Variations of the term “salaf” have become very common in Islamic religious debates. They are often used by those who associate themselves with this term to claim to follow the proper and undistorted understanding of Islam of the first Muslim generations, while they are equally used by others to accuse those claimants of being too strict, backward looking, and closed-minded.
The collective noun “salaf” means “ancestors” or “predecessors,” whereas the singular masculine adjective “salafī” identifies anyone who follows the salaf. These predecessors are also often referred to with the honorific expression of “al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ” or “the righteous predecessors.” They are often taken to be the first three generations of Muslims, that is the generations of the Prophet and his Companions (ṣaḥāba), their Successors (tābi‘īn), and the Successors of the Successors (tābi‘īn al-tābi‘īn). This understanding is based on a hadith that occurs in a number of versions in Bukhari, Muslim, and other hadith collections. This is one version of the hadith in Bukhari:
The best of you is my generation (qarnī), then those who follow them, then those who follow them.
This is another slightly different version:
The best people are my generation (qarnī), then those who follow them, then those who follow them.
The hadiths then go on to condemn the behaviors of following generations because they cannot be trusted, they give false evidence, and they do not honor their vows.
In modern Arabic, the term “qarn” has acquired the meaning of “century,” but old lexicons state that it meant various lengths of time including “generation,” “40 years,” “80 years,” and also an “unidentified period of time.” However, the context of the hadith is clear in implying the meaning of “generation.” This meaning is clearer in another version of the hadith which starts as follows: “The best of my nation is the generation “qarn” among whom (fīhim) I was sent….”
This hadith is taken to mean that the first generations of Muslims are the best Muslims. This is then understood to mean that whatever those early Muslims said and did, as recorded in the literature, represents the true Islamic teaching and practice. It is further claimed that these teachings and practices do not change, so anyone seeking to follow Islam properly must follow the words and deeds of the first generations. This has been the position of the salafi Muslim groups over the centuries. They reject any practice and teaching that cannot be traced to the salaf, and they usually accuse its adherents of being misguided or even unbelievers.
The hadith literature has been the subject of disagreement, so to start with, it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether this is an authentic hadith or it was authored and attributed to the Prophet after him. One issue I have with it is that it makes an unjustifiable sweeping statement about all later generations. Furthermore, it completely ignores the fact that much of Islamic law and other Islamic sciences developed in later generations, even if they used the Qur’an and the Sunna as their sources. For example, neither Shāfi’ī nor Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal belonged to those first three generations, yet they substantially contributed to the development of Islamic law. In fact, Shāfi’ī is often even credited with founding uṣūl al-fiqh (the sources/roots of Islamic jurisprudence). I should also say that there is nothing in the Qur’an confirming what this hadith suggests. I do not think this hadith is related to Prophet Muhammad. It is a forgery.
Ignoring the inauthenticity of the hadith, there is another problem with the way salafi movements have understood it. The hadith claims that the first three generations of Muslims were the best ever Muslims, which might mean that there were the most pious, but it does not state that they have discussed and covered all aspects of Islam or that their understanding of certain Islamic practices were supposed to be eternal. None of this is even hinted at in the hadith, yet this is how salafi groups use the concept of salaf. They take what the first generations have said and done as the first and last word on everything. While they accept that Islam is a religion for all times, they fail to realize that this must mean that while its principles do not change the way those principles are applied are bound to change with time, place, and circumstance. For the Qur’an to be a book for every generation, it must have the capacity to address new issues and challenges that did not exist in the past and allow changes to the law that may be needed as various aspects of the life of the Muslims and their world change.
Salafi movements conflate the respect for the first generations of Muslims with the unattested assumption that those early Muslims detailed and fixed every aspect of Islam. They do not realize that honouring the early Muslims does not mean rejecting the fundamental fact of history that human knowledge develops with time and that what early generations did can be built upon by later ones. Salafi groups try to imprison Islam in the past by positioning any development in Islamic thinking as being inherently unIslamic. They ignore the fact that Islamic sciences, including the elaboration of Islamic law, developed over centuries and that it continues to develop as human knowledge grows and the world changes.