Salafis made international headlines in September with assaults on US embassies in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. While they have mainly acted as pressure groups so far, some leaders fearful of violence want to steer Salafi activists into politics instead.
“There must be zero tolerance toward violence,” says Said Ferjani, a political bureau member of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that leads Tunisia’s coalition government. “We have to bring them into the sphere of intellectual and theological debate, because where there is debate, you can challenge their views.”
Salafis are Sunni Muslims who aim to emulate Islam’s first three generations, called “salaf” in Arabic, in a quest to transform society. But views differ on the right approach. Many Salafis simply try to set an example. Some get involved in preaching and charity work. A minority embrace varying degrees of violence.
The evolution of Salafi thinking dates to medieval scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah. His call to scrap centuries of jurisprudence and return to the “pure” Islam of the prophet Mohammed's time has inspired generations of fundamentalist reformers.
One was the 18th century scholar Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab, who branded other Muslims infidels – a widely reviled practice called takfir – and teamed up with the Al Saud family to seize control of central Arabia. His teachings now form the basis of Saudi Arabia’s state creed.
Most Salafi scholars, however, have warned against getting into politics. Sometimes called Scholastic Salafism, this school of thought urges Muslims to live piously and invite others to do likewise.
Both Salafis and more moderate reformers have long debated issues such as takfir, the concept of holy struggle called jihad, and the role of sharia – the comprehensive understanding of how Islam guides life. In recent decades a new discourse has offered stark answers.