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Bid’ah: Understanding the Controversy

NOTE: There is a major correction/update pending on this article.

بِسْم الله الرحمان الرحيم

This piece was originally intended to be much longer, with thorough referencing and detailed examples, but as I am now writing this in absence of my physical resources that I originally used to research the topic, I decided to greatly condense and summarize it due to the urgency of the topic. To do real justice to it I would have to write a book. I have included a list of the works I either read cover to cover or selected information from at the bottom.

A brief outline of this article

We will start with a quick linguistic and Usūl (principles of interpretation of Islamic texts) based analysis of the evidences before we discuss how the scholars interpreted the evidences (i.e. their resulting understandings of what constitutes a bid’ah/innovation in Islam). Then, I will present a brief summary of what a good bid’ah and what a bad bid’ah are, with a few examples of both. At the end, I will leave off with a final note on the dangers of real bid’ah.

The evidences pertaining to Bid’ah

Firstly, what does the word بدعة mean in the Arabic language? When we look at the meaning of its tri-letter root and the various conjugations of it in the dictionary, we realize that this word, which is a مصدر  i.e. infinitive/gerund in English, literally means something new that is without precedent. This is what a bid’ah is linguistically, i.e. something new without precedent.

The first and most key evidence to understand is the following narration:

عن أم المؤمنين عائشة رضي الله عنها قالت: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ( من أحدث في أمرنا هذا ما ليس منه فهو رد ) رواه البخاري ومسلم

A’ishah  رضي الله عنها said: The Prophet ﷺ said: Whoever innovates something in this matter of ours (i.e Islam) that which is not from it, then it is rejected. (Bukhāri & Muslim).

Please note: In this hadith, the word أبدع was not used by the Prophet, rather the word أحدث was used, which means the same thing, I.e. to create something new that has no precedent.

Let us analyze this hadith. Note the clause ‘that which is not from it’. This clause in the original Arabic is the object for the verb أحدث. I.e. what the Prophet ﷺ is describing as rejected in this hadith is not every innovated matter, rather only innovated matters that are not from the religion of Islam. Therefore, if we apply the Usūl principle of مفهوم المخالفة and extract the converse meaning of this hadith, we get:

“Whoever innovates something in this matter of ours (i.e. Islam) which is from it, then it is accepted.”

If you analyze the grammatical and logical composition of both sentences, then it will be obvious to you that both are saying the same thing. Hence, this hadith is clear in implying that not every innovated matter is rejected.

عن عبد الرحمن بن عبدٍ القاري : ( خرجت مع عمر بن الخطاب ليلة في رمضان إلى المسجد فإذا الناس أوزاع متفرقون ، يصلي الرجل لنفسه ويصلي الرجل فيصلي بصلاته الرهط فقال عمر : إني أرى لو جمعت هؤلاء على قارئ واحد لكان أمثل ، ثم عزم فجمعهم على أبي ابن كعب ، ثم خرجت معه ليلة أخرى والناس يصلون بصلاة قارئهم قال عمر : نعم البدعة هذه ) جزء من حديث رواه البخاري.

Abdul-Rahmān ibn Abdil-Qāri reported: I left with Umar ibn Al-Khattāb رضي الله عنه (who was the Caliph at the time) one night in Ramadān to the mosque and people were praying there in scattered groups. A man would be praying by himself and another would be leading a small congregation here and there. So Umar رضي الله عنه said: If I were to gather all these people together under one reciter it would be better. Then he got to work and gathered with Ubayy-ibn-Ka’b رضي الله عنه  as the Imam. Then I left with him another night and we saw the people in the masjid praying in one congregation with their Imam and Umar said: This is a good bid’ah (i.e. innovation).

(Refer to Imam Al-Bukhāri’s Sahīh for the last sentence of the hadith).

Here we see Umar رضي الله عنه the second righteous Caliph starting something new and calling it a good innovation. During the time of the Prophet, the tarawih prayer was only informally (i.e. the Prophet ﷺ began praying there by himself and people simply came and joined the prayer behind him without there being any formal congregation named or announced) held in congregation for 3-4 days in Ramadan. After that the Prophet ﷺ stopped coming to the mosque for it out of fear it would become obligatory on the Muslims.

He then called it a bid’ah (i.e. innovation). Even if we say he meant the linguistic meaning of the word bid’ah, it still means something new that has no precedent. I.e. from the apparent language used by Umar رضي الله عنه it seems that he knew what he was doing was novel and without precedent.

The understanding we have acquired from these two hadith appears to contradict with the understanding of another narration that appears much more conservative in its wording and does not seem to make any exceptions:

 وشر الأمور محدثاتها وكل بدعة ضلالة وكل ضلالة في النار ) جزء من حديث رواه مسلم وزائدة من النسائي)

The Prophet ﷺ said in his sermon: And the worst of affairs are innovated ones, and all invented affairs are misguidance, and every misguidance is in the fire. (Part of a longer narration in Muslim, with an addition by Nisā’ī).

