful nation state promoting anbalism. And thirdly, intellectually through the foundation of
numerous universities in Saudi Arabia devoted to the study and diffusion of
anbalism and its intellectual history, most importantly the works of Ibn
Taymiyya and his students.
The second important development was the emergence of a new kind of
theology during the period that precedes colonial domination. In the early decades of the 19th century, Muammad al-Shawkn (d. 1834) argued that all
four existing schools of Sunni jurisprudence had deviated from the teachings


foremost directed against Asharism without paying much attention to the differences
between Mturdism and the latter. This article equally focuses on Asharism, although
much of what is said about it is also true for Mturdism.
Francis Robinson, Ottomans-Safavids-Mughals: Shared Knowledge and Connective Systems, Journal of Islamic Studies 8 (1997): 15184.
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of the Prophet Muammad. Although initially directed against the moderate

Shiite tradition of Zaydism in Yemen, al-Shawkns teaching provided potent
arguments against the established union between Asharism and one of the
three schools traditions of Shfiism, Mlikism, and anafism.61 Followers of
al-Shawkn first became numerous in India, where they founded the movement of the ahl-i ads.62 Like al-Shawkn they argued that Muslims should
cease to practice taqld, i. e. follow uncritically the teachings of an earlier scholarly authority or an established school of jurisprudence. Rather, they should
read and study the adth corpus themselves and see how it responds to their
concerns and questions. Al-Shawkns teachings encouraged a much greater
number of Muslims to act as mujtahids and establish their Muslim practice in
conformity with what they perceived as Muammads teachings in the adth
corpus. Like the Christian Protestants of the 16th century, the proponents of
this new Muslim theology today known as l madhhabiyya, the nonschoolists try to cut out the theological middleman who determined the
terms on which ordinary believers could relate to the divine.63 Whereas in
Christianity this middleman was the Catholic Church, in the Islam of the 19th
century it was the combination of Asharite theology together with the school
traditions of Shfiism, Mlikism, or anafism. From its emergence in Yemen
and its organization as a sectarian Muslim group in India, the l madhhabiyya
spread in the mid-19th century to a small circle of intellectuals in Baghdad and
Damascus. An important moment came in 1881 when Khayr al-Dn Numn
al-ls (183699) published his influential book Jal al-aynayn f mukamat
al-Amadayn.64 Although published in Cairo, Numn al-ls wrote this book
in his hometown Baghdad. There he had gotten in contact with leaders of the


On al-Shawkns theology see Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of
Muammad al-Shawkn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 76108.
Martin Riexinger, Sanullh Amritsar (18681948) und die Ahl-i ads im Punjab unter
britischer Herrschaft (Wrzburg: Ergon, 2004), 10334.
The term l madhhabiyya seems to be coined long after the emergence of the movement
by its doctrinal enemies. Stefan Wild, Muslim und Madhab: Ein Brief von Tokio nach
Mekka und seine Folgen in Damaskus, in: Die islamische Welt zwischen Mittelalter und
Neuzeit: Festschrift fr Hans Robert Roemer zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. U. Haarmann and P.
Bachmann (Beirut/Wiesbaden: In Kommission bei F. Steiner, 1979), 67489; 683, 685,
assumes the term was initially pejorative (ein Schmhwort) and notes that one of its
first appearance is in a work by the Turkish-Egyptian Mturd scholar Muammad Zhid
Kawthar (18791952). For Kawthar, the l madhhabiyya was, the bridge toward irreligion (qanarat al-l dniyya).
Numan b. Mamd al-ls, Jal al-aynayn f mukamat al-Amadayn (Cairo: al-Ma
ba al-Miriyya, 1298 [1881]). Nafi, Salafism Revived: Numn al-Als and the Trial of Two

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



ahl-i ads movement in India and with the principal ideas of l madhhabiyya
theology. Al-ls sent his son Al al-Dn Al (18611921) to study with iddq
asan Khn (183290), the most important figure of the ahl-i ads in Bhopal,
India.65 Following the tradition of early Arabic printing al-lss book is, in
fact, one of the first contemporary works in Muslim theology that appeared in
print the book has other works printed in its margins. The second of these is
the Arabic translation of a doctrinal work by iddq asan Khn.66 It comes as
no surprise that al-lss book carries the endorsement (ijza) of a contemporary ahl-i ads scholar in Bhopal, India, who can trace his intellectual lineage
to the teachings of al-Shawkn.67
The two Amads in the title of al-lss book point toward another channel of influence on him. They are Amad Ibn Taymiyya and Amad b. ajar
al-Haytam (d. 975/1567), a fierce Asharite critic of Ibn Taymiyya, active in
Egypt in the 10th/16th century.68 Al-lss book is an apology of Ibn Taymiyya
against the criticism of later, mostly Asharite theologians. There was much
Asharite criticism of Ibn Taymiyya during his lifetime and as the example of
al-Haytam shows even in the following centuries. Although Western scholarship often gave a wrong impression and assumed that there was an ongoing
and lasting success of Ibn Taymiyya in post-classical and pre-modern Muslim
theology the situation was most probably quite the opposite. Ibn Taymiyya was
a maverick at his time, and there are few defenses of him in the period between the late 7th/14th century and the mid-18th century.69 In a study devoted
to Ibn Taymiyyas intellectual influence on non-anbalites in the centuries after his death in 728/1328, Khaled El Rouayheb says that there is no sign of a




