Who and What is a Salafi?

The reality of the case is that the mujtahid Imams, those whose task it was to deduce the Islamic shari’a from the Qur’an and hadith, were in agreement about most rulings; while those they disagreed about, they had good reason to, whether because the Arabic could be understood in more than one way, or because the particular Qur’an or hadith text admitted of qualifications given in other texts (some of them acceptable for reasons of legal methodology to one mujtahid but not another), and so forth.

Because of the lack of hard information in English, the legitimacy of scholarly difference on shari’a rulings is often lost sight of among Muslims in the West. For example, the work Fiqh al-sunna by the author Sayyid Sabiq, recently translated into English, presents hadith evidences for rulings corresponding to about 95 percent of those of the Shafi`i school. Which is a welcome contribution, but by no means a “final word” about these rulings, for each of the four schools has a large literature of hadith evidences, and not just the Shafi`i school reflected by Sabiqs work. The Maliki school has the Mudawwana of Imam Malik, for example, and the Hanafi school has the Sharh ma`ani al-athar [Explanation of meanings of hadith] and Sharh mushkil al-athar [Explanation of problematic hadiths], both by the great hadith Imam Abu Jafar al-Tahawi, the latter work of which has recently been published in sixteen volumes by Mu’assasa al-Risala in Beirut. Whoever has not read these and does not know what is in them is condemned to be ignorant of the hadith evidence for a great many Hanafi positions.

What I am trying to say is that there is a large fictional element involved when someone comes to the Muslims and says, “No one has understood Islam properly except the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and early Muslims, and our sheikh”. This is not valid, for the enduring works of first-rank Imams of hadith, jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, and other shari`a disciplines impose upon Muslims the obligation to know and understand their work, in the same way that serious comprehension of any other scholarly field obliges one to have studied the works of its major scholars who have dealt with its issues and solved its questions. Without such study, one is doomed to repeat mistakes already made and rebutted in the past.

Most of us have acquaintances among this Umma who hardly acknowledge another scholar on the face of the earth besides the Imam of their madhhab, the Sheikh of their Islam, or some contemporary scholar or other. And this sort of enthusiasm is understandable, even acceptable (at a human level) in a non-scholar. But only to the degree that it does not become taassub or bigotry, meaning that one believes one may put down Muslims who follow other qualified scholars. At that point it is haram, because it is part of the sectarianism (tafarruq) among Muslims that Islam condemns.

When one gains Islamic knowledge and puts fiction aside, one sees that superlatives about particular scholars such as “the greatest” are untenable; that each of the four schools of classical Islamic jurisprudence has had many many luminaries. To imagine that all preceding scholarship should be evaluated in terms of this or that “Great Reformer” is to ready oneself for a big letdown, because intellectually it cannot be supported. I remember once hearing a law student at the University of Chicago say: “I’m not saying that Chicago has everything. Its just that no place else has anything.” Nothing justifies transposing this kind of attitude onto our scholarly resources in Islam, whether it is called “Islamic Movement”, “Salafism”, or something else, and the sooner we leave it behind, the better it will be for our Islamic scholarship, our sense of reality, and for our din.

© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995


Peace and Blessings upon the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions

© 2012 As-Sunnah Foundation of America

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