Salamo3alaykom, I don't understand when scholars refer to something as "madhabu as-Salaf u Saalih". Aren't the Madahib 4 which are already known? I don't want to discredit the biggest scholars of this Ummah, but why don't they say "manhaj salafu saalih" instead of madhab salaf as saalih? I don't understand because the madahib came after the three early generations and therefore those 3 generations didn't follow a madhab (please correct me if I made a chronological mistake, I'm definitely not good at Islamic sciences unfortunately). Can someone clarify and especially not put this question on check as unclear? Jazakom Allah
What does madhhab as-Salaf mean?
First saying madhhab(u) as-Salaf as -Saalih is suggesting that the early generations of Muslims had a (single) madhhab which is wrong.
Secondly madhhab in the context of as-Salaf as-Salih or in general is a term that can be used in at least two different Islamic topics:
- 'Aqidah (belief) and
- fiqh (jurisprudence)
and in both there are different madhhabs in Islam.
Basically most people when referring to the madhhab as-Salaf as-Salih mean 'Aqidah as at least in this the Salaf rather had an agreement on what and how to interpret even if we will find differences of opinion in the details (for example will we see our Lord or not). And this is a topic where the scholars of the four madhhabs clearly followed the mainstream.
When it comes to fiqh they had different madhhabs and the fact and reasons why the four madhhabs remained is explained in a lot of posts on the site.
Who are meant by "as-Salaf as-Salih"?
Note that Salaf in Arabic refers to all kinds of predecessors! So my father/mother/grandfather etc. is "my Salaf". Therefore by adding the adjective as-Salih the meaning is more restricted.
The definition of as-Salaf as-Salih which is the well-known is that it includes the three first centuries not generations so it certainly covers the four madhhabs and even al-Bukhari, Muslim and many more. Nevertheless there's a difference of opinion based on the interpretation of the word "Qarn" "قَرْن" in the sahih hadith which literally means century while others interpreted it as generation (note that the referenced links show differences in the hadith):
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "The people of my generation are the best, then those who follow them, and then whose who follow the latter. After that there will come some people whose witness will go ahead of their oaths, and their oaths will go ahead of their witness."
Ibrahim (a sub-narrator) said, "We used to be beaten for taking oaths by saying, 'I bear witness by the Name of Allah or by the Covenant of Allah."
(On the authority of 'Abdullah ibn Masu'ud in Sahih al-Bukhari 1, 2 and 3 and in Sahih Muslim 1, 2 and 3 expressing a doubt whether he referred to three or four generations and in Sunan ibn Majah)
Imam an-Nawawi favored the interpretation of generations and said it refers to the Sahabah (companions), the Tabi'yn (followers) and the Tabi' at-Tabi'yn (the followers of the followers).
But anybody following their path counts or can be referred to as among them by the wider definition and therefore one could safely say that this term can be used for the good people of the three first centuries which makes both coexisting definitions alike. As Allah the almighty says:
And the first forerunners [in the faith] among the Muhajireen and the Ansar and those who followed them with good conduct - Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him, and He has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever. That is the great attainment. (9:100)
Note that some sources consider imam abu Hanifa as a Tabi'y.
What is the difference between "madhhab" and "manhaj"?
As for whether madhhab or manhaj these terms can be regarded as synonyms madhhab means path, way or could be explained as the choice or opinion while manhaj means the way and is more related on the methodology. Both terms are valid and can be used to express the view of scholars of the early 3 first centuries.