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The Sunni Definition of Bidʿa As Either Good or Bad

GF Haddad - Shawwāl 1423

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Innovation is two types: approved innovation and disapproved innovation (bidʿa madhmūma). Whatever conforms to the Sunna is approved (maḥmūd) and whatever opposes it is abominable (madhmūm).

This article is in two parts:

I. Al-Shāfiʿī's definition of bidʿa as either good or bad;
II. The division of bidʿa into good and bad among Ahl al-Sunna and others.

I. Al-Shāfiʿī's definition of bidʿa as either “good” or “bad”

A major contribution of Imām al-Shāfiʿī (ra) in the Foundations of Jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh) is his division of innovation (al-bidʿa) and innovated matters (al-muḥdathāt) into “good” and “bad” depending on their conformity or non-conformity to the guidelines of the Religion. This is authentically narrated from al-Shāfiʿī from two of his most prestigious students in the latter period of his life, the Egyptian ḥadīth Masters Ḥarmala ibn Yaḥyā al-Tujaybī and al-Rabīʿ ibn Sulaymān al-Murādī:

Ḥarmala said, “I heard al-Shāfiʿī (ra) say:

'Innovation is two types (al-bidʿatu bidʿatān):
approved innovation (bidʿa maḥmūda) and disapproved innovation (bidʿa madhmūma). Whatever conforms to the Sunna is approved (maḥmūd) and whatever opposes it is abominable (madhmūm).'

He used as his proof the statement of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (ra) about the [congregational] supererogatory night prayers in the month of Ramad.ān: “What a fine innovation this is!”1 This shows that al-Shāfiʿī never interpreted ʿUmar's words figuratively the way the "Salafi" over-interpreters (muʿattila) do.

Al-Rabīʿ said, “Al-Shāfiʿī said to us:
'Innovated matters are of two kinds (al-muḥdathātu min al-umūri d.arbān):
one is an innovation that contravenes (mā uḥditha yukhālifu) something in the Qur'ān or the Sunna or a Companion-report (athar) or the Consensus (ijmāʿ): that innovation is misguidance (fahādhihi al-bidʿatu d.alāla).
The other kind is the innovation of any and all good things (mā uḥditha min al-khayr) contravening none of the above, and this is a blameless innovation (wahādhihi muḥdathatun ghayru madhmūma).
ʿUmar (ra) said, concerning the prayers of Ramad.ān: What a fine bidʿa 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-Shāfiʿī set forth the essential, indispensable criterion for the determination of true bidʿa, as defined, among others, by Imām al-Haytamī, Qād.ī Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī, and Imām al-Lacknawī respectively:

Bidʿa 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 bidʿa that contradicts the Sunna is blameworthy.”4

Bidʿa is all that did not exist in the first three centuries and for which there is no basis among the four sources of Islām” i.e. Qur'ān, Sunna, Ijmāʿ, and Qiyās.5

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

Al-Bayhaqī commented on al-Rabīʿs 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 Allāh.”6

This is a clear-cut defense of the necessity and Sunna character of kalām in the defense against innovators on the part of Imām al-Bayhaqī. Something similar is reported from Ibn ʿAsākir, Ibn al-S.alāḥ, al-Nawawī, Ibn al-Subkī, Ibn ʿābidīn, and others of the great Imāms we cited [hier 3a 3b]

II. Division of bidʿa into good and bad among Ahl al-Sunna and others

Ḥujjat al-Islām al-Ghazzālī said in his discussion of the adding of dots to the Qur'anic script:

“The fact that this is innovated (muḥdath) forms no impediment to this. How many innovated matters are excellent! As it was said concerning the establishing of congregations in Tarāwīḥ that it was among the innovations of ʿUmar (ra) and that it was an excellent innovation (bidʿa ḥasana). The blameworthy bidʿa is only what opposes the ancient Sunna or might lead to changing it.”7
Ibn al-ʿArabī al-Mālikī's Identical Definition

The Qād.ī Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī said in his discussion of bidʿa:

“Know - May Allāh grant you knowledge! - that innovated matters are two kinds (al-muḥdathātu d.arbān).
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 Imāms. Innovated matters and innovations are not blameworthy merely for being called muḥdath and bidʿa nor because of their meaning! Allāh Most High has said, { Never comes there unto them a new (muḥdath) reminder from their Lord }(21:2) and ʿUmar (ra) said: “What a fine bidʿa this is!” Rather, only the bidʿa that contradicts the Sunna is blameworthy and only the innovated matters that invite to misguidance are blameworthy.8
Ibn Ḥazm and Ibn al-Jawzī's Identical Definition

Ibn Ḥazm al-Ẓāhirī said:

