Innovation in Religion – A Closer Look

In this day and age of throwing terms around that many don’t have a  good handle on the meanings of, it is a requirement that one understands what their speaking about. We live during a time that many Muslims are issuing judgments and declaring rulings left, right and centre, yet not understanding the inner workings of the subject matter their talking about. So I decided to write a bit of a technical article regarding the subject of innovation.

Before getting into this subject, I should make a factual assertion. To seek lifting the difference of opinions in most matters of Islam, which originate from the days of the Companions may God be pleased with them to our current times is to seek the unattainable. Therefore, the Muslim should not be overly concerned and trouble him or herself with differences that have been around from the very beginning until now. However, what should be sought, if one is indeed attempting to understand, is that which is weightier and sounder according to the majority of scholars, depending on the matter at hand.

The word “innovation” (bid’a – بدعة) is an Arabic term referring to anything that is new and not familiar from the past. God Almighty says in Chapter 46, Verse 9 of the Quran:

 قُلۡ مَا كُنتُ بِدۡعً۬ا مِّنَ ٱلرُّسُلِ وَمَآ أَدۡرِى مَا يُفۡعَلُ بِى وَلَا بِكُمۡ‌ۖ إِنۡ أَتَّبِعُ إِلَّا مَا يُوحَىٰٓ إِلَىَّ وَمَآ أَنَا۟ إِلَّا نَذِيرٌ۬ مُّبِينٌ۬ 

Say: I am not the first of the Messengers and I don not know what will be done with me or with you

What the above verse means is that the Prophet peace be upon him did not come with a new creed. Rather, he was just confirming the same message delivered by the Prophets who preceded him.

As I’ve come across it in my studies, the use of the term “innovation” during the Prophetic era was for anything new whether it was acceptable or not. However, from the Islamic ruling point of view, as according to the narration from Abi Tha’laba Al Khashni and some of the narrations of Ibn Abbas may God be pleased with both of them, that the Prophet peace be upon him used to always mention in his sermons that every innovation is a misguidance.

To put the definition simply according to the Shariah, what the Prophet peace be upon him was referring to is all that stands against the Prophetic Tradition (Sunnah).

From a historical perspective, the very first innovation was the armed revolt against the rightly-guided Caliphs as the Kharijites did when they killed Othman Bin Affan may God be pleased with him, and then killed Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib may God be pleased with him. Just a side note, this is not the same thing as what is taking place in the Middle East, but that’s another topic of discussion.

The definition given by Imam Ash’Shatibi may God have mercy on him was that an innovation is:

الطريقة في الدين التي لم ترد في السنة ويراد بها المبالغة في العبادة

A practice in the religion that did not come in the Tradition with the purpose to exaggerate in the acts of worship

The Imam did exclude worldly transactions implicitly in his definition, as well as explicitly in his text Al I’tsam (الاعتصام), which you can review if you’re looking for more details.

It should be pointed out here that for something to be declared an innovation, it really goes back to the intention behind it. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him said about innovation:

Whoever wears a robe that is a particular color intending with it to get closer to God has innovated in the religion

Saying that innovation opposes the Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him prompts one to make an inquiry into what can be defined as the Tradition. It turns out that Imam Ash’Shawokani divided the actions of the Prophet peace upon him into 7 types:

  1. What he peace be upon him did as a religious act and therefore is required to be followed
  2. What he peace be upon him did as part of his regular human character and actions such as sleeping and eating and drinking and the like. This is not considered an act of worship in itself for it is how he peace be upon him was created by God. Emulating the Prophet peace be upon him in these actions would be out of love for him and depends on the environment one lives in
  3. What oscillated between a religious act and a character act of the Prophet peace be upon him. For example, the light nap on his right side that he peace be upon him used to take after the two rak’ats before Fajr, and the sitting after finishing the obligatory prayers. The majority of scholars went to the opinion that these were matters of character of the Prophet peace be upon him. However, the Shafi’i scholars went to the opinion that these were closer to being acts of worship
  4. What he peace be upon him did as one of his duties such as leading the prayers, judging between people, and leading the army, etc.
  5. What he peace be upon him did as punishment for some people due to transgressions of the law
  6. What he peace be upon him awaited until Revelation came
  7. What the evidence has indicated was specific for him peace be upon him and not for others, and this is divided into 3 categories:
    1. What has been indicated to be obligatory for the Prophet peace be upon him, but recommended for the rest of Muslims, such as brushing the teeth (siwak), praying during the night (qiyam), and praying the early morning prayer (Duha).
    2. What has been indicated to be prohibited for the Prophet peace be upon him and discouraged for the rest of Muslims, such as wearing dirty clothes, and eating while leaning on something
    3. What has been indicated to be obligatory or permissible for the Prophet peace be upon him and prohibited for the rest of Muslims, such as being married to more than 4 wives at once

This extensive breakdown of the actions of the Prophet peace be upon him by Imam Ash’Shawokani brings the approach towards the Prophetic Tradition into perspective. Once it is determined that a particular act is in fact intended for worship, and has been qualified as an innovation, the “innovation” qualification is categorized into two subcategories:

An Authentic Innovation (Bid’a Haqeeqiyya – بدعة حقيقية)– this is one that has been invented without any basis in the religion with the purpose of completing the religion with something that one sees as missing from it. In doing so the individual coming up with such an innovation would be denying the Verse where God says:

ٱلۡيَوۡمَ أَكۡمَلۡتُ لَكُمۡ دِينَكُمۡ وَأَتۡمَمۡتُ عَلَيۡكُمۡ نِعۡمَتِى وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ ٱلۡإِسۡلَـٰمَ دِينً۬ا‌ۚ

Today I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion

An Additional Innovation (Bid’a Iddhafiyya – بدعة اضافية)– this is one where there is a basis for the act of worship. However, the general proofs have not dictated this act of worship to be performed in this invented manner or at that time. For example, praying voluntary prayers is something that has come down in the Prophetic Tradition. But for one to consistently pray after the Asr prayer 4 rak’ats as a voluntary act, or for one to repeat a certain invocation or praise of God in a certain formula, would be something innovated, albeit has a basis that it originated from even though not in the specific formulation the individual is performing conducting the act.

