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A Salafi (Arabic: سلفي) is a Muslim who emphasises the Salaf ("predecessors" or "ancestors"), the earliest Muslims, as model examples of Islamic practice. The term has been in use since the Middle Ages but today refers especially to a follower of a modern Sunni Islamic movement known as Salafiyyah or Salafism, which is related to or includes Wahhabism (a name which some of its proponents consider derogatory, preferring the term Salafism), so that the two terms are often viewed as synonymous. Salafism has become associated with literalist, strict and puritanical approaches to Islam and, in the West, with the Salafi Jihadis who espouse violent jihad against civilians as a legitimate expression of Islam. It has been noted that the Western association of Salafi ideology with violence stems from writings done "through the prism of security studies" that were published in the late 20th century, having persisted well into contemporary literature. More recent attempts have been made by academics and scholars who challenge these major assumptions. Academics and historians use the term to denote "a school of thought which surfaced in the second half of the 19th century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas," and "sought to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization."
Just who or what groups and movements qualify as Salafi remains in dispute. In the Arab world, and possibly even more so now by Muslims in the West, it is usually secondary to the more common term Ahl-as-Sunnah (i.e., "People of the Sunnah") while the term Ahl al-Hadith (The People of the Tradition) is more often used in the Indian subcontinent to identify adherents of Salafi ideology, a term that is used in the Middle-East more often to indicate scholars and students of Hadith. All are considered to bear the same or similar connotation and have been used interchangeably by Muslim scholars throughout the ages, Ahl al-Hadeeth possibly being the oldest recorded term for these earliest adherents while Ahl as-Sunnah is overwhelmingly used by Muslim scholars, including Salafis as well as others, such as the Ash'ari sect, leading to a narrower use of the term "Salafi". The Muslim Brotherhood includes the term in the "About Us" section of its website while others exclude that organisation in the belief that the group commits religious innovations. Other self-described contemporary salafis may define themselves as Muslims who follow "literal, traditional ... injunctions of the sacred texts" rather than the "somewhat freewheeling interpretation" of earlier salafis. These look to Ibn Taymiyyah, not the 19th century figures of Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida.
According to the 2010 German domestic intelligence service annual report, Salafism is the fastest growing Islamic movement in the world.
The first generations of Muslims are collectively referred to as the "Pious Predecessors" (as-Salaf as-Saleh), and include the "Companions" (Sahabah), the "Followers" (Tabi‘un) and the "Followers of the Followers" (Tabi‘ al-Tabi‘in). These are revered in Sunni Islamic orthodoxy and their example used in understanding the texts and tenets of Islam by Sunni theologians since the fifth Muslim generation or earlier, sometimes to differentiate the creed of the first Muslims from subsequent variations in creed and methodology (see Madhab), to oppose religious innovation (bid‘ah) and, conversely, to defend particular views and practices. 
Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies, states that among Sunnis is "a strongly held view that temporal proximity to the Prophet Muhammad is associated with the truest form of Islam."  This veneration is based on a number of records of the sayings of Muhammad who said, "I am the best Salaf for you" and, as narrated in the Sahih al-Bukhari of `Abd Allah ibn `Umar, a companion of Muhammad; "The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them and then those who will come after them..."|Sahih al-Bukhari collected by Muhammad al-Bukhari. Other narrations indicate that there will follow people who will bear false witness of Islam.
Salafis view the Salaf as an eternal model for all succeeding Muslim generations in their beliefs, exegesis, method of worship, mannerisms, morality, piety and conduct: the Islam they practiced is seen pure, unadulterated and, therefore, the ultimate authority for the interpretation of the Sunnah. This is not interpreted as an imitation of cultural norms or trends that are not part of the legislated worship of Islam but rather as an adherence to Islamic theology. Salafis reject speculative philosophy (kalam) that involves discourse and debate in the development of the Islamic creed. They consider this process a foreign import from Greek philosophy alien to the original practice of Islam. The Imam, Al-Dhahabi (d. 748H / 1348) said:
It is authentically related from ad-Daaraqutnee that he said: There is nothing more despised by me than kalam. I say: He never entered into kalam nor argumentation. Rather, he was a Salafi.
