View Full Version : Innovation (by Shayhkul Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah)

11-20-2005, 06:57 PM
By Shaykhul Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah
Source: Iqtidaa Siraat al-Mustaqeem (The Right Way)

Innovations are always undesirable. This point should be grasped as general rulings and principles of the religion. However, some people tend to categorize innovations under two heads: good and bad. In order to substantiate their claim they refer to this remark of Umar about Taraweeh prayer: "How good this innovation is?" Moreover, they cite various rituals which came to be practised after the Prophet's death, yet they are not considered undesirable; on the contrary, in the light of consensus and reasoning they are regarded as desirable practices. Some ignorant people have intorduce many new things and label these as good innovations.
To regard something as a matter of consensus which is widely practised without seeking the opinion of all Muslms and to endorse the same is comented upon in the Qur'an:

"And when it is said to them: Come to what Allah has revealed and to the Messenger. They say: Enough for us is that which we found our fathers following" (Al-Maidah, 5:104)

This misconception is fairly common among those who hold a distinct position in society by dint of their learning or devotion to religious practices. They draw on such arguments which are no valid in matters of faith.
There are many explicit statements in the fundamental sources of Islam which condemn innovation and dismiss arguments advanced in support of good innovations. These arguments are either drawh from Shariah or are the disputation of such persons whom only the ignorant people can trust in them.
As to the opponents they may take only the two positions:
Either they should hold that once it is established that some innovations are good and others bad, the bad one is that which has been forbideen by Shariah. As to the innovations about which Shariah is silent, they are not bad but may possibly be good.
Or, they should say that such and such innovations are good in view of such and such advantages. That is, they do not hold the faith that each innovation is error.
Our stance is that it is reported in authentic hadith:

“The worst deeds are innovations. Each innovation is error.”

These are unmistakable statements of the Prophet saaws regarding innovations. It is not, therefore, proper for anyone to reject Hadith. One guilty of it is in serious error.
The opponents may, however, argue that if something is endorsed by Shariah, it cannot be regarded as innovation. Given this, a general principle (Each innovation is error) will be followed without making any exception. Or a practice of which sanctity is established, would be taken as an exception. And it is well-known that the general principle is always applicable except in its exceptional cases. Otherwise every innovation would be held as an error according to the general ruling.
So those who believe that certain innovations are exceptions, the onus lies on them for producing sound argument in defense of innovations. Otherwise every innovation would be held as an error according to the general rule.
It should be realized that the arguments which exempt something from general principles should be based on Shariah. In other words, these should be drawn from the Qur’an, Sunnah, and consensus, whether directly or by implication. The views and practices in any way supercede the Prophet’s saying.

Claim for consensus

As to those who believe that practices contrary to Sunnah have gained the consensus of the Muslim community in that the community let them flourish and did not forbid them. It is a fallacious view. For, there have been persons in each period who have opposed and forbidden practices which are contrary to the Sunnah. If Muslims carry out certain practices at a single or many places, it cannot be taken as consensus. That some groups practice a particular thing is not a sound argument on this count.
Most of the ulema did not regard the practice and views of the ulema of Madina in the days of Imam Malik rad as the clinching argument. Rather they preferred the Sunnah. We know about their credentials. Given this, we cannot take the practice of certain scholars as the model who do so out of habit or because of compulsion by the general public or out of conformity or not possess any knowledge nor do they have abilities or discernment, rather their faith in Allah and his Messenger is itself doubtful. Some scholars are no doubt good people but they seem to follow a common practice without thinking or they have been victims of some confusion.
It can be held that although some people of these people are good, and may be graded as religious scholars yet their conduct cannot be taken as model in matters of Shariah. Ulema are not in favour to cite these practices. The bitter truth is that ignorance is rampant. Majority of people are misled by such arguments which have no basis. What is most deplorable is that even those associated with religious knowledge have fallen prey to such a misunderstanding.
Sometimes certain points are adduced by persons of knowledge and faith. Nonetheless their words and deeds do not carry any weight in matters of Shariah. They seem to be misguided in matters which they have not drawn from Allah and His Messenger. They draw on Shariah argument only in order to silence their audience, although it is not a good practice. For in such a debate only such argument should be cited which are authentic. It is sheer hypocrisy that they refer to baseless principles, and overstretch them in order to prove their points.
It is not proper to isolate only such innovations as the target of Hadith (each innovation is error), of which prohibition is well-known. Such a conduct amounts to toying with Hadith. Shariah has already forbidden unbelief, transgression and all misdeeds. Their prohibition is common knowledge. The above quoted hadith makes no reference to these evils. However, if one were to accept the view that only those things are forbidden in Shariah, irrespective of the fact whether those were practiced in the days of the Prophet or not, it would distort the definition of innovation. In this case both its absense and presence would make no difference. Rather the Prophetic statement: “Every innovation is error” would tend to mean that each practice of Arabs and non-Arabs is error. Obviously it is misinterpretation of the text and may give rise to several problems, some of which are stated below:

1. It makes the Hadith meaningless. For if something has been already forbidden, its prohibition is an established fact. And it its prohibition is not there, it cannot be prohibited under the Hadith (each innovation is error), if the above definition of the Hadith is accepted. In either case the above Hadith appears pointless, whereas the Prophet saaws used to recite this Hadith in the Friday sermons and it was considered as a comprehensive statement.
2. It would render the expression “innovation” meaningless in that it would be applicable nowhere.
3. Innovation is something general whereas prohibition make it an exception. Both of them are thus relative terms for being specific and general. Given this if a general rule is mentioned whereas the intent is to consider only the exception without spelling it out, concealing what ought to be explained and elucidating only the hidden meaning amounts to fraud. Only an unscrupulous person can commit this, it cannot be expected of the Prophet saaws.
4. If the Prophet’s statement, “Each innovation is error” and “Avoid inventing new things in matters of faith” stand for things which are explicitly forbidden, it means that he failed to guide Muslims to follow the above quoted Hadith.
5. If the above Hadith is specific to things which are explicitly forbidden, then the number of things which are forbidden is too less than that of those which are not forbidden. As it is, a general statement cannot be made to indicate a very limited number of practices. It will be highly improper to do so.

In light of above considerations it is clear that the opponents’ viewpoint is baseless and cannot be held applicable to the Hadith under discussion. The onus lies on those who try to make certain points. They should prove that their position is in accordance with the intent of Shariah. Likewise, they should tell why they construe this particular Hadith in an exceptional sense while the above accounts make it impossible to regard these as an exception. This was in respect to their first argument.

A rejoinder to their second argument

In so far as their second argument is concerned, it may be countered thus: Let us assume that the innovations are of two types: good and bad. Their assumption does not, however, make it compulsory that Hadith is not a sound argument for condemning all acts of innovations. What can be said, at most, is that if an innovation is proved to be good, it will be treated as an exception. However, the fundamental principle remains intact that each innovation is an error. For in responding to this question we have already bought home the point that if an innovation is proved to be good, it is either not an innovation or is an exception to the general rule. It maintains and safeguards the position of Hadith.
Such a situation arises only when an innovation is proved to contain goodness. However regarding the matters which are considered good but they are not actually so, and also regarding the matters which might be either good or bad; it is improper to advance them as argument. Regarding all of them our stand is that if an innovation is proved to be something good, either it is not an innovation at all or is an exception to the general rule. If its goodness is not proved, it would continue to be governed by the general rule; i.e. each innovation is error. Whatever be the case, the import of Hadith remains sound.
No one is authorized to dismiss the Prophet’s statement: “Each innovation is error.” It does not befit any one to ignore such a comprehensive and all-embracing statement of the Prophet saaws. Nor is it possible for anyone to reject its import. As to those who try to tone down the statement holding that each innovation is not error, it is tantamount to rebelling against the Prophet saaws. For if the goodness of an act is proved, it should be held that a particular act is not innovation hence it lies outside the range of the Hadith. Or it may be considered that the practice is to be considered an exception in view of such and such evidents. The former position is better whereas the latter is subject to question. For the Prophet’s intention is clear in Hadith and it is not permissible in any case to overlook his intention.