Bidʿa in the Religion is everything that did not come to us in the Qur'ān nor from the Messenger of Allāh 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 (ḥasan), namely, what is originally permitted (mā kāna aṣluhu al-ibāḥa) as was narrated from ʿUmar (ra): “What a fine bidʿa 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-Jawzī speaks in similar terms in the beginning of his Talbīs Iblīs:

“Certain innovated matters (muḥdathāt) 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 ʿUmar (ra) for the night prayer in Ramad.ān, after which he saw them and said: 'What a fine bidʿa this is!'”
Ibn al-Athīr al-Jazarī's Identical Definition

The lexicographer Ibn al-Athīr said in his masterpiece, al-Nihāya fī Gharīb al-Ḥādīth wal-Athar:

Bidʿa is two kinds: the bidʿa of guidance and the bidʿa of misguidance (bidʿatu hudā wa-bidʿatu d.alāla). Whatever contravenes the command of Allāh and His Messenger ﷺ: that is within the sphere of blame and condemnation. And whatever enters into the generality of what Allāh 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 Islām (man sanna fīl-islāmi sunnatan ḥasana) has its reward and the reward of all those who practice it.” And he said, conversely, “whoever institutes a bad practice in Islām (waman sanna fīl-islāmi sunnatan sayyi'atan) bears its onus and the onus of all those who practice it.”10 Such is when the act goes against what Allāh and His Messenger ﷺ commanded.... It is in this sense that the ḥadīth “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 ʿAbd al-Salām's Final Fivefold Classification

Shaykh al-Islām, Sulṭān al-ʿUlāmā' Imām al-ʿIzz Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām similarly said:

“There are different types of innovations (bidaʿ). 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 Islām. The second type is whatever the Law indicated as forbidden or disliked, and which was not done in the first period of Islām. The third type is whatever the Law indicated as indifferently permitted and which was not done in the first period of Islām.”13

Elsewhere he states that the categories of bidʿa are five, identical to the jurists' classification of deeds:
“obligatory” (wājib),
“forbidden” (ḥarām),
“recommended” (mandūb),
“disliked” (makrūh), and
“indifferently permitted” (mubāḥ).14

Al-Nawawī's Endorsement of the Fivefold Classification

Shaykh al-Islām, Imām al-Nawawī said:

Al-Bidʿa in the Law is the innovating of what did not exist in the time of the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ and is divided into “excellent” and “bad” (wahya munqasimatun ilā ḥasana wa qabīḥa). The Shaykh, the Imām on whose foremost leadership, greatness, standing, and brilliance in all kinds of Islamic sciences there is consensus, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn ʿAbd al-Salām - Allāh have mercy on him and be well-pleased with him! - said toward the end of his book, al-Qawāʿid [al-Kubrā]:

“Innovation is divided into 'obligatory' (wājiba), 'forbidden's (muḥarrama), 'recommended's (mandūba), 'offensive's (makrūha), and 'indifferent's (mubāḥa).
The way [to discriminate] in this is that the innovation be examined in the light of the regulations of the Law (qawāʿid al-sharīʿa). If it falls under the regulations of obligatoriness (ījāb) then it is obligatory; under the regulations of prohibitiveness (taḥrīm) then it is prohibited; recommendability, then recommended; offensiveness, then offensive; indifference, then indifferent.”15

Ibn Ḥajar's Endorsement of the Fivefold Classification

The Ḥāfiz. Ibn Ḥajar 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 (ḥasana), while if it is part of what is classified as blameworthy by the law then it is blameworthy (mustaqbaḥa), otherwise it falls in the category of what is permitted indifferently (mubāḥ). 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 bidʿa as illustrated by the endorsement of the major later authorities in each School.

(1) Among the Ḥanafīs: al-Kirmānī, Ibn ʿābidīn, al-Turkmānī, al-ʿAynī, and al-Tahānawī.17

(2) Among the Mālikīs: al-Ṭurṭūshī, Ibn al-Ḥājj, al-Qarāfī, and al-Zurqānī, while al-Shāṭibī attempts a refutation and claims that the fivefold classification is “an invented matter without proof in the Law”!18

(3) Consensus among the Shāfiʿīs.19

(4) Reluctant acceptance among later Ḥanbalīs, who altered al-Shāfiʿī and Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām's terminology to read “lexical innovation” (bidʿa lughawiyya) and “legal innovation” (bidʿa sharʿiyya), respectively - although inaccurately - matching al-Shāfiʿī's “approved” and “abominable.20 This manner of splitting hairs has become the shibboleth of Wahhābism in every micro-debate on bidʿa although the correct way - as usual - is patently that of the Jumhūr.

