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BID’AH. In modern Islamic religious discourse the meaning of the term bid `ah (lit., “innovation”) can be understood from the saying attributed to the Prophet: “Any manner or way which someone invents within this religion such that that manner or way is not a part of this religion is to be rejected.” The statement of the Qur’an usually quoted in this context further explicates the rationale behind the prohibition: “Today I have perfected your religion [din] for you . . . and I have chosen Islam as your religion” (surah 5.3). Innovation in matters of religion is an implicit statement that religion as revealed to the Prophet was not complete.

A minimal interpretation of bid `ah would restrict it to innovation in religious ritual or belief-since only in these fields is there the sense that one is attempting to “improve on” what God gave the Prophet. The core of the concept is that a practice which has no precedent in the practice of the Prophet or his companions be performed with the intention of gaining religious merit; the anticipation of religious merit makes the innovation reprehensible, for it suggests that there are ways of pleasing God which were not available to the Prophet. As this basic concept is elaborated, more actual practices from the daily lives of Muslims come under the threat of being considered bid`ah, and one finds more disagreement within the modern discourse regarding each elaboration.

Innovation in religious matters includes both modification and invention of ritual and practice. Specifying times, places, or manners of performing religiously prescribed acts can turn an act of worship into an innovation. For example, reciting the Qur’an, gathering together for its recitation, and reciting it in order to ask God to bless a dead person by means of one’s recitation are all acts of worship. But proponents of this first understanding of bid `ah object to the common practice of gathering together forty days after the death of a relative to recite the Qur’an in order to invoke God’s blessings on the deceased. They argue that by joining these acts together one has created an entirely new ritual. Furthermore, if this practice were useful one would find examples of it in the sunnah (practice) of the Prophet and his companions.

Prohibition of “proto-innovation” to avoid potential corruption of religious practice expands the scope of the concept. Participants in a Qur’an-recitation gathering of the type described above might have a clear understanding that no merit is to be gained in the fact of the manner and time of this gathering. But even their participation would be considered bid’ah, since the distinctions they make between the organizational arrangement and the source of the anticipated religious merit might be lost on an observer.

A second interpretation extends the prohibition against innovation beyond strictly religious matters to social practice. Such a broader understanding requires Muslims to conduct ceremonies relating to marriage, death, birth, and the like in the manner in which the Prophet had conducted such ceremonies. The rationale for such an extension of the concept is that din covers one’s way of life in its entirety. To think that we are able to improve on the ways in which the Prophet taught his companions to conduct themselves on social occasions is to question the fact that the religion he was given had been perfected.

To follow the ways of the Prophet in all dealings is an undisputed ideal among Muslims. The distinctive feature of this interpretation of bid `ah is that not to act in conformity with sunnah is not merely to forego performing a meritorious act; rather, it is to sin by committing bid `ah. Those who define bid `ah more narrowly than the proponents of this second interpretation also condemn the failure of Muslims to follow the example of the Prophet in social dealings, but they condemn it on grounds other than it being bid `ah.

A third understanding of bid `ah brings the word close to its literal meaning. Bid’ah is seen as divided into as many legal categories as human actions, and it can thus be obligatory, approved of, frowned on, or forbidden. According to this understanding, disapproval of bid’ah is seen as referring to reprehensible bid’ah only, that is, acts that are disapproved. One of the reasons for this watering down of the concept is found in an explicit saying of the second caliph, `Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 644), who is reported to have approved of an act he saw by saying, “What a good bid’ah this is!”

Another reason for this conception of bid `ah might relate to the difficulty in establishing a distinction between bid `ah and the type of religious reasoning used, for example, in qiyds (analogical argumentation). In the case of analogical reasoning, a jurist is presented a case not covered by an explicit saying of the Qur’an or the Prophet. The jurist attempts to come to a ruling by searching for an appropriate analogy from among the cases actually dealt with in the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet. In formal terms, however, the jurist seems to introduce into religion something which is not apparently present before his ruling.

The distinction between the first definition of bid’ah and the third is primarily one of terminology. In the first definition, the reprehensibility of an act is seen as turning on its being an “addition” to the types of acts of which a life based on sunnah is composed. But this “life based on sunnah” consists of both the explicit practice of the Prophet and things incorporated in it by analogical extension. In this last definition of bid’ah, the domain of permissibility is expanded explicitly by allowing “good (hasanah) bid’ah” a place alongside the practice of the Prophet and by leaving the realm of sun nah narrowly defined. [See also Sunnah.]


Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taymiya’s Struggle Against Popular Religion, with an Annotated Translation of His Kitab iqitida’ as-sirat al-mustaqim mukhalafat ashdb al -jahim. The Hague and Paris, 1976. Ibn Taymiyah is the source for many modern Muslims’ conception of bid `ah. In addition to providing a full translation of Ibn Tay miyah’s work on bid `ah, Memon’s work is useful in placing the issues surrounding bid `ah in the context of everyday life in Muslim society.

Shatibi, Ibrahim ibn Musa al-. Al-T tisam. Beirut, 1988. Because of its organization and its coverage of the issues surrounding bid’ah, no other single Arabic work rivals its discussion of the topic.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bidah/

  • writerPosted On: November 3, 2012
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