Innovation and the use of reason in Islam

Alhamdulillah, nahmaduhu wa nasta’eenuhu was nastaghfir
Wa nauthu billahi min shururi anfusinaa wa min sayyiaati a’maalina
May yahdillahu fa laa mudhilla lah
Was may yudhlil fa laa haadiya lah
Wa nashhadu allah ilaha illallah wahdahu laa shareeka lah
wa nashhadu anna muhammadan abduhu wa rasulullah
All praise and thanks is due to Allah. We praise Allah, we seek assistance and
forgiveness from Allah. And we seek refuge in Allah from our lower selves and
from the wrongs we commit. Whoever Allah guides no one can misguide, and
whoever Allah leaves astray, no one can guide. And we bear witness that
there is none worthy of worship but God, the One who is unique and has no
partners. And we bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s servant and
َ‫يل َو َج َع ْلنا‬
َ ‫ُث َّم َق َّف ْي َنا َع َلى َآثارهم ب ُر ُس ِل َنا َو َق َّف ْْي َنا ب ِع َيس ى ْابن َم ْرَي َم َو َآت ْي َنا ُه ْاْلنج‬
َّ ْ ْ َ َ َِ َ ِ ْ َ َ َ َ ُ َ َ ْ ِ ً َّ َ ْ َ َ ِ ً َ ْ َ َ ً َ ْ َ ُ ِ ُ َ ِ َّ ِ َ َّ
‫وب ال ِذين اتبعوه رأفة ورحمة ْورهبا ِني ْة ابتدعوها ما كت ْبناها َعلي ِهم ِإَّل‬
‫ِفي قل‬
َ ْ
َ ‫الله َف َما َر َع ْو َها َح َّق ر َع َْايت َها َف َآت ْي َنا َّالذ‬
ْ‫ين َآم ُنوا م ْْن ُه ْم أ ْج َر ُهم‬
ِ ِ
ِ ‫اب ِتغاء ِرضو ِان‬
َ‫َ َ ٌ ْ ُ ْ َ ُ ن‬
57:27 ‫اسقو‬
ِ ‫وك ِثير ِمنهم ف‬
And thereupon We caused our apostles to follow in their footsteps; and We caused them
to be followed by Jesus, the son of Mary, upon whom We bestowed the Gospel; and in the
hearts of those who [truly] followed him We engendered compassion and mercy.
But as for monastic asceticism - We did not enjoin it upon them: they invented it
themselves out of a desire for God’s goodly acceptance. But then, they did not observe it as
it ought to have been observed: and so We granted their recompense unto such of them
as had attained to faith, whereas many of them became iniquitous.
In this Khutbah I will be drawing on the work of
by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah from the An-Nawawi
Two of the most contentious concepts of Islam, bid‘a
(innovation) and ijtihad (critical thinking) has given Islam
great historical mobility, yet at the same time maintained
Islam’s originality and preservation as a dynamic faith.
The fastest growing ideology in the world today.
The allegation that something is bid‘a is often made
rashly, marginalizing new ideas and making
creativity difficult.
For some Muslims, the term has become a means
by which their own ideas are justified and the ideas
of others made erroneous…. So much so that they
are even brave enough to declare critical thinking
and creative Muslims as “out of the fold of Islam”
As a result of this attitude, the intellectual
health and wealth of the Muslim
community is suffering tremendously.
The concept of bid‘a, contrary to its use today,
tended to be negative one.
The allegation that something was a bid‘a
meant that it violated the tribal code or a
tribal custom.
It constituted a hateful innovation caused by
deviating from the ways of patriarchs of past.
Make example of how the
different sects in Islam makes
the other wrong by the use of
the word Bid’a
The concept of Ijtihad suffers the same
fate. Some restrict its use so severely that
it ceases to be functional.
“The doors of Ijtihad has been closed”
Have to be a Mujtahid
No ordinary person are allowed to “free
think” when it comes to religious matters.
Others apply it so freely that it becomes
arbitrary and undermines any semblance
of authenticity.
