Bid'ah (Innovation)

by Khaleel Mohammed

 ".... The worst of affairs is that of innovations, and each innovation is a wrongdoing, and each wrongdoing is in the hellfire." [Muslim, An-Nasa'i]

This pronouncement, according to a hadith reported by Jabir, is part of the preamble with which Allah's Messenger customarily began his Friday sermon. The Arabic word generally used for "innovation" is bid'ah. Indeed, so well known is it that both non-Arab and Arab Muslims are familiar with it, even though they may not know its meaning. And the reason this word is so famous is because Allah's Messenger never ceased to exhort against its evil.

What then is bid'ah? Before any attempt is made to explain it, the law regarding Islamic Arabic terminology should be explained. That is, every word has a lexical meaning and a jurisprudential meaning. For example, the word shahadah literally means "a statement of witness." If someone saw a violation of law and reported this to the police, his "statement of witness" is said to be his shahadah. But in Islamic terminology, the term shahadah refers to the "attestation that there is no deity worthy of worship in truth except Allah (s.w.t) and that Muhammad (s.a.a.w) is His Messenger." Nikaah literally means "sexual intercourse," and since the marriage contract essentially legalizes this intercourse, nikaah is the jurisprudential term used for this contract.

Bid'ah, in lexical definition, is something that has no antecedent example. Therefore, it is an invention, an innovation. It comes from the root word bada'a. Allah uses a derivative of this root in the Qur'an: "Bringer into being (badee') of the heavens and earth. . . ." [Sura Al Baqarah/The Cow/2:117], because, before Allah decreed their existence, there was nothing like them.

In following this lexical meaning of the word, an aeroplane, an automobile, a gun, etc., are all examples of bid'ah. In jurisprudence, however, bid'ah is the term applied to any ritual act (of religion) that has no source legislation in the Qur'an or Sunnah [Subul us Salaam, Al Hafiz Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani]. And this, according to absolute unanimity of the scholars, is the bid'ah that is forbidden.

Yet for some strange reason, when interpreting bid'ah, a lot of Muslims fail to apply the earlier mentioned law regarding Islamic terminology. There are Muslims who go as far as saying that since the automobile is bid'ah, and since the Prophet forbade bid'ah, we should not use automobiles! Why is it that they do not go to the scholars of religion to seek an explanation? Does Allah (s.w.t) not say in the Qur'an:

"O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those in authority among you . . . " [Sura An Nisa'/Women/4:59]

"Those in authority among you," as explained by Dr. Taha Al-Alwani, with source references, "are the scholars able to deduce judgments and leaders entrusted by the ummah and have authority regarding Allah's shari'ah, and stick to it without falsification." [Introduction to Kaifa nata 'aamal ma 'al Qur'an, Dr. Yusuf al Qaradawi].

And to further elucidate the matter for those who deliberately seek to change the meaning of Allah's message, Shaykh Ali Al Tantawi explains the matter thus. All our affairs are divided into:

In our worldly affairs, bid'ah is absolutely necessary for progress; and in our religious affairs of worship, bid'ah is totally forbidden. The fundamental fiqh rule -- the general rule in all things except religious affairs is that it is allowable -- if applied to our subject, shows how Islam regards bid'ah; that is, it is forbidden in any type of ritual worship, but allowable in all others.

There are still those who, out of ignorance, seek to disparage the 'ulama' and reject hadith, claiming that only the clear words of the Qur'an will convince them. How then do they continue with their innovations when Allah (s.w.t) tells us in the Qur'an:

"This day I have completed for you your religion, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion." [Sura Al Ma'idah/The Table/Spread/5:3]

Are they assuming that Allah (s.w.t) did not know what He was speaking about when He used the word "completed?" Are they assuming that Abul Qasim [Prophet Muhammad] (s.a.a.w) did not complete his duty? Or are they assuming that anyone can add on to what Allah (s.w.t) has deemed to be Al Islam?

We can see what bid'ah has done to the other religions. It was "bid'ah" in doctrine that led to the deification of Christ, and likewise it was bid'ah applied to law that led to the concept that Allah consults with the Rabbis in planning the affairs of this world.

Say: O People of the Book! Exceed not in your religion, going beyond truth, nor follow the vain desires of people who went astray before you, who misled many, and strayed from the Even Way. [Sura Al Ma'idah/The Table Spread/5:77]

Bid'ah is now so widespread, so rampant, that people take it to be sunnah and treat sunnah as if it is bid’ah. Having said that, we cannot reject everything for which there is no precedent as bid'ah. We ought not to forget that there are differences of opinion in Islam regarding the expression of spirituality. Some who adhere closely to one interpretation may categorize any new act of devotion as bid'ah, and hence many things might fall into this category. While we cannot stem them all, we state thus: Whatever becomes a burdensome ritual or introduces a theology into the religion that is foreign to it is to be considered a bid'ah. However, this does not preclude the fact that some things are allowable as expressions of worship. A person might make certain nawafil prayers as his / her private practice, or one may celebrate / commemorate a birthday, graduation, marriage, or death anniversary with the recitation of the Qur'an, and use the opportunity to convey Islamic teachings. Here the issue is that these things are dictated by custom, and the Qur'an does not deny people their customs, as long as they do not change the Qur'anic worldview. The recitation of the Qur'an in the examples cited are not being done as intercession (e.g., in the case of the deceased), but rather to show gratitude to Allah, seek His mercy, and share knowledge.

Islam is so simple and beautiful that we should keep the above in mind and not burden ourselves with rituals that cause us pain in both worlds. So, do we seek guidance from those who do not know or from Allah (s.w.t) and His Messenger (s.a.a.w)? How do we compare those who invent new rituals in our religion with the Prophet of whom Allah (s.w.t) says:

Ye have indeed in the messenger of Allah a fine conduct for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the remembrance of Allah .... [Sura Al Ahzab/The Clans/33:21]

Posted September 16, 1998. This article was printed in the December 1993 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).