Innovation & Creation in Islam

By Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

Islam is a global religion. Its followers constitute one of the world's largest religious communities. They are of every ethnic group and inhabit every type of geographical region. The religion's historical success as a universal religion arises in part from the simplicity of its message and its ability to make itself relevant to different times and peoples. Islam constitutes a "mobile idea" because it can be easily understood anywhere and is flexible enough to come together "in intriguing ways to produce unanticipated new configurations."1

Two of the most important components of Islam that make it a mobile idea are the concepts of bidʻa (innovation) and ijtihad (critical legal thinking in search for answers to new problems). Close attention to bidʻa and ijtihad gives Islam great historical mobility, enabling it to preserve continuity with the past while renewing its vitality as a dynamic faith.

In traditional Islamic thought, the concepts of bidʻa and ijtihad both have shades of meaning that are not always well understood by Muslims today. The allegation that something is bidʻa is often made rashly, marginalizing new ideas and making creativity difficult. For some Muslims, the term has become a rhetorical sledgehammer to vindicate their own ideas by obliterating others. Ijtihad suffers from a similar predicament. Some restrict its use so severely that it ceases to be functional; others apply it so freely that it becomes arbitrary and undermines any semblance of authenticity.

A feel for the true conceptions of bidʻa and ijtihad is necessary for Muslims today. Both concepts are central to how we conceive of ourselves as Muslims, the types of practices we condone, and the future we envision. The health of a Muslim community is tied to the sophistication and functional religious literacy of its members. Sherman Jackson emphasizes the necessity of promoting the intellectual health of the Muslim community by spreading "Islamic literacy" in order to instill critical consciousness in the Muslim rank and file.2 By giving everyday Muslims basic immunity against pseudo-scholarly interpretations of Islam, this core understanding of the faith is necessary to regain a footing in moderation between secular skepticism and violent extremes. As will be shown, Islamic literacy is required by the rules of ijtihad, which were never restricted to scholars alone but required the lay community to pass judgment on each scholar's aptitude. A sound understanding of bidʻa and ijtihad is a fundamental component of the Islamic literacy our community needs.

The concept of bidʻa

The Arabic root from which bidʻa derives is connected in meaning to a distinct yet similar radical, BD' (the difference being between the final letter hamza (') in this root and the final ʻayn (ʻ) in bidʻa). BDʼ means "to start or begin something," while the primary meaning of bidʻa is "to start or begin something novel." Among the various words directly derived from the root of bidʻa is the noun Badiʻ (Originator), cited in the Qurʼan as an attribution of God: "Originator (Badiʻ) of the heavens and the earth" (2:117; 6:101).3 Use of Badiʻ with reference to God denotes the uniqueness of God's creative act and implies that the universe came into existence without a previously existing prototype.4 As an adjective, badiʻ was applied to outstanding works of human genius, especially those of poets and other masters of the spoken and written word.5

The pre-Islamic conception of bidʻa, in contrast to later Islamic usage, tended always to be negative and served as a critique of the social implications of non-customary practices. This concept of bidʻa, in contrast to later Islamic usage, tended always to be negative. The allegation that something was a bidʻa meant that it violated the tribal code. A bidʻa was an action or an idea that lacked precedent in established custom. It constituted a sort of tribal heresy, a hateful innovation caused by deviating from the ways of patriarchs of the past.

By contrast, in classical Islamic law and theology, bidʻa could take on various shades of meaning. When used without qualifying adjectives, it tended to be condemnatory, as, for example, in the statement, " bidʻa must be avoided." Nevertheless, bidʻa was not always something bad. In certain contexts, especially when qualified by adjectives, bidʻa could cover a wide range of meanings from what was praiseworthy to what was completely wrong, as, for example, in the caliph ʻUmar's statement below, "what an excellent bidʻa is this!"

In the pre-Islamic context, the Prophet Muhammad's condemnation of idolatry was seen as a bidʻa, a concrete threat to the tribal order of Arabia.The Prophet made the opposite claim and turned the bidʻa controversy on its head. Islam was neither a heresy nor an innovation, his teaching asserted, but the restoration of the lost legacy of Abraham, Ishmael, and God's Prophets generally, who were portrayed as ancient patriarchs whose teachings and customs the idolatrous Arab tribes had betrayed and distorted over time. This ideological battle is expressed in the Qurʼanic verse: "Say [to them, Muhammad]: I am no novelty [bidʻ] among [God's] Prophet-Messengers" (46:9). Bidʻ, the word used in the verse, is almost identical in form and meaning to bidʻa. It indicates that the Prophet's message was in direct continuity with ancient prophecy-a point made explicitly in other verses-and also implied that the beliefs and customs of the Prophet Muhammad's contemporaries were bidʻa, because they lacked genuine continuity and had veered long ago from the ways of the most ancient Arab patriarchs.6

As in later Islamic usage, the pre-Islamic concept of bidʻa was linked with its opposite, sunna (established tradition). Islam incorporated the bidʻasunna paradigm but redefined its content. With the advent of Islam, the term sunna came to be closely connected with the normative teaching and conduct of the Prophet Muhammad. In pre-Islamic Arabia, sunna constituted the reservoir of tribal codes and customs. The sunna embodied the norms of acceptable thought and practice. Each instance of bidʻa conjured up the image of a long-established sunna that it threatened. Rooted in tribal practice, the preIslamic bidʻa-sunna paradigm was doggedly conservative and reinforced the status quo.7

