There are many people who are uncertain about what it means for one to identify as Salafi, so for those who would like a clarification I would like to take the opportunity to break it down below bi’ithnillaah in order to be better understood.
To explain the word Salafi in the simplest manner, it is the term for one who ascribes him/herself to the way of the Salaf-us-Saalih (Pious Predecessors). In Arabic, the word Salaf in its linguistic sense means Predecessor, so any individual who precedes someone may be referred to as a Salaf.
The famous Arab judge and lexicographer, Ibn Manthoor [d. 711 AH] (may Allaah have mercy upon him) stated in his Arab dictionary, Lisaan al-‘Arab that Salaf means:
“Something that preceeded. Those who preceeded you by way of your forefathers or those near to you in relation.”
The usage of the word in this sense is present within the Qur'an as well, for example in the Suwar (plural of Surah) below wherein Allaah says:
فَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ سَلَفًا وَمَثَلًا لِّلْآخِرِينَ
And We made them a precedent (as a lesson for those coming after them), and an example to later generations.
(Surah Az-Zukhruf, 43:56)
وَالَّذِينَ جَاؤُوا مِن بَعْدِهِمْ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا اغْفِرْ لَنَا وَلِإِخْوَانِنَا الَّذِينَ سَبَقُونَا بِالْإِيمَانِ وَلَا تَجْعَلْ فِي قُلُوبِنَا غِلًّا لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا رَبَّنَا إِنَّكَ رَؤُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ
And those who came after them say: “Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who have preceded us in Faith, and put not in our hearts any hatred against those who have believed. Our Lord! You are indeed full of kindness, Most Merciful.
(Surah Al-Hashr 59:10)
In its legislative sense (i.e. what the term means in the religion), Salaf refers to one from the first three generations of Muslims; the Messenger of Allaah (sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), his companions (the Sahaba), the companions of the companions (Tabi'een), and their companions (Tabaa At-Tabi'een). This ascription is clear from the words of the Messenger of Allaah as well as those of his companions.
The Prophet (sallAllaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) told his beloved daughter Fatima (radhiAllaahu 'anha) prior to passing away:
« أَنَّ جِبْرِيلَ كَانَ يُعَارِضُهُ الْقُرْآنَ فِى كُلِّ سَنَةٍ مَرَّةً وَإِنَّهُ عَارَضَهُ الآنَ مَرَّتَيْنِ وَإِنِّى لاَ أُرَى الأَجَلَ إِلاَّ قَدِ اقْتَرَبَ فَاتَّقِى اللَّهَ وَاصْبِرِى فَإِنَّهُ
«نِعْمَ السَّلَف أَنَا لَكِ »
“Indeed Jibreel used to listen to my recitation of the Qur’aan once a year, and he has now (i.e. this year) done so twice, and I do not see except that my appointed time is close, so fear Allah and be patient for indeed I am a blessed ‘Salaf’ (Predecessor) for you”
[Collected by Bukhaari (5928) and Muslim (2450)]
Therefore, to state one is 'Salafi’ is saying, “I follow the way of the Salaf-us-Saalih (Pious Predecessors) in understanding the Qur’an & Sunnah”. The 'i’ at the end of the word denotes an ascription to something. For instance, when someone denotes an ascription to their country of origin by stating, 'I am Amreeki (American), Britaani (British), Pakistani (from Pakistan), Albaani (Albanian)’ etc.
From the brief explanation above, one can see that this methodology (Salafiyyah — Islam as understood by the first three generation of Muslims) is not a new one but the true call to Islam that began with the Messenger of Allah (sallAllaahu 'alayhi wa sallam). It is the Qur'an & Sunnah understood, explained, and conveyed by those who possessed its foundational knowledge; the generations who laid the framework for the way by which we are to understand topics such as Aqeedah, Fiqh, Hadeeth, etc. And this has been the understanding of the scholars of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama'ah (that is, the scholars of the Salaf) throughout the ages.
The Imaams of all for Madhahib (plural for Schools of Thought), Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’i, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may Allaah have mercy upon them), were all upon the Creed (Aqeedah) and Methodology (Manhaj) of the Salaf.
Imam Abu Haneefah (may Allaah have mercy on him) said:
“Adhere to the athar [narrations] and the tareeqah [way] of the Salaf (Pious Predecessors) and beware of newly invented matters for all of it is innovation”
[Reference: Reported by As-Suyootee in Sawn al Mantaq wal-Kalaam p. 32]
And Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may Allaah have mercy on him) said:
“The basic principles of Sunnah in our view are: adherence to the way of the Companions of the Messenger of Allaah, following their example and forsaking bid’ah [innovation in the deen], for every bid’ah is a going astray.”
[Reference: Al-Laalkaa’i in Sharh Usool Ahl as-Sunnah]
In fact, one of the most famous works on following the way of the Salaf is written by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (rahimahullaah) titled Usoolus-Sunnah, translated as, Foundations of the Sunnah. In this book, Imam Ahmad expounds upon the belief of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaa'ah (The People of the Sunnah united upon Truth, i.e. those who follow the way of the Salaf) and their Aqeedah (more information can be found here).
For two questions I’ve previously answered regarding this topic, I highly recommend reading this and this.
I would also like to make clear that Salafiyyah is an ascription that distinguishes truth from falsehood in matters of Aqeedah (creed). It does not refer to legal differences in Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as many people tend to misconstrue.
What is Aqeedah?
