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The Concept of Bid`ah

The issue of Bid`ah or innovations in religion is a hotly debated one in current times.  It has been argued, sometimes with much vigour and polemic that practises in the religion of Islam that were not current at the time of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam or his companions and should be rejected and could even lead to kufr or disbelief.  It has been the opinion of the vast majority of the Ulama throughout the ages that there is Bid’ah is of two types, that which is permissible, and that which is not.  It is the purpose of this article to reiterate the correct position, that innovations or newly introduced practises in the Din of Islam can not only be permissible, but also rewarded, hopefully providing clarification to the many people who have been confused about the issue.

The Definition of the word Bid`ah

The word Bid`ah in Arabic is derived from the root word Bada`ah, literally meaning to create a new thing without precedence.  It is synonymous with the word Khalk that means to create something out of something else.  The attributive name Al Badi is also derived from the same root to denote Allah as the Creator of things that had no previous existence.  In the Qur'an Allah is Badi ussamawaati wal ard i.e. the Creator of the Heavens and Earth (out of nothing).  Therefore, in its literal sense, the word Bid`ah has no negative connotations, it plainly refers to anything that comes into existence that is novel or not previously known.

In the technical sense, in the way it is used in the Shariah it means an addition to the Din of Islam that was not known or practised at the time of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam or his companions.

The concept of Bid`ah in the Qur'an.

The Holy Qur’an, the primary source of Knowledge in Islam, has a most important proof of the permissibility of beneficial introductions into the Din. In surah Al-Hadid 57:16, Allah says:
As for monasticism, they invented it themselves, for we had not enjoined it on them, seeking thereby to please Allah; but they did not observe it faithfully.  We rewarded only those who were truly faithful, but many of them were transgressors.

The word ‘invented’ used in the above passage is a translation of the Arabic word Ibtada’uha which literally means ‘they made a Bid’ah.’  The verse tells us that monasticism (Rahbaniyat) was instituted by the followers of the Prophet Isa alayhi salaam after him as a new act, as a Bid’ah, for the purpose of seeking the pleasure of Allah. Allah does not condemn this act but rather tells us that after its adoption it was not followed properly.  It is clear that this verse contains an implied permission granted to them for this new act.  If one reads the words carefully, it is apparent that if Allah were condemning the new act, then there would be no need to remark that they did not observe it faithfully.  Having introduced this new act of monasticism, they should have fulfilled its conditions and requirements to achieve the purpose for which they had adopted in the first place.  Instead Allah condemns those who, having adopted monasticism, did not perform it in the proper way: but many of them were transgressors.  In fact not only was the new act permitted, but it was also rewarded, as the verse tells us: We rewarded only those who were truly faithful.  In the context of the preceding part, this would refer to those who were true believers and fulfilled the conditions of the new act and thus achieving the target of seeking thereby to please Allah.

There is an important point to consider here.  The practice of monasticism has been abrogated and cancelled in Islam, but the principle contained in this verse of the acceptability of a new act performed with the correct intention and fulfilling certain conditions is not abrogated, but remains.  The new practice introduced for the pleasure of Allah, in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence becomes a Bid’ah of guidance; that which violates the laws of Shari’ah becomes a Bid’ah of misguidance (see later).

The concept of Bid’ah in the Hadith.

It is related from the route of Jarir Ibn Abdullah that the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam said:
Whosoever introduced a beneficiary action in Islam will be rewarded for his practice as well as for the practice of the people who follow him, without lessening their reward.  Whosoever introduced a bad practice in Islam will take the sin for it as well as the sin of the people who follow him, without lessening their sin. (Muslim).

This hadith which is of sound classification is very clear and unambiguous and is a foundation for proving the validity of good innovations in Islam.  The criterion used as to whether or not a new action is accepted is that it should be hasanah,  or beneficial.  If the action is beneficial then there is an immense reward for it.. New introductions that are bad are punished severely. Scholars of Islam, as will be seen later have derived the conditions for a new act to be considered beneficial or bad.

Although the context of this hadith relates to a specific incident during the time of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam when some companions came forward to offer charity to some poverty-stricken new arrivals at Madinah, the meaning is general.  It is not permissible to claim that this Hadith applies only to charity as a general term was used: Whosoever introduced a beneficiary action in Islam.  The Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam did not restrict the reward to ‘He who spends in charity.’  It is the rule among the scholars of Islam that if an ayah of hadith was revealed for a specific incident or reason yet a general term were used in it then its application would be general and not restricted to that incident.

Some people translate the word sunnatan as the specific Sunnah of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam himself, instead the general word ‘action’ or ‘practice.’ In other words, whoever revived a Sunnah of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam will be rewarded etc.  However this is a gross mistranslation of the Hadith.  It is impossible to differentiate such a thing as a good Sunnah, as all the practices of the Holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam were good, and the concept of a ‘bad Sunnah’ for obvious reasons cannot be entertained at all. Therefore it is impossible for this Hadith to apply to the Sunnah of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam.

