The Sunni Definition
of Bid`a
As Either Good or Bad
GF Haddad - Shawwâl 1423


I. Al-Shâfi`î's Definition
II. Ahl al-Sunna's Division
Al-Bayhaqî comment
Al-Ghazzâlî's Definition
Ibn al-`Arabî al-M's Definition
Ibn H.azm's Definition
Ibn al-Jawzî's Definition
Ibn al-Athîr explanation
Ibn `Abd al-Salâm's Final Classification
Al-Nawawî's Endorsement
Ibn H.ajar's Endorsement
Agreement of the Schools
This article is in two parts:

I. Al-Shâfi`î's definition of bid`a as either good or bad;
II. The division of bid`a into good and bad among Ahl al-Sunna and others.

I. Al-Shâfi`î's Definition of bid`a
as Either “Good” or “Bad”

A major contribution of Imâm al-Shâfi`î (ra) in the Foundations of Jurisprudence (us.ûl al-fiqh) is his division of innovation (al-bid`a) and innovated matters (al-muh.dathât) into “good” and “bad” depending on their conformity or non-conformity to the guidelines of the Religion. This is authentically narrated from al-Shâfi`î from two of his most prestigious students in the latter period of his life, the Egyptian h.adîth Masters H.armala ibn Yah.yâ al-Tujaybî and al-Rabî` ibn Sulaymân al-Murâdî:

H.armala said, “I heard al-Shâfi`î (ra) say:

'Innovation is two types (al-bid`atu bid`atân):
approved innovation (bid`a mah.mûda) and disapproved innovation (bid`a madhmûma). Whatever conforms to the Sunna is approved (mah.mûd) and whatever opposes it is abominable (madhmûm).'

He used as his proof the statement of `Umar ibn al-Khat.t.âb (ra) about the [congregational] supererogatory night prayers in the month of Ramad.ân: “What a fine innovation this is!”[1] This shows that al-Shâfi`î never interpreted `Umar's words figuratively the way the "Salafi" over-interpreters (mu`attila) do.

Al-Rabî` said, “Al-Shâfi`î said to us:
'Innovated matters are of two kinds (al-muh.dathâtu min al-umûri d.arbân):
one is an innovation that contravenes (mâ uh.ditha yukhâlifu) something in the Qur'ân or the Sunna or a Companion-report (athar) or the Consensus (ijmâ`): that innovation is misguidance (fahâdhihi al-bid`atu d.alâla).
The other kind is the innovation of any and all good things (mâ uh.ditha min al-khayr) contravening none of the above, and this is a blameless innovation (wahâdhihi muh.dathatun ghayru madhmûma).
`Umar (ra) said, concerning the prayers of Ramad.ân: What a fine bid`a this is! meaning that it was innovated without having existed before and, even so, there was nothing in it that contradicted the above.'”[2]

Thus al-Shâfi`î set forth the essential, indispensable criterion for the determination of true bid`a, as defined, among others, by Imâm al-Haytamî, Qâd.î Abû Bakr Ibn al-`Arabî, and Imâm al-Lacknawî respectively:

Bid`a in terms of the Law is everything innovated in contravention of the Lawgiver's command and the latter's specific and general proof.”[3]

“Only the bid`a that contradicts the Sunna is blameworthy.”[4]

Bid`a is all that did not exist in the first three centuries and for which there is no basis among the four sources of Islâm” i.e. Qur'ân, Sunna, Ijmâ`, and Qiyâs.[5]

Consequently, it is not enough for something merely to be novel to be a bid`a; it must also contradict the Religion.

Al-Bayhaqî commented on al-Rabî`s report thus:

“Similarly, debating with the people of innovations - when they make public their innovations or bring up their insinuations - to refute them and expose their fallacies: even if this is an innovation, nevertheless, it is a praiseworthy one because it consists in refuting what we just mentioned. The Prophet ﷺ was asked about Divine foreordainment (al-qadar) and so were some of the Companions, and they replied with the answers that were narrated to us from them. At that time, they contented themselves with the words of the Prophet ﷺ and, thereafter, with the reports to that effect. However, in our time, the innovators do not content themselves with such reports nor do they accept them. Therefore, it is necessary to refute their insinuations - when they make them public - with what they themselves consider proofs. And success is through Allâh.”[6]

