Imaam al-Shatibee in his excellent work, al-I'tisaam, has provided the most comprehensive, concise and definitive legislative definition of al-bid'ah (البدعة) and the foundations would not be complete except by a discussion of it. Imaam al-Shatibee said in al-I'tisaam (1/43):
This definition was elaborated upon by al-Shatibee himself and likewise there are from the Scholars from Ahl al-Sunnah who have commented upon it. It contains numerous elements and they can be summarized as follows:
Element 1: A path (طريقة), this is any sabeel, tareeq, sunan (all terms referring to ways), they are all the same, and it refers whatever is laid down in order to be followed and traversed. So this is the first matter here, that the intent behind the devising or initiation of such a path is for it to be taken as a course of action.
Element 2: In religious matters (في الدين), so this excludes all other affairs, such as habits, customs and so on, and this is because this path or way is being ascribed to the religion, and if it was a worldly matter, it would not be labelled a bid'ah (innovation) [in the legislative sense]. Thus all worldly affairs are outside of the definition of bid'ah. This is important to grasp because in the language of some of the Scholars one can find them using this term in its wider linguistic sense, and examples of this can be found in the speech of Imaam al-Shafi'ee, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and Shaykh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhaab.
Element 3: Invented (مخترعة), meaning it has no previous example or model, and with this restriction, many things are excluded from the definition of bid'ah, in particular those things that do have a foundation in the Shari'ah and such things include the compilation of the Qur'an, the writing and compiling of hadeeth, the congregational tarawih prayer, the principles of fiqh, knowledge of grammar and morphology and so on. Even if they were not formally present, their foundations can be found in the Shari'ah. So these are not considered innovations in the legislative (blameworthy sense), and whoever referred to them as innovations, only did so in the linguistic sense, as is found in the saying of Umar bin al-Khattaab about his gathering the people together in a single jamaa'ah for the taraaweeh prayer, that it is an "excellent bid'ah," and this action has a foundation in the Sunnah as the Messenger (alayhis salaam) led the people for three days in Ramadan in congregational taraweeh prayer.
Element 4: Resembles the Shari'ah (تضاهي الشرعيّة), this is a another crucial part to the definition, because innovation in the religion is of two types. One that has absolutely no basis and is completely alien to the religion and other type which resembles the Shari'ah in its foundation, but opposes the Shari'ah in its form and details and most innovations are of this nature. Al-Shatibee gives some examples of what is meant by this part of his definition and he mentions congregational dhikr (remembrance in unison with a single voice), annd taking the birthday of the Prophet (alayhis salaam) as a day of celebratoin (eed). Dhikr has a foundation in the Shari'ah as does a day of celebration (eed), however in the particular details, these matters (dhikr in unison and the celebrating the Prophet's birthday) are innovations. Al-Shaatibee says that if it was not the nature of innovations to resemble the Shari'ah they would be treated nothing more than habitual actions. Al-Shatibee also explains that the person of innovation innovates these matters from the outset to make them resemble the Shari'ah so that he can deceive others and he will mix affairs of the Sunnah with his innovation, as this is the only way that he will get any response from the people. This is from the most important things that al-Shatibee points out, because you see the innovators, from the contemporary grave-worshippers and other than them who try to justify their actions by claiming they have a basis in the Shari'ah. This is not the place to refute this doubt, inshaa'Allaah it will be done in another article, but it is important to make careful note of this, that it is the very nature of innovation to strongly resemble the Sharee'ah and thus most innovation will have a basis in the Sharee'ah in some aspect, but depart from it in other aspects.
Element 5: Exaggeration in worship of Allah is what is intended by traversing the particular innovated way (يُقصد بالسلوك عليها المبالغة في التعبد لله تعالى), this is from the completion of the definition of bid'ah, because this is the main objective behind inventing it, and it is as if the Innovator thinks that he has license to do this because it is the objective for his creation, as per the saying of Allaah, "I have not created Jinn and Men except to worship me" (51:56). However, it has not become clear to him that what Allaah has legislated of the laws, rules and limits is sufficient. However, often the innovator has desires such as wanting to be followed, and this is what motivates him to innovate for the people through the claimed objective of bringing them closer to Allaah. And in this regard al-Shatibee quotes the saying of Mu'adh bin Jabal (radiallaahu anhu):
It is feared that a man might say: They are not my followers and will not follow me, even though I have recited the Qur'an to them. They will not follow me until I innovated something else for them. So beware from what he innovators, for what he innovates is misguidance. Reported by Abu Dawud in his Sunan, al-Darimi in his Sunan, and likewise al-Aajurree in al-Shari'ah, Ibn Waddah in al-Bida' and others.
Al-Shatibee also points out that from this part of the definition, it becomes clear that the notion of innovation [that is blameworthy] does not enter into the habitual matters (al-aadaat). There are ways and matters innovated, which resemble the Shari'ah but nearness to Allaah and worship of Him are not intended by them, so these matters do not enter into the definition of bid'ah. Examples he gives include imposed fines (that a ruler may subject upon his subjects) that have a particular value which may resemble that of zakah, likewise making use of sieves and washing hands with potash from the things that were not previously present. Whilst they may resemble something from the Shari'ah, they are not intended to make exaggeration in worshipping Allaah, the Exalted.
Element 6: Al-Shatibee also explains that included within this definition is the bid'ah tarkiyyah, and this is when a person abandons an action, seeking closeness and nearness to Allaah, and this abandonment is in opposition to the Shari'ah. This matter will be touched upon in a separate article inshaa'Allaah.