One Muslim Chaplain's Blog

The Well of Purity: Reflections on the Salafi-Traditionalist Divide

In Religion on December 26, 2011 at 11:34 pm

The struggle to understand what God may want in a particular situation has been alive from the beginning and continues today. It manifests itself in some of our debates about how to draw upon the sources in a way that is authentic.

Many of us are neo-traditionalists and we seek to sustain and perpetuate the four orthodox schools of Sunni Islam. We follow many popular and knowledgeable scholars in seeking to inherit this great tradition. But we should heed the words of Cambridge scholar Timothy Winter, also known as Abdal Hakim Murad,

“Traditional Islam is not the replication of the positions of the ancients; it is to seek what they sought.” (Contentions 13, #93)

In seeking what Imams Malik, Abu Hanifa, ash-Shafi’i, Ibn Hanbal, and extinct schools (Ibn Hazm and the Dhahiris) sought, we should not be surprised if in doing so we fail to replicate some of their positions. For they not only transmitted a body of knowledge but also a truth-seeking vigor: this vigor caused them to review earlier opinions, to disagree with their own teacher—to cast about for the spring with the freshest water.

It is this same desire that has bred a Salafist orientation—those who call us back to the early generations, who seek to drink from a pure source after waters have muddied with time. But here Dr. Winter cautions us again,

“’Back to the Sources!’ Pulling up the bucket is not helped by cutting the rope.” (Contentions 3, #67)

The rope of the tradition must be modified with the knowledge that it is the means, and not the end. The end is unreachable without a rope that extends from the well of the Prophet and back into our own grasp. It is wishful thinking to believe we can go back to the early generations with minimal reference to the intervening periods—periods that saw new and unaddressed political and social realities that the Salaf did not face. The scholars responded accordingly. Their findings are sometimes useful, sometimes irrelevant, to our current state.

As much as we may lay claim to traditionalism, most of us are not purist in practice. Is there a Hanafi among us who wishes to apply, for example, their law school’s opinion that a divorce is only allowed if her husband has gone missing…and 99 years have passed since his birth(just to make sure he has died)?! Furthermore, I know several Shafi’is who suspend their law school’s opinion that “lamastum” in the Qur’an literally means touching a woman, and that touching even one’s spouse necessitates a reestablishment of wudhu. They do not find this opinion conducive to marital relations to have to constantly reestablish wudhu upon touching one’s spouse. This is in the absence of any narration I am aware of in which the Prophet or his Companions were seen making wudhu upon accidentally rubbing shoulders with their wives or female relatives. In fact we find the opposite:

“…in an authentic hadith narrated by `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) she states: “The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to pray for long hours at night in their apartment, and that she used to sleep in front of him. Because the room was small, when the Prophet used to make sajdah (prostration) he would tap her calf with his hand and she would retract her legs so he could make sajdah. And when he stood up she would allow her feet to return to their original position.” (Reported by Al-Bukhari)

Another hadith narrated by `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) as recorded in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad states that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to kiss `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) and then go to pray at the masjid without renewing his ablution. ” Source:

I suspect such an important act would have been narrated so that the believers could take note; Ibn Taymiyyah agrees:

“If touching one’s wife breaks wudu’ the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would have told the people about it, and it would have been famous among the Companions of the Prophet (may Allah be pleased with them). No Companion of the Prophet has been reported to have renewed his wudu’ upon touching his wife or another woman, and there is no single hadith from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to support that.” Source:

My point here is not to vilify the law schools but to point out that even if you follow a maddhab, I am of the opinion that reflection is still required. Another example is from Ingrid Mattson who states that the Hanafis concluded that women could not lead other women in prayer because the ahadith wherein the Prophet’s wives were reported to have led other women in prayer were not available to them. If one adheres strictly to a madhhabist approach in this case, one may risk ignoring this practice of the Salaf (and the wives of the Prophet most certainly qualify as Salaf!).

But sadly our umma argues over form and not content. Provincialism is not new to us. There was a time when some schools did not intermarry, so fierce were the debates raging among their scholars, and so different did the law schools seem to those who studied them. It is only now that we have glossed over this period and extolled the adab of ikhtilaf, which probably developed as a matter of intellectual survival! It is only by uniting the Salafist and maddhabist approaches that we can understand why the other side exists. In reality, they are more like two sides of the same coin.

When we sanitize our past we lose some of its most vital lessons. Tradition is not something handed down to us on a plate which we need only regurgitate to be faithful to God—it is a product of human energy, constantly grappling with ever-changing circumstances and trying to determine the most “faith-full” response. May God make us among those who reflect and may He banish from our hearts fanaticism and partisanship.

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