The ‘good innovation’

No such thing in religion 

Almost all doctors today are in agreement that cholesterol comes in the good and the bad varieties. Be that as it may, and contrary to what many hold to be true, there is no such thing as the good innovation (bid’at e hasana) when it comes to religious matters. In the worldly matters on the other hand, an innovation can be good, better, bad or worse according as, and in proportion to, how useful and effective it is. Religion has nothing whatsoever against innovation in this latter domain. In fact, more power to it as far as religion is concerned.

Like most problems, the whole concept of the good innovation stems from lack of thought and/or lack of intelligence (the usual suspects). What certainly does not help this particular issue is the fact that ‘innovation’ (or bid’at) is used to mean two completely different things. It is used in its dictionary meaning (anything new), and as a religious term (innovation in religion). It is only in this latter, terminological sense that innovation becomes problematic from the religious perspective.

The ‘good innovation’, in this context is a contradiction in terms, for innovation in religion cannot possibly be good. Since it is presented and accepted as a religious concept or a religious practice, the Quran refers to it as attributing something to God falsely. It lists it among five (and only five) fundamental things forbidden in religion (apart from foods and drinks) [7.33]. The Prophet (peace be upon him) also warns against introducing new matters into the religion, for they will all be rejected [Bukhari]. Furthermore, he categorically declares every innovation to be a misguidance and every misguidance as destined for Hellfire [Muslim, Nasai].

Many folks justify innovations in religion by pointing to new developments in worldly matters. To rationalize qul or chaleeswan (for example) they are apt to argue that did the Prophet (peace be upon him) not travel on camels, horses and the like; while we are not averse to using cars and aeroplanes instead? This is a terrible argument because mode of transport is a technological matter, while the practices they seek to justify are anything but. There is a simple litmus test to separate one category from the other: Just ask this type of person whether or not he does a certain thing considering it a religious or a spiritual activity. Ask him why he observes the khatam, for example. Now ask him why he wears eyeglasses, say. Neither practice was there in the Prophet’s time, but only one of the two is done for religious reasons. And that is the only one religion has a problem with.

One source of error in this regard is the failure to realize that not everything connected with religion becomes ipso-facto religion. To call the azan for prayer is religion. But when and how exactly (unaided, via loudspeaker, radio or the TV) it is done is a technological or administrative matter. Understanding the Quran is religion. Using hard copy, however, or a cell phone to read it; or listening to it on an electronic device are merely the means to do it; and are therefore outside the domain of religion. To perform prayers is religion. But deciding to go to the mosque by car or on foot, carpeting the floor of the mosque or using ceramic tiles, the precise manner of roofing the mosque, etc., are all technological, aesthetic, pragmatic and/or financial matters.

The religion is complete and perfect in the Quran and the Sunnat. Instead of looking to improve it therefore, one would be well-advised to devote all one’s energies in understanding it as it is and following it. As for the desire to be creative and innovative, there is plenty of scope for it in the domains of literature, fine arts, mathematics and the physical sciences.

When all else fails, the last resort of folks hellbent on justifying innovations is demanding to know what harm is there in any given practice any way. Well, there is plenty of harm, and very serious harm at that. It suffices to simply summarize what Imam Malik had brilliantly observed 13 centuries ago. That adding new things to religion was tantamount to attempting to improve religion; an improvement that can only be thought necessary based on one of three (and only three) implicit assumptions:

One: Despite making an announcement to that effect [5:3], God did not perfect or complete the religion even after the Quran had been fully revealed. Two: God revealed the perfect religion but the Prophet (peace be upon him) failed to convey all of it despite the explicit instructions from God to do so. Three: The Prophet did his job perfectly but his companions (RAA) failed to receive the religion, practise it and/or transfer it to the following generations. May God preserve every Muslim from all three delusions.

The religion is complete and perfect in the Quran and the Sunnat. Instead of looking to improve it therefore, one would be well-advised to devote all one’s energies in understanding it as it is and following it. As for the desire to be creative and innovative, there is plenty of scope for it in the domains of literature, fine arts, mathematics and the physical sciences.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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