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What is Bid’a?

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Among the issues turned by Muslims to be a conflict between themselves is the issue known as innovation in religion (Bid’a). For a long time, there has been big debates between Muslim scholars not only in the understanding of the word Bid’a, but also in the subjects described as innovative. For instance, the famous issue in this debate is the commemorating of the birth of Prophet Muhammad (saw) (Maulid), offering of collective du’ah after the obligatory prayers, Qunut in the Fajr prayer and many others subjected to the debates. In this article I do not want to move in to these issues discussed in the Bid’a debate but rather I want to explain the understanding of Bi’daa itself believing that this could be a reminder to the one with a heart and ears that listens.

Bid’a in Linguistic and Shari’ah Meaning:

This is an Arabic term thus is important to look at it in a linguistic point of view. In the Arabic dictionaries this word has been translated in similar meaning despite expressional difference but all the explanations direct to one meaning. I would like to mention a summarized translation of Bi’da which is like what Abu Hayyan translated in Al-Baharil Muhiit:

البدعة: ما اخترع مما لم يكن موجوداً

Bid’a: is to come up with something was nonexistent.

This linguistic meaning is found in the Noble Qur’an; let us only mention two Ayahs:

بَدِيعُ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلأَرْضِ وَإِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْراً فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ 

Sheikh Abdalla Al-Farisy, translated the word ‘badii’ (بَدِيعُ) a Creator without imitation i.e. a replica. Thus he translated that Ayah as: He (Allah) is the Creator of Heavens and Earth without imitation. In other words, before Allah created the Heavens and Earth they were nonexistent. Therefore, it is He (swt) who created them; no one else did before Him.

In Surah Al-Ahqaf Ayah 9 Allah (swt) says:

 (قُلْ مَا كُنتُ بِدْعًا مِنَ الرُسُلِ)

Say: “I am not the first of the Messengers”. [الأحقاف: 9]

In this Ayah Allah tells His Messenger (saw) to tell the Quraysh people that Prophet Muhammad is not the first messenger to be sent to people but rather many among prophets and messengers were sent before him.

And it came in Lisan al-Arabi the explanation of the word Mubtadii’ المبتدع))

الّذي يأتي أمراً على شبهٍ لم يكن

He who comes with a matter that there wasn’t the like of it there before.

The important thing is that there is no contention among linguistics scholars in translating this term.

If we come to the Shari’ah meaning and this is the most important as there is contention among scholars in explaining Bi’da in Shari’ah. Despite there being explanations that the scholars almost have a consensus to each other as explained by Imam Shaatiiby in his book Al Muwafaqat fii Usul Shariah

طريقة في الدين مخترع تضاهي الشريعة

A way in the Deen innovated that which resemble in the Shari’ah (but which contradict it)

Sheikh Ataa Bin Khalil Abu Rashta explained Bid’a by saying:

البدعة هي مخالفة أمر الشارع الذي وردت له كيفية أداء… وهذا المعنى هو مدلول الحديث: «وَمَنْ عَمِلَ عَمَلًا لَيْسَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْرُنَا فَهُوَ رَدٌّ» [البخاري ومسلم]. فإذا فعل الرسول ﷺ فعلاً يبين فيه كيفية أداء أمر في الكتاب أو السنة ثم أديت أنت ذلك الأمر على خلاف فعل الرسول ﷺ، فتكون قد أتيت ببدعة وهي ضلالة وفيها إثم كبير

“Bidaa is contravening a shari’ah matter in which a method of its practice is shown… and this meaning is what is shown in the Hadith: “And whoever does a deed upon which there is no order from us it is rejected.” Therefore, if it is found that the Messenger (saw) did a shari’ah action in which there is a method of doing it from the Qur’an and Sunnah and then a person does it contrary to how the Messenger (saw) did it i.e. does it through a method contradicting the method of the Messenger (saw) then it will be said of the individual that he has committed a bid’a and will be sinful as he has strayed from the right path.”

From the explanation of what bid’a is. In the shari’ah it means an innovator is any Muslim who executes an Islamic command through a method that contradicts the shari’ah method for it. And here comes the Hadith of the Messenger (saw) = Every bid’a is a stray. And here there is something worth noting that the Hadith speaks about all kinds of bid’a in the shari’ah and not the linguistic meaning.

If we look at the scholars’ understanding of bid’a we see that there exist a big difference in opinion between them in the shari’ah meaning of the word Bid’a and not in the aspect of the linguistic meaning of it. And here I present basic arguments used in the difference of opinion on this matter:

Imam Shafi’s opinion that bid’a is of two kinds: Narrated by Abu Nuai’m in Hilyah from Imam Shafi may Allah’s mercy be upon him.

البدعة بدعتان: بدعة محمودة، وبدعة مذمومة، فما وافق السنة فهو محمود، وما خالف السنة فهو مذموم

Bid’a is of two kinds: praised (Mahmudah) bid’a, and condemned (Madhmumah) bid’a. That which agrees with the Sunnah it is praised, and that which contravenes the Sunnah it is condemned. It is mentioned that the Imam took this opinion from the influence of Umar (ra) understanding

 (نعمت البدعة هذه)

What a good Bid’a this is (the action of congregating Muslims to pray behind one Imam).

