From the paper Is Islam Easy to Understand or Not?: Salafis, the Democratization of Interpretation and the Need for the Ulema, Jonathan A. C. Brown, Journal of Islamic Studies (2015) 26 (2): 117-144, we have:

Both in the modern period and historically, Salafism has been associated with autodidacticism and an assertion that Islam’s scriptures are clear and accessible to ordinary Muslims without the mediation of the ulema.

This "democratization of interpretation" seems incompatible with the description of the Salafi movement:

The Salafi movement or Salafist movement or Salafism is an ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam... -- Wikipedia

Question: How is the "ultra-conservative" Salafi movement compatible with autodidacticism?

My mental perception of Salafism is likely influenced heavily by Western media, which might be misleading.


2 Answers 2


I like to call it the Reset concept.

I was watching a video for Hamza Yusuf on the matter awhile ago (forgot which video, will add it later if I find it), and he explains some of the conceptual similarities between Protestants and Salafis. In simple terms, it is the concept of rejecting the tradition, and only accepting the source.

Islam, being into revelation for about 1400 years, has went through extensive scholarly studies and thinking, and has developed a rich tradition in different aspects of the religion, so much so, that I was listening recently to a review of a book of something like "140 Etiquettes of Eating & Drinking" by Sufi scholars.

Now, with such extensive studies and aspects of the religion, it is not surprising, one might find incorrect things being added to the tradition here and there. And so, every generation that comes later, inherits the old tradition and builds onto it, and it goes on. Now, such incorrect additions or interpretations (by good or evil intent), might make some people uneasy about it. While it is usually about Fiqh, and other minor issues, the uneasiness grows bigger, until it reaches a point where some people start calling to reform; that is, "going back to Quran & Sunna" as most of the Salafis put it, and throwing the tradition away.

So they are reformers, but very strict on how they derive their rulings, thus conservative. You can easily find someone who would request you to fold up your trousers (for men) when praying, as what is below the ankle is in the hellfire as a hadith says. However, the difference of context is clear here, as it was back then a sign of arrogance, but now you can be the poorest of the poor, and you have a long trouser below the ankle.

So, they are autodidacts, but because of that, they interpret most of the things literally, leaving the context, which sometimes produces conservative opinions.

However, it is important to note that it is not a structured movement, so you might have conservative groups, and those that are not really conservatives, but differ is some other things. It is a continuum.

  • 2
    interesting, so you mean they take Quran as it is to say kill all the disbelievers? God has hands? God is the doer of evil?
    – Thaqalain
    Feb 19, 2017 at 16:18
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    @Honey I don't know. But the answer here is tackling how autodidacts can be conservative, because autodidacts implies good connotation in general, but not always.
    – Ghasan
    Feb 19, 2017 at 16:29
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    @Honey yes in the salafi doctrine God has hands, but this doesn't mean they look like ours, salafis accept this as a fact without asking why?what? how? ...
    – Medi1Saif
    Feb 21, 2017 at 7:52
  • @Honey quran does not say so, "all the disbelievers", the most aggressive is 9:29 says to fight with "all the disbelievers" with intention to make them pay/give money, and it is also ambiguous because this interpretation of it contradicts 2:256 etc, and maybe it can be interpreted other way...
    – qdinar
    Mar 25, 2017 at 8:32
  • @qdinar 9:29 is pretty much unanimously considered as being one of the very last verses to be revealed, thereby abrogating what came before it on the matter.
    – G. Bach
    Mar 25, 2017 at 13:38

Mr. Brown is probably referring to Taqlid here. The general consensus within the traditionalists (Ahl-us-Sunnah) is that the opinion of the knowledgeable scholars (Mujtahid) is superior and maybe accepted by others without knowing (or understanding) the evidence or methods used by those scholars to arrive at that opinion.

Sufis also hold the opinion of others to be better that one's own. Also note that the definition of a Mujtahid is vastly different in Shiaism.

Reformists (salafis), in medieval times, began questioning these beliefs and arguing that the methods used by those who were regarded as Mujtahids before were outdated, and that they lacked the tools and resources that we possess today. Hence, the idea of autodidacticism was introduced to support this ideology, although salafis today don't claim to reject Taqlid per se.

PS: The distinction between people-of-opinion (Ahl-ur-raay) and people-of-tradition (Ahl-ul-Hadeeth) predates salafism though. It originally had to do with Sufism. You can read more about it in R. A. Nicholson's translation of the famous Kashf-ul-Mahjoob.

  • "The distinction between people-of-opinion (Ahl-ur-raay) and people-of-tradition (Ahl-ul-Hadeeth) predates salafism though." is correct but "It originally had to do with Sufism" seems far fetched as this terminmology originally has no relation to sufism.
    – Medi1Saif
    Apr 25, 2019 at 7:11

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