6 common misconceptions about Salafi Muslims in the West

Reblogged from the Oxford University Press Blog. Article by ANABEL INGE

Salafism, often referred to as ‘Wahhabism’, is widely regarded as a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that fuels Jihadism and subjugates women. Some even lump ISIS and Salafism together—casting suspicion upon the thousands of Muslims who identify as Salafi in the West. After gaining unprecedented access to Salafi women’s groups in London, I discovered the realities behind the myths. Discover the six most common misconceptions about Salafi Muslims in the West below:

Misconception #1: They’re all foreigners.

Salafism is often—rightly—associated with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it was this country’s immense oil wealth that enabled it to spread its ‘Wahhabi’ brand of Salafism abroad from the 1970s onward. But we should not deduce from this that Salafism in the West is essentially an ‘Eastern’ or ‘Gulf’ phenomenon.

Groups that identify as Salafi in Britain are dominated not by Saudi migrants—whose numbers are actually very small—but by young people who were born here or who arrived at an early age. These include second- and third-generation Muslims—particularly South Asians—but above all, young Somalis and Afro-Caribbean converts.

A growing number of young black people, typically with Christian backgrounds, have embraced Islam since the 1990s, with a significant number following the Salafi interpretation. This trend is most manifest in south London, where the Salafi mosque in Brixton (where I did much of my fieldwork) has offered a welcoming base for black converts—some of whom felt socially and culturally alienated at other mosques.

Brixton became known as the ‘revert [i.e. convert] mosque’ and the ‘Jamaican mosque’ during the 1990s. Today, however, it is also host to a burgeoning young Somali contingent, who arrived in Britain after fleeing the Somali Civil War in the 1990s or were born in Britain following their parents’ resettlement.

Salafism, for these British-born (or raised) Muslims, was convincingly ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ because it appeared to be anchored in something familiar, authoritative, and readily accessible to them—the Islamic scriptures (Qur’an and Prophetic traditions). Many drew contrasts with what they described as a ‘cultural’ approach to Islam—i.e., traditions transplanted from their parents’ countries of origin.

Women wearing niqabs in London. 

Misconception #2: They support Jihadism and shari’a for the West.

While aspects of their purist creed are shared by Jihadi groups, most—probably the vast majority of—Salafis in Europe are explicitly against terrorism. Not only that, but they tend to oppose all formal political forms of organisation, such as political parties and campaign groups. Although they believe that the shari’a is the best system, they do not seek to impose it on non-Muslim countries.

Instead, their (not uncontroversial) mission is peacefully to nurture distinct Muslim identities. This includes a duty to proselytize to both non-Muslims and Muslims who have, in their view, ‘deviated’ from the ‘correct’ path.

In Britain, the ‘Salafi’ label has been associated with non-violent, often quietist groups since at least the end of the 1990s. These Salafis have condemned Al-Qa‘ida and ISIS vocally and vociferously on public platforms—occasionally at some risk to their personal safety and reputations.

One preacher, for instance, encouraged his online followers to ‘mass distribute’ an anti-ISIS leaflet he had written, in which he urged anyone with information about terrorist plots to ‘inform the authorities’. That same preacher reported receiving death threats from ISIS sympathizers.

Misconception #3: They secretly support Jihadism and shari’a while publicly claiming to respect the law of the land.

During nearly two-and-a-half years of fieldwork with Salafi groups, I never witnessed any explicit or implicit support for Jihadism, or calls for shari’a for the United Kingdom. I only ever witnessed condemnation of the former, and express prescriptions to obey the law of the land. While it is, of course, possible that Salafis moderate their speech in front of researchers, it would become almost impossible to keep this up after a few months of regular interaction. That’s why long-term participant research is so valuable.

Once I became a familiar face in Salafi circles, I became less conspicuous and people were less likely to react to my presence. In fact, a few women felt comfortable enough to tell me about their prior sympathy with or involvement in Jihadi groups, such as Al-Muhajiroun, and why they had left these. Other Salafis had actually helped them to understand that terrorism was forbidden by the scriptures.

Misconception #4: They are brainwashed.

‘Brainwashing’ is typically understood as a coercive process that renders an individual powerless to choose an alternative course of action.  Although five decades of research on New Religious Movements have yielded no empirical evidence for the so-called ‘brainwashing thesis’, it is nonetheless often regarded as the primary reason why people become ‘Islamic extremists’.

I found no evidence of so-called brainwashing. On the contrary, I found that the Salafi conversion process was largely intellectual, rather than based on social or other pressures.