And there are numerous big scholars like Imam An-Nawawiy who divided bid’a in about five categories.

Difference in understanding the Hadith of the Messenger (saw):

كل بدعة ضلالة و كل ضلالة في النار

Every Bid’a is a stray and every stray is in the Hell fire

There are some scholars who see that every innovated thing in religion is bid’a. They establish their position based on the linguistic evidence since the term kullu (كل) generalizes every innovated matter which was not done by the Messenger (saw). Others among the scholars are those who said that not every innovated matter is bid’a but rather must be that which contravenes the shari’ah and not by just the mere virtue of not done by the Messenger it becomes a bid’a. Consequently, they said that bid’a is of two kinds good (Hasanah) and awful (Sayiah). They strengthened this opinion of theirs by saying that even though the term kullu generalizes but there came specification (takhsisi) in some of the evidences for instance the saying of (saw)

كل عين زانية

Every eye commits zinaa

Here they said that the term kullu does not include prophets’ and messengers’ eyes as there are Ayahs and Ahadith that indicate their protection from evil including zinaa. They continued saying that if a matter is innovated but does not contravene the shari’ah then that is not bid’a rather it will be called good Sunnah – (Sunnah Hasanah). They strengthen this position with a Hadith narrated by Imam Muslim in his Saheeh that the Messenger (saw) said:

مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً، فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ، كُتِبَ لَهُ مِثْلُ أَجْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا

They said the word sanna here means initiating and not maintaining like what other scholars say. Thus according to the scholars who see that not every innovation is bid’a understand the Hadith as: He who initiates a good Sunnah i.e. a good thing in Islam, and is done after he left, is rewarded with the same reward of the one who does it.

As for those who said that the word sanna here means maintaining will translate the Hadith: He who maintains a good Sunnah i.e. a good thing and people does what he maintained after him he has the same reward like that of he who did it. 

Those are the basic arguments that resulted to the existence of the Bid’a debate. There are a number of issues here that I still feel are not clear to both sides on the issue of Bid’a. And I would like to help clarify them so that this matter could be understood.

First: There are shari’ah commands whose methods of execution have been outlined like Swalah and all its pillars where a person is obliged to pray by a specific method done by the Prophet (saw). Therefore, should a person pray an obligatory prayer and performs three prostrations (Sujood) deliberately instead of two sujood like how the Prophet (saw) used to do in his prayer, then he will be called an innovator (Mubtadi’) and his action will be called bid’a.

Second: There are shari’ah actions to which no specific method of their execution is outlined but only conditions and pillars which must be fulfilled for the actions to be valid in shari’ah. An example is marriage; Muslim men have been emphasized to marry religious women. He (saw) said:

فَاظْفَرْ بِذَاتِ الدِّينِ تَرِبَتْ يَدَاكَ [البخاري]

Choose the religious ones (women) your hands will be saved.

Despite that the Messenger (saw) urged people to marry religious women nevertheless he never outlined a specific method of proposing to a religious woman. Yes, even if the shari’ah has explained the rules of proposal, there is no defined shari’ah procedure of conducting a proposal i.e. how to undertake the process of proposing to a religious woman. For instance, is proposing to a religious woman standing in front of her while reciting for her Ayatul Kursiy then may be taking a step further and recite Surah al-Falaq and Nas and then taking another step while saying Bismillah and eventually raising his right hand and start proposing? No, all this was not outlined as a method of proposing to a religious woman. Consequently, a man who marries a non-religious woman will not be said to him that he has committed a bid’a rather the Hukm Shari’ relating to marrying a non-religious woman will be looked into. As for a man who marries without considering the conditions of marriage then his action is termed as batil, for example marriage without a guardian (walii) in shari’ah is not said to be bid’a but rather it is said to be invalid.

Third: Contravening any shari’ah command whose method of execution was not outlined by the shari’ah is classified in one of the five classes of Hukm Shari’ known by the Usool scholars as Ahkam Takleefi i.e. either doing it will be forbidden (haram) or disliked (Makrooh) and will not be said to be bid’a.

Fouth: Actions done by the Companions (Sahaba) but were not done by the Messenger (saw) but approved of them are not termed in Shari’ah as bid’a. For instance, Bilal’s (ra) action of praying two rakaa every time he completed performing ablution (wudho’). The action of one of the Ansar who was leading people in prayer in Masjid Qubaa of reciting Surah al-Ikhlas in every rakaa then reciting another surah after it. Yes, the Messenger did not do this action but when a complaint was brought to him by the followers (Maamuma) of the mosque he summoned the Imam and asked him why he did that then the Imam replied that I like the Surah then the Messenger (saw) said to him that

(( حبُّك إياها أدخلك الجنةَ ))

Your love for it has entered you in Paradise

This action is not called bid’a since the approval of the Messenger is to show the bounties of Surah al-Ikhlas.

