What is the ruling on testing people by way of individuals, whether by way of the ‘Ulaama of the Sunnah or the heads of innovation? Does that matter apply to those of this day and time? Benefit us. May Allah reward you with good.
There's no doubt my brother that the Salafus Saalih use to test people by way of the ‘Ulamaa, those who were known for holding firmly to the Sunnah, soundness in the matters of ‘Aqeedah and Manhaj, and being stern upon the people of desires and innovation. I have come across ten something texts on the Salaf and every text is an example clarifying how the Salaf would test people by way of Ahlus Sunnah. So whoever knows their virtue, loves them and mentions them with good, he is a person of the Sunnah. Whoever belittles them and speaks bad about their honor, he is a person of evil and innovation. Here are few examples from many Salafi texts:
Imam al-Barbahaari (rahimahullah) stated:
When you see a person loving Abu Hurayrah, Anas Ibn Maalik and Usayd Ibn Hudayr, then know that he is a person of the Sunnah in shaa Allah.
He also said:
When you see the person loving Ayyoob, Ibn 'Awn, Ibn Idrees al-Awdee and ash-Sha'bee (and he mentioned a group from amongst the virtuous scholars to the point where he said); know that he is a person of the Sunnah.
He also stated:
When you see the person loving Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, al-Hajjaaj Ibn al-Minhaal, Ahmad Ibn Nasr, and he mentioned them with good and spoke with their speech, then know that he is a person of the Sunnah. (Sharhus-Sunnah 117-118)
You mentioned in your question: Does that apply to the Scholars of this day and time of ours?
The answer: Yes, the people are to be tested in every time and place by way of those who are Ahlus-Sunnah, from the aspect of the ‘Aqeedah and the Shar'eeyah; meaning those who have exerted themselves for the preservation of the Sunnah, understanding the meanings of its text, implementation of it and defending it.
The matter of testing the people with Ahlus-Sunnah is not restricted to a specific person or people. Rather the people are to be tested by way of every person of the Sunnah in every time and place upon the description that you have mentioned. Likewise, the people are tested by way of the callers from the people of innovation. On ‘Uqbah Ibn ‘Alqamah (rahimahullah), he said:
I was with Arta-ah Ibn al-Mundhir (rahimahullah) and some of the people in the gathering stated: What do you say about a person who sits and mixes with the people of the Sunnah, when the people of innovation are mentioned he says, “Leave us regarding them. Don't mentioned them?
Arta-ah (rahimahullah) responded
He is from amongst them. Don't let him deceive you regarding his affair.
He (‘Uqbah) said
I did not accept the statement of Arta-ah. I came to al-Awzaa'ee (to see his view on the matter), as he was one who use to explain these types of things when they reach him. He said: Arta-ah has spoken the truth. The (correct) statement (regarding this matter) is the statement of Arta-ah. This individual (that was asked about) prohibits mentioning them (i.e the people of innovation), so when will the people of innovation be cautioned from being that their affair is not made known by way of them being mentioned? (Taarikh Dimishq 8/15)
Al-Awzaa'ee (rahimahullah) stated:
Whoever's innovation is hidden from us; his companionship will not be hidden. (Al-Ibaanah of Ibn Battah 2/479)
Al-'Ukburi (rahimahullah) -who is Ibn Battah- stated:
When Sufyaan ath-Thawree (rahimahullah) came to Basrah he began to look at the affair of ar-Rabee’ (i.e Ibn Subayh) and his status with the people; (so) he asked what is his madh-hab? The people said, "His Madh-hab is nothing but the Sunnah." He (Sufyaan ath-Thawree) asked "Who are his inner-most companions?" The people said, "The people of (deviance regarding the) Qadr." He mentioned (in response), "Then he is Qadree."
- Aqeedah and Minhaj