What is Bidah (religious innovation)?

ⓘ Supported by Al Medina 313.



Islamic Text

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah Most Merciful Most Kind

Short Answer

Bidah refers to innovating something which contradicts the teachings of Islam into the religion of Allah Most High. This act is strictly prohibited.

Qur’an’s admonition
ثُمَّ قَفَّيْنَا عَلَى آثَارِهِمْ بِرُسُلِنَا وَقَفَّيْنَا بِعِيسَى ابْنِ مَرْيَمَ وَآتَيْنَاهُ الْإِنْجِيلَ وَجَعَلْنَا فِي قُلُوبِ الَّذِينَ اتَّبَعُوهُ رَأْفَةً وَرَحْمَةً وَرَهْبَانِيَّةً ابْتَدَعُوهَا مَا كَتَبْنَاهَا عَلَيْهِمْ إِلَّا ابْتِغَاءَ رِضْوَانِ اللَّهِ فَمَا رَعَوْهَا حَقَّ رِعَايَتِهَا فَآتَيْنَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنْهُمْ أَجْرَهُمْ وَكَثِيرٌ مِنْهُمْ فَاسِقُونَ

Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But they innovated monasticism. We ordained it not for them. (They were) seeking Allah’s pleasure, and they did not observe it with right observance. So We give those of them who believe their reward, but many of them are transgressors. (Surah al-Hadeed, 27).

In the Holy verse above not only do we see a rebuke of innovation but we also recognise how this is a trait of the disbelievers. This was because the disbelievers were guided to the right path by their Prophets (peace be upon them), but they invented new matters into the pure religion of the Prophet and thus went astray and changed the religion. Consequently, innovation caused the previous nations to go astray and therefore we have a strict prohibition against Bidah in Islam.

Definig innovation

There are many definitions of Bidah in the classical books of Ahl al-Sunnah. However, they are not sufficient to truly understand the nature and prohibition of innovation, so a more detailed study is necessary. Below are a few definitions of innovation:

الْبِدْعَة إِحْدَاث مَا لم يكن فِي عهد رَسُول الله صلى الله عَلَيْهِ وَسلم. (عمدة القاري شرح صحيح البخاري)

Bid’ah is to invent something that did not exist in the era of the Messenger of Allah (Most High) (Imam al-Ayni, Umdatu al-Qari).

بِدْعَةٍ وَهِيَ اعْتِقَادُ خِلَافِ الْمَعْرُوفِ عَنْ الرَّسُولِ
مَا أُحْدِثَ عَلَى خِلَافِ الْحَقِّ الْمُتَلَقَّى عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ – صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ – مِنْ عِلْمٍ أَوْ عَمَلٍ أَوْ حَالٍ بِنَوْعِ شُبْهَةٍ وَاسْتِحْسَانٍ، وَجُعِلَ دَيْنًا قَوِيمًا وَصِرَاطًا مُسْتَقِيمًا اهـ فَافْهَمْ. (رد المحتار على الدر المختار)

Bid’ah is to believe something that is different to what is known from the Messenger ﷺ.

It is that which people have innovated against the truth that has been received from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. It can relate to belief, action or states, it is (often) based on false evidence and erroneous analogy. It has been presented as the upright religion and the straight path. (Imam al-Haskafi and Ibn Abideen, Radd al-Muhtaar).

Since Bidah is a complex area one must study it thoroughly to understand it correctly, and to safeguard oneself from contemporary extremes. To rely on a basic definition or a brief explanation will not suffice. Rather, it can lead to a person actually misunderstanding the issue of innovation.

Warning against innovation
عَائِشَةُ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ: مَنْ عَمِلَ عَمَلًا لَيْسَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْرُنَا فَهُوَ رَدٌّ

(Sayidah) Aisha (May Allah Most High be pleased with her) narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, ‘Whoever innovates something in this matter of ours, that is not of it, will have it rejected.’ (Sahih Muslim, 1718 – 18).

As well as numerous verses of the Holy Quran prohibiting Bidah, there is also an abundance of Hadith narrations warning against Bidah. The above narration is just one example. Due to this, many classical scholars wrote entire books on the issue of innovation, warning against it and clarifying some of the subtleties related to it.

Innovation in our times

In recent times, many people have taken extreme positions regarding innovation. As such, some of them will overextend the ruling of innovation and consider things that are not Bidah to be Bidah. Sometimes individuals go so far that they declare matters found in the Sunnah to be innovation such as group Dhikr.

However, the opposite extreme is that of people who refuse to acknowledge anything as Bidah. Whenever these individuals are questioned about dubious practices, that are clearly Bidah, they will argue that the practice is not Bidah, or it is Bidah Hasanah. Further, some individuals will continue to make such claims even in the face of explicit Nusoos (texts) from classical scholars of Ahl al-Sunnah establishing the action as Bidah. Not only does this approach clash with the statements of Imams of Ahl al-Sunnah, but this also contradicts clear verses of the Holy Quran and Hadith of the blessed Prophet.

Lastly, it is important to clarify that innovation is prohibited in religious matters. As for innovation in matters related to science and technology, there is no such prohibition. Rather, these matters can be seen as something positive if it helps society.

And Allah Most High Knows Best.

-Answered by Shaykh Noorud-deen Rashid (25.04.2022)