In both Islamic and pre-Islamic usage, sunna was almost invariably something good, but, like bidʻa, could sometimes take on very different connotations. A famous Hadith (saying of the Prophet) relates: "No human soul shall be killed wrongfully but that Adam's first son shall carry a share of the guilt, for he was the first human being to institute the sunna of murder."8 Another Hadith uses sunna in both a positive and a negative light: "Whoever establishes a good sunna [sunna hasana] in [the religion of] Islam that is followed in practice afterward, will have recorded to his merit a reward equal to the reward of anyone who practices it, without any of their rewards being at all diminished. Whoever establishes an evil sunna [sunna sayyiʼa] in [the religion of] Islam that is followed in practice afterward, will have recorded against him a burden equal to the burden of anyone who practices it without any of their burdens being at all lessened."9


The Qurʼan contains one reference to innovation as taken from the root of bidʻa. The verse pertains to kindliness and mercy in the hearts of the followers of Jesus and their early monastic practice, which they innovated [ibtadaʻuha]: "We did not prescribe it for them but out of the pleasure of God. Yet they failed to observe it as it should have been observed" (57:27). The passage is noteworthy because it speaks in an apparently favorable light of bidʻa in a matter of worship, an area where many Islamic scholars regarded innovations as completely unacceptable.

A common reading of the verse asserts that monasticism was a human innovation, which God did not prescribe for Jesus' followers but which they themselves instituted, seeking God's pleasure. The verse does not censure their innovation as such; it condemns their failure to fulfill it. Early Qurʼanic commentary attributes this interpretation to a Companion of the Prophet named Abu Umama, who said that Jesus' followers "instituted [certain] innovations which God had not prescribed upon them, seeking God's good pleasure through them, but they failed to observe them properly, and God reproached them for their departure from [proper observation]."10

In keeping with this reading, a number of classical commentators linked the verse to the Islamic law of ritual vows [nadhr]. Vows are acts of worship that one voluntarily takes upon oneself, such as the personal pledge to fast a number of days or spend certain nights in prayer. By their nature, vows have an improvised quality and generally require fulfillment once a person has made the intention to perform them, even though they were not previously required.11

Another reading of the verse holds that God himself ordained monasticism; hence, it was not technically a bidʻa. God willed that its practice be solely for his pleasure and reproached the monks who fell short of what was required. Yet others construed the verse as a condemnation of monasticism for being a religious bidʻa, but their interpretation goes against the apparent meaning of the Arabic text and lacks the authority required in Islamic jurisprudence for it to constitute a proof.12

References to bidʻa are common in the Hadith collections of all Islamic sects-Sunni, Shiʻi, and Ibadi. One shared Hadith on the subject is the wellknown admonition of the Prophet: "The worst of things are abominations [muhdathat; lit. "innovations;" "unprecedented matters"], and every bidʻa is misguidance."13 For Sunnis and Shiʻis alike, this Hadith constitutes one of the strongest condemnations of innovation and has been taken at face value by literalists in both communities. Still, in both denominations, the dominant opinion held that the Prophet's admonition was not a categorical prohibition of innovative ideas or practices but a warning to stay within sound legal parameters in accepting or rejecting them. New ideas and practices were not intrinsically bad but had to be consistent with established precedents and recognized principles of the law.

If it seems far-fetched that the apparently literal condemnation of bidʻa in this Hadith could be accurately construed as anything less than a categorical denunciation of every novel idea, such a non-literalist (connotative) approach was not problematic for most classical scholars. The compilation of the Qurʼanic text after the Prophet's death was itself a novel idea. In the case of this Hadith, the classical methodology for textual interpretation tended to avoid literalism when a literalist reading would be in conflict with other established principles of the revelation and religious law. In the case of this Hadith, scholars restricted its meaning to unwarranted types of bidʻa. Despite the Hadith's apparent generality, it was understood as implicitly qualified by such tenets as the requirement to perform ijtihad. One scholarly commentary states: "[This is a] general statement [with] specific qualifications [ʻamm makhsus]."14

Another Hadith well attested in Sunni and Shiʻi collections pertains to the sanctity of the Prophetic city of Medina, which the Prophet proclaimed a religious sanctuary like the ancient Abrahamic city of Mecca: "So whoever introduces [ahdatha; also "innovates"] in [Medina] an abomination or gives shelter there to such an innovator, upon him shall be the curse of God, the angels, and mankind. Neither shall any disbursement be accepted from him nor any ransom."15 In a Shiʻi version, the Hadith adds a question from one of the Prophet's Companions: "ʻMessenger of God, what is the innovation [intended]?"' He replied: ʻWhoever [wrongfully] kills a [human] soul without [legal recompense] for [another] soul, maims [a body] without indemnity, innovates a bidʻa having no sunna, or [wrongfully] seizes plunder of exceptional value.'" Another Shiʻi transmission simply defines the monstrous innovation as murder, an interpretation supported by use of the word ahdatha in a other Prophetic declarations with specific reference to that crime.16

