“Salafi” versus “Sufi”

“Salafi” versus “Sufi”

“Salafi” and “Sufi” with the current use of the term, are both innovated terms. Such terms were not mentioned in the Book or Sunnah in such context.

There are differences on the validity of the linguistic stem of the word Sufi, and what it entails. The preferred, is linking it to Safa’ (purity) through metaphor or practice of the early Sufi’s. The best meaning is that Sufism is a synonym for the Prophetic term: Ihsan, and bound by it. It is alleged that “Salafi or Salafism’s” foundation comes from the known authentic Hadith, which means: (The best of people are my century, then those who follow, then those who follow). This is a portion of a long Hadith, and as such, the meaning of the Hadith is incomplete. Not to discuss the whole complete narration and its actual full contextual meaning and implication, nor the meaning of “qarni = which maybe translated as century”, but regardless of the result, this Hadith cannot be used as a substantiation of a Prophetic command to follow the “Salaf” (people/scholars) who lived in the first 300 years. The partial point of this fragment of the Hadith is to praise some of the people who happened to live in those centuries. For even his century, sallallahu alayhi wa aalihi wa sallam, had the best of creation and some of the worst examples of humanity ever, such as Abu Jahl, and Abu Lahab, Ummayah bin Khalaf, and the likes. There were/are some serious criminals present in all centuries, including in his own century, sallallahu alayhi wa aalihi wa sallam, and the Prophetic Hadith does not mean to include any and all (people/scholars) in any given time or place exclusively. This is the beginning.

At the time of the Tabi’in (generation after the honorable companions, may Allah be pleased with them all) the various schools of thought and Islamic theology started developing, from the extreme literalists to the radical rationalists and everything in between. Obviously the crystallization of the “Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’a” theological schools with all of its shades and variety: (Puritan Hanbali*, Athari non-Hanbali, Ash’ari, Maturidi) and other sects’ theological schools such as the Mu’tazilites, Shia sects, and the “Khariji” sects whose remnant is the “very modified” present day Ibaadi’s, was ongoing and developing. At the end of the 5th century most of the sects were developed, and each of them had their own “Salaf = pious predecessors”. The Sufi movement started also crystallizing as a distinguished movement by the 2nd century, whereby it necessitated key founding figures like Al-Junayd Al-Baghdadi to state that: “our Sufism is bound by the Book and Sunnah”, and similar statements were repeated later by other Sufi figures like Sayyidi Abdul Qader Al-Jaylani, an era which marked the formal establishment of Turuq (schools of Tasawuff) and “Turuqism” within the concept of Sufism. Every group in the Ummah had their own set of people/scholars whom they considered as “As-Salaf As-Saaleh,” despite the obvious overlapping at times.

Theologically (when pertaining to secondary issues*), what each group means by “As-Salaf As-Saaleh” when trying to substantiate a detailed secondary Tawhid issue/Kalami/Asm’a & Sifaat, etc.. is a (small) group of scholarly figures that happened to live during the 3rd century. I say small, because the Hanbali’s cannot establish recorded authentic evidence in their views to more than a handful of figures, despite the claims that makes it sound as if the whole Muslim world at that time was one way or another, but they since they call those handful figures: “salaf as-saaleh”, the impression nowadays, is that the whole world was like that back then. Also mostly; the term “Salaf As-Saaleh” when used in secondary detailed theological debates and arguments refers mostly to the 3rd century more than the 1st or 2nd, for no one has an issue with the first generation which constitutes the Sahaba (Allah Ta’ala be pleased with them all). The differences start from the second century and were established and crystallized in the 3rd. Hence, most of use of such terms refer back to the second and third century, in general.

Furthermore, there are some serious disagreements among Muslim groups and sects on who should belong to this group of “Salaf As-Saaleh”, within the same ideological group itself sometimes, let alone the various groups that proclaimed belonging to or claim to exclusively represent “Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’a”. For the ‘Salaf As-Saaleh” of the Sufi’s is not necessarily the same as that of the nowadays Salafi’s, and so on. Or there could be an acceptance of inclusion conditioned with an insistence that so and so is more qualified and more “Saaleh” than so and so from the other ideological group, even within groups having minor differences. Al-Hafidh Ibn Al-Jawzi wrote his famous book Talbis Iblis “tricks of Shaytan” to simply refute the Sufi’s of his time and their effect including such as Imam Al-Ghazzali. May Allah have mercy on both of them.