Each woman’s story was unique, but all spoke of coming to see Salafism as an approach that maderational sense to them. Typically, I was told that Salafism was an evidence-based methodology, with every single prescription tied to ‘authentic’ scriptural ‘proofs’, rather than to culture or human opinion. This gave the women—most of whom had been exposed to a plethora of Islamic interpretations—the reassuring certainty that they were following the ‘pure’ Islam.

Far from being caused by social pressures, conversion often occurred despite protests from family and friends, and frequently led to long-term rifts in families and friendship groups. It also had little to do with warm feelings toward other Salafis. On the contrary, under the condition of anonymity, many interviewees spoke of the Salafi ‘sisterhood’ as cold, unwelcoming, and judgmental. Others said that their conversion was smoothed by the experience of a strong and supportive community—but this was often only during the holy month of Ramadan.

Misconception #5: They are the uneducated ‘drop-outs’ of society.

Some argue that, while Salafis are not brainwashed, they are the downtrodden, alienated ‘drop-outs’ of society, whose lack of education makes them ill-equipped to make sensible, rational decisions about their lives.

My impression as a researcher was that these women are at least as likely as the general UK population to pursue higher education. Most of my interviewees had already started or finished university, and just one had no plans for further education. Most were also keen to launch or pursue existing careers.

Misconception #6: Salafi women are forced to wear niqabs (face veils).

Coerced veiling undoubtedly occurs in many societies, but I could not find a single case among the Salafi women I interviewed in Britain. I did, however, encounter many cases where women’s families tried to force them—sometimes threatening violence—to discard their veils and gowns, which they saw as ‘extremist’ or ‘the culture of the Arabs’. A few young women confessed to having actually concealed their niqab-wearing from relatives, wearing the veil only when at a safe distance from the family home.

Categories: Islam, Life in the West

17 replies

  1. Paul, just curious, are you a salafi?


  2. What the heck are these terms for ” Jihadism, Salafism, Wahhabism “?

    Salaf simply means predecessors (i.e. Sahabha, Tab’een, Tab’ee Al Tabe’een).

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I don’t think I would be a good salafi, but ever since being a Muslim, I have a lot more respect for them.

    I still don’t like Wahhabis though, and I will always blanch when a salafi condemns gender mixing and music.

    Salafis are what David Hume called “enthusiasts”, particularly those who insist on interpreting hadiths and the Quran independent from the ulama and taqlid, but have fervor for adhering to the sharia. I still mostly view their attitude towards Islam positively.


    The molinists and jansenists in FRANCE have a thousand unintelligible disputes, which are not worthy the reflection of a man of sense: But what principally distinguishes these two sects, and alone merits attention, is the different spirit of their religion. The molinists, conducted by the jesuits, are great friends to superstition, rigid observers of external forms and ceremonies, and devoted to the authority of the priests, and to tradition.

    The jansenists are enthusiasts, and zealous promoters of the passionate devotion, and of the inward life; little influenced by authority; and, in a word, but half catholics. The consequences are exactly conformable to the foregoing reasoning. The jesuits are the tyrants of the people, and the slaves of the court: And the jansenists preserve alive the small sparks of the love of liberty, which are to be found in the FRENCH nation.

    I see “small sparks of the love of liberty” in salafis. Wahhabis seem be more “superstitious” and devoted to the authority of Saudi kingdom.


    • Islam has never been defined as “everything we desire”, Latias. Also, there’s nothing called “Wahhabis”. I think imam Muhammad ibn AbdulWahhab was one of the great scholars of Islam.

      Liked by 2 people

    • why do you consider him to be a great scholar?

      Liked by 1 person

    • His career to revive the matter of tawheed in Arabia was extraordinary, especially that the Islamic world had lost a great deal of the matter (i.e. tawheed). Yes… there’re some scholars before him who worked in this matter such as Shah Waliullah Dehlawi in India, the teacher of his teacher, yet the impact of ibn AbdulWahhab was much greater.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Salaam Latias,
      you stated that, “I see “small sparks of the love of liberty” in salafis. Wahhabis seem be more “superstitious” and devoted to the authority of Saudi kingdom.”

      Correct me if I’m wrong but It seems you may think that the terms “Salafi” and “Wahabi” refer to two different sects, when in reality these terms refer to one and the same.

      Although some people refer to followers of this branch of Islam as “Wahabi” (because they follow the teachings of Muhammad Abdul Wahab), they do not prefer this label and instead refer to themselves as “Salafi” which they feel more accurately reflects who they are and what they believe.

