Francesco Errico Bergoglio*
The Salafi movement has a demanding and clear charter, designed to unite.
Generally, all Salafists share a puritan approach to the religion, abstaining from religious innovation and remaining true to what they see as the model of the prophet of Islam.
Believers are united by a common creed, aqida, which provides principles and methods for applying religious beliefs to contemporary issues and problems. This creed revolves around tawhid, the central concept of the oneness of God, and limits the roles of human logic, reason and desire when they conflict with doctrine.
Idealistically, Salafists believe that by following the rules and guidance in the Qur’an and Sunna they can eradicate the biases of human subjectivity and self-interest and so identify and realize the truth of God’s commands.
Despite this common approach to religious jurisprudence, Salafists often differ strongly when interpreting contemporary politics and contextual problems.
Over time, the conflicts of interpretation have generated three distinct, competing and sometimes warring factions in the Salafi movement – the purists, the politicos, and the jihadis.
The Purist Faction
The purists want to practice, promote and defend Islam as it was in what they see as its most pristine earliest days, as presented in the Qur’an, Sunna, and the consensus of the companions of the prophet. To preserve and promote the creed in our times, they believe, it is necessary to combat deviant practices and elements of human desire and reason.
The proper methods for upholding the creed are propagation, purification and religious education, respectively, da’wa, tazkiyya, and tarbiya. This method is based on the history of the Meccan period, when the prophet began his peaceful mission to spread Islam. The basic line of reasoning is that the prophet and his companions were repressed, but they remained peaceful in order to facilitate the spread of Islam.
This leads to views many outsiders will find objectionable. For example, a common refrain holds that “the Jews and Christians will never be pleased with you until you change your religion”. This Qur’anic verse can shape a conspiratorial view of non-Muslims as arch-enemies who aim to pull Muslims away from their beliefs.
Purists transform this suspicion into an active ideological program to prevent any usage of Western values, behaviors, or systems of logic to discuss religion. This even applies to the use of concepts and categories of analysis. If the prophet and his companions did not use them, they are innovations, bi’da, which threaten tawhid. Indeed, for some, there are even simple words and terms which must be considered innovations, such as “fundamentalism”, “terrorism”, and “Islamic awakening”, al-sahwah al-Islamiyya.
For the purist faction, even other Salafis can be threats – they see Western deviant influence in the strategies of the rival factions. The politico and jihadi factions do share the common creed, aqida, but purists believe they do not follow the proper method of implementation. Consequently, purists distinguish between the Salafi creed and Salafi methodology, manhaj.
According to purists, to be a Salafi, a Muslim must adhere to proper methodology as well as proper beliefs. In this respect, purists reject the oppositional approach, including violence, of the politicos and jihadis as religious innovation without precedent in the prophetic model and the consensus of the companions. Indeed, for the purists, the contentious politics of the rival factions are seen as products of the West and their revolutionary model is typically linked to the American and French revolutions or Marxism.
Using non-Islamic methods to promote the aqida is especially vexatious for the purists. On the one hand, those who do so are engaged in irja, the separation of belief and action. Secondly, they choose the most effective strategies and then misappropriate religious evidence to support their decision, making them rationalists driven by human desire. This means that the dispute is about strategy, not belief.
These are crucial issues for the purists. They view the rival factions as two of the most dangerous threats to the purity of Islam. This stings – the fact that they share the same creed makes the rival factions a nefarious deviancy. For this reason, purists tell their followers not to read books favored by the rival factions, such as the works of Qutb, Mawdudi, Suroor, al-Hawali, al-Awdah, and others.
The Politico Faction
The politico faction was born of a generational struggle. In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of young, well-educated Salafist academics emerged from the universities. They were more politically orientated than their elders and often opposed the older scholars who dominated the purist faction and controlled the Council of Senior Ulama and the state religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. The politicos argued that they had a better understanding of contemporary issues and were therefore better placed to apply the aqida in modern contexts.
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a turning point for the politicos. Prior to the invasion, they had remained generally deferential to their more senior purist elders. This changed dramatically after the senior purists issued a fatwa permitting the deployment of American troops in Saudi Arabia.
Incensed, Safar al-Hawali and others argued that the regime and the purist scholars misread American intentions and that the arrival of American troops was just the beginning of strategic move to dominate the Muslim world. For the politicos, the invitation to American troops was not simply seeking help, isti’anaj, but an invitation for colonization. The Gulf War fatwa led many younger scholars to question whether the senior purists really understood the political world in which they lived at all.
It is important to note that critique was not about a difference in belief. It specifically doubted whether the purists grasped the context to which they were expected to apply the aqida. Gaining confidence, the politicos presented themselves as more informed and better situated to address political issues such as the Gulf War.
The contrasts were very sharp. While the purists insisted on preaching about doomsday, how to pray, the heresy of saint worship, and so on, purists railed about corrupt regimes in the Muslim world repressing their peoples, the Israelis occupying Islamic land, the Americans launching an international campaign to control the Muslim world, the Russians suppressing separatists in Chechnya and Dagestan, and the Indians slaughtering Kashmiri Muslims.
The fissures quickly deepened. Frustrated by the purist scholars’ continuing insistence on remaining outside politics, the politicos derided the senior purists as “mummified” and “a collection of blind men who have given themselves the roles of leading the ‘Ummah in giving verdicts” and “those who live in the Middle Ages”. For their part, the purists dug in, insisting that a focus on current affairs produces emotional responses that lead to deviant practices, thus threatening tawhid.
The politicos’ challenge did spark an important debate about what came to be known as the jurisprudence of current affairs, al-fiqh al-waqi. This is where the jihadis come in.
The Jihadi Faction
The jihadi faction emerged during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Unlike the politico faction, they use violence to support their strategy quite readily. They receive their political training on the battlefield, not in theological tussles with purists.
Yet they are intellectually close to the politicos. They generally accept the politico argument that the purists have a rather limited comprehension of context. Even here, the conflict is about strategy, not differences over the aqida. The jihadists believed that the purists were knowledgeable about Islam, but they argued the purists were either ignorant about the contemporary state of affairs or hiding the truth about the context from the people.
For jihadists like bin Laden and al-Zarqawi, the purists represent al-ulama al-sulta, or the scholars of the rulers, understood in a pejorative sense. In jihadi reasoning, if purists were willing or able to come forward and explain the truth about repressive regimes, everyone would recognize that arguments for action become operative, according to shared Salafi precepts. Even here, the critique is not about belief. It is about the unwillingness of the purists to put this belief into practice by addressing the injustice of the regimes and their American masters.
Differences over contextual interpretation remain vital right up to today, above all in the shape of Islamic State, the most extreme outcome of Salafi factional fighting.
 Mandaville P., (2007) Global Political Islam, London, Routledge.
 Wiktorowicz Q., (2006) Anatomy of the Salafi Movement, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism n. 29 p. 218.
 Bergoglio Errico F., (2018) Il processo di radicalizzazione jihadista. Dalla definizione alla narrativa, CRSTitaly.
 Wiktorowicz Q., (2006) Anatomy of the Salafi Movement, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism n. 29.
 Ibidem, p. 224.
 Avino M., (2010) Origini sociali e sviluppi del cosiddetto “terrorismo homegrown”, CeMISS.
 Roy O., (2006) Terrorism and Deculturation, in Richardson L., (ed), The Roots of Terrorism, New York, Routledge.