Riexinger, Sanullh Amritsar, 538. On the ahl-i ads in India see Barbara D. Metcalf,
Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 18601900 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
1982), 26996, on iddq asan Khn see Saeedullah, The Life and Works of Muhammad
Siddiq Hasan Khan, Nawwab of Bhopal, 12481307 (18321890) (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad
Ashraf, 1973).
Muammad iddq asan Khn, al-Intiqd al-raj f shar al-itiqd al-a printed in
the margins of al-ls, Jal al-aynayn, 141360. The book is a commentary on a creedal
work by the influential Indian reformer Shh Wal Allh Dihlw (d. 1176/1762).
Al-ls, Jal al-aynayn, 5f. (pagination of the forewords); Nafi, Salafism Revived, 62.
On Ibn ajar al-Haytams critique of Ibn Taymiyya see Khaled El Rouayheb, From Ibn
ajar al-Haytam (d. 1566) to Khayr al-Dn al-ls: Changing Views of Ibn Taymiyya
among Non-anbal Sunni Scholars, in: Ibn Taymiyya and His Times, ed. Y. Rapoport and
S. Ahmed (Karatchi: Oxford University Press, 2010), 269318; 27195 and Nafi, Salafism
Revived, 6572.
One such defense was written by Mar Ysuf al-Karm (d. 1033/1624) in Egypt, see Nafi,
Salafism Revived, 64.

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widespread influence of Ibn Taymiyyas thought between the late 7th/14th century and 1881: During the intervening five centuries, El Rouayheb writes, Ibn
Taymiyyas views had found little resonance amongst mainstream Sunni
scholars.70 Mainstream here means Shfiite, anafite, and Mlikite scholars
and El Rouayheb makes it clear that Ibn Taymiyya had an ongoing influence on
anbalites. The first text printed in the margins of al-ls, Jal al-aynayn, for
instance, is a defense of Ibn Taymiyya by af al-Dn al-Bukhr (d. 1200/1786),
a anbal scholar active in the anbalite stronghold Nabulus.71
Al-lss combination of l madhhabiyya and Taymiyyan theology is illustrated by the fact that he lists al-Shawkn among those Muslim scholars whom
he claims to be influenced by Ibn Taymiyya.72 Similar to al-Shawkn, al-ls
argues that every faqh should act as a mujtahid and try to establish rulings on
the basis of his own examination of the sources of law.73 The merging of l
madhhabiyya attitudes and anbalite theology particularly that of Ibn
Taymiyya is a typical feature of the movement and it will be repeated over
and over again in the writings of authors committed to the tradition of the
contemporary salafiyya. L madhhabiyya and anbalism come together for
two reasons: First these two decidedly non-Asharite systems of thought are
joined together by the dominance of Asharite theology in the 19th and the
early 20th century. Both depict Asharism as an intellectual force of the past,
the kind of attitude that led to the demise of Islam in its post-classical and premodern period. L madhhabiyya theology even manages to present itself as a
decidedly modern alternative to Asharism and the traditional practice of Mus70



El Rouayheb, From Ibn ajar al-Haytam (d. 1566) to Khayr al-Dn al-ls, 311. Even after
al-lss book the original works of Ibn Taymiyya remained hard to come by. They were
and are abundant as manuscripts at the hiriyya Library (now collection) in Damascus. Outside of that city, however, they were hardly any. Rashd Ri admits that his early
knowledge of Ibn Taymiyya before he himself edited some of Ibn Taymiyyas texts from
manuscripts at the hiriyya came from Ibn Taymiyyas opponents. See Nafi, Salafism
Revived, 50.
af al-Dn al-Bukhr, al-Qawl al-jal f tarjamat al-Shaykh Taq l-Dn Ibn Taymiyya
al-anbal, printed in the margins of al-ls, Jal al-aynayn, 2140. On the author see
Nafi, Salafism Revived, 62f.
Al-ls, Jal al-aynayn, 29; Nafi, Salafism Revived, 73.
Al-ls, Jal al-aynayn, 1103; Nafi, Salafism Revived, 76. Al-ls does not use, as far as
I can see, the word salafiyya. In the theological debate on the divine attributes, however,
he associates the true position with the salaf (Jal al-aynayn, 225) and in the one of
whether Gods actions are caused (muallal), al-ls describes Ibn Taymiyyas position in
his Shar al-Aqda al-Ifahniyya as, the teachings of the salaf of the umma (madhhab
salaf al-umma) (ibid., 157).

