What is Salafism? Interview with Mohamed-Ali Adraoui

Understanding Salafism Mohamed Ali Adraoui

In his recent book entitled Understanding Salafism, published with the Sciences Po series in international relations and political economy, Palgrave Macmillan, Mohamed-Ali Adaroui addresses the issue of one of the most visible and debated currents in contemporary radical Islam. A specialist of radical Islam, Adraoui provides us with a short, precise and well illustrated study of Salafism. Interview with the author.

Salafism is a multidimensional phenomenon as you write in your book; how then did you proceed to analyse and offer an accessible understanding of it in this short book?

Salafism is singular in its principle and undeniably plural in its manifestations and interpretations.
In Arabic, each word has a root, generally made of three letters, which gives the meaning of the word, and a pattern which gives its grammatical function. Let's leave the latter to focus on the root. In the case of the Arabic word “salafiyya”, which gives “Salafisme” in French or “Salafism” in English, it comes from the root s-l-f, which refers to precedence, to anteriority. Religiously, this term designates the predecessors of the Muslims of any given era coming after the three first generations of Muslims. These predecessors are the first Muslims in history, those who lived and were the actors of the advent of Islam from the very beginning.
Therefore, a “salafi” is any person or group willing to work for the restoration and re-establishment of the beliefs, practices, and even models of society that prevailed in the early days of Islam. This is why Salafism can be referred to as fundamentalism, puritanism, and an attempt to build an orthodoxy-orthopraxy within Islam.
However, what I have said here is essentially theoretical. It is not remarkable to say now that historically many clerics, communities, groups, political parties, and even sovereign states have tried to deploy a discourse and an action supposed to serve a Salafist vision of Islam, but according to modalities and principles that could differ or even oppose each other.
Let us think today for example of the Salafist parties in some Arab countries, largely nationalised, for whom preaching is best served by partisan political action within the framework of an institutionalised political game. Or to violent groups that do not recognise the nation-state in any way and intend to wage a globalised violent insurgency wherever they can in order to get rid of ‘usurping’ states and political leaders in the Muslim world, or to fight and punish non-Muslim states that they accuse of betraying Islam, seen not only as a religion but perhaps first and foremost for these supporters of a violent and armed understanding of Jihad, hence their name of "jihadists", as a politico-religious nation whose defence they must ensure.
There are also other ways in which Salafism has been understood in the past and today, including those who intend to reinforce a form of distrust of traditional politics, such as leaving it to the rulers of Muslim countries, or even non-Muslim states, to enact laws, make public decisions, or conduct foreign policies. These Salafists support a form of withdrawal from world affairs, sometimes in favour of a preaching effort based primarily on education, individual or small group outreach, or the purification of personal and family morals. There are many debates about these puritan communities and their role in the dissemination of theories of rupture in the midst of certain societies, even if they are also seen by some as fundamentalist, puritan, orthodox, and rigorist communities for whom the respect of religious injunctions on a daily basis without any great political purpose is sufficient in itself.

You refer to a topographical metaphor that you find useful for grasping the content of Salafism. Can you explain what you mean?

Yes, indeed. What I call the Salafist episteme is based on a vision of religion and life that can be compared to a path. A moral, identity, and social path. Since the beginnings of Islam, certain currents have remained faithful to the authenticity attributed to a standard period against which all subsequent periods must be measured. Others have moved away from it, producing a form of anarchy within Islam, or at least fragmentation. Today, again according to this metaphor, Muslims should take the path back to the source, that is, to the time of the Salaf, the Predecessors. In this respect, Salafism is based on a path, a viaticum, but it is also a methodology, since in order to take this retrospective path, one has to reproduce what the Salafists believe to have been the case in the original era. In this regard, one can say that Salafism is at the same time the goal, the justification, and the means.

Is there one—or several—Salafist episteme(s)? Can you explain?

Taking my cue from Michel Foucault, I modestly try to describe Salafism as both a container and a content. It is, first of all, a mode of archaeological understanding of the history of humanity and of Islam in particular, which induces specific ways of constituting and producing religious knowledge (by privileging, for example, the time of the Salaf over any other period of the history of Islam and of Muslim societies). It is then a content given by the Salafist actors to their religion in the different spheres of human action: cultic, doctrinal, cultural, familial, political, etc. For example, a much-discussed content is that which relates to the role of politics in the puritanical reform that Salafists call for, even violence, some seeing it as absolute evil, others as the solution par excellence to the problems of Muslims =. The same applies to the relationship with non-Muslims, with some encouraging forms of personal or collective rupture, and others calling today, as we see at the top of official Saudi religious bodies, for a union of ‘people of good’ will to solve the world's problems. More than ever, one cannot understand contemporary Salafism without bearing in mind these essential differences in content, which contribute to both the spread of Salafism on a global scale and its fragmentation.

What has brought this form of Islam (back) into the international spotlight? What role did Saudi Arabia play?

