Are you ready for our first ever NATIONAL CAMPAIGN?
Home / Islamic Thought / History / Who are the ‘Salaf’?

Who are the ‘Salaf’?

With terms such as ‘salaf’ and ‘salafism’ having become highly politicised and sensationalised in the public domain, Shaikh Ali Hammuda separates fact from fiction in this series demystifying the status and authority of the constitutive and interpretive “Understanding of the Companions” of the Messenger of God (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam).

Authority of the Understanding of the Companions

Part 1

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

The Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) once said,

إِنَّ اللَّهَ نَظَرَ إِلَى أَهْلِ الأَرْضِ فَمَقَتَهُمْ عَرَبَهُمْ وَعَجَمَهُمْ إِلا بَقَايَا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ

“Allāh looked at the people of the earth and was angry with them all, Arabs and non-Arabs, except for a remainder of the People of the Book.”[1]

Allāh would then rescue humanity from this worldwide plight of darkness by sending them the final messenger who would, as Allāh said,

يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا مِنْ قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ

“…recite to them His verses and purify them and teach them the Book and wisdom – although they were before in clear error.”[2]

Just as the final messenger was chosen as the greatest individual to have ever lived, his supporters and assistants would similarly be chosen from the greatest that have ever lived. These were men and women who saw his movements first hand, heard his speech without middlemen and comprehended his guidance just as he had intended. This would continue until 23 years of prophethood had elapsed and Allāh finally revealed,

“This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My Favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islām as your religion.” [3]

After this blessed generation came another known as the Tābi’īn who followed the exact footsteps of the companions and delivered their responsibility towards Islām with the same excellence as that of the companions, warding off innovations, correcting misinterpretations and exposing fabrications from the Dīn of Islām. Then came after them a third generation who did the exact same and thus our messenger would praise these three generations in ways which he would not praise others.

Then, however, in generations that followed, we saw the appearance of many splinter groups and sects, who began to move away from the Jamā’a (collective mass) with an unprecedented degree of success. Different ideologies emerged and crystallised, such as the Khawārij (renegades), the Rāfida (extreme Shi’ites) and the Mu’tazila (speculative theologians), each group filtering the Qur’ān and Sunnah through their own paradigms in ways which were at odds with the understandings of the earlier generations. This was due to either Jahl (ignorance) or Hawā (desire) or a combination of the two. As the gap between us and the era of Prophethood widened, so did the number of worldviews and so did differences.

With the passage of time, the Ummah found itself losing much of its dignity and self-respect as it gradually strayed from the old and pure understandings. As the inferiority complex started to eat away at us, we began to look towards others in search for this lost dignity, and in many instances, the first victim of our desperate pursuit for ‘enlightenment’ was our core principles. With time, the Harām (forbidden) was deemed Halāl (permitted) and what was previously a despised innovation became, to some, an advisable Sunnah, or something recommended. As a result, those who held onto the oldest of understandings, namely that of the companions, were now labelled ‘backward’, ‘archaic’ or ‘hard-headed’.

In the 21st century, this has become the baseline of all arguments levelled at this orthodoxy, and the motivation behind the setting up of ‘modernist’, and allegedly more ‘compatible’ versions of Islām; disputing the relevance or authority of old understandings of Islām. This short series of articles is thus an attempt to demystify the concept of the orthodox understanding of Islām and that, contrary to it being backward, it is in fact that only way forward.

What does ‘understanding’ mean?

First of all, one of the greatest of all favours which one could receive from Allāh is the favour of ‘Fahm’ or understanding. Allāh says, telling us about the difference of opinion which occurred between the Prophet Sulaimān (‘alayhi al-Salām) and his father Prophet Dāwūd (‘alayhi al-Salām), “We gave Sulaiman the understanding of it.”[4] In that instance, Sulaimān was the recipient of this blessing.

Similarly, Imām al-Bukhāri titled a chapter in his ‘Sahīh’ compilation as: “The chapter of understanding knowledge” and quoted the famous Hadīth of Ibn ‘Umar:

إِنَّ مِنَ الشَّجَرِ شَجَرَةً، مَثَلُهَا كَمَثَلِ المُسْلِمِ، فَأَرَدْتُ أَنْ أَقُولَ: هِيَ النَّخْلَةُ، فَإِذَا أَنَا أَصْغَرُ القَوْمِ، فَسَكَتُّ، قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: «هِيَ النَّخْلَةُ»

“Amongst the trees, there is a tree which resembles a Muslim.” Ibn ‘Umar said, “I wanted to say that it was the date palm tree but since I was the youngest of all of them I kept quiet.” And then the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said, “It is the date-palm tree.”[5][6]

In that instance, Ibn ‘Umar was the recipient of this blessing. Furthermore, the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) would say,

مَنْ يُرِدِ اللَّهُ بِهِ خَيْرًا يُفَقِّهْهُ فِي الدِّينِ

“When Allāh wishes good for anyone, He bestows upon him the Fiqh (understanding) of the religion.” [7]

Thus the opposite of this is true. When Allāh does not want good for a person, He keeps this person ignorant with regards to Islām.

