Determining Innovation and Lawful in the Religion

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Allah chose the earth as a test bed for Adam, Eve and their descendants to live their life, earn their livelihood and die. Quran addresses this fact in many places such as:

And We said: O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden, and eat ye freely (of the fruits) thereof where ye will; but come not nigh this tree lest ye become wrong-doers. But Satan caused them to deflect there from and expelled them from the (happy) state in which they were; and We said: Fall down, one of you a foe unto the other! There shall be for you on earth a habitation and provision for a time.” (Quran: Chapter 2, 35-36)

The ultimate goal for the humans is to worship Allah as the Quran states:

I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me. I seek no livelihood from them, nor do I ask that they should feed Me.” (Quran: Chapter 51, 56-57)

One of the issues that Muslims struggle with today is drawing the line between innovation (Bidaa’) and that what is lawful from an Islamic standpoint. All Muslims know the strict prohibition of the prophet against innovating things into religion. For example, celebrating of certain events such as the birthday of the prophet (SAWS), the night of the israa’ and miraj in middle of the month of Shaban etc. have always been a topic of keen interest and debate among the Muslims for a long time. While the protagonists always argue that such events present great opportunity to renew the faith and show our love for the religion, the antagonists always dismiss such events as innovations in religion (Bidaa’) and warn of dire consequences both in this life and the hereafter. In addition, the proponents argue that Islam encourages the act of ijtihaad. Moreover, they say that the environment was very different during the days of the Prophet Muhammad SAWS so why should Muslims indulge in certain luxuries (say riding a car or plane) that was not prevalent during the early times.

The concept of worship in Islam is a comprehensive one that encompasses both the religious rituals as well as the daily activities. More specifically, Allah divided the humans’ obligation into two categories: 1) to the creator and 2) to the creation. These responsibilities in Islam are referred to as rituals of worship (Ibadaat) and daily dealings (Muamalat). The rule in Islam is that for the rituals of worship to be valid, they are to be decreed specifically by Allah and His messenger. In other words, any ritual of worship is not allowed unless clearly mandated by the Quran and/or the Sunnah. On the other hand, all the actions of daily life are permissible unless explicitly prohibited by the Quran and/or the Sunnah.

As an example, the entry point to the religion is to declare the monotheism and the final prophet hood of Muhammad SAWS and to accept Islam as the only true religion. Submission to any other deity or to believe that another way of life is better than Islam takes a person out of the confines of Islam unless a person does so out of ignorance or forcefulness. Similarly, denying any of the prescribed pillars of Islam or introducing new acts of worship such as sixth mandatory prayer would violate the basic tenets of Islam. On the other hand, monetary dealings of all forms are allowed unless prohibited specifically such as dealing with usury. Similarly all types of food and drinks are permissible by default with few exceptions such as alcohol and pork which are prohibited specifically in Quran and Sunnah.

Given the above, a Muslim should evaluate the action in the light of the two aforementioned categories. If the action falls under the category of rituals of worship (Ibadaat), then there has to be evidence from the Quran and the Sunnah for the act to be carried out. As an example, consider the act of praying all night or fasting on the day of Israa and Maraaj specifically with the belief that such actions will be rewarded. Since there is no evidence from Quran or Sunnah to support such a belief, the action is considered a Bidaa’ or innovation. The Prophet SAWS made clear all the rituals of worship whether mandatory or voluntary and Allah perfected this religion on the day Prophet SAWS performed Hajj – the fifth pillar of Islam – and instructed his followers to take the rituals from him as has been reported in many books of Ahadith.

Lastly, a Muslim should recognize that for all the disputed actions, Allah has prescribed many alternatives. The person who is eager to perform extra prayers has ample opportunity to do so during his life. Praying during the last part of the night for example, is highly recommended while offering voluntary prayers on a particular night as Israa and Maraaj was never prescribed or reported. Therefore, a Muslim should take care in falling into such traps and follow the example of the Prophet SAWS. Also, whenever in doubt, it is recommended to ask the scholars of Islam. However, the criteria should always be the basis on which such answers are given. If a scholar offers irrefutable evidence for a particular course of action, it should be followed. On the other hand, a ruling without any evidence should be discarded in the pursuit of the truth. That is Islam.