A bid˓a (pl. bida˓) is an innovation in theology, ritual, or the customs of daily life, that did not exist in early Islam but came into existence in the course of history.
The term itself does not appear in the Qur˒an, be it that the Holy Book includes other derivations of the root bd˓. In the hadith literature bid˓a is often used in contrast with the term sunna. In this sense sunna denotes the exemplary standard for Muslim life, as this was established by the prophet Muhammad and the pious Muslims of early Islam; for this reason, a bid˓a, being a deviation from the normative sunna, was almost exclusively regarded as negative. This idea can be found in the canonical collections of hadith literature and, for example, was put into words in the Prophetic saying: "The worst of all things are novelties (muhdathat); every novelty is an innovation (bid˓a), and every bid˓a is an error (dalala), and every error "leads to hell."
Apart from this negative understanding of the concept of bid˓a, a positive interpretation also could be given to the term. This was done by using another saying from the hadith literature. These words are attributed to the second caliph ˓Umar who, after he had seen an innovation in the rite of the ritual prayer (salat), is reported to have said: "Truly, this is a good bid˓a." On the basis of this saying the great jurisconsult al-Shafi˓i (767–820) made a distinction between good and objectionable bid˓as. As a result of this, the possibility was created to introduce new ideas and practices into Islam for which there were no precedents in early Islam, but which could now be accepted as good innovations. Later scholars further manipulated the term bid˓a by adding various other, most often legal, adjectives to it. For example, the prolific Egyptian author Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (1445–1505) mentions the application of the five legal classifications (al-ahkam alkhamsa) to the term, thus making a distinction between "forbidden," "reprehensible," "indifferent," "recommended," and "obligatory" bid˓as.
Although this flexible interpretation of the concept of bid˓a was thus known from an early period onward, various later scholars adhered to its negative interpretation exclusively. A well-known representative of this stream is the theologian and jurisconsult Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who spent his entire life fighting bid˓as, which had been added to the original doctrine and practice of Islam, for example, the cult of saints. Under the influence of his teachings, Muhammad ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) founded the rigid and intolerant reform movement known as Wahhabiyya, which, for example, regarded the use of tobacco and coffee as bid˓a. This Wahhabi ideology is also followed by the present-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where consequently the concept of bid˓a in its negative sense plays a prominent part in religious and social discourse. An interesting example of this is the official view on the celebration of the birthday (mawlid) of the prophet Muhammad, an opinion that was voiced often by the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom, ˓Abd al-˓Aziz ibn Baz (1910–1999). This festival is strictly forbidden, because it is regarded as a bid˓a, "while every bid˓a is an error." Despite the enormous respect for the Prophet, Wahhabis reject celebrating his mawlid because it is rightly understood as a later innovation.
On the whole, however, in present-day Islam only a minority adhere to this limited, negative interpretation of the concept of bid˓a, while the majority of Muslims approves of a flexible interpretation, which is more compatible with modern beliefs and practices.
Fierro, Maribel. "The Treatises Against Innovations (kutub al-bida˓)." Der Islam 69 (1992): 204–246.
Goldziher, Ignaz, "Hadith and Sunna." In Vol. 2, MuslimStudies (Muhammedanische Studien). Edited by S. M. Stern. Translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern. London: Allen & Unwin, 1971.
Rispler, Vardit. "Toward a New Understanding of the Term bid˓a." Der Islam 68 (1991): 320–328.
Nico J. G. Kaptein