Who are the ‘Salaf’ and what are the usages of this term?

“Salaf” is a term which we hear being thrown about abundantly nowadays and so let us ask, what does this term mean and who or what is it in reference to?

When the three Arabic letters of ‘Sīn‘, ‘Lām‘ and ‘‘ come together then the linguistic reference is to something that has preceded. The Qur’ān has used this term in eight places in reference to this very meaning. For example, Allāh says,

عَفَا اللَّهُ عَمَّا سَلَفَ — فَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ سَلَفًا وَمَثَلًا لِلْآخِرِينَ — قُلْ لِلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِنْ يَنْتَهُوا يُغْفَرْ لَهُمْ مَا قَدْ سَلَفَ

“Allāh has forgiven what is past.”[8] (The term which was used for “past” is “Salaf”).

“And We made them a precedent and an example to later generations.”[9] (The term which was used for “precedent” is Salaf).

“Say to those who have disbelieved, if they desist (from disbelief), their past will be forgiven.”[10] (The term which was used for “past” is “Salaf”).

Similarly, the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) would say to Hakīm b. Hizām after he had embraced Islām,

أسلمت على ما سلف من خير

“You have embraced Islām and your good deeds which preceded are still with you.”[11]

Now what is the technical definition of this term? In other words, when the scholars use it in the Islamic context, what are they specifically referring to? Its usage is in reference to one of two elements:

1 – It is used in reference to a specific period of history that has passed.

This is taken from the famous Hadīth of ‘Imrān b. Husayn,

خَيْرُ النَّاسِ قَرْنِي، ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ، ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ

“The best of people are my generation then those who come after them and then those who come after them.”[12]

So the first usage of this term is in reference to a specific era that has preceded.

Some other scholars narrowly defined which generation it is which the term ‘Salaf‘ refers to. Some said it specifically refers to the generation of the companions. Others said it specifically refers to the generation of both the companions and the Tābi’īn[13]. Others have said it specifically refers to the generations from the time of the companions until the time of Imām Ahmad b. Hanbal[14] and in fact others have even said it refers to all of the generations up until year 500 after the Hijra (prophetic migration).[15]

However, the vast majority of the scholars both past and present were of the view that the term ‘Salaf‘ is in fact in reference to the generation of the companions, the Tābi’īn and the generation which came after them, due to the Hadīth of ‘Imrān stated above. This is with regards to its first usage.

2 – It is used in reference to a specific methodology which is not specific to an era.

Why is this second understanding also important? Because there were people during the time of the first three greatest generations who were innovators and followers of desires. Examples of this include Dhul-Khuwaysira during the time of the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam), Sabīgh b. ‘Isl during the time of ‘Umar (radiy Allāhu ‘anhu), the large appearance of the Khawārij during the time of ‘Alī (radiy Allāhu ‘anhu) and the appearance of the Qadariyya sect (those who denied pre-destiny) at the hands of Ma’bad al-Juhani during the end of the companions’ generation. The likes of al-Ja’d b. Dirham (Jahmiyyah sect) and Wāsil b. ‘Atā (from the Mu’tazila) all appeared during these first three great generations.

However, these were individual and isolated cases which did not reflect that blessed era and their innovations were dealt with and deconstructed appropriately. Thus when speaking about the understanding of the ‘Salaf‘, some tend to refer to the ‘Jumhūr‘ (majority) of the opinions of the Salaf or they say, ‘al-Salaf al-Sālih‘, ‘our righteous predecessors’ to exclude those aforementioned individual cases. Therefore whoever was a person of innovation or desire is not classified as being part of the ‘imitated Salaf‘ (al-Muqtadā bihim) even if such a person happened to live in their era. Thus the second usage of the term ‘Salaf‘ is in reference to a methodology—being upon what the first three generations were upon in terms of beliefs, acts of worship and how the texts were approached and applied.

What is meant by the term ‘Fahm al-Salaf‘ or ‘the understanding of the Salaf‘? How can we classify a particular opinion on an Islamic matter as being an opinion or even the ‘opinion of the Salaf’? Furthermore, what is the nature of this ‘orthodox understanding’ which the scholars (like Imām Ahmad rahimahullāh) promoted?

This will be the subject, by the permission of Allāh, of the forthcoming article. And all praise and thanks are due to Allāh.



[1] Sahīh Muslim on the authority of ‘Iyād ibn Himār

[2] Al-Qur’ān 62:2

[3] Al-Qur’ān 5:3

[4] Al-Qur’ān 21:79

[5] Sahīh al-Bukhāri on the authority of Abdullāh ibn ‘Umar

[6] This is because every aspect of the date-palm tree is beneficial, its leaves, fruits, date stone, branches, shade. Similarly is the believer; always being of benefit regardless of his circumstance or whereabouts.