Sunni interpretations of the Hadith essentially agreed with the Shiʻi view. The famous Sunni commentator, al-Nawawi, explained the innovation referred to in the text as immoral behavior.17 Ibn Hajar, another renowned Sunni Hadith scholar, understood the Hadith's broad wording as implicitly restricted by its specific reference to the holy city's sanctuary status. Thus, for Sunni and Shiʻi scholars in general, the illustrations given for the damnable innovations referred to in the Hadith clearly involved gross violation of Medina's sanctuary status, especially by acts of lawless violence.18

An intriguing reference to bidʻa in Sunni, Shiʻi, and Ibadi sources deals with the second caliph ʻUmar's decision to institute supererogatory group prayers (tarawih) during the nights of Ramadan, which he introduced within a decade of the Prophet's death.19 According to Sunni and Ibadi sources, 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, ʻUmar 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 bidʻa is this!"20

Sunni sources emphasize that the Prophet's cousin ʻAli, who later became the fourth caliph and is revered by all Shiʻi schools as their first Imam, endorsed ʻUmar's policy regarding the Ramadan vigils. Sunnis report that ʻAli once remarked that ʻUmar "illuminated the month of fasting" by instituting the group prayer. Another Sunni version relates that one night in Ramadan during ʻAli's caliphate, he passed by mosques lit up with candles for the people to perform the congregational vigil and said: "May God illuminate ʻUmar's grave just as he illuminated for us our mosques."21

The Zaydis, generally regarded as the closest Shiʻis to Sunnis, upheld the validity of the Ramadan group prayer, affirming that ʻAli continued the practice during his caliphate.22 The Imami school, however, was generally unsympathetic toward ʻUmar and saw the historical record differently, rejecting ʻUmar's decision as an unlawful bidʻa. Like Sunnis, they confirmed that the Prophet led the community in Ramadan night prayers for a short period. Unlike Sunnis, they contended that the Prophet did not merely abandon the prayer but emphatically banned it in groups, saying: "Every bidʻa is misguidance, and the path of every misguidance [leads] to the Fire."

Imami sources agree that ʻAli consented during his caliphate to the community's praying the Ramadan group vigils in a group. They contend that ʻAli personally opposed the practice but the community's strong pro-ʻUmar sentiment in favor of the prayers-which the Imamis refer to as a"sunna of ʻUmar"-made it politically infeasible for ʻAli to alter it.23

Like the Qurʼanic verse on monasticism, one of the most interesting elements about ʻUmar's "excellent bidʻa" is that it falls squarely within the domain of ritual acts of worship and, with the exception of the Imami perspective, was generally regarded as good. Sunni sources report that Abu Umama-mentioned earlier in conjunction with the verse on monasticism-admonished Muslims to be diligent in observing the group vigil of Ramadan. He linked the practice explicitly to the Qurʼanic allusion to monasticism and would say: "You have innovated the [practice of] standing in prayer during Ramadan, although it was not prescribed for you, for only the fasting [of that month] was prescribed. So, now that you have done it, remain constant in keeping up the prayer and do not abandon it."24

An eminent Sunni scholar, Ibn ʻAbd al-Barr, believed that ʻUmar called his decision a bidʻa because the Prophet had not instituted the vigil as a sunna nor had Abu Bakr, the first caliph after him. Nevertheless, ʻUmar declared it "an excellent bidʻa" to indicate its initial legitimacy in the Prophet's eyes and to emphasize in the people's minds that, although the new practice was technically a bidʻa, they should have no misgivings about it, since the Prophet had only declined to institute it for fear of making it obligatory.25

The reasoning here is based on a standard principle of Islamic jurisprudence that nothing specific to the Prophet's sunna can be given a new legal status-obligatory or otherwise-after his death if he did not indicate that status during his lifetime. Thus, ʻUmar's "excellent bidʻa" put into practice something the Prophet had looked upon favorably but avoided the danger that the Prophet had feared of making the act obligatory and burdensome. In the same vein, another famous Sunni jurist, Abu Bakr ibn alʻArabi, described ʻUmar's institution of the prayer as a sunna and a bidʻa at the same time; it was asunna by virtue of the Prophet's short-termed precedent yet a bidʻa because the Prophet declined to institute it. Ibn al-ʻArabi concluded: "How excellent was this bidʻa as a revived sunna and fully accomplished act of obedience!"26


The sunna-bidʻa paradigm is shared by all Islamic sects. All concur on the fundamental obligation of Muslims to follow the Qurʼan and sunna, while each sect and every school within them adopt different criteria for interpreting and applying both sources. The theologians and jurists of all three Muslim denominations conceived of the term in similar ways. They concurred that the concept of bidʻa in its negative sense did not connote a blanket condemnation of all innovative ideas and practices simply because they were new. Yet they rejected all innovation that they deemed inconsistent with the Prophetic example and Islam's underlying principles.27 The noted jurist and legal theorist al-Shatibi emphasized that the very notion that Islamic law stood for categorical prohibitions of change was grossly absurd to classical jurists. All scholars, he contended, concurred that it was intellectually repulsive to insist that Muslims could never diverge from the cultural norms of early Islamic Arabia or that any new development in life must be regarded as an unwarranted bidʻa.28