Salafism holds that the Qur'an, the Hadith and the consensus (ijma) of approved scholarship (ulama) along with the understanding of the Salaf us-salih as being sufficient guidance for the Muslim. As the Salafi da'wa is a methodology and not a madh'hab in fiqh as commonly misunderstood, Salafis can come from the Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali or the Hanafi schools of Sunni jurisprudence and accept teaching of all four if supported by clear and authenticated evidence from the Sunnah. They support qualified scholars to engage in ijtihad in the face of a clear evidence be it from Qur'an of Hadeeth as opposed to total blind imitation (taqlid) if he is qualified. Their views in theology are based on the Athari creed as opposed to engaging in kalam, dialectics or any form of speculative philosophy.
Salafism condemns many common practices as polytheism (shirk) and impermissible intercession of religious figures, such as venerating the graves of Islamic prophets and saints or using amulets to seek protection. They maintain that practices which are understood to be bid‘ah or heretical innovations are not permissible and should not be taught or practiced. Salafis believe that Islam's decline after the early generations results from religious innovations and from an abandoning of pure Islamic teachings; that an Islamic revival will only result through emulation of early generations of Muslims and purging of foreign influences.
Salafis place great emphasis on following acts in accordance with the known sunnah, not only in prayer but in every activity in daily life. Many are careful to always use three fingers when eating, drink water in three pauses with the right hand while sitting and make sure their jellabiya or other garment worn by them does not extend below the ankle so as to follow the example of Muhammad and his companions.
Salafi scholars are in staunch opposition to the use of kalam, dialectics or speculative philosophy in theology. This is because it is seen as a heretical innovation in Islam which opposes the primordial aspiration to follow the original methodology of the Salaf us-salih with regards to Aqidah. Statements of the early Imams of the early Muslims are in corroboration with this such as Imam Abu Hanifa who prohibited his students from engaging in kalam, stating that those who practice it are of the "retarded ones." Imam Malik ibn Anas referred to kalam in the Islamic religion as being "detested", and that whoever "seeks the religion through kalam will deviate". In addition Imam Shafi'i said that no knowledge of Islam can be gained from books of kalam, as kalam "is not from knowledge" and that "It is better for a man to spend his whole life doing whatever Allah has prohibited - besides shirk with Allah - rather than spending his whole life involved in kalam." Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal also spoke strongly against kalam, stating his view that no one looks into kalam unless there is "corruption in his heart," and even went so far as to prohibit sitting with people practicing kalam even if they were defending the Sunnah, and instructing his students to warn against any person they saw practicing kalam.
From the perspective of Salafis the history of the Salafi dawah starts with Muhammad himself. They consider themselves direct followers of his teachings as outlined in the Qur'an and Sunnah (prophetic traditions), and wish to emulate the piety of the first three generations of Islam (the Salaf). All later scholars are merely reviver's (not 'founders') of the original practices. Modern scholars may only come to teach (or remind) Muslims of the instructions of the original followers of Islam, who based their beliefs and actions on the Qur'an and Sunnah.
Landmarks claimed in the history of Salafi da'wah are Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.240 AH / 855 AD) who is known among Salafis as Imam Ahl al-Sunnah, and one of the three scholars commonly titled with the honorific Sheikh ul-Islam, namely, Taqi ad-Deen Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728 AH / 1328 AD) and Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751 AH / 1350).
Many today consider Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab as the first figure in the modern era to push for a return to the religious practices of the salaf as-salih. His evangelizing in 18th century Arabian Peninsula was a call to return to the practices of the early Muslims. His works, especially Kitab at-Tawhid, are still widely read by Salafis around the world today, and the majority of Salafi scholars still reference his works frequently. After his death, his views flourished under his descendants, the Al ash-Sheikh, and the generous financing of the House of Saud and initiated the current worldwide Salafi movement.