[7] Bukhāri and Muslim on the authority of Mu’awiyyah RA

[8] Al-Qur’ān 5:95

[9] Al-Qur’ān 43:56

[10] Al-Qur’ān 8:38

[11] Bukhāri and Muslim

[12] Bukhāri and Muslim

[13] As is the opinion adopted by Imam Al-Ghazāli in his work ‘Iljāmul ‘Awām’

[14] As is the opinion adopted by Imam Al-Ājurri in his work Ash-Sharī’a

[15] As is the opinion adopted by Al-Bayjūri in Tuhfatul Murīd

The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.


  • Sent every few days to 20,000+ people
  • Receive our unique Islamic perspective on current affairs.
  • Ready for trustworthy, relevant & transformational articles, videos & podcasts?
By proceeding, you agree to receive our free email newsletter and accept our privacy policy.

About Ustādh Ali Hammuda

Ustādh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is a UK national of Palestinian origin. He gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari'ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Ustādh Ali is the author of several books including 'The Daily Revivals' and 'The Ten Lanterns", and continues to deliver sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.


  1. Abdiaziz Somali

    Alhamdulillah I am Muslim,, overwhelmed proof we must not have any sect or huzb in Islam…
    No any Nabii or any sahaba said in order to be better Muslim we must call ourselves SALAFIS
    Except Akhir Zama ulamaa in the like of Albany and other
    They know how to play with world. End of the day the best name and the best label we have given is Islam
    Find for me one ayat or ahadith even dhaif which said to be a better Muslim you have to call your self salafy
    They talk against innovation while they Innovated Islam into salafism

    Trust me these people who keep changing their names from ikhwani as ibn abdulwahab attamiim anajdia stated then they were known as ansar sunna they they were ahlul Hadith.. These are really people of fitna as it was mentioned in hadith of NAJD

  2. JazakAllahKhair for a most beneficial read and I look forward to the next parts.

  3. The only salafi I’ve encountered are the ones with a superiority complex. Instead of becoming a salafi, become a simple Muslim person and free yourself from a life of arrogance. Allah does not like people who consider themselves superior and look down up on others. In the interests of unity, drop the salafi label and become a plain-vanilla Muslim. Remember in the early days of Arabic Islam, there were only Muslims, no other flavours.

    • I might agree with you. However, do you see the conundrum? In offering such advice you are essentially doing that which you are apparently calling against. Everyone naturally thinks their own method, advice or opinion is the best – such as your advice to ‘become plain-vanilla Muslim’ as you put it. One reason why this article series seems very pertinent is it will offer something objective and agreeable as a nucleus to build a unity upon, as has happened throughout the ages.

      • When we have an Islamic state, we will have a coordinated way to know which “group/method” to follow. There is a famous hadith where angel Gabriel visits and places his hands on prophet Mohamed as asks him to define Islam. This definition of Islam defines the core of Muslim beliefs. Using this definition, you will find that vast majority of todays Muslims become one group from both Sunni and Shia groups too.

        Anything above this, if you see someone doing something deemed wrong, you can discuss your understand and if you have proofs try to correct the actions of your fellow Muslims in a friendly manner. We should avoid at all costs, differentiate into sub-groups. Even what many would consider fundamental differences, such as Sunni and Shia should be dropped for now for unity of all Muslims – obviously, each to practice his own method. Because ultimately we will not be judged by other men but by Allah.

        Right now, there are bigger problems to solve. This bickering and in-fighting is ammunition for a media tool for those who are enemies of Islam to use against us. Not to mention the additional complexity of engineered scams like ISIS, created by the Arab kings and Israel, to divert attention away from any talk of the Arab spring.

        • As salamu alaykum brother Hans,

          You have mentioned a great claim which requires a great evidence. Just like brother Abu Ibrahim said, “this article series seems very pertinent is it will offer something objective and agreeable as a nucleus to build a unity upon” “Quran and Sunnah” “with EVIDENCES for the despise of man desires”.

          Your statements against the salafis seems to be full of mysticism (shaytan whispers) and it is beyond your own comprehension because you seem to be intrigued by the actions of the salafis while you forget about your own actions in regards to the message of the salafis (deny the message/TRUTH)… Are we in this world to please the creation or to please Allah? Are we in this world to live for this life or to live for the next life?

          If you are to give dawa to the kuffar and then a kuffar reply back saying I don’t accept Islam because Muslims have bad behavior. Will you not ask him to look at the book (message/TRUTH) and don’t look at Muslims actions??? The same I applies to everyone who reject being a salafi don’t look to the salafis behavior rather look at their message.

