WHO ARE THE "SALAFIS"?
wrote in his essay entitled: Who or what is a Salafi?
Is their approach valid?
The word salafi or "early Muslim" in traditional Islamic scholarship
means someone who died within the first four hundred years after the
Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), including scholars
such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi'i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Anyone who
died 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 al-Din al-Afghani) some thirteen centuries after the
Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), 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 (Allah bless
him and give him peace) and the early Muslims--and themselves.
According to "Salafi" ideology, a "Salafi" is therefore one who has
special knowledge or ability to follow the beliefs of the Salaf
above the massive majority of common Muslims. They also include
certain hand-picked scholars of laxer times.
Of course, this illusory definition is questioned by Sunni Muslims.
Even the name of "Salafi," as understood by the "Salafi" movement,
is rejected on the grounds that it is an innovated appellation which
Ahl al-Sunna have not used and which appeared only a few decades ago.
Dr. Sa`id Ramadan al-Buti of Damascus wrote the definitive book on
this issue, entitled al-Salafiyya marhalatun zamaniyyatun
mubarakatun la madhhab Islami (The Salafiyya is a blessed period of
history, not an Islamic school).
Where Ahl al-Sunna further differ with "Salafis" is in the promotion
by the latter of a handful of controversial scholars as supposedly
representing all of Islamic scholarship after the time of the true
Salaf. They praise and advertise these controversial scholars over
and above the established, non-controversial Ahl al-Sunna scholars
of the intervening centuries. These few controversial scholars are:
- Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim
- Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab and his Najdi epigones
- Bin Baz, Uthaymin, Albani, and their propagandists
The above claims can be found in their booklet entitled "A Brief
Introduction to the Salafi Da`wah" (Ipswich, U.K.: Jam`iat Ihyaa'
Minhaaj al-Sunnah, 1993) p. 2. The "Salafis" add Imam al-Dhahabi
alongside Ibn Taymiyya and his student.
The Sunnis disagree with the above because neither do these belong
to the time of the Salaf, nor are they considered representative of
the belief and practice of the Salaf, nor are they considered
foremost authorities by Ahl al-Sunna. In fact the condemnation of
the first three by many scholars is well-known, as are the
innovations and blunders of the latter. It is interesting to note
that al-Dhahabi, who is listed by the "Salafis" alongside Ibn
Taymiyya in the above list, has himself characterized Ibn Taymiyya
as an innovator. His precise words were:
He [Ibn Taymiyya] was a virtuous and outstanding scholar, very
accurate and meticulous in his intellectual examinations, but guilty
of introducing innovations in the Religion (mubtadi').
These words were reported by the hadith master al-Sakhawi in his
book al-I`lan wa al-tawbikh. Dhahabi's own disclaimer of the errors
of Ibn Taymiyya is stated explicitly in his stern al-Nasiha
al-dhahabiyya, which was published in Damascus in 1347 together with
his Bayan zaghal al-`ilm. Ibn Hajar mentioned Dhahabi's Nasiha in
al-Durar al-kamina (1:166), and so did al-Sakhawi in al-I`lan wa
al-tawbikh (p. 504). Two extant manuscripts of the Nasiha are kept,
one in Cairo at the Dar al-kutub al-misriyya (#B18823) and one in
Damascus at the Zahiriyya library (#1347).
The most definitive proof that the "Salafis" are the most distant of
people to the pious Salaf lies in the following five fundamental
aspects of Salafi ideology:
Anthropomorphism of Allah's attributes: affirming a place, direction,
and corporeal limbs for Allah Almighty Who is far exalted above all
Disrespect of the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him;
An amateurish, egalitarian approach to Qur'an and hadith (no need
for scholars, or mastery of Arabic, or ijaza -- traditional
accreditation, or the Islamic sciences;
Hatred of the Four Sunni schools of Law (the Four madhahib), the Two
Schools of doctrine (Ash`aris and Maturidis), and all the schools of
The practice of takfir: declaring other Muslims unbelievers.
Mohammad al-Abbasi in his essay entitled Protestant Islam has
explained that the "Salafis" are essentially Westernized modernists
striving to distance themselves from their own authentic but "messy"
Islamic past in favor of an inauthentic but "hygienic" past which
they identify, in youthful, revisionist fashion, with the pious
With the neatness of mind which they had learnt from the West, and
driven by a giddy enthusiasm which blinded them to the finer aspects
of the classical heritage, many of the fundamentalists announced
that they found the Islam of the people horribly untidy. Why not
sweep away all the medieval cobwebs, and create a bright new Islam,
streamlined and ready to take its place as an ideology alongside
Marxism, capitalism, and secular nationalism? To achieve this aim,
it was thought that the four madhhabs of fiqh had to go. Ditto for
the Ash`ari and Maturidi theological traditions. The Suufi orders
were often spectacularly exotic and untidy: they of course had to be
expunged as well. In fact, at least ninety percent of the
traditional Islamic texts could happily be consigned to the
shredding machine: while what was left, it was hoped, would be the
Islam of the Prophet, stripped of unsightly barnacles, and presiding
over a reunified Muslim world, striding towards a new and shining
Unfortunately we see that the principal activity of these
unbarnacled, revisionist "Salafis" has been, since their Wahhabi
forerunners, to declare other Muslims kafir for not thinking along
the same terms as they. The pernicious little booklet which is the
reason behind the present refutation is only one more of a long, sad
series of similar examples. And from Allah is all success.