By the Noble Shaykh ‘Abdus-Salaam As-Suhaymee
The people of a (particular) thing are the most distinguished of the people regarding it. It is said in the language: Ahlur-Rajul (the man’s family) are the most distinguished of the people to him (the man); Ahlul-Bayt (people of the household) are the ones who live in it; Ahlul-Islaam are the ones who take it as a religion; Ahlul-Madh-hab (the people of the Madh-hab) are the ones who take the Madh-hab as their Deen. So the meaning of Ahlus-Sunnah is: The people who are the most distinguished by it and those of them who cling to it the most and follow it the most in statement, action and belief.
This term became a legislative terminology which was applied and what was intended by it was one of two meanings: The First Meaning: This is a general meaning; entering into it is all who ascribe to Al-Islaam with the exception of the Raafidhah. The Second Meaning: This meaning is more specific and more restricted that the general meaning. What is intended by it is the people of the pure Sunnah, unadulterated from innovations. Excluded by it are the rest of the people of desires and innovations, such as the Khawaarij, the Jahmiyyah the Murji’ah, the Shee’ah, and other than them from the people of innovations. Shaykhul-Islaam said: “What is intended by the term Ahlus-Sunnah from the most affirmed of the three opposing views is that that which enters into it is all of the groups with the exception of the Raafidhah. And perhaps what is intended by it is the People of Hadeeth and the unadulterated Sunnah; so none enters into it except the one who affirms for Allaah the Exalted, the Attributes (that are befitting for Him), says that the Qur’aan is not created and that Allaah will be seen in the Hereafter; affirms the Qadar and other than that from the affairs which are well known with Ahlul-Hadeeth was-Sunnah.”  Hence, Ahlus-Sunnah are the companions of Allaah’s Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم, because they took from him directly the principles of beliefs just as they took from him the affairs of worship. So they are the most knowledgeable of the creation concerning the Sunnah of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم and better in terms of following it than those who came after them. Ahlus-Sunnah, as well, are those who followed them in goodness, treading in their footsteps within every time and place; and at the head of them are the people of Hadeeth and Narrations (Ahlul-Hadeeth wal-Athar).
Once this appellation, Ahlus-Sunnah, is applied to the companions of Allaah’s Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم and those who followed in that which they were upon from guidance, then the (other) groups are snatched away from this appellation. However, the consideration is given to the realities and not to the (mere) claims. When the innovations spread in Al-Islaam and the groups of deviation became numerous, every one of them had taken to calling to its innovation and desires while outwardly ascribing to Al-Islaam, then it was incumbent for the people of the Truth to be known by legislative appellations which distinguished them from the people of innovations and deviation in the ‘Aqeedah. So at that time, their legislative names which were derived from Al-Islaam became manifest. So from their names is: Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah (the People of the Sunnah and the main Body), Al-Firqatun-Naajiyah (the Saved Sect), At-Taa’ifah Al-Mansoorah (the Victorious Group), Ahlul-Hadeeth wal-Athar (the People of the Hadeeth and Narrations) and As-Salafiyoon (the Salafees).
The one who reflects upon their names, it becomes apparent to him that all of them indicate Al-Islaam. Some of them are affirmed for them (Ahlus-Sunnah) by the text and some of them are given to them due to their true and correct actualization of Al-Islaam. This is as opposed to the names and appellations of the people of innovation. For the names and appellations of the people of innovations either return back to ascription to individuals; such as the Jahmiyyah being ascribed to Al-Jahm ibn Safwaan, the Zaydiyyah (Shee’ah) being ascribed to Zayd ibn ‘Alee ibn Husayn, the Kullaabiyyah being ascribed to Abdullah ibn Kullaab, the Karaamitah being ascribed to Muhammad ibn Karraam, and the Ash’ariyyah being ascribed to Abul-Hasan Al-Ash’aree; or they are an ascription to appellations derived from the foundation of their innovation; such as the (title of the) Raafidhah (Rejecters) due to their rejection of Zayd ibn ‘Alee or due to their rejection of the leadership of the two Shaykhs (Aboo Bakr and ‘Umar), and the An-Nawaasib (those who display enmity) due to their display of enmity for the Ahlul-Bayt (family members of Allaah’s Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم), and the Qadariyyah due to their speech concerning the Qadar, the Soofiyyah due to their wearing woolen garments, the Baatiniyyah due to their assertion that the texts have an apparent meaning (Dhaahir) and a hidden meaning (Baatin), the Murji’ah due to their Irjaa’ (hoping) that actions are not from Eemaan; or either these appellations return back to the reason for their departure from the ‘Aqeedah of the Muslims and their Jamaa’ah; such as the Khawaarij due to their Khurooj (rebellion) against the leader of the believers ‘Alee ibn Abee Taalib, may Allaah be pleased with him, or the Mu’tazilah due to their withdrawal (I’tizaal) of their leader, Waasil ibn ‘Ataa’ from the gathering of Al-Hasan Al-Basree.
