The word salafi or "early Muslim" 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.
According to "Salafi" ideology, a "Salafi" is therefore one who has special knowledge or ability to follow the beliefs of the Salaf above the massive majority of common Muslims. They also include certain hand-picked scholars of later times.
Of course, this illusory definition is questioned by Sunni Muslims. Even the name of "Salafi," as understood by the "Salafi" movement, is rejected on the grounds that it is an innovated appellation which Ahl al-Sunna have not used and which appeared only a few decades ago. Dr. Sa`id Ramadan al-Buti of Damascus wrote the definitive book on this issue, entitled al-Salafiyya marhalatun zamaniyyatun mubarakatun la madhhab islami (The Salafiyya is a blessed period of history, not an Islamic school).
Where Ahl al-Sunna further differ with "Salafis" is in the promotion by the latter of a handful of controversial scholars as supposedly representing all of Islamic scholarship after the time of the true Salaf. They praise and advertise these controversial scholars over and above the established, non-controversial Ahl al-Sunna scholars of the intervening centuries. These few controversial scholars are:
- Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim
- Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab and his Najdi epigones
- Bin Baz, Uthaymin, Albani, and their propagandists
The above claims can be found in their booklet entitled "A Brief Introduction to the Salafi Da`wah" (Ipswich, U.K.: Jam`iat Ihyaa' Minhaaj al-Sunnah, 1993) p. 2. The "Salafis" add Imam al-Dhahabi alongside Ibn Taymiyya and his student.
The Sunnis disagree with the above because neither do these belong to the time of the Salaf, nor are they considered representative of the belief and practice of the Salaf, nor are they considered foremost authorities by Ahl al-Sunna. In fact the condemnation of the first three by many scholars is well-known, as are the innovations and blunders of the latter. It is interesting to note that al-Dhahabi, who is listed by the "Salafis" alongside Ibn Taymiyya in the above list, has himself characterized Ibn Taymiyya as an innovator. His precise words were:
He [Ibn Taymiyya] was a virtuous and outstanding scholar, very accurate and meticulous in his intellectual examinations, but guilty of introducing innovations in the Religion (mubtadi').
These words were reported by the hadith master al-Sakhawi in his book al-I`lan wa al-tawbikh. Dhahabi's own disclaimer of the errors of Ibn Taymiyya is stated explicitly in his stern al-Nasiha al-dhahabiyya, which was published in Damascus in 1347 together with his Bayan zaghal al-`ilm. Ibn Hajar mentioned Dhahabi's Nasiha in al-Durar al-kamina (1:166), and so did al-Sakhawi in al-I`lan wa al-tawbikh (p. 504). Two extant manuscripts of the Nasiha are kept, one in Cairo at the Dar al-kutub al-misriyya (#B18823) and one in Damascus at the Zahiriyya library (#1347).
The most definitive proof that the "Salafis" are the most distant of people to the pious Salaf lies in the following five fundamental aspects of Salafi ideology:
* Anthropomorphism of Allah's attributes: affirming a place, direction, and corporeal limbs for Allah Almighty Who is far exalted above all of those;
* Disrespect of the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him;
* An amateurish, egalitarian approach to Qur'an and hadith (no need for scholars, or mastery of Arabic, or ijaza -- traditional accreditation, or the Islamic sciences);
* Hatred of the Four Sunni schools of Law (the Four madhahib), the Two Schools of doctrine (Ash`aris and Maturidis), and all the schools of self-purification (Tasawwuf);
* The practice of takfir: declaring other Muslims unbelievers.
Mohammad al-Abbasi in his essay entitled Protestant Islam has explained that the "Salafis" are essentially Westernized modernists striving to distance themselves from their own authentic but "messy" Islamic past in favor of an inauthentic but "hygienic" past which they identify, in youthful, revisionist fashion, with the pious Salaf:
With the neatness of mind which they had learnt from the West, and driven by a giddy enthusiasm which blinded them to the finer aspects of the classical heritage, many of the fundamentalists announced that they found the Islam of the people horribly untidy. Why not sweep away all the medieval cobwebs, and create a bright new Islam, streamlined and ready to take its place as an ideology alongside Marxism, capitalism, and secular nationalism? To achieve this aim, it was thought that the four madhhabs of fiqh had to go. Ditto for the Ash`ari and Maturidi theological traditions. The Sufi orders were often spectacularly exotic and untidy: they of course had to be expunged as well. In fact, at least ninety percent of the traditional Islamic texts could happily be consigned to the shredding machine: while what was left, it was hoped, would be the Islam of the Prophet, stripped of unsightly barnacles, and presiding over a reunified Muslim world, striding towards a new and shining destiny.
Unfortunately we see that the principal activity of these unbarnacled, revisionist "Salafis" has been, since their Wahhabi forerunners, to declare other Muslims kafir for not thinking along the same terms as they. The pernicious little booklet which is the reason behind the present refutation is only one more of a long, sad series of similar examples. And from Allah is all success