In its most popular form, the Salafiyya movement of Africa was a modern Muslim reform movement established by Jamal al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh at the turn of the 20th century. The term Salafiyya (also spelled Salafiyah) is derived from the Arabic root salaf, which means “predecessors,” and is often used to refer to the first three generations of Muslims (where a generation is equivalent to a century).
The presumption is that the individual Salafis who make up the Salafiyya derive their understanding of Islam directly from the religion’s primary sources, such as the Qu’ran (Koran) and Sunnah (normative example of the Prophet Muhammad), instead of being bound to the traditions, customs, and ideas that were developed by later Muslims. As such, there have been numerous Muslim movements, both premodern and modern, that some historians have designated as Salafi.
One such premodern movement was established in Nigeria by Usman Dan Fodio, the revolutionary founder of the Sokoto Caliphate. Having been inspired by the Wahhabi (or Wahhabiyah) movement, which was established by the 18th-century Arabian reformist Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Dan Fodio sought reform, unity, and a purification of Islam from its African syncretistic elements.
Whether historians are actually justified in designating Dan Fodio as Salafiis debatable, especially given the latter’s connections to certain classical institutions, such as the legal school (madhhab) system and Islamic mysticism (Sufism).
Either way, it is the modern Salafiyya movement that has come to define Salafism. This movement, which arose during a period of Western colonialism, is characterized by a desire to both reform Islamic thought and end the intellectual, political, moral, and cultural stagnation of the Muslim world.
It strongly opposed the blind imitation of archaic religious decrees and advocated a revival of ijtihad (unmediated interpretation). It also explicitly emphasized the role of reason and science and asserted that Islam was indeed compatible with both. Perhaps what most separates this modern Salafiyya movement from that of its predecessors is precisely its modernist character, as is evident in the writings of both Afghani and ‘Abduh.
Afghani was probably of Persian Shi’i origin and had spent a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan during his youth. (Afghani himself claimed that he was an Afghan). After a brief stint in Istanbul, Afghani made his way to Egypt, where he taught at al-Azhar University and established a following.
It was there that he would meet his young Egyptian disciple, ‘Abduh, who once described his master as “the perfect philosopher.” Following a period of fiery speeches against the British colonizers of Egypt, al-Afghani was expelled from Egypt in 1879.
In 1884 Afghani was joined by ‘Abduh in Paris, where they published the pan-Islamic Arabic newspaper al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa (The strongest link). Afghani would eventually pass away in Istanbul, where he had been confined during the last years of his life.
On the other hand, ‘Abduh, who was arguably the most significant figure of the modern Salafiyya movement, would return to Cairo to head al-Azhar and write his famous Risalat al-Tawhid (The message of unity). In their time, both Afghani and ‘Abduh were controversial to some (because of their heterodox teachings) and inspirational to others (because of their reform-mindedness).
And though Afghani and ‘Abduh would become the icons of the modern Salafiyya movement, there were others who would also play a major role. Most prominent among them was ‘Abduh’s famous student Muhammad Rashid Rida. Rida was especially instrumental in propagating Salafiideas by way of his periodical Al-Manar, which was initially a joint effort with ‘Abduh before the latter’s death.
It is notable, however, that the movement under Rida came to acquire a reputation of being more conservative, and his ideas have been considered a link between the reformism of Afghani and ‘Abduh and the activism of the famous Egyptian neorevivalist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established by Hasan al-Banna.
The ideas of the modern Salafiyya movement spread throughout North Africa and the Muslim world. In Algeria the reformist ‘Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis took a stance against Muslim mystical (Sufi) orders, focused much of his efforts on education reform in order to safeguard national identity (in light of the assimilationist policy of the French), and established the Association of Algerian Ulema (Scholars).
In Morocco Wahhabi and modern Salafiideals would be adopted by the reformist scholars Abu Shu‘ayb al-Dukkali and Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi al‘Alawi, both of whose ideas would influence Moroccan nationalist movements and their leaders, such as ‘Allal al-Fasi.
In Tunisia modern Salafithought would be adopted by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Tha’alibi, founder of the Destour Party, as well as by prominent scholars of al-Zaytuna University, including Bashir Safar, Muhammad al-Tahir ibn ‘Ashur, and his son Muhammad al-Fadil ibn ‘Ashur.
In light of contemporary Muslim scholarly discourse, it would appear that many of the ideas put forth by the modern Salafiyya movement are as relevant (and contentious) now as they were over a century ago.