The fact is; scholars who happened to live in the 3rd or 4th century did not have one unified school of theology or Fiqh, and did not have an agreement about (almost) anything EXCEPT that which is Mutawater (definitive) in its transmission, or “known by necessity”. For ALMOST every other issue, was discussed, debated and argued and you will find disagreements and agreements about almost anything in that blessed era. So, to say that the “Salaf As-Saaleh” had “a Math’hab” (unified school in matters of “secondary detailed = non-definitive” theology and/or Jurisprudence), or this is “the Madh’hab” of the Salaf, is simply non-factual. Hence, even among those who proclaimed “Ahlus Sunnah” as their mainframe school, we find differences in main issues of theology, needless to talk about jurisprudence.

  •  If you take the Hanbali’ theology as stated by Al-Qadi Abu Ya’la in his book (Ibtaal’u’Ta’weelaat), you will find that Ash’ari’s and Maturidi’s and even the Athari’ non-Hanbali’s call it flat out Kufr or very close to, on the basis of anthropomorphism. Not to mention the habit of many Hanbali’s past and present to rely on weak or less-than-Sahih-in-its-Baab narrations in matters of Tawhid and theology, while demanding absolute authenticity in Fiqhi and Ibadaat matters. It is derived from their approach, which is largely based on an apparent method reflecting: Taqlid (of the “salaf”)  in Tawhid but Ijtihad in Fiqh, and Allah knows best. 
  • Though both schools consider each other Ahlus Sunnah wal Jam’ah, but there are differences between the Ash’ari’s and Maturidi’s. Those differences are not many, but a few of them are real differences and not just semantics, such as the capacity and effect of the power of the creation, and matters of Sifaat, such as al-Wujud, and so on. And those differences were expressed in harsh language in the early days. Though -alhamdulillah- this faded away in the past few centuries, largely because the Kalami debate has subsided a lot, and the Ash’ari school has expanded into the ‘usual’ Maturidi constituency, despite the titles or remnants.

Obviously the differences with non-Ahlus Sunnah sects are even wider.

Nevertheless, all and every sect and group claim to have their own “Salaf-Saleh” through whom they got their information and affirmed practice. The reality is, it is because of an extreme sectarian view lately-bordering a cult-driven dogma and preaching, the idea of what “As-Salaf As-Saaleh” did and believed, became prevalent, and almost made to be the benchmark of Sunnah versus non-Sunnah or Bid’ah (evil innovation). The danger in such a notion, is establishing a new standard other than the Book and Sunnah, or worse yet; rendering the Qur’an and Sunnah texts valid contingent only on a “Salah or Khalaf”s view or understanding, in practice even if theory says otherwise. The current notion to follow “As-Salaf As-Saaleh” makes sense to those who limit (the need to find recorded authentic evidence of) the Salaf As-Saaleh to a group of 5-6 people who lived in the 3rd century, and 2-3 people who came in the 8th, simply because individual documentation is not there, and contradictory testimonies by other “Salaf”s are equally widely available. This is pertaining to the secondary detailed issues of Asma’ and Sifaat and Kalam, in particular. Some people consider the use of “secondary and primary Deeni issues as Bid’ah itself, as a Bid’i division. For those; what I meant by secondary detailed issues are the issues that are based on non-Qat’i (non-definitive) transmission. Those who believe that Qat’i and non-Qat’i is also a Bid’ah, then it is the issues that have weak transmissions to the Prophet-sallallahu alayhi wa aalihi wa sallam, or when an non-sahih-in-the-Baab transmission is used in lieu of such to substantiate a binding issue in belief. It is important, however, to say that the notion to make the texts of the Book and Sunnah conditional on the understanding of “some people in the Khalaf or Salaf” is not limited to one group or sect. i.e. stipulating conditions on revelations to be accepted and practiced directly is not native to one group versus another.

The reality is that Allah Ta’ala did not command us to follow the “Salaf As-Saaleh” as a standard, nor did He command us to imitate anyone other than the one and only Truthful Infallible Messenger of this Last Ummah, Sayyiduna Muhammad bin Abdillah sallallahu alayhi wa aalihi wa sallam. The whole Salaf and the rest of the Ummah, starting with the Sahaba (may Allah Ta’ala be pleased with them all) were commanded to follow the Book and the Prophetic Sunnah. For this is the “golden” standard for all. No other standard can be interjected. To that, the Hadith of our mother Ummul Mu’minin Aisha (radiya Allahu Ta’ala anha) in Sahih Muslim said, which means: “whoever interjects in this Deen that which is not from it, is rejected.”

