What is Innovation and Who is an Innovator?

What is Innovation and Who is an Innovator?


In the name of God, The Most Compassionate and The Most Merciful.

For that is God, your Lord, the Truth. And what can be beyond truth except for error? So how are you averted?
- Quran 10:32
This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion. But whoever is forced by severe hunger with no inclination to sin - then indeed, God is Forgiving and Merciful.
- Quran 5:3
O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you should believe in God and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in the result.
- Quran 4:59



Closeness to the Divine is the ultimate goal of a Muslim. This closeness, we hope, manifests itself in forgiveness from Him and acceptance into the Garden that He has created for us. However, the faith of Islam requires physical effort and is not solely a religion based on intellectual affirmations, such as the pillars of faith that are taught in the Prophetic narrations like the belief in God, the Angels, the Scriptures, the Prophets, and Divine decree. The hadith which is known as the Hadith of Gabriel explains how Islam is to be categorized and understood. Gabriel (upon him be peace and blessings) said, "Oh Muhammad! Inform me about Islam." The Messenger of God (God’s peace and blessings upon him) replied: "Islam is that you should testify that there is no deity worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is His Messenger (God’s peace and blessings be upon him), that you should perform salah (ritual prayer), pay the zakah, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj (pilgrimage) to the House (the Ka`bah at Makkah), if you can find a way to it (or find the means for making the journey to it)" (Riyadh As-Saliheen Book 1, Hadith 60).
The external aspects of Islam are summed up in this portion of the hadith. The statement of faith, the prayer, and other actions are quintessential pieces that if left separated will preclude one from ever seeing the beauty of this Divine way of life. Problems arise when we as practitioners of this religion decide to forge our own paths that ultimately lead to our spiritual and religious demise.

The concept of worship


On the authority of the mother of the faithful, Aisha (may God be pleased with her), who said: The Messenger of God (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) said, “He who innovates something in this matter of ours (i.e., Islam) that is not of it will have it rejected (by God)” (Bukhari and Muslim). In another version in Muslim, it reads: “He who does an act which we have not commanded, will have it rejected (by God).”

What is innovation?

Innovation derives from the Latin innovates, meaning “introducing something new” or intransitively meaning “to bring in new things, or to alter established practices.” Within the realm of science, when new inventions or technological advances are achieved we describe them as innovation. Overall, the importance here is to highlight that the term denotes that which was not there prior. In fact, the term in Arabic gives exactly that meaning, one who brings into the religion an action that was never there before.
In the above-mentioned Prophetic narration, the Arabic states ahdatha, a term which at its root lends meaning to something that has happened. For example, one will find that scholars of Kalaam (i.e. Theology) denote everything that is created as haadith, signifying that it happened at some point in time and as such is not pre-eternal such as the One who created the Heavens and the Earth, God (Glory be to him). In short, it is something new.



Combining the two narrations

There are two chains of narration that are written in Imam Nawawi’s 40 hadith collection. The first is found in Bukhari, and the second in Muslim. The first is where we gain an understanding of innovation that is typically misconstrued today. An understanding that says any action that is innovative is to be rejected by God. In the second narration found only in Imam Muslim’s compilation, we find the term ‘amilah which lends the meaning of doing. In this second narration, there is no mention of the term innovation.

In the case of these two narrations, the understanding that is procured is more general than at first glance. Regardless of whether one is the innovator themselves or one who followed the action that was innovated, the action will be rejected.

This general understanding is what has been disseminated amongst the masses and is generally agreed upon by Islamic scholars.


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However, the question remains. How do we understand these two narrations in light of actions that have arisen throughout our communities? It is the job of scholars of hadith (who by default should have a robust knowledge of the Arabic language) that when presented with multiple narrations use these various narrations to clarify the greater meaning for the masses and also to denote when the sanctity of God’s laws has been infringed upon. It is a travesty when those with very little or poor proficiency in the science of hadith, dismal understanding of the nuances of the Arabic language, and those who have not attained prowess in extrapolating Islamic legal injunctions, take it upon themselves to illuminate for others what they themselves are still blind to. One of the most dangerous mistakes one can do is to deduce an Islamic judgment based on their understanding, and then place this ruling in a situation where it does not belong. This is the case with a large segment of Muslims who comfortably lambast their fellow Muslims with the title of innovator without first investigating with soundness the sciences of hadith, language, and fiqh which are all paramount for one to make such a statement and claim.

