Is the Salafi movement responsible for the rise of ISIS?

Did the Salafi movement give birth to the ideological rise of ISIS, asks Ghulam Esposito Haydar.

I read a Facebook post yesterday accusing the Salafi movement for the rise of ISIS. I couldn’t help but respond to this common misconception fuelled by the mainstream media, politicians and sectarian commentators. This particular narrative usually lacks any real insight, totally dismissing major causative factors for radicalisation and extremism.

The assumption is that “ISIS have rose out of the Salafi rank and Muslims are now having to bare the grunt for it” and thus “Salafis seriously need to get their act together and clean up shop to get rid of this miscreants because their misdeeds are going to cost us very dearly when the kuffar come after us indiscriminately”.

The author of this particular post added that he “was proud that the Salafi `Ulama’ spoke out against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and that it is now up to the Salafi `awam (general people) and tullab (students) to break ties with people displaying these allegiances and to openly refute them.” He also stated that Takfirism bore out of the Salafi movement

Sounds reasonable?

Dr Yasir Qadhi was considered a prominent Salafi scholar.
Dr Yasir Qadhi was considered a prominent Salafi scholar.

Well, here is the problem. The individual in question along with many Muslims of this understanding acknowledge that Salafis are not a monolithic group. Salafis differ considerably on many issues and are a spectrum of different groups with different ways of thinking as Dr Yasir Qadhi points out in the following article. So you can’t really use the term “Salafi” without narrowing it down to a particular strand of thinking.

Many of these different groups are at odds with each other. So how would someone from a certain Salafi strand even engage with another when there are categorical differences within the Salafi movement, which makes them different and internal adversaries?

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Points of contention

When non-Muslims point at Muslims and accuse us of crimes and that we need to address, quite rightly a lot of different Sufi, Brelvi, Deobandi and Shi’a groups are the first to say it isn’t their problem as it requires narrowing down to the groups responsible, which in this case is the “Salafis/Wahabis”. Likewise, a person should be specific in narrowing it down to the particular Salafi group responsible – if there is one. Otherwise it’s hypocritical for a Sufi to say ISIS is a “Salafi/Wahabi” problem because the term “Salafi” is an extremely broad term, as Dr Qadhi and many others have explained. Given, it may not be as broad as the term “Muslim” but it is nevertheless a broad term. Therefore, you must be specific otherwise you end up tarnishing groups of people who hold ideas that are very alien to what you accuse them off, and end up exercising the same “blame game” as many non-Muslims do. This is simply a smaller case but the importance of applying the same standard of narrowing it down.

Secondly, we have to be careful in pigeon holing people into groups in the first place. Humans aren’t robots. We’re not all programmed to think the same. Our encounters with people, our life experiences and our comprehension to disseminate and understand make our thinking fluid. To accuse someone of belonging to a group that they themselves don’t associate to simply because they happen to share a few things in common isn’t the right way to go about things. This was a colonial policy to sow seeds of discord between Muslims to divide and rule.

British Muslims are targetted under the government's anti-terror PREVENT strategy.
British Muslims are targetted under the government’s anti-terror PREVENT strategy.

Thirdly, we can’t lay the blame exclusively on a certain religious ideology since this is exactly the same rhetoric that neocons use to deny that western foreign policy has any bearing on the radicalisation of Muslims. They use this angle to target and police “extremists ideas” but quickly progress to “ideals and practices which are contradictory to *our* (British/US secular liberal) values” such as hijab, niqab, halal meat, the very things that have consensus among all traditional orthodox Muslims. It’s this sort of rhetoric that lends legitimacy to the disgraceful PREVENT strategy, which aims to sociologically engineer an “acceptable” governmental version of Islam by criminalising those who differ with their views. We have to accept that if the foreign policy wasn’t as it was, these extremist ideas would hold no traction.

Fourthly, requesting (broader) Salafis to deal with this problem is simply passing the baton. It’s an idealistic fantasy since the groups responsible are extremely insular and hostile to taking naseeha (advice) from anyone outside of their circle of figureheads that they revere.


1 – Everyone including non-Muslims need to be honest and realise that these extremists are a creation of western foreign policy, which has pushed them to adhere to an extremist interpretation of Islam.

2 – Muslims from all backgrounds must share responsibility in trying to reach out to such a people and help them from going down such a pitfall. It doesn’t matter if you’re Sufi, Brelvi, Deobandi, Ikhwani, Hizbi because they’re not going to listen to the other Salafi groups just because they share certain things in common. They share the core belief that there is only One deity worthy of worship and that Muhammad (saw) is the final messenger with every Muslim group, and that is enough to give everyone scope to do their bit to help.


Mufti Ismail Menk was recently attacked by Sufis for sectarian reasons.
Mufti Ismail Menk was recently attacked by Sufis for sectarian reasons.

Making Takfir isn’t an exclusive problem within the Salafi movement. Extreme Brelvis and Shi’a regularly make on those who oppose their extreme beliefs in Prophet Muhammad (saw) and Ali (ra). Only recently, a group of Sufis threatened to kill the renowned Zimbabwean scholar, Mufti Ismail Menk. According to sources, Mufti Menk was at the shopping centre, and as he was about to leave, a man approached his car and asked his son “Is this Ismail Menk”? They then demanded Mufti Menk to get out of his car and told his accomplices in Urdu: “This is the guy.” They hurled profanities at Mufti Menk, calling him a “gustakh-e-Rasool” (someone who disrespects to the Prophet (saw), and that they would behead him like Umar (ra) use to behead those disrespectful to the Prophet (saw).

A large proportion of the fighters who made up Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were from the Afghan Taliban, who were Deobandi. Likewise the Pakistani Taliban are mainly Deobandi (not all).

My point here is that we shouldn’t try to oversimplify things and pass the buck. This doesn’t negate that a lot of the beliefs do come from within a certain group of Salafis, which is only bought to the fore as a result of the barbaric foreign policy of the US and UK – drone attacks, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, unequivocal support of Israel, propping brutal dictators, looting natural resources.


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