Whoever innovates in this matter of ours (Deen) that which is not part of it (Our Deen) it will be rejected.

Accordingly, it is important to understand that even the scholars who classified bid’a like Imam Shafi, Imam Nawawi and others is not on the shari’ah side but on the linguistic side. This is evidenced from the linguistic composition in the Hadith especially by considering the phrase

كل بدعة

In this Hadith the Messenger (saw) did not bring the word bid’a in a masculine ‘Mudhakar’ form i.e. he did not say كل بدع instead he used the word in a feminine form. Here there is a very important linguistic note to which I feel had there been efforts to understand the Arabic language maybe the issue of Bid’a would not have been a subject of debates. In the rules of Arabic language, a masculine noun has more strength than a feminine one and it is the root. And this is the meaning of the masculine form in grammar which include male and female whereas the feminine form cannot include both genders but only female. To bring the female noun بدعة means not just a mere noun but rather it carries other extra description which is innovation that goes against the shari’ah. Thus Bid’a remains a matter that is innovated with a characteristic of contradicting the shari’ah.

As for the argument from the Hadith used as evidence to categorize bid’a I do not see it as a strong argument. As for the Hadith that says:

«مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً، فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ»

This is a Saheeh Hadith reported by Imam Muslim from Jarir bin Abdillah but according to the subject of the Hadith you will find the word ‘sanna’ carries the meaning of initiating something which is already known in the religion and not initiating a new thing. And this is evident when you trace the Hadith completely:

  جَاءَ نَاسٌ مِنَ الْأَعْرَابِ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللهِ ﷺ عَلَيْهِمِ الصُّوفُ فَرَأَى سُوءَ حَالِهِمْ قَدْ أَصَابَتْهُمْ حَاجَةٌ، فَحَثَّ النَّاسَ عَلَى الصَّدَقَةِ، فَأَبْطَئُوا عَنْهُ حَتَّى رُئِيَ ذَلِكَ فِي وَجْهِهِ. قَالَ: ثُمَّ إِنَّ رَجُلًا مِنَ الْأَنْصَارِ جَاءَ بِصُرَّةٍ مِنْ وَرِقٍ، ثُمَّ جَاءَ آخَرُ، ثُمَّ تَتَابَعُوا حَتَّى عُرِفَ السُّرُورُ فِي وَجْهِهِ، فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ ﷺ: «مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً، فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ، كُتِبَ لَهُ مِثْلُ أَجْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا، وَلَا يَنْقُصُ مِنْ أُجُورِهِمْ شَيْءٌ، وَمَنْ سَنَّ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ سُنَّةً سَيِّئَةً، فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ، كُتِبَ عَلَيْهِ مِثْلُ وِزْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا، وَلَا يَنْقُصُ مِنْ أَوْزَارِهِمْ شَيْءٌ».

People from the Bedouins came to the Messenger (saw) in wool clothes. The Messenger (saw) saw their condition as those who are in need of aid. He urged his companions to give them sadaqah. They were hesitant to give until the Messenger (saw) became angry. Jarir said: Then a man from the Ansar came with money on a piece of cloth then came another one with another piece then the people followed until the Prophet’s (saw) face was full of happiness. The Messenger (saw) said that whoever initiates a good thing in Islam and people emulate him it is written for him the reward of everyone who follows him in that good deed and nothing is reduced from their rewards. And whoever initiates an evil thing and is followed by people behind him he has a burden of sin of everyone who does it and also nothing is reduced from their sins. Therefore, here it is obvious the issue is giving sadaqah which is not a new matter in being emphasized by Islam.

As for the argument that there is specificity (Takhsis) in including the word kullu thus a proof that not every bid’a has been rebuked, likewise this argument would have stood strong if that specificity of bid’a would have a Shari’ evidence of specificity i.e. existence of an evidence specifying certain bid’a not destructive.

It is important to understand that any action that does not contravene Islam is classified as permissible (Mubah) and this class has been explained in detail by the Usool scholars.

In short we are saying for a matter to be termed by the shari’ah as Bid’a it must contain three conditions which are: –

  • It has been fabricated i.e. it is new
  • It has been fabricated in the Shari’ah laws
  • In its fabrication contravenes the Shari’ah laws

The conditions are from the Hadith of the Messenger (saw)

من أحدث في أمرنا هذا ما ليس منه فهو رد

: “Whoever introduces in this matter of ours (Deen) that which is not from it will be rejected.”

Finally, we are saying that according to the Saheeh Ahadith of the Messenger (saw), Bid’a is among the very big sins in Islam. However, it is important to understand that to term issues which have a difference of opinion (ihktilaf) as bid’a is very wrong since those are ijtihad issues thus they give room for people to have a variety of opinions. What is required is to respect any Islamic opinion as long as it was derived from the Islamic sources of Shari’ah and nowhere else.

Shabani Mwalimu

Media Representative of Hizb ut Tahrir in Kenya