Is the 15th of Shaʿbān Special?

Many people ask whether the 15th of the month of Shaʿbān has any special significance or not. One group of Muslim scholars help that there is nothing special about this day and that it is no different than any other in the same month. The other group of scholars was convinced that the middle of Shaʿbān should be appropriated with extra prayers and acts of worship at night. However, the group of scholars who acknowledged the 15th of Shaʿbān as having special merit also warned people to avoid the many sinful innovations done on this day which became popular among the masses in certain regions throughout history.

Evidence for the Significance of the 15th of Shaʿbān

The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have made the following statements:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ يَنْزِلُ لَيْلَةَ النِّصْفِ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا، فَيَغْفِرُ لِأَكْثَرَ مِنْ عَدَدِ شَعْرِ غَنَمِ كَلْبٍ

“Allah, exalted is He, descends to the nearest heaven in the middle night of Shaʿbān and forgives more [sins] than the number of hairs on a flock of sheep from the tribe of Kalb [who were known to be shepherds].”[1]

إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَيَطَّلِعُ فِي لَيْلَةِ النِّصْفِ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ فَيَغْفِرُ لِجَمِيعِ خَلْقِهِ إِلَّا لِمُشْرِكٍ أَوْ مُشَاحِنٍ

“God looks at His creation during the middle night of Shaʿbān and forgives all of them, except an idolater or one who has hatred.”[2]

إِذَا كَانَتْ لَيْلَةُ النِّصْفِ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ، فَقُومُوا لَيْلَهَا وَصُومُوا نَهَارَهَا، فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ يَنْزِلُ فِيهَا لِغُرُوبِ الشَّمْسِ إِلَى سَمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا، فَيَقُولُ: أَلَا مِنْ مُسْتَغْفِرٍ لِي فَأَغْفِرَ لَهُ أَلَا مُسْتَرْزِقٌ فَأَرْزُقَهُ أَلَا مُبْتَلًى فَأُعَافِيَهُ أَلَا كَذَا أَلَا كَذَا، حَتَّى يَطْلُعَ الْفَجْرُ

“When it is the middle night of Shaʿbān, pray the night and fast the [following] day, because Allah descends therein, with the setting of the sun, to the nearest heaven, and says ‘Is there anyone who will repent so that I may forgive them, is there anyone who will ask for sustenance so that I may provide them, is there anyone being tested so that I might relieve them?’ This continues until dawn.”[3]

Authenticity of the Reports

These three reports, along with others that have not been mentioned, were all individually graded to be weak by scholars of Ḥadīth.[4] The first report was graded weak by most, if not all, scholars. The second report was deemed acceptable to some scholars who did not consider the defects in the narration to be severe. The third report was graded by most, if not all, scholars to either be weak, very weak, or classified as a known fabrication.

The Final Verdict on the Authenticity of the Reports

There are two methods of dealing with ḥadīths whose chains are not individually strong. The first method is to elevate the overall status of the ḥadīth to be authentic because the numerous reports strengthen each other, as long as they are not very weak.

Shaykh al-Albani explained it this way: “In summary, the ḥadīth, when all the chains of transmission are considered, is authentic without a doubt [ṣaḥīḥ bi lā rayb]. Its authenticity is established with even fewer than the amount of these reports, as long as it is free from major weakness, as is the case of this ḥadīth…as for what has been reported from the righteous and exacting scholars that there is no authentic ḥadīth concerning the virtue of the middle of Shaʿbān, it should not be relied upon. Anyone who claimed such a thing said that due to their hastiness and not putting in enough effort to trace all the chains of narrations as I have presented.”[5] Shaykh al-Mubārakpūrī stated something similar: “Collectively, these hadiths constitute a proof against those who allege that nothing is confirmed with respect to the merits of the middle night of Sha’bān.”[6] Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah believed the same: “If someone specifically prays during the middle night of Shaʿbān, whether alone or in a small private group like some of the early Muslims [salaf] used to do, then that is good.”[7]

The second method is to not accept the reconciliation of weak reports in this particular instance, because the weakness of the reports are quite severe concerning the 15th of Shaʿbān. Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-ʿArabī said: “There is no reliable ḥadīth about the middle night of Shaʿbān being virtuous…so don’t pay any attention to it.”[8] Other prominent scholars of Ḥadīth agreed with this view, such as Imam Ibn al-Jawzī and Imam Zayn ad-Dīn al-ʿIrāqī.

