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The Evolution of Salafism: A History of Salafi Doctrine

Although the notion of Salafism has existed for centuries, varying doctrinal and dogmatic contributions from different scholars have produced diverse interpretations over time. It is therefore important to distinguish where this term originates and who can rightfully be referred to as Salafis. “For decades, a majority of Scholars in the West…and self-proclaimed Salafi activists in the Muslim world, conceived of salafiyya as an enlightened reform movement aimed at the revival and progress of Islam.” This view emanated from the modernist reform movement initiated by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who sought to bolster Muslim societies through Pan-Islamic unity in response to European colonialism. To achieve this end, Afghani advocated that Muslims engage in personal re-interpretation (ijtihad) rather than rely on the interpretations of Islamic jurists (fuqaha).

Today, however, Salafism is understood by many as “a strict and puritanical branch of Islam…developed as an outgrowth of the ideas of Muhammad Bin 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792)” that adheres to a strict understanding of God’s oneness (tawhid) that is of central importance and a rigid scope of acceptable Islamic practices. However, only considering these two branches truncates and divides the true history of Salafism, which includes the contributions of Afghani, the modernists, and the Wahhabis, but traces its origins even further back.

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