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



lim jurisprudence. Its vehement rejection of emulating earlier religious authorities (with the exception of the Prophet) is a liberating force from the
shackles of tradition. The second reason why l madhhabiyya and anbalism
come together is a similar religious epistemology that stresses the authority of
the adth corpus over all other sources of knowledge with the exception of
the Quran. Both l madhhabiyya and anbalism are scriptualist religious ideologies that promise its followers immediate rewards from studying the adth
corpus. Followers of the contemporary salafiyya do not need to go through a
decade-long curricular of studying authoritative texts in order to offer interpretations of revelation or make legal decisions. Haykel rightfully stresses the
sense of openness and democracy that this practice creates even though
empowerment of the individual might be a better choice of words.74 The
common characterization of the contemporary salafiyya as a conservative or
even reactionary movement should always be confronted with this caveat.
Apart from those two elements in their thought, however, there are also significant differences between l madhhabiyya and anbalite theology, most
importantly their diametrically opposed position toward emulating a religious
authority (who is not a prophet) or a chain of authorities, as in legal madhhabs.
The anbal and even more so the Wahhb scholarly establishment is highly
hierarchical and it practices the kind of taqld that the l madhhabiyya so vigorously denounces. Followers of the contemporary salafiyya who wish to reconcile anbalite scholarship with the l madhhabiyyas opposition to taqld
often point to Ibn Taymiyyas and Ibn Qayyims teachings that a well-educated
Muslim should not practice taqld.75 It is true that both these scholars cultivate
a strong rhetoric against taqld.76 The devil, however, is as often in theological
debates in the detail and it depends on how phrases like well-educated and
taqld should be understood.77 Opposition to taqld is a very common feature
among Muslim reform movements, even among those that have nothing in
common with the salafiyya method. How else would a reformer find followers if he does not encourage them to move away from the already established
authorities? Once a reform movement becomes established and part of the
Muslim mainstream, however, it often moderates its opposition to taqld or

Salafis are, in contrast of other Muslim traditions of learning, relatively open, even democratic, Haykel, On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action, 36.
Ibid., 43f.
Wild, Muslim und Madhab, 680.
For a critical assessment of Ibn Taymiyyas and Ibn Qayyims methodology in fiqh see
Birgit Krawietz, Transgressive Creativity in the Making: Ibn Qayyim al-awziyyahs
Reframing Within anbal Legal Methodology, OM 90 (2010): 4362 and Abdul Hakim I.
Al-Matroudi, The anbal School of Law and Ibn Taymiyyah: Conflict or Conciliation (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).
Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220

What Do We Mean By salaf?


redirects its criticism of it to particular kinds of it, namely the taqld practiced
by its adversaries.
Salafiyya as it is manifest today in the Nr Party or the Anr al-Sunna alMuammadiyya of Egypt and Sudan is the combination of these two intellectual traditions in Islam, the conservative anbalite movement and the l
madhhabiyya tradition first established by al-Shawkn and then further developed in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The latter tradition found its strongest
expression in the writings and teaching of Muammad Nir al-Dn al-Albn
(191499), a self-educated Syrian adth scholar, who taught some time at the
Islamic University (al-Jmia al-Islmiyya) at Medina in Saudi Arabia, traditionally a beacon of Wahhb theology. Al-Albns rulings on shara are based
on his independent study of the adth corpus. He developed his own criteria
of adth critcism and he rejected many adth as weak and normatively
irrelevant that had long been accepted among the community of adth scholars. This led him to pass numerous unconventional legal judgments which
by now have reached canonical status among the followers of the contemporary salafiyya. This illustrates the point I made earlier about the practice of
taqld among members of a movement who themselves criticize it. Al-Albns
position within the contemporary salafiyya movement is so strong and his
decisions so reveered that the l madhhabiyya attitude which he initially represented almost turned into a fifth legal madhhab in Sunni Islam. It has been
noted that this new legal madhhab employs similar epistemologic strategies as
an earlier fifth legal tradition in Sunni Islam, the madhhab of the hiriyya,
which disappeared after the 5th/11th century.78
Severel conflicts in al-Albns life illustrate that the union of l madhha
biyya and conservative anbalism is not always an easy one. Al-Albns scholarship represents the autonomy of the original l madhhabiyya attitude and its
strong polemic against any kind of taqld. It stresses the independent judgments of the believers, who are empowered to study the religious sources
themselves and come up with decisions based on their readings. It has already
been said that this attitude accounts for the sense of empowerment and the
modernizing aspect of the contemporary salafiyya and it also accounts for
much of its appeal. While teaching in Saudi Arabia, al-Albn several times
faced opposition when his decisions clashed with longtime established
anbalite positions. Twice he had to leave the country, in 1963 and 1978, and he
spent his last days in exile in Jordan.79 When al-Albn was still a young scholar

Gauvain, Salafi Ritual Purity, 262f.

