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Thursday, December 1, 2011

To Bid’ah or Not To Bid’ah

A Personal Account by Zaineb Sheikh
Coming from a moderately religious family, I had been accustomed to the rites and rituals of Islam. Praying five times a day was a must and fasting in Ramadhan was by every means necessary. Whilst studying for my A-levels, I came across varied opinions of Islam that had not previously been exposed to me. Then came university and with it a number of hot-headed individuals whose contradictory views caused regular disruption. It was strange to see Muslims disagreeing so harshly about certain Islamic issues. One faction would accuse the other of shirk and bid’ah while the other would respond with allegations of severely disrespecting the prophets and the pious.  It was common to hear calls of disbelief and the word ‘Kafir’ or ‘Kufr’ was used liberally by many of those who were involved in these disputes. Having experienced such severity in their views I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable not knowing my stance. There were three options that I felt were presented to me. The first would be to ignore the situation, but in actuality this was not really an option, as I was not one to walk on by a situation like this. The second option would be to adopt one of these views, but how to do this I did not know, as the opinions on both sides were far too extreme. The final option, which made most sense to me, was to enquire, to seek knowledge and discover the truth behind these discrepancies. Like many, my initial instinct was to explore the internet but almost immediately, it was evident that the internet was not a reliable source for correct knowledge. Its flaws were numerous and it would be preposterous to assume that the internet was an authentic means of gaining true Islamic knowledge.
I had only studied two or three months of a Chemistry BSc degree when, without warning, the inquisitive side of me decided it wanted genuine answers. I wanted to know what the differences were, why these differences existed and what the scholarly opinions were. This curiosity combined with my recently acquired vulnerability instigated my BA Islamic Studies degree at the University of Birmingham. Mingling with like-minded sisters often brought my inquisition to light and a prominent topic which was the root of many differences was the concept of bid’ah, innovation, a word used abundantly to make virtuous acts of piety illegitimate. How can this be possible? Why this term is so common and what does it imply? These were just some of the questions arising in my mind. Allah Almighty mentions in the Qur’an, ‘And do not tell a lie which your tongues utter: “This is lawful and that is forbidden,” thus fabricating a lie against Allah. Indeed those who fabricate lies against Allah will (never) be delivered’ (Qur’an 16:116). Surely this verse would alarm destructive tongues and prevent them from proclaiming fatal judgements.
When a layman hears the word bid’ah he will most likely assume some sort of negative implication. This according to the Qur’an, Sunnah and the classical scholars is a huge injustice to the word. Linguistically, bid’ah is that which is created and which has no such example before it. Allah Almighty describes Himself as Badi’ ‘The Creator of the heavens and Earth.’(Qur’an 6:101).[1] As we know, the heavens and the earth had never previously existed and therefore both can be categorised as bid’ah. From this it is evident that we cannot assume all innovations to be improper as is the case with many people that I have come across. Exploring the juristic meaning of the word, scholars have agreed that a bid’ah is ‘Any new deed/action which finds no sources either directly or indirectly in the Qur’an or Sunnah and to consider it a necessary part of religion and include it on that basis.’ It became apparent to me that merely looking up the meaning of the word bid’ah would clarify many related misconceptions.
In continuity with Islamic law, the fundamental rule is that ‘in principle all things are permissible.’ So, if a practice that is not mentioned in the Qur’an nor observed during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his Companions (ra), and due to necessity is brought into existence thereafter, this practice would be scrutinised accordingly. If any part of this new practice contradicts the principles of Islam i.e. Qur’an and Hadith, then undoubtedly it would be considered impermissible, unlawful and a misguidance. Similarly if this additional practice is not seen to contradict the edict of Islam then shunning it would be against the wisdom of the religion and this would be seen as a deviation from the established principles of Shariah in determining the lawful and prohibited in Islam.
So far the concept of bid’ah seems to be quite simple to comprehend. This may lead one to wonder why there is so much discussion and debate surrounding this issue. Well there are several Ahadith where the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has regulated commands relating to innovations. These Ahadith are often misunderstood and after close analysis by the scholars it is clear that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) did not forbid innovations in the way portrayed. In actual fact these Ahadith describe the true sense of the meaning of bid’ah. Before we look at these Ahadith I want to relay some important information related to the different types of Bid’ah, reiterating the fact that this subject is a complex one.
Discussing the topic of bid’ah, Maulana Ahmed Ali Saharanpuri a renowned Deobandi scholar writes in the margin notes of Sahih al Bukhari, ‘Bid’ah refers to that act/practice which is unprecedented and in Islamic law would refer to anything that opposes the Sunnah and in such a case would be considered blameworthy. However, in reality if the practice complies with the Shariah and is commendable then it would be considered a commendable innovation (Hasanah). On the other hand if the practice comes under the category of disliked practices then it would be considered a disliked innovation, (Mustaqbahah) and if the practice was neither of the two categories then it would be considered permissible (Mubah)’.[2] Yet again, this reaffirms the fact that considering every new act to be rejected is severely flawed. Clarification of this point comes from a more detailed view of the types of Bid’ah and their categorisation.
Innovated matters are categorised in to two main types, Bid’ah Hasanah (good innovation) and Bid’ah Sayyi’ah (offensive innovation). Bid’ah Hasanah is further categorised in to three sub-categories, the first of which is Bid’ah Waajibah (necessary innovation). This is a new action which has not been prohibited in the Shariah but omitting it can lead to critical complications in the religion.
