Q. Is it wrong for someone to call themself a Salafee?
A. The word ‘Salafee’ was never used in the course of Islamic history by any one to refer to himself. Instead, the word ‘Salafus Saaliheen’ or ‘Aslaaf’ (Plural of Salaaf) and ‘Salaf’ were used by the latter scholars to refer to the former scholars. These words simply mean ‘those who preceded’ or ‘went before’. In Islamic scholarship, the scholars have confined the usage of this word (i.e. Salaf, Aslaf or Salafus Saaliheen) to the scholars and the Muslims of the first three generations. They are the generations of the Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet (S.A.W)), the Tabioon (lit. followers – referring to the generation after the sahabahs) and the Tabut Tabieen (lit. followers of the followers – referring to the generation after the Tabioon).
With this understanding, it is clear that the word Salaf or early Muslim means someone who lived within the first four hundred years after the Prophet ( S.A.W), including the scholars such as Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi and Ahmad ibn Hambal. Anyone who lived after this period is know as a ‘Khalaf ‘or latter-day Muslim. It is interesting to note however, that no one from among these blessed periods of Islam used the word ‘Salaf’ or ‘Salafi’ to refer to himself.
In this regard, the renowned Islamic Scholar Dr. Said Ramadan Al Buti of Damascus wrote a wonderful book entitled “As Salafiyya Marhalatun Zamaniyyatun Mubarakatun la Madhhab Islami (The Salafiyya is a blessed period of history, not an Islamic School). This is a fact which has been endorsed by all the great and accepted Scholars throughout the history of Islam that no one from among the early generations and after them used the word Salafi to refer to themselves. No one called himself a ‘Salafi’. Instead the Scholars of the latter period referred to the Scholars of the early generation as ‘Salafus Saaliheen’ or ‘Aslaaf’ or ‘Salaf’ meaning the pious predecessors and held on to their teachings, explanations, verdicts, rulings and their ways in practicing Islam.
This is one which we all do as Muslims. In other words, whether a Muslim accepts it or not, he is bound to follow the teachings of the pious predecessors. This is essential for a Muslim since there is no other way of understanding the book of Allah and the Sunnah of His messenger except through the teachings and explanations given by the early Muslims who were used as a vessel through which Islam came to the latter generation.
So it is understood from the very early period of Islam that Muslims (Scholars as well as non- Scholars) continued to follow the pious predecessors. However, while this was done by every generation after the Sahabahs (R.A.), no one from among the early Muslims termed himself a ‘Salafi’. There was also no such group who was known as the ‘Salafi’ group. There was also no Mazhab known as the Salafi Mazhab. Instead, all true and sincere Muslims knew very well that they were ordered to obey Allah and His Messenger (S.A.W.) and in doing so, they had to accept and follow the teachings and explanations which were given by the pious predecessors. This is what the early Muslims did and this is what we do until today.
However, when deviation started in the early period of Islam, the true and rightly guided Scholars had to identify themselves with the right teachings and also had to separate themselves from the deviated groups. As such, they began to use the name ‘Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah’ for themselves. From that time until today, the rightly guided Scholars and the true Muslims always identified themselves as Sunni Muslims, adhering to the creed and way of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah. Along with this, whenever differences of opinion arose among the great Scholars of the Tabu’t Tabieen period in technical areas of Fiqh, scholars would have adopted an opinion of a certain scholar and then aligned themselves with that person. It was on account of this approach, scholars and Muslims in general, during the period of the Tabu’t Tabi’een adopted the opinions in Fiqhi issues of Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi and Ahmad. These were great Islamic Jurists and Mujtahid who were well accepted by all Scholars of their times (i.e. the period of the Tabieen) and so none of the ‘Salafu Saalih’ (pious predecessors) living at that time saw any harm, deviation, or act of wrongdoing on the part of those who accepted the opinions and rulings of these great Mujtahids.
In this manner, the act of following a mazhab of the great Mujtahid emerged from the Second century of Islam and the Salafu Saaliheen (pious predecessors) themselves endorsed and accepted the usage of the word Hanifi, Maliki, Hanbali and Shafi’i. They saw that these names simply indicated to the fact that a person would have accepted the opinions of a certain Mujtahid in Fiqhi issues which did not bring about a deviation or wrongdoing. Instead, it was done in full compliance of the teachings of the Holy Quran, the Sunnah of the holy Prophet (S.A.W) and the acceptance of the teachings of the ‘Salafus Saaliheen’ (pious predecessors).
It is important to note that what is established here is that the Salafus Saaliheen themselves have endorsed, accepted and used the words ‘Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah’ Hanifi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hambali. These have been established during their blessed times and so have continued to be in use until today.
However, while this is so, it was never a custom/practice of anyone from among the Salafus Saaliheen to call another person a ‘Salafi’. No one from among them used that name for himself. As such this term never became one which was used for anyone or any group in the latter generations.
According to many Scholars, the term ‘Salafi’ was revived as a slogan and a movement among latter-day Muslims by the followers of Muhammad Abduh (the student of Jamaludeen Al Afghani) some thirteen Centuries after the Prophet (S.A.W). The name Salafi therefore, is an innovated appellation which ‘Ahlus Sunnah’ has not used and which appeared a few decades ago.
And Allah knows best.
Mufti Waseem Khan