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Al-Salafiyah: A Book Review <>


September 7th, 2008 by nuruddinzangi



Dr. Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti is one of the greatest scholars alive today, and I thank Allah for allowing me to sit in one of his lessons in the Umayyad Mosque a couple months ago. The most famous of his works is probably Fiqh al-Sira: The Jurisprudence of the Prophet's Biography, which both gives a great account of the life of Allah's Messenger - salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam- and teaches important jurisprudential rulings that can be understood from it.


Tonight I just finished another great book of his called Al-Salafiyah: A Blessed Era Rather Than an Islamic School. And before I continue, let me start by giving the book 5 stars out of 5, despite the need for more examples in some matters that I will discuss below.


This book is unique in its approach: In fact you could say that it is the only approach that can effectively tackle the issue of the Salafi movement and bring about agreement and reconciliation between Muslims. That is because the book does not deal with discussing the jurisprudential rulings of the Salafi movement, or their ideological beliefs in matters of creed. In fact, Dr. Al-Buti himself subscribes to many of their jurisprudential rulings. However, the difference between him and the Salafis is that they have taken a certain number of rulings and beliefs, and made out of them a new Islamic school of thought, which holds that these opinions represent the opinions of the salaf (the first three pious generations of Muslims), and that everyone who subscribes to a different opinion has deviated from the way of the salaf and has become an innovator in the religion.


Dr. Buti's main concern in this book, then, is to show what is meant by the way of the Salaf. He destroys the notion that it is a group of opinions in matters of belief and jurisprudence, as there was great divergence among the most famous and most pious of the salaf on all these issues. So how could a group in modern times come and choose some of these opinions and hold that they represent the opinions of the salaf, when the salaf themselves differed on these opinions?


Instead, Dr. Buti shows that to properly follow the way of the salaf is to follow the methodology that they used in order to reach their opinions. The proper methodology that the salafUsul al-Fiqh, the Principles of Jurisprudence. used was based on knowledge of the Arabic language, and other logical rules that are known as the "Rules for Understanding the Texts", which are part of the science of


You see, the Arabic language has certain rules that guide one's understanding of texts. For example, there are rules on understanding what a word means: should it be understood in its apparent meaning, or should it be explained according to another meaning that is also used by the Arabs, because the context gives weight to the fact that the second meaning is the one here intended. The sum of these rules that were agreed upon by the salaf as the proper way to understand the religious texts is the methodology that one must use, in order to reach a proper understanding of the texts. However, there is disagreement on some issues within this methodology which allow for differences of opinions. The outcome of this is that there are issues of belief that are not contested by anyone following the proper methodolog, and thus must be accepted by all Muslims (and Dr. Buti gives many examples). And there are issues that are shown to be definitly false and must be rejected by all Muslims (and Dr. Buti gives many examples as well). But finally, there are many more issues of belief and jurisprudence in which there can be a difference of opinion, because they are reached by different methods that all fall within the accepted methodology (and Dr. Buti devotes the largest chapter of the book to a discussion of these issues).


All opinions that are based on rules that fall within the acceptable methodology are to be respected, and the people who hold them must be viewed as Muslims. If, however, people try to understand the Qur'an and Sunna without following the accepted methodology and the proper rules of the Arabic language, thus explaining away the words of the Qur'an that do not fit their pre-held belief in a way that makes no logical sense from the standpoint of the Arabic language or the methodology, then these people are to be viewed as being outside the fold of the Muslim community. But to call Muslims as unbelievers because they hold different opinions that fall within the category of opinions on which there is no consensus is something that the salaf never did, and to do that now is an unacceptable innovation in the religion.


This book, then, is not about the Salafi movement, or about refuting or defending their opinions. This book aims to introduce to the reader the science of Usul al-Fiqh, and the sciences that fall within it, through which the Islamic Texts can be understood, using the methodology that was accepted by the great scholars of the salaf, no matter how much they differed in certain rulings and beliefs. Only when Muslims properly understand what this methodology is all about, will they come to accept differences of opinion between different Muslims, in matters in which this methodology allows for differences to exist. And only then will Muslims understand that the way of the salaf was not a frozen set of beliefs and opinions, but a methodology that ensures that the Qur'an and Sunna are understood properly without deviations that occur because of people's whims and fancies. And all those who follow this methodology are following the salaf, and they are known by the name that was agreed upon by this salaf: Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamaa'a. There is no need then for a new Islamic school that calls itself Salafiyah, claiming to be the only true followers of the Salaf- in fact, that is an innovation in the religion that did not exist in the time of the salaf, nor did it exist for almost 14 centuries.


The book's only shortcoming is that it does not give enough examples from the science of Usul al-Fiqh, which I think could have made the methodology easier to understand for those who haven't studied it before- especially the areas in which differences of opinions can lead to different rulings.


I also have issue with Dr. Buti's criticism of some forms of Quranic intrepretation done by Sufis, where certain words are understood to be symbols of other things. For example, a "village" in a Quranic story might represent the human soul. Dr. Buti argues that such interpretation is not based on the accepted methodology and is thus wrong, and cannot be attributed to "true Sufis" whose interpretation of the Qur'an is always strict in adherence to the proper methodology. I agree with him if these "sufist" interpretations are based on one's imaginations or feelings of what some words can symbolize. However, I do believe that the Quranic verses have different layers of meanings, and that at one level, such words can symbolize other things, as long as it is understood that in no way could one level of interpretation contradict the first, or apparent, meaning of the Quranic words. And second, this interpretation must not be based on feelings but on the light of baseera (inner vision) connecting this word to its other meaning, so that this other meaning can be clearly seen by the Sufi (in the form of kashf), and is no mere guess.


The book is in Arabic, and published by Dar al-Fikr ( <> ). It is not just highly recommended- it should be required reading!





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