The Concept of Bid’ah in the Islāmic Syarī’ah
By Nuh Ha Mim Keller
In the name of Allāh, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful;
All the praise and Thanks are due to Allāh, the Lord of the al-‘alameen. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allāh, and that Muhammad, Sallallāhu alayhi wasallam, is His Messenger.
The following is the text of a talk given by Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller at Nottingham and Trent University on Wednesday 25th January 1995.
There are few topics that generate as much controversy today in Islām as what is Sunnah and what is bid’ah or reprehensible innovation, perhaps because of the times Muslims live in today and the challenges they face. Without a doubt, one of the greatest events in impact upon Muslims in the last thousand years is the end of the Islāmic caliphate at the first of this century, an event that marked not only the passing of temporal, political authority, but in many respects the passing of the consensus of orthodox Sunni Islām as well. No one familiar with the classical literature in any of the Islāmic legal sciences, whether Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir), hadith, or jurisprudence (fiqh), can fail to be struck by the fact that questions are asked today about basic fundamentals of Islāmic Sacred Law (Syarī’ah) and its ancillary disciplines that would not have been asked in the Islāmic period not because Islāmic scholars were not brilliant enough to produce the questions, but because they already knew the answers.
My talk tonight will aim to clarify some possible misunderstandings of The Concept Of Innovation (Bid’ah) in Islām, in light of the prophetic hadith. The Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said:
”Beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in hell." [Muslim]
The sources I use are traditional Islāmic sources, and my discussion will centre on three points:
The first point is that scholars say that the above hadith does not refer to all new things without restriction, but only to those which nothing in Sacred Law attests to the validity of. The use of the word “every” in the hadīth does not indicate an absolute generalization, for there are many examples of similar generalizations in the Qur'ān and sunnah that are not applicable without restriction, but rather are qualified by restrictions found in other primary textual evidence.
The second point is that the sunnah and way of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) was to accept new acts initiated in Islām that were of the good and did not conflict with established principles of Sacred Law, and to reject things that were otherwise.
And our third and last point is that new matters in Islām may not be rejected merely because they did not exist in the first century, but must be evaluated and judged according to the comprehensive methodology of Sacred Law, by virtue of which it is and remains the final and universal moral code for all peoples until the end of time.
Our first point, that the hadith does not refer to all new things without restriction, but only to those which nothing in Sacred Law attests to the validity of, may at first seem strange, in view of the wording of the hadith, which says, "every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in hell." Now the word "bid’ah" or "innovation" linguistically means anything new, so our first question must be about the generalizability of the word every in the hadīth: does it literally mean that everything new in the world is harām or unlawful? The answer is no. Why?
In answer to this question, we may note that there are many similar generalities in the Qur'ān and Sunnah, all of them admitting of some qualification, such as the word of Allāh Most High in Surah al-Najm: “. . . A man can have nothing, except what he strives for” (Qur'ān 53:39), despite there being an overwhelming amount of evidence that a Muslim benefits from the spiritual works of others, for example, from his fellow Muslims, the prayers of angels for him, the funeral prayer over him, charity given by others in his name, and the supplications of believers for him;
Or consider the words of Allāh to unbelievers in Surat al-Anbiya: “Verily you and what you worship apart from Allāh are the fuel of hell” (Qur'an 21:98), “what you worship” being a general expression, while there is no doubt that Jesus, (‘alahissalam) his mother, and the angels were all worshipped apart from Allāh, but are not “the fuel of hell”, so are not what is meant by the verse;
Or the word of Allāh Most High in Surah al-An’am about past nations who paid no heed to the warners who were sent to them, “But when they forgot what they had been reminded of, We opened unto them the doors of everything” (Qur'ān 6:44), though the doors of mercy were not opened unto them;
And the hadith related by Muslim that the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: "No one who prays before sunrise and before sunset will enter hell", which is a generalised expression that definitely does not mean what its outward generality implies, for someone who observes the dawn (fajar) and mid-afternoon (dzuhur) solats and neglects all other prayers and obligatory works is certainly not meant. It is rather a generalization whose intended referent is particular, or a generalization that is qualified by other texts, for when there are fully authenticated hadiths, it is obligatory to reach an accord between them, because they are in reality as a single hadith, the statements that appear without further qualification being qualified by those that furnish the qualification, that the combined implications of all of them may be utilized.