Taraweeh prayer

Taraweeh prayer is not an innovation. That it is Sunnah is evident from Prophet’s words and deeds. For he said:

“Allah has made fasting in Ramadan obligatory; and prayer therein is Sunnah”

In the early part of Ramadan the Prophet saaws led congregational Taraweeh prayer three nights and he repeated the same on the last nights of Ramadan, saying:

“When one prays behind Imam and stays till Imam finishes, he gets the reward for praying for the whole night”

The above Hadith is reported by many Muhadditheen; and Imam Ahmad has inferred from the same that it is better to offer Taraweeh prayer in congregation than individually. This Hadith obviously exhorts us to offer Taraweeh prayer in congregation hence it is a clear Sunnah. Moreover, the Prophet saaws did not object to the Companions praying taraweeh in congregation. His silence and the continuance of the practice are in themselves a proof that it is Sunnah.
As to Umar’s remark about Taraweeh that it is a good innovation, it leaves little room for the opponents to draw a fallacious conclusion. For, if on other occasions a religious command is mentioned with reference to the statement of Umar or any other Companion, the very same persons declare that a Companion’s statement is not a clinching argument. If this is the principle, Umar’s statements which contravenes the Prophet’s Sunnah cannot be a clinching argument. Moreover, those who regard a Companion’s statement as a sound basis do concede the point that a statement which is contrary to Hadith cannot be reckoned. In any case it is not proper to cite a Companion’s statement in opposition to Hadith. This is no doubt true that if a Companion’s statement is not objected to by anyone, it may be used for making an exception to the general principle of Hadith. In the light of the above what can be established, at most, is that a particular innovation can be proved good. However, it leaves out other innovations.
We must reiterate the point that Umar branded Taraweeh prayer as good innovation. He, however, used a literal expression, not a Shariah one. It is common knowledge that innovations stands for such acts which are done without any precedence. In Shariah terminology, innovation signifies an act which does not have any basis in Shariah. So, if one practices an act in the light of the Prophet’s conduct after his death and follows the same, for example, a practice initiated by Abu Bakr, (issuing a book of charity) it may be literally described as innovation in that it did not have any precedence. Even Islam was described – literally as an innovation. The representatives of the Quraysh at the court of Negus in Ethiopia while opposing the Muslim migrants, said: “They have deviated from the faith of their ancestors nor have they embraced the Emperor’s faith. Rather they practice a new faith which is not known to anyone.”
However, an act which is endorsed by the Qur’an and Sunnah is not an innovation according to Shariah, though it may be literally considered as innovation. For the literal meaning of innovation is much more wide ranging than its definition in Shariah. Obviously, in the Prophet’s statement: “Each innovation is error,” innovation is not taken in its literal sense; it does not condemn an act, which is done for the first time. For Islam itself and the faiths preached by earlier Messengers were new and unprecedented. On the contrary, the Prophet’s reference is to such acts which are not prescribed by Shariah. As to Taraweeh prayer, the Companions of the Prophet saaws used to offer it in the Prophet’s life both collectively and individually. On the third or fourth night while the Companions had assembled the Prophet saaws told them:

“I did not deliberately come out for Prayer lest it may become compulsory for you. You should offer it at home. For, except the obligatory prayer the best prayer is the one which is offered at home.”

On reflecting over the above report it becomes clear that the Prophet saaws deliberately absented himself lest Taraweeh prayer might become compulsory. Offering prayer was still a duty. Had the Prophet saaws not apprehended that it would become compulsory, he would have certainly come out. During his caliphate Umar rad assembled Muslims to offer Taraweeh prayer in congregation and arranged for light in the mosque. This particular form of prayer i.e., offering it behind Imam and making arrangement for lighting were the practices not followed by the Companions at an earlier date. Hence these were named as innovation. This could be the only literal expression for these practices. However, these practices were not innovation according to Shariah. For such a practice is a virtuous act in the light of Sunnah. It was not practiced continuously for the fear it might become compulsory. After the Prophet’s death there was no such apprehension hence there was no obstacle to continue this practice on a regular basis.