Then there are those who “think so freely
and creatively” that everything is justified
and made “good” for their own good.
In the pre-Islamic context, the Prophet
Muhammad’s condemnation of idolatry was seen as a
bid‘a, a concrete threat to the tribal order of Arabia.
The Prophet made the opposite claim and turned the
bid‘a controversy on its head, by asserting the Abraham
was a Patriarch and the Arabs have deviated from the
practice of this patriarch.
So the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) cleverly used the
concept of bid’ah to his own benefit.
With the advent of Islam, the term sunna came to be closely
connected with the normative teaching and conduct of the
Prophet Muhammad, whereas Sunna before the advent of
Islam referred to the customs and practices of the tribes.
Later, after the demise of the Prophet (saw) bid‘a became
contrasted with sunna (established tradition).
And we see today how the Muslim community is pushed to
extremes, either you follow the sunnah strictly or you are
committing bid’ah
But the Quran continues to give us the guidance to
stay in the balance:
ً ‫ك َج َع ْل َنا ُك ْم أُم ًَّة َو َس‬
َ ‫اس َو َي ُك‬
َ ِ‫َو َك َذل‬
‫الرَّ سُو ُل َعلَ ْي ُك ْم َش ِهي ًدا‬
And we intended for you to be a Nation just
balanced.... So that you may become testimony of
that to mankind and the Prophet testimony to you.
We cannot say everything is a bid’a in the literal sense
of the word otherwise we would have to question
everything that came into existence after the Prophet
Muhammad (pbuh) passed away.
And similarly we cannot say that every practice of ours
would have to be within the Sunnah in the literal sense
of the word otherwise all our practices from wearing
knitted sock to brushing teeth has to be questioned.
An intriguing reference to bid‘a is the second caliph
‘Umar’s decision to institute Tarawih prayers during the
nights of Ramadan, which he introduced within a decade of
the Prophet’s death.
The Prophet once led his Companions in similar prayers
for a few nights of Ramadan shortly before his death, but
discontinued the practice, expressing concern that if he
continued leading the vigils, God would give them
obligatory status through revelation, and the additional
obligation would impose an excessive burden
upon the Muslim community.
During his caliphate, ‘Umar observed the people
praying either individually or in small groups in
the Prophet’s mosque during the nights of
Ramadan. He took the decision to make them a
single group behind one prayer leader, instituting
the Ramadan vigil as a group prayer. Entering the
mosque on a following
night, he saw the congregation praying together
and declared: “What an excellent bid‘a is this!”
Did Umar violate the sunnah of the Prophet which
states: Kullu bid’atin dalaala wa kullu dalaalata fin naar
- “Every innovation is misguidance, and the
path of every misguidance leads to the Fire.”?
Or did he institute something for his community that
he as a leader felt was beneficial in terms of creating
It was an innovation, for the GREATER GOOD
Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr was among those who held
that bid‘a was strictly ritualistic: “As for making
innovations in the practical workings of this
world, no constriction and no fault pertains
to one who does so.”
Technological progress, crafts, building
projects, urban development, and the like
does not constitute bid‘a according to him.
The fundamental reason for bid‘a retrictions is so that Islam
can continue to be conserved and preserved.
The criteria of bid‘a impose a restrictive frame on creative
ideas to ensure continuity with tradition and conformity
with legal principle.
However the same can be said, that if we look at the
gradual nature of Islam’s existence and subsequent growth,
it was through bid’a and Ijtihad. Hence, one cannot negate
the use of these concepts as we evolve through a
technological age and still maintain a sense of Islamicity.
The constructive potential of bid‘a as a
regulatory instrument is reinforced in Islamic
law by the intellectual process of ijtihad, which
has extensive legal authority and serves as a
complement to the notion of bid‘a.
By nature, ijtihad is empowering,
forward-looking, and creative.
Al-Baji, a traditional Sunni jurist, defined ijtihad
as “expending one’s fullest [intellectual] capacity
in search of the right ruling.”
The word Ijtihad is derived from the same root as jihad.
