As growing numbers of young practicing Muslims (especially students of knowledge or enthusiasts of scholarly discussions) make the decision to abandon Salafism due to either finding it or it’s conclusions intellectually inferior or practically problematic, there are a number of important things to take note of:
– Do not belittle your reasons for finding Salafism enticing in the first place. There are positive and negative reasons.
As a positive: Salafism is a logical first step for many Muslims with taqwa. It promises an attachment to the Qur’an & Sunnah above all else, a freedom from associating partners with the Creator in all its forms, and purity in understanding. Are these not all the first steps of a Muslim yearning to have taqwa in their understanding and practice of Islam? Don’t let the fire of taqwa die inside you. Many Salafis when they ‘burnout’ one of the first things they also jettison is their taqwa.
As a negative: All these promises were in fact oversimplified exaggerations of more complex realities that could only be uncovered by knowledge. The Qur’an and Sunnah could only be accessed by humans: scholars and their intellectual edifices in the form of madhhabs, sciences, ideas and deductions. The concept of ‘associating partners with the divine’ is not as immediately black and white as Najdi Salafi polemic proposes it to be in theory and practicality. Purity in understanding is very subjective: it is possible to be following the salaf but be practicing a version of Islam that is quite different in some of it’s outwardly aspects to what the salaf were doing. The realization of all of this comes with knowledge, learning and understanding. Many ‘burnouts’ after Salafism don’t realize this and don’t put enough attention on learning and education to further enlighten their perspectives.
– Do not lose the importance of principles. Even if some of the principles are wrong, Salafism still has principles. And principles are still pivotal to being a pious servant of the Creator. Many ‘burnouts’, disenfranchised with Salafism and what they perceive to be it’s distortion of Islam and ensuing choke-hold over their lives, abandon Salafism only for an understanding of Islam without principles, instead adopting whatever understanding of Islam is popular or culturally prevalent. That should not be the case. Fiqh, it’s general principles (qawā’id) and foundations (usūl) still exist. There is still such a thing as a ‘normative Islam’ which you cannot let go of and still claim to call yourself a religious Muslim. The Sunnah of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is still important.
– Understand the sovereignty of the popular and culturally prevalent in informing your decision of what is true and normative. Salafism and Madkhalism was a big thing in the 90s because Saudi da’wah was at it’s peak. Moderate diluted Salafism was a big thing in the 2000s because moderate Salafism was at it’s peak – yet struggling to keep itself together after the Madkhali disaster(s) of the 90s. Today abandoning Salafism for outright modernism is the new thing, due to the effect of ISIS and growing Islamophobia. Instead our notions of what is true and normative should be based on sound knowledge via qualified and relevant scholarship.
– The importance of qualified scholarship. One of the main reasons you became a Salafi is because you were inspired by someone you believed to be a pious and qualified scholar. Except that even if they were pious, they probably weren’t qualified enough. The casualty list when it comes to Salafi scholars is unfortunately high. Without giving names, there are famous and reputable Salafi scholars (all real first or second hand examples coming up) who have given fatwas saying that learning tajwid is bid’ah, or that learning usul-ul-fiqh is the work of misguidance, or are claimed to be experts in tafsir but can’t grammatically parse a sentence in Arabic, or have studied only Hadith but not fiqh, or are self-studied, have not studied one of the four schools of Islamic law etc. This is not even counting the many Salafi speakers out there whose average Islamic Education is a 4 year bachelors degree from KSA where the most eventful thing they learned was Kitab al-Tawhid and Bulugh al-Maram. Have a high standard for scholarship. If the teacher has not mastered the sciences of the Arabic language, usul, one of the four schools, the sciences of Hadith and tafsir, knows their history, and is aware of the diverse needs of their local communities, then it’s not worth it.
– Not joining the other side of the sectarian riot. Being a Salafi ‘burnout’ is no excuse to join the extremes on the other side of the pond. The Athari school is still a valid theological school. And the Hanbali school is still a valid legal school. And even though his application was technically Kharijite in character, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab was not the only scholar to strongly dislike the permissiveness or excessiveness of some traditionalists when it comes to taqlid and interaction with the dead/graves. The Imams Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Shah Waliullah, and al-Shawkani, al-San’āni and others all also had their own reservations about these trends. Im not saying I agree with these ideas or wish to propagate them, but we must admit that when we look at history they do constitute a significant bulk of inter-Sunni discourse and can’t be brushes away as innovation or misguidance so easily. Don’t re-enact your past from the opposite direction.
– Consider traditionalism. No I’m not asking you to go full Hanafi/Sufi and join the cliques etc. But what traditionalism offers (although some traditionalists themselves unfortunately end up obfuscating this) is an opportunity to graduate your understanding and practice of Islam in a time-tested, thoroughly developed way. Don’t want to become a scholar and want to continue focus on your practical life? There are texts, study patterns and spiritual guidance for that. Want to be a student of knowledge? There’s a system and pedagogy for that. Want to be a scholar? This is the best and most well-rounded way to go about it, as the traditions will give you the necessary tools to become an independent thinker yet still remain faithful to the 1400 years of cumulative Islamic thought.