Al-Shatibi, the author of a two-volume book entitled al-I’tisam الاعتصام (Holding Fast), has been hailed by many as the best book ever written on the subject of bid’ah: “unsanctioned innovation in religious matters”. In this work, al-Shatibi gives the following definition for bid’ah:
البدعة طريقة مخترعة في الدين تضاهي الشرعية يقصد بالسلوك عليها ما يقصد بالطريقة الشرعية
“A concocted manner of proceeding in religion that mimics the scripturally mandated way, with the aim of achieving through this concocted way that which should only be sought through the scripturally mandated way.”
According to Dr. Sherman Jackson,
“bid’ah” is not simply committing an act that the Prophet did not commit or failing to commit an act that the Prophet actually did. Bid’a is, rather, committing or avoiding such actions as a means of making up one’s own way to God. In other words, the real issue is not whether an act is committed or not; the real issue is the religious value that one attributes to the commission or non-commission of an act“.
The reason why innovation becomes an issue is because people will leave off what was legislated for them* in favor of what is not legislated. In doing so they put themselves in the position of being a prophet or a messenger. We now have people who live recklessly and then attempt to turn religion in general, and Islam in particular, into a kind of magic or sorcery. What was magic’s use or intent? To either gain the gods’ favor, overcome them, or the natural world (which was in most mythologies created by the gods or inhabited by them).
Many of these attempts are “practical” in that they wish to supplant that which would require discipline for something else that “fits their schedule”. “Praying every day in impractical”, in this way of thinking. “I prefer to get it out the way or have it done on my time”.
قُل لِلَّهِ الشَّفاعَةُ جَميعًا ۖ لَهُ مُلكُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيهِ تُرجَعونَ
“Say to them,’It’s God’s exclusive right to choose someone to be an intercessor, for the control of the heavens and the earth belongs to Him, and then you’re all going to go back to Him’.” — Qur’an, 39: 44
So a person will drink, fornicate, cheat, and even murder, and then think all of this can be mitigated on one special night.
Background on the verses 53 through 59 of Surah al-Zumar (#39)
There were some Makkans who wanted to accept Islam, but they had indulged in very wicked behavior in their lives before, having murdered people, committed adultery, theft and other crimes. They felt that their sins were too enormous for God to forgive merely by their accepting Islam. “How can we become Muslims when we did all that?” one of them even asked. Just after the Muslims migrated to Madinah, the concerns of such sympathetic but despairing Makkans were discussed by many. These verses were revealed, and ‘Umar ibn al Khattab, who knew how to write, wrote them on a paper and sent it secretly back to Makkah. The first person who read it was a man named Hisham who said in later days, “I took it and went to a place named Thitawa, and I asked God to make me understand it. When I realized it was for us, I returned to where my mount was tethered and resolved to follow the Prophet.” Many others also joined Islam and made their way to Madinah.
قُل يا عِبادِيَ الَّذينَ أَسرَفوا عَلىٰ أَنفُسِهِم لا تَقنَطوا مِن رَحمَةِ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغفِرُ الذُّنوبَ جَميعًا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الغَفورُ الرَّحيمُ
وَأَنيبوا إِلىٰ رَبِّكُم وَأَسلِموا لَهُ مِن قَبلِ أَن يَأتِيَكُمُ العَذابُ ثُمَّ لا تُنصَرونَ
وَاتَّبِعوا أَحسَنَ ما أُنزِلَ إِلَيكُم مِن رَبِّكُم مِن قَبلِ أَن يَأتِيَكُمُ العَذابُ بَغتَةً وَأَنتُم لا تَشعُرونَ
أَن تَقولَ نَفسٌ يا حَسرَتا عَلىٰ ما فَرَّطتُ في جَنبِ اللَّهِ وَإِن كُنتُ لَمِنَ السّاخِرينَ
أَو تَقولَ لَو أَنَّ اللَّهَ هَداني لَكُنتُ مِنَ المُتَّقينَ
أَو تَقولَ حينَ تَرَى العَذابَ لَو أَنَّ لي كَرَّةً فَأَكونَ مِنَ المُحسِنينَ
بَلىٰ قَد جاءَتكَ آياتي فَكَذَّبتَ بِها وَاستَكبَرتَ وَكُنتَ مِنَ الكافِرينَ
“[Muhammad – Tell the people that I, Myself, have said, ‘All My servants who have acted excessively against their own souls! Don’t lose hope of God’s mercy, for God can forgive all sins. He truly is the Forgiving and the Merciful!’
‘Turn towards your Lord and surrender to Him before the punishment overwhelms you, for then you’ll have no one to help you.’
‘Follow the best of what’s being revealed to you from your Lord before the punishment overwhelms you all of a sudden without your even realizing what’s happening.’
‘For then your soul will cry out, “I’m doomed! I neglected my duty to God, and I scoffed!”
‘Or it might cry out, “If only God had guided me, I would surely have been one of the mindful.”
‘Or it might cry out, the moment it sees the punishment approaching, “If only I had a second chance, I would surely be with those who are good’.
‘“But no! My signs came to you, and you denied them! You were arrogant, and you tried to cover the truth that was all around you’.” — Qur’an, 39: 53-59
*What do we mean by “legislated”? In specific, that which Allah will judge a person by, and that which may forfeit a person’s entrance to the Garden.