Interview with scholar of American Salafism finds commonalities—and potential for engagement—between the austere Islamic interpretive movement and the Christian community most wary of them.
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.