Q. What is the difference between Sunni and Salafi Islam?
A. There is no such word as ‘Salafi Islam’. This is not a term which has been used among the Muslims nor did it refer to a group of Muslims in the past. Islam as we know was completed and perfected with all its teachings at the hands of the Prophet (SAS). These teachings, as we know, included all its rules and regulations, commands, allowances, actions, rituals, practices and virtuous deeds. Whatever constituted the shariah was well established, adopted and implemented as the religion of Islam. Those who were honored to be the first to receive this great message were the Sahabahs and Companions of the blessed Prophet (SAS), who learnt the teachings of Islam, retained it and then passed it on to the generation after them. What came to these generations was the complete religion of Islam with all its practices and teachings as they were given to the noble companions.
The second generation of Muslims, like their predecessors, also spent their lives in learning the beautiful religion of Allah and thereafter passed it on to another generation. In this way, Islam, in its pristine purity came down to the latter generation from the former generations. During the course of this, there was no ‘group’ ‘organization’ or ‘sect’ which were referred to as ‘Salafi Islam’.
The word Salaf was only used to refer to the Muslims of the early generation, and was not used to describe a group or a type of Islam. During the early period of Islam, a type of deviation emerged which brought about groups that coined new beliefs and practices that were in opposition and in conflict to the true teachings of Islam, as preached and disseminated by the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet (SAS). Having gone against these practices and beliefs that were well established, these groups began to identify themselves with names that indicated to the masses that they were different from other Muslims. Some of these groups which emerged and fought hard to propagate and establish their own creed were: – the Khawarij; the Mutazilite; the Mujasimma; the Jahmiya; the Murjiah etc. etc.
These groups, in one way or another, departed from some of the fundamental tenets of the true teachings of Islam, but yet thought to themselves, and also preached to others that they were upon the truth and others were deviated.
It was in this atmosphere and environment that the rightly guided Scholars of this era stood firm upon the true and well established teachings of Islam, as it came from the blessed companions of the Prophet (SAS). They did not give in to any sort of deviation/change or new explanation, and they refuted every deviated dogma and practice that came about. These rightly guided scholars debated in each and every manner, both publicly and privately, in order that no distortion comes to the blessed teachings of Islam. These great Scholars sacrificed greatly and endangered their lives to protect the truth. During the time of Ali (RA), he waged wars against the khawarij in order to put them to rest. During the time of Imam Abu Hanifa, he debated openly and fearlessly against the leaders of the Mutazilites, Shias, Mujassama and many other deviated scets. Imam Ahmad bin Hambal also fought bravely against the Mutazilite doctrine at his time, He suffered mercilessly at the hands of his oppressors, but did not give up defending the truth. In this way, countless souls and great Scholars gave their lives for the protection of the true teachings of Islam. All these Scholars who fought to defend the truth were Scholars of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah (Sunni Muslims).
It was also in the early centuries of Islam that, in order to identify themselves as upholders of true path the great Scholars used the name ‘Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah’. This name was used to refer to all Muslims who followed the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah as they were given, explained, understood and practiced by the Companions of the Prophet (SAS). In this term, ‘Ahlus Sunnah’ meant ‘people/followers of the Sunnah’ and the word ‘Jamaah’ referred to the group of the Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet SAS).
From this time onwards, the name became well established and was used widely for Muslims who followed the unadulterated teachings of Islam, accepting the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAS) in totality and the Book of Allah as their Book of Guidance. The group known as the ‘Ahlus Sunnah’ were also referred to as ‘Sunni Muslims’ and were deemed to be the “Saved Sect’ or Firqatun Naji’ah’ as mentioned by the Prophet (SAS).
The hadith is which this fact is established is the following: – The Messenger of Allah said, ‘Certainly the Bani Israeel became divided into seventy two sects and my Ummah will be divided into seventy three sects, all will be in the fire of hell except one. The Companions said ‘Which one it is, O Messenger of Allah? He (the Prophet (SAS) said, ’The one that I am upon and my Companions. (The one who is upon my teachings and are upon the teachings of my Companions).
The hadith quoted above, gives a clear indication to the fact that the true Muslims are those who continue to follow the teachings of the beloved Prophet (SAS) and also adhere to the teachings of the Sahabah (RA). Those who did this were known to be the Saved Sect and were identified as ‘Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jammah’ or Sunni Muslims.
No other name was given to this group. The words ‘Salafi Islam’ and ‘Salafi Muslims’, were never used by the early Muslims, to refer to any specific group. Instead, the words Salaf, Salafus Saalih, Aslaaf etc were used to refer to Muslims who belonged to a certain generation (that is, the early period of Islam) and not a certain ‘group’.
The word Salaf literally means predecessors, ancestors, forefathers etc. and Salafus Saalih means the worthy ancestors or pious predecessors. Hence, when the word salaf is used by the latter scholars, it is used to refer to those Scholars who lived in the early centuries of Islam. It is not used to refer to a group which bore the name ‘Salafi’. In fact, many Scholars have stated that the group which is known as ‘Salafiya’ is an Islamic reform movement in Egypt, founded by Mohammad Abduh (1849/1905). A Muslim is required to follow the teachings of Allah and His Messenger (SAS) and adhere to that which have been preached and propagated by the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jammah.
And Allah knows best.
Mufti Waseem Khan