If one pictures “radical Islam,” chances are the image resembles Osama bin Laden, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the ISIS fighters of Iraq and Syria. And the connotation is that they are out to kill—or at least to turn the world into an Islamic caliphate.
They are known as Salafis: Muslims who bypass accrued tradition to imitate meticulously the example of Muhammad, his companions, and the first generation to follow them. After the death of the prophet in 632 A.D., the nascent faith’s collective zeal established a sharia-based global empire that did not end until the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Muslims who look like these jihadist images are found in every major American community.
Matthew Taylor counterintuitively argues that, at least in the United States, Salafis actually compare better with evangelicals—the religious group with the most unfavorable perception of Muslims in general.
Author of the forthcoming Scripture People: Salafi Muslims in Evangelical Christians’ America, Taylor argues that the Salafi impulse to return to the origins of Islam parallels the evangelical desire to imitate the early church. And both communities, as the title implies, center their approach on sacred text.
The question is: Do the two scriptures take them in radically different directions?
CT asked the Fuller Seminary graduate, now a mainline Protestant scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, to address the common concern about Salafi extremism and to advise evangelicals on how to pursue a path of possible friendship:
What makes a Muslim a Salafi?
Salafism has very deep roots in the Muslim tradition, and the term Salaf refers to the first generations of Muslims. The idea is to get back to the original authentic practices and theology of Islam, before the tradition became corrupted or diluted.
The Salafi approach involves a direct approach to texts, a deep interest in the Hadith—a secondary scripture in Islam that includes the sayings and actions of Muhammad and the early Muslim community—and a downplaying of the traditional schools of jurisprudence. This is why many Salafis will analogize and call themselves “the Protestant Reformers of Islam.” They see their project as similar to what Martin Luther and John Calvin did in the 16th century.
Can you tell a Salafi simply by their appearance?
It is easier in non-US contexts. A beard is a strong signal that a man is an observant Muslim. And you’ll find Salafi discourse—based on specific hadiths—as very focused around the length of the beard as more than can be grasped in the hand. Traditionally, they adopt distinctive modes of clothing such as the thobe, a long, flowing robe with pants that come up just above the ankles.
Salafi women almost always wear the hijab and others the niqab, which covers the face. But after 9-11, the American security state had an intense focus on Salafis which prompted a process in which many integrated into the American Muslim mainstream, downplaying distinctive Salafi attire and even avoiding always expressly calling themselves Salafis.
How do they justify downplaying their distinctives? Salafis have a sophisticated understanding of the difference between…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 25, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.