The vast majority of Salafis reject the Wahhabi label because they consider it unfounded, an object of controversy, holding that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not establish a new school of thought but restored the Islam practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims. Followers of Salafiyyah consider it wrong to be called "Wahhabis" as the 17th Name of God is al-Wahhab ("the Bestower") and to be called a "Wahhabi" denotes the following of a person other than what in actuality is the believed following of the Qur'an and Sunnah. Wahhabism has been called a "belittling" and derogatory term for Salafi, while another source defines it as "a particular orientation within Salafism," an orientation some consider strongly apolitical, and yet another describes it as a formerly separate current of Islamic thought that appropriated "language and symbolism of Salafism" until the two became "practically indistinguishable" in the 1970s.
Trevor Stanley states that, while the origins of the terms Wahhabism and Salafism "were quite distinct" – "Wahhabism was a pared-down Islam that rejected modern influences, while Salafism sought to reconcile Islam with modernism" – they both shared a rejection of "traditional" teachings on Islam in favor of a direct, more puritan interpretation. Stéphane Lacroix, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, also affirmed a distinction between the two: "As opposed to Wahhabism, Salafism refers here to all the hybridations that have taken place since the 1960s between the teachings of Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab and other Islamic schools of thought. Al-Albani’s discourse can therefore be a form of Salafism, while being critical of Wahhabism."
The migration of Muslim Brotherhood members from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Saudi King Faisal's "embrace of Salafi pan-Islamism resulted in cross-pollination between Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab's teachings on tawhid, shirk and bid‘ah and Salafi interpretations of the sayings of Muhammad.
Salafism is attractive to its adherents because it underscores Islam's universality. It insists on affirmation of the literal truth as understood by its apparent meaning of Qur'anic scripture and Hadeeth, yet may challenge secularism by appropriating secularism's traditional role of defending the socially and politically weak against the powerful.
In recent years the Salafi methodology has mistakenly come to be associated with the jihad of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and related groups that advocate the killing of innocent civilians. These acts have consistently been strongly opposed by Salafi scholars such as Sheikh Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen and Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd Allah ibn Baaz who had all issued fatawa (religious verdicts) forbidding suicide bombing declaring the act as being totally haram (forbidden).
"We say that suicide operations now, in the present times, all of them are without legislation and all of them are forbidden. It could be that the person who commits it could fall into the category of those who remain in the Hellfire forever, or it could be that he does not remain in the Hellfire forever..."
" ...as for what some people do regarding activities of suicide, tying explosives to themselves and then approaching Unbelievers and detonating them amongst them, then this is a case of suicide, and Allaah¹s refuge is sought. So whoever commits suicide then he will be consigned eternally to Hell-Fire, remaining there forever, as occurs in the hadeeth of the Prophet, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam. (i.e., his, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam, saying, " and whoever kills himself with an iron weapon, then the iron weapon will remain in his hand, and he will continuously stab himself in his belly with it in the Fire of Hell eternally, forever and ever." Reported by al-Bukhaaree, no. 5778 and Muslim, no. 109, in the Book of Eemaan). Because this person has killed himself and has not benefited Islam. So if he kills himself along with ten, or a hundred, or two hundred other people, then Islam will not benefit by that, since the people will not accept Islam... ... Rather it will probably just make the enemy more determined, and this action will provoke malice and bitterness in his heart to such an extent that he may seek to wreak havoc upon the Muslims. This is what is found from the practice of the Jews with the people of Palestine, so when one of the Palestinian blows himself up and kills six or seven people, then in retaliation they take sixty or more. So this does not produce any benefit for the Muslims, and does not benefit those amongst whose ranks explosives are detonated. So what we hold is that those people who perform these suicide (bombings) have wrongfully committed suicide, and that this necessitates entry into Hell-Fire, and Allah¹s refuge is sought and that this person is not a martyr (shaheed). However if a person has done this based upon misinterpretation, thinking that it is permissible, then we hope that he will be saved from sin, but as for martyrdom being written for him, then no, since he has not taken the path of martyrdom. But whoever performs ijtihaad and errs will receive a single reward (if he is a person qualified to make ijtihaad)."
