Some Berelwis, in imitation of Ahmad Rida Khan Barelwi, claim that Shāh Ismā‘īl Shahīd said that to believe Allāh is free from direction and place is bid‘ah (heresy/innovation). Ahmad Rida Khan made this claim in, for example, Qawāri‘ al-Qahhār, where he said Shāh Ismā‘īl wrote in his book Īḍāḥ al-Ḥaqq al-Ṣarīḥ that the belief in Allah’s transcendence from place and direction is innovation and heresy. Abu Hasan of Masabih Forum wrote in an ebook going by the name “The Preamble to Faith”: “Ismāýīl wrote that it is a heresy to believe that God is without a direction or that He is transcendent from space.”
Shāh Ismā‘īl, however, did not say this.
To understand the passage in question, it would help to clarify a few of the terms Shāh Ismā‘īl used. The book Īḍāḥ al-Ḥaqq al-Ṣarīḥ is on the subject of bid‘ah (innovation). He explains the term “bid‘ah” by reference to the ḥadīth, “Whoever innovates in this matter [i.e. religion] of ours what is not from it, it is rejected [i.e. as bid‘ah].” “Religious matters” in this context, he explains, as those things which the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) assigned ukhrawī (otherworldly) benefits to, as benefits of the afterlife can only be known through the medium of prophets. Such actions of ukhrawī benefit have particular specifications determined by the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) which he came to teach. To make new specifications or change those specifications established from the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) is what he explains as amounting to bid‘ah.
He assigns two categories to bid‘ah: bid‘ah ḥaqīqiyyah (real bid‘ah) and bid‘ah ḥukmiyyah/‘amaliyyah (effective or practical bid‘ah). The first is where a specified action is done with the belief that it is part of religion i.e. that the specification has ukhrawī benefit (or a specific action is omitted believing it has ukhrawi harm) when it is in fact not part of the religion i.e. it is not established from the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) and the general practice of the ṣaḥābah. The second (ḥukmī bid‘ah) is where an action is done without holding such a belief, but it is done in such a way that gives the appearance of it being done with the belief in its ukhrawī benefit. He gives the example of īṣāl al-thawāb to the dead, which is in principle permissible, but to specify the day of death and undergo immense difficulty in performing this act on the day of death, despite the many other duties on that day, gives the impression that this specification (i.e. of the day of death for īṣāl al-thawāb) is believed to be of benefit, and it is thus bid‘ah in effect or in practice (‘amali/ḥukmī bid‘ah), though not in reality (ḥaqīqī).
Now Shāh Ismā‘īl’s discussion in the section in question can be understood. A rough translation of this section – which is what Ahmad Rida Khan Barelwi and his followers base the above allegation on – is as follows:
“On the explanation of those things which are included in real bid‘ah (ḥaqīqī bid‘ah). First Issue: It should be known that discussing the issue of waḥdat wujūd and shuhūd, and discussing the tanazzulāt khamsa, and discussing the ṣādir awwal and discussing tajaddud amthāl and kumūn and burūz; and likewise the (philosophical) discussions of taṣawwuf, and likewise the issue of the Almighty being abstract and simple in relation to one’s mind, meaning abstract from time, place, direction, māhiyyat, tarkib of the philosophical kind; and the discussion of attributes being part of Allāh’s essence or additional to the essence, interpreting the mutashābihat, and to affirm the vision of Allah without direction or opposition, and affirming atomistic philosophy while negating hylomorphism or vice versa; and to discuss the issue of qadr, and discussing the world as being emergent and existent by way of necessity, affirming the world as being pre-existent; and likewise engaging in studies of ‘Ilm al-Kalām, Ilāhiyyāt and philosophy; all of this is from the category of real bid‘ah (haqiqi bid’at) if those upholding them regard, and have conviction in them, as established beliefs of the religion. And if they do not believe them to be from the beliefs of religion, still such theories and investigations are definitely included in effective innovations (ḥukmī bid’ah) in this age. This is because to exert effort in order to understand the reality of these matters, and to assess them, and to include those who discuss these matters amongst the scholars of religion and lordly sages, and to praise them because of this just as truly religious perfections are praised, is not only rampant amongst the commoners but this type of talk is found amongst the elite also.” (Īḍāḥ al-Ḥaqq al-Ṣarīḥ, Urdu Tr, Qadimi Kutub Khanah, p. 77-8)
It is clear that in this entire passage Shāh Ismā‘īl is not discussing “beliefs” per se, but rather the act of studying these issues related to kalām, taṣawwuf and philosophy, while having the belief that these issues are established elements of Islam, which are sought after for their own sake. In effect, he is censuring the study of the peripheral and abstract issues of kalām, philosophy and taṣawwuf. If it is done with the belief that these peripheral matters are established issues of Islamic belief that are learnt for their own sake, this is real innovation, as it is specifying an act in religion that was not specified by the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam). However if this is not the belief, then he says that in our time, this is effective innovation due to these elements being treated in such a way by the Muslims that gives the impression that they are as important to them as actual religious matters.
Shāh Ismā‘īl’s qualification “in this age” clearly indicates that he believed that these areas of study are not in and of themselves blameworthy. Only when they are done with the belief that they are intrinsic elements of Islam (in which case they will be ḥaqīqī bid’ah) or are treated in such a way (in which case they will be ḥukmi bid’ah), are they considered innovations. However, his explanation allows for these discussions in the correct context and with the correct belief and treatment. In fact, he himself discusses many of these issues in another work called al-‘Abaqāt. Under one of the discussions in the latter work, he clarifies that the reason for entering into these investigations is to stave off doubts produced by the misguided, although the default rule is that they should not be entered into. (al-‘Abaqāt, Urdu Translation*, p. 182-3).
And in fact, in the work al-‘Abaqāt, Shāh Ismā‘īl explicitly negates direction and place for the being of Allāh (ibid. p. 76, 211), which, for objective and fair-minded observers, should lay this allegation to rest – not forgetting, of course, that the allegation to begin with is baseless, as the passage from Īḍāḥ al-Ḥaqq al-Ṣarīḥ does not in any way imply that the belief in Allāh’s transcendence from direction and place is innovation.