The use of the term Salafism is equivocal and confusing. This equivocalness becomes apparent when many Salafis themselves are not entirely clear about what Salafism entails, assuming that it is simply to follow the Qur’an and Sunna - a problematic definition as it implies that other Muslims do not.
Furthermore, due to the equivocalness of the term, Salafism is claimed by all Muslims in the universal Islamic ideal to imitate the Prophet and the early pious Muslim community.
Because the very term Salafism connotes authenticity and legitimacy, every Muslim is a Salafi as they are obliged to follow the Prophet and his Companions in practicing Islam. Hence, non-Salafi Muslims today reject Salafis’ exclusivist claim on the term, arguing that other Muslims too may also have a claim to the term as non-Salafis are also followers of the al-salaf al-salih.
While Salafis themselves have failed to provide a universally accepted definition of the term “Salafism,” scholars and observers have also struggled with delineating what the term exactly means, the pivotal question of who or what group qualifies as Salafi, therefore, remains in dispute.
It is fair to argue that Western writers and media have failed to provide an accurate description and analysis of Salafism, while some writings on Salafism have been based on mere assumptions.
Despite conclusions to the contrary, Salafism is neither alien to Islam nor a deviation of the religion. Salafism is but one of the many manifestations of Islam like Sufism and the different movements within the broader Sunni or Shi’i Muslim tradition.
What differentiates a Salafi from a non-Salafi?
As a belief system based on original sources, one could argue, Salafism is a mainstream movement, but what then is the fundamental difference between a Salafi Muslim and a non-Salafi Muslim?
The question cannot produce straight-forward explanations due to the ambiguity of the term “Salafism” and the complex nature of the phenomenon.
The significant difference between a Salafi and a non-Salafi is not about adherence to the Qur’an, Sunna and the Salaf - which form the fundamental and most important ideals about the Salafi ideology - but how adherence is defined and how this translates into one’s daily-life.
In other words, the difference between the Salafis and non-Salafis i is about interpretations, understandings of religious texts, methodology and approach.
Diversity within the Salafi movement
Salafis consist of various sub-cultures and orientations - from moderate to extreme and from quietist to political activist to jihadist, or violence-oriented.
While most Salafis are unanimous in matters of aqidah (theology), they are divided on issues of jurisprudence and politics.
We can broadly divide Salafis into three groups:
- Purists. The purists argue, focus on purification of the faith through education and propagation.
- Politicos. The politicos emphasize application of the Salafi creed to the political arena.
- Jihadis. The Jihadis take a militant approach and argue that the current context calls for violence and revolution.
Similar to the categories, there are three main currents of Salafism today:
- al-Salafiyyah al-'iImiyyah. The scholarly Salafism, which is concerned with the study of the Holy Text and Islamic jurisprudence.
- al-Salafiyyah al-Harakiyyah. The activist Salafism, which describes both politically active Salafist groups and those groups that are not politically active but occupy a place in the public sphere through charity work and networks of social support and religious education institutes.
- al-Salafiyyah al-Jihadiyyah. Concerns itself with implementing jihad.
Salafism in Europe is divided into three streams:
- Predicative Salafism. This bases its actions on preaching and religious teachings.
- Political Salafism. This organizes its activities around a political logic.
- Revolutionary Salafism. This places ‘jihad’ at the heart of religious beliefs.
Each one of these currents, maintains a specific relationship with European societies, Muslim societies and the means - including jihad - of hastening the eventuality of the Islamic state.
Politicos. can be identified in three groups:
- Salafi Jihadis, like those in the al-Qa’ida organization who call for violent action against their adversaries and existing political leaders.
- Salafi Harakis, who advocate non-violent political activism.
- Scholastic Salafis, who adopt the quietist approach and a more traditional outlook, arguing that all forms of overt political organization, action, and violence are forbidden.
The modern Salafi groups and factions are not limited to the given categories, which are not exhaustive.
Some Muslims also adopt the Salafi way in select matters. In other words, they are Salafis at certain times and non-Salafi at others.
Due to the complexities of modern Salafism, categories and groups at times overlap. Furthermore, many of the groupings or labels mentioned above are considered derisive and therefore, are dismissed out of hand by Salafis.
The categories are, at best, fluid and rough approximations of the personalities and issues that divide Salafis. However, the labels are significantly more nuanced than the categories currently used by Western policy makers, analysts and law enforcement agencies to discuss establishment Salafis, Jihadis and those in between.
These Salafi groups refer to different religious scholars and texts for legitimacy and intellectual guidance. These interpretations then carry profound implications on the political, social and economic behavior of their followers.
Disagreements and disputes within these groups are apparent. Can a “good” Muslim listen to music? Should a “good” Muslim refrain from buying Israeli goods and products? Is it acceptable for a “good” Muslim to fight to overthrow a Muslim government that fails to implement the shari’a completely?
Each Salafi subset provides adherents with different answers and religious justifications to these and other questions, but the categorization provides nothing more than a rough topography of the Salafi terrain to assist observers speak in more nuanced terms about the ideological trends of modern Salafism.
Digging deeper into this issue will only make it more complicated to the western non-Muslim. Even to Islamic scholars it's hard to ascertain who is a Salafi and who is not. They most probably might stick to the following explanation:
„An individual can be a Salafi and adopt the Salafi methodology without being affiliated or ascribed to any Salafi group. Some Muslims also adopt the Salafi way in select matters.In other words, they are Salafis at certain times and non-Salafi at others.“