Modernists or Pious Predecessors (Salaf): who should we follow?

What is right after all?

Modernists or Pious Predecessors (Salaf): who should we follow?

Mufti Muhammad Qasim Attari

In today’s era, it is commonplace to see discussions on whether religion should be reinterpreted according to the needs of the modern age, or whether adherence to the research conducted by the pious predecessors of Islam should be upheld. Our response in this regard is that in terms of understanding the Holy Quran and Blessed Hadith pertaining to Islamic creed and scholarship, the last word is that of the pious predecessors. To simplify and present their understanding of Islam, the requirements of the modern age should be borne in mind.

Here, two things are combined: one is understanding what Islam is, and the second is the method of explaining and presenting the religion to others. In terms of understanding the religion, it is essential to follow the pious predecessors of Islam, but when it comes to explaining the religion, one should adopt a method that aligns with the needs of the time. Both of these matters are proven from the Holy Quran.

Quranic guidance on the requirement to follow the pious predecessors’ understanding of Islam

The verses mentioned ahead reveal the Quranic guidance on following the pious predecessors’ understanding of Islam. Allah Almighty has taught us this duāˈ at the beginning of the Holy Quran:

اِھْدِ نَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِیْمَ ۙ(۵)صِرَاطَ الَّذِیْنَ اَنْعَمْتَ عَلَیْہِمْ

Guide us onto the straight path. The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favour.[1]

In another part of the Quran, the Quran itself specifies these blessed, noble individuals as follows:

وَ مَنْ یُّطِعِ اللّٰہَ وَ الرَّسُوْلَ فَاُولٰٓئِکَ مَعَ الَّذِیْنَ اَنْعَمَ اللّٰہُ عَلَیْہِمْ مِّنَ النَّبِیّٖنَ وَ الصِّدِّیْقِیْنَ وَ الشُّہَدَآءِ وَ الصّٰلِحِیْنَ

And whosoever obeys Allah and His Messenger will be with those upon whom Allah has bestowed grace: the Prophets and the exceedingly truthful and the martyrs and the righteous.[2]

Looking at the holistic understanding gained from both these verses, one ascertains that following in the footsteps of the pious predecessors is a Quranic injunction. We also learn that a prelude to falsehood and misguidance is to adopt a belief or knowledge–or pursue a command or action–which opposes the unanimous understanding of the Ummah. Deviating from the way of the majority of Muslims is the first step of misguidance, for a person only begins to traverse the path of misguidance when he abandons the way of Islam’s pious predecessors, disregards their research, and attempts to invent a new understanding of Islam.

Quranic guidance on explaining religion according to the needs of the time

We have already asserted that in terms of understanding the Holy Quran and Blessed Hadith in relation to Islamic creed and scholarship, the understanding of the pious predecessors is unassailable. However, to make this understanding easier for others to grasp, one should be mindful of the needs of the modern-day. In this regard, it is stated in the Holy Quran:

اُدْعُ  اِلٰی سَبِیْلِ رَبِّکَ بِالْحِکْمَۃِ وَ الْمَوْعِظَۃِ  الْحَسَنَۃِ وَ جَادِلْہُمْ بِالَّتِیْ ھِیَ اَحْسَنُ

Call towards the way of your Lord with wisdom and good counsel and argue with them in the best manner.[3]

In this verse, wisdom, sound advice and debating in the best manner also means that when inviting towards the religion of Allah Almighty, adopt a wise manner that is best suited for the requirements of the time, place and people who are being addressed. Therefore, whilst taking the understanding of the pious predecessors as proof, a person should convey the teachings of the Quran and Hadith in the best and most modern way.

However, there remains the issue of those contemporary ‘scholars’ who oppose the research of Islam’s pious predecessors. Using their own deficient knowledge and intellect, they consider their own flawed understanding to be the final word on a matter, thereby presenting their own explanation of the Quran and Hadith in opposition to that of the pious predecessors as definitive and accurate. By implication, they suggest that i) the countless scholars, jurists, imams, and mujtahids from the time of the Companions عَلَیْہِمُ الرِّضْوَان and their successors until today misunderstood Islam and presented it wrong; ii) and not only this, but they filled countless books with these ‘mistakes’. According to these so-called scholars of today, those who have understood Islam properly only just descended on earth. Deeming the understanding of Islam’s pious predecessors as wrong and incorrect, they consider themselves to be right.