What Not to Do on the 15th of Shaʿbān

The scholars who accepted that this night has special virtue encouraged people to pray during the night and perform other virtuous acts. However, they cautioned people to not engage in practices which have no sound basis in Islam.

Three points were emphasized by these scholars:

  1. People should not gather together in mosques to pray on this night. It should be done privately at home.
  2. There is no sound basis for the ‘one-thousand prayer’ where surah al-ikhlāṣ is recited a thousand times. This prayer was invented by some people later on and is based on fabricated reports.
  3. There is no sound basis to specifically fast on the 15th day of Shaʿbān. The ḥadīth concerning that is very weak and is not strengthened by the other narrations.

Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah warned: “The middle night of Shaʿbān has virtue…however, gathering together to observe it in the mosques or offering the ‘one-thousand prayer’ is a sinful innovation.”[9] Shaykh al-Mubārakpūri also cautioned: “I have not found any acceptable ḥadīth concerning fasting on the 15th of Shaʿbān. As for the ḥadīth in Ibn Mājah…it is very weak…and another ḥadīth mentioned by Ibn al-Jawzī…was said to be fabricated.”[10]

Conclusion

There is clearly a difference of opinion among prominent Muslims scholars whether to believe that the 15th night of Shaʿbān has any special virtue or not. While it may be tempting to take the position that this night should be observed ‘just-in-case’ its virtue is established, I incline towards the view that these reports should be rejected. The reason is because accepting them would raise an even more difficult question: why didn’t the Companions unanimously act upon these reports and ensure that they are reliably passed onto the next generation of Muslims? One may argue that accepting the reports and praying on this night is the safest way to go, but I would argue the opposite: that accepting these reports results in an epistemological problem of explaining why something so significant was not preserved properly by the Muslim community.

Nonetheless, respectable scholars have held the opinion that the night has virtue, so the average Muslim must follow the scholar(s) whom they trust to be the most qualified on this issue to decide whether or not to observe this night or not.

Mustafa Umar

May 20, 2016 – Anaheim, CA

[1] sunan at-Tirmidhī #739, 3:107; Sunan Ibn Mājah #1389, 1:443.

[2] sunan Ibn Mājah #1390, 1:443.

[3] sunan Ibn Mājah #1388, 1:443.

[4] For a detailed discussion of all the other narrations see tuḥfah al-aḥwadhī 3:364-366 and silsilah al-aḥādīth aṣ-ṣaḥīḥah 3:137-138.

[5] silsilah al-aḥādīth aṣ-ṣaḥīḥah 3:138.

[6] tuḥfah al-aḥwadhī, 3:367.

[7] al-fatāwā al-kubrā 2:262

[8] aḥkām al-qur’ān 4:117.

[9] al-fatāwā al-kubrā 2:262

[10] tuḥfah al-aḥwadhī, 3:367.

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Halloween and Conformity

Introduction

Halloween is around the corner once again. It is the second largest holiday in the US after Christmas. Every year Muslims are compelled to make the difficult decision of whether to participate in the festivities of Halloween occurring around them or to simply ignore what people are doing with the hope that they will not be pressured by either their children or peers to conform. It’s not an easy situation to be in.

The modern ritual of Halloween contains many aspects of innocent fun and entertainment, especially for children: dressing up in costumes, getting candy from neighbors, and getting to carve pumpkins. Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with any of these acts, which is why many Muslims participate in the rituals.

But there is another aspect of Halloween that revolves around witchcraft and black magic, evil and superstition. It is common to dress as witches, vampires, demons, zombies, and even Satan [or what people assume he looks like]. School classrooms and work offices are adorned with cobwebs and spiders. Some creative residents decorate their lawns with fake coffins and corpses or hang human skeletons from their doors.

Most people don’t stop to question why these things are associated with Halloween. But Muslims are not supposed to be like ‘most people’. Islam encourages them to think and question, reflect and criticize. Why are people doing what we are doing? Why do they dress up in costumes like this? Where did the idea of going ‘trick or treat’ come from? Why are pumpkins mostly neglected throughout the year but become prevalent during Halloween season? Who came up with the game of ‘bobbing for apples’?

The Origins of Halloween

Researching the origins of Halloween reveals a lot of interesting history.[1] Halloween traces its history back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain [pronounced sow-in]. The Celts lived in and around modern day Ireland about 2000 years ago and celebrated their new year on November 1st. On the last day of the year [i.e. October 31st] they believed that dead spirits returned to the world, so their priests would light huge bonfires where people would make sacrifices to their gods.

