Thursday, 14 February 2013

Categorisation of Bid'ah: The Distinction between Lexical & Legal Definitions

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from Imam ‘Izz ad-Din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam’s (r.a.) “Categorisation of the Term ‘Bid’ah’ & the Distinction between Its Lexical & Legal Definitions.”

The vastness of the Arabic language has often been compared to the ocean.  As the ocean is rich in its inhabitants of many colours and forms, so too are the words of this Divine language that take on a multitude of colours and forms determined by their linguistic environment.  Much of the words used within the context of the Islamic tradition have multiple meanings.  Words such as ‘sunnah’ for example, mean something specific within the context of the hadits sciences and something separate when used within the context of fiqh, jurisprudence, or uswul al-fiqh, legal methodology.  Furthermore, the same words such as sunnah, bid’ah, fiqh and of course countless other words have separate meanings when used more generally outside of the context of the Islamic sciences.

Thus, understanding definitions properly is essential to a sound understanding of various concepts within the sacred sciences.  This is why many texts in the various Islamic sciences begin by providing a lexical meaning of a term, as commonly used within the Arabic language, before continuing to define a term in the context of the field in which it is used.  Some of the confusion in the modern period regarding the term ‘bid’ah,’ has been in great part due to a lack of understanding this foundational principle.  The word ‘bid’ah’ by itself, does not have a negative connotation unless used in the context of shari’ah, where it would specifically be referring to a bid’ah which is forbidden.  It is only when equipped with this understanding that we are able to comprehend the pious caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab’s (r.a.) praise of the gathering of Muslims for twenty units of tarawih as being a ‘noble bid’ah,’ the Qur’an’s reference to this term when discussing prophecy, and many other similar references to the term within their proper context.  While the study of bid’ah is a lengthy one, on which many treatises have been composed, this short study will briefly focus on the definition of this word from a lexical and legal perspective as well as examine the great scholar, Imam ‘Izz ad-Din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam’s (r.a.) seminal classification of bid’ah into the five categories which have generally been accepted by the majority of scholars of the Islamic tradition.

We must first consider the linguistic definition of bid’ah, al-bid’ah lughatan.  The active form of this word when used as a verb such as ‘one who does bid’ah,’ ‘man bada’ah,’ means one who invents or does something new which was not done previously.  This word is used based on its more common lexical meaning in the Qur’an in the following verses:

To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth; when He Decreeth a matter, He Saith to it, “Be”; and it is. (Surah al-Baqarah:117)

The word ‘badi’’ here, which is also one of the Names of Allah (s.w.t.), is used to indicate that He Created the heavens and the earth before any of them ever existed.

Say: “I am no bringer of new-fangled doctrine among the messengers, nor do I know what will be done with me or with you.  I follow but that which is Revealed to me by inspiration: I am but a Warner open and clear.” (Surah al-Ahqaf:9)

What is meant here, is that the Prophet (s.a.w.) was not the first to come with a Message from Allah (s.w.t.) to humanity but rather he is a messenger among a long line of previous messengers.  It can also be said in Arabic, “ibtada’a fulan bid’ah” which is literally translated as “a person has begun a bid’ah.”  The meaning of this phrase is that a person has started a new way or trend of doing something which had never been done in this way before.  The word ‘badi’’ is also used as a form of praise when describing the uniqueness and greatness of an entity.  It means that a matter or object is so extraordinary in its excellence that it has no comparable equal during its time.  It is also often implied that nothing similar to it in quality has existed before.

The following is Imam ‘Izz ad-Din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam’s (r.a.) categorisation of the term ‘bid’ah’.  Many of the major Muslim scholars have divided ‘bid’ah’’ into categories based on its lexical meaning in the Arabic language.  The following is Imam ‘Izz ad-Din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam’s (r.a.) classification of ‘bid’ah’ into five categories.  There is wajib, obligatory, bid’ah.  This includes the study of grammar that enables a proper understanding of the Words of Allah (s.w.t.), the compilation of the Qur’an into a single volume by Abu Bakr (r.a.), the development of Islamic sciences such as the collection and classification of ahadits, and contesting unsound theological arguments about the Nature of Allah (s.w.t.) through logical reasoning, kalam.  There is mandub, recommended, bid’ah, such as the building of schools and facilities of learning, or the publication of books.  There is mubah, permissible, bid’ah.  This includes expanding the types of food one consumes or the style of clothing one wears.  There is makruh, reprehensible, bid’ah.  This includes extending one’s fasts beyond the regular time of breaking fasts and washing one’s limbs more than the prescribed three times during ritual ablutions.  And finally, there is muharramah, forbidden, bid’ah.  An example of this would be to pray the noon prayer before its time has arrived or following the theological views of the libertarians, qadariyyah, or the anthropomorphists, al-mujassamah.