Shaykh Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī said: “The legal bidʿa is the one that is misguidance and condemned; as for the bidʿa that the Ulema divided into obligatory and forbidden and so forth, such is the lexical bidʿa which is more inclusive than the legal because the legal is only part of it.”21

Al-Shawkānī concluded in Nayl al-Awṭār 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 Imām of the Salaf said so on the basis of the Qur'ān and Sunna regardless of the argumentations of later centuries - whether from a would-be murajjiḥ like al-Shawkānī or a would-be censor like al-Shāṭibī - in light of the concurrence of the Jumhūr around al-Shāfiʿī's explanation and the Divine and Prophetic injunctions to follow the path of the Believers and to stay with their greatest mass.

And Allāh knows best.


[1] Narrated from Ḥarmala by Abū Nuʿaym with his chain through Abū Bakr al-ājurrī in Ḥilyat al-Awliyā' (9:121 #13315=1985 ed. 9:113) and cited by Abū Shāma in al-Bāʿith ʿalā Inkār al-Bidaʿ wal-Ḥawādith (Ryadh 1990 ed. p. 93), Ibn Rajab in Jāmiʿ al-ʿUlūm wal-Ḥikam (p. 267=Zuḥaylī ed. 2:52= Arna'ūt. ed. 2:131 ṣaḥīḥ), Ibn Ḥajar in Fatḥ al-Bārī (1959 ed. 13:253), al-Turṭūshī in al-Ḥawādith wa al-Bidaʿ (p. 158-159), and al-Shawkānī, al-Qawl al-Mufīd fī Adillat al-Ijtihād wa al-Taqlīd (1347/1929 ed. p. 36). ʿUmar's report is narrated by Mālik in al-Muwaṭṭa' and al-Bukhārī in his S.aḥīḥ. up

[2] Narrated from al-Rabīʿ by al-Bayhaqī in his Madkhal and Manāqib al-Shāfiʿī (1:469) with a sound chain as stated by Ibn Taymiyya in his Dār' Taʿārud. al-ʿAql wa al-Naql (p. 171) and through al-Bayhaqī by Ibn ʿAsākir in Tabyīn Kadhib al-Muftarī (Kawtharī ed. p. 97). Cited by al-Dhahabī in the Siyar (8:408), Ibn Rajab in Jāmiʿ al-ʿUlūm wal-Ḥikam (p. 267=Zuḥaylī ed. 2:52-53=Arna'ūṭ ed. 2:131 ṣaḥīḥ), and Ibn Ḥajar in Fatḥ al-Bārī (1959 ed. 13:253).[up-1]

[3] Al-Haytamī, al-Tabyīn fī Sharḥ al-Arbaʿīn (p. 32).up

[4] Ibn al-ʿArabī, ʿārid.at al-Aḥwadhī (10:147).up

[5] Cf. al-Lacknawī, Iqāmat al-Ḥujja (p. 12).up

[6] Al-Bayhaqī, Manāqib al-Shāfiʿī (1:469).up

[7] Al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyā' ʿUlūm al-Dīn (1:276).up

[8] Ibn al-ʿArabī, ʿārid.at al-Aḥwadhī (10:146-147).up

[9] Ibn Ḥazm, al-Iḥkām fī Uṣūl al-Aḥkām (1:47).up

[10] Narrated from Jarīr ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Bajalī by Muslim, al-Tirmidhī, al-Nasā'ī, Ibn Mājah, Aḥmad, and al-Dārimī. Also narrated with a similar wording from Abū Hurayra by Ibn Mājah and Aḥmad; from Abū Juḥayfa by Ibn Mājah; and from Hudhayfa by Aḥmad.up

