A disputed term, widely used in the US and to a lesser extent in Britain to denote any movement to favour strict observance of the teachings of the Qur'an and the Shari'a (Islamic Law). On the continent, as well as in Britain and amongst many scholars of Islam and the Middle East, there is a preference for terms such as ‘Islamism’, ‘Islamicism’, ‘Islamists’, or ‘Islamicists’ in referring to the current activist political trend. Islamism emerges out of the reform (islah) project of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that was launched by Jamal al Din al‐Afghani (1837–97), Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and Rashid Rida (1865–1935). The reform envisaged was broadly defined to incorporate a revitalization of culture, society, and religion utilizing European science and techniques coupled with the requirement of drawing on the moral and cultural tradition of early Islam, of the pious forefathers (al‐salaf, ad 610–855). Thereafter, the revitalization of Islam and Islamic society, and hence its defence, came to dominate this trend as the fate of the Islamic world was increasingly seen as being in the grip of European power to do with as it would.
Reform (islah) was comprehensive in addressing the causes of backwardness. In their efforts against the conservative and traditionalist religious forces hostile to reform, Abduh and Rida focused on the salaf and condemned all innovations (bida) introduced into Islam after their time, including the law schools (madhhabs). They called for a return to the independent interpretation of the sacred sources (ijtihad), of the Qur'an and Sunna of the Prophet and consensus of his Companions which was said to have ended during the tenth to eleventh centuries. This would allow those in authority to pursue what was in the best interests of the Community in the secular sphere though it was never to be in conflict with the Qur'an and Sunna. This type of argument contributed to the emergence of a modern tendency to focus on the practices of the early years of Islam (salafiyya) which remains influential until the present time. All innovations in Islam that had occurred throughout its history after the salaf which were regarded as having caused schisms and accepted local customs which led Muslims away from the straight path were condemned. By returning to the pure practice of the Prophet and his Companions, the traditional structures of Muslim society including the secular domain could more easily be exposed to new cultural and social dynamisms leading to reform.
In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al‐Muslimun) was founded in opposition to these movements to renew the focus on the approach of the salafiyya (sometimes referred to as neo‐salafiyya to distinguish it from the approach taken by Abduh and Rida), this time to bring its ideas to the ‘man in the street’ and to exclude the colonial society by recovering dominance of the public discourse, and to oppose Western imperialism and secularization. They would look deep into the roots of Islam in order to purify and renew it by focusing on the principles of the earliest generations of Islam, the salaf. In effect, they rejected the integrationist approach of the earlier reform movement as cooptation.