The Shaykh Bakr Aboo Zayd said in Hukm Al-Intimaa’ Ilaa Al-Firaq wa-Ahzaab wal-Jamaa’aat Al-Islaamiyyah, pg. 21: “When those groups ascribing to Al-Islaam, while being derived from the foundation of dividing the Muslims, had appeared then the legislative names for them came about distinguishing them from the body of the Muslims to negate the groups and (following of) desires from them; this is the case whatsoever they may have from names which have been affirmed for them by a legislative origin: (such as)The Jamaa’ah, Al-Firqah An-Naajiyah (the saved sect), the victorious group; or by way of their clinging to the Sunan in the face of the people of innovations. Due to this, they are linked to the origin or beginning; so they are called: As-Salaf, Ahlul-Hadeeth, Ahlul-Athar, and Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah. These legislative names differ with any appellation there ever was for any sect from a number of perspectives:
- The First: That they are an ascription which has not been detached from the Islaamic nation, even for a second, since its inception upon the methodology of Prophethood. So they (the names) unite all of the Muslims upon the path of the first generation and those who take them as an example in taking the knowledge and the path of understanding of it, by way of calling to it and restrictive centralization of the saved sect, in (the name): Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah; they are the people of this methodology. And it will not cease to remain until the Day of Resurrection based upon his صلى الله عليه و سلم saying: “There will not cease to be, from my Ummah, a group victorious upon the Truth.”
- The Second: That they (the names) embody all of Al-Islaam; the Book and the Sunnah. So they are not distinguished by a characteristic which opposes the Book and the Sunnah; neither by addition nor by diminution.
- The Third: That they are appellations which, from them is that which is affirmed in the Book and the Sunnah and from them is that which do not come up except in opposition to the people of desires and deviant sects to refute their innovation and distinguish (the people of the truth) from them and avoid intermingling with them. Also (they are used) to show opposition to them. So when innovation became prevalent they were distinguished by: As-Sunnah (i.e. Ahlus-Sunnah). And when people ruled by opinion they were distinguished by: Al-Hadeeth wal-Athar. When innovations and desires spread in matters of differing they were distinguished by the guidance of the Salaf etc…
- The Fourth: That the tie of Al-Walaa’ wal-Baraa (affection and aversion) and Al-Muwaalah and Al-Mu’aadah (friendship and enmity) for the sake of their religion is based upon Al-Islaam and not upon characterization by a particular name, nor is it by a mere characteristic. It is only based upon the Book and the Sunnah, nothing else.
- The Fifth: That these appellations do not call them to fanaticism for any individual other than the Messenger of Allaah صلى الله عليه و سلم.
- The Sixth: These appellations do not lead to innovation or to disobedience or tribalism for a specific individual or a specific party…” [End of his words]
Let us begin briefly defining the titles of Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah:
1.) Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah: This name is from the famous names which Ahlus-Sunnah is known by. It is applied in conjunction with As-Sunnah. So it is said: “Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah”. And it may come singularly, so that it is said: “Ahlus-Sunnah” and it is said: “Ahlul-Jamaa’ah”; and it (the latter) is used infrequently. That which is more commonly used is coupling it with As-Sunnah. Ibn Taymiyyah, may Allaah have mercy upon him, said: “The Sunnah is linked to the unity just as innovation is linked to separation. So it is said: Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah (the People of the Sunnah and the Jamaa’ah), just as it is said: Ahlul-Bid’ah wal-Firqah (the People of Innovation and Division).” From the reasons for them being called by this name: Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah, is that they are distinguished by two magnificent characteristics: The First: Their clinging to the Sunnah of Allaah’s Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم to the point that they became its people; as opposed to the rest of the groups. For they cling to their opinions, their desires, and the statements of their leaders. So they are not ascribed to the Sunnah. They are only ascribed to their innovations, their leaders or their actions, as has preceded. The Second: They are the people of the Jamaa’ah due to their unification upon the truth and their not being disunited. As opposed to the other groups; for they are not united upon truth. They only follow their desires, so no truth unties them. Shaykhul-Islaam said in defining Ahlus-Sunnah: “They cling to the Book of Allaah and the Sunnah of His Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم and that which the first and foremost ones, from the Muhaajiroon, the Ansaar and those who followed them in goodness, agreed upon.”