Let us look for a moment at bid’ah or innovation in the light of the Sunnah of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) concerning new matters. Sunnah and innovation (bid’ah) are two opposed terms in the language of the Lawgiver, such that neither can be defined without reference to the other, meaning that they are opposites, and things are made clear by their opposites.
Many writers have sought to define innovation (bid’ah) without defining the sunnah, while it is primary, and have thus fallen into inextricable difficulties and conflicts with the primary textual evidence that contradicts their definition of innovation, whereas if they had first defined the sunnah, they would have produced a criterion free of shortcomings.
Sunnah, in both the language of the Arabs and the Sacred Law, means the “ way”, as is illustrated by the words of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) :
"He who inaugurates a good Sunnah in Islām [dis: Reliance of the Traveller p 58.1(2)] ...And he who introduces a bad sunnah in Islām...”, sunnah meaning way or custom. The way of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) in giving guidance, accepting, and rejecting: this is the Sunnah. For "good sunnah" and "bad sunnah" mean a "good way" or "bad way", and cannot possibly mean anything else.
Thus, the meaning of "sunnah" is not what most students, let alone ordinary people, understand; namely, that it is the prophetic hadith (as when sunnah is contrasted with "Kitab", i.e. Qur'ān, in distinguishing textual sources), or the opposite of the obligatory (as when sunnah, i.e. recommended, is contrasted with obligatory in legal contexts), since the former is a technical usage coined by hadith scholars, while the latter is a technical usage coined by legal scholars and specialists in fundamentals of jurisprudence.
Both of these are usages of later origin that are not what is meant by Sunnah here. Rather, the sunnah of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) is his way of acting, ordering, accepting, and rejecting, and the way of his Rightly Guided Caliphs who followed his way acting, ordering, accepting, and rejecting. So practices that are newly begun must be examined in light of the Sunnah of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and his way and path in acceptance or rejection.
Now, there are a great number of hadiths, most of them in the rigorously authenticated (sahih) collections, showing that many of the prophetic Companions initiated new acts, forms of invocation (dzikir), supplications (duā’), and so on, that the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) had never previously done or ordered to be done. Rather, the Sahabah (Companions) did them because of their inference and conviction that such acts were of the good that Islām and the Prophet of Islām came with and in general terms urged the like of to be done, in accordance with the word of Allāh Most High in Surah al-Hajj: "And do the good, that haply you may succeed" (Qur'an 22:77), and the hadith of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam):
"He who inaugurates a good sunnah in Islām earns the reward of it and all who perform it after him without diminishing their own rewards in the slightest."
Though the original context of the hadith was giving charity, the interpretative principle established by the scholarly consensus (def: Reliance of the Traveller ) of specialists in fundamentals of Sacred Law is that the point of primary texts lies in the generality of their lexical significance, not the specificity of their historical context, without this implying that just anyone may make provisions in the Sacred Law, for Islām is defined by principles and criteria, such that whatever one initiates as a sunnah must be subject to its rules, strictures, and primary textual evidence.
From this investigative point of departure, one may observe that many of the prophetic Companions performed various acts through their own personal reasoning, (ijtihad), and that the sunnah and way of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) was both to accept those that were acts of worship and good deeds conformable with what the Sacred Law had established and not in conflict with it; and to reject those which were otherwise.
This was his sunnah and way, upon which his caliphal successors and Companions proceeded, and from which Islāmic scholars (radiyallāhu`anhum) have established the rule that any new matter must be judged according to the principles and primary texts of Sacred Law: whatever is attested to by the law as being good is acknowledged as good, and whatever is attested to by the law as being a contravention and bad is rejected as a blameworthy innovation (bid’ah). They sometimes term the former a good innovation (bid’ah hasanah) in view of it lexically being termed an innovation, but legally speaking it is not really an innovation but rather an inferable Sunnahhas long as the primary texts of the Sacred Law attest to its being acceptable.
We now turn to the primary textual evidence previously alluded to concerning the acts of the Companions and how the Prophet, (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) responded to them:
(1) Al-Bukhāri and Muslim relate from Abu Hurayrah (radiyallāhu`anhu) that at the fajar solah the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said to Bilal bin Rabab (radiallāhu`anhu):
"Bilal, tell me which of your acts in Islām you are most hopeful about, for I have heard the footfall of your sandals in paradise", and he replied, "I have done nothing I am more hopeful about than the fact that I do not perform ablution at any time of the night or day without praying with that ablution whatever has been destined for me to pray."
Ibnu Hajar Al-‘Asqalani (rahimahullah) says in Fathul-Bari that the hadith shows it is permissible to use personal reasoning (ijtihad) in choosing times for acts of worship, for Bilal reached the conclusions he mentioned by his own inference, and the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) confirmed him therein.
Similar to this is the hadith in Al-Bukhāri about Khubayb (who asked to pray two rak’at before being executed by idolaters in Makkah) who was the first to establish the Sunnah of two rak’at for those who are steadfast in going to their death. These hadiths are explicit evidence that Bilal and Khubayb (radiyallāhu`anhum) used their own personal reasoning (ijtihad) in choosing the times of acts of worship, without any previous command or precedent from the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) other than the general demand to perform the solāt.
(2) Al-Bukhāri and Muslim relate that Rifa'ah ibn Rafi (radiyallāhu`anhu) said, "When we were praying behind the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and he raised his head from ruku’ and said, "Allāh hears whoever praises Him", a man behind him said, "Our Lord, Yours is the praise, abundantly, wholesomely, and blessedly therein." When he rose to leave, the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) asked "who said it", and when the man replied that it was he, the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said, "I saw thirty-odd angels each striving to be the one to write it."
Ibnu Hajar Al-‘Asqalani (rahimahullah) says in his book Fathul-Bari that the hadith indicates the permissibility of initiating new expressions of dzikir in the solāt other than the ones related through hadith texts, as long as they do not contradict those conveyed by the hadith [since the above words were a mere enhancement and addendum to the known, sunnah dzikir].
(3) Al-Bukhāri related from Aishah (radiallāhu`anha) that the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) dispatched a man at the head of a military expedition who recited the Qur'an for his companions at solat, finishing each recital with al-Ikhlas (Qur'an, 112). When they returned, they mentioned this to the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam), who told them, "Ask him why he does this", and when they asked him, the man replied, "Because it describes the All-Merciful, and I love to recite it." The Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said to them, "Tell him Allāh loves him."
In spite of this, we do not know of any scholar who holds that doing the above is recommended, for the acts the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) used to do regularly are superior, though his confirming the like of this illustrates his sunnah regarding his acceptance of various forms of obedience and acts of worship, and shows he did not consider the like of this to be a reprehensible innovation (bid’ah), as do the bigots who vie with each other to be the first to brand acts as innovation and misguidance.
Further, it will be noticed that all the preceding hadiths are about solāt, which is the most important of bodily acts of worship, and of which the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said,"Pray as you have seen me pray", despite which he accepted the above examples of personal reasoning because they did not depart from the form defined by the Lawgiver, for every limit must be observed, while there is latitude in everything besides, as long as it is within the general category of being called for by Sacred Law. This is the sunnah of the Prophet and his way (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and is as clear as can be. Islāmic scholars infer from it that every act for which there is evidence in Sacred Law that it is called for and which does not oppose an unequivocal primary text or entail harmful consequences is not included in the category of reprehensible innovation (bid’ah), but rather is of the sunnah, even if there should exist something whose performance is superior to it.