Thus, the usage of the word, ‘bid’ah’ for what is not impermissible would be an example of the usage of this word within its lexical context.  An example of this is ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab’s (r.a.) saying regarding the gathering of the people to pray twenty rak’ah of tarawih during Ramadhan, “What a noble bid’ah!”  This is because this new practice did not contradict what the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) used to practice but rather reinforced what he was already in agreement with.  The Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) used to pray tarawih with the Muslims many nights and sometimes leave it out of fear of its becoming obligatory upon them.  With the passing of the Prophet (s.a.w.), this was no longer a concern.  Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) said, “A new matter that contradicts the Book, the sunnah, ijma’ of the scholars, or atsar is a bid’ah adh-dhalalah.  And whatever is invented that is good and does not contradict any of these then it is a bid’ah al-mahmudah.”

When used within the context of shari’ah, it is the fifth category of bid’ah that is referenced.  The following is the definition of bid’ah from the perspective of shari’ah: An innovation in the religion that contradicts shari’ah and in it, is intended an exaggeration in worship.  This is the definition used by those who limit the legal definition of bid’ah solely to matters related to worship.  Those who include general actions under the legal definition of bid’ah define it as follows:  A new practice of religion that contradicts shari’ah and through its practice is intended what is intended with the practice of the shari’ah.

The Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Who invents in our affairs something we are not on has rejected.”  He also said, “…the best Speech is the Book of Allah, and the best guidance is path of Muhammad, and the worst of affairs are the new ones, and every innovation is a misguidance.”  It is based on this understanding, that the word bid’ah has often been used in opposition to sunnah.  Hence, it is said that an individual is on the sunnah, ‘ala as-sunnah, to mean that they are doing that which is in harmony with the Prophetic teachings while it is said a person is on bid’ah, ‘ala al- bid’ah if their religious practice is done in a manner that contradicts the Prophetic teachings.

The key phrase in the legal definition of forbidden bid’ah is that the practice “contradicts the shari’ah.”  Performing prophetically prescribed acts of worship like prayer, fasting, variations in supplications, dzikr and so forth. at times which the Prophet (s.a.w.) did not specifically perform or for example reading supplications that were not specifically recited by the Prophet (s.a.w.) are not categorised by scholars as forbidden bid’ah for two important reasons.  First, they are not contradictory to shari’ah.  Secondly, and even more importantly, we have several examples of the companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.) initiating their own habits of worship and supplications without the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) prior recommendation and the same evidence indicates his approval upon later learning of this.  The ahadits collections are abundant with examples of this, such as Bilal al-Habashi’s (r.a.) keeping a habit of praying extra prayers, nafl, immediately after making ablutions, Khubayb’s (r.a.) praying two rak’ah before his execution, the famous companion who replied to the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) supplication in the swalah, “Sami’a Allahu liman Hamidah” with his own words, “Rabbana laka al-Hamd,” or the companion who used to recite Surah al-Ikhlasw in each unit of prayer due to his love for it.  All of these were individual acts of worship that are not contradictory to shari’ah, that were personally initiated by the companions out of their eagerness to do good works, and were later approved of by the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) when he learned of these practices.  This has been in turn considered by scholars as indicating the permissibility of doing so.  Since the examples of these are many and have been outlined in detail in other treatises on the topic of bid’ah, this point will not be delved into further and is only touched upon briefly here as a reminder to the reader.

Finally, the word bid’ah as used within the context of shari’ah does not only refer to actual additions to religious practices but it can also denote abstention from what is required or permissible.  For example, during the lifetime of the Prophet (s.a.w.), one of the companions vowed to make forbidden for himself sleep at night, another vowed to make forbidden for himself eating during the day, and another made a vow to make forbidden upon himself approaching women.  When news of this reached the Prophet (s.a.w.) he said to them, “By Allah, I am the most fearful of Allah and most mindful of Him.  However, I fast and I break the fast, I pray and I rest, and I marry women.  Whoever turns away from my sunnah is not from me.”


  1. SubHaanalLaah! Context is everything.

  2. Salaam! A very useful post. imam Rabbani, q.s., and Huseyn Hilmi Ishik, q.s., also address the difference between useful and blameworthy bid at. I recall reading a discussion where it is said that with mubah actions for which there is no precedence, that the first couple of Muslims who do the useful bid'at can be thought of as doing a makruh act, but if the innovation is accepted by the condenses as beneficial, thence it becomes the useful bid'at. InshaAllah I will find the passage and send it to you.


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