2.) Ahlul-Hadeeth (the People of Hadeeth): From the names which Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah are called by is: Ahlul-Hadeeth. This has come frequently in the speech of many of the Imaams; such as Shaykhul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah and others from the people of knowledge before him and after him. They mention Ahlul-Hadeeth and Ahlus-Sunnah clarifying their beliefs and not differentiating between the two usages. So here we have Imaam As-Saaboonee saying in his (book of) ‘Aqeedah: “Indeed the As-haabul-Hadeeth who cling to the Book and the Sunnah, may Allaah preserve the living from amongst them and have mercy upon their dead, they testify to the Uniqueness of Allaah the Exalted and to the Messengership and Prophethood of the Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم …”, up to the point wherein he said: “Allaah has given refuge to Ahlus-Sunnah (shielding them) from At-Tahreef (distortion), At-Takyeef (questioning the howness of Allaah’s Attributes), and At-Tashbeeh (likening Allaah to His Creation). He has favored them with cognizance and comprehension.” Shaykhul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah said: “The Madh-hab of the Salaf, Ahlul-Hadeeth was-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah…” So that which is intended by (the term) Ahlul-Hadeeth in the books of beliefs of the Salaf, is that they are Ahlus-Sunnah. Ibn Taymiyyah said: “We do not mean , by Ahlul-Hadeeth, those who stop short at its traditions, books or narrations. Rather, we mean, by them (Ahlul-Hadeeth) every person who actualizes its preservation, its knowledge and its understanding outwardly and inwardly; and following it outwardly and inwardly. Likewise is Ahlul-Qur’aan.”
3.) Al-Athariyyah or Ahlul-Athar (the People of Narrations): Many of the people of knowledge use this title meaning thereby Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Hadeeth. Ibn Aboo Haatim Ar-Raazee said: “Our Madh-hab and that which we choose as a way is following the Messenger of Allaah صلى الله عليه و سلم, his companions and the Taabi’een; clinging to the Madh-hab of Ahlul-Athar such as Aboo ‘Abdullah Ahmad ibn Hanbal.” He said in another place: “The sign of the people of innovations is fighting of Ahlul-Athar. The sign of the heretics (Az-Zanaadiqah) is their calling Ahlus-Sunnah Hashawiyah (the worthless ones). The sign of the Qadariyyah is their calling Ahlul-Athar Mujabbirah (people who believe that man has no free will). The sign of the Murji’ah is their calling Ahlus-Sunnah: ‘Mukhaalifah’ (opposers) and ‘Nuqsaanaiyyah’ (those who fell short). The sign of the Raafidhah is their calling Ahlus-Sunnah: ‘Naasibah’ (those who have enmity for the household of the Prophet, صلى الله عليه و سلم)” That has come within the speech of many of the Imaams; such as Aboo Nasr As-Sijzee, Ibn Taymiyyah, As-Safaareenee and other than them from the people of knowledge.  They named them with that ascription to Al-Athar (the narrations) and within the legislative usage Al-Athar is a synonym for Al-Hadeeth. The meaning of: Ahlul-Athar, as As-Safaareenee said, is: “Those who only take their ‘Aqeedah from that which has been narrated from Allaah, Majestic is His status, in His book or in the Sunnah of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم, or that which is affirmed and is authentically reported from the Salaf As-Saalih from the noble companions and their dignified followers.” This (term) has the meaning of Ahlus-Sunnah, within the application of the Salaf.
4.) Al-Firqah An-Naajiyah (the Saved Sect): Meaning: saved from the fire since the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم excluded them when he mentioned the groups and said: “All of them in the fire except one.” Meaning (one) is not in the fire.  The Shaykh Al-Haafidh Al-Hakamee said in Ma’aarij Al-Qubool: “The truthful one, the one who is believed (i.e. the Prophet- صلى الله عليه و سلم) has informed us that the saved sect are they who are upon the likes of what he and his companions were upon.”
5.) At-Taa’ifah Al-Mansoorah (the Victorious Group): This title is taken from his صلى الله عليه و سلم statement within the Hadeeth of Al-Mugeerah ibn Shu’bah, may Allaah be pleased with him: “There will not cease to be a group of my Ummah who are victorious, up until the command of Allaah comes while they are victorious.”
6.) As-Salafiyyah or As-Salafiyoon (the Salafees): This is an ascription to the Salaf. And the Salaf, in the language, is plural for Saalif; and As-Saalif is the one who precedes. As-Salaf Al-Jamaa’ah are those who have preceded. From that is His, the Mighty and Majestic, statement:
فَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ سَلَفًا وَمَثَلًا لِلْآخِرِينَ
“And We made them predecessors and an example for the others” (Az-Zukhroof 43:56)
Al-Baghawee said in explanation of this verse: “The Salaf of are those who have preceded, from the forefathers. So (He is saying): We have made them as predecessors so that the later ones may be exhorted by them (their actions).” Ibn Al-Atheer said: “The Salaf of the person is he who has preceded him by death from his forefathers and relatives. Due to this the first generations from the Tabi’een are called As-Salaf As-Saalih.” This is its usage in the language. As for its legislative usage, then what is intended by As-Salaf As-Saalih? What is their methodology in ‘Aqeedah and what are the most prominent traits of their methodology. This is what we shall come to know, if Allaah wills, within the following lessons.
Translated by: Aboo Ruqayyah Raha ibn Donald Batts