A Return to Excellence
How can the Muslims return to the excellence and virtue (faḍl) which the Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ (Righteous Predecessors) had gained.
With good manners you understand the knowledge. With the knowledge, your actions are corrected. With actions, wisdom is obtained. With wisdom you understand zuhd (abstinence) and are granted its benefits. With zuhd comes abandoning the world. With abandoning the world comes desire for the Hereafter. With desire for the Hereafter the pleasure of Allāh – the Mighty and Majestic – is obtained.
KNOWING THE STRAIGHT PATH
ʿAbdullāh Ibn Masʿūd said:
The Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) drew a line for us and said: "This is Allāh’s Straight Path." Then he drew lines to it’s right and left and then said: "These are other paths. Upon every one of them is a devil calling towards it." Then he recited: "Indeed this is My Straight Path, so follow it, and do not follow other paths that will separate you from His Path." [Sūrah Anʿām 6:153]" 
Therefore, that which is necessary for the Muslims – both individuals and groups – in order to prepare them for the mighty task and to achieve the lofty goal, is to truly know the Straight Path, it’s People, their ʿaqīdah (belief) and their manhaj (methodology), knowing also the innovations and evils which cause one to separate from this way.
The wisdom of knowing about the evil is taken from the ḥadīth of Hudhayfah Ibn al-Yamān (raḍī Allāhu ʿʿʿanhu) where he said:
"The people used to ask the Messenger of Allāh (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) about the good, but I used to ask him about the evil for fear that it would overtake me…" 
And may Allāh have mercy upon the one who said in poetic wisdom:
"I learnt what was evil, not for itself, but to avoid it.
He who does not know evil from good falls into it."
CLINGING TO THE ORIGINAL STATE OF AFFAIRS
Abū al-‘Āliyah (d.90H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"Learn Islām. Then when you have learnt Islām, do not turn away from it to the right or the left. But be upon the Straight Path and upon the Sunnah of your Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) and that which his Companions were upon…and beware of these innovations because they cause enmity and hatred amongst you. But stick to the original state of affairs which was there before they divided."
So ʿĀṣim said: I related this to al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, so he said:
"He has given you sincere advice and has told you the truth." 
And it is known that this original state of affairs, had as its pure sweet spring, the Qurʾān and the Sunnah, built upon the understanding of the Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ (pious predecessors) – the Companions, the tābiʿīn and those that followed them – about whom the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) said:
"The best of mankind is my generation, then those who follow them, then those who follow them." 
Āʾishah (raḍī Allāhu ʿanhā) said:
"A man came to the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) and said: Who is the most excellent of mankind? So the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) said:
"The generation of those that I am in, then the second, then the third." 
So this principle – the obligation of adhering to the Qurʾān and the authentic Sunnah upon the understanding of the Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ – is the cornerstone principle of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamāʿah.
Imām Abū Ḥanīfah (d.105H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"Stick to the narrations and the way of the Salaf and beware of newly invented matters, for all of it is innovation." 
Imām al-Awzāʿī (d.157H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"Patiently restrict yourself to the Sunnah and pause where the people paused, say what they said and avoid what they avoided. Take the path of your Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ, for indeed, what was sufficient for them is sufficient for you." 
Imām Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal (d.241H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"The fundamentals of the Sunnah with us are: clinging to that which the Companions of the Messenger of Allāh (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) were upon, taking them as our examples to be followed, avoiding innovations, for every innovation is a misguidance." 
Ibn ʿAbd al Hādī (d.748H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"It is not permissible to invent an interpretation about a verse or a Sunnah which was not their in the time of the Salaf (the pious Predecessors), nor did they have any knowledge concerning it, nor explain it to the Ummah. Since this would imply that the Salaf were ignorant of the truth in this matter and failed to reach it. Whereas the late-coming opponent is somehow guided to the truth!" 
Imām Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"Inventing an explanation with regards to the Book of Allāh – which the Salaf and scholars are in opposition to – necessitates one of two things: either the explanation itself is a mistake, or that the sayings of the Salaf – which differ with such a saying – are in error! And one who possesses even an ounce if intellect would doubt that the one whose saying is in opposition to that of the Salaf, then he is the one who is in error." 
SOFTENING THE HEARTS
Along with seeking to understand the correct Islamic ʿaqīdah (beliefs)and fiqh (jurisprudence), tafsīr (Qur’anic
explanation), and Ḥadīth, an essential part of the way of the Salaf includes understanding matters relating to Ādāb and akhlāq (manners and etiquettes) and tazkiyatun-nufoos (purification of the soul) and reflecting upon the lives of the Salaf al-al-Ṣāliḥīn. Since this – it is hoped – will enable hearts to cultivate mildness and humility in the worship of Allāh – the Most High – and also to strengthen the determination to make His Religion uppermost in the hearts of the people and upon the face of the earth.
Imām Ibn al-Jawzī (d.597H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"I feel that occupying oneself with jurisprudence and acquiring narrations in hardly enough to correct the heart, unless he adds to that the study of raqaa`iq (heart-melting narrations) and the study of the lives of the Salaf al-al-Ṣāliḥīn (the pious predecessors). Since they attained what is desirous from the narrations and took from the outer actions what is ordered and what is wanted from them. And I do not relate this to you except after personal trial and experience. Since I have found that the majority of narrators and students of Ḥadīth are concerned chiefly with attaining the briefest isnād (chain of narrators) and increase in the number of narrations. And the majority of the Jurisprudents are concerned with dialects and how to win arguments. So how can the heart be softened with these things? Previously, a group of the Salaf would visit a pious servant to see his conduct and manners, not to take from his knowledge. This was because the fruit of his knowledge was his manners and conduct, so understand this. Thus, along with the study of fiqh and Ḥadīth, study the lives of the Salaf and those who were zāhid (abstainers) with regards to the world, so that this may be a cause for softness in your hearts." 