          The Kuffar criticise the message of Islam by the way of the actions of Muslims while deeply they hate, they are arrogant and they are jealous towards the message of Islam and Muslims just like Muslims deviants criticise the message of the Quran and Sunnah by the way of the actions of salafis while deeply they hate, they are arrogant and they are jealous towards the message of the Quran and Sunnah and its followers in truth.

          At the end of the days arrogance only stop us from worshiping Allah And the best among of the slaves of Allah are those who repent the most and rectify their actions according to the Quran and Sunnah established by the way of the salaf-us-salih, ultimately Allah knows best who His best (saved) worshipers are.

    • With the of Allaah most gracious mos merciful.
      There is no such thing as Arabic Islam, may Allaah bless you. Islam, the Qur’an from it beginning was and is a message to all mankind. Perhaps you do not understand those people that identify themselves as “Salafi.” Perhaps you don’t know where the term comes from and what is meant by it. Perhaps you do not realize that it is not you that Ahli Sunnah wal Jumma’ah look down on, or you they they dislike, but it is the biddah (innovations), Tamyee, (watering down) the Sunnah that is hated.
      We Muslims should be proud of following the way of the Sunnah, the way or the most beloved generations which include the Sahaabah. There are countless proofs for us that we shouldbe upon their methodology. I will not list them here but if you are inclined to ave knowledge of these proofs so that you might examine them for yourself, you may Email me at [email protected]. After this you you may know before speaking as we are ordered to have knowledge before action.
      هَٰذَا بَلَاغٌ لِّلنَّاسِ وَلِيُنذَرُوا بِهِ وَلِيَعْلَمُوا أَنَّمَا هُوَ إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ وَلِيَذَّكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

      This (Quran) is a Message for mankind (and a clear proof against them), in order that they may be warned thereby, and that they may know that He is the only One Ilah (God – Allah) – (none has the right to be worshiped but Allah), and that men of understanding may take heed.
      May Allaah guide you and me, we don’t become like those mentioned in the ayah beleow.

      كَذَٰلِكَ يَطْبَعُ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِ الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
      Thus does Allah seal up the hearts of those who know not [the proofs and evidence of the Oneness of Allah i.e. those who try not to understand true facts that which you (Muhammad SAW) have brought to them].

      • I can see how you many think of Islam as starting with prophet Mohamed, but this is not the case. Islam started, for humans, a very long time ago, with our root father, Adam. There have been many Islamic languages since, each language based on the mother tongue of the prophet in question.

        The known books of God are the psalms of David, the old testament, the new testament and the final revelation (Quran). The language of Islam in this past era’s was Hebrew and Aramaic for the respective prophets. So the known languages of Islam are Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.

        We are now in the final phase of Islam. It is no new religion but the Arabic phase of Islam. Vast majority of our prophets are from pre-history, the Hebrew phase and one from the Aramaic phase and finally one Arabic.

        Yes, I am aware of what Salafi means and I too abhor innovations. But becoming a “open” salafi turns ones mind towards the dark side and instils a superiority complex and is a cause of divisions. I think we are saying the same things. I am saying be a salafi but not openly, so as not to cause rift along the fault lines, Any fault line should be patched up and not opened up.

  4. With the name off Allaah most gracious most merciful
    “How can we classify a particular opinion on an Islamic matter as being an opinion or even the opinion of the Salaf”?
    Is this question rhetorical, or one that means to lead to enlightenment? Opinions can come from anywhere, desires, influence, or experiences. The Salaf’s understanding is based on their knowledge of the matters of Islam and the sunnah. Them being not far removed from the times of the Prophet, peace be upon Him, as we are.
    It is reported in the saheeh Hadith that He, peace be upon Him said,”hearing a thing is not like seeing it, and seeing something is not like doing it.” We Muslims of today are far removed from living Islam, I see at best some of us practice it. Those Allaah has blessed actually live Islam and much of the Sunnah.

  5. M Amin ur Rahman

    JAzak Allahu Khairan shiekh Ali Hammuda. You never fail to enlighten us with your precise and crystal clear way of speaking and writing – MASHALLAH! May Allah always keep on increasing your knowledge and wisdom and May He make it easy for you to spread this to everyone else, inshallah.

    Can’t wait to read the next articles in the series.

  6. It states Br. Ali Hammuda is a ‘Shaikh’ and in this profile as ‘Ustadh’- which is he?

    What is his credentials as a ‘Sheikh’ as his profile doesn’t state any scholars he learnt with, who agree to him being a scholar, no Islamic knowledge obtained/ graduated or qualifications to back him being a scholar?

    • Yusuf
      I agree, we must stop elevating people to a status they do not deserve. This kind of practice weakens the title of scholar as well as misleads people that might think they are asking a person of sound knowledge a question. The practice of using this title loosely also could lead the person given the title to be tried.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend