While most jihadists are Salafists, the reverse is not true. In fact, Salafism – an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam that promotes a return to the traditions of the earliest generations of Muslims – is a much broader phenomenon than jihadism. Three types of Salafist entities, all acting as centrifugal forces, are pulling Salafism in divergent directions. Though this puritanical interpretation of Islam has played a critical role in producing violent extremism in recent decades, it also contains a potential antidote to jihadism.

  • Three broad types of Salafism currently exist: quietist, jihadist and electoral.
  • These three groupings are competitors in a triangular struggle to claim the ideological mantle of Salafism.
  • Since the 1970s, the struggle increasingly has involved those emphasizing proselytization (quietists) and those seeking to impose the austere ideology via force (jihadists).
  • In more recent years, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a third brand has emerged seeking to spread Salafism via democratic processes.


In recent years, it has become all too clear that Islamist terrorism cannot be eliminated without addressing the underlying phenomenon of religious extremism that has become pervasive in Muslim societies around the world. This extremism in great part stems from the growth of a particular ultraconservative strain of Sunni Islam known as Salafism (also known as Wahhabism). Salafism originated in the mid-18th century in an area that now encompasses Saudi Arabia. To a great extent, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum-based wealth has facilitated this extraordinary growth in recent decades. From the kingdom’s point of view, exporting its own Salafist ideology to the rest of the Muslim world would help not just to solidify its status as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques – and by extension leader of Sunni Islam – but also to enable its bid for influence across the Muslim world.

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For many decades, the kingdom exported Salafism and associated ultraconservative ideas by constructing and purchasing mosques, underwriting seminaries, publishing literature, dispatching clerics, supporting charities and so on. At the same time, however, it gradually lost control over the Salafist ideology itself. This occurred because the Saudi monarchy’s geopolitical behavior was at odds with the religious ideals it supported. This structural contradiction led to the growth of renegade Salafists and eventually a full-blown jihadist movement.

Before we discuss the ideological fragmentation of Salafism, it is critical to note the core precepts that all Salafists share. Salafism can best be described as a tendency that envisions an austere form of Islam. It is a modern trend within Islam and began as a corrective movement in 18th century Arabia. It was led by founder Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who sought to bring Muslims back to the Quran and Sunnah (the body of literature containing reports about the sayings, actions and tacit approvals of the Prophet Muhammad). Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers believed that Muslims had increasingly strayed from the original creed as Islam’s frontiers expanded and Muslims came into contact with non-Muslim civilizations and foreign ideas over the course of centuries.

For ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers, the solution was a return to Islam as practiced and propagated by the Salaf al-Saliheen (pious predecessors). Based on a saying attributed to the Prophet about the first three generations of Muslims being the best of mankind, members of the first generation – the Salaf – were identified as the Companions of the Prophet. Members of subsequent generations were known as the Students of the Companions and the Students of the Students. According to ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the ideas and practices of subsequent Muslim generations gradually became contaminated with philosophical, juristic and mystical thought, which he strongly felt needed to be jettisoned to return to the original “authentic” Islam. Those who embraced this radical departure from the form of Sunni Islam that had evolved over the prior 11 centuries began to call themselves Salafists.

Quietist Salafism

Quietist Salafism is the original form of Salafism, and it arose from ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s push toward puritanism. Initially, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab encountered stiff resistance in his native Najd region in central Arabia because he was seen as a deviant trying to undermine religious precepts that had been established over centuries of Sunni religious scholarship. At the time, Arabia was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which saw itself as the leader of Sunni Islam and the seat of the caliphate. In essence, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab rebelled against the Ottomans, whom he denounced as heretics. In many ways, his movement arose and eventually gained traction because the Ottomans (and the various Muslim dominions before them) were only concerned with the Red Sea coastal region of Hejaz, where the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located. They left the peninsula’s interior (including ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s area) to its own devices.

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Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab ultimately saw success when he found support from his contemporary and namesake, Muhammad bin Saud (1710-1765), who was a warlord in a small town known as al-Diriyah, located northwest of Riyadh (the current Saudi capital). These two Muhammads are the founding fathers of the Saudi polity. Their religio-political arrangement created a division of labor whereby the al-Saud family (the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud) assumed the political leadership while the Al al-Sheikh family (the descendants of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab) controlled the religious establishment. Their pact established the historical Saudi-Wahhabi relationship and the First Saudi State (1744-1818), which was based on the teachings of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and was geopolitically carved out through war against neighboring tribes. Muhammad bin Saud’s descendants went on to become the royal family of the modern nation-state of Saudi Arabia, which was founded in 1932.

