Firstly, let me stress that I’m not intending to address any doctrinal differences between various sectors of the Ummah. All the comments that follow are merely reflections on patterns of word usage, primarily amongst the cyber Islāmic communities.
My first encounters with the word “traditional” used in an Islāmic context, well more precisely the phrase “The Traditionists”, was many years ago when I used to hear Shaykh Suhaib Hasan refer to “The Traditionists.” His usage was as a translation of the term al-Muhaddithūn (i.e. the scholars of hadīth). The Traditionists were therefore those who adhered to, preserved, and transmitted the traditions, i.e. the Prophetic narratives/ahādīth.
The “ownership” of the phrase seems to have changed hands in recent years to a different section of the Ummah. Whether or not there will be a fight for the rights to the word remains to be seen but nevertheless it’s prevalence in usage in the cyber world is certainly something well established and on the increase.
Contrary to my first encounters with the word, today I find a variant meaning and more common usage for the word. It is predominantly used now as a means to assert a historical or established connection between the word’s user and the form of Islāmic scholarship that they feel to be most authentic.
To assert oneself as following “traditional” Islām thereby attributes to the writer, in their eyes, a form of pedigree or deep roots for the Islām that they advocate. It conversely serves to negate such from those that they feel oppose whatever it is that they champion. When someone from the online community distinguishes themselves as following traditional Islām to an adversary, there’s an implication that the other’s brand of Islām is lacking in tradition, roots and therefore authenticity.
The longer you are in Islām the more you are able to observe patterns (often repeating ones) of zeal amongst the active brothers and sisters. Actually quite analogous to how you see clothing fashions repeat in Western communities as the years go by (with age you may well find yourself noting the youth wearing things that “…were in fashion when I was a kid.”) Waves sweep the religiously “active” often in different directions, back and forth, this way and that.
In the late 90’s”, when I came to Islam, the word “Salafī” was hot property. It was socially imperative to be dropped in conversation at the earliest convenience; as a means to distinguish oneself as being upon that which is correct, or to rebuke another for a perceived shortcoming in similarly adhering.
The absence of the term in someone’s speech could create suspicion in the heart of the, often freshly, zealous individual. “This person must be ignorant and in need of better programming (which often shortly followed, although perhaps in an incompatible format and subsequently rejected).”
A sense of belonging could be achieved through the rote learning of various conversational hors d’œuvre: “We take from the Qu’rān and Sunnah”; “The Salaf al-Sālih”; “What’s the dalīl akhī?” The usage of certain phrases could establish your “correctness” in a gathering of strangers and assert your religious prowess. I’m not suggesting anything is wrong with these particular phrases, merely noting an emphasis in usage that I observed amongst the religiously active.
Excesses or misdirection over the years by some saw a rise in discontent amongst others. The presence and activities of the divisive, dedicated chastisers and those generally lacking in gentleness, drove many away from using the word “Salafī”; often in search of other doctrinal abodes in which to house themselves.
Having witnessed the rise and subsequent sullying of the word “Salafī”, I recently began reflecting upon other emergent phrases or buzzwords that I noted appear amongst the online communities.
At first I was inclined to think that the word “Hanbalī” was the new “Salafī” in terms of being a popular buzzword or means of attributing and distinguishing oneself from others. There’s certainly been a rise in popularity in attribution to the madhhab that I’ve noticed, irrespective of whether the attributer is fully cognisant of the implications or pre-requisites of making such an assertion.
I think partly because many disenfranchised “Salafīs” wanted to make an attributional shift, as a means of distancing themselves from what they perceived to be the uglier sides of the “Salafīs”, without making a drastic doctrinal shift. Or for others, an accompanying shift in doctrine according to their own particular understanding of what constitutes “Hanbalism.”
However, I’m now inclined to think that word “traditional/traditionalist” is the new “Salafī.” Again, I’m forgoing a look at any doctrinal difference between those who use the various terminologies; I’m purely looking from a linguistic usage perspective. In terms of the similarity of use, and frequency of appearance, of the phrases by the respective groups.
There’s also a certain irony in this, as those who use the phrase “traditional” are often using it as an antonym for “Salafī.” Not in terms of opposing meaning, but in terms of a diametrical attribution.
The reason that I see the word “traditional” as the new “Salafī” is that I find the same zeal in using the phrase, the same impetus to distinguish oneself, the same frequency of usage and the same affinity and belongingness between those who hold the term dear, as I observed amongst those who clung to the word “Salafī.”
Similar to how an online “Salafī” would litter his writings with his term, I now observe “Traditionalists” interjecting their prose with their own particular word. It’s not yet reached the stage where the word has become attached to a person’s name (i.e. no Abdullah al-Traditionalī as yet). But it’s certainly used in a similar fashion and as a means of distinction, or a club to yield when asserting difference from and error in a counterpart who fails to similarly champion the term.
One irony that I haven’t seen addressed yet is whether or not “traditional” Muslims would “traditionally” refer to themselves as being “traditional.” Or, whether this groundswell in usage and attribution through the word is actually contrary to the advocated “tradition” itself?
Either way, I’m inclined to believe that “traditional”, purely as a word, has become the new verbal condiment, one which is used to pepper conversation and prose both on and offline. Admittedly the prevalence of usage is amongst different circles to those who used to punctuate their speech and writings with the term “Salafī” but it exhibits many similarities in utilisation to those who championed the S-word in the late 90’s.