The vastness of the Arabic language has often been compared to the ocean. As the ocean is rich in its inhabitants of many colors and forms, so too are the words of this divine language that take on a multitude of colors and forms determined by their linguistic environment. Much of the words used within the context of the Islamic tradition have multiple meanings. Words such as “sunna” for example, mean something specific within the context of the hadith sciences and something separate when used within the context of fiqh (jurisprudence)or uṣūl al-fiqh (legal methodology). Furthermore, the same words such as sunna, bidʿa, fiqh, and of course countless other words have separate meanings when used more generally outside of the context of the Islamic sciences.
Thus understanding definitions properly is essential to a sound understanding of various concepts within the sacred sciences. This is why many texts in the various Islamic sciences begin by providing a lexical meaning of a term, as commonly used within the Arabic language, before continuing to define a term in the context of the field in which it is used. Some of the confusion in the modern period regarding the term “bidʿa,” has been in great part due to a lack of understanding this foundational principle. The word bidʿa by itself does not have a negative connotation unless used in the context of Islamic law (i.e. the sharʿī definition) where it would specifically be referring to a bidʿa which is forbidden. It is only when equipped with this understanding that we are able to comprehend the pious caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb’s (RA) praise of the gathering of Muslims for twenty units oftarawīḥ as being a “noble bidʿa,” the Qur’an’s reference to this term when discussing prophecy, and many other similar references to the term within their proper context. While the study of bidʿa is a lengthy one, on which many treatises have been composed, this short study will briefly focus on the definition of this word from a lexical and legal perspective as well as examine the great scholar ʿIzz al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Salām’s seminal classification of bidʿa into the five categories which have generally been accepted by the majority of scholars of the Islamic tradition.