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What is Bid'ah?

The root of the word bid’ah (بدعة‎‎) in Arabic means initiating something without any precedent. For example, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) says:

“The Originator of the heavens and the earth…” [al-Baqarah 2:117]

In the terminology of shariah, bid’ah means something that has been introduced into the religion of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) that has no general or specific basis to support it, i.e. there is no evidence from the Quran or Sunnah to support it. Unlike other religions, Islam is based upon the principle that its tenents and any form of worship can only be based upon what Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) has revealed in the Quran or was informed to us by His Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم) in his Sunnah, so it is not possible, based upon good intentions or opinions, to worship Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) in a way that has not been legislated in Islam. Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) completed the religion of Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed (صلى الله عليه و سلم) with the revelation:

"... This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My Favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion..." [Quran: Surah al Maidah 5: Ayah 3]

As Iman Malik (رحمه الله) said: "He who innovates an innovation in Islam regarding it as something good, has claimed that Muhammad has betrayed his trust to deliver the message as Allah says, "This day I have perfected for you your religion." And whatsoever was not part of the religion then, is not part of the religion today." [Al-I'tisam] He also said, "How evil are the people of innovation, we do not give them salaam." [Al-Ibanah of Ibn Battah (d. 387H), no. 441]

In relation to the matter of innovation, the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, "I warn you of the newly invented-matters (in the religion), and every newly-invented matter is an innovation, and every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hellfire." [An-Nisa'i].

He also used to say at the beginning of his lectures, " ... and the best speech is the speech of Allah, and the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, and the worst of all affairs are the newly-invented matters (in the religion)." [Muslim].

The Prophet of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “Whoever innovates something in this matter of ours [i.e., Islam] that is not a part of it, will have it rejected.” [Bukhari, 2550; Muslim, 1718]. According to a report narrated by Muslim: “Whoever does any action that is not in accordance with this matter of ours (i.e., Islam) will have it rejected.”

Example of Innovation: the innovated adhkaar (dhikr) such as saying the name of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) on its own (“Allah…Allah… Allah”) or the pronoun (“Hu… Hu… Hu…”, meaning “He… He… He…”). This is a new thing that has been innovated in the religion, intended as worship of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎), but there is no evidence for this, either specific or general… so it is bid’ah.

Shaykh Muhammad ibn Uthaymeen (رحمه الله) said: According to shariah, the definition od bid'ah is:

  • Worshipping Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) in ways that Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) has not prescribed. 
    This definition is taken from the verse: “Or have they partners with Allah (false gods) who have instituted for them a religion which Allah has not ordained?” [Quran: Surah al-Shooraa 42: Ayah 21]
  • Worshipping Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) in ways that are not those of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) or his rightly guided successors (al-khulafaa’ al-raashidoon).
    This definition is take from the hadeeth: the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: "Adhere to my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the rightly guided Khulafa', bite on to it with your molar teeth and beware of newly invented matters, for verily every innovation (bid'ah) is a going astray." [Ahmad, Abu Dawud, at-Tirmidhi].

So everyone who worships Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) in a manner that Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) has not prescribed or in a manner that is not in accordance with the way of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) or his rightly-guided successors (al-khulafa’ al-raashidoon), is an innovator, whether that innovated worship has to do with the names and attributes of Allah, or to do with His rulings and laws.

With regard to ordinary matters of habit and custom, these are not called bid’ah (innovation) in Islam, even though they may be described as such in linguistic terms. But they are not innovations in the religious sense, and these are not the things that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was warning us against.

And there is no such thing in Islam as bid’ah hasanah (good innovation).” [Majmoo’ Fataawa Ibn ‘Uthaymeen, vol. 2, p. 291].

The Two Types of Bid'ah

It should be noted that differing from the way of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and falling into bid‘ah may mean one of two things:

  • (i) al-bid‘ah al-haqeeqah: al-bid'ah al-haqeeqah means a real innovation, bid'ah. It is the introduction of an act of worship for which there is no foundation in Islam, such as touching graves and seeking help from their occupants, or taking the birthday of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) as an Eid (festival). This type of bid'ah has no origin in Islam, and there is no basis for it within the Quran or the Sunnah, in any form whatsoever. 
  • (ii) al-bid‘ah al-idaafiyyah: This is the innovation, bid'ah, by addition. In this type of bid'ah, there is some basis for the particular act of worship, so the act itself may be found within the Sunnah, however, the innovation arises in the way the act is done. The innovation would be due to doing the act of worship contrary to the Sunnah by, for example, defining a certain time or place for it, or repeating it a certain number of times, or the manner in which it is to be done or the reason for which it is to be done. Such an action is not bid‘ah unless it is done regularly and repeatedly. If it is done only once or twice without adhering to it, then it is not bid‘ah, for example, if people decide to pray qiyaam (night prayer) in congregation (jamaa‘ah) on an occasion or two, and not as part of Taraweeh in Ramadan. However, once they prescribe it upon themselves to do at a certain time or place, on a regular basis then it becomes a bid‘ah.
    Concerning this 'innovation by addition' ash-Shatibi (رحمه الله) said: The word bid‘ah refers to an invented way of doing something in Islam that is similar to what is prescribed, but may involve going to extremes in it, or in a manner not prescribed, such as reciting dhikr (remembrance of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎)) 10000 times or doing it together in unison with others, and so on.
    It also includes adhering to specific acts of worship at specific times that were not defined as such in shariah (Islamic law), such as always fasting on the fifteenth of Shaban (an-nusf min Shaban) and spending that night in prayer (qiyam). [al-I‘tisam, 1/37-39]. Adhering to a thing means doing it regularly and repeatedly and not just one off or now and again.

Examples from the Salaf and Innovations

‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood (رضي الله عنه‎)

report narrated from ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood (رضي الله عنه‎) by al-Daarimi in his Sunan, according to which Abu Moosa al-Ash’ari said to ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood: “O Abu ‘Abd al-Rahmaan, I have just seen in the mosque something new that I was not sure about, but I think I have not seen anything but something good, praise be to Allaah.”

He (‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood) said, “What was it?”

He (Abu Moosa al-Ash’ari) said, “You will see it tomorrow.” He said, “I saw some people in the mosque sitting in circles waiting for the prayer. In every circle there was a man and in their hands were pebbles. He would say, ‘Say Allaahu akbar one hundred times,’ so they would say Allaahu akbar (takbeer) one hundred times. Then he would say, ‘Say Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah (tahleel) one hundred times, so they would say Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah one hundred times. Then he would say, ‘Say Subhaan Allaah (tasbeeh) one hundred times,’ and they would say Subhaan Allaah one hundred times.”

He (‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood) said, “What did you say to them?”

He (Abu Moosa al-Ash’ari) said, “I did not say anything to them. I was waiting for your opinion.”

He (‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood) said, “Why did you not tell them to count their bad deeds and promise them that none of their good deeds would be lost?’ Then he went away and we went with him, until he came to one of those circles. He (‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood) stood over them and said, “What is this that I see you doing?”

They said, “O Abu ‘Abd al-Rahmaan, these are pebbles with which we count the takbeer, tahleel and tasbeeh.”

He (‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood) said, “Count your bad deeds, for I promise you that nothing of your good deeds will be lost. Woe to you, O ummah of Muhammad, how soon you have drifted into the way of doom even though the companions of your Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) are still alive amongst you, and his garments and the vessels he used are still not worn out or broken. By the One in Whose hand is my soul, either you are following a way that is more guided than the way of Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم), or you are starting a way that is the way of misguidance.”

They said, “By Allaah, O Abu ‘Abd al-Rahmaan, we did not intend anything but good.”

He (‘Abd-Allaah ibn Mas’ood) said, “How many of those who intend good never attain it.”

So the question arises for those who would innovate, commit bid'ah, do you think that you have discovered something good that was not known to the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) or his companions?

Sa’eed ibn al-Musayyib

It is narrated from Sa’eed ibn al-Musayyib (رحمه الله) a Taabi’i (student of a companion of Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم)). He saw a man praying more than two rak’ahs after dawn had come (i.e., Fajr), and he told him not to do that. The man said, “O Abu Muhammad, will Allah punish me for praying?!”

He said, “No, but He will punish you for going against the Sunnah.”

Imam Malik

A man came to Imam Malik (رحمه الله). and asked: “O Abu ‘Abd-Allaah, from where should I enter ihraam?”

He said, “From Dhu’l-Hulayfah, from where the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) entered ihraam.”

He (the man) said, “I want to enter ihraam from the Mosque, from near the grave (meaning the grave of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم)).”

He (Imam Malik (رحمه الله)) said, “Do not do that, for I fear fitnah (trial, affliction) for you.”

He (the man) said, “What fitnah is that? It is just a few miles I am adding.”

He (Imam Malik (رحمه الله)) said, “What fitnah is greater than your thinking that you have found something good that the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) failed to do?! I heard that Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) says :

‘And let those who oppose the Messenger’s (Muhammad’s) commandment (i.e. his Sunnah legal ways, orders, acts of worship, statements) (among the sects) beware, lest some Fitnah (disbelief, trials, afflictions, earthquakes, killing, overpowered by a tyrant) should befall them or a painful torment be inflicted on them’ [Quran: Surah al-Noor 24: Ayah 63].”