This is a clear-cut defense of the necessity and Sunna character of kalâm in the defense against innovators on the part of Imâm al-Bayhaqî. Something similar is reported from Ibn `Asâkir, Ibn al-S.alâh., al-Nawawî, Ibn al-Subkî, Ibn `âbidîn, and others of the great Imâms we cited [hier 3a 3b]

II. Division of Bid`a into Good and Bad
among Ahl al-Sunna and Others

Al-Ghazzâlî's Identical Definition

H.ujjat al-Islâm al-Ghazzâlî said in his discussion of the adding of dots to the Qur'anic script:

“The fact that this is innovated (muh.dath) forms no impediment to this. How many innovated matters are excellent! As it was said concerning the establishing of congregations in Tarâwîh. that it was among the innovations of `Umar (ra) and that it was an excellent innovation (bid`a h.asana). The blameworthy bid`a is only what opposes the ancient Sunna or might lead to changing it.”[7]

Ibn al-`Arabî al-Mâlikî's Identical Definition

The Qâd.î Abû Bakr Ibn al-`Arabî said in his discussion of bid`a:

“Know - May Allâh grant you knowledge! - that innovated matters are two kinds (al-muh.dathâtu d.arbân).
1.) An innovated matter that has no basis other than lust and arbitrary practice. Such is categorically invalid. And
2.) An innovated matter understood to correspond to something [established]. Such is the Sunna of the Caliphs and that of the eminent Imâms. Innovated matters and innovations are not blameworthy merely for being called muh.dath and bid`a nor because of their meaning! Allâh Most High has said, { Never comes there unto them a new (muh.dath) reminder from their Lord }(21:2) and `Umar (ra) said: “What a fine bid`a this is!” Rather, only the bid`a that contradicts the Sunna is blameworthy and only the innovated matters that invite to misguidance are blameworthy.”[8]

Ibn H.azm and Ibn al-Jawzî's Identical Definition

Ibn H.azm al-Z.âhirî said:

Bid`a in the Religion is everything that did not come to us in the Qur'ân nor from the Messenger of Allâh ﷺ, except that one is rewarded for some of it and those who do this are excused if they have good intentions. Of it is the rewardable and excellent (h.asan), namely, what is originally permitted (mâ kâna as.luhu al-ibâh.a) as was narrated from `Umar (ra): “What a fine bid`a this is!” Such refers to all good deeds which the texts stipulated in general terms of desirability even if its practice was not fixed in the text. And of it is the blameworthy for which there is no excuse such as what has proofs against its invalidity.”[9]

Ibn al-Jawzî speaks in similar terms in the beginning of his Talbîs Iblîs:

“Certain innovated matters (muh.dathât) have taken place which do not oppose the Sacred Law nor contradict it, so they [the Salaf] saw no harm in practicing them, such as the convening of the people by `Umar (ra) for the night prayer in Ramad.ân, after which he saw them and said: 'What a fine bid`a this is!'”

[hier 4]

Ibn al-Athîr al-Jazarî's Identical Definition

The lexicographer Ibn al-Athîr said in his masterpiece, al-Nihâya fî Gharîb al-H.âdîth wal-Athar:

Bid`a is two kinds: the bid`a of guidance and the bid`a of misguidance (bid`atu hudâ wa-bid`atu d.alâla). Whatever contravenes the command of Allâh and His Messenger ﷺ: that is within the sphere of blame and condemnation. And whatever enters into the generality of what Allâh or His Prophet ﷺ commended or stressed: that is within the sphere of praise. Whatever has no precedent such as extreme generosity or goodness - such are among the praiseworthy acts. It is impermissible that such be deemed to contravene the Law because the Prophet ﷺ has stipulated that such would carry reward when he said: “Whoever institutes a good practice in Islâm (man sanna fîl-islâmi sunnatan h.asana) has its reward and the reward of all those who practice it.” And he said, conversely, “whoever institutes a bad practice in Islâm (waman sanna fîl-islâmi sunnatan sayyi'atan) bears its onus and the onus of all those who practice it.” [10] Such is when the act goes against what Allâh and His Messenger ﷺ commanded.... It is in this sense that the h.adîth “every innovation is misguidance”[11] is understood: he means, whatever contravenes the bases of the Law and does not concur with the Sunna.”[12]

