Praise be to Allaah.
We can answer this question with the following points:
Each person is obliged to follow the guidance of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and his Companions. This is the way of Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaa’ah and the followers of the righteous predecessors (al-salaf al-saalih). Allaah says (interpretation of the meanings):
“Say (O Muhammad): ‘This is my way; I invite unto Allaah with sure knowledge, I and whosoever follows me with sure knowledge. And Glorified and Exalted be Allaah (above all that they associate as partners with Him). And I am not of the mushrikeen (polytheists… those who worship others along with Allaah or set up rivals or partners to Allaah).” [Yoosuf 12:108]
“And whoever contradicts and opposes the Messenger (Muhammad) after the right path has been shown clearly to him, and follows other than the believers’ way, We shall keep him in the oath he has chosen, and burn him in Hell – what an evil destination!” [al-Nisa’ 4:115]
Whoever follows the way of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) belongs to the salaf al-saalih, even if the people call him something else; by the same token, whoever goes against it and deviates from the Sunnah is an innovator, even if he claims to be a Salafi.
If a person calls himself a Salafi to express his gratitude for having been guided to this way, or to clearly distinguish himself from innovation, then this is OK and is allowed in Islam. But if he says it only for the purpose of praising himself, then this is not allowed, because Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “… therefore justify not yourselves…” [al-Najm 53:32 – Yusuf ‘Ali’s translation]. Similarly, it is not allowed if it is said in a spirit of tribalism or sectarianism, because such attitudes are forbidden, as is clear from the following story: Jaabir ibn ‘Abd-Allaah said: “A man from the Muhaajireen shoved a man from the Ansaar from behind, so each man’s people gathered around him, saying ‘O Muhaajireen (come and help)!’ or ‘O Ansaar (come and help)!’ News of this reached the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and he said, ‘Stop this, for it is repulsive.’ Then he said, ‘What is this call of the people of jaahiliyyah? What is this call of the people of jaahiliyyah?’”(Reported by Imaam Ahmad, 14105; the hadeeth is also to be found in al-Saheehayn). The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) called it the call of the people of jaahiliyyah and described it as repulsive, even though the words “Ansaari” and “Muhaajiri” are Islamic words, the first referring to those who supported Allaah and His Messenger, and the second referring to those who left the land of kufr and migrated to Allaah and His Messenger. Why were they described in this manner? Because in this instance, the words were not used in a permissible fashion; the usage was a sectarian and political one that could have led to fighting between the two groups. The same applies to the word “Salafi”.
If the Ahl al-Sunnah and the salaf draw a line between themselves and the innovators, this is not considered to be dividing the ummah, as those who criticize the use of this word think is the case, but this distancing of oneself has to be done in accordance with the degree of bid’ah – whether it is major or minor – and should be regulated by the overall interests of the Islamic da’wah.
The Sufi claims mentioned in the question are not valid. The denunciation is not merely because of the word “Sufi”, which is a general word that may be applied to things approved of in Islam, such as asceticism (zuhd) and fear of Allaah, or it may be applied to innovations such as monasticism and extremism. Rather the denunciation is because of the various types of shirk, major and minor, that are connected with Sufism and its tareeqahs. The word Tasawwuf (Sufism) now refers to the Sufi tareeqahs and the kinds of innovations they have. Sufism – as is obvious from their books and how Sufis actually are – includes deviant ideas of kufr, such as hulool (incarnation or the belief that the Creator may be indwelling in His creation – exalted be Allaah above what they say), ittihaad (union) and wahdat al-wujood (pantheism or the unity of existence, which is the belief that the Creator and His creation are the same thing, and that everything in existence is Allaah – exalted be Allaah above what they say), and going to extremes in what they say about the awliya’, in addition to their innovations in the matter of acts of worship and awraad (du’aa’s).
The one who is seeking salvation has to work hard to gain beneficial knowledge and do righteous deeds, and he should avoid vain arguments and futile discussions in which there is no benefit.
We ask Allaah to help us and you to follow the truth and act upon it. May Allaah bless our Prophet Muhammad.