Their common radical, JaHaDa, denotes expending the
fullest effort to achieve a difficult but worthy goal.
The concept of jihad is not “Holy war”, but essentially an
active ethical principle for improving the world
through personal and group effort.
Its high point, however, is the inner struggle for
discipline and self-knowledge.
In other words, Jihad and Ijtihad is a constant
striving toward the better, or the greater
good, be it on a physical or cognitive level.
Dr Fazlur Rahman speaks of ijtihad as an intellectual
and moral jihad or, more concretely, as “the effort to
understand the meaning of a relevant text or
precedent in the past, containing a rule, and to alter
that rule by extending or restricting or otherwise
modifying it in such a manner that a new situation can
be subsumed under it by a new solution.”
George Makdisi, Ph.D., emeritus professor of
Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of
Pennsylvania notes, that Ijtihad is evident of the
existence of classical Islamic schools of thought
and it was imperative for them to use it to
create the Shariah law many decades after the
demise of the Prophet (pbuh)
Ijtihad is inherently creative and optimistic. The
Prophet promised that those who performed it assiduously
would be rewarded in the next world, even if
their answers were technically incorrect. He stated:
“If a judge [hakim] does ijtihad and gets the right
answer, he receives two rewards, and, if he is
mistaken, he gets one.”
‘Ali ibn al-Qassar, ed. Muhammad ibn al-Husayn al-Sulaymani, Al-Muqaddima fi al-Usul, (Beirut: Dar al Gharb al-Islami,
1996), 114-115; Sulayman ibn Khalaf al-Baji, ed. ‘Abd al-Majid al-Turki, Ihkam al-Fusul Ihkam fi Ahkam al-Usul, 2 vols. (Beirut:
Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1995), 2:714-716; ‘Ubayd-Allah ibn ‘Umar al-Dabbusi, ed. Mahmud Tawfiq al-Rifa‘i, Al-Asrar fi al-Usul
wa al-Furu‘ fi Taqwim Adillat al-Shar‘, 4 vols.(Amman: Wizarat al-Awqaf, 1999), 3:114-116; Ibn Amir al-Hajj, Al-Taqrir wa alTahbir, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1983), 3:306.The Ibadis took essentially the same position. See al-Kindi,
Bayan al-Shar’, 1:92-93.
Abu Zayd al-Dabusi (died 430 A.H.), a prominent
Sunni jurist, noted that what may be allowable in one
time or place may become prohibited in another,
because of changing circumstances, just as what was
prohibited may become allowable by the same
criterion. He added that changing times and places
are not the only considerations; there are others,
such as the particular realities of a person’s social
group. What is beneficial for one segment of society
may be harmful for another. 48
We need to ask ourselves, after having a clear
understanding of the diversity within sexuality:
From what basis, in what context and for
what purpose was it concluded approx.1200
years ago that homosexuality is synonymous
to the act of sodomy and that homosexuality
is punishable by death?
The renowned Sunni jurist
al-Qarafi asserted that there was scholarly
consensus (ijma‘) on harshly reprimanding religious
scholars who handed down legal judgments
mechanically without performing ijtihad and
merely followed the ancient texts in their books
literally without regard for new realities on the
ground. The fault of such jurists was inexcusable
and constituted disobedience of God.49
A great jurist of the next generation, Ibn al-Qayyim, commented on
al-Qarafi’s opinion, saying: This is pure understanding of the law.
Whoever issues legal rulings to the people merely on the basis
of what is transmitted in the compendia despite differences in their
customs, usages, times, places, conditions, and the special
circumstances of their situations has gone astray and leads others
astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the
crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without
regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live
in, and their physical conditions but merely in accordance with what
he finds written down in some medical manual about people with
similar anatomies. Such a person is an ignorant physician; the other
is an ignorant legal scholar but more detrimental.
