The Understanding of the Salaf

Sayyidi Habib Umar bin Hafiz (may Allah protect him and benefit us by him) reflects upon the understanding of the early generations. Extracts from a talk delivered in Dar al-Mustafa on 16th Shawwal 1434 / 22nd August 2013.

A person’s caprice is the best type of firewood which can be ignited to stir up divisions between the believers. Caprice leads people to blindly follow a group or to follow their lower selves. It leads people to claim that their way or their group is the way of Allah and His Messenger. The pious scholars of this Ummah would be asked:

“What is Allah’s ruling on such and such a thing?”

They would correct them saying:

“Say: ‘What do the scholars say about this?’


‘What is your opinion on this according to your understanding of the Book and the Sunnah?’”

They would not claim to possess absolute knowledge of the ruling of Allah and His Messenger. They would be cautious.

The Imams of the Four Sunni Schools would say:

I dislike such and such a thing.”

They would attribute the opinion to themselves. They would say:

“This is what I have understood of Allah’s religion.”

They were people that knew Allah and His Messenger. They knew that no one’s understanding or intellect could encompass Allah’s religion.

Today, we find people who think they have a monopoly on Allah’s religion and that everyone must follow them. They demonstrate complete ignorance of the religion. In fact, they show contempt for the affair of Allah, to which everyone must submit. Whoever knows the greatness of the religion knows how to speak.

The Prophet disliked the outward semblance of knowledge devoid of any light and any reality. Sayyidunā `Alī narrates that he described people who “sit in gatherings and boast to one another. One of them becomes angry with his companion if he goes and sits with someone else. None of their actions in such a gathering ascend to Allah.” If they do not ascend to Allah where do they go to? They go to their leader, Iblīs. He is the one who tells them that they are pious worshippers and they are scholars and that they are the elite of the Ummah. He orders them to kill people and abuse them and treat the religion as a toy. Their actions do not ascend—only a good word ascends, and good words only come forth from hearts which are pure due to their etiquette and humility in front of Allah.

Look at the first Khalifah, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq. No one kept the company of the Prophet as he did and no one benefited from the Prophet as much as he did. In spite of all this, he said upon becoming Khalifah: “If you see that I am upright, assist me and if you see that I have gone astray, straighten me.” He did not say: “I am the Khalifah, you have pledged allegiance to me, so listen to me and obey me.” A Bedouin shouted: “If we see you go astray, we will straighten you with our swords.” Abu Bakr accepted what he said and did not say anything in response. This is the first generation, and this was their understanding of the religion.

The next khalifah, Sayyiduna `Umar shouted: “A woman was right, and `Umar was wrong!” ‘What she said was in accordance with the Qur’an, so I go back on what I said.’ This was how they understood Islam. They were the Rightly Guided Khulafa` but none of them claimed to have a monopoly on Islam. In fact they saw themselves as subservient to Islam. Sayyiduna `Umar said to one of the Companions: “Tell me the things which you dislike about me.” At first he refused, but when `Umar insisted he said: “I heard that you have worn two sets of clothing in one day and that you have eaten two types of condiment at one meal.” `Umar asked: “Is there anything else?” “No,” he replied. “I have taken care of those two,” `Umar said, and from that day onward he did not wear two sets of clothing in one day and did not eat two types of condiment at one meal.

Who do we emulate if we do not emulate them? Allah ordered us to emulate them: the foremost, the first of the Emigrants and the Helpers, and those who followed them with excellence.1 None of them said: “I know Islam in its entirety.” Sayyiduna al-Hasan al-Basri realised this after keeping the company of Sayyiduna `Ali and around seventy of those who fought at Badr. This led him to criticise the scholars of his time. He said about them: “I see if one of you is asked about something he gives fatwa while he is walking along the road. If `Umar had been asked the same question he would not have responded but instead would have gathered the people of Badr and consulted them upon it.” In other words, veneration for this religion has departed from your hearts. This is how al-Hasan al-Basri saw the people of his time. Had those same people been alive in our time we would honour them and seek rain through them! This was his understanding of the secrets of the Book and the message of the Beloved . The Ummah must come to know these realities and emulate the Best of Creation and those who inherited the inward and outward khilafah who remain in the Ummah from one generation to the next.

1 Al-Tawbah, 9:100