There are in fact many factors that can explain the spread and symbolic, social, or political success of Salafism today, or rather its manifestations.
We can mention some of them here.
On the international level, the role of Saudi Arabia should be neither minimised nor overestimated. It is true that the post–World War II period saw a redistribution of political and religious cards in the Middle East, in the Arab world, and in Muslim societies around the world, more specifically from the 1960s to 1970s.
Religious networks linked to the kingdom, whose social contract is clearly oriented towards the defence of rigorist Salafist theses, particularly in their wahhabist version, have emerged. Those linked to certain Islamic universities, in Mecca, Medina, or Riyadh for example need to be mentioned here. Others are linked to international institutions whose creation and financing are explicitly ensured by the Saudi elites who, for both dogmatic and strategic reasons, want to prevent any challenge to the transnational system they have been trying to build since World War II. Others still, are linked to more formal Saudi-centred networks involving clerics interacting with the official religious authorities of the kingdom, including the Grand Mufti, the Council of Great Scholars, or the Permanent Delegation for Islamic Research and Advice.

Saudi Arabia Al MasmakSaudi Arabia, Al Masmak. Photo by Friemann for Shutterstock

But this Saudi factor also explains the turbulence and tensions that have characterised the global Salafist field for several decades. Some movements have thus been endorsed like many Sunni groups, first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood, before becoming adversaries clearly targeted by these same religious authorities.
Beyond the Saudi factor, it is also worth mentioning the no less interesting recompositions of Islam in other national offers over the long term. In addition to the dynamics of the individualisation of religious paths and imaginaries in all the countries of the world and in all the religious universes of the planet, we must also mention the crisis of traditional authorities, of which al-Azhar is a striking example in Egypt, but we could obviously speak of other national situations. The dialectic between religious culture and "pure" Islam should also be analysed. We can mention Turkey, where Salafist discourse is significantly less influential than in other countries such as Algeria, Egypt, or Bosnia. This is certainly due to the strong nationalisation of Islam in Turkey and the absence of space for competing narratives. The nationalisation of Islam is moreover the preferred strategy of many anti-Salafist actors in order to put in place a religious culture that is supposedly impervious to the overly rigorous or even radical norms and practices that are attributed to Salafism. We have seen this in the debates on Islam in France for several years without it exhausting the subject. At the global level, these elements and many others interact to explain the successes as well as the recompositions and crises of Salafist narratives today and for the decades to come.

Your book refers to the rise of a “soft Salafism”; can you expand on this notion/phenomenon?

I want to refer here to one of the main consequences induced by the tensions that have impacted Saudi political and religious elites for several decades.
More specifically, I want to refer to the interpretations of Salafism that have been in vogue for several years at the top of the religious establishment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for which a certain number of political and doctrinal priorities are now imposed, the most pressing of which are undoubtedly the ideological disarmament of the groups with which the Saudi monarchy is in opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist currents in particular.
The reasons for being of this soft salafism are obviously political and self-interested in order to enhance the image and place of the Saudi kingdom, but also deeper since they involve some of the key figures of contemporary Salafism such as the Grand Mufti of the kingdom or the President of the Islamic World League, an institution founded in the 1960s to spread the Salafist imaginary of the time in the face of Arab socialist countries, especially in the context of the Arab Cold War.
It is now a question, if we follow certain important religious dignitaries, of encouraging cooperation between the great religions, of encouraging peace, of combating "misguided" groups (a way of naming the jihadists as well as other currents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated ones) and, as far as the debates linked to Islam in the West are concerned, for example, of facilitating the integration of Muslim communities established in Europe, North America, or Oceania.
While it is too early to judge the sustainability of this soft Salafism, these changes are different enough from the positions taken by these same religious leaders several years ago to be debated.

Can Salafism be modern? What is distinctive about current day Salafism?

This may come as a surprise at first, but any fundamentalist ambition is modern in the primary sense of the term, because it is a look at a mythologised or even idealised past by people who belong to the contemporary era. On this point, chronological modernity is even consubstantial with the construction of a fundamentalist narrative.
Moreover, if a fundamentalist narrative, in this case Salafist for what interests me, is the fruit of a despised era, this does not mean that everything modern is to be abandoned.
This is true not only of many scientific and technological advances that facilitate entire areas of human existence, but also the life of religious communities, starting with the most puritanical of them. Let us think, for example, of the impact of the virtual sphere generated by the net in the constitution and then the diffusion of the different Salafist imaginaries. These forms of deterritorialized Islam to a large extent have no regard for national borders or local cultures. On the contrary, they may even be perfectly compatible with these modes of identity. Salafist narratives present themselves as "pure" religion, based on discourses, norms, and practices that are supposedly invariant from one country to another. This is even an argument of superiority for the proponents of this religiosity, since they can say that their vision does not change with the passing of centuries, nor according to social and geographical contexts.
Finally, in terms of the modes of socialisation favoured by many Salafist communities, whether in a minority or majority Muslim context, it is difficult not to see an appropriation of the codes of political or cultural modernity by many Salafist communities throughout the world. I will cite two examples. Salafism has become more politically engaged and is competing for power in many Arab countries such as Kuwait or Egypt by adopting the modern national political party in the early 2000s or 2010s, which was inconceivable for many Salafist clerics until then. The Salafism of withdrawal, quietist and pietistic, for which the salutary migration, globalised when it concerns Western Salafists living in non-Muslim countries settling in Islamic lands, is legitimate. Migrating in the name of God in this case can be seen as a practice of rupture certainly, but also as the revival of a pan-Islamic imaginary that makes the Muslim East the land of religious authenticity in the face of the moral vices that are supposed to be amplified in the Western context.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.

Access the series list of publications

Back to top