On al-Albns life and scholarship see Jonathan Brown, Hadith: Muhammads Legacy in
the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 25661, Stephane Lacroix,
Between Revolution and Apolitism: Nasir al-Din al-Albani, in: Global Salafism: Islams

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



in Damascus he was in contact with Ibn Ab Abdallh al-Mam (d. c. 1960),

a faqh from Bukhara who had left the Soviet Union in 1938 and settled in
Mecca. A vocal member of the l madhhabiyya movement, al-Mam published a fatw in 1938 where he engages in strong polemics against the Wahhb
movement. The fatw was reprinted 1949 in Cairo and 1970 in Damascus, doc
umenting the sometimes uneasy relationship between l madhhabiyya and
Wahhbism.80 Yet overall, these two have created a remarkable union so that
Salafism today can be one of three attitudes: It can be (1) the strict application
of l madhhabiyya theology, such as in the work of al-Albn or al-Mam, it
can be (2) the equally strict following of the anbalite school tradition, such as
in the case of many Wahhb scholars in Saudi Arabia, who make no concessions to l madhhabiyya attitudes, or it can be (3) a combination of these two
as we see it manifest in the contemporary salafiyya movement of Egypt and
Sudan, as well as many other places.
The Gap between Two Kinds of salafiyya and the Benefit of
Which one is the original salafiyya? Is it the anti-Asharite movement of l
madhhabiyya and/or anbalism or the modernist movement of Muammad
Abduh and his followers? Intellectual historians are always keen to create
sharp distinctions and categorize movements in ways that make them easily
recognizable. In his article of 2010, Henri Lauzire, for instance, repeatedly
characterizes Abduh as a modernist and someone whose thinking seems unreconcilable with what Lauzire calls purist Salafism.81 His article also shows
that in the early decades of the 20th century, borders were not as sharply drawn
as today. The Salafiyya Bookstore in Cairo, for instance, was committed to
Abduhs liberal agenda and also had close connections to thinkers such as
hir al-Jazir, who were heavily engaged in reviving the thought of Ibn
Taymiyya and in continuing Numn al-lss project. In fact, this might even
be true for Muammad Abduh himself. Consider this brief passage from
Joseph Schachts article on Abduh in the first edition of The Encyclopaedia of
Islam, published in 1934:


New Religious Movement, ed. R. Meijer (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009), 5880, and
idem, Lapport de Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani au salafisme contemporain, in:
Quest-ce que le salafisme?, ed. B. Rougier (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008),
Wild, Muslim und Madhab, 679ff.
Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 370.
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What Do We Mean By salaf?


Muammad Abduhs programme according to his own statement was: I.

the reform of the Muslim religion by bringing it back to its original condition. [] However great a stimulus he may have received from progressive western thought, the actual foundation of his teaching came
primarily from the school of Ibn Taimya and Ibn aiyim al-Djawzya,
who favored reform on conservative lines, and from al-Ghazzls ethical
conception of religion.82
Abduhs opposition to the religious establishment of al-Azhar is well-known,
and although he himself never leaves the theological ground of Asharism,83 he
takes and defends numerous positions that run against Asharite theology and
established rulings of the four schools of Islamic law. In a book first published
in 1970, Sad Raman al-B (19292013) one of the leading Asharites of the
late 20th and early 21st centuries heavily criticized Abduh for his numerous
deviations from the madhhab on such issues as permitting fixed interest
rates or women to give up the veil. Al-B associated all this with a l madhhabiyya attitude on Abduhs side. For al-B, who was a lifelong critic of the l
madhhabiyya in Syria, Abduhs reform and the idea that any educated Muslim
could be a mujtahid was triggered by the Earl of Cromer, the British consulgeneral in Egypt 18821907 and de facto the colonial ruler of the country in
those years.84
Schacht was not the only Western observer who got the impression that
Abduh was rather close to Ibn Taymiyya and his school. Ignaz Goldziher, who
had met Abduh in person, characterized the movement that he led in similar
terms as Schacht. Abduhs reformist teachings, so Goldziher, were initiated by
contacts with European thought yet unlike the modernism of Sayyid Amad

Joseph Schacht, art. Muammad Abduh in: EI1, 3:679.

Kerr, Islamic Reform, 106.
Muammad Sad Raman al-B, al-L madhhabiyya akhar bida tuhaddidu l-shara
al-Islmiyya, 2nd ed. (Damascus: Maktabat al-Frb, w. d. [c. 1972]). This second edition
includes an appendix where al-B responds to al-Albns refutation (with the title alMadhhabiyya al-mutaaiba hiya al-bida) of the first edition of al-Bs book. See Wild,
Muslim und Madhab, 683ff. Famously, the Earl of Cromer, on his side, wrote in his memoirs Modern Egypt, 2:179f., that an upper-class Muslim must be either a fanatic or a concealed infidel and assumed in Abduhs case the latter: I suspect that my friend Abdu,
although he would have resented the appellation being applied to him, was in reality an
Agnostic. The evidence for this judgment has been discussed in detail by Elie Kedourie,
Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Acticism in Modern Islam
(London: Frank Cass, 1966) and Werner Ende, Waren amladdn al-Afn und
Muammad Abduh Agnostiker? in: ZDMG Supplement 1 (1969): 650659 (Vortrge des 17.
Deutschen Orientalistentags 1968 in Wrzburg).

