It is difficult to define just who exactly is a Salafi. The word Salafi, [from the Arabic word Salaf, is a relative noun [ism nisbee]. According to the Arabic dictionary, al-Bahr al-Muhit, a Salafi is someone who ascribes one’s self to the Salaf. And by Salaf, it’s meant the first three generations of Muslims starting with the companions of the Prophet (SAWS) , then the following generation of Muslims (the Taabi’een), and then the generation after them, (the Taabi’ Taabi’een).
The period of the Salaf (the first three generations) is not a madhhab of fiqh or a singular madhhab of aqeeda. It is a period of time with many variances and scholarly nuances within the scope of what people refer to as “traditional knowledge”. There is no one ‘Salaf” school of thought when it comes to Islamic law. Lol. The Salaf period comprises over 257 years of history from the first year of the hijrah, to the death of the last of the taabbi taabi’een (the generation after the generation after the companions of the Prophet (SAWS). You can even add the previous 13 years in Mecca, but most scholars don’t for historical recording purposes.
The last of the companions of the Prophet (SAWS) to die was Abu Tufail Aamir ibn Waathila al-Laithee who died in Mecca in the year 110 of the hijrah. He was 107 years old. The last of the taabi’een to die was Khalf ibn Khaleefa who grew up in Kufa and died in Baghdad in the year 181 of the hijra, he was over 100 years old, The last of the generation after the taabi’een (the third generation) to die was al-Hasan ibn Ar’fah who was from Baghdad. He died in the year 257 of the hijra, he was the last person to narrate from Khalf ibn Khaleefa, he was about 110 years old.
The Muslims and scholars of these three generations did not call themselves Salafis. None of them did. Infact, you’d be hard pressed to find any traditional scholars of Islam who lived more than a century ago who called himself a Salafi. Abdul-Rahmaan ibn Abdullah as-Salafi is cited by al-Fairuzaa’baadi as an example of a Salafi. Imam Adh-Dhahabi used the term Salafi in a descriptive sense when he said, “bal yakoona salafiyyan” [no, he should be Salafi]. However, the modern definition of a Salafi is inexplicit and Saafi was ever used as a pre-fix to someone’s name or an appellation, or attribute until very recently. Historically there was no such thing as “Salafi scholars”.
A Salafi in the general sense
In a general sense, a Salafi is someone who claims that he or she follows the way of the Salaf as-Saalih. He attributes and ascribes to them by using the term “Salafi” or “Salafiyyah’ which supposedly indicates that he is following their way in understanding religious matters. By religious matters we mean creed and ideology, jurisprudence, understanding of the Quranic verses, character, virtue, etc.
In such a rendering we can define the person who claims to follow the Quran as a Qurani, or the one who claims to follow the Prophet (SAWS) as a Muhammadi. Of course, these are unacceptable terms, not used by Muslims. However, were we to use the line of reasoning employed by the modern-day Salafis, such terms become plausible.
Traditional scholars of Islam did not use the term “Salafi” as a label; they did not go around saying, “I am a Salafi”. They did not name their schools madrasa Salafiyyah or claim to follow or propagate da’wah Salafiyyah. The well-known scholar of Azhar, Shiekh Abu Zahara [d. 1974] says in his book, Taarikh al-Madhahibi’l Islamiyya, that some people who dissented from the Hanbali Madhhab named themselves Salafiyyin [Salafis]. However, Abu Faraj ibn Jawzi [d. 506/1114] stopped their mischief from spreading by proclaiming them people of bid’ah.
The scholars of Ahlus Sunna wa Jamaat do ascribe themselves to the way of the Salaf. However, they used to reference the Salaf by saying things like, “this was agreed upon by the Salaf” or “this did not exist among the Salaf” or “the way of the Salaf is better”. Some would even refer to the madhhab of the Salaf. However, this was mostly done when discussing issues of creed and it was almost exclusively used in reference to things that the Salaf agreed upon. Otherwise, scholars would say, “some of the Salaf used to do so and so” or some of the Salaf used to say so and so”.