[11] Narrated from al-ʿIrbād. ibn Sāriya by al-Tirmidhī (ḥasan ṣaḥīḥ), Abū Dāwūd, Ibn Mājah, Aḥmad, al-Dārimī, Ibn Ḥibbān (1:178-179 #5 ṣaḥīḥ), al-Ḥākim (1:95-97=1990 ed. 1:174-177) - declaring it ṣaḥīḥ while al-Dhahabī confirmed it - and in al-Madkhal ilā al-S.aḥīḥ (p. 80-81), al-ājurrī in al-Sharīʿa (p. 54-55 #79-82=p. 46 ṣaḥīḥ), Ibn Abī ʿāṣim in al-Sunna (p. 29 #54 ṣaḥīḥ), al-Ṭaḥāwī in Mushkil al-āthār (2:69=3:221-224 #1185-1187 ṣaḥīḥ), Muḥammad ibn Naṣr al-Marwazī in al-Sunna (p. 26-27 #69-72 ṣaḥīḥ), al-Ḥārith ibn Abī Usāma in his Musnad (1:197-198), al-Rūyānī in his Musnad (1:439), Abū Nuʿaym in Ḥilyat al-Awliyā' (1985 ed. 5:220-221, 10:115), al-Ṭabarānī in Musnad al-Shāmiyyīn (1:254, 1:402, 1:446, 2:197, 2:298) and al-Kabīr (18:245-257), al-Bayhaqī in al-Sunan al-Kubrā (10:114), al-Madkhal (p. 115-116), al-Iʿtiqād (p. 229), and Shuʿab al-Imān (6:67), al-Baghawī who declared it ḥasan in Sharḥ al-Sunna (1:205 #102 isnād ṣaḥīḥ), Ibn al-Athīr in Jāmiʿ al-Uṣūl (1:187, 1:279), Ibn ʿAsākir in al-Arbaʿīn al-Buldāniyya (p. 121), Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr in al-Tamhīd (21:278-279) and Jāmiʿ Bayān al-ʿIlm (2:924 #1758) where he declared it ṣaḥīḥ, and others.up

[12] Ibn al-Athīr, al-Nihāya (1:79 entry b-d-ʿ).up

[13] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, al-Fatāwā al-Mawṣiliyya (p. 129).up

[14] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, al-Qawāʿid al-Kubrā (2:337-339) cf. al-Nawawī in al-Adhkār (Thaqāfiyya ed. p. 237) and Tahdhīb al-Asma' wal-Lughāt (3:20-22), al-Shāṭibī in al-Iʿtis.ām (Beirut ed. 1:188), al-Kirmānī in al-Kawākib al-Darārī (9:54), Ibn Ḥajar in Fatḥ al-Bārī (13:253-254), al-Suyūṭī, introduction to Ḥusn al-Maqṣid in al-Ḥāwī lil-Fatāwā; al-Haytamī, Fatāwā Ḥadīthiyya (p. 150), Ibn ʿābidīn, Radd al-Muḥtār (1:376) etc.up

[15] Al-Nawawī, Tahdhīb al-Asmā' wal-Lughāt (3:20-22).up

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

[17] Al-Kirmānī, al-Kawākib al-Darārī Sharḥ S.aḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (9:54), Ibn ʿābidīn, Ḥāshiya (1:376, 1:560); al-Turkmānī, al-Lumaʿ fīl-Ḥawādith wal-Bidaʿ (Stuttgart, 1986, 1:37); al-Tahānawī, Kashshāf Isṭilāḥat al-Funūn (Beirut, 1966, 1:133-135); al-ʿAynī, ʿUmdat al-Qārī in al-Ḥimyarī, al-Bidʿat al-Ḥasana (p. 152-153).up

[18] Al-Ṭurṭūshī, Kitāb al-Ḥawādith wa al-Bidaʿ (p. 15, p. 158-159); Ibn al-Ḥajj, Madkhal al-Sharʿ al-Sharīf (Cairo, 1336/1918 2:115); al-Qarāfī, al-Furūq (4:219) cf. al-Shāṭibī, al-Iʿtiṣām (1:188-191); al-Zurqānī, Sharḥ al-Muwaṭṭa' (1:238). Al-Shāṭibī's Iʿtiṣām was recirculated by two Wahhābīs: Rashīd Rid.ā then Salīm Hilālī. A third Wahhābī, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Khad.ir al-Shuqayrī - Rid.ā's student - authored al-Sunan wal-Mubtadaʿāt al-Mutaʿalliqa bil-Adhkār wal-S.alawāt which he filled with unverifiable tales which he proceeds to denounce with much ado.up

[19] Abū Shāma, al-Bāʿith ʿalā Inkār al-Bidaʿ wa al-Ḥawādith (Riyad: Dār al-Raya, 1990 p. 93, Cairo ed. p. 12-13) as well as those already mentioned. Note: “consensus” (ijmāʿ) is more inclusive than “agreement” (ittifāq), and binding.up

[20] Ibn Rajab, al-Jāmiʿ fīl-ʿUlūm wal-Ḥikam (2:50-53), and Ibn Taymiyya's section on bidʿa in his Iqtid.ā' al-S.irāṭ al-Mustaqīm Mukhālafat Aṣḥāb al-Jaḥīm. This is also the position of Ibn Kathīr: see his commentary of the verse: (The Originator of the heavens and the earth!) (2:117) in his Tafsīr. He followed in this his teacher Ibn Taymiyya.up

[21] Bakhīt, Fatāwā Ḥadīthiyya (p. 205).up

[22] Al-Shawkānī, Nayl al-Awṭār (4:60).

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