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



Khn (181798) in India it was no theology of mediation (Vermittlungstheologie). Writing in 1920, Goldziher characterizes Abduhs and al-Afghns
thought as cultural Wahhbism.85 Louis Massignons description of the salafiyya is not far from this. When he first mentions the word salafiyya in 1919 and
connects it to al-Afghn and Abduh as well as to the ahl-i ads in India he
does so in an article on the intellectual origins of the Wahhb movement.86
Later in 1925, he introduces Muammad Rashd Ri to his readers as, disciple
dIbn Taymiya, comme les Wahhabites, R. Rid assiste aujourdhui leur triomphe, quil avait galement prvu.87 This, of course, is not at all a wrong description of Rashd Ris attitude to Wahhbism after the mid-1920s. For Massignon
it also characterizes the thinking of his teacher Muammad Abduh, who is
mentioned prominently in this context. In his influential doctoral thesis on the
life and thought of Ibn Taymiyya, published in 1939, Henri Laoust follows Massignons lead. At the end of that book he includes a chapter on Ibn Taymiyyas
influence on modernisme musulman (Muslim modernism) discussing in
two sub-chapters Muammad Abduh and M. Rashd Ri. Laoust notes that,
il semblerait paradoxal, a priori, que des doctrines aussi conservatrices
que celle dibn Taimya aient pu tre reprises et renouveles par cet
ensemble de tendances que lon dsigne sous lappellation de modernisme musulman et qui caractrisent, depuis la seconde moit du sicle
dernier, un impotant aspect de lopinion musulmane.88



Kulturwahhbismus; Ignaz Goldziher, Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung

(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1920), 321. Goldziher contrast the movement of al-Afghn and Abduh
with that of Muslim modernism, founded by Sayyid Amad Khn in India (to which he
also counts irgh Al and Amr Khn). Unlike the Earl of Cromer (see fn. 52), however,
he sees no influence of Sayyid Amad Khns movement which he famously compared
to Mutazilism with that al-Afghn and Abduh. For an analysis of Goldzihers position
see Thomas Hildebrandt, Neo-Mutazilismus? Intention and Kontext im modernen arabischen Umgang mit dem rationalistischen Erbe des Islam (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 14ff.
Massignon, Questions actuelles: Les vraies origines dogmatiques du Wahhbisme, 325.
a student of Ibn Taymiyya, just like the Wahhbs, whom Ri supports in their triumph,
which he had foreseen. Massignon, Notes documentaires et references bibliographiques
sur la souverainit et le caliphate en Islam: 9. Opinion des rformistes modrs (sala
fiya): Chekh Rchid Rid, 312.
it seems at a first glance paradoxical that teachings which are as conservative as those of
Ibn Taymiyya could be repeated and revived by the set of allegiances that fall under the
name of Muslim modernism and that since the second half of the last century make up
such an important part of Muslim opinion. Laoust, Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques, 54175, esp.541.

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What Do We Mean By salaf?


In both Abduh as well as Rashd Ria, Laoust sees a significant influence of Ibn
Taymiyya and his students, even if in the case of Abduh that influence is indirect and, as Laoust puts it, fort dilue.89
Judging from the position of an intellectual historian in the early 21st century, a whole generation of Western scholars of Islam, here represented by
Schacht, Goldziher, as well as Massignon, seem to have lacked the ability to
discern what Henri Lauzire in his recent article called the gap between modernist and purist Salafism.90 The same seems true for Henri Laousts programmatic article of 1932, where he introduces the word salafiyya to a wider
readership. It deals with the students and followers of al-Afghn and Abduh
in Cairo as well as with those of Numn al-ls and Ibn Taymiyya in Damascus and Baghdad as members of a single movement of salafiyya.91
But was there such a gap and if so, how deep was it? What appears to Henri
Lauzire as a confusion among Western observers of Islam in the 1920s and
1930s who seem unable to distinguish modernists from purist Salafs was, I argue, a real similarity of approaches to Muslim reform in the late 19th and early
20th centuries. Only with the benefit of hindsight after a period of drastic polarization between the 1930s and the 1970s after the end of Houranis liberal
age become the fault lines that did exist before visible. Neither the Muslim
protagonists of this era nor contemporary observers from the West could perceive these lines of division as clearly as we see them today.
Salafism As the Most Influential Pattern of Late-19th Century
Islamic Reform
Pre-modern reform movements in Islam have taken on various shapes and
forms. Al-Ashar (d. 324/93536), for instance, aimed at reforming Mutazilite
Islam, the predominant direction of thought in Iraq in the late 3rd/9th century,
through rational arguments that would show the Mutazilites inability to accurately explain Gods justice or the meaning of controversial passages in revelation. Al-Ghazl (d. 505/1111), the self-declared renewer of the 6th Muslim


most diluted, ibid., 541. The concept of Salafya appears rarely in his chapter and when
it does, it describes the attitude of al-Afghn and Abduh more than that of Rashd Ri.
On p.562, for instance, Laoust characterizes Rashd Ris position after the mid-1920s as
a, collusion [] entre le Wahhbisme et le modernisme des Salafya (a collusion be
tween Wahhbism and the modernism of the salafiyya).
Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 370.
Laoust, Le rformisme orthodoxe des Salafiya et les charactres gnraux de son orientation actuelle.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



