The Stories:  The September 11, 2012 attacks against U.S. diplomatic establishments in Libya and Egypt and the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stephens, has not just focused attention on the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Al-Qaeda affiliate operating across North and West Africa, but it has also elevated the public’s attention towards ongoing salafi-jihadist violence in Libya, Mali, Niger, Chad and Nigeria.

The participation of salafists in Egypt’s post-Mubarak political process provokes continued questions about minority religious rights and the ongoing secular character of the government. In his foreign policy speech on Monday at Virginia Military Institute, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney referenced the “dark ideology” behind the latest terrorist attacks, and, finally, the Reformed evangelical blogosphere has, in the past two weeks, witnessed back-and-forth about whether one can make legitimate comparisons between adherents of political Islam and evangelical activists. What, then, is salafism and salafi-jihadism?

The Background: Salafism (salafiyya) is a theological sub-category within Sunni Islam that finds its primary genesis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a movement aimed at reforming what adherents considered an Islam under physical and spiritual siege by foreign (Enlightenment) values and Western colonialism (especially British colonialism in Egypt). The term, salaf, refers to the “pious forefathers” or earliest (three) generations of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad and so salafis, methodologically, look to the salaf as the purest example of Islamic belief and practice, and pursue literalist readings of the Quran and the hadith (sayings ascribed to Muhammad).

Salafis, however, are not a monolithic group—-indeed, terrorism expert Jarret Brachman posits eight categories of salafist thought—-and can hold very different positions with respect to political participation within secular systems, the role of violence in political change, acceptance of non-Muslim Arab regimes, and the extent to which Muslims should separate from non-Muslims. Along the salafi spectrum, salafi-jihadists are the sub-category of those who (a) hold to specific salafi beliefs (see chart below) but who, as Thomas Hegghammer has put it, (b) have “mid-term political aims and strateg[ies]” wherein violence is used to defend the global Islamic community (ummah), overthrow existing states, retake territory perceived as occupied by unbelievers (kuffar), fight moral laxity in an existing Islam-dominant area and/or wage sectarian battles.

Why It Matters:  Some of the main points of salafiyya should not necessarily sound that foreign to evangelical Christian ears, especially conservative evangelical ones. Rephrasing many of the issues raised in salafist critiques using Christian idiom, one sees questions which, if we’re honest, represent everyday fare for the evangelical blogosphere:

  • What distance should I, as a Christian, maintain from the ungodly and worldly culture around me? May I extend friendship to my non-Christian, worldly neighbors, or do I run the risk of becoming too much like them?
  • What are the political implications of the gospel? How should I treat rulers and authorities who don’t hold to my religious beliefs—-beliefs which I contend are true for everyone?
  • How much should I look to the early church as an example of Christian faith and practice?
  • How should I treat an excommunicant? To what extent am I allowed to label someone who isn’t in my local church a heretic? Am I even allowed to publicly designate someone a heretic?
  • How do I hold to what I view as Biblical gender roles in a culture that does not share my view?

However, unlike the evangelical blogosphere and (properly obeyed) Christian belief, salafi-jihadism pushes the salafis’ critique of nominal, cultural and/or institutional Islam into the realm of political violence.

As the war on terror continues, erupting in new geographic areas replete with preexisting regional and tribal tensions, evangelicals need to dig deeply into the nuance of Islamic—-and for that matter, Christian—-political theology.

For Additional Reading:  Jarret M. Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (Routledge: New York, 2009); Chris Heffelfinger, Radical Islam in America: Salafism’s Journey from Arabia to the West (Potomac Books: Washington DC, 2011); Roel Meijer (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009)

Salafi-Jihadist Concept

Explanation of Concept

“Loose” Christian Analogue

tawhid (tawheed)

faith in the Islamic view of monotheism; God’s unity and total oneness; the belief that there is no “partnership” in God, as put forward in the declaration, La ilaha illallah (“There is no God but Allah”). In salafi-jihadist thought, tawhid is the primary theological driver of the believer’s activity, including political action.  It is more than simple intellectual assent.

a combination of the Christian’s faith in God’s Trinitarian nature, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Gospel’s relationship to the Trinity; akin to the way that Christians speak about the political and societal “implications of the Gospel”

al wala wal bara

loyalty and enmity; the idea that, outside of limited “marketplace” interactions, Muslims are to separate from non-Muslims; Muslims are obligated to love those whom God loves (i.e. fellow Muslims) and hate those whom God hates (i.e. non-Muslims); no friendships or intimate ties with non-Muslims

Christians being called to be “in the world but not of the world;” the sense in which Christians are meant to be different (i.e. holy; not worldly); application of physical separation by some Christian sects; no Christian analogue to the idea of hating non-believers as individuals, but hating evil and wrongdoing

aqidah (aqeedah)

right doctrine; turning to the earliest generations (salaf) of/after the Prophet Muhammad to determine how those generations thought and acted as Muslims; understanding how the salaf understood and acted upon tawhid

concept of sound doctrine; similarities of going back to, or attempting to recover, the early church as a model for Christian doctrine and practice


determination that someone is outside the Muslim community; include the declaration of Jews and Christians as non-believers (kuffar); some hesitation about takfir towards “impious” or “worldly” Muslims versus clear apostates; some call for takfir against those Muslims who support non-Islamic governments; takfir determination used to justify intentional and/or non-discriminate physical attacks against fellow Muslims and non-Muslims

church discipline and excommunication; in the framework of I Corinthians 5, as well as the “keys of the kingdom” discussion in Matthew 16; no Christian justification for attacks against excommunicants


struggle to obey/submit to God; struggle to put tawhid into practice, includes physical struggle and violence to protect/defend tawhid, aqidah, and the Muslim community

Christian struggle against sin and worldliness; struggle to protect the local church from sin; no Christian justification for physical force or violence to protect koinonia