Imam ibn Rajab al-Hanbali’s (r.a.) Understanding of Bid’ah

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Imam ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (r.a.) commented on the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) saying, “Beware of newly introduced matters, for every innovation is a straying, in his Jami’ al-‘Ulum wa al-HikamJami’ al-‘Ulum wa al-Hikam is his commentary of Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) al-Arba’in.

He said, it is a warning to the community against following innovated new matters.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) emphasised that with his words, “every innovation is a straying.”  What is meant by innovation are those things which are newly introduced having no source in the shari’ah to prove them.  As for whatever has a source in the shari’ah, thereby proving it, then it is not an innovation in the shari’ah, even though it might linguistically be an innovation.

There is, in Swahih Muslim, from Jabir (r.a.), that the Prophet (s.a.w.) used to say in his khuthbah, “The best discourse is the Book of Allah, and the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad, and the worst of affairs are those which are newly introduced, for every innovation is an error.”  So, his saying, “Every innovation is a straying,” is one of the examples of concise and yet comprehensive speech which omits nothing, and it is one of the tremendous principles of the Diyn, closely resembling, “Whoever introduces into this affair of ours that which is not of it, it is rejected.”

Every person who introduces something and ascribes it to the Diyn without having any source in the Diyn to refer back to, then that is an error, and the Diyn is free of it, whether it is in the articles of iman, deeds or words, outward or inward.  As for those things in the sayings of the right-acting first generations where they regard some innovations as good, that is only with respect to what are innovations in the linguistic sense, but not in the shari’ah.

An example of that is the saying of ‘Umar (r.a.), when he had united people to stand in swalah at-tarawih in Ramadhan behind a single imam in the mosque, and then he came in behind them while they were praying and said, “What an excellent innovation this is!”  It is also narrated that he said, “If this is an innovation, then what an excellent innovation!”

It is narrated that Ubay ibn Ka’b (r.a.) said to him, “This did not use to happen,” and ‘Umar (r.a.) said, “I know, but it is good,” meaning that this action was not done in this way before that time, but it has sources in the shari’ah from which it is derived.  For example, the Prophet (s.a.w.) used to urge people to stand in prayer in Ramadhan, and stimulate people’s desire to do it, and people, in his time, used to stand in prayer in the mosque in different groups and individually, and he prayed with his companions in Ramadhan more than one night, and then stopped doing that, giving as the reason that he feared that it would be made obligatory for them and that they would be incapable of undertaking it, but there was no fear of this that it would be regarded as an obligation after him.

It has also been narrated of him that he used to stand in prayer with his companions in the uneven nights among the last ten.  Another source is that he commanded us to follow the sunnah of the Khulafah who took the right way, and this has become the sunnah of his Khulafah who took the right way since people unanimously agreed about it in the times of ‘Umar (r.a.), ‘Utsman (r.a.) and ‘Ali (k.w.).

Another example of that is the first call to prayer on the Juma’ah which ‘Utsman (r.a.) added, because of people’s need of it, and which ‘Ali (k.w.) affirmed, and which has become the continued practice of the Muslims.  It has been narrated that ibn ‘Umar (r.a.) said, “It is an innovation,” but it is very likely that he meant the same as his father meant about standing for prayer in Ramadhan in jama’ah.

There is similarly, the compilation of the muswhaf, the written copies of the Qur’an, in one book about which Zayd ibn Tsabit (r.a.) was hesitant, saying to Abu Bakr (r.a.) and ‘Umar (r.a.), “How can the two of you do something which the Prophet (s.a.w.) did not do?”  Then he came to realise that it was a matter of benefit, maswlahah, and he agreed to compile it.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) had commanded that Revelation should be written down, and there is no difference in writing it down separately in different places or collectively in one book, and on the contrary, gathering it all together in one is more expedient and useful.

Similar to that is ‘Utsman’s (r.a.) having united the community on one muswhaf copy of the Qur’an, and his ordering the destruction of whatever disagreed with it from fear of the community’s division into groups.  ‘Ali (k.w.) and most of the companions regarded it as a good act, and that was truly a matter of benefit.

Similarly, there is the fight against the people who refused to pay the zakat. ‘Umar (r.a.) and others were hesitant and in doubt about it until Abu Bakr (r.a.) explained to him the source in the shari’ah from which it is derived, and so the people agreed with him about that.

Similarly, there is giving discourses, and we have seen previously the saying of Ghadif ibn al-Harits (r.a.) that it is an innovation, but al-Hasan (r.a.) said, “Discoursing is an innovation, and an excellent innovation.  How many a supplication is answered, need fulfilled, and brother benefitted.”  These people only meant that it was an innovation in the form of gathering people together for it at a specific time, because the Prophet (s.a.w.) did not have a specific time to discourse to his companions other than the regular khuthab during the Juma’ah and ‘Iyd prayers, and otherwise he would only remind them occasionally or when something happened which necessitated that he should remind them.

Then, later, the companions reached a consensus that a specific time should be fixed for it, as we have seen previously that ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) used to remind his people every Thursday.  There is in Swahih al-Bukhari that ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.) said, “Give discourse to people once a week, but if you refuse to do so little then twice, and if you do more, then three times, but do not tire people.”

There is, in the Musnad, that ‘Aishah (r.a.) advised the discoursers of the people of Madina in a similar fashion.  It is narrated that she said to ‘Ubayd ibn ‘Umayr (r.a.), “Give discourse to the people one day, and leave them alone one day; do not tire them.”