Aqeedah is the fundamental Islamic creed that every Muslim should possess knowledge of. Aqeedah begins with the understanding of Tawheed, which is the first pillar of Islam: the Shahadah (to testify there is no deity worthy of worship except Allaah and that Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of Allaah) and its conditions and meanings can be read here. From the beginning of the deliverance of the message of Islaam the Aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama'ah (definition: the people of the Sunnah united upon the truth) has been one and the same. There is ‘Ijma (consensus) from the Salaf-us-Saalih about our fundamental beliefs in creed. Unfortunately, there are numerous groups today that distort the meaning of Islam and try to alter the religion based upon their whims and personal desires, imparting incorrect information about the deen. It’s for this reason that those who claim Salafiyyah (Islam as followed by the Salaf) strive to make it absolutely clear that we do not (and should not) permit innovation into our perfect religion.
Please allow me to illustrate the point above with an example: Person x and person y are reading the Qur'an. Upon reading a particular verse person x decides to use his own interpretation of what the verse means in order to understand it, where as, person y would like to understand the Qur'an upon the understanding of the Messenger of Allaah (sallAllaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) & Salaf, seeking to refer back to the explanations of the people of knowledge.
There are numerous groups/sects in Islam that have twisted our blessed religion for their own agendas and practices, and this has led way to concepts such as: blatant shirk, terrorism, revolutions in the name of political ideologies distorting Islam and these only cause harm to the masses, may Allaah safeguard us from such things.
As Imam As Asbahaanee [d. 535 AH] (may Allaah have mercy upon him) stated:
"The sign of Ahlus-Sunnah is that they follow the Salafus-Saalih and abandon all that is innovated and newly introduced into the Deen.”
[Reference: Al-Hujjah fee Bayaanil Mahajjah 1/364]
To address the second part of the explanation on the correct Islamic methodology one may be wondering what Fiqh means.
What is Fiqh?
Fiqh is different from Aqeedah. Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence. The four madhaahib (the plural of madhab), that is the schools of the four Imaams, Imaam Abu Hanifah, Imaam Malik, Imaam Shafi'i, and Imaam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may Allaah have mercy upon them all) are based in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh). These are different from Islamic sects whose differences lie in matters of Aqeedah, not Fiqh. There are reasons for why the four schools differed from one another in certain aspects and the principles (usool) used by the four Imams of each madhab [please see this and this for further explanation]. One should bear in mind that there have been differences in matters of Fiqh from the time of the Messenger of Allaah (sallAllaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and this is a permissible type of differing. It’s not from the etiquette of a believer to cause discord if there are differences with another in matters of fiqh [for example, slight differences in the movements of prayer]. What is not permissible however, are differences regarding Aqeedah (creed).
The article below gives more insight on the principles of the Aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaa’ah:
And the following is an excellent read concerning following a madhab (school of thought):
Time and time again in their works the four Imams of the madhaahib have stated that they must not be blindly followed, only the strongest position from the Qur’an & Sunnah should be adhered to.
Imaam Abu Haneefah (d.150H) (rahimahullaah) said,
“If a hadeeth is found to be authentic, then that is my madhhab.”
[Source: Related by Ibn ’Aabideen in al-Haashiyah (1/63) and also in Rasmul-Muftee (¼)]
Imaam Maalik (d.179H) (rahimahullaah) said,
“Indeed I am only a man. I am sometimes mistaken and at other times correct; so look into my opinions. All that agrees with the Book and the Sunnah, accept it; and all that does not agree with the Book and the Sunnah, then abandon it.”
[Source: Related by Ibn ’Abdul-Barr in al-Jaami’ (2/32) and Ibn Hazm in Usoolul-Ahkaam (6/149)]
Imaam ash-Shaafi’ee (d.204H) (rahimahullaah) said,
“Everything that I say, for which there is something authentically related from the Prophet (sallallaahu ’alayhi wa sallam) contrary to my saying, then the hadeeth of the Prophet comes first. So do not make taqleed (blind-following) of me.”
[Source: Related by Ibn Abee Haatim in al-Aadaab (p. 93) and Ibn ’Asaakir in Taareekh Dimashq (15/9/2)]
Imaam Ahmad (d.241H) (rahimahullaah) said,
“Do not make taqleed (blind-following) of me, nor make taqleed of Maalik, nor of ash-Shaafi’ee, nor of al-Awzaa’ee*, nor of ath-Thawree*. But take from where they took.”
[Source: Related by Ibnul-Qayyim in I’laamul-Muwaqqi’een (2/302)]
Islam is the truth and a beautiful deen (way of life), but unfortunately there are numerous groups and individuals who have attempted to corrupt our blessed deen since its advent. The Messenger of Allaah (sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) clarified this situation 1400 years ago when he spoke of the Ummah splitting into 73 sects and only one group remaining upon the truth until the Day of Resurrection; this group is those upon the way of the Salaf-us-Saalih.
For an in depth explanation of the aforementioned Hadith please see below:
- The meaning of the Hadith “my Ummah will be divided…”
- Is the Hadith on the 73 sects authentic?
I sincerely apologize for this lengthy post but I believe it was necessary in order to give a thorough explanation of Salafiyyah as well as share information that may not be known.
Please see the posts/articles below as well for additional information:
- What is Salafiyyah? [Lecture by a student of knowledge and graduate of the Islamic university of Madinah, Abu Idrees Muhammad, may Allaah preserve him]
- The Creed & Call of As Salafiyyah
- 10 Points on the Salafi Manhaj [methodology]
- What is not from Salafiyyah
- Are the Salafis a New Sect?
- Do the Salafis Only Look for Mistakes?
- “Wahabism” Exposed
To all who come across this I hope it’s helpful Inshaa’ Allaah. All good in the above is from Allaah alone and the mistakes are from myself. May Allaah guide us all to the truth and keep us firm upon it, Allaahumma Ameen.