One of the most basic Islamic conceptions is the distinction between matters that are essentially non-ritualistic and mundane (muʻamalat) and others that are ritualistic and other-worldly in nature (ʻibadat). The first category refers to matters like war and peace, buying and selling, marriage and divorce. Such non-ritualistic concerns of human societies, although falling under the rubric of divine revelation and subject to the prescriptions of religious law, were believed to serve tangible social goals and benefits. Consequently, they had rationales (tangible legal objectives), lent themselves to rational scrutiny, and were open to legal analysis and amendment. For this reason, many notable scholars held that the question of bidʻa did not pertain to the domain of non-ritualistic matters.29 By contrast, matters of ritual such as belief, prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage were regarded to be an exclusively divine privilege related to otherworldly realities like the secrets of salvation and the unseen. They served the purpose of purifying the soul, bringing people closer to God, and winning his eternal pleasure. Consequently, they lacked discernible rationales, lay beyond the analysis of reason, and were closed to legal analysis and amendment. For the great majority of scholars, ritualistic matters were the primary focus of bidʻa; for many others, belief and ritual were its sole domain.

Ibn ʻAbd al-Barr was among those who held that bidʻa 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."30 Technological progress, crafts, building projects, urban development, and the like lay, according to this view, totally beyond the purview of bidʻa. Dissenting scholars who included mundane affairs under the rubric of bidʻa applied it only to appalling innovations that encroached scandalously upon central precepts of the law like unjust taxation (maks), administrative corruption, and hanging pictures of judges and rulers in public places.31

Given bidʻa's shades of meaning, classical Islamic jurisprudence evaluated it according to the five ethical categories of the religious law: obligatory, recommended, neutral, disliked, and forbidden.32 Thus, the gamut ran from obligatory bidʻa to forbidden. Acceptable types of bidʻa were ranked as obligatory, recommended, or neutral. Types of bidʻa that violated the established precepts and principles of the law were classified as forbidden or disliked, according to the degree of harm.33 Ibn Hajar wrote: "Put precisely, if a bidʻa comes under the rubric of things regarded as good in the law, it is good. If it comes under the rubric of things ill-regarded in the law, it is ill-regarded. Otherwise, it belongs to the category of neutral things. Thus, [in general] [bidʻa] may be divided into the five [ethical] divisions."34

Today, these shades of meaning that bidʻa conveys have been largely forgotten. For many Muslims, the word bidʻa invariably designates extreme religious error and evokes negative emotions that are so passionate that the matter is put beyond any possibility of reasonable discussion. In the hands of highly opinionated people who lack both scholarly depth and a proper sense of Islamic protocol, such misunderstanding converts the concept of bidʻa into a destructive tool of communal division, polarization, and stagnation.


Those who misunderstand bidʻa are liable to take it too far and silence critical and creative discourse. It must not be forgotten, though, that the concept of bidʻa, by its very nature, is classificatory and requires passing judgment on new things. Though bidʻa has positive nuances and is not intended to rule out new ideas, it serves as a regulatory mechanism to put new ideas on trial and hold them up to scrutiny. It cautiously approves of some and disapproves of others. Thus, exploitative taxes [maks] were deemed a forbidden bidʻa, while levying special taxes [daraʼib] upon the rich to build essential infrastructure, like bridges and roads, constituted an obligatory bidʻa in the absence of other adequate sources of lawful revenue.

The fundamental conception of bidʻa imposes certain restrictions and has a conservative aspect in that it seeks to conserve continuity with the prophetic revelation. The criteria of bidʻa impose a restrictive frame on creative ideas to ensure continuity with tradition and conformity with legal principle. It must be stressed, however, that setting parameters does not encumber creativity and may even facilitate it. Clear demarcation of parameters with the purpose of simultaneously facilitating and directing creative thought was central to the original concept of bidʻa.

The constructive potential of bidʻa 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 bidʻa. By nature, ijtihad is empowering, forward-looking, and creative. Unlike bidʻa, ijtihad is neither judgmental nor classificatory but a process and methodology for arriving at judgments about new challenges by means of utmost intellectual inquiry.

Al-Baji, a traditional Sunni jurist, defined ijtihad as "expending one's fullest [intellectual] capacity in search of the right ruling."35 The art of ijtihad requires "utmost scholarly exertion on the part of the individual jurisconsult [legal scholar] with a view to arriving at a personal opinion" regarding a new matter of legal concern.36 Bernard Weiss notes: "The law was not something to be passively received and applied; it was rather something to be actively constructed by human toilers eager to gain the approval of their Lord for their effort."37

Ijtihad derives from the same root as jihad. Their common radical, JHD, denotes expending the fullest effort to achieve a difficult but worthy goal. Although jihad can clearly apply to armed struggle, the concept of jihad is 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.

Ijtihad shares jihad's ethical force but pertains to the realm of ideas and critical thought. 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."38

The process of ijtihad is an Islamic religious duty of the first magnitude. As George Makdisi notes, it was the imperative to perform it that led to the formation of the classical schools of Islamic law.39 All Muslim denominations have ijtihad traditions, although certain schools within each denomination give it greater scope than others. As we have seen, all Muslims upheld the validity of the famous Hadith: "Every innovation is misguidance." None understood it as abrogating the obligation of performing ijtihad and finding unique solutions to new problems.40

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 [honestly] mistaken, he gets one."41 Similar transmissions asserted that every person performing ijtihad was ultimately right-even if technically wrong-which prompted theologians and jurists to debate whether there could be more than one correct answer for any given question. Some argued that all dissenting legal opinions could be correct in their own right, despite the fact that they were mutually contradictory.42 The majority of scholars were content simply to say that every person performing ijtihad receives a reward when mistaken, not by virtue of the error but because of obedience to God in fulfilling the command to undergo the labor of ijtihad.43

Like bidʻa, a pertinent question regarding ijtihad concerns the domains where it is applicable and inapplicable. Many traditional scholars restricted ijtihad to non-ritualistic matters, but their opinion was not a matter of consensus. The caliph ʻUmar's institution of the Ramadan night prayers clearly belonged to the ritualistic domain, and, in al-Baji's opinion, was an example of ijtihad at its best.

