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Who or What is a Salafi

Who or What is a Salafi

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Published by Abdullah Zaki

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Abdullah Zaki on Jul 06, 2010
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07/26/2010

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Who or what is a Salafi? Is their approach valid?
Their basic claim is that Islam has not been properly understood byanyone since the prophet Mohammed and the early Muslims--exceptthemselves.
By Nuh Ha Mim Keller
 
The word salafi or "early Muslim" in traditional Islamic scholarship meanssomeone who died within the first four hundred years after the prophetMohammed, including scholars such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi'i, andAhmad 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-dayMuslims, by the followers of Muhammad Abdu (the student of Jamal al-Dinal-Afghani) some thirteen centuries after the prophet Mohammed,approximately a hundred years ago. Like similar movements that havehistorically appeared in Islam, its basic claim was that the religion had notbeen properly understood by anyone since the prophet Mohammed andthe early Muslims--and themselves.In terms of ideals, the movement advocated a return to a shari'a-mindedorthodoxy that would purify Islam from unwarranted accretions, the criteriafor judging which would be the Qur'an and hadith. Now, these ideals arenoble, and I don't think anyone would disagree with their importance. Theonly points of disagreement are how these objectives are to be defined, andhow the program is to be carried out. It is difficult in a few words toproperly 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 acollection of essays called "The Re-Formers of Islam".As for its validity, one may note that the Salafi approach is an interpretationof the texts of the Qur'an and sunna, or rather a body of interpretation, andas such, those who advance its claims are subject to the same rigorouscriteria of the Islamic sciences as anyone else who makes interpretiveclaims 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 toeach question, and3. That they have full familiarity of the methodology of 
usul al-fiqh
or"fundamentals of jurisprudence" needed to comprehensively join betweenall the primary texts.
O
nly when one has these qualifications can one legitimately produce a validinterpretive claim about the texts, which is called
ijtihad 
or "deduction of 
shari'a
" from the primary sources. Without these qualifications, the mostone can legitimately claim is to reproduce such an interpretive claim fromsomeone who definitely has these qualifications; namely, one of thoseunanimously 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 isnot clear to me why they should be considered
mujtahids
by default, suchas 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 aphysicist by saying, "He is the greatest physicist on the playground". Claimsto Islamic knowledge do not come about by default. Slogans about"following the Qur'an and sunna" sound good in theory, but in practice itcomes down to a question of scholarship, and who will sort out for theMuslim the thousands of 
shari'a
questions that arise in his life.
O
neeventually realizes that one has to choose between following the
ijtihad 
of areal
mujtahid 
, or the
ijtihad 
of some or another "movement leader", whosequalifications may simply be a matter of reputation, something which isoften made and circulated among people without a grasp of the issues.What comes to many people's minds these days when one says "Salafis" isbearded young men arguing about
deen
. The basic hope of these youthfulreformers seems to be that argument and conflict will eventually wear downany resistance or disagreement to their positions, which will thus result inpurifying Islam. Here, I think education, on all sides, could do much toimprove the situation.The reality of the case is that the
mujtahid 
Imams, those whose task it wasto deduce the Islamic
shari'a
from the Qur'an and hadith, were inagreement about most rulings; while those they disagreed about, they hadgood reason to, whether because the Arabic could be understood in morethan 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 inthe West. For example, the work
Fiqh al-sunna
by the author Sayyid Sabiq,recently translated into English, presents hadith evidences for rulingscorresponding to about 95 percent of those of the Shafi'i school. Which is awelcome contribution, but by no means has a ³final word´ about theserulings, for each of the four schools had a large literature of hadithevidences, and not just the Shafi'i school reflected by Sabiq's work. TheMaliki school has the
Mudawwana
of Imam Malik, for example, and theHanafi 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 inthem¶ is condemned to be ignorant of the hadith evidence for a great manyHanafi positions.What I am trying to say is that there is a large fictional element involvedwhen someone comes to the Muslims and says, "No one has understoodIslam properly except the prophet Mohammed and early Muslims, and

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