The authentic Hadith of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam translated as:
Abstain from innovations, for every kind of innovation is a Bid’ah, and every Bid’ah is misguidance and all misguidance leads to hellfire is often used in an attempt to prove that all new things introduced in Islam are forbidden.  This Hadith would apparently contradict with that given above, however one must study the whole Hadith of which this is only a portion, and thus read it in context to the rest. One must also interpret this Hadith according to the other evidence from either the Qur’an or Hadith instead of giving a meaning from our own (mis)understanding..  The whole Hadith is:
I command you to have Taqwa, and to be obedient to those appointed leader over you, even if it be an Abysinnian slave.  O my companions, those who live after me will, very soon, see a lot of differences among you.  Stick to my path and the path of the Rightly Guided Khalifas.  Abstain from innovations, for every kind of innovation is a Bid’ah, and every Bid’ah is misguidance and all misguidance leads to hellfire.

This Hadith is a warning about events to come very soon after the Prophet’s sallallahu alayhi wa sallam passing on; events characterised by differences among the companions.  The Prophet’s advice was to stick to his path and that of the Rightly Guided Khalifas, indicating that there will be differences of opinion against Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Usman, and Hazrat Ali, and that when these arise, the people should follow them and also the Sunnah of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam.  In fact, the time immediately after the death of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam was a time of great disruption and tribulation for the Muslims.  There came several people claiming to be prophets after the Holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam who fought against Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique.  There were groups of Muslims who denied the paying of Zakat, and there were people who abandoned Islam and challenged the authority of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, becoming apostates.  Hazrat Abu Bakr said he would fight those people who claimed to be prophets, who did not pay Zakat or became apostates.  After him came people who denied the Kkalifate of Hazrat Usman, and that of Hazrat Ali.  The Khwarij sect came about which fought against Hazrat Ali.  In all, it was an extremely volatile time.  It is clear that the ‘innovations’ mentioned in this Hadith refer to major disruptions that occurred, including people declaring prophethood after the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, people denying the paying of Zakat, and the distorted beliefs of the Khwarij.  These were the kinds of ‘innovation’ referred to by the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam that were misguidance and therefore leading to Hellfire.

Further evidence for this comes from another sound Hadith related by Ibn Abbas.  The word ‘innovation’ used in the Hadith quoted above is a translation of the word Muhdasa, which is derived from the word Ihdas, meaning disruption.  The following Hadith gives us the Prophet’s interpretation of this word:
O people, you will be gathered on the Day of Judgement in the same way you were born (naked).  The first person to be given the dress of the hereafter will be Hazrat Ibrahim.  Some people from my ummah will be brought in front of me, and taken toward hell.  I will recognise them and I will say, “These are my companions.”  An angel will say, “Don’t you know what kinds of disruption (Ihdasa) they committed after you?  Although they embraced Islam in your life, soon after your demise they became apostates and turned towards kufr.

This Hadith of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam therefore defines what sort of innovation in the Din of Islam is a misguidance, that is something major in the fundamentals or belief system of Islam, typical of those innovations that occurred not long after his time.  This argument enables us to understand the following Hadith:
He who innovates something in this matter of ours that is not of it will have it rejected. (Agreed)

The same word Ahdasa is used here which is translated as ‘innovates.’  Using the hadith about the companions sent to Hellfire who committed grave disruptions to interpret the word Ahdasa, the Hadith is also referring to major additions or alterations to the Din of Islam, that are not of it.  Another variation of this Hadith related by Muslim is as follows:

He who does an act which our matter is not (in agreement) with, will have it rejected.

The same word Ahdasa is used here which is translated as ‘innovates.’  Using the hadith about the companions sent to Hellfire who committed grave disruptions to interpret the word Ahdasa, the Hadith is also referring to major additions or alterations to the Din of Islam, that are not of it.  Another variation of this Hadith related by Muslim is as follows:
He who does an act which our matter is not (in agreement) with, will have it rejected.

This Hadith gives us a criterion by which every new act must be judged, namely that it should not go against the Shariah and be compatible with the Qur’an and Sunnah.  Therefore every new act is not condemned but rather should be evaluated on its merits to see whether it is in agreement with the Qur’an and Sunnah.

A final point regarding the interpretation of Hadith needs to be mentioned..  If interpretation is attempted without proper knowledge, one may find apparent contradictions between various Hadith.  If one interpreted the last few Hadith as meaning every new act in Islam is a misguidance, this would be in contradiction to the first hadith mentioned about the rewards of introducing beneficial practises into Islam and the punishments for introducing bad practises. All the Hadith mentioned above are of sound classification; in reality, there are no contradictions if the Hadiths are interpreted properly.  This is what the great Scholars of Islam have done.  By interpreting correctly and with proper knowledge, they have conformed and bridged the meanings between the Hadith.  This concept is very well known in the science of Hadith exegesis, for example, takhsis al-amm is a frequent procedure of usul al-fiqh by which an apparently unqualified statement is qualified to avoid the contradiction of another necessary principle.

