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Bidʿah

By:
Iftikhar Zaman
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Bidʿah

In modern Islamic religious discourse, the meaning of the term bidʿah (lit., “innovation”) can be understood from the saying attributed to the Prophet: “Any manner or way which someone invents within this religion such that that manner or way is not a part of this religion is to be rejected.” The statement of the Qurʿān usually quoted in this context further explicates the rationale behind the prohibition: “Today I have perfected your religion [dīn] for you … and I have chosen Islam as your religion” (sūrah5.3). Innovation in matters of religion is an implicit statement that religion as revealed to the Prophet was not complete.

A minimal interpretation of bidʿah would restrict it to innovation in religious ritual or belief—because only in these fields is there the sense that one is attempting to “improve on” what God gave the Prophet. The core of the concept is that a practice which has no precedent in the practice of the Prophet or his companions be performed with the intention of gaining religious merit; the anticipation of religious merit makes the innovation reprehensible, for it suggests that there are ways of pleasing God which were not available to the Prophet. As this basic concept is elaborated, more actual practices from the daily lives of Muslims come under the threat of being considered bidʿah, and one finds more disagreement within the modern discourse regarding each elaboration.

Innovation in religious matters includes both modification and invention of ritual and practice. Specifying times, places, or manners of performing religiously prescribed acts can turn an act of worship into an innovation. For example, reciting the Qurʿān, gathering together for its recitation, and reciting it in order to ask God to bless a dead person by means of one's recitation are all acts of worship. But proponents of this first understanding of bidʿah object to the common practice of gathering together forty days after the death of a relative to recite the Qurʿān in order to invoke God's blessings on the deceased. They argue that by joining these acts together one has created an entirely new ritual. Furthermore, if this practice were useful one would find examples of it in the sunnah (practice) of the Prophet and his companions.

Prohibition of “proto-innovation” to avoid potential corruption of religious practice expands the scope of the concept. Participants in a Qurʿān-recitation gathering of the type described here might have a clear understanding that no merit is to be gained in the fact of the manner and time of this gathering. But even their participation would be considered bidʿah, because the distinctions they make between the organizational arrangement and the source of the anticipated religious merit might be lost on an observer.

A second interpretation extends the prohibition against innovation beyond strictly religious matters to social practice. Such a broader understanding requires Muslims to conduct ceremonies relating to marriage, death, birth, and the like in the manner in which the Prophet had conducted such ceremonies. The rationale for such an extension of the concept is that dīn covers oneʾs way of life in its entirety. To think that we are able to improve on the ways in which the Prophet taught his companions to conduct themselves on social occasions is to question the fact that the religion he was given had been perfected.

To follow the ways of the Prophet in all dealings is an undisputed ideal among Muslims. The distinctive feature of this interpretation of bidʿah is that not to act in conformity with sunnah is not merely to forego performing a meritorious act; rather, it is to sin by committing bidʿah. Those who define bidʿah more narrowly than the proponents of this second interpretation also condemn the failure of Muslims to follow the example of the Prophet in social dealings, but they condemn it on grounds other than it being bidʿah.

A third understanding of bidʿah brings the word close to its literal meaning. Bidʿah is seen as divided into as many legal categories as human actions, and it can thus be obligatory, approved of, frowned on, or forbidden. According to this understanding, disapproval of bidʿah is seen as referring to reprehensible bidʿah only, that is, acts that are disapproved. One of the reasons for this watering down of the concept is found in an explicit saying of the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 644), who is reported to have approved of an act he saw by saying, “What a good bidʿah this is!”

Another reason for this conception of bidʿah might relate to the difficulty in establishing a distinction between bidʿah and the type of religious reasoning used, for example, in qiyās (analogical argumentation). In the case of analogical reasoning, a jurist is presented a case not covered by an explicit saying of the Qurʿān or the Prophet. The jurist attempts to come to a ruling by searching for an appropriate analogy from among the cases actually dealt with in the Qurʿān and the sayings of the Prophet. In formal terms, however, the jurist seems to introduce into religion something which is not apparently present before his ruling.

The distinction between the first definition of bidʿah and the third is primarily one of terminology. In the first definition, the reprehensibility of an act is seen as turning on its being an “addition” to the types of acts of which a life based on sunnah is composed. But this “life based on sunnah” consists of both the explicit practice of the Prophet and things incorporated in it by analogical extension. In this last definition of bidʿah, the domain of permissibility is expanded explicitly by allowing “good (ʿasanah) bidʿah” a place alongside the practice of the Prophet and by leaving the realm of sunnah narrowly defined.

See also SUNNAH.

Bibliography

  • Abou El Fadl, Khaled M.And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourse. Lanham, Md.: The University Press of America, Inc., 2001.
  • Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. WahhabiIslam: From Revival and Re- form to Global Jihad. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taymīya's Struggle against Popular Religion, with an Annotated Translation of His Kitāb iqitiḍāʿ aṣ-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm mukhālafat aṣḥāb al-jaḥīm. The Hague and Paris, 1976. Ibn Taymīyah is the source for many modern Muslims’ conception of bidʿah. In addition to providing a full translation of Ibn Taymīyahʾs work on bidʿah, Memonʾs work is useful in placing the issues surrounding bidʿah in the context of everyday life in Muslim society.
  • Shāṭibī, Ibrāhīm ibn Mūsá al-. Al-ʿiʿtiṣām. Beirut, 1988. Because of its organization and its coverage of the issues surrounding bidʿah, no other single Arabic work rivals its discussion of the topic.
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