Ibn `Abd al-Salâm's Final Fivefold Classification

Shaykh al-Islâm, Sult.ân al-`Ulâmâ' Imâm al-`Izz Ibn `Abd al-Salâm similarly said:

“There are different types of innovations (bida`). The first type is whatever the Law indicated as praiseworthy or obligatory and the like of which was not done in the first period of Islâm. The second type is whatever the Law indicated as forbidden or disliked, and which was not done in the first period of Islâm. The third type is whatever the Law indicated as indifferently permitted and which was not done in the first period of Islâm.”[13]

Elsewhere he states that the categories of bid`a are five, identical to the jurists' classification of deeds:
“obligatory” (wâjib),
“forbidden” (h.arâm),
“recommended” (mandûb),
“disliked” (makrûh), and
“indifferently permitted” (mubâh.).[14]

Al-Nawawî's Endorsement of the Fivefold Classification

Shaykh al-Islâm, Imâm al-Nawawî said:

Al-Bid`a in the Law is the innovating of what did not exist in the time of the Messenger of Allâh ﷺ and is divided into “excellent” and “bad” (wahya munqasimatun ilâ h.asana wa qabîh.a). The Shaykh, the Imâm on whose foremost leadership, greatness, standing, and brilliance in all kinds of Islamic sciences there is consensus, Abû Muh.ammad `Abd al-`Azîz ibn `Abd al-Salâm - Allâh have mercy on him and be well-pleased with him! - said toward the end of his book, al-Qawâ`id [al-Kubrâ]:

“Innovation is divided into 'obligatory' (wâjiba), 'forbidden's (muh.arrama), 'recommended's (mandûba), 'offensive's (makrûha), and 'indifferent's (mubâh.a).
The way [to discriminate] in this is that the innovation be examined in the light of the regulations of the Law (qawâ`id al-sharî`a). If it falls under the regulations of obligatoriness (îjâb) then it is obligatory; under the regulations of prohibitiveness (tah.rîm) then it is prohibited; recommendability, then recommended; offensiveness, then offensive; indifference, then indifferent.”[15]

Ibn H.ajar's Endorsement of the Fivefold Classification

The H.âfiz. Ibn H.ajar said:

“The root meaning of innovation is what is produced without precedent. It is applied in the law in opposition to the Sunna and is therefore blameworthy. Strictly speaking, if it is part of what is classified as commendable by the law then it is a good innovation (h.asana), while if it is part of what is classified as blameworthy by the law then it is blameworthy (mustaqbah.a), otherwise it falls in the category of what is permitted indifferently (mubâh.). It can be divided into the known five categories.”[16]

Agreement of the Schools over the Fivefold Classification

Agreement formed in the Four Schools around the fivefold classification of bid`a as illustrated by the endorsement of the major later authorities in each School.

(1) Among the H.anafîs: al-Kirmânî, Ibn `âbidîn, al-Turkmânî, al-`Aynî, and al-Tahânawî.[17]

(2) Among the Mâlikîs: al-T.urt.ûshî, Ibn al-H.âjj, al-Qarâfî, and al-Zurqânî, while al-Shât.ibî attempts a refutation and claims that the fivefold classification is “an invented matter without proof in the Law”![18]

(3) Consensus among the Shâfi`îs.[19]

(4) Reluctant acceptance among later H.anbalîs, who altered al-Shâfi`î and Ibn `Abd al-Salâm's terminology to read “lexical innovation” (bid`a lughawiyya) and “legal innovation” (bid`a shar`iyya), respectively - although inaccurately - matching al-Shâfi`î's “approved” and “abominable.[20] This manner of splitting hairs has become the shibboleth of Wahhâbism in every micro-debate on bid`a although the correct way - as usual - is patently that of the Jumhûr.

Shaykh Muh.ammad Bakhît al-Mut.î`î said: “The legal bid`a is the one that is misguidance and condemned; as for the bid`a that the Ulema divided into obligatory and forbidden and so forth, such is the lexical bid`a which is more inclusive than the legal because the legal is only part of it.”[21]

Al-Shawkânî concluded in Nayl al-Awt.âr that the foundational division of innovations into “good” and “bad” is the soundest and most correct position.[22]

It is enough that a major Mujtahid Imâm of the Salaf said so on the basis of the Qur'ân and Sunna regardless of the argumentations of later centuries - whether from a would-be murajjih. like al-Shawkânî or a would-be censor like al-Shât.ibî - in light of the concurrence of the Jumhûr around al-Shâfi`î's explanation and the Divine and Prophetic injunctions to follow the path of the Believers and to stay with their greatest mass.

