Cover image for “Be A Serious Salafi,” by Dr. Shaykh Abdus Salam Al-Sihaymi, Jamiah Media, 2011.

by Alex Thurston

This is the second post in a series on the concept of Salafism. The first part discussed definitions of Salafism and questioned assumptions about the relationship between Salafis and politics. The idea that Salafis are beginning to “enter politics” in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, I argued, is only partly true. If we define politics too narrowly, we miss seeing some ways in which Salafis are implicated in informal politics, even when they consider themselves apolitical. Now I’ll extend the political argument further, questioning the media’s recurring characterization of Salafis as “ultraconservative.” Does it follow from Salafis’ strict theological beliefs that they are politically conservative as well?

The idea of conservatism is part of the problem. In the controversy I described in the first post, Kano’s Salafis wanted to open their own Friday mosque. But the Emir of Kano and some Sufi leaders in the city wanted to choose, as they had for decades, who could be imam in the mosque. Were the Salafis the conservatives, in that they preach a “return to the texts,” or was the Emirate aristocracy the conservative force, in that it sought to preserve the status quo? Or both?

We see this phenomenon around the world, including in the United States. “Conservatism” seeks a return to an idealized past, but must overturn existing social structures and conventions to achieve that goal. “Conservatism” can become a form of radicalism, not (necessarily) in the sense of violence, but in the sense that activists desire massive social change. They are willing to take a revolutionary stance toward the legacies of the recent past in order to recreate the more distant past. For example, undoing all the programs of the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Progressive Era – returning the US, in other words, to something like 1896 – may be “conservative” in some sense, but it is also radical. It requires challenging authorities and assumptions. As a cultural program, it means telling the society and many individuals within it that some of their values are misplaced, even perverse. Salafism, similarly, is at least as revolutionary in political and cultural terms as it is “conservative.” Again, by “revolutionary” I do not necessarily mean violent – I mean a movement willing to overhaul society.

Some might object that what is “conservative” about Salafism is not merely its desire to recreate an idealized past, but also its desire to place stringent restrictions on individual and group behavior. Perhaps ultraconservatism could be defined as a force that is patriarchal, seeks to narrow the range of behaviors possible for members of society, and limits debate and punishes deviance. Yet we see Salafis around the world behaving in ways that are at odds with that definition. In Northern Nigeria, the Salafi movement Jama’a Izala al Bid’a wa Iqama al Sunna (Arabic: “The Society for the Removal of Heresy and the Instatement of the Prophetic Model”) has founded a huge number of schools and enrolled thousands of female pupils, both girls and adult women. Salafis in Northern Nigeria have questioned generational hierarchies and extolled the contributions youth can make in society. In the experience of both Dr. Ousmane Kane (as described in his book on Jama’a Izala) and myself, Nigerian Salafi leaders have often behaved in an egalitarian fashion toward their followers, refusing the displays of submission that disciples sometimes offer Sufi masters. In social terms, then, Salafis sometimes favor steps that loosen, rather than tighten, restrictions on people’s behavior.

The media’s use of the term “ultraconservative” is also connected with some Salafis’ support for implementing Islamic law in modern states. But Salafis are not the only ones to favor shari’a, nor are they always its most enthusiastic backers. When Kano re-implemented shari’a in 2000, as part of a wave of “sharianization” among Northern Nigerian states, it was a broad coalition of local elites who pushed the program, and some Salafis voiced deep concerns about who would run the system, and how. From their vantage point, moreover, some proponents of shari’a hope that it will end corruption and promote social welfare; shari’a is not merely a system of punishments and restrictions.

Perhaps talk of Salafism’s “ultraconservative” character turns on the assumption that there was something “ultraconservative” about the early Islamic community. That Salafis, in other words, are conservative not only in wanting to recreate the past, but also in their allegiance to a model that was inherently conservative itself. If the media conceives of early Islam as a time of “chopping off hands and stoning women” (as opposed to, say, a movement that argued against burying female infants alive, that favored expanding women’s inheritance rights, that urged the freeing of slaves, etc.), then it is little wonder they would call a movement that idealizes the early community “ultraconservative.”

A more sophisticated way to talk about Salafism, then, would explore the tensions between conservative and revolutionary aspects within this system of thought. It would explore the tensions between the desire to recreate the past and the desire to overhaul the present. I plan to build on this point in the next part of the series, in asking: is Salafism is un- or anti-modern?


Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at, and is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.