So we need to state boldly:
By regurgitating 1200 year scholars’ conclusions on
homosexuality without a valid ijtihadic process followed
regarding homosexuality as we understand it today, is
And the process of ijtihad must be informed by all the
sciences for it to carry enough weight. As Allah mentions
in the Quran: Fas’al ahladh dhikri in kuntum laa
ta’lamoon – Ask those who with knowledge (who
remembers it) if you don’t know.
Barakallahu lee wa lakum fil quranil kareem
Wa nafa’nee wa iyyakum bil aayaati wa dhikril hakeem
Innahu jawaadun malikun barrun rabbur ra’oofur raheem
May Allah bless me and you through the guidance of this noble
And may it teachings and remembrances benefit me and you
Truly Allah is the possessor of wealth, the sovereign, the all good,
the one who has authority over us, the all-loving and allmerciful.
Sit between
For more than a millennium, the process of speculative
ijtihad was the monopoly of traditional scholars, and the
requirements they set for it remained largely
It is vital for Muslims today to have an authentic and
sophisticated understanding of bid‘a as a regulatory
mechanism and of ijtihad as a process for inducing Islamic
In Islam, like other faith traditions
—whether of innovation
and heresy, creativity or the lack of it—
are never set in stone, nor do they
emerge from a vacuum.
Classical Islamic thought was the product of
a particular socio-political milieu.
Contrary to the Activist cliché that there is no
separation of Religion and State in Islam,
Muslim religious establishments for more than
a millennium were largely free of
governmental control.
Unlike the Muslim world today, the classical
Islamic world was culturally advanced,
economically and militarily formidable, and
relatively stable politically.
Above all, as Dr Fazlur Rahman stresses, it
produced generations of thinkers who were
self-assured and psychologically invincible in
confronting new challenges.
Unlike the Muslim world today, the classical
Islamic world was culturally advanced,
economically and militarily formidable, and
relatively stable politically. Above all, as Fazlur
Rahman stresses, it produced generations of
thinkers who were self-assured and
psychologically invincible in confronting
new challenges.
It should be sufficiently clear from
what has preceded that the concept
of bid‘a should constitute a standard of
excellence and not a blanket
condemnation of every unfamiliar
practice or new solution.
It should set the guidelines for critical
thought, not prevent them.
It should foster personal and group
expression and not stifle it.
Sound conception of the
process of ijtihad should serve as a
positive source of inspiration for the
entire Muslim community, scholars
and non-scholars alike, in the search
for meaningful answers to
contemporary challenges.
Allahummansur man nasra deena Muhammad; Allahummansuril mujahideena fee qulli
makaan; Allahumma Yassir wa laa tu’assir
Allahumma tammim bil ghayr wa antal kareemu muyassir
O Allah, assist those who assist the cause of Muhammad
O Allah, assist all those who strive towards good in every place
O Allah, make things easy for us and remove difficulty
O Allah, complete us in Goodness, Truly You are the most noble of all those who provides
Innallaha wa malaa’ikatahu yusolloona alan nabi… yaa ayyuhallatheena aamanu sollu alayhi wa
sallimoo tasleema.
Wa aakhiri da’waanaa anil hamdu lillahi rabbil aalameen
Truly Allah and the Angels sends blessings and salutations on the Prophet Muhammad, O you
who believe, send greetings and salutations upon him.
And the final word is that all praise and thanks is due to Allah, the Authority over all creation.
َّ ‫َّللا أَ ْك َب ُر َو‬
‫َّللاُ َيعْ لَ ُم َما‬
ِ ‫ْك م َِن ْال ِك َتا‬
ِ َّ ‫ب َوأَق ِِم الص َََّل َة إِنَّ الص َََّل َة َت ْن َهى َع ِن ْال َفحْ َشاء َو ْالمُن َك ِر َولَذ ِْك ُر‬
َ ‫ا ْت ُل َما أُوح َِي إِلَي‬
َ ‫َتصْ َنع‬
29:45 Recite what is sent of the Book by inspiration to thee, and establish regular Prayer: for
Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of Allah is the greatest (thing
in life) without doubt. And Allah knows the (deeds) that ye do. Let us stand for prayer!
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