When does a virtuous act become a sinful innovation (bid`ah)? If I hold a Qur’an recitation gathering, hug people three times on Eid day, or make specific supplications daily, is this an innovation?

Short Answer

If you think or teach that something is prescribed in Islam, but it is not, then it is a sinful innovation (bid`ah). For example, there are two units of morning (Fajr) prayer. If someone prays three instead, even though it is more prayer, and prayer is good, this is wrong and sinful. Likewise, it is permissible (mubah) to hug people three times on the day of Eid. If you claim this specific act is recommended (mustahabb or sunnah) or required (wajib or fard), then this means you are misrepresenting what Islam really teaches. Instead of being rewarded by Allah for showing love to your fellow Muslims, you will be sinful for altering the religion of Islam and falsely claiming that Allah or His Messenger would have validated your claim.

When people give a specific act such a level of significance and importance to the extent that people are criticized if they don’t do it, or they think it is more beloved to Allah than a different way, then that is a sinful innovation because they think it is Islamically prescribed. Such is the case with a gathering where each person is expected to read a certain prayer forty times, birth of the Prophet (mawlid) gatherings, and other actions. Naturally, people begin to think that certain cultural practices are part of the religion such that they are recommended or required according to Islam. In a culture where several people mistakenly think that, it is important for educators to clarify the reality of the issue and for people to refrain from practicing this for a specific period of time until most people return to an equilibrium. There may be a community that hugs three times on Eid day but understands it is a cultural manifestation of love, so it is fine for them to practice this. There may be another community that thinks this specific action is recommended in Islam, so they would refrain from doing that to set an example for them to understand it is not the case.

One litmus test is to check a) Did the Prophet or his Companions do this act b) Is it based on a principle from the Qur’an or Sunnah (such as asking Allah for forgiveness) c) Is this specific way and time considered to be superior to other ways (such as saying “Forgive me, Allah” 1,343 times every Friday morning, which is just a random number with no basis in the Qur’an or Sunnah).

What the Qur’an and Sunnah Say

The Prophet said: “Whoever innovates something which is not part of our religion, that thing is rejected.” (Bukhari #2697)

What the Scholars Said

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud said: “You should not give away a part of your prayer to Shaytan by thinking that it is necessary to turn (after finishing the prayer) towards your right side only. I have seen the Messenger of Allah often turning towards his left side.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, no: 852) Imam Ibn Hajr commented: “Right-sidedness is recommended (mustahab) in all acts of worship, but when Abdullah ibn Mas’ud feared that people might think this recommended act is necessary, he pointed out that it is wrong.” (Fath al-Bari, 2:437)

Imam Malik said: “Whosoever invents something new thinking it is good has claimed that the Prophet breached the trust of Prophethood, because Allah Almighty says: “This day I have perfected your religion for you”. Anything that was not part of religion on that day cannot be a part of religion today.” (Shatibi, Kitab Al-I’tisam, 1:48)

Imam al-Nawawi said that one of the reasons why the Prophet prohibited fasting on Friday, although he used to do it himself often, was so that people do not think it is required. (Al-Minhaj Sharh Sahih Muslim ibn Al-Hajjaj, 858)

Imam Kamal ibn al-Humam said that the recitation of Surah al-Sajdah and Surah al-Dahr in the Fajr prayer of Friday and the recitation of Surah al-Munafiqun in the Jumu’ah prayer is Sunnah. However, if you only recite these surahs to the exclusion of others, it will be disliked (makruh). He recommends occasionally reciting some other surahs so that ingorant people do not mistakenly think it is necessary to do that. (Fath Ul-Qadir, 1:337)

Imam Ibn Abidin says that it is recommended (sunnah) to recite Surah al-A’la, al-Kafirun, and al-Ikhlas in Witr Prayer. Then he says, “…but reciting them regularly may lead some people to regard their recitation is necessary (wajib) which is not permissible, so not always reciting them would be better.” (Radd Ul-Muhtar, 2:6)

Imam Abdul Hayy Laknawi said: “(innovation) is to add or remove in religion in a way that it was not done in the time of the Prophet and his Companions, verbally, practically, explicitly or implicitly. Therefore, it does not include habits (worldly matters), rather it is restricted to certain beliefs and practices.” (Iqamat Al-Hujjah, 21-22)

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Shaykh Mustafa Umar