Some contemporary Salafi scholars have attempted to establish definitions for a Salafi such as “a true Salafi is one who values Tawheed and fights against shirk” or “a true Salafi is one who is not of the Khawaarij, and not of the Mu’tazila”, etc. However, these definitions and those like them can also apply to a true Muslim. As ibn Taymiyyah says,
“There is no fault upon the one who exhibits the way of the Salaf, ascribes himself to it, and refers to it. In fact, that should be accepted from him by agreement [of the scholars], because the way of the Salaf is only the truth. If he is in conformity with it outwardly and inwardly, then he is in the same category as a believer [Mu’min] who is upon the truth outwardly and inwardly. If he is in conformity with it outwardly and not inwardly, then he is a hypocrite [munaafiq]. We accept his outward appearance and leave his secret condition to Allah”.
Some of modern-day salafis say, “a true Salafi is one who adheres to the methodology of the Salaf in understanding the Quran and the Sunna.” This definition however, also applies to a true, sincere Muslim; it even applies to someone who adheres to a traditional school of jurisprudence such as a Shaafi’ee, a Maaliki, a Hanbali, or a Hanafi. Since the Muslim scholars unanimously recognize these four Imams and the schools of thought established by them as representing a sound and accurate interpretation of Islam, following any one of them would be essentially following the true path.
Thus, defining just who is a Salafi in an authoritative, conclusive way is an elusive undertaking. May Allah give us tawfeeq (success).
A Salafi in the specific sense
One problem encountered in describing a Salafi is the sheer novelty of the term. The scholars of the khalaf (latter-day scholars), who followed the way of the Salaf, such as the four Imams and those who came after them, did not go around saying I am a Salafi. They did not attach the ascription “Salafi” to their names, their publications, their schools etc. They would simply say, “I am a Muslim and I follow the way of the Salaf ‘as-Saalih. Thus, a “Salafi” as a separate sect is a contemporary conception. Defining who is a Salafi is not just a matter of determining what they say, but what they do. One must consider not whom they say they follow, but whom do they actually follow?
Describing a Salafi is not like describing a Muslim. One can easily look at the Quran and the rigorously authenticated traditions of the Prophet (SAWS) and find plenty of definitions for a Muslim. “If you have believed in Allah, then it is upon Him you depend if you are Muslims”. [10:84 Yunus] Here Allah says that Muslims are the ones who believe in Allah and depend upon Him. He does not say that a Salafi who believes in Him and depends upon Him! “And who is better in speech than the one who invites to Allah, does righteous deeds, and says I am of the Muslims”. [41:33 Fussilat] Here Allah says that a Muslim is one who invites to Allah and performs righteous deeds. This is the best of speech. He does not say that a Salafi does this.
The Prophet (SAWS) describes the Muslim in the hadith, “The Muslim is one who the Muslims are safe from his hand and his tongue”. In another tradition, the Prophet (SAWS) describes a Muslim as, “A Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. He should not wrong him nor surrender him to his enemy”.
Likewise, the sacred texts describe in detail what is incumbent upon the believers with respect to belief, worship, character, law, action, social intercourse, and other things. If the verses in the Quran, and hadith of the Prophet (SAWS) regarding the Muslim were taken together, we would see conclusively in sha Allah, what the description of a Muslim or a Mu’min (believer) is. However, there is no mention in the sacred texts of what is required upon the Salafi, or what the Salafi believes, or who is a Salafi.
The Prophet (SAWS) never foretold of a people who would call themselves ‘Salafi’, hence, the descriptions of the modern day Salafi are all ijtihaadi [deductively] based, and not nassi [textually based. Nass or nusoos [plural] are revealed and associated text of hadith. Ijtihaad on the other hand is the result of human deduction. The two cannot be intelligently equated. All the scholars of Ahlus Sunna wa Jamaat agree that an ijtihaad, particularly that of a latter day scholar, is subject to error. They also agree that ijtihaad which contradicts established texts from the Quran and the authentic Sunna, are frivolous at best and heretical at worst. This fact alone unmasks the true alien nature of the term Salafi, notwithstanding the obvious impossibility of determining a conclusive description for them. However in sha Allah, we shall attempt to delineate the current variety of so-called salafis.
The view of the Salafis by the general public
A perception has emerged amongst the general Muslims population that the salafis are a troublesome bunch. On the east coast of the United States, many of them are regarded as hoodlums. That is because they will accost you in the masjid because your pant leg is not rolled up high enough and then they’ll curse you out in the street because they think you didn’t give them the correct change for their sandwich! I am not saying that these perceptions are true to life. However, in recent years, based upon their interaction with them, Muslims in the United States and other parts of the world have solidified a perception of them as cold, arrogant, rude and prone to hasty interpretation. Many view them as extremely comfortable with chaos and controversy.
