Bidah is an Arabic word that comes from the root Al-Bada’ meaning to create something without precedence. In English we would use the word innovation. Before discussing bidah in any depth we must distinguish between two types of bidah. The first type is innovation in the matter of things pertaining to our worldly life. Things like technology, electricity and transport would come under this category. These things are permissible and in many cases could even be called desirable. The second type of innovation pertains to matters of the deen. In matters of religion bidah is not permissible and it can be dangerous to introduce new things in our religion. Because of the danger there are many quotations and traditions from the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad that point this out.
“Whoever innovates into this affair of ours something that we have not commanded, it is to be rejected“. [Saheeh Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim] “The best speech is the Book of Allah and the best guidance and example is that of Muhammad, and the worse of all things are the newly invented things (in the religion), for every innovation is an error and a misguidance“. [Saheeh Muslim] “…Every innovation is a going astray and every going astray is in the fire.”[At Tirmidhi]
The deen of Islam has no need for bidah. The religion of Islam is complete and there is no need to introduce or invent new matters in the religion. This is confirmed by the Quranic statement “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion” (Quran 5:3)
When a person innovates something and adds to the deen something that does not already belong to it, he implies that the religion is lacking and in need of improvement, or the implication is that that Allah did not complete and perfect it His religion. This is clearly not the case as we can see from the above verse.
Why is it important to avoid bidah
Whilst Allah does not punish a person who falls into error due to ignorance we are obligated to educate ourselves to the best of our ability. The reality is that Allah will not accept an action that does not fulfil two important conditions. The first condition is that the action be done with a sincere intention to please Allah almighty. The second is that the action is done according to what is taught in the Quran and the authentic Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. The action must conform to the Sunnah and not be in contradiction to it.
With this in mind let us revisit the meaning of bidah. It means creating or inventing something new, something without precedence. A bidah that seeks to add something new to the deen of Allah is not acceptable. Even if the action is invented as a way of drawing closer to or worshipping Allah it still does not become acceptable. It is still a sin.
How do we know if an act of worship is really an act of bidah?
On many occasions you will hear it said that Islam is a religion of informed knowledge. This implies that believers do not take things on face value. A believer takes the time to learn and understand the details of the deen and he learns to question actions or sayings that are not presented with clear evidence. If he takes the time to learn Islam a person is able to recognise what is a Sunnah action and what is bidah.
The following are six ways to distinguish between a Sunnah and a bidah:
1. An act of worship related to a cause or reason that has not been legislated:
It is not permissible to link an act of worship to a cause or reason that has not been legislated in the Quran or the authentic Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. An example of this would be waking up to pray on night on the seventh day of the Islamic month of Rajab with the belief that Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens on this night. The act of praying in the night is something that is legislated in Islam with sufficient evidence from the Quran and Sunnah, however when it is linked to this reason it becomes a bidah because it is based and constructed upon a reason which is not established from the Shariah.
2. Type of worship:
It is also essential that the act of worship agrees with the Shariah in its type. If a person was to worship Allah with an act of worship whose type or mode has not been legislated, it would not be accepted. For example it is not ok to sacrifice a horse. This is something that would be a bidah, something new added to the deen. Sacrifice is limited by the shariah of Islam to lamb, cattle, sheep and camels.
3. Quantity of worship:
Another way to recognise the difference between a Sunnah and a bidah is based on the quantity of worship. If a person decided to pray five rakahs of prayer for the Dhuhr prayer this would be a bidah. We know that this prayer consists of four rakahs; this is what is legislated and to introduce an extra unit of prayer would be considered an innovation, a bidah.
4. Manner of performance of worship:
Another way of distinguishing between something that originates in the Quran and the Sunnah and an innovation is to look at the manner of performance. That is, how do we perform the act of worship, is it in accordance with what the deen of Islam teaches, or have we over stepped the boundaries and added something to a religion that has already been perfected. An example of this is making ablution before prayer in an incorrect order, such as beginning with washing the feet instead of finishing with this.
5. Time of worship:
The time we perform an act of worship is also important. If a worship is performed according to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and the specified time, then it does indeed please our Creator. However if a person takes it upon himself to change the specified time then that person has fallen into the sin of bidah. For example, sacrificing sheep in the month of Ramadan with the intention of seeking a reward similar to the reward for sacrificing on Eid ul-Adha then this would be considered an innovation.
6. Place of worship:
The place in which the act of worship is performed should also be in accordance with what has been legislated. If, for example a man was to make itikaf in his home this would not be acceptable. The place for itikaf for men is the mosque, thus performing it in any other place would be considered a bidah.
A list of common innovations
· Seeking help from the occupants of the grave. This bidah is of particular importance because it also encompasses shirk, the greatest sin in Islam.
· Sitting in groups and saying words of remembrance of Allah, such as Allahu Akbar, in unison.
· Taking the birthday of the Prophet as an Eid.
· Fasting on the fifteenth of the Islamic month of Shaban and spending that night in prayer.
· Celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon him.
· Reciting Quran to benefit the deceased (this includes hiring people to recite Quran).
· Wiping over the back of the neck when making ablution.
· The family of the deceased preparing food for others who visit.
On occasions you might hear mentioned something called a good bidah. According to Sheikh Ibn Uthaymeen, “… there is no such thing in Islam (in the religious sense) as a good bidah.” The sheikh also emphasised that “…with regard to ordinary matters of habit and custom, these are not called bidah (innovation) in Islam, even though they may be described as such in linguistic terms. But they are not innovations in the religious sense, and these are not the things that the Prophet was warning us against”. In addition to this noted Islamic scholar Imam Ibn Rajab said, “Any words from our righteous predecessors considering something as a good bidah were meant in a linguistic sense and not the Islamic sense”.
In conclusion bidah is a newly invented belief or action in the deen of Islam by which closeness to Allah is sought but it is not supported by any authentic proof either in its foundations or in the manner in which it is performed.
 Majmoo’ Fataawa Ibn ‘Uthaymeen, vol. 2, p. 291
 Ibn Rajab is a noted Islamic scholar of the 6th century CE, proficient across many Islamic sciences including tafsir, hadith and fiqh.
 This definition is adapted from Innovation in Light of the Perfection of the Shariah by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Salih al-Uthaymeen.