" ...such an act is never correct because it is a form of killing oneself and Allāh subhanahu wa ta'ala says: < And do not kill yourselves. [Sūrah al-Nisā 4:29] > And the prophet salAllahu 'aleihi wa selim said: < Whoever kills himself by any means, he will be punished by it on the Day of Resurrection.” [Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 71, Number 670] > The person should rather strive and seek to guide them and if fighting is legalized and legislated, then he fights alongside the Muslims. If he’s then killed in this way, then Allāh is praised. But as for killing himself by booby-trapping his body with explosives, thereby killing others and himself, this is wrong and completely impermissible. Rather, he should fight with the Muslims only when fighting is legitimately legislated. As for the [suicidal] actions of (some of) the Palestinians, they are wrong and produce no benefit. Instead, it is compulsory upon them to call to Allāh by teaching, guiding, and advising and not by such actions as these."
The groups and individuals that carry out terrorist attacks are regarded as being out of the fold of the methodology of the Salaf, misguided and deviant; chiefly erroneous "Qutubi jihadism" groups.
A majority of Salafi scholars stand firmly against the present-day manifestations of terrorism in the name of jihad, particularly as it relates to terrorism and the killing of civilians and innocents. They hold their opinion against as:
No individual has the right to take the law into his own hands on any account. Even the closest of Prophet Muhammad's companions never killed a single of his opponents even when invectives were hurled at him day and night in the first thirteen years of his Da'wah at Makkah. Nor did they kill anyone in retaliation when he was pelted with stones at Ta'if.
Salafist jihadism was a term coined by Gilles Kepel to describe those self claiming Salafi groups who began developing an interest in jihad during the mid-1990s. Practitioners are often referred to as Salafi jihadis or Salafi jihadists. Journalist Bruce Livesey estimates Salafi jihadists constitute less than 1 percent of the world's 1.9 billion Muslims (c. 10 million). However those who take their actions beyond the limits of the shari'ah (such as terrorist attacks against civilians) are seen as deviant and not being true "Salafis".
Despite some similarities, the different contemporary self-proclaimed Qutubi groups often strongly disapprove of one another and deny the other's Islamic character and normally criticise known Salafi scholars.
Some Salafi Muslims often preach disengagement from Western activities, and advocate being apolitical and being against any form of extremism, "even by giving them an Islamic slant." Instead, it is thought that Muslims should stick to traditional activities, particularly Dawah. Nevertheless, Salafis do not preach willful ignorance of civil or state law. While preaching that the Sharia takes precedence, Salafi Muslims conform to civil or state law as far as they are required, for example in purchasing mandatory auto insurance.
Salafism has been recently criticized by Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA School of Law. El Fadl argues that the Salafi methodology "drifted into stifling apologetics" by the mid-20th century, a reaction against "anxiety" to "render Islam compatible with modernity," by its leaders earlier in the century. He attacks those who state "any meritorious or worthwhile modern institutions were first invented and realized by Muslims". He argues the result was that "an artificial sense of confidence and an intellectual lethargy" developed, according to Abou El Fadl, "that took neither the Islamic tradition nor" the challenges of the modern world "very seriously."
Salafism is intensely opposed by a number of Hui Muslims in China, by the Gedimu and Sufi Khafiya and Jahriyya. So much so that even the Yihewani (Ikhwan) Chinese sect, which is fundamentalist and was founded by Ma Wanfu who was originally inspired by the Salafis, condemned Ma Debao and Ma Zhengqing as heretics when they attempted to introduce Salafism as the main form of Islam. Ma Debao established a Salafi school, called the Sailaifengye (Salafi) menhuan in Lanzhou and Linxia, and it is a completely separate group from other Muslim sects in China. Muslim Hui avoid Salafis, even if they are family members, and they constantly disagree. The number of Salafis in China are not included on percentage lists of Muslim sects in China. The Kuomintang Sufi Muslim General Ma Bufang, who backed the Yihewani (Ikhwan) Muslims, persecuted the Salafis, forcing them into hiding. They were not allowed to move or worship openly. The Yihewani had become secular and Chinese nationalists, and they considered the Salafiyya to be "heterodox" (xie jiao), and people who followed foreigners' teachings (waidao). Only after the Communists took over were the Salafis allowed to come out and worship openly again.
German government officials have stated that Salafism has a strong link to terrorism but have clarified that not all Salafists are terrorists. The statements by German government officials criticizing Salafism were televised on Deutsche Welle broadcasts for the week of April 18, 2012.