Ijtihad is a function of the jurist's membership in society.44 Because the Muslim masses are untrained in the religious sciences, the classical tradition required them to follow scholars. Thus, ijtihad was not meant to be an ivory-tower pursuit but a living "social partnership" between legal scholars and the society at large, which continually presented them with "real legal problems" and "questions to work with."45 But even the common people were required to perform their own type of ijtihad by striving to discern the competence of individual scholars and selecting the best to follow, a principle emphatically asserted by the majority of Sunni and Shiʻi scholars and their schools.46

The obligation to perform ijtihad pertains to all times and places, and new legal prescriptions arrived at through ijtihad may overrule previous ones. A well-known maxim of Islamic law asserts: "Innovative [lit., changed] legal judgments will not be denounced when they reflect changing times, places, and circumstances."47 Al-Dabbusi, 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

As ijtihad is a standing obligation, to neglect it was cause for censure. The renowned Sunni jurist al-Qarafi asserted that there was scholarly consensus (ijmaʻ) 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 alQayyim, 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.50

Undoubtedly, many traditional jurists not only failed to live up to the standards of al-Qarafi and Ibn Qayyim but also demonstrated an exasperating lack of creativity, stifling its spirit in others. Their rigidity created the widespread impression among Muslims and Westerners alike (including a surprising number of present-day academics and writers of good standing) that the door of ijtihad was "closed" hundreds of years ago as a matter of religious principle. The conspicuous decline of ijtihad at certain periods of Islamic history reflected a general social and intellectual malaise, not legal or theological doctrine. In fact, there is little historical evidence that the door of ijtihad was ever closed. Further, since Islam never had anything comparable to a church hierarchy, the "door of ijtihad" never had a doorkeeper to close it in the first place.51

The question of who was qualified to perform ijtihad was not posed by the Prophet but by later scholars. Their stipulations typically required that a person performing ijtihad be an upright Muslim of sound mind with full command of the Arabic language and mastery of the core disciplines of Islamic learning, including knowledge of the Qurʼan and sunna, consensus, methods of legal reasoning, and the overriding objectives of the law.52 The requirements for ijtihad were not gender-specific; women could and often did practice ijtihad with distinction throughout Islamic history.53

For more than a millennium, the process of speculative ijtihadwas the monopoly of traditional scholars, and the requirements they set for it remained largely unchallenged. Their control over ijtihad was first systematically called into question during the pivotal eighteenth century-the eve of modernity in the Muslim world-when various Sunni and Shiʻi revivalists demanded less stringent criteria.54 Generally, revisionists in both camps favored literalist interpretations that were easy for the common people to grasp. A similar emphasis on literalism later became characteristic of Muslim Activist (fundamentalist) intellectuals in the twentieth century.

The conceptualization of ijtihad underwent even more radical change after the full onslaught of colonial rule and Western modernity in the nineteenth century. New approaches to education and ijtihad became primary concerns for the Muslim Modernist movement (1840-1940), which categorically rejected classical criteria for both. As Charles Kurzman observes, the Modernists (who were strong supporters of parliamentary democracy) challenged "the authority of the past and the authority of the credential" and, despite a general lack of traditional training, claimed their right to perform ijtihad, insisting in some cases that traditional Islamic education had become so sterile and so far removed from modern realities that, instead of qualifying scholars for ijtihad, it actually disqualified them.55

The debate over ijtihad has continued until the present, especially within the ranks of Activist thinkers, who, like the Modernists before them, often lack traditional training, claim the right to perform ijtihad themselves, and reject the authority of classical tradition. The decline of traditional religious authority over the past three centuries not only made radically different criteria for bidʻa and ijtihad possible but has also come to constitute one of the most critical cultural breaks in Islamic history.

As Richard Bulliet notes, the classical moorings of ijtihad came undone in modern times. As a consequence, the Muslim world finds itself "immersed in a crisis of [religious] authority," the resolution of which is likely to take generations. Religious knowledge was removed from the scholastic classroom and pulpit. New religious authorities emerged who understood how to make effective use of modern media and found large audiences by addressing the issues of the day and articulating their messages simply and clearly.56

The new authorities represent a diverse spectrum of intellectuals from liberal Modernists to highly politicized Activists. Among their ranks number some of the most influential Islamist ideologues of the twentieth century. Most notable among them are Sayyid