Imam Ash’Shatibi may God have mercy on him and many of the scholars include the Additional Innovation in the general statement of the Prophet peace be upon that every innovation is a misguidance. However, Imam Al Iz Ibn Abdus’Salam and Imam Al Qarafi may God have mercy on them, as well as others do not include it because it has been authentically transmitted that the Prophet peace be upon him has approved actions of this sort. For example, the Ansari companion who started with the new more elaborate hamd (ربنا ولك الحمد حمدا كثيرا طيبا مباركا الخ) after raising from ruku’ in the prayer. Some scholars have objected to using this as a proof by saying that this was done while the Prophet peace upon him was alive when he could approve such an act and can’t be generalized. The response back against this objection was that the Prophet peace be upon was teaching the Muslims that the principle of doing something new that has a sound basis in the religion is accepted. So the matter has a difference in opinion; the Authentic Innovation is rejected by all the scholars, whereas the Additional Innovation is differed upon.

Just a note here, when it comes to the approval of the Prophet peace upon him, it was of two types. Either he approved it verbally and commended the action performed, or he approved it silently, which is a different type of Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him – Al Sunnah Al Iqrariya (السنة الاقرارية).

There is a saying that is incorrectly repeated by many Muslims nowadays, which is that “innovation is worse than sin”. The incorrectness of the statement stems from the fact that innovation is one of the categories under the general heading of “Sin”. The statement is incorrectly used due to a misunderstanding of what Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him meant when he made it, which is that an innovation that takes one out of the folds of Islam is worse than sin. This makes sense, because the innovation that causes one to be declared a non-Muslim is definitely worse than a general sin, which doesn’t take one out of Islam.

What about the statement from the pious predecessors that the innovator has no repentance?

This was a statement made by Abu Umar Ash’Shaybani and when he made it, it was based on his personal experience of innovators who generally are not guided by God to repent from their innovation. This is understandable given the fact that the innovator falsely believes that he is doing something pleasing to God, when in fact he is not. However, it should be pointed out that this statement does not refer to matters where there is a difference in opinion among the scholars. Just because some have deemed a matter to be an innovation, it does not negate the opinion of those who have not deemed it so. So one should be very careful not to judge others.

I should mention that some attempt to utilize the categorization of innovation into a good innovation or a bad innovation, while others have tried going with the categorization of Imam Al Iz Ibn Abdus’Salam of innovation into 5 types; obligatory, recommended, permissible, discouraged, and prohibited. These categorizations are valid only from a linguistic point of view. But no one can ever say that something that has been deemed an Authentic Innovation to have anything good in it.

A final issue is in regards to how some Muslims deem it impermissible to sit and talk with innovators. The first question that needs to be answered is whether the innovation is differed upon or not. If it’s unanimously agreed upon and the person can be declared Islamically to be an innovator, then those who are feared to be affected should avoid this individual. However, it’s an obligation for the one who is able to sit with the innovator to remind them and establish the proof against them. The Quran itself is filled with sitting with non-believers to establish the proofs and to tender their hearts, so how can one not extend this type of treatment to a fellow believer who happens to be committing a sin. Furthermore, abandoning a Muslim is in itself impermissible if it goes beyond 3 days.

This article was more on the technical and dry side, but necessary because the approach to the Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him in Islam needs to be a knowledgeable one. Some Muslims are using the term “innovation” more freely than the term allows for in the Shariah, simply because they’re unaware of what the scholars have said about the term. Rather than a superficial following of what one hears from others that have not investigated the matter, I hope what I’ve written here brings some things to light for those who have not been exposed to the longer texts dealing with this matter. I avoided talking about the obvious examples that come to one’s mind when the subject of “innovation” is addressed, such as the celebration of the birth of the Prophet peace be upon him, because that would require a separate article – something that I may write about in the future if God wills it.

That and God knows best.

2 thoughts on “Innovation in Religion – A Closer Look

  1. Assalaamu alaykum. I enjoyed the article very much, thank you for posting.
    I would like to ask about the categorisation of bidah. You mention that they are only valid linguistically. What do you mean? Could you expand?

    • Wa’alykoum Assalam. To give you a quick example of how linguistically this categorization is used, we can look at what Umar Ibn Al Khattab may God be pleased with him said when he started the Taraweeh prayers during Ramadan: نعم البدعة هذه, which means what an excellent innovation this is. Although he called it an innovation, he did because they weren’t doing it in Medina. However, the Prophet peace be upon him did perform these prayers a couple of nights during Ramadan and stopped out of fear of it becoming an obligation. After his passing peace be upon him, Shariah legislation from revelation was no longer feared and so it was no problem for Umar may God be pleased with him to start Taraweeh. Overall, when the scholars were categorizing innovation linguistically, they were speaking about “innovated” matters that have a sound basis in the Shariah. If the basis is not sound, then it cannot be categorized as anything but a misguidance. Keep in mind here that this is where the difference in opinion exists. For example, those advocating the celebration of the birth of the Prophet peace be upon him are using certain Hadiths as proof for a basis. Those objecting and calling it a baseless innovation are rejecting the use of such Hadiths as basis for this celebration, because they don’t agree with the overall premise behind such a use. Inshallah I’ll address this issue in a future article.

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