Acts which are not Innovation

There are many acts which cannot be described as innovation, for example, the collection of the Qur’an. The Qur’an was not compiled in the days of the Prophet saaws for the process of the revelation was on and commands were subject to change by Allah. Had the Qur’an been collected in book form then it would have been difficult to incorporate changes. However, after the Prophet’s death the process of revelation ended and Shariah was established hence the Qur’an was collected. Technically this act of the collection was an innovation; it was not, however, an innovation in terms of Shariah. On the contrary it was in accordance with the Sunnah.
Same holds true for Umar’s expulsion of Jews of Khayber and Christians of Najran from Arab. The Prophet saaws had instructed him to do the same while he was on his death bed. Abu Bakr rad could not implement it in view of his preoccupation with the battles against the Persians, Romans, and the apostates. As soon as Umar rad found an opportunity after assuming office, he implemented the Prophet’s directive. Once again Umar’s acts may be described literally as innovations. Even the Jews had raised the same point in telling Umar: “You expel us while the Prophet had let us stay.” In Ali’s days they once again made an appeal on the same ground, seeking permission to return, adding that they had a document written in Ali’s own hand. However, Ali too, refused them permission. Although Umar’s action happened at a date after Prophet’s death, it being in consonance with the Prophet’s directive cannot be branded as an innovation.
Another instance is of Abu Bakr declaring a war against those who refused to pray Zakah. There are many other instances illustrating the same point. The above point should, however, suffice.

The Underlying Principle

Generally speaking, people invent things, regarding them as useful. If new things are harmful, these would never gain currency.
In the light of this principle let us study the situation which prompts Muslims to consider certain things as useful. If such a situation arose after the Prophet’s death and there is no prohibition on the Prophet’s part, this practice may be adopted. Likewise, necessity of something was realized in the Prophet’s day, yet he did not do it in view of certain hindrance which however removed after his death, then it is legal to be adopted. Moreover, if there is some issue behind which there is no valid reason or the reason is the product of misdeeds of the people, then it is not proper to adopt it.
It some action was needed in the Prophet’s day yet he did not do it, it should be realized that he did not recognize its need. Such an action is, therefore, deprived of any usefulness. But the necessity of some act was realized after the Prophet’s death, and the reason behind it is not the result of misdeeds of the people then this act may consist usefulness.

Two Viewpoints of Jurisprudence

Muslim jurisprudents have two viewpoints on this issue. According to one group, what is not prohibited is permissible, for the latter group, only that is permissible which is commanded. The latter group is sub-divided into two schools of thought: for one only such things are permissible which are borne out by the Prophet’s word, deed or affirmation. This group does not recognize the principle of analogy. For others, commands may be sanctioned by the Prophet’s word or by its import. They are those who follow the principle of analogy.

Worldly Ulema and Misguided Sufis

If an action was needed in the Prophet’s day yet he did not do it, it means that the Prophet saaws did not recognize its need. To hold such an act as permissible amounts to tampering with the religion of Allah. Only the misguided ruler or audacious ulema and saints could dare do so. Those liable to committing mistakes in interpretation may also be guilty of the same. This statement of the Prophet saaws is recorded on the authority of many Companions:

”What I fear most regarding you is the mistakes committed by Ulema, the disputation of hypocrites through Qur’an and the misguided leaders.”

A Clinching Argument

An instance in this context is Adhan in Eid prayers. This practise was invented by a certain ruler but was resented by the Muslims. They objected to it on the ground that it was an innovation. Otherwise they would have used the pretext that Adhan is a form of remembering of Allah and a call to the Muslims to worship Allah. It could be easily argued that Adhan is derived from the Qur’anic verse which exhort us to remember Allah and to invite others to Allah. The analogy of Adhan in Friday prayers could also be advanced. It is evident that the arguments advanced in favour of other innovations. In spite of this, the Adhan of Eid prayers are still an innovation in that the necessity which needs it to day did also exist in the Prophet days and there was nothing to stop it yet the Prophet saaws did not follow this practice. He did command to announce Adhan in Friday prayer. However, he offered Eid prayers without Adhan, action are Sunnah, his abandoning of certain action are Sunnah, his abandoning of Adhan in Eid prayer is Sunnah. Now it is not permissible for anyone to alter his way.
Any tampering on this count may be likened to adding the number of Rakah in the five daily prayers. That is, one offers five rakahs instead of the prescribed four in Dhuhr prayer on the ground that prayer is a virtuous act and offering more rakah is an act of greater virtue.
Likewise, a particular place is designed for remembering Allah and it is paraded as a good innovation. This practice is, however, undesirable for being an innovation. We know well that each innovation is error. We are sure that it would lead to error even before its harm becomes manifest. Had it been a good practice is would have been prescribed or recommended. No matter how hard the practitioners of innovation may try, their efforts cannot be acceptable. For the need for such action existed in the Prophet’s day yet he did not follow or prescribe that practice. His avoidance of this practice is Sunnah and it is weighty argument against all the points advanced in its defense.