Qutb (Egypt, d. 1966), Abu Aʻla Mawdudi (India/ Pakistan, d. 1979), and ʻAli Shariʻati (Iran, d. 1977). Each of the three lacked traditional training and adamantly rejected its relevance to the modern world.57 While it would be mistaken to equate the thought of these three with the radical Islamist ideologies that emerged in the closing decades of the twentieth century, the radicals also belong to the rank and file of the new authorities. Osama bin Laden, an engineer, and his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri, a pediatrician, emerged after 9/11 as the most notorious of the new authorities. They are adept at marshaling the most scathing allegations of bidʻa against their enemies, while advocating extremist positions on the claim of personal competence to perform ijtihad.58


It is vital for Muslims today to have an authentic and sophisticated understanding of bidʻa as a regulatory mechanism and of ijtihad as a process for inducing Islamic creativity. The sources of Prophetic revelation are the key resource Muslims possess for sound Islamic thought, while Islam's rich legal and theological traditions are also indispensable for an authentic understanding of the revealed sources. In addition, Muslims must learn from the historical experiences of earlier Muslims through the ages. The late historian of Islam, Marshall Hodgson identified Islam's "great pre-Modern heritage" as possibly the richest source Muslims possess in creating an integral vision of their religion's place in the modern world, yet he notes: "One of the problems of Muslims is that on the level of historical action their ties with relevant traditions are so tenuous."59

It is unrealistic and even undesirable to hope for meaningful restitution of the classical tradition and sophisticated application of concepts like bidʻa and ijtihad without the revision and renewal necessary to make that tradition relevant to present-day needs. Only then can we be able to draw upon the classical legacy in a manner that is constructive and not retrogressive. The tradition must be reviewed with an eye to what it originally meant in its historical and anthropological context. Putting the tradition in proper context is the key to enabling Muslims to use it in the manner that al-Qarafi and Ibn al-Qayyim emphasized.

Without enlightened educational institutions that attract talented students and in the absence of curricula that impart a mature understanding of modern thought and realities, it is unlikely that a sophisticated understanding of the Islamic religious tradition can ever be fostered. Without careful examination of their original historical context, the thousands upon thousands of dusty manuscripts and old books preserved in Islamic libraries will remain little more than interesting fossils of history. Until classical Islamic learning is made meaningful to contemporary Muslims, it is difficult to fault those who question its relevance.

As harmful and heterodox as the new authorities sometimes are, they too must be judged in the context of their times and not merely condemned by citing bits and pieces of scripture or by referencing contrary interpretations in the classical tradition. In Islam, like other faith traditions, religious ideas-whether of innovation and heresy, creativity or the lack of it-are never set in stone, nor do they emerge from a vacuum. What people say about the religions they follow reflects the circumstances in which they are living, and it is naïve to expect an optimal understanding of any religion in the absence of a tolerable socio-political context. Harsh conditions and unfulfilled expectations produce callous perceptions, regardless of the people or religion in question. When we attempt to talk about Islam in the modern world, we must address the dismal socio-political context of its followers. As Gilles Kepel stresses, to ignore that context and focus instead on essentialist pronouncements about Islam or Muslim civilization is "pure Walt Disney."60

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 and jealously guarded their autonomy. 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.61 Conditions such as these produced urbane scholars who could define and interact with the concepts of bidʻa and ijtihad in an authentic and productive way.

It should be sufficiently clear from what has preceded that the concept of bidʻa 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 preclude 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.

As American Muslims, it is imperative that our community free itself from erroneous understandings of bidʻa and develop full competence to perform ijtihad independently. Both within the United States and abroad, the growing American Muslim community, which makes up roughly two percent of the nation's population, is one of the most promising and least known Muslim minorities in the world. Like our counterparts in Canada, considerable sectors of the American Muslim community, in contrast to many of our co-religionists in the European Union, are highly educated and constitute, per capita, one of the most talented and prosperous Muslim communities in the world. Moreover, American Muslims, at least for the time being, enjoy a relatively favorable socio-political context with extensive freedoms and political enfranchisement. Few Muslims in the world today are in a more advantageous position to comprehend the essence of modernity and post-modernity and to formulate new directions for ijtihad in keeping with the best traditions of Islamic thought and the imperatives of an interconnected pluralistic world.

Bulliet suggests that resolution of the present crisis of religious authority in the Muslim world may ultimately fall on the shoulders of the professoriate of Muslim universities, many members of which are already performing ijtihad with considerable sophistication. He emphasizes, however, that the professoriate of the Muslim world will only be able to fulfill this task if it extricates itself from governmental control and secures broad freedoms similar to those of tenured professors in the West.62

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that Western universities are currently producing highly qualified graduates in Islamic studies, many of whom become influential intellectuals in the Muslim community and are committed to producing rigorous scholarship as well as fostering Islamic literacy. Perhaps this new generation of intellectuals will carry the banner of ijtihad through the twenty-first century, laying the foundations of a genuinely modern Islamic culture that has intellectual and spiritual depth, is actively committed to humanity and the world, and represents our best hope for quelling the harmful innovations and violent heresies of our times.


1. Noah Feldman, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 11-12.

2. See the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) homepage. Available at Accessed May 2006.

3. It is often mistakenly said that, in Islam, God has ninetynine beautiful names. According to Islamic theology, the beautiful names of God are infinite. Those authentically attested in Islamic scripture-the Qurʼan and Hadith- are well over ninety-nine, the word al-Badiʻ, referenced in the quotation, being one of those.