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The Ottomans, using military force and operating through their governorate in Egypt, dismantled the First Saudi State in 1818. However, the Second Saudi State was established within six years by one of Muhammad bin Saud’s grandsons and lasted until 1891, when it fell due to infighting that temporarily allowed the rival al-Rasheed tribe to replace the al-Saud family as the rulers. The founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, was the son of the Second Saudi State’s last ruler (1901-1902), and he began a campaign to reconquer the lands of his forefathers. Over the first three decades of the 20th century, King Abdulaziz’s military campaigns laid the foundations of the third Saudi polity. When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appeared on the map in 1932, the political-religious division of labor was a nearly 200-year-old arrangement whereby the Salafist clergy assumed a quietist role of supporting the al-Saud family.

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The quietist role was by no means apolitical. In fact, it should be noted that the Salafists were highly active in the founding of each Saudi polity. In other words, this particular type of Salafism emerged in Saudi Arabia and developed from the core Salafist ideals only after their theocratic regime had already been established. Quietist Salafism is thus a byproduct of politics. In the context of the Arabian Peninsula, it emerged after Salafists had seen political success. The establishment of an Islamic state in the form of the Saudi monarchy meant that the natural course of Salafism would be toward religious learning, societal preaching and shaping the societal norm of obedience to the rulers. (In the future, however, Salafism would evolve to focus on establishing states and, later, on becoming involved in politics via the electoral process.)

The quietist Salafist establishment is deeply involved in the affairs of the Saudi regime and is actively engaged in shaping the monarchy’s politics, especially on the domestic front. The kingdom’s highest religious authority, the Council of Senior Ulema, is very active in advising the monarch on both political and geopolitical matters. Similarly, the kingdom’s religious law enforcement agency, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, is yet another example of Salafist involvement in governance. That the Salafist religious establishment is the institutional guarantor of the Saudi regime’s legitimacy is perhaps the most glaring example of how quietist Salafism engages in politics.

It does this by promoting the idea of obedience to the ruler and asserting that any form of opposition risks creating a situation of chaos. As a result, the Salafist clergy plays a key role in shaping the social, political and cultural norms of the ultraconservative Saudi society. These various historical processes gave rise to what we now refer to as the phenomenon of quietist Salafism, which diffuses religious ideals throughout society, but not through direct political action. Quietist Salafism eventually spread to Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making that country the second largest hub of Salafism, manifested by the mushrooming of multiple Salafist groups and individual preachers. Between the emphasis on social proselytization and the fact that Egypt and other Arab Middle Eastern states (in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia) had secular republican regimes, Salafists there steered clear of politics. Thus, original Salafism was quietist in nature and remains the dominant trend, albeit not the one that generates the most attention.

Jihadist Salafism

Jihadist Salafism – the most well-known of the three Salafisms, although not the most widely practiced – shares a common goal with quietist Salafism. Both are interested in reverting to more traditional, ultraconservative Islam. However, they disagree on how to achieve this. While the quietist Salafists rely on social proselytization, jihadist Salafists use armed insurrection to try and establish new states as a means of spreading their beliefs.

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The fact that Saudi Arabia was founded on the basis of armed struggle – quite similar to the way the Islamic State established its caliphate in 2014 – presents a challenge for quietist Salafism, which has been hardwired into the fabric of the Saudi polity. The founder of the modern kingdom (who is also the father of the monarchs who have ruled the kingdom since 1953) dealt with the threat of renegade Salafists very early on, even before the kingdom was officially called Saudi Arabia. King Abdulaziz conquered many of his kingdom’s lands with help from an elite tribal religious militia called the Ikhwan (the Brotherhood – not to be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt). The Ikhwan were religious zealots committed to the cause of spreading Salafism through force.

King Abdulaziz, content to have his kingdom remain within the confines of the Arabian Peninsula, was not interested in a perpetual jihad and therefore limited its use. He also had to deal with the British, who emerged as the region’s great power following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in World War I. In addition to backing the various small emirates on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula along the Persian Gulf, the British also controlled the territories on the Saudi polity’s northern periphery, including Palestine, then-Transjordan and Iraq, and had deep influence on the southern flank in Yemen. Sensing that King Abdulaziz was religiously lax rather than committed to the cause of Salafism, the Ikhwan did not agree to the limitations he placed on jihad because the militia wanted to further expand the frontiers of its envisioned polity.

