Written by: Ustadh Kabir Al Asfar
Of birthdays and anniversaries:
Can there be bid’ah in festivities?
The very first thing to do is to remove the apparent confusion between different types of feasts. Hence we break them down into two broad groups:
Celebrations attached to specific times and spaces
Celebrations attached to happy occurrences
The first is called Eed and is thus defined because it reoccurs at given times and spaces, hence the name ‘Eed which means “that which reoccurs or is repeated”, the Kuwaiti encyclopedia says exactly this and notes that celebrations of this nature are just two in Islam, namely Eedul fitr and Eedul Adhha:
1 - الْعِيدُ لُغَةً مُشْتَقٌّ مِنَ الْعَوْدِ ، وَهُوَ الرُّجُوعُ وَالْمُعَاوَدَةُ لأَِنَّهُ يَتَكَرَّرُ (1).
وَلاَ يَخْرُجُ الْمَعْنَى الاِصْطِلاَحِيُّ عَنِ الْمَعْنَى اللُّغَوِيِّ ، وَهُوَ يَوْمَانِ : يَوْمُ الْفِطْرِ مِنْ رَمَضَانَ وَهُوَ أَوَّل يَوْمٍ مِنْ شَوَّالٍ ، وَيَوْمُ الأَْضْحَى وَهُوَ الْيَوْمُ الْعَاشِرُ مِنْ ذِي الْحِجَّةِ ، لَيْسَ لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ عِيدٌ غَيْرَهُمَا
The second is called Ma’dubah (or Waleemah, there appears to be different names for different occasions but for sake of brevity let’s stick to this):
The same encyclopedia defines this (citing the authoritative Arabic dictionary Lisanul-Arab) as:
الْمَأْدُبَةُ لُغَةً : الطَّعَامُ الَّذِي يَصْنَعُهُ الرَّجُل وَيَدْعُو إِلَيْهِ النَّاسَ
“(Every) feast that people are called to”
Notice that the second is more general, conflating the two will of course lead to avoidable errors as the ruling on both differ. For the first the sharia is more restrictive as there can only be two Eeds (or three as some add Friday). As for the latter then one is free as much as he avoids that which is haram in his celebrations. Getting a promotion, a child passing an exam, buying a car etc are all instances we can call on people to celebrate with us.
Why is the first restricted?
Ibn Taymiyyah, yes the same Ibn Taymiyyah who defined Ibadah as everything Allah loves and is pleased with, of speech and actions, overt or covert, categorically stated that ‘Eed is an act of worship, please don’t take my words for it, here is it in his Iqtida Siratil Mustaqeem (a book he wrote purposely for issues like this):
إذ الأعياد شريعة من الشرائع، فيجب فيها الاتباع، لا الابتداع
“For verily ‘Eeds are a legislation (shariah) wherein it is compulsory we follow (the text) and not innovate”
He didn’t deem it to be a mere “personal or private celebration”. In fact this binary classification of celebration into the personal and non-personal lacks evidential backing, it is at best subjective and arbitrary. Rather the question to ask is: is the celebration recurrent?
As to dividing issues into Ibadah and non Ibadah and then going on to state, implicitly or explicitly, that one can innovate in so called “non ibadah issues”, then this is false, demonstrably false.
One of the best, if not the best book on Bid’ah is the book Al-‘Itiṣām of the 8th century Maliki Jurist Ash-Shatibi, in this book he had a complete chapter with the heading:
الباب السابع في الابتداع
هل يدخل في الأمور العادية أم يختص بالأمور العبادية
“The seventh chapter: can there be innovations in customary issues?”
He discussed this for several pages.
Summary: there are two stances on this BOTH agreeing that innovations can be present in customary issues! Where they differ is some (like Muhammad b. Aslam) took a general view that there’s no demarcation between Ibadah and non ibadah issues.
The second group, which is the correct position, opine that non ibadah or customary issues are further divided into two, those purely customary and those with a “taint” (شائبة التعبد) of Ibadah. The latter i.e those issues with a taint of Ibadah are effectively fertile grounds for bid’ah.
That ‘Eed is classified as worship or “tainted” by ibadah isn’t something scholars brought out of their heads without evidence, rather we have direct evidence from the Prophet himself. When he came to Madinah they had two days of holidays/celebrations;
عَنْ أَنَسٍ قَالَ قَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ -صلى الله عليه وسلم- الْمَدِينَةَ وَلَهُمْ يَوْمَانِ يَلْعَبُونَ فِيهِمَا فَقَالَ « مَا هَذَانِ الْيَوْمَانِ ». قَالُوا كُنَّا نَلْعَبُ فِيهِمَا فِى الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ. فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ -صلى الله عليه وسلم- « إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَدْ أَبْدَلَكُمْ بِهِمَا خَيْرًا مِنْهُمَا يَوْمَ الأَضْحَى وَيَوْمَ الْفِطْرِ ».
When the Prophet arrived Madinah, they had two days which they played in (literally) before Islam, he asked what these two days are? They responded: they are two holidays we have been upholding in Jahiliyyah. The Prophet said: verily Allah has substituted these with two better days, ‘Eedul Fitr and ‘Eedul Adhhaa. Related by Abu Dawud, Ahmad and others with an authentic chain.
These were mere days of playing, not worship, yet the messenger of Allah decided to abolish them.
From the foregoing,
1. Eed (recurrent celebrations) outside those established by the Sunnah are bid'ah.
2. Birthdays and anniversaries are Eeds
3. Therefore birthdays are bid'ah.
A very simple syllogism.
As to the limits of imitating the kuffar, this will need a separate post.
At the end of the day, we only owe people an explanation, it is their sole responsibility to make rational choices. And guidance is only in the hands of the Creator.