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Islamic Movements and Extremism

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Originating in medieval religious texts, the concept of salafiyya has come to refer to a wide variety of things over the years. The Arabic word derives from the terms "al-salaf al-salih," which mean "the venerable ancestors" or "the venerable predecessors." In the religious sense this is supposed to mean the generation of Muslims which came immediately around and after the death of Muhammad and who, presumably, led a life in exact accordance with True Islam.

The dominant tradition in salafiyya has to do with "getting back to the roots" of Islam and restoring traditional beliefs and practices. Sometimes, this effort is moderate and can even incorporate modernist influences, as with the case of al-Afghani (a salafiyyan reformer from the 1800's who tried to reconcile modernism and Islam). Usually, however, the movement is much more conservative and strict, and that is where it is currently.

Salafiyya thrives on the economic hardships endured by most Muslims in the Middle East. Religious leaders tell them that the earliest Muslims knew no such hardships because they faithfully applied the principle of zakat, or alms for the poor. Because of this, even the richest and powerful Muslims had to donate to ensure that the poorest were sustained.

But today in the Middle East, the richest Muslims are among the wealthiest people in the world, having amassed staggering amounts of money because of the large oil deposits beneath their countries. Most Muslims, however, see little of this wealth, and the divide between rich and poor only grows. Thus salafiyya, which commands a return to original practices, finds widespread appeal.

Almost all later reform movements, including those discussed here, can be included as forms of salafiyya. They all share the basic premise that the societies in which Muslims now live no longer apply Islamic principles as they were originally used. Society has, instead, become corrupted and degenerate. True justice and peace are attainable, but only if Islamic law is fully and rigidly implemented.

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