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Who and What is a Salafi

Nuh Ha Mim Keller

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.

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

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

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.