The Ikhwan militia rebelled and launched unauthorized attacks in Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq. Under pressure from the British, and deeply concerned over the challenge to his authority, King Abdulaziz then mobilized his forces and, with military assistance from the British, crushed the rebellion. It took several years, but the Ikhwan rebellion was eventually put down in 1929. The remnants of the Ikhwan were included in the new Saudi state’s military, which later became the kingdom’s National Guard – a military institution parallel to the regular armed forces. But Saudi Arabia’s founder had a renegade problem that spanned many years, underscoring the challenge he faced from within his own Salafist milieu.

While the Ikhwan was defeated, the problem did not disappear. In fact, it became worse with time. The problem was rooted in the conundrum of how the Saudi state could embrace modernity (which is at odds with Salafism’s ultraconservative religious ideals) and fulfill its international obligations while remaining true to its Salafist foundations. The 1938 discovery of oil helped with this. It enabled the Saudis to use the power of the purse to strengthen quietist Salafism as a key means of increasing domestic stability by being seen as the patrons of Salafism. Not only did the regime promote Salafism within its own borders, it also began to export it overseas in an effort to be perceived as being true to the cause.

These measures, however, did not prevent serious problems from emerging. The next major encounter with Salafist discontent came in the mid-1960s, when the kingdom embarked on a modernization drive that triggered unrest. Police cracked down on protests, and in one incident, one of then-King Faisal’s nephews, who was among the dissenters, was killed. That incident would eventually lead to the king’s assassination a decade later at the hands of the nephew’s brother.

The kingdom’s rise as the world’s largest crude exporter led to rapid financial growth, which in turn led to lifestyle changes for the ruling elite and members of other top social echelons. Many within the religious establishment became deeply concerned as they worried that modernization would undermine what they saw as the society’s Islamic culture. The top clerics found themselves trying to strike a difficult balance between their need to avoid instability in the kingdom and their religious commitments. Concern built, and the next major incident came in late 1979. A group of some 500 religious activists, led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, who studied under Abdulaziz bin Baz (a prominent Saudi who would later become the kingdom’s top cleric), staged a two-week armed seizure of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca in an effort to oust the monarchy for failing to uphold Salafist ideals.

The Salafist militants were neutralized only after heavy losses suffered by Saudi security forces and after participation of French and Pakistani commandos. However, Salafism’s jihadist strain had begun to emerge by this time because quietist Salafism was seen as incapable of dealing with the “un-Islamic” nature of Arab and Muslim regimes and was even viewed as complicit in the regime’s behavior. During the 1970s, Egypt experienced the rise of about half a dozen jihadist factions in the wake of political turmoil from the country’s defeat in its 1967 war with Israel. One of these groups, Tandheem al-Jihad, assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The watershed moment for jihadist Salafism came during the 1980s. International support for the Islamist insurgency against the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan enabled the ideology to exponentially expand. This support also transformed the ideology into a transnational phenomenon – seeking not just to establish Islamic states in individual Muslim countries but a global caliphate. By the time the 1991 Gulf War ended, al-Qaida as a global Islamist militant vanguard was on its way to being formed, a process that occurred throughout the 1990s. Al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, followed by the U.S.-jihadist war and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, have allowed jihadist Salafism to grow well beyond a non-state actor phenomenon, as is evident from the regime established by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Electoral Salafism

The massive increase of jihadist Salafism over the past 16 years, in terms of both magnitude and scope, continues to grab the world’s attention. This is normal given that violence tends to garner far more coverage than nonviolent social and political movements. Indeed, the massive commotion created by jihadist Salafism has obscured the fact that quietist Salafism remains the larger trend. More importantly, though, there is very little discussion of a third and slowly growing trend: electoral Salafism.

In this latest manifestation, quietist Salafists shed their quietism to pursue active and direct participation in democratic politics. This third trend took off in the aftermath of the 2011 popular uprisings across the Arab world, gaining popularity in Egypt where several Salafist political parties emerged after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. However, the first manifestation of electoral Salafism took shape in Algeria decades earlier. The founding of the country’s now-defunct Front Islamique du Salut, or Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), in 1989 represents the first expression of electoral Salafism, and a short one at that. The FIS was not a coherent political force; rather, it was an umbrella group for different Islamist elements – mostly Salafists. Some were committed to the democratic process while others saw the democratic reforms initiated by then-President Chadli Bendjedid’s government as an opportunity to seize power.

Members of the Islamist al-Nour party hold a public conference in support of ex-army chief and then-presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (portrait) in Egypt’s northern port city of Alexandria on May 20, 2014. AHMED ARAB/AFP/Getty Images

FIS was a unique entity in that it was a hurriedly created political party. It lacked an ideological core to hold the group together. Put differently, the world’s first attempt at a Salafist party was not the result of a lengthy ideological and behavioral transformation. For this reason, it broke up rather quickly in the wake of the military coup that ended the short-lived democratic experiment in late 1991, because the first round of elections produced a massive majority for FIS, which the military establishment viewed as a threat to the secular republic.

