The Term 'Salafi'

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following was adapted from “The Term ‘Salafi’”The Wahhabis like to use the word “salafi” to refer to their minhaj.  They have been using this title since the early 19th century.  This brief article is to share a few facts.

Firstly, the word “salafi” cannot apply to anybody of this age.  There is no such thing as the Salafi madzhab in this time.  The term “salaf” strictly refers to the first three generations.  The term used for anybody who came after their time is “khalaf.”  Those who call themselves “salafi” today, are in fact “khalafi,” like any one of us.  The true Salafi madzhab” produced many schools of thought, and the four surviving ones from amongst them, in Sunni Islam, are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali schools.  It is due to these four schools of fiqh that the shari’ah has been preserved.

In the fourteen hundred years of Islamic tradition, there has not been any madzhab described as the “Salafi madzhab.”  Not even Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab called themselves “salafi.”  This was a new term invented as a public relations tactic to give the Saudi Wahhabi Khwarij a new face and a new public appeal.  It is true that Imam adz-Dzababi (r.a.) described some scholars as good “salafi” scholars.  However, he meant the mentioned scholars were upon the Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah by closely following the creed of the Salaf.  The a’immah he describes as good “Salafi” scholars, all followed one of the four schools.

There does not exist an isnad where such and such scholars suffixed their names with the title “as-Salafi,” whereas we will find that all the way back to the four a’immah, the four schools, have their scholars who attributed themselves to one of the four schools.  An example is to mention Imam ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (r.a.).  The claim of the Salafiyyah that they only follow the Qur’an and the sunnah and do not blindly follow one of the four a’immah is a bathil one, as the compilers of the sunnah such as Imam Malik (r.a.) with his al-Muwaththa, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.) with his al-Musnad, the great Shafi’i scholar, Imam al-Bukhari (r.a.) with his Swahih all followed madzahib.  The Salafi madzhab, as it is labelled today by its so-called practitioners, is therefore an innovation in Islam; unorthodox and inauthentic and contradicts fourteen hundred years of Islam.  Another article that explains in greater detail is Who or what is a Salafi?  Is their approach valid? by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, from 1995.

The word “salafi” or “early Muslim” in traditional Islamic scholarship means someone who passed away within the first four hundred years after the Prophet (s.a.w.), including scholars such as Imam Abu Hanifah (r.a.), Imam Malik (r.a.), Imam Shafi’i (r.a.), and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.).  Anyone who passed away after this is one of the khalaf or latter-day Muslims.  The term “Salafi” was revived as a slogan and movement, among latter-day Muslims, by the followers of Muhammad ‘Abduh, the student of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, some thirteen centuries after the Prophet (s.a.w.), approximately a hundred years ago.  Like similar movements that have historically appeared in Islam, its basic claim was that the religion had not been properly understood by anyone since the Prophet (s.a.w.) and the early Muslims and themselves.  In terms of ideals, the movement advocated a return to a shari’ah-minded orthodoxy that would purify Islam from unwarranted accretions, the criteria for judging which would be the Qur’an and hadits.  Now, these ideals are noble.  The only points of disagreement are how these objectives are to be defined, and how the program is to be carried out.

As for its validity, one may note that the Salafi approach is an interpretation of the texts of the Qur'an and sunnah, or rather a body of interpretation, and as such, those who advance its claims are subject to the same rigorous criteria of the Islamic sciences as anyone else who makes interpretive claims about the Qur’an and sunnah; must show that interpretations are acceptable in terms of Arabic language; that they have exhaustive mastery of all the primary texts that relate to each question, and that they have full familiarity of the methodology of uswul al-fiqh or fundamentals of jurisprudence needed to comprehensively join between all the primary texts.  Only when one has these qualifications can one legitimately produce a valid interpretive claim about the texts, which is called ijtihad or deduction of shari'ah from the primary sources.  Without these qualifications, the most one can legitimately claim is to reproduce such an interpretive claim from someone who definitely has these qualifications; namely, one of those unanimously recognised by the ummah as such since the times of the true salaf, at their forefront the mujtahid a’immah of the four madzahib or schools of jurisprudence.

