Sunnah, Bid’ah and What Lies ThereIn

Recently, I have been asked and approached to explain the concept of Sunnah, things the Prophet did, said could be done or gave tacit approval of. Not to be confused with this are things we can also call ‘amal al-Nabi, or actions of the Prophet. Conversely, not everything that the Prophet did is to be cataloged under Sunnah, per se. Now, hold on. Hold yer horses. I know right now some of you are gonna flip out! Okay, here ‘goes.

First, the notion that everything that the Prophet did, every single little act or action, is Sunnah (and by Sunnah, we mean in a fiqhi/jurisprudence kind of way) was upheld by very few. One of those few was Ibn Hazm, a famous Spanish scholar of the Zahirite school. Ibn Hazm considered just about everything the Prophet did to be Sunnah and therefore wajib (obligatory) to follow him in it. Again, this is not the norm.

Now along with this explanation it should be stated clearly that there’s a difference between not following the Prophet in his every action and refusing to follow the Prophet as a modus operandi. I hope you all follow me on that. The reason why I am stating all of this is because there is much confusion today amongst Muslims as to what is and what isn’t Sunnah. And it is that which ties us into bid’ah, or unsanctioned innovations in religion.

Bid’ah is not simply “adding something to the religion”. This is a common misconception and you have to follow closely what I’m talking about here. Using modern technology, cultural norms and so on are not bid’ah, per se. If I choose to put my shoes on right foot then left, this is not a bid’ah. It’s not even disobeying the Prophet. But, for instance, there are many Muslims who won’t kiss their wives during Ramadan or while they’re fasting because they believe that kissing you wife will break your fast (even though there’s indisputable evidence that the Prophet did kiss his wives during these times). They believe that by not kissing their wives they’re just “making sure” that they don’t break their fasts. Now, if you believe you can come up with a way or a system of doing something that is better than the Prophet’s, that’s bid’ah. That is what is meant by unsanctioned innovation in the religion. Saying that those who pray with their hands at their sides is a bid’ah is ridiculous and is the work of ignorant and mis-educated people.

I know this is brief but I wanted to just touch on this subject. I plan to come back to it in more detail later. And God knows best. For further reading, see Sherman Jackson’s piece on Prophet action.

3 Comments Sunnah, Bid’ah and What Lies ThereIn

  1. Ginny

    Assalamu alaikum, good post Mashallah. I’ave also posted an article about “traditional Islam” and why I choose to follow it. Not sure if it’s well-written or gets the point across.

    Take care.

  2. dezhen

    Let’s remember the actual definiton of the term “Sunnah” too. A “well trodden path”, i.e. Normative example that people can follow on their journey.

    I got in to this discussion recently too with some folks. A Hadith (tale/narration) may or may not contain the Sunnah, because it depends on its normacy in the scheme of the Prophets life. Specifically also which ‘hat’ he was wearing at the time (that of the Prophet, head of State, husband, father, friend…), many scholars have discussed this and said the latter have less legislative value than the former.

    Specifically when we look in history and for example see at the “Battle of the trench” when the Prophet (s) made a suggestion on strategy, and the Sahaba asked – Is this revelation or your own suggestion? He affirmed the latter, and they ended up choosing something else that was more sound.

    This is really something quite incredible compared to what certain types of people think when they imagine the Prophet (s) today!

    Not to mention that in such a case, the ‘Amal al-Madina can put forth a strong case as the normative practise of the community, inherited directly from the Prophet through action and basically repetition of the norm in Medina. Compared to isolated (ahadi) and weaker hadith that other juristic schools like to use.

    If I wasn’t a Hanafi, i would certainly become Maliki. 😛

    Also the term Bid’ah itself. I can’t remember exactly, but it may have been ash-Shatibi who stated that Bid’ah was only in regards to something that was deemed obligatory in matters of religion. Others differ on the definition of the term, especially when bringing in the whole “Biddah hassanah” (Good Bid’ah) and such. Not to mention that it is in regards to ‘Ibadat (worship) mostly, as everything else must develop.

    Some Maliki texts (such as guiding helper as a modern example) actually contain rulings stating that if the populace deems something Makruh to actually be Haram (when it is not), it actually becomes extremely recommended/an obligation to perform the Makruh act in order to change the opinion. I guess because that would be a Bid’ah in itself.

    Really quite amazing, and confusing when you think about it.

  3. Pingback: The Manrilla Blog » Making Tahriym and What Lies Therein

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