What comes next is where much of the obstacle begins in regard to those who wear the garbs of scholarship without the knowledge and erudition.



What does Islamic scholarship establish as an innovation?

The worst of things are those that are newly invented; every newly-invented thing is an innovation and every innovation is going astray, and every going astray is in the Fire. – The Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him)

An innovation as understood by scholars of fiqh is any action that is contrary to the Divine Law. While innovation in vehicles, technology, and other additions to our modern world has come, these are only innovations in the linguistic sense. Islamic Law is not derived from a word’s linguistic meaning, but rather scholars peruse scriptural evidence to come to the words meaning according to the Divine Law.

Imam Shafiee (May God have mercy on him) explains that the meaning of innovation according to Islamic law is, “that which contradicts the book of God and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him), the actions of the companions and those who came after them, or what has been established by general agreement of the scholars. This is what is to be known as an innovation that is falsehood. As to the second meaning of innovation, then [if this form of innovation is] good and does not contradict any of the above mentioned, then this is not an innovation that is blameworthy. It was said by Umar ibn Al-Khattab after he established the Taraweeh as a communal affair that ‘the best of innovations is this,’ meaning that this innovation was not found prior to him, and if it had been found earlier then there would be nothing in it to be rejected” (Manaqib Al-Shafiee 1/469). Note that this is a definition agreed upon by the likes of Imam Al-Bayhaqi, and Shaykh Al-Islam ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani.


Worship in Islam


This definition clarifies the pervasive misunderstandings that a large portion of the Muslim community has in regard to innovation. This is the harm of taking upon oneself the understanding and analyzing of Islamic law without the guidance of scholarship, and scholarship that has dug until they reached the treasure troves of gold that lay within the texts. While it is true that one must practice their due diligence in ensuring that they hold to the true practice and path of this faith, that will not come except by sitting with the people of knowledge. Some might dissent that in this modern age sitting with scholars is an impossibility, that is a fallacious argument in that it is not and has never been incumbent on a Muslim to become a scholar of the religion or to master various sciences. Rather, as Shaykh Abdul Rahman Al-Akhdari (an astute Maliki scholar of the 16th century) said, “The first thing that is obligatory on the one who is able is the correcting of their theology, after that, [they should turn their focus towards] what is needed from them in regards to obligatory knowledge such as the rulings of prayer, purification, and fasting” (Matn Al-Akhdari).
In short, the Muslim is only obliged to know what directly influences their relationship with the Divine, all else is not obligatory. And if they so choose, they will be rewarded for seeking and schooling others on that material.



This seeking of knowledge that is obligatory on a person should be the benchmark, and when one does a level of ignorance that plagues the greater Muslim community will be lifted and the ascent to heights of brilliance and greater aptitude will begin.

The sacred scripture of God is clear and that which is not understood by the masses is for those of knowledge to assess and disseminate. Innovation (that contradicts the religion) is a sin that holds with it a great punishment, but to lay a claim upon a person who utilizes wooden beads in an effort to praise their Lord or those who may supplicate upon the completion of an obligatory prayer or other modern contentious subjects, these are not to be understood as contradictory to the faith and as such should not be connected with egregious actions that undoubtedly oppose the sacred law of God. Our duty is to learn and to inculcate knowledge until it manifests upon our limbs (i.e. through our actions). We should continually seek to ensure that the knowledge we propagate is legitimate and aligned with our faith in the Divine, just as He tells us, “And believe in what I have sent down confirming that which is [already] with you, and be not the first to disbelieve in it. And do not exchange My signs for a small price, and fear [only] Me” (Quran 2:41). 

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