Innovations and voluntary worship

Q281 :We are told that voluntary worship wins us great rewards from Allah. On the other hand, we are repeatedly warned against innovations that lead us to hell. Any voluntary worship is not obligatory and therefore, shall I say, an undefined worship. How does one differentiate between innovation and voluntary worship?

A281 : We often talk about innovations in highly unfavorable terms. We say that we cannot accept them in our religion and we must not practice them, no matter who encourages us to do so and how keenly they are advocated. Heated arguments often take place between those who insist that innovations have no room in our religion and those who say that there is no harm in doing something additional which does not contravene the teachings of Islam. The new thing, they argue, has no aim other than to worship Allah and earn His pleasure. This may be so, but it is pertinent to ask: how do you earn Allah's pleasure? Indeed, how can you endear yourself to anyone: a parent, a teacher, a supervisor at work, a ruler, etc. Do you think any of these will be very pleased with you if you pay no attention to what they request of you or order you? Or will you be more likely to please them if you do exactly as they have told you? Someone may suggest that it is not improbable to visualize a situation where your keenness to please someone takes you well beyond what he has requested. Your father may ask you to do something in a particular fashion, but you exert yourself to do something extra, only to bring happiness to his heart. He will be ever so pleased with you; so they argue. The fact is that you are just as likely to incur his displeasure. May be he knows something which you do not know, and your extra effort will prove to be counterproductive. If this is true in human dealings, it is more so in our relationship with Allah. In human relations, we are just as likely to know the result of a particular action as the other party who requests something of us or orders us to do it in a particular fashion. When we are dealing with Allah, our knowledge is limited to our world and surroundings. Allah's knowledge is infinite. Therefore, when He tells us, through His Messenger, something, we stick to it and add nothing unless we are told by Allah's messenger that an addition is in order. We must not forget an essential fact about our religion of Islam. It is a religion which provides a complete way of life for us to follow in order to achieve our own happiness. The cornerstone of this way of life is that embodied in the declaration by making which we become Muslims: "I bear witness that there is no deity save Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah's messenger." The first part of this declaration relates to submission to Allah's will. When we make this declaration, we consciously make a binding pledge that we surrender ourselves to Allah and we abide by His orders. The second part of the declaration defines how we should go about putting this into practice. We declare that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is Allah's messenger. This means that only through him we learn how to submit to Allah and do his bidding. We accept from no one else any teachings or instruction on how to behave in this life, how to submit to Allah and worship Him, or how to go about any business of ours. Therefore, anything that relates to faith and the religion of Islam which is not communicated to us through Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is unacceptable, simply because to accept it would tantamount to a negation of the Prophet's role as Allah's messenger. The Prophet puts this principle in the clearest of terms. He says: "He who innovates something in this matter of ours that is not of it, will have it rejected." (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim). The way the Prophet has phrased this most important principle is highly significant. To start with, he does not refer to "Islamic worship" or to "concepts of traditions or practices". He refers to "this matter of ours" which is a very general term that incorporates all these and much more. Hence, the area in which no innovation is admissible is wide indeed. It comprises everything that Islam involves, and Islam we should remember, is a complete way of life. The innovation the Prophet denounces must be the one which does not belong to Islam: it is "not of it". Hence, we should determine whether any practice or belief or idea we may entertain belongs to Islam as conveyed to us by Allah's messenger or not. If it belongs to it, then it is perfectly right. If it does not, then we should reject it without hesitation. Since there is only one way to know what belongs to Islam, we must have recourse to it. That way is to identify what has been conveyed to us by the Prophet and to follow it. The Prophet says that any innovation is sure to be rejected. The rejection is from Islam itself in the sense that Islam resembles a living organism or a body which rejects any foreign element that is introduced into it. It is, more importantly, rejected by Allah who does not allow anyone to add to the faith He has revealed to His messenger. By adding anything, one is placing oneself on the same level with Allah. This cannot be accepted from anyone. When we offer any worship which is not obligatory but voluntary, as has been shown to us by His messenger, we are only doing what we have been bid to do. Thus we are not indulging in any kind of innovation. Should we not ask ourselves: What is the purpose of innovation or addition? If it is to please Allah and to be religious, then an innovation does not fall within this category of actions. What we have to remember here is that the Prophet was the most sincere of all servants of Allah. His worship was the most perfect any human being can do. Hence if something was not done or practiced by him at any time, it does not belong to Islamic worship or Islamic faith. Someone may suggest here that we may do something which the Prophet has not done, but still falls within Islamic worship. What view is taken of such an action. To give an example, is it permissible to offer a certain prayer, of the same type and form as ordinary prayer, but which the Prophet did not practice? The answer is simple: If the Prophet has said that it can be practiced, then we can go ahead and do it. If it has not [been practiced], then we are inventing something new. This is not open to a Muslim to do. The reason is that if we leave the door open for such actions, it will never be closed and Islamic worship may swell to larger and larger proportions. To illustrate, let us take the case of fasting in Ramadan. We are required to begin our fast when we have made certain that the new moon of the month of Ramadan has been born and sighted. If some people cannot determine whether the moon could be sighted, because the sky was a little cloudy, should they fast the following day just in case the moon has been born? The answer is definitely no. The Prophet has forbidden us fasting on the day of doubt. We have to start our fasting in the certainty that the month has started. This can only be ascertained if the moon has been actually sighted or the previous month has been completed. Hence, the Prophet says: "Fast when you have sighted the moon and end your fast when you have sighted the new moon. Should the sky be too cloudy to sight the new moon, complete the month of Sha'ban to 30 days." We must strictly follow this order. If we were to fast a day in advance "just in case", we may take the count of the month of Ramadan to 31 days, which is impossible. Moreover, it is easy to visualize a situation where, by the passage of time, fasting 31 days becomes the norm and an addition of another day, "just in case", may be preferred. There is a clear rule which is of great help in such matters. If the new innovation is part of Islamic worship, but it is simply just a little extra and it has certain rules and regulations and specific times to offer it, then it is an innovation to which the description "erroneous" - which the Prophet has used to describe all innovations - applies. There are numerous examples to be taken from the Sufi circle of such innovations. All these must be rejected because the Prophet has not endorsed them.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )