Sufis, Salafis and Islamists

The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism

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Sadek Hamid
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     202 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In investigating various Muslim activist paradigms, Sadek Hamid’s book, Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: the Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, tackles the pervasive thinking that indiscriminately classifies different Muslim groups together. Government programs such as Prevent and Countering Violent Extremism tend to generally categorize religious Muslims together as religious extremists and terrorists, with little understanding of their distinct motivations and goals. Some Muslim celebrities have joined Islamophobes—specializing in good Muslim-bad Muslim binaries—calling for more, not less, surveillance of Islamist, Salafi, Traditional, and conservative Muslims. Focusing on British Islam, but with implications for global extrapolation, this book traces the history of British Muslim activists as contextualized in various organizations. 

This book is especially close to my heart because it speaks to global movements that I have observed in different geographic settings. In the 1990s, I experienced a moment in the UK during which the Salafi movement was popular, Hizb ut-Tahrir had a visible street presence, the Young Muslims were active in schools and colleges, and the Traditional Sufis were experiencing a new rise under the suspicious gaze of all the aforementioned. When I moved to the United States for graduate study in 1996, I found Islamism and Salafism still ruling the public Muslim roost. But these cohabiting ideologies were now uncomfortably observing the challenge of a growing Sufi presence, and struggling with youthful Islamist burnout. With the events of 9/11 and global (US) surveillance of Muslims adding fuel to the fire, Sufi Traditionalists became increasingly popular. Hamid positions these ideological shifts in British Muslim sociocultural history, tracing thereligious lineage of these movements, and examining their evolution and growth in the United Kingdom. He does not limit himself to historical events in Britain, but weaves in international events—such as the Bosnian war—that shaped the British Muslim community, analyzing how contemporary security discourses influenced Muslim communities.

Rather than generic “liberal” and “conservative” Muslim labels, Hamid offers meticulous analytic distinctions. He divides the Salafi movement into the three distinct categories of Salafi Literalism, Salafi Reformism, and Political Literalist Salafism. The Traditional Islam Sufis are, as Hamid describes them, not just any Sufis. For example, Keller—in Marcia Hermansen’s words—has a “techno-fiqh” approach (82), which sought to deliver a blow to the orthodoxy claims of the Salafis and Islamists. Keller’s approach also distinguishes itself from popular Sufi approaches worldwide. Like the Salafis, Traditional Islam Sufis sought to establish their claims as being moreauthentic, more orthodox, and more consistent with Prophetic practice. (In many cases, this entailed a romanticized “return to the classical past” approach via adherence to a madhab). 

The first four chapters after the introduction scrutinize British Muslim activist movements: Young Muslims UK, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salafism, and “Traditional Islam” Sufism. This is not an exhaustive typology of all Muslim activism, nor would I call it a “Best of” selection, but these are certainly the most prominent and commonly studied Muslim activists from the 1980s to the present. Hamid fleshes out the current realities of British Muslims by drawing upon interviews, observations, and primary sources. 

In examining each Islamic movement, Hamid discusses origins, methods, cultural practices (such as sartorial preferences), and reasons for the growth and decline of each. Chapter 5 uses Social Movement Theory to examine the psychological motivational elements of the main Islamic movements, as contextualized in their political and cultural milieus. Hamid asks the question: how did each movement recruit newcomers and how did they convince members to remain? This is crucial for how we understand Muslim movements and organizations.

The most interesting segment of the book are chapters 6 and 7, which sum up the history of Islamic activism and map out the present. Hamid suggests that the key forms of activism have gone through a set of periods. In chapter 6, he identifies these periods as Arrival (the arrival of the generation of the 1960s and 1970s), Inception (the 1980s era founding of key organizations), Establishment (the 1990s growth in visibility and involvement of these key organizations, and the beginnings of the Traditional Islam network), Fragmentation (the 1995-2001 development of problems in what were key organizations), Renewal (when mainstream organizations made efforts to re-group while new forms of activism—including ultra-radical Jihadists—grew in influence) and Contemporary (when the impact of the 9/11 attacks displaced previously influential movements, and various important new developments took place) (106-108). 

In chapter 7 Hamid critically analyzes mainstream British Muslim organizations and movements: for their achievements, their failures, their present-day scope. Judging by the news, extremism seems to be the main issue in British Islam—despite its miniscule reality, as Hamid demonstrates. Hamid portrays the complex Islamic debate, the coexistence of diverse strands of Muslim thought, the integration of Muslim American trends and religious organizations into British Muslim activism, and the demographic and cultural change as attributable to acculturation. Despite the appearance of strongly expressed opinions and visible movements, “the most popular forms of activism are eclectic, as people choose to participate strategically in what they get involved with and will alternate and consume Islamic activities according to their interests and needs” (132). This chapter also highlights contemporary forms of activism in British Islam, arguing that the relevance of formerly prominent organizations has declined—and new hybridized Salafi sub-groups have grown—while the appeal of the Traditional Islam networks to the past is also the source of “uncritical romanticisation of ‘tradition’ in TI discourse which avoids discussion of the problematics of applying the Shariah today” (144). I would argue that the latter is the TI Achilles heel. 

For scholars of contemporary Islam, Hamid’s is a must-read and must-cite book. As a scholar of Western Muslims, I would have appreciated Hamid’s book when I was writing my own—the terminology and analysis alone render this book a valuable resource. One hopes that perusal of this book will help facilitate better-informed commentary than the broad-brush stereotyping we encounter in reputable publications and celebrity commentary today. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shabana Mir is Associate Professor of Anthropology at American Islamic College.

Date of Review: 
January 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sadek Hamid is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Liverpool Hope University.



Matthew Kuiper

Thank you Prof Sadek for this valuable contribution, and Prof Mir for this helpful review. I will have my university library order this book, and look forward to reading it! -Matthew Kuiper, Missouri State University


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