century (12th century CE), had a project of revival (iy) that combined traditional Asharism with elements taken from falsafa and from Sufism. The next
Muslim century saw the reform attempts of Ibn Arab (d. 638/1240) another
reviver of religion (muy l-dn) who would push al-Ghazls agenda even
further. After the success of Ibn Arabs renewal and the adaptation of his monist ontology of wadat al-wujd among numerous directions of thought in
Islam, the beginning new millennium of the Muslim calendar (1591 CE) witnessed the reform of Amad Sirhind (d. 1034/1624) and his reinterpretation of
wadat al-wujd as a mere appearance of an ontological unity between God
and His creatures, a mere wadat al-shuhd. This list could be continued
with other examples illustrating that there is not one predominant pattern of
reform in Islam.
There were numerous reform movements in early modern Islam that also
followed quite different approaches. In 1993 Ahmad Dallal looked at four different Islamic reform movements from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century
that of Ibn Abd al-Wahhb (d. 1206/1792) in the Najd, Shh Wal Allh
(d. 1176/1762) in North India, Uthmn dan Fodio (d. 1817) in Westafrica, and Al
al-Sans (d. 1859) in North Africa and concluded that these four have very
little in common and are not part of an over-arching pattern of Islamic reform
in this period.92 If one extends this period to the end of the 19th century, one
could add other reform movements whose investigation would broaden as
well as strengthen Dallals conclusion. After the 1857 uprising in India there
was a host of different revival movements, many of them proposing a reform of
Islam. The four most important are the ahl-i ads movement, the Deobandi
school, Sayyid Amad Khn and the Aligarh movement, as well as the Barelvi
movement.93 All these four were committed to different principles of reform
even if their agendas sometimes overlapped. In Africa there was the Sufi inspired and Fulbe-based movement of El-jj Umar Tall (d. 1864) in what is
now Mali, Guinea, and the Senegal and there was the movement of the selfdeclared mahd Muammad Amad (d. 1885) also Sufi-inspired in the
Among all these competing movements of the period before the 20th century, one particular pattern of reform turned out to be stronger than all the
others and would dominate the discourse of Islamic revival from the end of the
19th century to today. This pattern of reform was a direct reaction to the widespread experience of military defeat that almost all Muslim countries made in

Ahmad Dallal, The Origins of Objectives of Islamic Revivalist Thought, 17501850, Journal of the American Oriental Society 113 (1993): 34159.
Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 87335.

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What Do We Mean By salaf?


the period between 1798 and 1920. This narrative equally responded to the experience of political and cultural decline and to the successful establishment
of colonial rule in almost all parts of the Muslim world. Stefan Wild observes
that, das Eindringen Europas in fast alle islamischen Gebiete zwischen Nordafrika und Indonesien war eine der strksten Triebfedern fr die mannigfaltigen Reformbewegungen, die unter Muslimen in dieser Zeit entstanden.94
Being colonized by Europeans drastically illustrated the inadequacy of the
kind of Islam that was regarded as mainstream the moment when the Europeans overwhelmed Muslims. Revival, according to the reformers, must come
from another kind of Islam that represents an earlier stage of Islamic history, a
stage when the balance of power between European and Muslim countries
was reverse or at least not tipped to the disadvantage of the latter. This pattern
of reform would aim at the return to and the revival of earlier expressions of
Islam or, in fact, assumed earlier expressions of Islam , and it can be broadly characterized as the pattern of Salafism. Those Muslim intellectual movements that adopted it during the 19th century turned out to be the strongest
and the most enduring ones.
The three reform movements of al-Afghn and Abduh as well as that of
Wahhbism and the l madhhabiyya initiated by al-Shawkn express the pattern just described. They all identified the reigning theology of the madrasa
education as being responsible for the widely perceived decline of Islamic culture and power and contrasted it with an ideal of the salaf. Who those salaf
were and what they stood for was, however, contested. For Abduh the salaf
were as we had seen earlier the major theologians of Islam up to al-Ghazl
and Ibn Taymiyya. For others they were limited to the companions of the
Prophet, who recorded adth from him. Again others followed Ibn Taymiyyas
earlier reform project and his understanding of the salaf. For Ibn Taymiyya,
salaf meant the collectors and early interpreters of adth up to the generation
of Amad b. anbal (d. 241/855).
The impression we take from Henri Lauzires article is that none of the
movements of the late 19th century in the big cities of the Muslim world that
were committed to the pattern of Salafism openly claimed to be al-salafiyya.
Those who use the word salaf positively and extensively and among them
was Muammad Abduh did not claim to represent al-salafiyya until the
early decades of the 20th century. This, I think, is simply a development of the
Arabic language, where isms (or rather iyyas) were introduced much later