Had the term “As-Salaf As-Saaleh” been limited to the “Sabiqin Awwalin”, it would have had a share of the truth in its nomenclature, to say the least. As “As-Sabiqin Al-Awwalin” is a known group of the Sahaba, mentioned in the Qur’an explicitly as a pious and righteous group with an indication to the rest of the Sahaba that if they -and all those who came after- follow them, contingent that this “following” MUST be conditioned by IHSAN (righteously), they will attain the pleasure of Allah Ta’ala. One can argue that “righteously” means adhering to the standard of the Book and Sunnah and not prioritize anything before them. i.e. When some Salafi’s require the understanding of “men” of the Salaf time for a Tawhid-text to be understood, the Ash’ari notion of prohibiting Taqlid in Tawhid seems to be simply more Salafi than the the nowadays Salafi’s. I believe there is a need to actually go the Qur’an and Sunnah directly in these issues, and beyond stipulating any fallible understandings as a condition for the Qur’anic and infallible texts.

Obviously this is not an issue with the “Far’iyyat” or secondary detailed issues in Fiqh, for all the non-Mutawater (non-Definitive transmissions) issues contain a space for disagreement about understanding such texts, span of their application, and even differences about the very process of authentication of such narrations. Jurisprudencial (secondary Fiqhi) differences rarely led to a “cult” culture or a claim of a mutually exclusive ownership of the truth. So the issues remain at secondary theological issues such as anthropomorphism, the issues of Asm’a and Sifaat, Tawassul, and other minor issues. I believe if there is no confiscation of the right of the opponent to go to the Book and Sunnah directly, no stipulations for accessing the Qur’an and Sunnah, and no misrepresentation of the other, full disclosure of each groups Daleel (evidence) from exclusively the Book and Sunnah will bring some closure to many outstanding issues, where ambiguity is purposely made the rule now. At the end people will take whatever they want, but an honest and full disclosure is seriously lacking and needed.

As for the “Salaf As-Saaleh”, if they are Sahabi’s, then they have a different handling due to their lofty honor. If they are in the 2nd and 3rd century, then they were human beings. Yes, they were honorable human beings because of their piety. The scholars among them were learnt people, and some of those learnt ones were key figures in groups that were established then or later. People can love whomever they want, but it may even infringe on the faith system itself to condition the Book of Allah to an understanding of a group of fallible people, regardless how great or knowledgeable they were. The Book was not revealed onto/to be useful to a group of few scholars in the first 3 centuries only, and inaccessible to the rest of the Ummah, and the whole Ummah becomes obliged to blindly imitate and adopt that specific group’s understanding, views, and written texts. Revealed Texts (Qur’an and Sunnah) are the standard, not human-written texts. The Ta’sis (foundation) is only for the Book and Authentic Sunnah in this Deen. Yes there is a Fiqh of the Hadith and Sunnah, and thats what our scholarship from the time of the pious predecessors until the day of judgment attempts to explain and shed light on. One needs to delve into that, and master it as part of the “Ulum-ul-Aaalah= tools” necessary to understand the possible multiple dimensions of the texts. But the Imams of the Salaf and the Ulama of the Salaf and Khalaf’s contribution and academic work is for Isti’naas (elucidation and expansion) not substantiation and foundation. May Allah Ta’ala accept from all of them their efforts, and be pleased with them all. This is not to mean like what extreme anti-Madh’habi’s went to, such as calling to burn the books of Shafi’i, Abu Hanifah, Ahmad, Malek, and the like..and considering them as idols, or considering those Madha’heb a “new Deen”!. Na’udhu Billah. But it is to put things in its right perspective; relying on the efforts of our pious predecessors in our gradual approach to knowledge, but at the same time not replacing the Book and Sunnah (in studying, memorization, direct practice, prioritization, analysis, teaching, explaining) by books and/or statements of the Salaf or Khalaf. The works of our great Imams and Madha’heb (schools of Fiqh) are there to lead us and push us towards the Book and Sunnah, and that’s the context here. After all, we are mandated in the Qur’an to ask those of Ilm (knowledge), and refer to them. One should realize, however, that acquiring knowledge is a process that normally requires a gradual approach = Tadarruj, and Allah knows best.

Love whoever you want to love, but do not interject a new standard to the Ummah…

Shaykh Muhammad bin Yahya al-Ninowy
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