Why Do Salafists

Find More Religious Legitimacy In The Past?


Thijs Wester

Many religious groups around the world are known to defer to the past when
challenged for justification. Among these groups are the (admittedly broad group
of) Islamic Salafists. Salafists tend to focus on the first three generations of Mus-
lims from Muhammad onwards for religious guidance. This essay will attempt to
dissect the various reasons a group might have for using history for justification as
opposed to jurisprudence or consensus



One reason among many for using the past as justification is the malleability of

history. While some might are that the past, in having past, can no-longer be
changed, there are quite a number of methods with which we see the public per-
ception of history being changed. Among these methods are the high-ranking ones
of: interpretation, contextualization and simple-misreporting, which are common in
apologetics circles. A certain recorded saying from one of the ancient Muslims can
be used to justify many different things as long as the interpretation is done by
someone with authority.

Authority is of course another thing which can be found in the past. The Imam

is part of a long legacy of Muslims dating back to the three golden generations.
This position as a direct inheritor of the thoughts of Muhammad invariably grants a
position of authority and reverence. The aspect of malleability returns here in a dif-
ferent form. If one is excluded from the aforementioned legacy, one may claim that
they represent the true-, or real-tradition of Muhammad. They might claim that the
scholastic tradition has gone astray some years back, and indicate that they are the
true keepers of the faith. In this sense, these people would be Islamic reformists.
Through this appeal to the past, authority is once again established.

The above-mentioned method of curating an authoritative position is in

essence a form of religious interpretation. The fundamental claim of these
reformists is that the traditional scholars have misinterpreted the teaching of those
they claim to follow (in this case: the first few generations of Muslims). In order to
triumph over the established authority of the Imam, various methods may be used,
from an appeal to reason, to Character assassination. Since this essay is not titled
“methods with which to gain authority” however, I will not delve into this point


That is not to say that logic-, and consensus-based reasoning are entirely absent from Islamic




Thijs Wester



So far, I have touched on three ways in which the past is used to gain justifica-

tion and legitimacy. These methods make it clear why appeals to tradition are
favoured among Salafi circles. These methods do not however tell the entire story.
The past is after all only a source of authority because the common people trust
established traditions to a certain extent. Why is it that people distrust new things
more than old things, even if those old things are only recently reintroduced?
Answering this question in its entirety is beyond the scope of this essay, but I do
believe it useful to hint at a number of possible answers to this question. There
could be a certain evolutionary advantage


to general distrust or to a preference

for pre-established practices.

I believe I have now established why a religious group might want to use the

past to justify their views and gain an authoritative position. However, besides the
small section on why people trust established practices more than new ones, I have
not yet explored why religious groups believe the past is more legitimate than the
present. In other wordp, do Salafists see theppast merely as an 

easy source of

legitimacy, or as a 

larger or better source?

There is certainly something to be said for finding more legitimacy in the

source of a certain story or claim. The source, in this case Muhammed, is of course
most aware of how exactly he intended Muslims to live. The first few generations
of Muslims also received the least-tainted representation of Muhammed's ideas.
Over the centuries, the prophet's ideas could have been misinterpreted, or even
misappropriated for malicious means.

There are problems with this “return to source” approach in religion however.

Firstly, one should note that the prophet might have intended his message for an
audience contemporary for his time. The interpretation and appropriation done by
scholars moulded his words into a shape befitting of increasingly modern times.
This argument of course goes up in smoke if one considers that the words of
Muhammed were in reality not his own, but the word of God. God's message is sup-
posedly eternal and unchanging. This would mean however that one does not
return to the source when following the first three generations of Muslims, and
that one should instead attempt to reach God directly. The word of the prophet
would nevertheless be a good secondary source. I write this passage mostly to indi-
cate that given a potential “returning to source”-argument, one is still faced with a
number of issues in need of resolving.


Be that the genetic evolution of a species as proposed by Darwin, or the social evolution of a society.



Thijs Wester


In conclusion, Salafists (and other religious groups) often employ the past as a

source for authority and legitimacy. Not only do people seem to have an innate
trust for the established, and the old, the past is also an excellent source due to its
ability to be changed into (nearly) any shape desirable. Despite these features (or
perhaps in virtue of them) authority and legitimacy derived from history and tradi-
tion is not immune to scrutiny. Not only is the practice itself dubious, but groups
with other beliefs may always claim that the view presented by “the other” is a mis-
interpretation, malicious or otherwise. Looking to the past seems sensible, espe-
cially for a religious founded in the 7th century, with a legacy going back further
yet, but is not a catch-all method.