The concept of Bid’ah according to Scholars of Islam.

The vast majority of the classical Scholars of Islam make a distinction between innovations that are acceptable, that may be called innovations of guidance, and those that are not, that may be called innovations of misguidance. Imam ash-Shafiyy wrote, “There are two kinds of introduced matters.  One is that which contradicts a text of the Qur’an, or the Sunnah, or a report from the early Muslims, or the consensus of the Muslims: this is an innovation of misguidance (bid’at dalala).  The second kind is that which is in itself good and entails no contradiction of any of these authorities: this is a ‘non-reprehensible innovation’ (bid’a ghayr madhmuma).” (Ibn Asakir, Tabyin Khadib al-Muftari (Damascus, 1347), 97, tr. Abdul Hakim Murad. Similar definitions have been expounded by other great classical scholars, such as Imam al-Bayhaqiyy, Imam an-Nawwawiyy, and Izzudin Ibn Abdus-Salaam and Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Asqalaniyy, among others.  Izzudin Ibn Abdus-Salaam (one of the greatest mujtahids) categorised innovations into five types: the obligatory (wajib), the recommended (mandub), the permissible (mubah), the offensive (makruh), and the forbidden (haram). Quoted in Muhammad al-Jurdani, al-Jawahir al-lu’lu’iyyah fi sharh al-Arba’in al- Nawawiya (Damascus, 1328), 220-1.  Among the obligatory innovations Ibn Abdus-Salaam cites the following examples: recording the Qur’an and the laws of Islam in writing at a time when it was feared they would be lost, studying Arabic Grammar in order to resolve controversies over the Qur’an, and developing philosophical theology (kalam) to refute the claims of the Mu’tazilites.  Under recommended innovation come activities such as building madrassas, writing books on beneficial Islamic subjects, and in-depth studies of Arabic linguistics.  Permissible innovations include worldly activities such as sifting flour, and constructing houses in various styles not known in Madinah.  Reprehensible innovations include overdecorating mosques or the Qur’an.  The category of forbidden innovations includes unlawful taxes, giving judgeships to those unqualified to hold them, and sectarian beliefs and practices that explicitly contravene the known principles of the Qur’an and Sunna.

Innovations of Guidance and Innovations of Misguidance.

With the concept of Bid’ah being clarified somewhat, the reader may want to know what practices fall with the domains of innovations of guidance, which are permissible and rewarded, and innovations of misguidance, which are forbidden and punishable. For innovations of guidance, it would be fair to say that every single Muslim practices these innovations, knowingly or otherwise, and the list is long.  A few examples have been mentioned above.

For examples of innovations of misguidance it would be useful to look at the aforementioned Hadith about Bid’ah referring to the time soon after the death of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam when there came false prophets, apostates and people who did not pay Zakat.  Therefore, if one were to declare or follow another prophet after the Holy Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam this would be an innovation of misguidance.  Following on from this, any change in the major beliefs and tenets of Islam would be in the same category.  This could include for example, denying the attributes of Allah, denying the existence of angels etc.  Any change in the basic practises of Islam would also be an innovation of misguidance, such as reducing or increasing the number of salaats in a day or changing the number of rakaats, fasting on forbidden days.  Decreeing those things that are Halaal as Haraam or vice versa would also be an innovation of misguidance as would be adding verses to the Qur’an or falsifying Hadith.  As can be seen these are major sins and lead to Shirk and even Kufr.  These things are not necessarily far-fetched as they seem as the history of Islam bears witness to a number of stray sects of Islam that adopted certain of these practices and beliefs.

Conclusion

There is an oft repeated concept held by some Muslims today, that any practice in religion that was not done by the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam or his companions should be rejected as it is a misguidance and therefore punishable in Hellfire.  However one must go beyond slogans and oversimplifications and reach a correct opinion by examining the facts based upon the Qur’an and Sunnah.  As we have seen, new practices are not rejected, but are accepted and even rewarded.  However, the practice concerned should be compatible with the dictates of the Shari’ah, otherwise it will be rejected.  The opinion of those who condemn any new act without qualification comes from a misunderstanding of the sources of the Qur’an and Hadith, for example by quoting passages out of context or without the true meaning.  It is apparent that the classical scholars, who probably had a greater knowledge of Qur’anic or Hadith exegesis than any living person today decreed that newly introduced practices are allowed as long as they do not contradict the Qur’an or Sunnah.  This stands in marked contrast to the opinion of many so-called learned people today.  They should be careful of condemning an act as Haraam or prohibited if it is not specifically prohibited by the Qur’an or Sunnah, as judging a permissible act as Haraam may lead to Shirk.  In fact, the introduction of new things into the deen ensures that Islam can apply itself to any given time and situation, and some new things have even been essential for its preservation and propagation.

By Dr. Zahid Iqbal

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