Who and What is a Salafi?

Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Salafi 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.

In terms of ideals, the movement advocated a return to a shari`a-minded orthodoxy that would purify Islam from unwarranted accretions, the criteria for judging which would be the Qur’an and hadith. Now, these ideals are noble, and I dont think anyone would disagree with their importance. The only points of disagreement are how these objectives are to be defined, and how the program is to be carried out. It is difficult in a few words to properly deal with all the aspects of the movement and the issues involved, but I hope to publish a fuller treatment later this year, insha’Allah, in a collection of essays called “The Re-Formers of Islam“.

As for its validity, one may note that the Salafi approach is an interpretation of the texts of the Qur’an and sunna, or rather a body of interpretation, and as such, those who advance its claims are subject to the same rigorous criteria of the Islamic sciences as anyone else who makes interpretive claims about the Qur’an and sunna; namely, they must show:

  1. That their interpretations are acceptable in terms of Arabic language;
  2. That they have exhaustive mastery of all the primary texts that relate to each question, and
  3. That they have full familiarity of the methodology of usul al-fiqh or “fundamentals of jurisprudence” needed to comprehensively join between all the primary texts.

Only when one has these qualifications can one legitimately produce a valid interpretive claim about the texts, which is called ijtihad or “deduction of shari`a” from the primary sources. Without these qualifications, the most one can legitimately claim is to reproduce such an interpretive claim from someone who definitely has these qualifications; namely, one of those unanimously recognized by the Umma as such since the times of the true salaf, at their forefront the mujtahid Imams of the four madhhabs or “schools of jurisprudence”.

As for scholars today who do not have the qualifications of a mujtahid, it is not clear to me why they should be considered mujtahids by default, such as when it is said that someone is “the greatest living scholar of the sunna” any more than we could qualify a school-child on the playground as a physicist by saying, “He is the greatest physicist on the playground”. Claims to Islamic knowledge do not come about by default. Slogans about “following the Qur’an and sunna” sound good in theory, but in practice it comes down to a question of scholarship, and who will sort out for the Muslim the thousands of shari`a questions that arise in his life. One eventually realizes that one has to choose between following the ijtihad of a real mujtahid, or the ijtihad of some or another “movement leader”, whose qualifications may simply be a matter of reputation, something which is often made and circulated among people without a grasp of the issues.

What comes to many peoples minds these days when one says “Salafis” is bearded young men arguing about din. The basic hope of these youthful reformers seems to be that argument and conflict will eventually wear down any resistance or disagreement to their positions, which will thus result in purifying Islam. Here, I think education, on all sides, could do much to improve the situation.

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