Acts of Innovation

Let us now turn to such acts of innovation which have been invented by people owing to their own misperceptions. An example is the delivering of a sermon before Eid prayer. This innovation was practiced by certain rulers which was objected by Muslims. In their defence they argued that since those praying dispersed after the prayers and did not listen to the sermon whereas they used to stay in the Prophet’s day. This argument is not valid enough to justify this innovation. For the need for such an action was caused by the same ruler. When the Prophet saaws used to deliver sermon, his primary concern was the welfare and guidance of Muslims whereas the ruler was interested only in his own glory and power. The ruler’s misdeeds could not justify another misdeed. Instead of introducing an innovation the best way for these rulers was to mend their ways and follow Sunnah. Then they would have monitored people’s response as to whether they waited for the sermon or not. Had they not waited for the sermon, Allah would have taken them to task for not listening to the sermon.

Innovation and Sunnah

If these fundamental principles are grasped, one would not remain in doubt about innovation. The Prophet saaws said:

“When people introduce an innovation, Allah withdraws from them Sunnah in an equal measure”

As pointed out earlier, Sunnah and Shariah cater to our spiritual needs. It our hearts are full of innovation, it leaves no room for Sunnah. An analogy of this count is that if one’s belly is already stuffed with junk food, he can hardly relish quality food.
People are themselves responsible for many innovations. The rulers took to unjust practices, usurped possessions, and prescribed unsuitable penalties for crimes. They did all this in forbidding evil. Had they implemented Shariah rulings, made no distinction between the rich and the poor in its enforcement, accorded top priority to administering justice, there could hardly be any need for innovation. They would not have needed to impose unjust taxes, harsh penalties, and recruit large armies for their safety and security. They should have better followed the model of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Umar bin Abd Al Aziz and other just rulers.

Ulema’s Negligence of the Qur’an

Had the Ulema followed the Qur’an, gained insight into it, reflected on its guidance which provides useful knowledge and good conduct, established divine wisdom as sent down by Allah to his Messengers they would have possessed such knowledge which would have dominated all other branches of learning. They would have been in a position to discern between truth and falsehood. According to the words of Allah:

“Thus We have made you a just nation, that you be witnesses over mankind” (Al-Baqara, 2:144)

Muslims would have been the middle community and act as witnesses unto mankind. They would have been free from all such ills and evils which have been perpetrated by pseudo scholars. They would have been also free from such analogies which are considered to be a part of religion. We are in possession of sound views and sound arguments obtained from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Those who are bestowed with this ability derive guidance whereas others lacking in it fail to do so.

Sufis’ error

Had the righteous people followed only such modes of worship which are sanctioned by Shariah, they would have gained true faith as sent down to the Messenger of Allah and they would have reached such heights which would have made them indifferent to innovation. They would not have indulged in their own and fabricated forms of worship and remembrance which bar them from the Qur’an
No one is to be obeyed: All new and invented forms of worship which are not authorized by Shariah are the result of the error on the part of some religious scholars and rulers. No doubt, they might be excused for these innovations as these may be considered to be the result of their interpretations. However, they should strive to find out the Shariah rulings for all form of worship. Moreover, one may attain the status of a truthful person notwithstanding his error. For, a truthful is not someone who is above and beyond mistakes. He is not someone to be obeyed unquestioningly. Only the Prophet saaws enjoys this status. [1]


1. Since the truthful do not hold this status, what can be said about others. It is ironical that their word and deeds are taken as authority in preference to the word of Allah. If one were to present arguments drawn from the Quran and Sunnah to the misguided people, they reject them on the ground that it is not endorsed by a certain saint. They, however fail to realize that one may not be saint whom they take so. He may be a hypocrite who may have died in the state of disbelief and hypocrisy. Even if it is established that he was a saint, his word or deed does not carry any weight in Shariah. It is a pity that even this self-evident truth is not realized by the misguided people. A leading Muslim leader is on record saying that he prefers the commands of his spiritual leader to those of the Qur’an and Hadith. May Allah pardon him. He did not realize that in sasying so he had committed a manifest act of disbelief.

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