(4) Al-Bukhari related from Abu Said al-Khudri (radiyallāhu`anhu) that a band of the Companions of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) departed on one of their journeys, alighting at the encampment of some desert Arabs whom they asked to be their hosts, but who refused to have them as guests. The leader of the encampment was stung by a scorpion, and his followers tried everything to cure him, and when all had failed, one said, "If you would approach the group camped near you, one of them might have something". So they came to them and said, "O band of men, our leader has been stung and we have tried everything. Do any of you have something for it?" and one of them replied, "Yes, by Allāh, I recite healing words [ruqyah, def: Reliance of the Traveller p.17] over people, but by Allāh, we asked you to be our hosts and you refused, so I will not recite anything unless you give us a fee". They then agreed upon a herd of sheep, so the man went and began spitting and reciting the Fatihah over the victim until he got up and walked as if he were a camel released from its hobble, nothing the matter with him. They paid the agreed upon fee, which some of the Companions wanted to divide up, but the man who had done the reciting told them, "Do not do so until we reach the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and tell him what has happened, to see what he may order us to do". They came to the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and told him what had occurred, and he said, "How did you know it was of the words which heal? You were right. Divide up the herd and give me a share."
The hadith is explicit that the Companion had no previous knowledge that reciting Al-Fatihah to heal (ruqyah) was countenanced by Sacred Law, but rather did so because of his own personal reasoning (ijtihad), and since it did not contravene anything that had been legislated, the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) confirmed him therein because it was of his sunnah and way to accept and confirm what contained good and did not entail harm, even if it did not proceed from the acts of the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) himself as a definitive precedent.
(5) Al-Bukhāri related from Abu Said al-Khudri (radiyallāhu`anhu) that one man heard another reciting al-Ikhlas (Qur'an 112) over and over again, so when morning came he went to the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and sarcastically mentioned it to him. The Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said, "By Him in whose hand is my soul, it equals one-third of the Qur'ān."Daraqutni recorded another version of this hadith in which the man said, "I have a neighbor who observe solāt at night and does not recite anything but al-Ikhlas." The hadith shows that the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) confirmed the persons restricting himself to this surah while performing solat at night, despite its not being what the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) himself did, for though the Prophet’s practice of reciting from the whole Qur'an was superior, the man’s act was within the general parameters of the sunnah and there was nothing blameworthy about it in any case.
(6) Imam Ahmad and Ibn Hibban related from Abdullah ibn Buraydah that his father said, I entered the masjid with the Prophet (Sallallāhu 'alayhi wasallam), where a man was at prayer, supplicating: “O Allāh , I ask You by the fact that I testify You are Allāh , there is no god but You, the One, the Ultimate, who did not beget and was not begotten, and to whom none is equal”, and the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: "By Him in whose hand is my soul, he has asked Allāh by His greatest name, which if He is asked by it He gives, and if supplicated He answers".It is plain that this supplication came spontaneously from the Companion, and since it conformed to what the Sacred Law calls for, the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) confirmed it with the highest degree of approbation and acceptance, while it is not known that the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) had ever taught it to him (Adilla Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, 119-33).
We are now able to return to the hadith with which I began my talk tonight, in which the Prophet (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said, ". . . Beware of matters newly begun, for every innovation is misguidance". And understand it as expounded by a classic scholar of Islām, Sheikh Muhammad Jurdani, (rahimahullah), who said:
"Beware of matters newly begun", distance yourselves and be wary of matters newly innovated that did not previously exist, i.e. things invented in Islām that contravene the Sacred Law, "for every innovation is misguidance" meaning that every innovation is the opposite of the truth, i.e. falsehood, a hadith that has been related elsewhere as: "for every newly begun matter is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in hell" meaning that everyone who is misguided, whether through himself or by following another, is in hell, the hadith referring to matters that are not good innovations with a basis in Sacred Law. It has been stated (by Izz ibn Abd al-Salam, rahimahullah) that innovations (bid’ah) fall under the five headings of the Sacred Law (n: i.e. the obligatory, unlawful, recommended, offensive, and permissible):
(1) The first category comprises innovations that are obligatory , such as recording the Qur'an and the laws of Islām in writing when it was feared that something might be lost from them; the study of the disciplines of Arabic that are necessary to understand the Qur'ān and sunnah’ such as grammar, word declension, and lexicography; hadith classification to distinguish between genuine and spurious prophetic traditions; and the philosophical refutations of arguments advanced by the Mu'tazilites and the like.