Europes intrusion into almost all Islamic regions between North-Africa and Indonesia
provided one of the strongest motivations for the diverse movements of reform that
emerged among Muslims of this period. Wild, Muslim und Madhab, 674.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



than the ideologies they describe. Once the term salafiyya as an independent
singular noun (and not as a plural) existed, however, it became competed territory among the different movements that claimed a revival of the religious
attitudes and the teachings of the salaf.
It has already been stressed that different protagonists of Salafist reform
around the turn of the 20th century, whom we today count among different
interpretations of what salaf means, may themselves not have perceived these
differences or may have downplayed their significance. Many of them were
part of one and the same network. Jaml al-Dn al-Qsim as well as Mamd
Shukr al-ls, for instance, contributed to Rashd Ris journal al-Manr.95
Rashd Ri himself was influenced by l madhhabiyya thinking and explicitly
condemned the adherence to one of the four schools of law. Stefan Wild assumes that both al-Afghn and Muammad Abduh may have shared that very
same attitude.96 One should not forget that even the Muslim Brotherhood
aimed to go beyond the division of Muslims that was crated through the four
schools of laws. The Muslim Brotherhoods ideal of shara particular in its
earlier period before 1970 is one that rejects the school tradition of the
madhhib and claims to follow the original shara of Muammad before the
field of fiqh divided into different schools.97 L madhhabiyya thinking, for instance, as well as admiration for Ibn Taymiyya was not only popular in the circle of Numn al-ls and his followers in Damascus and Baghdad but in Cairo
as well.
From this perspective Henri Laousts 1932 article on the salafiyya should
simply be regarded as a document for the overlapping and often confusing relationships that members of the so-called modernist and purist salafiyya had
with one another. Itzchak Weismann, whose work on late-Ottoman Damascus
stresses the difference of Salaf-thinking in Syria from the sense of Salafism
that was dominant in late 19th century Cairo, also alerts us to the close cooperation and the close personal ties of these two different circles of Salaf reformers.98 One example is al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya in Cairo, which reflected
the ideals of Muammad Abduhs reform movement yet adopted that name


Nafi, Salafism Revived, 88.

Wild, Muslim und Madhab, 676f. Wild thinks that the two, shied away from discussing
this in the Islamic public.
Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, 216f., 237.
Itzchak Weismann, Taste of Modernity: Sufism and Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman
Damascus (Leiden: Brill, 2001), idem, The Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya and the Salafi Challenge in Iraq, Journal of the History of Sufism 4 (2003): 22940.

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What Do We Mean By salaf?


from a suggestion that came from hir al-Jazir, one of the purist Salafists
from Damascus.
The Heirs of the Salafist Reform Movement of the Late 19th
It does not seem to be productive to argue that Muammad Abduh or hir
al-Jazir, or that Jaml al-Dn al-Afghn or Numn al-ls deserve the label
of a Salaf more than the other. All four were committed to reform and revival according to the pattern of Salafism. Among them probably only alJazir described himself as a member of al-salafiyya, and this is simply an
expression of the fact that this label was not used during the lifetimes of the
three others. The situation can be roughly compared to the early socialist
movement of the late-19th century, where initially those who would become
communists and those who would turn into social democrats had worked together in one movement and more often than not one party. While there were
different attitudes to the means of social change (revolution versus reform)
right from the beginning, it is only after the First World War and the Bolshevik
Revolution in Russia that this direction split into two. After that, the two movements become strongly antagonistic and competed over labels such as socialist or Marxist that describe their shared attitudes of the 19th century.
Similarly, there was in Islam a broad Salafist movement of reform that began
around 1870 or 1880 and became stronger throughout the rest of the century.
The disillusionment that resulted from the outcome of the First World War in
the Arab world and the defeat of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria at the
hands of French troops in July 1920 led to a division of the movement. The
Muslim reactions to the results of the First World War are more complex than
that of the socialists at the same time, and that complexity may have obscured
our understanding. Unlike socialism, which experienced the end of the First
World War as a victory, the movement of Salafism experienced it as a defeat.
Leading members of the movement were active in King Fayals administration, among them Muammad Rashd Ri, who was elected president of the
Syrian Congress that declared independence in March 1920. Later that year
Rashd Ri had to leave Syria and became vice-president of the delegation of
Arabs who went to Geneva in 1921 to the League of Nations, protesting the
Middle Eastern mandates granted to Britain and France.99 Over the next de99

Dyala Hamzah, art. Rida, Muhammad Rashid (18651935), in: The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Islamic Political Thought, ed. G. Bowering (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013),

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220



cade this experience of defeat led to a rethinking of the movements attitude

toward cooperating with the colonial state. Soon, a younger generation would
draw lessons from the outcome of the First World War and create a different
kind of political and religious movement, namely the Muslim Brotherhood,
that would challenge the colonial state rather than cooperate with it.
The Anr al-Sunna al-Muammadiyya, the oldest and strongest of todays
Egyptian and Sudanese salafiyya organizations, formed at the same time in the
1920s when Muslim fundamentalism first emerged. Both were heirs of the
Salafist reform movement from the late 19th century, yet only one of these
movements actively claimed its legacy and continued to call itself salafiyya.
These latter groups were the more conservative members of the movement
that existed before the First World War. They continued to cooperate first with
the colonial state and then with the secular elites of the post-colonial state and
they claimed the label of al-salafiyya after the 1920s and the 1930s. If we follow
Itzchak Weismann, these groups were composed of students of the Damascus
and Baghdad branches of the earlier Salafist reform movement that became
heavily influenced by the re-discovery of Ibn Taymiyyas texts in local libraries
as well as by the fusion of l madhhabiyya and anbalism in the oeuvre of
Numn al-ls and others. Nir al-Dn al-Albn, the self-taught adth
scholar from the hiriyya Library in Damascus, was a typical representative of
this intellectual trend. Often described as apolitical, he was, in fact, willing to
cooperate with whatever political authority he was confronted with as long as
that cooperation would allow him to pursue his reformist agenda of practicing
fiqh based on an independent study of adth. In Reinhard Schulzes terminology this willingness to cooperate with the state characterizes representatives
of the Salafiyya movement as opposed to those of the neo-salafiyya who refuse
cooperation with the colonial and post-colonial states.
In 1929, the then Emir of Najd and recently crowned King of Hijaz Abd al-Azz
l Sad (reg. 190253) prohibited the official use of the epithet Wahhb and
recommended the use of salafiyya instead.100 The episode highlights that by
the late 1920s the term salafiyya had been established as a noun that carried