As for scholars today who do not have the qualifications of a mujtahid, it is not clear why they should be considered mujtahidun by default, such as when it is said that someone is the greatest living scholar of the sunnah any more than we could qualify a schoolchild on the playground as a physicist by saying, “He is the greatest physicist on the playground”.  Claims to Islamic knowledge do not come about by default.  Slogans about following the Qur’an and sunnah sound good in theory, but in practice it comes down to a question of scholarship, and who will sort out for the Muslim the thousands of shari'ah questions that arise in his life.  One eventually realises that one has to choose between following the ijtihad of a real mujtahid, or the ijtihad of some or another movement leader, whose qualifications may simply be a matter of reputation, something which is often made and circulated among people without a grasp of the issues.  What comes to many people’s minds these days when one says ‘Salafis’ is bearded young men arguing about Diyn.  The basic hope of these youthful reformers seems to be that argument and conflict will eventually wear down any resistance or disagreement to their positions, which will result in ‘purifying’ Islam.  Education, on all sides, could do much to improve the situation. 

The reality of the case is that the mujtahid a’immah, those whose task it was to deduce the Islamic shari’ah from the Qur’an and hadits, were in agreement about most rulings; while those they disagreed about, they had good reason to, whether because the Arabic could be understood in more than one way, or because the particular Qur’an or hadits text admitted of qualifications given in other texts, some of them acceptable for reasons of legal methodology to one mujtahid but not another, and so forth.  Because of the lack of hard information in English, the legitimacy of scholarly difference on shari'ah rulings is often lost sight of among Muslims in the West.  For example, the work Fiqh as-Sunnah, by the author Imam Sayyid Sabiq (r.a.), presents ahadits evidences for rulings corresponding to about 95 percent of those of the Shafi’i school, which is a welcome contribution, but by no means a final word about these rulings, for each of the four schools has a large body of literature on ahadits evidences, and not just the Shafi'i school reflected by Imam Sabiq’s (r.a.) work.  The Maliki school has the Mudawwanah of Imam Malik (r.a.), for example, and the Hanafi school has the Sharh Ma’ani al-Atsar, “Explanation of Meanings of Ahadits” and Sharh Mushkil al-Atsar, “Explanation of Problematic Ahadits”, both by the great muhaddits, Imam Abu Ja’far ath-Thahawi (r.a.).  Whoever has not read these and does not know what is in them is condemned to be ignorant of the hadits evidence for a great many Hanafi positions.

There is a large fictional element involved when someone comes to the Muslims and says, “No one has understood Islam properly except the Prophet (s.a.w.) and early Muslims, and our shaykh.”  This is invalid, for the enduring works of first-rank a’immah of hadits, jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, and other shari'ah disciplines impose upon Muslims the obligation to know and understand their work, in the same way that serious comprehension of any other scholarly field obliges one to have studied the works of its major scholars who have dealt with its issues and solved its questions.  Without such study, one is doomed to repeat mistakes already made and rebutted in the past.  Most of us have acquaintances among this ummah who hardly acknowledge another scholar on the face of the earth besides the imam of their madzhab, the shaykh of their Islam, or some contemporary scholar or other.  And this sort of enthusiasm is understandable, even acceptable at a human level in a non-scholar.  But only to the degree that it does not become ta’aswswub or bigotry, meaning that one believes one may put down Muslims who follow other qualified scholars.  At that point it is haram, because it is part of the sectarianism, tafarruq, among Muslims that Islam condemns.

When one gains Islamic knowledge and puts fiction aside, one sees that superlatives about particular scholars such as ‘the greatest’ are untenable; that each of the four schools of classical Islamic jurisprudence has had many, many luminaries.  To imagine that all preceding scholarship should be evaluated in terms of this or that “Great Reformer” is to ready oneself for a big letdown, because intellectually it cannot be supported.  Nothing justifies this kind of attitude in Islam, whether it is called “Islamic Movement”, “Salafism”, or something else, and the sooner we leave it behind, the better it will be for our Islamic scholarship, our sense of reality, and for our Diyn.


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