(2) The second category is that of unlawful innovations such as non-Islāmic taxes and levies,giving positions of authority in Sacred Law to those unfit for them, and devoting ones time tolearning the beliefs of heretical sects that contravene the tenets of faith of Ahl al-Sunnah.
(3) The third category consists of recommended innovations such as building hostels and schools of Sacred Law, recording the research of Islāmic schools of legal thought, writing books on beneficial subjects, extensive research into fundamentals and particular applications of Sacred Law, in-depth studies of Arabic linguistics, the reciting of wirids (def: Reliance of the Traveller w20) by those with a Sufi path, and commemorating the birth (mawlid), of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and wearing ones best and rejoicing at it.
(4) The fourth category includes innovations that are offensive, such as embellishing mosques; decorating the Qur'ān and having a backup man (muballigh) loudly repeat the spoken Allāhu Akbar of the imām when the latter's voice is already clearly audible to those who are praying behind him.
(5) The fifth category is that of innovations that are permissible, such as sifting flour, using spoons and having more enjoyable food, drink and housing. (Al Jawahir al-luluiyya fi sharh al-Arbain al-nawawiyya, 220-21).
I will conclude my remarks tonight with a translation of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ghimari, (rahimahullah), who said: In his “Al-Qawaid Al-Kubra”, Izz ibn Abd al-Salam (rahimahullah), classifies innovations (bid’ah), according to their benefit, harm, or indifference, into the five categories of rulings: the obligatory, recommended, unlawful, offensive, and permissible; giving examples of each and mentioning the principles of Sacred Law that verify his classification. His words on the subject display his keen insight and comprehensive knowledge of both the principles of jurisprudence and the human advantages and disadvantages in view of which the Lawgiver has established the rulings of Sacred Law.
Because his classification of innovation (bid’ah) was established on a firm basis in Islāmic jurisprudence and legal principles, it was confirmed by Imam Nawawi, Ibn Hajar Asqalani, and the vast majority of Islāmic scholars, (rahimahumullah), who received his words with acceptance and viewed it obligatory to apply them to the new events and contingencies that occur with the changing times and the peoples who live in them. One may not support the denial of his classification by clinging to the hadith "Every innovation is misguidance", because the only form of innovation that is without exception misguidance is that concerning tenets of faith, like the innovations of the Mutazilites, Qadarites, Murjiites, and so on, that contradicted the beliefs of the early Muslims. This is the innovation of misguidance because it is harmful and devoid of benefit.
As for innovation in works, meaning the occurrence of an act connected with worship or something else that did not exist in the first century of Islām, it must necessarily be judged according to the five categories mentioned by Izz ibn Abd al-Salām (rahimahullah),. To claim that such innovation is misguidance without further qualification is simply not applicable to it, for new things are among the exigencies brought into being by the passage of time and generations, and nothing that is new lacks a ruling of Allāh Most High that is applicable to it, whether explicitly mentioned in primary texts, or inferable from them in some way.
The only reason that Islāmic law can be valid for every time and place and be the consummate and most perfect of all divine laws is because it comprises general methodological principles and universal criteria, together with the ability its scholars have been endowed with to understand its primary texts, the knowledge of types of analogy and parallelism, and the other excellences that characterize it. Were we to rule that every new act that has come into being after the first century of Islām is an innovation of misguidance without considering whether it entails benefit or harm, it would invalidate a large share of the fundamental bases of Sacred Law as well as those rulings established by analogical reasoning, and would narrow and limit the Sacred Laws vast and comprehensive scope. (Adilla Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah, 145-47).
Wa Jazakum Allāhu khayran, wal-hamdu lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
[Via www.masud.co.uk: Nuh Ha Mim Keller on The Re-Formers of Islām Excerpts, The Mas'ud Questions series, 1995]