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A Perverted Balance: Modern Salafism between Reform and Jihād*

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This article argues that there are structural affinities and continuities between the late nineteenth-century modernist reformers and today’s quietist, political, and jihādī Salafī factions. Salafism refers to the basic theological-ideological formation that postulates a return to pristine Islam to overcome tradition and bring regeneration. The Salafī balance between authenticity and modernization promoted by enlightened religious intellectuals in the late Ottoman period was shattered by the events of World War I and its aftermath. This resulted in its bifurcation between conservatives, who adopted literalist and xenophobic Wahhābī positions, and modernists, primarily the Muslim Brothers, who employed innovative means in their religio-political struggle to re-Islamize society and oust colonialism. The Salafī balance was reconstructed after independence on new, unenlightened lines in the Saudi Islamic Awakening (al-Ṣaḥwa al-Islāmiyya), which combined the erstwhile rigorous Wahhābī teachings with radicalized Islamism. Global jihādī-Salafism completed the perversion of the modernist Salafī balance by reducing the authentic way of the salaf to excommunication and violence and by using the most modern means in its war against both Westerners and indigenous Muslim governments.


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