Here the narration in its apparent meaning explicitly states that every innovation is misguidance. So, how did the scholars solve the apparent contradiction between the first and second narrations: which imply that there are innovations that are part of Islam and are not rejected, and between the third that condemns all innovations in Islam?

Let us see in the next part.

Differing understandings of Bid’ah among scholars of Islam

In brief, the scholars’ understanding of bid’ah splits them into two groups:

The first group

The first were those who understood innovations in Islam to either be good (i.e. part of Islam) or bad (i.e. misguidance and a sin), and they form the vast majority of the ummah.

This group split into two camps: those who preferred to use the term: ‘good bid’ah’ and ‘bad bid’ah’ and hence used the linguistic meaning of the word bid’ah, i.e. something new that has no precedent. ‘Good bid’ah’ was the phrase that the second Caliph Umar رضي الله عنه used to describe his founding of a formal congregational prayer in Ramadān (i.e. tarawih) and hence they saw precedent to use it from him. This camp understood the last hadith above to be A’ām (general/unspecified) and the first hadith to be Khās (specifying). They eventually built their understanding further to split all innovations into five categories: Harām (impermissible), Makrūh (disliked), Mubāh (permissible), Mustahabb (recommended) and Wājib/Fardh (obligatory). These included the vast majority of scholars throughout history, starting with the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ themselves and eventually encompassing almost all of the ummah from all four madhhabs.

Although mentioning a list of scholars who explicitly approved of this understanding is redundant due to it being a near-consensus, here is a small list: Imām Al-Shafi’i رضي الله عنه in narrations from him, Ibn Al-Athīr, Iz-uddin ibn Abdis-Salām, Al-Qarāfi, Abu Shāmah Al-Maqdisi, Al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajr Al-Asqalāni, Al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathīr, Ibn Rajab, Al-Manāwi, Abul-Abbās Al-Nafrāwi, Al-Haskafi, Al-Taftazani, Ibn Ābidīn, Ibn Hajr Al-Haythami up to and including countless scholars from modern and pre-modern times.

The other camp from the first group, due to the wording of the third hadith mentioned above, preferred to label all bad innovations as bid’ah, and not call good innovations by the name ‘bid’ah’. The good innovations are labeled according to their interpretive route taken via Usūl (and I will demonstrate this in the next section). These included Imam al-Shātibī from the Mālikī school, and Imam ibn Rajab and Imam ibn Taymiyyah of the Hanbalī school.

The difference between the two camps is only in technical terminology and wording, and not in actual substance.

The second group

The second group were those who understood all innovations in religion to be impermissible. For them every innovation that was not present at the time of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions is an evil innovation. They were a small minority over the course of the ummah such as Al-Shawkāni, Siddīq Hasan Khān, Al-Sanā’ni and the members and followers of the Salafi movement in Najd, Saudi Arabia.

Imam Ibn Tamiyyah and Imam al-Shatibī are often claimed to be from this minority, but when we gather their understandings of innovation in Islam from their works their writings make it clear that they actually are from the second camp in the first group mentioned above.

The difference between this group and the former is in actual substance and not just terminology and wording. This group will actively refuse to acknowledge that any good innovation can exist in Islam.

This group understands the first hadith to mean: that it is not permissible to bring about new things in the religion, but it is permissible to bring about new things in worldly affairs.

While this sounds highly appealing at first a closer look shows that it actually ends up being very similar to the second camp from the first group while trying to distance itself from it.

More importantly, this group runs into contradictions in its understanding because it is impossible for there to be new ‘worldly’ issues which do not intersect with religion and become religious affairs to some degree. This is why this group often ends up unwittingly allowing certain religious innovations (under their own definition) to be permissible and then having serious debates among its adherents about them.

A few examples of these that have controversy among them are the invocation for completing the Qur’ān in Ramdan, holding Qur’ān memorization and recitation competitions, lines to organize rows on carpets in the mosque, and many others. The concerned researcher can consult Sheikh Abdul-Ilah al-Arfaj’s book for a long list of examples. It is one of my references below.

I have tried as much as possible to be fair with this group and represent their views with as least bias as possible from my end however as a student and aspiring academic in the traditional Islamic sciences I see no recourse but to disagree strongly with this group for its lack of coherence in its philosophy, and it’s overreaction to opposing arguments (it often ends up saying the same thing when forced to explain and detail it’s position and explain the narrations in question). This is not a call to intolerance or opposition, but to education and enlightenment.

