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There is no reliable estimate of the number of Salafis; most experts agree they make up a tiny minority of the world's 1.4 billion Sunni Muslims. Salafism is more of a philosophy, a way of life, than a religious or political movement with a leadership hierarchy. Adherents don't follow a single figure but instead rely on scholars both modern and ancient for advice on how to conduct themselves.
Salafis believe that Muslims have become polluted by modern and Western ideas and that the faith needs reforming. The best way to do this is to go back to the faith's roots and emulate the austere piety of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, known collectively as salaf, which translates loosely to "the predecessors." The most literalist Salafis strive to live as if frozen in time.
According to the Salafi mind-set, life is serious, and there's no place for frivolity: music, cinema, television and most other forms of entertainment are taboo. A woman's place is at home; if obliged to go out, she must be covered from head to foot. Salafis view most Muslim sects as heresies, scarcely less contemptible than other religions, but converts are welcome.
Many Salafis regard the West, and especially the U.S., as the implacable enemy of Islam and see the YouTube video and the Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as proof of a systematic program to undermine the Muslim faith and steal resources God gave the Arab peoples. For some extremist Salafis--Osama bin Laden was one--that's reason enough to wage jihad on the West. But for most Salafis, the best protection of Islam comes from purifying its believers.
Until recently, Salafis didn't care much for politics: any form of government, democratic or dictatorial, was inadequate, since only God could be sovereign. Adherents were more interested in how Muslims thought and behaved than in how they were governed. Laws written by men were meaningless in the face of the Koran, which contained all the rules by which men must live. Pressed to explain how the Koran could be so strictly followed in the modern world, Salafis cited the puritanical doctrines of scholars stretching back more than 1,000 years to Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who forbade the use of reason in any reading of the holy book.
But many Salafis have seized on the Arab Spring as a chance to shrug off the taboo against democracy. Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says some fundamentalists "see elections as a way of encouraging good and preventing evil and thereby ... slowly changing society toward an Islamic state." In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, Salafis want to have a major input--and, if possible, the decisive one--in the creation of new constitutions. And their objective is no secret. "It's very simple. We want Shari'a," says Abdel-Rahman, referring to Koranic law. "Shari'a in economy, in politics, in judiciary, in our borders and our foreign relations."
From Misfits to Mainstream