“Understanding of the salaf” (salaf here meaning early Islamic scholars) is possibly the most misrepresented claim of authority amongst Muslims today, deployed by various groups across the board and usually against one another, from the Deobandis, Salafis and Sufis, to the Shi’ah and even militant Muslim secularists. Just this fact alone tells you that the term is not only used ambiguously, but also rather subjectively.
But beyond this there’s a conceptual issue at hand that’s nearly always overlooked – they speak of an understanding of the salaf but rarely do they (both clerics and laymen) actually draw on the salaf’s actual understanding. Instead they simplistically adopt the (1) contextual conclusions of (2) particular early Muslim scholars.
So there are two important points to explain here:
1. Early Islamic scholars reasoned phenomenally, nothing like the binary and uncouth articulations of many clerics today – and it’s as simple as picking up one of their books and reading it cover to cover to see this. They were highly intelligent and philosophical, and understood the sophisticated nature of operationalising revelation, identifying principles (أصول), operative factors (علل) and contextual variables (قرائن) that would lead them to specific conclusions for specific scenarios. They’d even discuss how these tools would determine their conclusions! But those today who claim to adhere to their “understanding” don’t actually seek to understand matters as they did, in an unschooled fashion they just look at what their concluded statements for an issue were, neglecting why they came to that conclusion for that scenario, what their methods of reasoning were, which operative factors they took into consideration and how they saw it as fitting into the bigger picture of the shariah, all of which serve to enlighten our approach to the issues of today.
“But Umar/Ibn Mas’ud/Abu Hanifah/Malik/Ahmad etc said…” is not a complete way of thinking, it’s severely lacking. The question that ought to arise is why they said what they did – what were they speaking to? A response is that “Yes, they said it about that, but THAT is not THIS!”
One point that certainly requires further contemplation is the problem with today’s “traditional” Islamic studies: they offer a somewhat linear view of the history of fiqh or aqidah as a steady progress from the imams to contemporary manifestations of religious practice, passing over the many problems in transferring assumptions that were largely fashioned in the distant past and applying them today.
2. Early Islamic scholars differed on many issues, and studying those differences ought to be highly enlightening for a mufti – it’s a record of how the godly brought together reason and revelation to conclude what God might want from them.
Where they’d all agree on something, that’d simply be Ijma (juristic consensus) and invoking the “understanding of the salaf” in such cases would be pointless since juristic consensus is far more authoritative.
So when the clerics use the term “understanding of the salaf” they’re not actually referring to a pervasive understanding back then, but an opinion of some scholars of the salaf, or one sahabi (prophetic companion), with other scholars seeing the respective issue differently. It’s a dishonest way of evoking the idea of widespread conformity amongst early Muslims in order to misleadingly establish a sectarian version of “orthodoxy”.
And which scholars of the salaf ought to be the focus for precedent differs amongst the groups – there were thousands of early scholars – one group will draw on a particular cohort from the salaf whilst the other has its own cohort. So in reality, whilst they all seem to be claiming the same thing it remains an appeal to authority that isn’t mutual.
[Of course, there are legitimate reasons for invoking the “understanding of the salaf”, an example of which is where a mufti is simply evidencing precedent for an opinion and staving off infantile or unschooled accusations of heresy or it’s like by showing that it was an established opinion from amongst the opinions of the salaf.]