And Allâh knows best.


[1] Narrated from H.armala by Abû Nu`aym with his chain through Abû Bakr al-âjurrî in H.ilyat al-Awliyâ' (9:121 #13315=1985 ed. 9:113) and cited by Abû Shâma in al-Bâ`ith `alâ Inkâr al-Bida` wal-H.awâdith (Ryadh 1990 ed. p. 93), Ibn Rajab in Jâmi` al-`Ulûm wal-H.ikam (p. 267=Zuh.aylî ed. 2:52= Arna'ût. ed. 2:131 s.ah.îh.), Ibn H.ajar in Fath. al-Bârî (1959 ed. 13:253), al-Turt.ûshî in al-H.awâdith wa al-Bida` (p. 158-159), and al-Shawkânî, al-Qawl al-Mufîd fî Adillat al-Ijtihâd wa al-Taqlîd (1347/1929 ed. p. 36). `Umar's report is narrated by Mâlik in al-Muwat.t.a' and al-Bukhârî in his S.ah.îh..

[2] Narrated from al-Rabî` by al-Bayhaqî in his Madkhal and Manâqib al-Shâfi`î (1:469) with a sound chain as stated by Ibn Taymiyya in his Dâr' Ta`ârud. al-`Aql wa al-Naql (p. 171) and through al-Bayhaqî by Ibn `Asâkir in Tabyîn Kadhib al-Muftarî (Kawtharî ed. p. 97). Cited by al-Dhahabî in the Siyar (8:408), Ibn Rajab in Jâmi` al-`Ulûm wal-H.ikam (p. 267=Zuh.aylî ed. 2:52-53=Arna'ût. ed. 2:131 s.ah.îh.), and Ibn H.ajar in Fath. al-Bârî (1959 ed. 13:253).

[3] Al-Haytamî, al-Tabyîn fî Sharh. al-Arba`în (p. 32).

[4] Ibn al-`Arabî, `â al-Ah.wadhî (10:147).

[5] Cf. al-Lacknawî, Iqâmat al-H.ujja (p. 12).

[6] Al-Bayhaqî, Manâqib al-Shâfi`î (1:469).

[7] Al-Ghazzâlî, Ih.yâ' `Ulûm al-Dîn (1:276).

[8] Ibn al-`Arabî, `â al-Ah.wadhî (10:146-147).

[9] Ibn H.azm, al-Ih.kâm fî Us.ûl al-Ah.kâm (1:47).

[10] Narrated from Jarîr ibn `Abd Allâh al-Bajalî by Muslim, al-Tirmidhî, al-Nasâ'î, Ibn Mâjah, Ah.mad, and al-Dârimî. Also narrated with a similar wording from Abû Hurayra by Ibn Mâjah and Ah.mad; from Abû Juh.ayfa by Ibn Mâjah; and from Hudhayfa by Ah.mad.

[11] Narrated from al-`Irbâd. ibn Sâriya by al-Tirmidhî (h.asan s.ah.îh.), Abû Dâwûd, Ibn Mâjah, Ah.mad, al-Dârimî, Ibn H.ibbân (1:178-179 #5 s.ah.îh.), al-H.âkim (1:95-97=1990 ed. 1:174-177) - declaring it s.ah.îh. while al-Dhahabî confirmed it - and in al-Madkhal ilâ al-S.ah.îh. (p. 80-81), al-âjurrî in al-Sharî`a (p. 54-55 #79-82=p. 46 s.ah.îh.), Ibn Abî `â in al-Sunna (p. 29 #54 s.ah.îh.), al-T.ah.âwî in Mushkil al-âthâr (2:69=3:221-224 #1185-1187 s.ah.îh.), Muh.ammad ibn Nas.r al-Marwazî in al-Sunna (p. 26-27 #69-72 s.ah.îh.), al-H.ârith ibn Abî Usâma in his Musnad (1:197-198), al-Rûyânî in his Musnad (1:439), Abû Nu`aym in H.ilyat al-Awliyâ' (1985 ed. 5:220-221, 10:115), al-T.abarânî in Musnad al-Shâmiyyîn (1:254, 1:402, 1:446, 2:197, 2:298) and al-Kabîr (18:245-257), al-Bayhaqî in al-Sunan al-Kubrâ (10:114), al-Madkhal (p. 115-116), al-I`tiqâd (p. 229), and Shu`ab al-�mân (6:67), al-Baghawî who declared it h.asan in Sharh. al-Sunna (1:205 #102 isnâd s.ah.îh.), Ibn al-Athîr in Jâmi` al-Us.ûl (1:187, 1:279), Ibn `Asâkir in al-Arba`în al-Buldâniyya (p. 121), Ibn `Abd al-Barr in al-Tamhîd (21:278-279) and Jâmi` Bayân al-`Ilm (2:924 #1758) where he declared it s.ah.îh., and others.