For some, the Salafis are those brothers who wear their pants up to their shins. For others, the Salafis are the ones who love to argue and call everybody deviants. Others regard the Salafis as those calling for a return to purity of Islam, but feel they are not quite ready for the rigors of modern hard core Salafi life. For some, the Salafis are the only true Muslims. For others, the Salafis are themselves deviant. Some people view them as a sect, a cult or simple another madhhab. Others regard them as neither of the three.
To some, the Salafis are an annoying thorn in their side. They are especially bothersome to some of the modernists, who try to carve out a modern version of Islam, congruent to the ideas of new pluralism and secular humanism. To adherents of traditional Islamic knowledge and methodology, the Salafis are considered perhaps well intentioned but grossly unscholarly and over simplistic in their approach. If you ask one hundred people concerning their opinion of a Salafi, you may get a few dozen different answers.
Since they are a new group, they are always changing and altering their views. For example, some of them used to say that you must call yourself a Salafi. Later, they modified their stance and said that it is only recommended to call yourself a Salafi. Another example is that one of them will find another hadith and then something else becomes haram or bid’ah. Then a few months later they will find yet another hadith and the ruling will change.
Since many of them reject the idea of learning from traditional chains of scholarship or adherence to any of the accepted schools of thought, they are always involved in what some of them call “progressive scholarship”. This means that while they are in the process of finding all of the hadith on an issue, they issue rulings. Then, they come back after some years or months or even the next day and change the ruling or view. There is nothing wrong with progressive scholarship; however, progressive scholarship cannot ever be considered the absolute truth, free from any error. Imam Shaafi’ee issued many rulings on issues that he later changed after he was apprised of more information. Imam Shaafi’ee was a scholar of the highest caliber. In the case of Imam Shaafi’ee, it was reported that he used to say when arriving at a disputed conclusion; “I am right, with the possibility that I am wrong, and you are wrong, with the possibility that you are right”. However; progressive scholarship when practiced by novices, and people prone to acrimonious dispute and fitna, is reckless.
It is difficult to define them as a whole. There are certainly many from amongst the Salafis who may be applying Islam in the character, temperament, and true understanding of what the Prophet (SAWS) intended. Much of what this author is referring to are the extremists of the Salafiyyah those primary targets are new Muslims. At the common level, regarding relationships amongst the average Muslims and masaajid, particularly those predominately frequented by American Muslims, the worst of the Salafiyyah is what seems to attract the most adherents. Islam as practiced by converts or reverts in the United States is mostly at the common level. As ibn Taymiyyah said,
“From that which is well-known about what occurs when people gather together upon some matter, is that any group which becomes strong and has many followers, then you will definitely find in them the pure and the impure, the justly balanced and the unbalanced, the extreme and the moderate. Moreover, a well-established fact is that the extremists are more vocal and have greater acceptance, since the ones who are justly balanced follow a middle course. And those who seek this balanced approach are few in numbers, in every age and place. As for extremism, then this is what most of the people thrive upon, and what the over-whelming majority inclines towards – and this has been the path of the various sects and religions as well. So the extremists try to monopolize their being mentioned among the people and to single in their da’wah. And they did not find any way to gain a monopoly over the people, except by extremism, which they achieve by degrading people and belittling them at every opportunity; either by their tongues, or other than that.
The first to open this door – the door of unleashing their tongues against those who oppose them – were the Khawaarij. And this is the route by which they came to the masses, through the door of takfeer (declaring a Muslim to be a disbeliever), in order that the masses would flee from other than them, so that they could secure a relationship for themselves with the masses. Then this disease was transmitted to others, such that the extreme elements of each group started unjustly declaring Muslims to be unbelievers, sinners, innovators, or deviants”. [Maj’moo’a fataawa]
 Majmoo’a a-fataawah.
 Collected by Muslim.
 Collected by Bukhaari and Muslim.
 Based upon the Quran and the Sunna.
[Taken from the book; ‘The Devil’s Deception of the Modern-Day Salafi Sect’ by Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad. American born Luqman Ahmad is a Sunni Muslim, the son of converts to Islam. He is a writer, consultant, and Associate Imam of Masjid al-Islam Toledo Ohio. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation, a founding member of COSVIO, (the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations), and the author of book “Double Edged Slavery“, a critical and authoritative look at the colonial condition of Black American and convert Muslims in the United States. The Imam blogs at, imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.