It is quite easy to come across the term “Salaf-e-Saliheen” or pious predecessors when the history and golden age of Islam is discussed or when the lives of the great luminaries of this Ummah are discussed. However, the extent to which these terms are understood is very limited. This short article is an attempt to explain who the pious predecessors were and their contribution to the progress and propagation of Islam, without delving into any terminology or unnecessary differences of opinion, simply shedding light on a few important aspects regarding this topic and at the same time, making the reader aware of the relevance of the “Salaf-e-Saliheen” to the Muslims of today.
Character of the Messenger of Allah
It cannot be hidden from anyone who has been given understanding or applies himself to thinking that the Messenger of Allah was endowed with the most excellent qualities and virtues beyond number. Any attempt to do justice to his status would fail miserably, though tongues may dry out and pens dry in trying to praise him. Thus, when the Messenger of Allah was made the most perfect example and bestowed with perfection of character and attributes, it was natural that the hearts of people were captivated by his noble person and that in the midst of the prevailing injustice and ignorance, they accepted him as their guide, following him and abiding by his noble teachings.
Companions of the Prophet These chosen people were taken out of the darkness of polytheism and idol-worship and shown the light of Islam, whose hearts were united after centuries of fighting and bloodshed and who were made the leaders of the Muslim Ummah are referred to as the Sahabah, the illustrious companions of the Messenger of Allah . It was they who were chosen by Allah from amongst mankind to answer the call of the Prophet of Allah , those who selflessly sacrificed everything in their possession for the sake of Islam. This was the blessed group who bore the great responsibility of spreading the message of Islam and who encountered every difficulty and suffering, but never betrayed this mission, those who displayed utmost patience and steadfastness upon difficulties...until Allah the almighty granted Islam victory and strength and the torch of Islam began to burn with all its brightness.
Islam under attack
However, from the very birth of Islam, the true religion of Allah was confronted with numerous fatal attacks, devised by the enemies of Islam to totally wipe out its teachings and its followers. Misguided interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunnah, innovated practices and invasions by the enemies of Islam flourishing without any confrontation would have resulted in Islam becoming just another name and ideology mentioned in the books of history, had it nod been for the Companions of the Messenger of Allah . In the same way, those who followed the blessed age of the Companions encountered these constant attacks upon Islam, but they, keeping in spirit with their predecessors, relentlessly fought the forces of Baatil (falsehood) and preserved the Deen. It is these people who are referred to as the Salaf-e-Saliheen (pious predecessors).
Protection of Deen
Allah chose the Salaf-e-Saliheen for the preservation of Islam. In every field of Islam, the Salaf-e-Saliheen distinguished the pure untouched teachings of Islam from any foreign unislamic concepts and thus, over the course of 1400 years, Islam remained in its original form. Whether it be the steadfastness of the Companions on the plain of Badr or the great heroism shown on the mountains of Uhud, be it the severe torture endured by Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal or the long journeys Imam Bukhari undertook in his thirst for knowledge, be it Shaykhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyah's defiance of the tyrannical Tartar forces or Imam Ghazali's challenging the corrupt philosophical ideologies of his time; in every age and in every field, our pious predecessors fulfilled the responsibility of preserving Islam and Allah the Almighty has spoken the truth:
"O ye who believe! If ye help (the cause) of Allah, He will help you, and plant your feet firmly." (Surah Muhammad: 7)
Had they not steered the ship of Islam through the storm of trials and tribulations over 1400 years, this ship would have surely sunk.
Relevance of the Salaf-e-Saliheen in the 21st century
A question that may arise in the minds of many is what the relevance of the lives of the Salaf-e-Saliheen holds with the Muslims of today and how the achievements of the great luminaries of this Ummah hold any significance for us. The simple answer to this is that the duty of spreading and at the same time protecting Islam lies upon the shoulders of the Muslims of today, just as this duty was binding upon those before us, and the
Salaf-e-Saliheen did not succeed in granting Islam its strength and glory, except through two things, which are of no less importance for the Muslims of today:
1. Adherence to Islam
2. Conveying the message of Islam
Adherence to Islam
The pious predecessors throughout every age stood firm upon the teachings of the Qur'an and Sunnah and through this steadfastness upon the religion, they were granted a manifest victory over all the forces working against Islam. Without firmly abiding by the Shari’ah, never could they have achieved what they did, nor would Allah have made them the means of upholding His true religion.
"For Allah is free of all needs from all creation." (Surah Ankabut: 6)
Iman (faith) and following the Qur'an are requirements to be deserving of Allah's divine assistance and mercy and any who turn away from Islam, then surely Allah is in no need of them.
"O ye who believe! If any from among you turn back from his faith, soon will Allah produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him." (Surah Maidah: 54)
Allah Ta'alah's help and victory has always been with those who followed His way and this will remain so until the Day of Judgement.
"We will, without doubt, help Our Messengers and those who believe, (both) in this world's life and on the Day when the Witnesses will stand forth." (Surah Ghafir: 51)
2. Conveying the message of Islam
Studying the lives of the pious predecessors will show what sacrifices they made to ensure that the light of Islam was not extinguished and to what extents they went to propagate the message of Islam to mankind. The sacrifices our pious predecessors made paved the way for Islam until today and had they neglected this duty, the enemies of Islam would have obliterated its teachings and buried the name of Islam along with its followers.
Regarding them, the Prophet said:
"There will constantly be a group from my Ummah steadfast upon the commandments of Allah. They will not be harmed in any way by those who abandon their help, or by those who oppose them. This will remain their condition until the final hour ordained by Allah arrives." (Bukhari, Muslim)
The Prophet also said:
"This sacred knowledge will be borne by the reliable authorities of each successive generation, who will preserve it from the interpolations of those guilty of exaggeration, the plagiarism of the corrupt and the false interpretations of the ignorant." (Bayhaqi)
Speaking ill of the pious predecessors
Today, it is not difficult nor does one have to go out of one's way to find people who harbour evil thoughts against the pious predecessors, making them a target of slander and spending all their time in criticising and searching for faults in their lives and character. It is of utmost importance to understand that it does not befit any person too speak ill of the pious predecessors, for verily, Allah has made them the means by which Islam has reached us. Thus, it is clear to realise that insulting and cursing them is to deny their achievements and sacrifices and to overlook their immense favour upon the Ummah. Any criticism directed towards them is an indirect criticism of the religion of Allah.
The right way to adopt is that which Imam Tahawi, the great Hanafi jurist, has stated:
"The learned men of the first community and those who followed in their footsteps - the people of virtue, the narrators of Ahadith, the jurists and analysts, must only be spoken about in the best way. Anyone who speaks ill of them is surely not on the right path."
If we, as Muslims, today firmly abide by the teachings of the Shari’ah, taking inspiration and guidance from the teachings of the pious predecessors, and by expressing the same zeal and fervour, treading the same path of sacrifice and devotion, insha-Allah, Allah will grant Islam its former glory through our means and we will return to being the "best nation amongst mankind" in the true sense. May Allah grant us all the ability to follow in the footsteps of the pious predecessors.