4. See Ahmad ibn Faris, Muʻjam Maqayis al-Lugha, 6 vols. (n.p.: Dar al-Fikr, 1979), 1:209; al-Raghib al-Isfahani, ed. Safwan ʻAdnan Dawudi, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qurʼan (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 1992), 111; Abu Ishaq alShatabi, Al-Iʻtisam, 2 vols. (al-Khubar, KSA: Dar Ibn ʻAffan, 1997), 1:49.

5. Al-Isfahani, Mufradat, 111; al-Shatabi, Al-Iʻtisam, 1:49.

6. Al-Isfahani, Mufradat, 111.

7. G. H. A. Juynboll, "Muslims' Introduction to His Sahih: Translated and annotated with an excursus on the chronology of fitna and bidʻa" in Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, no. 5 (1984), 308; Mohammad Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 44.

8. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, 1:161.

9. Muslim, Sahih, 4:2059-2060.

10. See Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn ʻAli al-Razi al-Jassas, ed. ʻAbd al-Salam Muhammad ʻAli Shahin, Ahkam al-Qurʼan, 3 vols., (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1994), 3:556-557; Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-ʻArabi, ed. Muhammad ʻAbd al-Qadir ʻAta, Ahkam al-Qurʼan, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1996), 4:183; Abu al-ʻAbbas Ahmad ibn ʻAjiba, ed. Ahmad ʻAbd-Allah al-Qurashi Raslan, ed., Al-Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir alQurʼan al-Majid, 6 vols. (Cairo: Hasan ʻAbbas Zaki, 2001), 6:76.

11. See Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn ʻAli al-Razi al-Jassas, ed. ʻAbd al-Salam Muhammad ʻAli Shahin, Ahkam al-Qurʼan, 3 vols., (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1994), 3:556-557; Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-ʻArabi, ed. Muhammad ʻAbd al-Qadir ʻAta, Ahkam al-Qurʼan, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1996), 4:183; Abu al-ʻAbbas Ahmad ibn ʻAjiba, ed. Ahmad ʻAbd-Allah al-Qurashi Raslan, ed., Al-Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir alQurʼan al-Majid, 6 vols. (Cairo: Hasan ʻAbbas Zaki, 2001), 6:76.

12. Al-Shatibi, Al-Iʻtisam, 1:371-372.

13. Muslim, Sahih, 2:592; compare al-ʻAmili, Wasaʼil alShiʻa, 11:511-512, 18:40.

14. Ahmad ibn ʻUmar al-Qurtubi, ed. Muhyi al-Din Dib Matu, Al-Mufhim li-Ma Ashkala min Talkhis Kitab Muslim, 8 vols. (Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1999), 3:508; Muhammad ibn Khalfa al-Ubbi, Ikmal Ikmal al-Muʻlim, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, n.d.), 3:23; Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Sanusi, Mukammil Ikmal al-Ikmal, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, n.d.), 3:23.

15. Muhammad ibn Ismaʻil al-Bukhari, ed. Mustafa alBugha, 6 vols. Sahih al-Bukhari, (Medina: Dar alTurath, 1987), 2:662, 6:2662; Muslim, 2:994-998; alʻAmili, Wasaʼil al-Shiʻa, 19:18.

16. Al-ʻAmili, Wasaʼil al-Shiʻa, 19:15, 18.

17. Muslim, Sahih, 2:994. Although not specifically cited, al-Nawawi's commentary is given in the margin throughout this edition.

18. See Ahmad ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bariʼ bi-Sharh al-Imam Abi ʻAbd-Allah Muhammad ibn Ismaʻil al-Bukhari, 13 vols. (n.p.: Dar al-Fikr, n.d.), 4:86.

19. For the Ibadis, see Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Kindi, ed. ʻAbd al-Hafiz Shalabi, Bayan al-Sharʻ al-Jamiʻ li-al-Asl wa al-Farʻ, 62 vols. in 48 (ʻUman: Wizarat al-Turath alQawmi, 1982-1993), 15:196-197, 202.

20. Malik ibn Anas, Al-Muwattaʼ, ed. Bashshar ʻAwwad Maʻruf, 2 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1997),

1:169-170; al-Bukhari, Sahih, 2:707-708; ʻAbd alRazzaq ibn Hammam, ed. Habib al-Rahman al-Aʻzami, Al-Musannaf, 12 vols. (Beirut: Al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983) 4:258, 264-265; ʻAbd-Allah ibn Abi Shayba, ed. Muhammad ʻAbd al-Salam Shahin, ed., Al-Kitab alMusannaf fi al-Ahadith wa al-Athar, 9 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1995), 2:164; Ibn Hajar, Fath alBari, 4:250-252.

21. See ʻAbd al-Razzaq, Al-Musannaf, 4:258; Yusuf ibn ʻAbd al-Barr, Al-Tamhid li-Ma fi al-Muwattaʼ min al-Maʻani wa al-Asanid, 18 vols. (Cairo: Al-Faruq alHaditha li-al-Tibaʻa, 1999), 4:93-95, 100.

22. Zayd ibn ʻAli ibn al-Husayn, Musnad al-Imam Zayd, (Beirut: Maktabat al-Hayah, 1966), 158-159.

23. Al-ʻAmili, Wasaʼil al-Shiʻa, 5:191-193.

24. Ibn al-ʻArabi, Ahkam al-Qurʼan, 4:183; al-Shatibi, Al-Iʻtisam, 1:374. The quotation does not imply that Abu Umama regarded the Ramadan group vigil as an individual obligation.

