On Salafi ‘Burnout’

As growing numbers of young practicing Muslims (especially students of knowledge or enthusiasts of scholarly discussions) make the decision to abandon Salafism due to either finding it or it’s conclusions intellectually inferior or practically problematic, there are a number of important things to take note of:

1) Do not belittle your reasons for finding Salafism enticing in the first place. There are positive and negative reasons.
As a positive: Salafism is a logical first step for many Muslims with taqwa. It promises an attachment to the Qur’an & Sunnah above all else, a freedom from associating partners with the Creator in all its forms, and purity in understanding. Are these not all the first steps of a Muslim yearning to have taqwa in their understanding and practice of Islam? Don’t let the fire of taqwa die inside you. Many Salafis when they ‘burnout’ one of the first things they also jettison is their taqwa.
As a negative: All these promises were in fact oversimplified exaggerations of more complex realities that could only be uncovered by knowledge. The Qur’an and Sunnah could only be accessed by humans: scholars and their intellectual edifices in the form of madhhabs, sciences, ideas and deductions. The concept of ‘associating partners with the divine’ is not as immediately black and white as Najdi Salafi polemic proposes it to be in theory and practicality. Purity in understanding is very subjective: it is possible to be following the salaf but be practicing a version of Islam that is quite different in some of it’s outwardly aspects to what the salaf were doing. The realization of all of this comes with knowledge, learning and understanding. Many ‘burnouts’ after Salafism don’t realize this and don’t put enough attention on learning and education to further enlighten their perspectives.

2) Do not lose the importance of principles. Even if some of the principles are wrong, Salafism still has principles. And principles are still pivotal to being a pious servant of the Creator. Many ‘burnouts’, disenfranchised with Salafism and what they perceive to be it’s distortion of Islam and ensuing choke-hold over their lives, abandon Salafism only for an understanding of Islam without principles, instead adopting whatever understanding of Islam is popular or culturally prevalent. That should not be the case. Fiqh, it’s general principles (qawā’id) and foundations (usūl) still exist. There is still such a thing as a ‘normative Islam’ which you cannot let go of and still claim to call yourself a religious Muslim. The Sunnah of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is still important.

3) Understand the sovereignty of the popular and culturally prevalent in informing your decision of what is true and normative. Salafism and Madkhalism was a big thing in the 90s because Saudi da’wah was at it’s peak. Moderate diluted Salafism was a big thing in the 2000s because moderate Salafism was at it’s peak – yet struggling to keep itself together after the Madkhali disaster(s) of the 90s. Today abandoning Salafism for outright modernism is the new thing, due to the effect of ISIS and growing Islamophobia. Instead our notions of what is true and normative should be based on sound knowledge via qualified and relevant scholarship.

4) The importance of qualified scholarship. One of the main reasons you became a Salafi is because you were inspired by someone you believed to be a pious and qualified scholar. Except that even if they were pious, they probably weren’t qualified enough. The casualty list when it comes to Salafi scholars is unfortunately high. Without giving names, there are famous and reputable Salafi scholars (all real first or second hand examples coming up) who have given fatwas saying that learning tajwid is bid’ah, or that learning usul-ul-fiqh is the work of misguidance, or are claimed to be experts in tafsir but can’t grammatically parse a sentence in Arabic, or have studied only Hadith but not fiqh, or are self-studied, have not studied one of the four schools of Islamic law etc. This is not even counting the many Salafi speakers out there whose average Islamic Education is a 4 year bachelors degree from KSA where the most eventful thing they learned was Kitab al-Tawhid and Bulugh al-Maram. Have a high standard for scholarship. If the teacher has not mastered the sciences of the Arabic language, usul, one of the four schools, the sciences of Hadith and tafsir, knows their history, and is aware of the diverse needs of their local communities, then it’s not worth it.

5) Not joining the other side of the sectarian riot. Being a Salafi ‘burnout’ is no excuse to join the extremes on the other side of the pond. The Athari school is still a valid theological school. And the Hanbali school is still a valid legal school. And even though his application was technically Kharijite in character, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab was not the only scholar to strongly dislike the permissiveness or excessiveness of some traditionalists when it comes to taqlid and interaction with the dead/graves. The Imams Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Shah Waliullah, and al-Shawkani, al-San’āni and others all also had their own reservations about these trends. Im not saying I agree with these ideas or wish to propagate them, but we must admit that when we look at history they do constitute a significant bulk of inter-Sunni discourse and can’t be brushes away as innovation or misguidance so easily. Don’t re-enact your past from the opposite direction.

6) Consider traditionalism. No I’m not asking you to go full Hanafi/Sufi and join the cliques etc. But what traditionalism offers (although some traditionalists themselves unfortunately end up obfuscating this) is an opportunity to graduate your understanding and practice of Islam in a time-tested, thoroughly developed way. Don’t want to become a scholar and want to continue focus on your practical life? There are texts, study patterns and spiritual guidance for that. Want to be a student of knowledge? There’s a system and pedagogy for that. Want to be a scholar? This is the best and most well-rounded way to go about it, as the traditions will give you the necessary tools to become an independent thinker yet still remain faithful to the 1400 years of cumulative Islamic thought.

