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.
The term Salaf applies also to the Scholars of Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah after the first three blessed generations who followed their way in belief and practices. The word “Salaf” is short for “Salaf aṣ-Ṣāliḥ” (Arabic: السلف الصالح), meaning “(righteous)predecessors” or “(pious) ancestors.” In Islamic terminology, it is generally used to refer to the first three generations of Muslims: the Sahabah, the Tabi‘in and the Taba‘ at-Tabi‘in. These three generations are looked upon as examples of how Islam should be practiced. This principle is derived from the following hadith by Muhammad:
|The people of my generation are the best, then those who follow them, and then whose who follow the latter (i.e. the first three generations of Muslims).|
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 don’t 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.
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 Sabiq’s 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……..
Origins of Salafism
The movement began in the mid 19th century among intellectuals at al-Azhar University, the preeminent center of Islamic learning, located in Cairo. Prominent among them were Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935). These early reformers recognized the need for an Islamic revival, noticing the changing fortunes in the Islamic world following the Enlightenment in Europe, which they admired. Al-Afghani was a political activist, whereas Abduh, an educator, sought gradual social reform. Debate continues today over the appropriate method of reform, ranging from violent political Islamism to less politicized evangelism.
Beliefs and practices
Salafis preaches a purified Islamic monotheism that strictly prohibits polytheism (shirk). Salafis believe that widespread Muslim practices such as venerating the graves of Islamic prophets and saints are shirk. Photographs of any living being that possesses a soul are forbidden. Celebration of Muhammad’s birthday (Mawlid) is also considered as bid`a. Salafis in general are opposed to both Sufi and Shi`a doctrines, which they regard as deviations.
Salafis place great emphasis on ritual not only in prayer but in every activity in life — three fingers should always be used when eating, water is to be drunk in three pauses with the right hand while sitting  — so as to follow the example of Muhammad and his companions and make religion part of every activity in life.
Salafism differs from the earlier contemporary Islamic revival movements of Islamism of the 1970s and 1980s, in that (at least many) Salafis reject not only Western ideologies such as socialism and capitalism, but also common Western concepts like economics, constitutions, political parties, revolution and social justice. Muslims should not engage in Western activities like politics, “even by giving them an Islamic slant.”  Instead, Muslims should stick to Islamic activities, particularly dawah and jihad. Salafis promote sharia rather than an Islamic political program or state.
Salafis are divided on the question of adherence to the four recognized schools of traditional legal interpretation (madhhabs).
- Some Salafis wish to base their jurisprudence directly on the Qu’ran and Sunnah. They believe that literal readings of the Qur’an and the hadith (or oral traditions) are sufficient guidance for the believing Muslim. One scholar who supported this position was Albaanee.
- Some Salafis follow the teachings of the 14th century Syrian scholar Ibn Taymiya, and his students Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Kathir.
- Some Salafis rely on the jurisprudence of one of the four famous madhabs. For example, Ibn Taymiya followed the Hanbali madhhab. Some of his students (such as Ibn Kathir and Al-Dhahabi) followed the Shafi madhhab. Other students (such as Ibn Abu al-Iz) follow the Hanafi madhhab.
Because Salafis see themselves as practicing “pure” Islam, Salafi teachers and adherents will not necessarily identify themselves as Salafi. They can be identified as part of a particular current of contemporary Islam by their characteristic beliefs, by their use of terms like “the Salaf” or “Qur’an and sunnah.” They also tend to use a more rigorous style of transliteration of Arabic into English: long vowels are indicated by doubling, emphatic consonants are doubled, and words that end with a ta marbuta in Arabic are rendered with a terminal h.
Salafism is a movement within Sunni Islam. It is strongest in the Middle East, and also found in most other Muslim-majority countries. It is increasingly important to diasporic Muslims in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Salafis tend to differentiate themselves not so much by matters of Islamic practice, such as prescriptions for prayer or Islamic dress, but by their attitude towards the state. Some Salafis urge believers to support or endure the state under which they live. Believers are encouraged to spread Salafism non-violently, by missionary activity, social work, and political organization. Other Salafis believe that violent jihad is permissible against foreign, non-Muslim, occupation, but not against governments that claim to be Islamic. Other Salafis (sometimes called Jihadist-Salafists) believe that it is permissible, even required, for believers to engage in violent jihad to overthrow oppressive regimes, even if they claim to be Islamic. One of the most famous proponents of violence was Sayyed Qutb, an Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood. After (an alleged) plot to assassinate Egyptian president Nasser was uncovered, the Brotherhood was suppressed and Qutb imprisoned. There he wrote a short manifesto on political Islam called Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq or Milestones. This book, along with his Tafsir, were widely read, and had a strong influence on various Islamist or jihadist movements. Hence these Muslims are sometimes called Qutbis. Dr. Abdullah Azzam is also said to be a proponent of violent jihad.
Despite some similarities, the different tendencies often strongly disapprove of each other and deny their Salafi character.