[12] Ibn al-Athîr, al-Nihâya (1:79 entry b-d-`).

[13] Ibn `Abd al-Salâm, al-Fatâwâ al-Maws.iliyya (p. 129).

[14] Ibn `Abd al-Salâm, al-Qawâ`id al-Kubrâ (2:337-339) cf. al-Nawawî in al-Adhkâr (Thaqâfiyya ed. p. 237) and Tahdhîb al-Asma' wal-Lughât (3:20-22), al-Shât.ibî in al-I`tis.âm (Beirut ed. 1:188), al-Kirmânî in al-Kawâkib al-Darârî (9:54), Ibn H.ajar in Fath. al-Bârî (13:253-254), al-Suyût.î, introduction to H.usn in al-H.âwî lil-Fatâwâ; al-Haytamî, Fatâwâ H.adîthiyya (p. 150), Ibn `âbidîn, Radd al-Muh.târ (1:376) etc.

[15] Al-Nawawî, Tahdhîb al-Asmâ' wal-Lughât (3:20-22).

[16] Ibn Hajar, Fath. al-Bârî (1959 ed. 5:156-157=1989 ed. 4:318).

[17] Al-Kirmânî, al-Kawâkib al-Darârî Sharh. S.ah.îh. al-Bukhârî (9:54), Ibn `âbidîn, H.âshiya (1:376, 1:560); al-Turkmânî, al-Luma` fîl-H.awâdith wal-Bida` (Stuttgart, 1986, 1:37); al-Tahânawî, Kashshâf Ist.ilâ al-Funûn (Beirut, 1966, 1:133-135); al-`Aynî, `Umdat al-Qârî in al-H.imyarî, al-Bid`at al-H.asana (p. 152-153).

[18] Al-T.urt.ûshî, Kitâb al-H.awâdith wa al-Bida` (p. 15, p. 158-159); Ibn al-H.ajj, Madkhal al-Shar` al-Sharîf (Cairo, 1336/1918 2:115); al-Qarâfî, al-Furûq (4:219) cf. al-Shât.ibî, al-I`tis.âm (1:188-191); al-Zurqânî, Sharh. al-Muwat.t.a' (1:238). Al-Shât.ibî's I`tis.âm was recirculated by two Wahhâbîs: Rashîd Rid.â then Salîm Hilâlî. A third Wahhâbî, Muh.ammad `Abd al-Salâm al-Shuqayrî - Rid.â's student - authored al-Sunan wal-Mubtada`ât al-Muta`alliqa bil-Adhkâr wal-S.alawât which he filled with unverifiable tales which he proceeds to denounce with much ado.

[19] Abû Shâma, al-Bâ`ith `alâ Inkâr al-Bida` wa al-H.awâdith (Riyad: Dâr al-Raya, 1990 p. 93, Cairo ed. p. 12-13) as well as those already mentioned. Note: “consensus” (ijmâ`) is more inclusive than “agreement” (ittifâq), and binding.

[20] Ibn Rajab, al-Jâmi` fîl-`Ulûm wal-H.ikam (2:50-53), and Ibn Taymiyya's section on bid`a in his Iqtid.â' al-S.irât. al-Mustaqîm Mukhâlafat As.h.âb al-Jah.îm. This is also the position of Ibn Kathîr: see his commentary of the verse: (The Originator of the heavens and the earth!) (2:117) in his Tafsîr. He followed in this his teacher Ibn Taymiyya.

[21] Bakhît, Fatâwâ H.adîthiyya (p. 205).

[22] Al-Shawkânî, Nayl al-Awt.âr (4:60).

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