25. Ibn ʻAbd al-Barr, Al-Tamhid, 4:93 and Al-Istidhkar, 5:136, 147.

26. Abu Bakr ibn al-ʻArabi, ed. Muhammad ʻAbd-Allah walad Karim, Kitab al-Qabas fi Sharh Muwattaʼ Malik ibn Anas, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1992), 1:283; compare Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, 4:252.

27. Al-Isfahani, Mufradat, 111; 28. Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, Al-Iʼtisam, 2:568.

29. Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, Al-Iʼtisam, 1:50.

30. Abu ʻUmar ibn ʻAbd al-Barr, Al-Istidhkar, 5:153.

31. Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, Al-Iʼtisam, 2:570, 594.

32. In Arabic, the five ethical categories are wajib (obligatory), mandub (recommended), mubah (neutral), makruh (disliked), and haram (forbidden).

33. Abu ʻUmar ibn ʻAbd al-Barr, Al-Istidhkar, 5:152.

34. Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, 4:253.

35. Sulayman ibn Khalaf al-Baji, ed. Nazih Hammad, Kitab al-Hudud fi al-Usul (Beirut: Al-Zuʻbi li-al-Tibaʻa, 1973), 64.

36. George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), 2, 66.

37. Bernard G. Weiss, The Spirit of Islamic Law (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 89.

38. Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 7-8.

39. Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, 2, 66.

40. Discussion of the Hadith comes later in the paper. I presume the Ibadis also relate this Hadith in their books but did not chance upon attestation of it in the limited number of their works currently available.

41. ʻAli ibn al-Qassar, ed. Muhammad ibn al-Husayn alSulaymani, Al-Muqaddima fi al-Usul, (Beirut: Dar alGharb al-Islami, 1996), 114-115; Sulayman ibn Khalaf al-Baji, ed. ʻAbd al-Majid al-Turki, Ihkam al-Fusul Ihkam fi Ahkam al-Usul, 2 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1995), 2:714-716; ʻUbayd-Allah ibn ʻUmar al-Dabbusi, ed. Mahmud Tawfiq al-Rifaʻi, Al-Asrar fi al-Usul wa al-Furuʻ fi Taqwim Adillat al-Sharʻ, 4 vols. (Amman: Wizarat al-Awqaf, 1999), 3:114-116; Ibn Amir al-Hajj, Al-Taqrir wa al-Tahbir, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1983), 3:306. The Ibadis took essentially the same position. See al-Kindi, Bayan alSharʼ, 1:92-93.

42. See al-Dabbusi, Al-Asrar, 3:116; cf. al-Kindi, Bayan alSharʻ, 1:92.

43. Al-Kamal ibn al-Hammam, Al-Tahrir, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʻIlmiyya, 1983), 3:306 and Ibn Amir al-Hajj, Al-Taqrir wa al-Tahbir, 3:306.

44. Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, 290.

45. Bernard Weiss, The Spirit of Islamic Law, 128.

46. Al-Baji, Ihkam al-Fusul, 2:727; Ibn al-Qassar,AlMuqaddima, 26; Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shiʻi Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 204-205.

47. See Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, ed. Muhammad al-Muʻtasim bi-Llah al-Baghdadi, Iʻlam al-Muwaqqiʻin ʻan Rabb al-ʻAlamin, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-ʻArabi, 1998), 3:5.

48. Al-Dabbusi, Al-Asrar, 3:115-116.

49. Taken from al-Qarafi's Furuq as quoted in the work of my student, friend, and colleague ʻAdil ʻAbd al-Qadir Quta, Al-ʻUrf: Hujjiyyatuhu wa Atharuhu fi Fiqh al-Muʻamalat al-Maliyya ʻinda al-Hanabila, 2 vols., (Mecca: al-Maktaba al-Makkiyya, 1997), 1:64.

50. Quoted from Ibn Qayyim's Iʻlam al-Muwaqqiʻin in ʻAdil Quta, Al-ʻUrf, 1:65.

51. Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, 4, 290; Wael B. Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul al-Fiqh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 201-202 and 202, note 59; Christopher Melchert, The Formation of the Sunni Schools of Law, 9th-10th Centuries C. E. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 16-17.

52. See Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, 374378.

53. See Umar F. Abd-Allah, Famous Women in Islam, 14CD Set (Chicago: Nawawi Foundation, 2004).

54. See Nehemia Levtzion and John O. Voll, eds., Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 3-20; Etan Kohlberg, "Aspects of Akhbari Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," in EighteenthCentury Renewal, 133-153; Bernard Haykel, "Reforming Islam by Dissolving the Madhhabs: Shawkani and his Zaydi Detractors in Yemen," in Bernard G. Weiss, ed., Studies in Islamic Legal Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

55. See Charles Kurzman, ed., Modernist Islam 1840-1940 : A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3-27.

56. Richard W. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 81.

57. See Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trial of Political Islam, trans. Anthony F. Roberts (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), 23-27, 33-35, 39-41.

58. See Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, 83-86.

59. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 3: The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 3:431.

60. See Kepel, Jihad, xviii, 24.

61. Fazlur Rahman, Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 212.

61. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, 158159.