Religiously, bid‘ah has been defined by the scholars with slightly varying expressions, all of which revolve around the idea expressed by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali: الْمُرَاد بِالْبِدْعَةُ: مَا أُحْدِثَ مِمّا لَا أَصْلَ لَهُ فِي ِالشَّرِيْعَةِ يَدُلُّ عَلَيْه – ‘What is meant by bid‘ah is: That which is newly-introduced, having no basis in the Sacred Law to substantiate it.’1 Although the definitions of bid‘ah given by the classical scholars vary in terms of how they articulate it (something I hope to discuss in a future post), they don’t differ in terms of its essential meaning: that which has no basis in the shari‘ah – neither in the Qur’an, the Sunnah, scholarly consensus (ijma‘), or analogy (qiyas).
In a similar vein to the above, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ْوَاَمَّا الْبِدْعَةُ الشَّرْعِيَّةُ فَمَا لَم يَدُلُّ عَلَيْهِ دَلِيْل شرعي – ‘As for bid‘ah in the religious sense, it is whatever is not proven by a shari‘ah proof.’2
Now Ibn Taymiyyah’s view on bid‘ah, or [reprehensible] religious innovation is rooted, not just in an act not having a basis in the shari‘ah, but also in it not having a precedent in the practice or ‘aml of the salaf. So he says about performing optional prayers during the 15th night of Sha‘ban (not to be confused with the innovated prayer of Sha‘ban, called salat al-alfiyyah – “the Prayer of One-Thousand Quls”):
‘Hadiths and salaf-reports about the virtues of the middle night [of Sha‘ban] have been related. It is also reported about a group of the salaf that they would pray during the night. Thus the prayer of someone praying individually during the night has a precedent with some of the salaf, and therefore stands as a proof for it. So it cannot be objected to.’3
The same principle applies to using dhikr beads (subhah). Historically, al-Shawkani said: ‘It is not related from any of the salaf, or the khalaf, that they forbade the permissibility of dhikr beads. Rather, many of them would use it to count upon and did not view it as being disliked (makruh).’4 Given the basis for it in the ‘aml of some of the salaf, Ibn Taymiyyah unsurprisingly said: ‘As for counting on a string of beads or something similar, there were some who held it as disliked and others who did not. If the intention in doing so is sound, then it is something good and not disliked.’5
Then there’s reciting the Qur’an with the intention of transferring, or gifting, its reward to the deceased (isal al-thawab). The very mention of it will often incense some people and make them extremely uppity. Yet Ibn al-Qayyim tells us this historical reality: ‘Scholars have differed about bodily acts of worship like fasting, prayer, reciting the Qur’an and dhikr. The opinion of Ahmad and the majority of the salaf is that their benefits do indeed reach the deceased.6 Again, we read from Ibn Taymiyyah: ‘As for the reward of bodily acts of worship reaching [the deceased], like recitation [of the Qur’an], prayer or fasting, then the view of Ahmad, Abu Hanifah, and a group of the companions of Malik and al-Shafi‘i is that it [the reward] does reach them. The opinion of most of the companions of Malik and al-Shafi‘i was that it doesn’t reach them; and Allah knows best.’7 In other words, given the legitimate difference among the salaf, the act cannot be objected to.
It’s along these very same lines why he doesn’t allow celebrating the yearly mawlid/milad of the Prophet ﷺ, since it lacks a practical precedence from the salaf. Thus he wrote:
‘Such is also the case with the practice which some people have newly-introduced, either because of imitation of the Christians in their observance of Christmas, or out of love and reverence for the Prophet ﷺ – and Allah will reward them for their love and effort, not for their bid‘ah – which is the annual celebration of the Prophet’s birthday ﷺ: even with the difference of opinion over his actual date of birth. The salaf never did such a thing, even though there was a positive benefit in doing so and there was nothing to prevent them from actualising it. If this practice had been good, either entirely or preponderantly, then the salaf would have preceded us to it; may Allah be pleased with them. What with their greater love and reverence for the Prophet ﷺ and their greater zeal for doing good.’8
Imam Ibn Taymiyyah lays down this golden principle to help determine wether something newly-invented constitutes a blameworthy innovation or not; and it can be formulated as such: Any act of worship not done in the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ nor in the age of the salaf, the [Pious] Predecessors, is an innovation; a bid‘ah – on condition that the need for that actual act was present in those times and there was nothing preventing them from carrying out the act. Here is what he wrote:
‘The rule here, and Allah knows best, can be formulated thus: People do not originate [i.e. innovate] a thing unless they consider it beneficial. If they believed it to be harmful they would not originate it, for neither reason nor faith call upon to do so. Whatever appears to Muslims as beneficial must be investigated as to the need that necessitates it. If the need warranting it arose after the Prophet ﷺ and was left open by him without any omission on his part, then it is permissible to originate what the need warrent’s. The same is the case if the need for originating it was present during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ but which he abandoned in view of an impediment which now, after his death, has been lifted.
‘As for what is originated without a need warranting it, or what does warrent it are human transgressions, then the innovation is not permissible. Also, any matter which may have been of necessary benefit in the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ but which was not acted upon by him, is simply not a benefit.’9
Examples of religious acts that were originated after the Prophet’s time, because the need to do so only arose after his death ﷺ include: compiling the Qur’an into a single codex; codifying the laws of Islam for fear something might get lost from them; classification of hadiths to distinguish between sound and spurious reports; and studying the disciplines of Arabic that are necessary to understand the Qur’an and Sunnah, such as grammar and morphology.
An example of an act, the need for which was present in the Prophet’s time ﷺ but which he left because of some impediment, is the praying of tarawih in congregation. He left off doing so for fear it would be made compulsory on his ummah. After his death, however, that concern was no longer there.
An example of an act, the apparent need for which was present in the prophetic era, yet neither the Prophet ﷺ nor any of the early Muslims initiated it, is the case of the adhan for the two ‘Eid prayers. That they never initiated such a practice, even though there seemed to be a positive benefit in doing so, means that such is not part of the religion, and so to initiate the act will constitute a bid‘ah. Such is also the case with the mawlid, the yearly celebration of our Prophet’s birthday ﷺ; as per this Taymiyyan principle.
And Allah knows best.
1. Jami‘ al-Ulum al-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:127.
2. Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Maktabah Ishbiliya, 1998), 2:95.
3. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 23:132.
4. Nayl al-Awtar (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2000), 2:673.
5. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 22:506; where he then goes on to rebuke those who use them to make a show of their piety and act ostentatiously.
6. Kitab al-Ruh (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Taymiyyah, 1992), 159.
7. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 24:324.
8. Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, 2:123.
9. ibid., 2:100-101.