Examples of this type of Bid’ah include the addition of vowels in the Qur’an, principles of Qur’anic Tafsir, sciences of Hadith, establishment of Islamic educational institutions etc. There is no doubt that without the afore-mentioned innovations Islam could not be propagated in a way which would maximise its spread. These types of innovated matters have positively assisted the spread of Islam and cannot be left out on this basis. The second type of Bid’ah Hasanah is Bid’ah Mustahabbah (commendable innovation). An innovation classified under this category refers to a matter which is practised for mere reward and for this reason would obviously be a commendable act. To leave a commendable innovation is not a sin, as it is simply a means of gaining reward. Congregational Taraweeh prayer is common in all Muslim communities; however, it came in to existence after the demise of the Holyol Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Practices like these are commendable however non-participation is not a sin.
The final type of Bid’ah Hasanah is Bid’ah Mubahah (permissible innovation). This is an innovation for which there is no reward or punishment. This practice is permissible because it is not against the essence of Islam, even though it does not carry with it any reward. The act of wearing decorative clothes has neither punishment nor reward yet it is still permissible.
There are two types of Bid’ah Sayyi’ah to be considered here. The first of the two types is Bid’ah Muharramah (forbidden innovation). This is an innovation which clearly contradicts the commandments of Islam. A prominent example illustrating Bid’ah Muharramah is the introduction of heretical religious sects such as the Qadiani religion who are the claimants of the emergence of a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). The second type, less serious than the previous, is Bid’ah Makroohah (disliked innovation). This category includes those acts which bring about an abandonment of a Sunnah.
Now that we have seen how the different types of innovations are classified we can move on to the Ahadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).  There are many Ahadith on this subject but due to limitation I will mention only a couple that are used by those who dismiss all innovated acts.
In one Hadith the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Whosoever performs a deed which I have not ordered then it will be rejected.’[3] Here the words ‘a deed’ have been used. These words are commonly translated as meaning ‘any deed’ in which case, any matter for which there is no indication of in Qur’an and Hadith would be negated. If this Hadith ordered any new deed to be rejected then those acts performed by the companions of the Prophet would also be negated. This we know is not the case and there are many examples whereby the companions had innovated new deeds for the overall betterment of Islam. Looking at just one example of this, one of the main innovations to take place almost immediately after the demise of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was the compilation of the Qur’an in the form of a book. No Muslim can even think that the Qur’an as a book would be rejected by Allah.
The second Hadith is narrated by Irbaadh bin Saribah (RA): ‘The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, ‘I advise you to adopt Taqwah and to be obedient to your ruler, even if he be an Ethiopian slave, because whoever among you remains alive after me will witness a lot of dissension, so it is incumbent upon you to follow my Sunnah and the Sunnah of my pious successors (caliphs) who are rightly guided and fear Allah. And if a new matter is introduced into the religion then stay away from that because every new matter is a Bid’ah and every Bid’ah is a misguidance.’[4] Though this Hadith seems to negate every new matter in actuality it is a tool for the scholars who have analysed this Hadith and reported that in actual fact it distinguishes between the types of actions that can truly be considered bid’ah. From earlier examples it is clear that not every innovated matter is a misguidance. So what did the Prophet  mean? In this Hadith the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is conversing with his companions, suggesting that the innovations under discussion are those matters which will take place in their time and immediately after his holy demise. If we take a brief look at the innovations that had been introduced during this time it is clear to see that they were all of a certain type, namely Bid’ah Sayyi’ah. The main innovations that were introduced were the emergence of false prophets, apostasy, certain tribes refusing to pay Zakah and the rise of the Khawarij movement. None of these matters are small and insignificant but on the contrary they are acts which lead the perpetrator outside of the fold of Islam. From this it would be absurd to categorise all types of bid’ah as misguidance. It has now become clear that when the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) referred to an innovation which will be rejected or one which would be misguidance, he was not talking about new acts which the Ummah at large would have minor differences on but rather the acts which would cause apostasy to prevail or mischief to spread.
After studying for three years under some high calibre academics I was shocked to discover that so many of my tutors understood and accepted the reality of the issue of bid’ah. They were not in the least comparable to their hot-headed students who were intent on classing the use of prayer beads (tasbih) as equivalent to the apostates of early Islam. How can it be possible to group pious acts of virtue with those that cause people to become disbelievers? How can the celebration of the Prophet’s (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) birth be comparable to apostasy? How can Tasawwuf be classified as a misguidance when it simply causes closeness to Allah Almighty? In order to fully understand the concept of bid’ah one must have knowledge of its both technical and legal meanings,  as well as where, when and how it is used. Its categories should be studied vigorously and the statements of classical scholars need to be acknowledged. How can individuals, who have very limited knowledge of Islam, let alone knowledge of specific issues, declare virtuous acts as Bid’ah Sayyi’ah and call for total neglect. They claim to be followers of authentic scholars yet are not acquainted with their teachings. They claim to love the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) yet shun his praises. They claim to propagate ‘true’ Islam yet have little knowledge of it. World renowned authorities do not debate on these issues, as the issues are clear cut and straightforward. Today’s society is full of damaging, unqualified individuals who are detaching people from true Islam and from the love of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). It is very important to find the right company who will lead you away from those who ridicule Islam and lead you towards the love of Allah Almighty and His Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
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 [1] Bayan al Mawlid  wal Qiyaam [2] Hashiyah  Bukhari (1:269) [3] Sahih Muslim 77:2 [4] Sunan Abu Dawud (40:4607), Jami ‘at -Tirmidhi (5:2676), Sunan Ibn Majah introduction, chapter on following   Sunnah of Khulafa Rashidin, Sunan Daarimi (1:48, no .95), Mustadrak Hakim (1:95)