So then what is a good innovation in Islam?
Briefly, a good innovation in Islam is something new in the religion for which there is no precedent but has some basis in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah linking it to them. As such the innovation is not separate from Islam, rather it becomes a logical and practical extension of the religion and its texts. This basis can take many forms:

  • Qiyās (analogy).
  • Al-Masālih Al-Mursalah (Overriding Common Benefit). This is a famous usūl principle of the Maliki school that is an expression encompassing all things that benefit society according to the goals and principles of Islam and its values. Other schools depend on the other ways of linking innovations to the texts mentioned here.
  • Rulings falling under general evidences from the texts.
  • Inductive readings into the texts resulting in new ideas and understandings (as opposed to simple deductive reasoning).
  • Modifying pre-existing acts of worship in the Shariah for practical and real-life benefits.
  • Other results of scholarly ijtihād in the texts.

Examples of these are extremely numerous, and one only needs to visit classical fiqh works across all 4 madhhabs to see them (and how they are explicitly labeled as good innovations in Islam).

Here are some examples that can either be permissible, recommended or obligatory depending on the innovation (some of these are from the time of the 4 Righteous Caliphs):

  • Making intention for an act of worship out loud (analogy on the intention of the pilgrim).
  • Adding minarets, domes and mihrabs to mosques.
  • The compilation of the Qur’an, diacritical and vowel marks, inserting page numbers, ayah numbers, surah names, sections and rulings pertaining to physical copies of the Qur’an.
  • Formally holding recommended prayers in congregation during Ramadan like Tarawīh and Qiyām.
  • A second call to prayer before midday for the Friday prayer.
  • Using prayer beads to remember Allah.
  • The founding of the four schools of fiqh.
  • The founding of religious colleges, funeral preparation facilities, stipends for judges, scholars and intellectuals.
  • The recommendation of making a prayer for the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ in the sermon on Friday.
  • Celebrating the birthday of the Prophet ﷺ (either from overriding common benefit, or analogy on celebrating the day Moses escaped from Pharaoh via parting the sea – for which Muslims fast on Ashura etc).
  • The founding of the Islamic sciences, their development, recording, explanation and specialization.
  • Developing a philosophy from the sacred texts and real life experience to purify the heart and soul and bring one closer to Allah (i.e. the science of Tasawwuf/Tazkiyyah).
  • Using standardized logic to understand our belief in Allah and the unseen according to the Qur’an and Sunnah.
  • Remembering Allah or praising Him in groups.

And many others.

Bad innovations in Islam and who gets to approve an innovation as good or bad?

Briefly, a bad innovation in Islam is something new in the religion that has no precedent but has no basis or a very weak basis in the Qur’an or Sunnah. As described in the last hadith above, it is a misguidance, and every misguidance is in The Fire.

A Muslim is obligated by his religion to avoid such innovations, as according to Sahīh Hadith from Bukhari and Muslim, some Muslims will be turned away from the Prophet ﷺ’s Hawd (pool) on the last day due to the innovations they introduced in the religion. These innovations can either be disliked or impermissible, and even enter into the realm of major sins.

A qualified mufti (legal specialist) or mujtahid (high level scholar) is required to pass judgement on whether an innovation is acceptable according to the texts or rejected. It is natural for scholars to differ in this as they would differ in any issue that is subject to ijtihad (academic analysis and rigor).

Examples of bad innovations include:

  • Speaking about Islam without prerequisite knowledge and promoting the ignorant over the scholars.
  • The innovated beliefs of deviant groups outside of accepted Sunni beliefs that contradict the Qur’ān and Sunnah and have no basis in them.
  • Assigning a spiritual benefit to a specific time, day, month or action that cannot be known except via revelation.
  • Extravagance and over-indulgent opulence in beautifying mosques and mushafs (physical copies of the Qur’an).
  • Reciting the Qur’an in a way not according to the Sunnah (i.e. with music, or singing it without tajwīd etc).
  • Anything new introduced in Islam or Muslim society that promotes sin or destroys faith, or spreads discord and hatred within Muslims, and these are countless especially in our times. May Allah forgive us and help us.

May Allah protect us from ever falling into reprehensible innovation in belief, word and action, and enrich us with Īmān, righteous actions and beneficial knowledge. And may He make the truth clear for us from falsehood, and falsehood clear for us from the truth. Amīn.

References and further reading:

  • الإعتصام للإمام الشاطبي
  • البدعة المحمودة للشيخ صلاح الدين الإدلبي
  • مفهوم البدعة للشيخ عبد الإله العرفج
  • البدعة الإضافية للشيخ سيف الدين العصري
  • الأمر بالإتباع والنهي عن الإبتداع للإمام السيوطي
  • قواعد معرفة البدع للشيخ محمد الجيزاني
  • البدعة في المفهوم الإسلامي الدقيق للشيخ عبد الملك السعدي
  • البدعة المحمودة والبدعة الإضافية للشيخ عبد الفتاح اليافعي

And a special thank you to the scholars at ملتقى الأئمة والدعاة for translations of some Usūl terminology.

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