Q. In your article on bid'ah, you state that the Prophet's pronouncement on bid'ah applies to ritual acts of worship, and bid'ah in other areas is essential for progress. I agree with you and have a follow up question. The Prophet (s.a.a.w) reportedly stated that he left for us the Qur'an and his sunnah, which we should follow and we will not go astray. I presume this means that he left for us everything related to ritual acts of worship, as he is reported to have said: "Pray as you have seen me praying." How then do you explain Umar (r.a) introducing twenty rakat (instead of the eight practiced by the Prophet) for the tarawih prayer? Either everything was already established during the Prophet's time or bid'ah in acts of worship is permissible. The only logical conclusion is that the Prophet's sunnah was deficient. How do you explain this apparent dichotomy?

A. There are several issues with the saying attributed to Umar. In the first place, the tarawih is not a ritual prayer in essence although it has become a practice among many Muslims. The concept of Umar calling it "bida hasana" seems an imputed statement after the fact to justify what obviously caused problems for the umma. And if indeed he said it, then he arrogated to himself that which was not his right. The story is that tarawih prayers are nawafil, and in Islam, such prayers are NOT forbidden as they are NOT part of a ritual. It is said that the Prophet did perform prayers in his residence during Ramadan. One can do a congregational nafil prayer, and given that the Prophet apparently did this in the mosque, but did not wish the people to think it was a new prayer, he did not show up at the mosque in subsequent nights to do it. The companions came and got him, whereupon he explained it was NOT legislated.

The story goes that the people did continue to pray in groups, and during Umar's caliphate, several groups would be praying in the mosques. Imagine the scenario (several groups praying aloud), it would sound more like a cacophony of Babel rather than worship. So he supposedly told the people that if they wished to observe prayer in the mosque, they should do so in a disciplined way. Did he therefore make it a ritual? I don't think so, because we do try to get closer to God during Ramadan through prayer. What is bid'ah, beyond dispute, is that people have taken this overt form of worship as something so important that they give up their families, and have set up rules and regulations for such prayers that make them seem almost like a fard. You are right in your assumption that in some ways, it makes the example of the Prophet seem deficient, but then again, so many practices of the Muslims make the Prophet seem in need of learning. They have forgotten that his example lies in seeing God as a generous, merciful Lord, not as a collector of dues and overt acts of worship.

Posted March 20, 2011