Imam ash-Shafi’i (raḥimahullah) said:

المحدثات من الأمور ضربان
أحدهما: ما أحدث يخالف كتاباً أو سنة أو أثراً أو إجماعاً. فهذه البدعة الضلالة
والثانية: ما أحدث من الخير لا خلاف فيه لواحد من هذا. وهذه محدثة غير مذمومة

“Newly invented matters are of two types. The first of them being, that which is innovated and opposes/contradicts the Book (Qur’an), Sunnah, a narration (athar) or consensus (ijmaa’). This is the misguided innovation (bid’ah).
The second of them being, that which is innovated of goodness, which has no contradiction in it to any one of them (Qur’an, Sunnah, narration or ijmaa`). This is an innovation that is not blameworthy.”

[Reported by al-Bayhaqi in Manaqib al-Shafi’i, page 469]

Firstly, Ash-Shafi’i said, “Newly invented matters”, this statement is muṭlaq or unrestricted and is not restricted to matters of religion, whereas the aḥadeeth prohibiting bid’ah specifically mention matters of religion. Example, the Prophet (ﷺ) said:

مَنْ أَحْدَثَ فِي أَمْرِنَا هَذَا مَا لَيْسَ مِنْهُ فَهُوَ رَدٌ
“Whoever introduces into this affair of ours (this religion of ours), that which does not belong to it, will have it rejected.” And he said:
مَنْ عَمِلَ عَمَلاً لَيْسَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْرُنَا فَهُوَ رَدٌّ
“Whoever did an action which is not upon our affair (our religion) will have it rejected.”

[Narrated by Bukhari (2697) and Muslim (1718)]

So ash-Shafi’i’s words are referring to general matters or permissible issues such as worldly matters, as he mentioned it in an unrestricted form and he never mentioned matters of the religion. Whereas the aḥadeeth that prohibit bid’ah are restricted to matters of deen due to the specific and clear speech of the Prophet (ﷺ). This is why many scholars mentioned that what ash-Shafi’i meant was bid’ah in its linguistic sense and not its shar’i meaning.

To explain, words are understood at times according to their linguistic meaning according to the Arabic language, or according to its meaning in terms of the Shari’ah. This is the case for most if not all words that are used in the Shari’ah. Wuḍoo`, Ṣalaah, Du’aa`, Zakaah, Fasting, Ḥajj, ‘Aqeedah, Tauḥeed, Shirk and of course Bid’ah, all of them carry linguistic meanings according to the Arabic language. This is what we refer to as the linguistic meaning of the word. They also carry a shar’i meaning, which is the meaning that is used for them in relation to the religion. The two meanings have a relation to each other, but also differ from each other.

Imam ibn Ḥajr (raḥimahullah) said, “As for innovations (البدع), it is the plural of innovation (بدعة) and it is everything which does not have any prior example. Linguistically, [the word] encompasses what is both praiseworthy and blameworthy. In the usage of the people of the legislation (i.e. Scholars) it is specifically for what is blameworthy and if it is used in connection to what is praiseworthy, then it is upon its linguistic meaning.” [Fatḥ ul-Baari (11/303)]

Imam ibn Kathir (raḥimahullah) said, “Bid’ah is of two types. Sometimes it can be a legislative innovation (bid’ah shar’iyyah), such as his saying, “Every newly-invented matter is an innovation and every innovation is misguidance” and sometimes it can be a linguistic innovation (bid’ah lughawiyyah), such as the saying of Amir al-Mu’minin Umar bin al-Khaṭṭab, (RaḍiyAllahu ‘anhu) about his bringing them together for the taraweeḥ prayer and their continuance upon that, ‘What an excellent innovation this is.’” [Tafsir ibn Kathir (1/398)]

Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbali said, “The meaning of Ash-Shafi’i (raḥimahullah) is as we have mentioned previously; that the foundation for the blameworthy bid’ah is that which does not have a basis in the Shari’ah that can be referred to – and this is a bid’ah in the convention of the Shari’ah. As for the praiseworthy bid’ah then that is what agrees with the Sunnah – meaning that is has a basis in the Sunnah that can be referred to, and this is a bid’ah in its linguistic meaning not in its Shari’ah meaning due to its conforming with the Sunnah”. [Jaami` ul-‘Uloomi wal-Ḥikam (pg. 267)]

Secondly, the strictness of Imam ash-Shafi’i in following the Sunnah. Look at his understanding of the following narration:
‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbaas (RaḍiyAllahu ‘anhuma) saw Mu’aawiyah ibn Abi Sufyaan (RaḍiyAllahu ‘anhu) touching the two northern corners of the Ka’bah, and he told him not to do that. Mu’aawiyah (RaḍiyAllahu ‘anhu) said to him: “No part of the House should be ignored.’ Ibn ‘Abbaas (RaḍiyAllahu ‘anhuma) said: “‘Indeed in the Messenger of Allaah you have a good example to follow.” [al-Aḥzaab 33:21]. And I saw the Prophet (ﷺ) touching the two Yemeni corners,” meaning the Yemeni Corner and the Black Stone. Mu’aawiyah then accepted what Ibn ‘Abbaas said. [Narrated by Aḥmad (1880)]

Notice how strict the Ṣaḥabah were when it came to sticking to what the Prophet (ﷺ) did and avoiding what he did not do!! Then look at what ash-Shafi’i said about this:

Ash-Shafi’i responded to the saying of the one who said, “There is nothing from the house (Ka’bah) that is abandoned” with (the response) that: We have not left touching the (two corners) out of abandoning the house, and how can a person be abandoning it when he is making tawaf around it. Rather, we follow the Sunnah both in performance (فعلا) and abandonment (تركا), and if not touching them both constitutes abandoning them, then not touching what is between the corners would also be abandonment of it, yet there is no one expressing this [view]. [See: Fatḥ ul-Baari (3/437-434)]

The statement, “we follow the Sunnah both in performance (فعلا) and abandonment (تركا)”, means that we do whatever the Prophet (ﷺ) did, and we stay away and abandon whatever he did not do! We do not add anything to the religion of Allah.

Thirdly, most of the Shafi’is do not accept the statement of a Ṣaḥabi (companion) as an evidence in the Shari’ah. If so, then how can they accept the statement of an Imam who is below the rank of the Ṣaḥabah as an evidence? If we accepted that Imam ash-Shafi’i believed in the idea “good bid’ah” in a Shar’i sense, then technically his opinion, either way cannot be regarded as an evidence. Firstly, the statement of an Imam is not considered as an evidence according to all scholars, and secondly it contradicts authentic aḥadeeth wherein the Prophet (ﷺ) generalised that all religious bid’ah is misguidance! No Imam’s opinion can precede over that!

“Indeed, the most truthful of speech is the Book of Allah, and the best of the guidance is the guidance of Muhammad. And the most evil affairs are the newly invented matters; and every religious innovation is misguidance.”

[Narrated by Muslim (867)]

Let us be true followers of the Prophet (ﷺ), the Sahabah and the rightly guided Imams, none of whom were proponents of the notion of “good bid’ah”. Claiming Imam Ash-Shafi’i was a believer and supporter of “good bid’ah” as it is used and abused today is a lie upon the great imam and deception.

Allah the Most High Knows best. May Allah send peace and blessings on His prophet, his family and companions and all those who follow them, Ameen.

Written by Imraan Mollagee.