Q. Recently I have come in contact with many people who call themselves ‘Salafis’. They seem to be upon the truth and away from bid’ah but with my extremely little knowledge I may be wrong. Are those who call themselves salafis a deviant group or are they part of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (or the saved sect)?
A. The word ‘Salafa’ literally means that which has past/gone and Salaf (the plural of which is ‘Aslaf’) means predecessors, ancestors, forefathers.
Based on this meaning, the word has been used to refer to scholars in the past. As such, anyone who has preceded another can be literally referred to as a ‘Salaf’ meaning a person who has gone already.
In Islamic literature, scholars throughout the ages have used this term to refer to those of the early period of Islam. In this regard, it was used to refer to those who died within the first four hundred years after the Prophet (S.A.W).
Those who were from the first three generations were referred to as the ‘Salafus Saaliheen’ (the pious predecessors or the ‘Salaf’ or ‘Aslaaf’). However, they did not used this name to describe themselves nor did they use it for themselves. It was a word used by the latter scholars and Muslims.
With this, it is understood that the words ‘ Salafus Saaliheen’ or ‘Salafus Salih’ or ‘Salaf’ or ‘Aslaaf’ are used to refer to the Sahabahs (Companions), the Tabi’oon (the generation after the sahabah) and the Atba’ut Tabi’een (the generation after the Tabi’oon).
The great Imams of Fiqh like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi, Imam Ahmad and the other early scholars of Hadith and Tafseer fall into this glorious period and are also referred to as ‘Salafus Saliheen’ (pious predecessors).
Although this has been a term which is used in Islamic Scholarship to refer to the past scholars, no one or group has used the word to refer to themselves. In other words, ‘Salafis’ or ‘Salafi’ was never used throughout the blessed early period and afterwards for any group or sect.
This term was given to a reform movement in Egypt by Muhammad Abduh (1849/1905), the student of Jamaludeen Al Afghani. Like other movements that appeared in Islam, the basic claim of this group was that the religion was not understood by the Muslims and hence, the movement advocated a return to a sharia minded orthodoxy that would bring about a true Islam. This is basically what those who are affiliated with the Salafi movement claim.
Although, some of those who use the word ‘Salafi’ for themselves are sincere and genuine and truly wish to adapt to the teachings and method of the Salafus Saaliheen (pious predecessors), there are those who may be connected to the above mentioned movement and may be propagators of this group and thus, hold on to the teachings and opinions of certain specific people. Consequently, others may follow them, thinking that they are inviting to that which is good and may be unaware of the true motives of these propagators.
What is evident from many of those who use this term for themselves is that they openly condemn and criticize upright and genuine Scholars. Most of them have developed an attitude that ‘they are right about every thing and any other opinion is totally wrong’. This has been the attitude in matters of beliefs and practices and hence, has resulted in their calling others kafirs, mushrik and non Muslims. Some have gone to the extent of saying ‘that the blood of other Muslims is halal to spill’.
Most of, or almost all those who are involved in such conduct have little or no knowledge and thus misguide many innocent Muslims
Their statements continue to change with regards to what they are supposed to do. They may listen and accept a scholar today, but condemn him tomorrow. Opinions that do not conform to that which they hold is dismissed as being wrong or misguided. From among many of those who are flag bearers of this movement there isn’t any scholar, hence, they follow whatever they wish at their convenience.
Due to the ever increasing changes in their beliefs and also the varying amounts of groups among them who use the word ‘Salafis’ for themselves, it is difficult to identify what are their true beliefs and whether or not it conforms to the creed of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah.
As such, my sincere advice to you and others like yourself is to stay away from this movement.
And Allah knows best.
Mufti Waseem Khan