7 Replies to “On Salafi ‘Burnout’”

  1. Very informative article, may Allah bless you! As a person who has experienced this burnout, my advice would be that the first thing to do is be humble enough to know and admit that you’ve been bamboozled, and then have a sincere and open heart to be willing to relearn and reinterpret what you’ve been taught in some instances. Once you do that, it will become abundantly clear that what it means to follow the Salaf and what Salafism means are two different things, almost entirely. It will be important to revisit some of those “people of innovation” and some of those people who have been dubbed, deviants, misguided, not upon the Sunnah, etc., and you will find that you may have been cheated out of some good instruction. Remember this very valuable statement from Imam Ali رضي الله عنه: “Certainly the truth is not known by men, rather men are known by the truth. Know the truth, and you will know who its men are.”


  2. Interesting and informative article. Only thing I would like to say is that to the best of my knowledge, I have never heard Shah Walliuallah was against Taqleed.


    1. It’s not written as well as it should be. I was attempting to say that Shah Waliullah was against the obsession with graves etc, not taqlid.


  3. By “Traditionalism” are you referring to the majority of the madrasah / seminaries in the west that offer the “Alim/Alimah” type programs?

    As someone disillusioned by the Najdi movement I have considered these as an alternative to studying in KSA. Despite self identifying as Hanbali I don’t think there is anything wrong with the Hanafi fiqh taught by these institutions but I would rather stick to the Athari aqeeda. Do you have any thoughts or advice regarding this?


    1. Traditionalism is the approach to learning Islam that emphasizes traditional forms of learning and thought like madhhabs, classical texts, being under the mentorship of a scholar etc. It doesn’t have to be with an Alim program. So for example I followed a seminary curriculum using private teachers and was never really part of an institution.

      Hanafi Alim programs vary in how effective they are, but in general they have other problems (in my opinion) to do with educational culture and ethic influence. For example, many Hanafi Alim programs in the West don’t teach Arabic or theology to a high level, so I think the Alim program’s efficacy is not ideal. But some students after they finish their Western Alim program travel abroad to South Africa for example to complete a more rigorous add-on to their Alim program.

      So, given the weak emphasis on theology, I don’t think you would have much of a problem if you found an Athari teacher outside of it.

      But personally I prefer the flavor of traditionalism taught in places like Al-Azhar and Turkey. Although it is not free of its own problems it doesn’t have the Hanafi politicking that many Indian subcontinent-based seminaries do.


  4. Salafi burnout is a really serious thing, in fact, I’m going through it right now and it’s without question been the hardest phase of my life. Point number 2 is particularly resonating with me, I feel as if my whole reality of life and Islam has been totally warped by having spent all of my youth and teen years in the modern Salafi movement. Having distanced myself from the movement/circle of people and dropped the label, I feel like I’m stranded in an ocean upon nothing but a plank of wood. Through all my time practising, the Salafi movement itself made my life hard. I can’t tell left from right between Islamic principles, I’m convinced everything is Haram, all of my knowledge of Islam was based around literally a handful of scholars (all from the same region, ahem) – you know those random voice excerpts of asking their sheikhs loaded questions to get equally as loaded answers? You know how they take one quote from one of their sheikhs/du’aat/ayaat/Hadith and extraplte it through their lens’? That’s what I was brought up on. No true foundation of Islam. Just polemics and biases. In fact, in all my life as a born Muslim, I have never really felt Islam or true worship. My head and heart was full of who’s being refuted, what this one shaykh said on one matter (that can have no other different opinions for ease according to these salafis – if there is a different opinion that you can follow and you choose to do so, you are a ‘person of desire), or what book of creed to I need to be reading day in day out. I’m certain some salafis study Kitab ut Tawheed more than they study the Qur’an itself. I came across a particularly strange sub-group of salafis once on a forum (my fault for browsing there and allowing myself to be influenced) that took all of Al-Baani’s (may Allah bless him for his good deeds and worship) legal rulings of fiqh as the be-all and end-all, the touchstone of Islamic fiqh. As a someone in their teens, can you imagining how difficult that was?! Never in the Salafi movement was I ever moved towards heartfelt worship, tazkiyah al nafs, fiqh, tafseer, taddabur etc. It as if they give pure allegience to a select few men, and by polemicising tawheed/aqidah against those they disagree with (not just externally to their group, even internally they can’t agree on everything!).
    I will not be unfair and disingenuous, the Salafi movement did help me with some things when I needed it most, namely having an understanding of Tawheed. Other than that, being part of the modern Salafi movement made my life painfully difficult, it even effected my family life as the polemics are so deeply rooted in this movement’s every breath that it became difficult to interact with any other Muslim out of the modern Salafi movement circle. I have absolutely no idea of what is truly haram/halal anymore as it seems that so many of the fatawa in their circle is based upon one opinion or ‘outdated’ fatwa. It really did seem as if everything from their perspective, and the du’aat/speakers under similar influence see everything as default haram. I believe that I have had underlying anxiety issues all my life, however I am utterly sincere when I say that I feel the modern salafi movement has exacerbated my anxiety conditions and I’m now receiving therapy for it from a Muslim counsellor to discuss my spiritual and mental condition. Their staunch approach to *everything* has made me double think and doubt everything/everyone and I’m a total mess. I can’t even read about fiqh or different opinions anymore without having a panic attack worrying I may be going down the wrong path.
    I wish I never got involved with this movement and that I learn Islam properly through my teens and early 20s – OR to have at least spent more of my youth focussing on ibaadah and perfecting worship. I feel as if my whole life has been stolen away by the salafi movement and I’m genuinely scared for the future and my religious wellbeing. May Allah guide me and keep my steadfast.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s