There is no question that Salafi doctrine is prevalent today in public displays of religiosity, demonstrated in rituals of daily worship. It is a viable political power on the national scene, in some countries as an influential current, while in others as an electoral force. Salafi groups are at the centre of much controversy among politicians and intellectuals, and the focus of many studies in academic research centres.
Since the events of 9/11, Salafi thought has left its jihadist imprint on international relations, becoming a dynamic, active and influential power in the Muslim world. It fills any vacuum left behind by other receding dynamics. Although Salafi doctrine is particularly diverse, including scientific, traditional, reformist, jihadist and others, it essentially fuses contemporary life with puritan principles within the Sunni sect in its relationship with the official and state religious authority. Beyond the Sunni framework, it is intellectually juxtaposed with other doctrines and forces that it perceives as symbols of world imperialism.
Salafism can be defined as a reformist attempt that includes belief and social components born during the time of Sheikh Ibn Taymiya and his disciple Ibn Al-Qiyam Al-Jawziya, in response to misunderstandings about proper Muslim doctrine. Salafis primarily adopt the literal meaning of Holy Scripture at the expense of other interpretations, which that they consider as divergent schools of religious practice. This makes it quintessentially fundamentalist and dogma-oriented, although Salafi doctrine was the umbrella for all reformist movements and endeavours during the 19th Century. This is also the reason why it became a far-reaching trend that since that time was not limited to a specific group or creed.
At the same time, the Salafi focus on text is the result of its interpretation of it, and at the same time its roots in a specific historical era that often confined the definition of Salafism to a scientific or jurisprudence nature or ritualistic practice, especially since the 1970s. This distinguishes a Salafi from other Muslims, at least on the psychological and behavioural levels, instead of Salafism becoming an intellectual doctrine embraced by particular group.
At the same time, worship aspects —in terms of people’s religious rituals and displays of religiosity —makes it a social doctrine that seeks moral reform for society according to a specific model that is believed to be more representative of Muslim society during its Golden Age. This feature in particular signifies the importance of the Salafi call, especially its most visible aspects (demonstration of obvious piety by wearing the niqab, or face veil, growing a beard, overall dress, etc). The root reason for this is that Salafism, by nature, leans towards simplifying understanding of religion without immense ideological discussions that have occupied other Islamic trends. Perhaps that is part of its appeal and opens many doors for the delivery of its message.
We will notice, however, when we look at Salafism as a social movement that goes beyond puritanism; that —contrary to what is written about it —it abides by the principle of progress and transformation. It is not out-dated or out of place as most writers claim. Salafism is influenced by time and place and is pluralistic and varied; the Wahhabi Salafis in the Gulf, for example, are different from their peers in Morocco who are nationalist Salafis; Salafis in Lebanon are found among followers of Al-Qaeda as well as allies of the Future Party because the doctrine is outside politics and cannot be influenced by it.
The importance of Salafism today poses complex questions for any researcher because of the changing nature referred to earlier, but these are questions that always clash with the questioning nature of Salafism that goes beyond its beliefs. This sometimes distances it from a social realism that might look at the dynamism of this school of thought, rather than just view it as a doctrine that is mostly described as hard line, extremist and closed on its followers.
How can the Salafi movement progress? More specifically, what are the contexts in which Salafi thought spreads? What are the historic requirements that allow the Salafi trend to become a viable alternative? Why does Salafism become the alternative when other options are absent? What is the outcome when Salafism transforms from a political, social and cultural context into another? What is the role of social and political agents in filtering or “adapting” Salafi thought according to the composition of the society this doctrine moves into? Does that mean that Salafism undergoes a state of “conditioning” despite its hard line belief system?
The path of arrival of Wahhabi Salafism in Egypt and its interactions with the Muslim Brotherhood movement is what is called “Salafisation,” or transformation into Salafism, which is a dynamic social and historic process. The interaction between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the advancing Salafi doctrine from Najd in the Arab peninsula was subjected to an extensive history that began in Sunni circles in the 1950s when the Brotherhood was first attacked in Egypt, until the peak that distinguished Sunnis in the 1970s —or what is known historically as the Saudi age —that allowed the Wahhabi doctrine to expand outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In this manner, the phenomenon of Salafisation is a social trend that rose and expanded in Saudi Arabia, and from under the cloak of Wahhabism, when the Muslim Brotherhood fled there to escape Nasser’s detention camps. Also, in the 1970s when Wahhabism influenced Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya on Egyptian university campuses, creating an entire Salafi trend led by students who have today become the elders of the Salafi calling, especially in Alexandria and Egypt’s Delta region.
The Muslim Brotherhood supposedly played a role in filtering Wahhabi Salafism and giving it an Egyptian character when they were able to incorporate the larger part of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and hence were able to soften the Salafi outlook in understanding faith and its place in politics, especially. Meanwhile, those who were not under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood turned right and left, depending on their position of joining the Brotherhood.
The more fanatic 1970s Salafis embraced root changes promoted by Sayyed Qutb and created jihadist branches of the Salafi trend. Others preferred to continue studying Islamic jurisprudence within Salafism and created in Egypt what became known as Salafi science.
A closer look at the Muslim Brotherhood enterprise that dominated the Islamic endeavour for three quarters of the last century confirms that this project has become exhausted and historically bankrupt, and all that remains after close examination is nothing more than headlines and signs of nostalgia to the good old days of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is occurring at a time when the Salafi ideological drive has reached its peak; Salafism has infiltrated the Brotherhood structure and has become the most effective and influential current within the movement.
The writer is an expert on Islamic movements.