      While I do not consider myself Salafi, I do know that there are some differences of opinion amongst Salafi Muslims on various theological and even political issues, Therefore, we should be careful not to paint anyone with too broad a brush.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the days i used to consider Salafis as heretics…and why exactly? Well this is exactly what is taught to kids in Sufi Madrassas… propaganda and misinformation is pretty common…some are even teach not to associate with Salafis and Deobandies…and what about prayers? I remember one speaker in a sufi gathering said that our prayers are not valid of we pray behind a deobandi…they seem to forget that Salafis and Mainstream Sunnis are the ones defending Islam nowadays…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for the mistakes and typos….


    • Islam has never been defined as “everything we desire”, Latias. Also, there’s nothing called “Wahhabis”

      I never said that; I only mentioned strict prohibitions against music and gender mixing (as I use that as my litmus test for highly conservative Muslims). I am simply saying that I am not puritanical.

      Correct me if I’m wrong but It seems you may think that the terms “Salafi” and “Wahabi” refer to two different sects, when in reality these terms refer to one and the same.

      I think the most easiest way to explain my perspective on their relationship is to say that “all (or most) Wahhabis are Salafis” but not all Salafis are Wahhabis. To me, Wahhabism is more associated with a particular political movement in Saudi Arabia.

      https://robertlindsay.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/salafi-jihadism-part-1/ (This is a fairly decent article.)


    • “as I use that as my litmus test for highly conservative Muslims”
      Well… I think you really need to test your mind then.


    • Well… I think you really need to test your mind then.

      Words are words. There are only words that are attached to idea. The ideas are in one’s mind. One’s understanding of the world is in one’s mind as that is derived from one’s sensory experiences (impressions).

      I am content with my epistemology and metaphysics of empiricism and nominalism, respectively. You ironically confirmed my fundamental commitments of epistemology and metaphysics.

      Another consequence of nominalism: there is no idealized, pure “Islam” that exists independently of history, social and cultural convention, and personal experience; there is only “Islam” (or “Islams”) that can reasonably be supported by historical evidence and the Islam (or Islams) that one encounters and experiences. I say that to exhort Muslims to be wary of the consequences of their words and actions since it would affect perceptions of others (Muslims and non-Muslims) on what they would consider Islam to be.

      Why don’t you offer your heuristic of what is a highly conservative Muslim that is authoritative or backed by some sort of convention? Certainly, there are Muslims, and one can say that Muslims practice their deen that can be represented on a spectrum from being liberal to conservative. You would likely say that someone actually permitting or advocating men and women standing side-by-side in salat is highly “liberal” (to say the least). Again, that is an arbitrary heuristic that exists in one’s mind. If having some rudimentary classification scheme for that is not of any interest to you, then you should not have scornfully replied to my post.


      If you didn’t notice, my initial comment actually supported salafism in a limited respect. I didn’t say anything that demonized salafis. I suppose it was not my limited (but real) admiration of the salafis that struck a nerve, but rather its association with the Wahhabi movement. (I wanted to separate the puritanical piety of the salafis, which has some admirable qualities to it, from the political strain of Wahhabism.) And yes, it was and still a historical movement.


    • “Words are words, empiricism, nominalism,epistemology,metaphysics,arbitrary heuristic,fundamental commitments”
      Wow! Take it easy man!
      Just because muslims believe music is forbidden, that by itself doesn’t make them the “bad people who are conservative”, nor does it give you the right to test them by your magical “litmus”!.

      “I say that to exhort Muslims to be wary of the consequences of their words and actions since it would affect perceptions of others (Muslims and non-Muslims) on what they would consider Islam to be.”
      Just let’s be honest here, and believe me your not the first guy who has this mindset I’ve met. Your mindset is so obsessed and concerned about (perceptions of others). However, we know and you know that (others) here are just people who are so obsessed and already taken by the western life style. Therefore, you will find something called “ISLAMS” in this mentality.


    • Salaam Latias,
      I hope you did not think that my comment was “scornful” as that was not my intent. I only wished to make a clarification.

      I read the article you posted, and while I am not sure who the original author is, he did not seem to draw a clear line of differentiation between Salafi and Wahabi Muslims as you attempt to. The article also noted that the word “Wahabism” is simply a “pejorative” term used most often by critics, and not a nomenclature for a separate sect.

      Of course it is good to know and understand the history, but I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary to find some sort of theological or political difference between the two specific terms “Salafi/Wahabi.” Instead, it may be better to take a more nuanced approach by studying Salafi theology, and then attempting to understand the various ways that Salafi’s themselves interpret and apply their own belief system rather than trying to label and categorize everyone into one group or the other.


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