472f. Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muammad
Abduh and Rashd Ri (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 154f.
Nabil Mouline, Les Clercs de lIslam: Autorit religieuse et pouvoir politique en Arabie
Saoudite (XVIIeXXIe sicles) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011), 19f.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220

What Do We Mean By salaf?


enough prestige to be adopted in Abd al-Azzs project of religious nationbuilding. We should assume that during the 1920s the word salafiyya still had a
variety of references ranging from the modernist and liberal thought of
Muammad Abduh to the conservative revival of Ibn Taymiyya and the l
madhhabiyya tradition in Damascus and Baghdad. Already in 1924, the Saudis
had commissioned the publication of two anbalite texts at the Salafiyya Press
and Bookstore in Cairo and in 1927 the latter opened a branch in Mecca, a city
that in 1924 had come under Saudi domination.101 The Saudi leadership jumped
on the bandwagon of a religious term whose usage in Cairo and Damascus was
still relatively recent.102 Eventually, the Saudis would claim ownership of it.
This was not difficult after the more modernist and liberal tradition of salafiyya became absorbed either in the creation of a largely secularist post-colonial
state or in the Muslim fundamentalist opposition to it.103 The only notable
competition for the term salafiyya came from the conservative wing of the
Salafist reform movement of Damascus and Baghdad. While some among
them were strongly committed to a theology of l madhhabiyya al-Albn for
example others were also engaged in the study of anbalite scholarship and
were only all too willing to share the label of salafiyya with the anbalite
Wahhbs. Among the various groups that practiced a Salafist pattern of reform, the followers of Ibn Taymiyya, who himself had a credible connection to
the term, could make the most convincing claim of owning the salafiyya label.
Compared to them, the l madhhabiyya school was weak. Outside of the Indian subcontinent it failed to establish an independent and strong tradition. In
the Arab world, the l madhhabiyya tradition only survived by attaching itself
to anbalism and Wahhbism. What brought these two together was a shared
focus on adth studies, while their method in this field differed. A second and
maybe more important shared concern was their opposition to the strong tradition of Asharism combined with one of the three legal traditions of Shfiism,
Mlikism, or anafism.

Lauzire, The Construction of Salafiyya, 383.

Mouline, Les clercs de lIslam, 20, claims in a footnote that ulam in the Najd had used the
term salafiyya all throughout the 19th century.
While Charles Adams in his study of 1933 (Islam and Modernism in Egypt, 20568) discusses more than fifty Arab intellectuals whom he regards as followers of Muammad
Abduh among them e. g. Muammad usayn Haykal (18881947) or h usayn
(18891973) only a small group of Muslim intellectuals of the late 20th century would
describe themselves as part of the tradition that Muammad Abduh has created. Most
prominent among them is the Egyptian public intellectual, scholar, and editor of Abduhs
collected works Muammad Amra (1931). On his commitment to Abduh see von
Kgelgen, Averroes und die arabische Moderne, 66.

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The contemporary salafiyya in Egypt and Sudan is an amalgamation of l

madhhabiyya theology and conservative anbalism where members decide
for themselves how these two elements are weighted. For many that decision
is made by following one of the established leaders and teachers of the movement. Contemporary Salafs in Egypt or Sudan may regard a l madhhabiyya
scholar like Nir al-Dn al-Albn as their principal teacher or a traditional
Wahhb authority such as Abd al-Azz b. Abdallh l al-Shaykh (1943), the
current Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. A third choice would be one of the popular teachers of the Saudi scholarly establishment, such as Muammad b. alUthaymn (19252001) or Abd al-Azz b. Bz (191099), who both managed to
preserve a certain degree of independence from the Wahhb and Saudi establishment. Equally, they may regard all these as their teachers without perceiving a deep conflict between them. What this shows is that in terms of its
intellectual history the contemporary salafiyya has a dual pedigree of (1) l
madhhabiyya theology and the rejection of taqld as well as (2) the school tradition of anbalism and Wahhbism. While there are times when rifts between these two competing traditions become evident, it is remarkable and to
some degree astonishing how well they work together. The best explanation
for that is the strength of the doctrinal enemy that they are both pitted against.
This was first the Asharite establishment and its theology but it is now better
described as Islamic modernism and the movement of Islamic fundamentalism.

Die Welt des Islams 55 (2015) 186-220