Yūnus Ibn ʿʿUbayd (d.139H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"With good manners you understand the knowledge. With the knowledge, your actions are corrected. With actions, wisdom is obtained. With wisdom you understand zuhd (abstinence) and are granted its benefits. With zuhd comes abandoning the world. With abandoning the world comes desire for the Hereafter. With desire for the Hereafter the pleasure of Allāh – the Mighty and Majestic – is obtained." 
THE FOUNDATIONS FOR UNITY
The Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) said:
"This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation. They will expel from it the alteration made by those going beyond bounds; false claims of the liars and the false interpretations of the ignorant ones." 
So it is our hope in Allāh - the Most Perfect – that He adorns us with the correct knowledge bequeathed to us by our Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ, and that He aids us in learning their ʿaqīdah, so that hearts may embrace it; learning their manhaj, so that people may follow it and learning also their manners and behaviour, so that souls may be cultivated upon it, seeking to convey this to others with wisdom with the patience and forbearance that this pure and sublime message demands. So herein lies the excellence and of the one who reaches it.
Al-Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Rajab (d.795H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"So the beneficial knowledge from all the types of knowledge is to take possession of the texts of the Book and the Sunnah and to understand their meanings, and to limit oneself in that to what is related from the Companions, the Tābi’īn and their successors – with regards to the meaning of the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth and what is related from them as regard to the ḥalāl (lawful) and ḥarām (prohibited) and zuhd, raqaa`iq and narrations about previous nations and Prophets, and other than that. Striving firstly, to distinguish what is authentic and what is weak; and then secondly, striving to understand and comprehend it. And there is enough in that for the intelligent one, and enough to occupy the one who busies himself with beneficial knowledge. And he who stops at that and makes his intention purely for the sake of Allāh and seeks his help – then Allāh will help him, guide him and grant him success, satisfaction, understanding and inspiration. Then such a person will take the benefits of such knowledge – which are found through it alone – and that is fear of Allāh, as Allāh - the Exalted and Majestic – says:
"Indeed it is only those that have knowledge among his slaves that truly fear Allāh."
[Sūrah al-Fāṭir 35:10]" 
Imām al-Awzāʿī (d.157H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"Hold fast to the narrations of the Salaf, even if the people were to abandon you. And beware of the opinions of the people, no matter how much they beautify it with their speech." 
Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d.110H) – raḥimahullāh – said:
"If there was a man who reached the first Salaf, and the he (this man) was raised up today, he would not recognize anything of Islām." The narrator said: "Al-Ḥasan put his hand to his cheek and said:
"Except for this Prayer."
Then he said:
"So – by Allāh – how is it for the one who lives in this bad time, not having reached the Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ? So he sees an innovator calling to his innovation, and he sees a worldly person calling to the world, but Allāh protects him from that and makes his heart lean towards those Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ, asking about their way, seeking their narrations and following their path. Allāh will recompense him with a great reward. So be like that – if Allāh wills."
 Ḥasan: Related by Aḥmad (1/435), Sūrah al-Nisāʾ`ee (7/49) and others. This ḥadīth was authenticated by Shaykh al-Albānī in Dhilālul-Jannah (no. 16).
 Part of a lengthy ḥadīth related by al-Bukhārī (6/615) and Muslim (12/235).
 Related by Ibn Battaah in al-Ibānah (no. 136).
 Related by al-Lālikāʿī in Sharḥ Uṣūl al-Iʿtiqād Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamāʿah (no. 31).
 Related by Muslim (no. 2536).
 Related by as-Suyootee in Sawnul Mantaq wal-Kʿalám (p. 32).
 Related by al-Ājurrī in al-Sharīʿah (p. 58), and also by al-Bayḥaqī in Madkhal ilas-Sunnan (no. 233).
 Uṣūl-Sunnah (p. 5) of Imām Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal.
 as-Saarimul Munkee (p. 427).
 Mukhtasar as-Sawaa’iqul Mursalah (2/128).
 Sayidul-Khaatir (p. 216).
 Iqtidaa`ul ‘Ilmil ‘Amal (no. 31).
 Ṣaḥīḥ: Related by al-Bayḥaqī in Sunan al-Kubrā (10/209), Ibn Abī Ḥātim in al-Jarḥ wa-al-Taʿdīl (2/17) and Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr in al-Tamhīd (1/57-58), from the ḥadīth of Ibrāhīm Ibn ‘Abdir-Raḥmān al-‘Udharee (raḍī Allāhu ʿʿʿanhu). It was authenticated by Imām Aḥmad – as occurs in Sharaf Ashaabul Ḥadīth (p. 27) of al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī.
 Fadl ‘Ilmus-Salaf (p. 48) of al-Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Rajab.
 Related by al-Khaṭīb in Sharaf Ashaabul Ḥadīth (p. 25) with a Ṣaḥīḥ isnād.
 Related by Ibn Waḍḍāh in al-Bidaʿ wa-al-Naḥī ʿanhā (p. 74).