There has always been confusion regarding the stance of the Deobandi scholars on the issue of “good bida`” (i.e. bida` hasana). Do the Deobandi scholars reject this concept? Is there really a difference between them and other traditional scholars on the issue? How do they explain the new acts that they themselves do?
Point 1: There Is No Real Difference Except In Usage
In reality, there is no essential difference between the definition of the scholars who named a particular practice as bida` hasana and the Deobandis. Nor do the Deobandi scholars reject such a concept. If anything, the only difference is in wording (lafdh) and the rule has always been “there is no argumentation when it comes to usage.” Maulana Ashraf `Ali Thanawi explicitly states this in his Imdad al Fatawa. He says:
“The establishment or negation of innovation being divided into “good” (hasana) and “bad” (sa’iyya) is disputed merely due to (difference) in usage… and there is no arguing when it comes to usage (istilah). After realizing and understanding this principle all subsequent and prior doubts are removed.”
(vol 5, Pg: 283. Maktaba Dar al `Ulum Khi Ed.)
Maulana Gangohi states in his fatawa :
“This is a difference in usage. Everyone means the same thing.”
(Pg: 155 Dar al Isha`at Ed. 2003)
This principle is something one should actively take note of since it is common for people to descend into petty quarrels due to differences in how they express certain points of the religion – even though both methods of expression are sound in meaning-.
Point 2: The Deobandi Definition & Explanation
Both the Deobandi scholars and others consider new practices that arise as permissible on the condition that they conform with the general dictates of Sunni methodology. As such, the Deobandis only argue that these matters are in *reality* not innovation because they conform to the general purport of the sunna and what it points (ishara) to. Due to this, such new acts will be considered sunna or mustahab and so forth, altough they may “appear” to look like innovations.
This was explained in detail by Hakimul Ummah Maulana Ashraf `Ali Thanawi (Allah be well-pleased with him) in his Imdad al Fatawa (Ibid). He clearly differentiates between:
 haqiqi bida` (intrinsic/real), and
 suri bida` (extrinsic/appearingly)
He states regarding the latter (Vol 5, Pg: 293):
“[The meaning of bida` surriyya] is that which is in itself not found in the sunna (explicitly) but is infered from the general principles (of the Law).”
Then Maulana states:
“[Regarding whether bida` suriyya and hasana are two seperate thing] (bida`) Sa’iyya (bad innovation) and (bida`) haqiqiyya are one; (bida`) hasana (good innovation) and suriyya are one.”
He elaborates further on the narration “All innovation is misgudiance” (kul bida` dhalala) by stating that if “innovation” is defined solely as haqiqi (intrinsic/real) then the narration is non-exclusionary, meaning that it includes every “real” innovation. Since, “real” innovation is by default considered “bad”, and that which does not conform to Sunni methodology, then there is no problem in accepting “all” (kul) in the narration to actually mean “every innovation” without specification.
However, if innovation is defined generally as including both the haqiqi and the suri then the latter will not enter into this narration, and the narration will be considered `aam makhsus i.e. a general expression used to indicate something specific. “All” (kul) will therefore only include in it haqiqi bida` and not suri. Thus, it does not mean “every innovation” but “every real (haqiqi) innovation”.(Ibid, Pg: 292)
Similarly, Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri stated in his Faydh al Bari:
والبدعة عندي ما لا تكون مستندةً إلى الشرع، وتكون ملتبسةً بالدين
“And innovation according to me is that which has no support in the shari`ah…”
And the shari`ah here refers to the basic sources of Sunni methodology, as he makes clear in his `Urf al Shadhi when he states:
واعلم أن البدعة ما لا يكون أصله في الأصول الأربعة
“Know that innovation is that which does not have any basis in the four fundamental principles (qur’an, sunna, ijma`, and qiyas).”
This is also what Maulana Idris Kandihlawi states in his commentary on Mishkat al Masabih.
Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (Allah be well-pleased with him) says in his fatawa (Pg: 155):
“There is no such thing as “good innovation” (bida` hasana) and whatever is called bida` hasana is in reality a sunna (s: confirmed, derived, or indicated by the sunna). However, this is a difference in usage. Everyone means the same thing.”
Point 3: The Hanafi Scholars Who Divided Innovation Into “Good” Or “Bad”
Others, however, labelled the above as “good innovation” – whether by using the term or actually explaining it in detail. So it is in actuality merely khilaf lafdhi as has been mentioned before.
The muhaqiq of the Hanafi school, Allamah Ibn `Abidin stated in his Rad al Muhtar that innovation is of five types, as did many other scholars before him. He stated:
مطلب البدعة خمسة أقسام ( قوله أي صاحب بدعة ) أي محرمة ، وإلا فقد تكون واجبة ، كنصب الأدلة للرد على أهل الفرق الضالة ، وتعلم النحو المفهم للكتاب والسنة ومندوبة كإحداث نحو رباط ومدرسة وكل إحسان لم يكن في الصدر الأول ، ومكروهة كزخرفة المساجد . ومباحة كالتوسع بلذيذ المآكل والمشارب والثياب كما في شرح الجامع الصغير للمناوي عن تهذيب النووي ، وبمثله في الطريقة المحمدية للبركلي
Among the other scholars in the Hanafi school who explicitly accepted (or used) the division of innovation into hasana and sa’iyyah were:
 Ibn Nujaym in his Bahr al Ra’iq sharh `ala Kanz al Daqa’iq,
 Al Birgivi in his Tariqa al Muhammadiyya, and its commentators such as Imam Khadimi,
 Imam Tahtawi in his Hashiya,
 `Ala al Din Haskafi in his Durr al Mukhtar,
 The authors of Fatawa al Hindiyya,
 The great Indian commentary on the Durr entitled Ghayat al Awtaar by Maulana Muhammad Nantowi,
 `Allama Shabbir Ahmad `Uthmani, the Deobandi scholar, in his Fath al Mulhim, and so forth.
Point 4: Conclusion
In conclusion: Deobandis do not reject new practices, but they do not label them as “good innovations” since the phrase “innovation” is haqiqatan signifying something bad according to them. Rather, new acts that conform to the general methodology of Sunni Islam, even if not explicitly found in the sunna, are referred to as sunna. Apparently, they seem to look like innovation but in reality are not.
Others, differing in terminology, labelled such things as bida` hasana and found no qualms in using sucha phrase. To them bida` hasana is no different than sunna hasana as in the prophetic narration “whoever starts a good sunna will have the reward of it.”
The most important thing to note is that both opinions strictly stipulate that any new action that does not conform to Sunni methodology, or is not derived from the general indication of the sunna, is rejected since “that which is not from this way of ours will be rejected”, as the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said. However, that which does conform and has some basis will be accepted. Whether one wishes to refer to it as “good innovation” or as a “sunna” that only “appears” to look like an innovation is ultimately inconsequential.
And Allah Knows Best
Update: Please also see Mufti Muhammad’s answer.