In 1992, another unique case of electoral Salafism developed, this time in Kuwait. After the country was liberated from Iraqi control in the 1991 Gulf War, the ruling al-Sabah family engaged in a noteworthy liberalization initiative. Two separate sets of Salafists emerged in parliament following elections. The formal political bloc that emerged, the Islamic Salafi Alliance, included lawmakers from urban areas. The second Salafist group consisted of independent tribal legislators from rural areas.

Organizationally, Kuwait’s Salafists are not cohesive. Even so, the trend towards electoral Salafism has considerable staying power. Salafists remain a key element of Kuwait’s parliament today, and this is likely to be the case for the long haul. Kuwait presents only a limited case of electoral Salafism given the country’s small size. That said, the Kuwait case exhibits success in bringing the Salafists away from conservative social agendas and toward greater cross-ideological cooperation vis-à-vis democratic politics.

Likewise, in neighboring Bahrain, the Sunni monarchy has supported the Salafist al-Asalah Islamic Society party in an effort to contain the island’s majority Shiite population. The group has held a number of seats in parliament since it first participated in elections in 2002. Similarly, Salafists were able to form their own wing within Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and participated in mainstream politics during the 1990s and 2000s. But it was not until the Arab Spring that electoral Salafism emerged in a significant way.

Being that it is the largest Arab country, and since it exhibits a large and diverse Salafist spectrum, it was only natural that Egypt would produce the most vibrant expression of electoral Salafism. While several smaller Egyptian Salafist parties were formed in the post-Mubarak era, Hizb al-Nour remains the largest such group. It is the political arm of the Alexandria-based socio-religious movement al-Dawah al-Salafiyah – the country’s most well-organized Salafist group. In 2011-12 parliamentary elections, the al-Nour-led coalition, called the Islamist Bloc, came in second place after the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 235 seats while al-Nour and its allies won 123.

Al-Nour initially cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood but withdrew its support in early 2013, after the ruling Islamist movement sought to weaken the Salafist party. Though it did not join the June 2013 popular unrest that led to the military coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood government, al-Nour has sided with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s secular military regime. However, the decision to align with the regime has not paid off, given that al-Nour only won 11 seats in the 2015 parliamentary polls. That said, al-Nour remains committed to the path of electoral Salafism as it sees itself eventually benefiting from future political openings. Through these, it hopes to emerge as Egypt’s premier Islamist movement and fill the vacuum created by the shattering of the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the post-coup crackdown.

The extent to which al-Nour and the wider electoral Salafism phenomenon will gain traction largely depends on the level of democratic opportunities in Egypt and other Arab countries. Since the trend in the Arab world is toward autocratic meltdown and producing civil wars, electoral Salafism faces serious limits. However, when exhaustion from war produces political settlements in the distant future, electoral Salafism could have a role to play as a potential way for some of today’s jihadist Salafists to join mainstream politics. So far, there have not been any cases where jihadist Salafists have embraced electoral Salafism – this space is currently dominated by those who were formerly of the quietist Salafist realm.


Though Salafism has spread to different parts of the Muslim world, its core is rooted in the Arab world where it was born. This area is also experiencing the greatest turmoil created by the jihadist strand of Salafism. That said, quietism remains the most dominant strand of Salafism – in great part because most Salafists seek to steer clear of the horrors of war that are ongoing in Syria, Yemen and Libya. More importantly, quietists believe that an Islamic state of mind must be cultivated at the individual and societal levels before an Islamic state can be established – a belief that is not shared by jihadist Salafists.

But it is also true that between the quietists and the jihadists, an overwhelming majority of Salafists reject democracy. Even the electoral Salafists are cautious regarding election participation and remain apprehensive about the broader scope of democracy’s conflicts with religious ideals. In the end, however, Salafists have no choice but to tread along the path of democratic politics if they are to peacefully realize their religious and political goals. Where quietist Salafism has been unable to counter jihadist Salafism because it does not offer a political program, electoral Salafism does. Therefore, it could gain ground under democratic political systems and potentially serve as an effective counter to jihadist Salafism. But Salafism cannot move in this direction while autocracy reigns supreme in the Arab world, because the failure of electoral Salafism will only further empower the jihadists. The future of Salafism remains to be seen. For now, however, Salafism continues to be pulled into these three different directions.