It is narrated that ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (r.a.) told the man who gave discourse to do so once every three days.  It is narrated that he said, “Give people some rest and do not make it too heavy for them, and avoid discourse on Saturday and Tuesday.”

Imam Abu Nu’aym (r.a.) narrated, with his chain of transmission, from Shaykh Ibrahim ibn al-Junayd (r.a.) that he said, “I heard ash-Shafi’i saying, ‘There are two types of innovation: praiseworthy and blameworthy innovations.  That which accords with the sunnah is praiseworthy.  That which contradicts the sunnah is blameworthy’”

And he sought to prove it by the saying of ‘Umar (r.a.), “What an excellent innovation it is!”  What Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) meant is that which we have mentioned before, that blameworthy innovation is that which has no source in the shari’ah from which it is derived, and it is unqualified innovation in the shari’ah.

As for praiseworthy innovation, it is that which is in accordance with the sunnah, meaning that which has a source in the sunnah from which it is derived, and it is only an innovation in the linguistic sense rather than in the sense of the shari’ah since it accords with the sunnah.  Other words have been narrated from Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) in explanation of this, that he said, “There are two types of newly introduced matters: that which is introduced which is contrary to the Book and the sunnah, or to a , or something on which there is consensus, then this innovation is an error.  That which is newly introduced of good actions and which does not contradict any of the above, then this newly introduced matter is not blameworthy.”

Many of the matters which were newly introduced and had not previously existed, the people of knowledge disagreed as to whether or not they were good innovations until they referred back to the sunnah.  An example would be writing down ahadits, which ‘Umar (r.a.) and a group of the companions forbade, but for which the majority gave license seeking proof for that from ahadits from the sunnah.  Another example is writing the explanation of the ahadits and of the Qur’an, of which some people among the people of knowledge disapprove and for which many allowed license.

Another example, is the recording of views concerning what is halal and haram and the like, and in going to lengths in discussing behaviour and acts of the hearts, which have not been narrated of any of the companions and followers, and the majority of which Imam Ahmad (r.a.) disapproved.  In these times in which we are so far away from the knowledge’s and sciences of the right-acting first generations, it is called for specifically that we should detail everything of that that has been transmitted from them so that we can distinguish what science and knowledge existed in their time from that which was originated after them, so that the Sunnah can be clearly known from innovation.

It is authentically transmitted that ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) said, “You have got up this morning in the natural condition, and you will introduce matters and matters will be introduced for you.  Whenever you see a newly introduced matter you must take to the original guidance.”  ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) said this in the time of the Khulafah ar-Rashidin.

Imam ibn Mahdi (r.a.) narrated that Imam Malik (r.a.) said, “There were none of these erroneous opinions in the time of the Prophet, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Utsman,” as if Imam Malik (r.a.) was indicating, by erroneous opinions, the divisions that originated in the source matters of the Diyn such as the Khawarij, the Mu’tazilah, the Murjiyyah and the like, of those who spoke declaring some of the Muslims to be kuffar, and regarded it as permissible to shed their blood and seize their property, or thinking that they would be eternally in the Fire, or regarded the elite of this community as deviants, or on the contrary claiming that acts of disobedience do not harm their doers, or that none of the people of tawhid would enter the Fire.

Worse than that is what has been introduced of speaking concerning the acts of Allah (s.w.t such as His Universal and Specific Decree, which those Qadariyyah, proponents of free will, do so, claiming that by that they are purifying Allah (s.w.t.) from the ascription of tyrannical injustice.  Worse than that is that which has been introduced of speaking about the Essence of Allah (s.w.t.) and His Attributes, of those matters about which the Prophet (s.a.w.) his companions and their followers in good actions were silent.  Some people negated and denied a great deal of that which is in the Book and the sunnah about that, and they claimed that they do that in order to purify Allah (s.w.t.) of those things which intellects require Him to be purified.  They claimed that the necessary consequences of that are impossible for Allah (s.w.t.).

There are also people who were not content with establishing Him firmly until they established that which is thought to be inseparable from Him with respect to Created beings.  And on these inseparable items, both in negation and affirmation, the first of this community followed the course of remaining silent about them.  One of the things which was introduced into this community after the age of the companions and the followers was discussion about halal and haram purely from personal opinion, and rejection of a great deal of that which is in the sunnah concerning that because it contradicts thinking and intellectual analogical reasoning.

One of the things which originated after that was discussion of the reality, ‘aqidah, concerning taste, dzawq, and unveiling, kashf, and the claim that the ‘aqidah negates the shari’ah, and that gnosis, ma’rifah, alone is sufficient along with love, and that there is no need for deeds which are a veil, or that only the common people need the shari’ah, all of which is often connected to discussion of the essence and the attributes in a way which is known absolutely to contradict the Book and the sunnah and the consensus of the right-acting first generations of the community, and Allah (s.w.t.) Guides whomever He Wills to a straight path.  And Allah (s.w.t.) and His Messenger (s.a.w.) Know best.


  1. Salaam. Thank you. For the great post.

    I am finding your meaning hard to parse in the sentence below. Is a preposition missing before the second "Him", or is the second "Him" unnecessary?

    "There are also people who were not content with establishing Him firmly until they established firmly by establishing Him that which is thought that it is inseparable from Him with respect to created beings, and on these inseparable items, both in negation and affirmation, the first of this community followed the course of remaining silent about them. "

    1. Wa as-Salaam,

      Thank yo for bringing it to my attention. I have since corrected it and made it easier to read.


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