Rejecting the interpretation of the pious predecessors is not something new, rather this has always been the way of the people of falsehood. For example, the Companions عَلَیْہِمُ الرِّضْوَان all agreed on the fundamental points of the religion, but the Khawarij appeared in that era, initiating the disunity of the ummah. Following this, many other sects appeared to further split the ummah, such as the Qadariyyah, Jabariyyah and Mutazilah. These heretics disputed those matters that the ummah unanimously agreed upon, and in opposition to the pious predecessors, presented their own understanding of the religion.

However, by the grace of Allah Almighty, these people were always relatively small in number. The majority of the ummah, considering the pious predecessors’ understanding of Islam to be proof, continued to follow the latter. This is because the illuminated teachings of the Quran and Hadith, explicit texts, and the uniform practices of the ummah continued to prove that opposing the pious predecessors is a path to misguidance. In order to instil the significance of this in our hearts, Allah Almighty instructed us to recite this duāˈ in every salah to remain on the path of the pious predecessors:

اِھْدِ نَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِیْمَ ۙ(۵)صِرَاطَ الَّذِیْنَ اَنْعَمْتَ عَلَیْہِمْ

Well-being and safety lie in two things: 1) distancing yourself from those who seek to reform the religion, 2) and to continue to traverse the ways of old. Otherwise, the path to misguidance will open, which certainly is not the path to the truth, but rather the path of carnal desires. The Quran has mentioned this clearly; after the previous Prophets عَـلَـيْـهِمُ الـصَّلٰوةُ وَالـسَّـلَام departed from this world, wayward people emerged who abandoned the path of the true followers of the Prophets عَـلَـيْـهِمُ الـصَّلٰوةُ وَالـسَّـلَام and gave preference to their own desires. It is stated in the Holy Quran:

فَخَلَفَ مِنْۢ بَعْدِہِمْ خَلْفٌ اَضَاعُوا الصَّلٰوۃَ وَ اتَّبَعُوا الشَّہَوٰتِ فَسَوْفَ یَلْقَوْنَ  غَیًّا (ۙ۵۹)

So the unworthy succeeded them who neglected the prayer and followed desires, so soon they will meet the terrifying valley of Ghay (in Hell).[4]

What is meant by the fact they followed their carnal desires instead of truly following the Prophets عَـلَـيْـهِمُ الـصَّلٰوةُ وَالـسَّـلَام after they left this world? In this regard, the Greatest Prophet صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم stated:

Before me, whenever Allah Almighty sent a prophet to a nation, that prophet would have helpers and companions from that respective nation who would remain on the way of their prophet. Then, after those companions, some unworthy people came forth who spoke against their work and acted in opposition to that which they were commanded.[5]

How is it that the people who leave the way of the pious predecessors and strive to make what they say go, follow their own carnal desires? The answer to this is that the challenge faced by those who prefer ease and obey their carnal-self, is that until they do not belittle the work of Islam’s pious predecessors and present it as something insignificant in the eyes of people, nobody will be willing to accept their opinions. This is because when someone presents some new research which opposes the opinion of thousands of Quranic commentators, hadith experts and scholars, it is somewhat natural for people to react by saying, “Why should we accept your word over that of the countless pious predecessors who were not only practising, pious people with pure hearts and pure minds, but they were people who were an ocean of knowledge?”

With the presence of such a mindset among people, it will be extremely difficult to influence them to accept your opinions and convince them to become your followers and admirers. In such circumstances, the only way to spread your views is to mislead people by telling them that although the work the pious predecessors did was good, the requirements of the modern age are different, and so the religion is in need of reinterpretation. This way, in the name of reinterpretation, they end up presenting a new religion altogether. When this deceptive manner is adopted, some people will begin to doubt the scholarship of Islam’s pious predecessors, and their minds will become more inclined towards accepting the ideas presented by reformers.

Thus, the one who holds fast to the way of the pious predecessors, he will attain salvation, and the one who wanders from door to door will find himself adrift. May Allah Almighty strengthen our bond with the pious predecessors and save us from every type of misguidance.

اٰمِیْنْ بِجَاہِ خاتَمِ النَّبِیّٖن صلَّی اللہُ عَلَیْہ ِوَاٰلِہٖ وَسَلَّمَ

[1] Al-Quran, part 1, al-Fātiah, verses 5-6, translation from Kanz al-Irfān

[2] Al-Quran, part 4, al-Nisaˈ, verse 69, translation from Kanz al-Irfān

[3] Al-Quran, part 14, al-Nal, verse 125, translation from Kanz al-Irfān

[4] Al-Quran, part 16, Surah Maryam, verse 59, translation from Kanz al-Irfān

[5] aī Muslim, p. 49, hadith 179




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