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Lesson Plan: "Contemporary Salafi Movements"

Laurent Bonnefoy
Research fellow in political science
Institut Français du Proche-Orient

Course: Contemporary Middle East Politics
Syllabus Section: Contemporary Salafi Movements

Over the last few decades, Salafism has emerged as one of the most discussed topics among researchers working on the contemporary Middle East. While the object of much controversy inside and outside the region, and often painted as one of the prominent "bogeymen" of post-9/11 Muslim politics, Salafism has for long been ill-defined. Accordingly, efforts to distinguish contemporary Salafi movements from the salafiyah, the reformist doctrine first articulated in the early twentieth-century works of Muhammad ʿAbduh and Jamālal-Dīn al-Afghānī, became urgent by the mid-2000s. From then on, a set of conferences, articles, and books managed to provide specialists and nonspecialists with more satisfying definitions and case-studies.

Contemporary Salafi Movements


A clear overview of the doctrine and diversity of contemporary Salafi movements was written by Bernard Haykel for the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. His description of the theoretical debates and divergent trends within contemporary Islamism is a good introductory read for students, as is his broader analysis published in Roel Meijer's edited volume Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement.

Historical Roots

Contemporary Salafi thought was formalized in the course of the twentieth century, mainly through the influence of Muhammad al-Albānī (d. 1999) and ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Bin Bāz (d. 1999). Salafi clerics encouraged the study of the hadīth and the focus on matters of creed (ʿaqida) and worship (ʿibāda) rather than of Islamic Law (fiqh).

Teachers should emphasize the continuity between contemporary Salafism and a variety of attempts to reform Sunni Islam that have emerged since the Middle Ages, particularly around Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad Bin Abd al-Wahhāb, and Muhammad al-Shawkānī. These figures sought to purge Islam from a number of "reprehensible" innovations (bidʿa) and to return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, those labeled the pious ancestors (salaf al-salih).


The Salafi movements can broadly be defined through their quest to reassert the allegedly authentic practice of Islam as defined by the pious ancestors, the Qurʿan, and the hadith. Such an ambition has a number of theological implications. First, it implies that these movements emerged in reaction to a number of other groups, who in the eyes of the Salafis were deviating from the righteous path. In particular are the Sufis, who worship saints and as such are considered to practice shirk in contradiction with the principle of God's unity (tawhīd). Also in opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, who engage in party politics (hizbiyya) and favor allegiances to men-created organizations. Such a quest for authenticity also implies a formal rejection of the Sunni schools of Law (madhhab), which Salafis believe have divided the Muslim community. Asserting a literalist approach, the Salafis reject consensus (ijmaʿ) and analogical reasoning (qiyās), both of which are considered by mainstream Sunni clerics and by the four traditional madhhab as sources of jurisprudence. Salafis emphasize the fact that only the hadīth can be used to complete and explain what has been revealed by the Qurʿan. Rejection of innovations has also produced a number of daily constraints: for instance, music and television are forbidden by a number of Salafis.

Questions for Discussion

  • To what extent are Salafi movements a novelty?
  • How could Salafi doctrines and practices be defined?
  • To what extent can Salafi doctrines give a feeling of empowerment to those who practice them?


Building on these principles, a variety of contemporary Salafi movements have emerged, each with its own leading clerics and its own internal dynamics and debates. Teachers should present the three major trends that have developed in the course of the second half of the twentieth century and that are in intense competition with one another. The first and most visible, although likely to be the most marginal in numbers, is the jihādī Salafi movement, which may well overlap with other jihādī organizations as well as with other violent opposition movements (rebellions, unruly tribes). In contrast to the other two branches, it puts strong emphasis on the belief that violence is a legitimate and effective way to confront the internal and external enemies of Islam.

The second is the quietist Salafi movement also labeled scholastic (ʿilmī ). Its call for loyalty to the Muslim ruler in order to preserve the community from strife and disorder (fitnah) has encouraged strong links between the movement and a number of governments, particularly Saudi Arabia. As such, although radical in terms of creed and doctrine, their supposedly apolitical stance appears as rather moderate.

Overt rejection of political engagement and of criticism of governments by the quietist branch has led to the emergence of activist Salafism (salafiyya harakiyya). This third branch is emerging as the most dynamic. It has taken advantage of modern tools of propaganda, including television and the Internet, and appears more pragmatic than the quietist movement. In a number of countries (Kuwait, Yemen, and Egypt), it has engaged in direct political participation and endorsed democratic elections.

Case Studies

Among the various case studies, teachers could select three that emphasize the capacity of the various contemporary Salafi movements to adapt to their historical and political environments.

Jihādī Salafism in the form of al-Qaeda has been the object of much attention and scholarly work. Studies have highlighted the mechanisms through which global strategies and doctrines are being constrained by local and regional contingencies (alliances, repression, co-optation, etc.). Students could discuss the evolving strategies of the various branches, for example by studying Thomas Hegghammer's account Jihad in Saudi Arabia or Brynjar Lia's study of the jihadi ideological figure Abu Musʿab al-Suri: Architect of Global Jihad.

Activist Salafism in the form of the Sahwa islamiyya movement in Saudi Arabia can be presented as an interesting case study. Madawi Al-Rasheed's volume Contesting the Saudi State and Stéphane Lacroix's Awakening Islam both offer detailed and contextualized accounts of the movement. The Sahwa islamiyya developed in reaction to state-supported quietist Salafism (often labeled Wahhabism) and has emerged as one of the most prominent opponents of the Saudi monarchy, which has since the 2000s co-opted a number of its leading figures, including Salmān al-ʿAwda.

Students can analyze quietist Salafism through the example of the Yemeni movement developing since the 1980s around Muqbil al-Wādiʿī (d. 2001). The purportedly apolitical stance developed by the movement has been constantly reevaluated by its Salafi leaders and activists. Although benefiting from important Saudi Arabian support, the movement has long been critical of Saudi policies. Students could assess the existing gap between the Salafis' practices and doctrines by studying the Laurent Bonnefoy volume Salafism in Yemen.

Questions for Discussion

  • What are the various trends in contemporary Salafism? How are they evolving?
  • Explain how Salafi movements are distinct from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sufis, or the Tabligh, in terms of both doctrine and history.
  • Discuss the place of Saudi Arabia in the diffusion of the Salafi doctrine in the Islamic world, Europe, and North America.
  • In the context of the "Arab uprisings" started in 2011, to what extent are the various Salafi movements pressured to evolve?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi. Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Bonnefoy, Laurent. Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity. London: Hurst, 2011.
  • Commins, David. The Wahhabi Mission in Saudi Arabia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.
  • Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkānī . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Hegghammer, Thomas. Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Lacroix, Stéphane. Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Lia, Brynjar. Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Musʿab al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
  • Meijer, Roel, ed. Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement. London: Hurst, 2009.

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