The Salaf in essence were the Companions of the Prophet, and this term has been extended to include those who succeeded them, known as the Ṭābi῾īn (Successors) and those who succeeded them, known as the Atbā῾ al-Tābi῾īn (Successors of the Successors). This is based on the ḥadīth:
“The best of you are my generation, then those who follow them, then those who follow them…
The religion of Islām is defined by traditionists (muḥaddithūn) as a textually orientated religion which is transmitted orally (sam῾ī). What is meant by this is that when speaking about Islām, the Muslim primarily states either:
- Allāh said…
- The Prophet said…
- The Companions said…
This is the sum of all knowledge inherent within Islām: the Qur’ān, Sunnah and Āthār. Any concept expressed after the time of the Companions which finds no basis within this store of knowledge is considered to be aberrant and misguided. Any extensions of this knowledge by subsequent scholars which finds its basis within this tri-part framework is considered to be legitimate; no matter what time this may have occurred.
The Qur’ān is the verbatim and uncreated Word of Allāḥ which is explained and elaborated upon by the Sunnah. The job of the Companions, thereafter, was to further interpret the fundamental sources of Islām through their words and actions by deducing principles from the sources and applying them to their daily life. These deductions they made, either came in the form of actions reported by others or, more pertinently, through articulated maxims through which they sought to teach and remind those who came after them. Our job, as expressed explicitly in a number of aḥādīth is to follow them.
What I aim to do
This section of the blog focuses on these words of wisdom, maxims, principles or apophthegms as I have entitled it. I have also sought to add some critical comments to each apophthegm to explain it further, identify its textual basis and historical setting which facilitates a greater understanding of not only the principle set out in the words of the Salaf but also their rationale behind them.
Features of Salafī Apophthegms
In reading various statements of the Salaf, one realises how articulate these notable individuals were. Their words are concise but contain profound meaning in contrast to those who came after them whose words are many but meanings are empty. The ability to state such words of wisdom in such a concise manner is evidence of their deep knowledge which allows them to gather together an ocean of scattered knowledge and express it in the simplest manner which allows laymen like us to understand them.
Salafī apophthegms may be divided into two categories in terms of their content:
- Universal principles
Either they express a universal objective principle which is purely grounded in the textual sources. Usually they are rewordings of maxims set out in the Qur’ān or Sunnah or explanations which further clarify their intent. These types of words are usually expressions of ijmā῾ which is why one will not find any words stated by another Salaf to the contrary.
- Ijtihādī principles
These are expression of an ijthādī maxim which although subjective, they still have a textual basis. These are also based on long and deep personal experiences which have been tested through the passages of time. These types of words do not constitute ijmā῾ unless they are unopposed by the texts or the Salaf.
This division of Salafī apophthegms has implications in the implementation of the articulated maxim. If the statement is of the first kind then it is universally applicable without constraints in time or space. However, if the statement is of the second kind, one is required to delve further into identifying its textual basis and historical and social context in order to understand its correct meaning and subsequent application.
In any case, one finds immense wisdom which can provide guidelines for one’s behaviour and thought in leading an Islāmic life in whatever situation one may face. We may not be wise enough to compose and follow our own guidelines due to our lack of knowledge and insight, but at least we can be content with the words of those whose knowledge and insight has been validated by both Allāh and His Messenger. To be wise is to follow the wise.
 Bukhārī, no. 6429 on the authority of ῾AbdAllāh.