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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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What is Salafi Islam?

“Salafi,” in its strict sense, means returning to the pristine Islam of the first generation (salaf, or pious ancestors) of Muslims. Like Wahhabis, Salafis idealize the period of Muhammad and his Companions as an uncorrupted time for the religious community. They believe that Islam declined after the early generations because un-Islamic innovations (bida) were introduced. Therefore today there must be a return to the practices of the early generations and a purge of un-Islamic and foreign influences.

The Salafis' uncompromising monotheism leads them to condemn many common Muslim beliefs and practices, and in particular Sufi and Shii doctrines, as polytheism (shirk). They regard most Islamic movements today as innovations or deviations from “true Islam” and therefore “heretical.”

Today Salafism is used as an umbrella term that can be misleading because it includes many groups and shades of belief. Salafism is found in many Muslim-majority countries as well as in European and American communities where individuals see it as an attractive alternative to cultural practices of Islam and secularism. For example, Salafis include disaffected second-generation Muslim youth who want to define their identity by rejecting the foreign cultural practices of the Islam embraced by their parents and grandparents as well as the secular practices of Westernization. Salafis see themselves as embracing an authentic, original, “pure” form of Islam that transcends a specific culture and emphasizes Islam's universality instead.

What about militant Salafism? Like Wahhabi Islam, Salafi religious exclusivism can lead to intolerance of other believers, both other Muslims—in particular Shii Muslims, whom Salafis despise—and non-Muslims. In itself, a religiously exclusivist theology is not necessarily violent. An exclusivist theology merely entails a division between those who will, and those who will not, go to paradise after the Day of Judgment. An exclusive worldview, like that of other radical fundamentalisms (Christian, Jewish, or Hindu), lends itself to extremism and violence when fundamentalists claim to legitimate their political agendas as a mandate from God. Global terrorists in North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia exemplify this militant Salafi ideology and threat.

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