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What Do We Mean By “Salafī”? Connecting Muḥammad ʿAbduh with Egypt’s Nūr Party in Islam’s Contemporary Intellectual History

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In contemporary academic literature, the word “Salafī” has a variety of meanings. Most importantly, Western academic literature of the 20th and 21st centuries applies the word to (1) an Islamic reform movement founded by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (d. 1897) and Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) in the last decades of the 19th century and (2) to contemporary Sunni reform movements that criticize manifestations of Sunni Islam which are based on Sufism, Ashʿarism, and traditional madhhab-affiliations to the Shāfiʿī, Ḥanafī, and Mālikī schools. In a 2010-article Henri Lauzière argued that the use of the word “Salafī” to describe these two movements is an equivocation based on a mistake. While the movement of contemporary Salafīs may be rightfully called by that name, al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh never used the term. Only Western scholars of the 1920s and 30s, most importantly Louis Massignon (1883–1962), called this latter movement “salafī”. This paper reevaluates the evidence presented by Lauzière and argues that Massignon did not make a mistake. The paper describes analytically both reform movements and draws the conclusion that there is a historic continuity that justifies calling them both “salafī”. The paper draws an analogy from the use of the word “socialist” in European political history, which first applied to a wider movement of the late 19th century before its use was contested and narrowed down in the course of the 20th.

Affiliations: 1: Yale University


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