Later, the Romans conquered the Celtic territory around 43 C.E. They were also pagans and had two festivals: one to commemorate the passing of the dead in late October and the other to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit. These two celebrations were eventually merged with the day of Samhain.

Centuries later, the Catholic Church established a day to honor all the Christian martyrs who had been killed and called it All Martyrs Day [also known as All Hallows Day]. This was originally celebrated in May but was eventually moved to November 1st to displace the pagan day of Samhain that was still celebrated in the region. Later, another day was added called All Souls Day to include all dead people. The night before All Hallows was called All Hallows Eve and the name evolved to become Halloween. The pagan Celtic ritual about dead spirits mixed with the Catholic one about honoring of the dead.

In colonial America, observing Halloween was originally very limited because the Protestant Christians wanted nothing to do with pagan rituals. In the second half of the nineteenth century, more immigrants from Europe began to migrate to America, many of them coming from Ireland due to the potato famine of 1846. These white immigrants brought the celebration of Halloween with them and it began to spread throughout the country. By the 20th century, Halloween became a little more sanitized and the religious and superstitious aspects of the day were mostly gone. The symbols of ghosts and witchcraft remained but were not widely believed in due to a change in American attitudes. Nonetheless, many neopagans and Wiccans still believe in and celebrate Samhain. Today, Halloween has become commercialized and rakes in about $6 billion every year in the US alone. A fourth of all candy sold throughout the year is purchased for Halloween celebrations.

It is clear that Halloween is a day that has evolved over time, incorporating many different elements and cultures, mostly pagan, into it. The practice of dressing up in costumes originated from the fear of ghosts roaming the earth on Halloween. The Celts believed that if someone wore a scary mask or costume then the ghosts might not recognize them as humans.

To prevent ghosts from coming inside their homes, they use to leave food outside for roaming spirits to eat. The food also served as a ‘treat’ for the good ghosts from their deceased family members. The Catholic Church tried to displace this practice by encouraging people to give out ‘soul-cakes’ so people would pray for the dead instead. During the All Souls Day celebrations in England, poor people would go from house to house begging for food and families would give them some if they promised to pray for their dead ancestors. Over time, the twin practices of leaving treats for ghosts and begging for soul-cakes merged to become ‘trick-or-treating’. The ‘trick’ was added when people began to threatening others that if they do not give some ‘treat’, a ‘trick’ will be played on them through some mischievous act.

The ‘jack-o-lantern’ originated from the practice of carving scary faces into turnips or pumpkins and leaving them outside the house to scare away ghosts. The game of ‘bobbing for apples’ originates from the festival of the Roman deity Pomona, whose symbol is the apple. There were many other customs and superstitions associated with Halloween that have died out with the passage of time.

Symbolism and Secularism

Since Halloween has mostly become a secularized festival in the West, some Muslims argue that there is nothing wrong with adopting it. Knowing the history of Halloween and the origins of the symbols that are still associated with the day, we must be more cautious.

When the Christian ʿAdī ibn Ḥātim accepted Islam, he went to go visit the Prophet Muhammad with a golden cross around his neck. The Messenger of Allah pointed to his necklace and told him, “ʿAdī, throw this idol away.” It is important to reflect on this statement. ʿAdī had already accepted Islam, which means that he had already abandoned the idea that Jesus is divine. For him, the cross around his neck was only a symbol now. Maybe he liked the way it looked or had become accustomed to wearing it as a fashion piece. Prior to accepting Islam, that cross symbolized belief in Jesus being God and having died for the sins of all people. The moment ʿAdī accepted Islam, the cross that he was wearing immediately ceased to have this meaning, which is why he continued to wear it. Nevertheless, the Prophet made it clear to ʿAdī that this cross was still considered an idol because of what it symbolized, and must be discarded entirely.

Likewise, despite the secularization of many symbols that were once antithetical to Islam and its core message, the advice of the Prophet should continue to resonate with us. Muslims should be proud that they have the insight to trace rituals and customs back to their origins, and ascend beyond the blind conformity of imitating whatever cultural practices and rituals exist in their society. Halloween is a ritual that is yet to be purified of its pagan and satanic symbols and elements. Until this is done, Muslims should be weary.

There is nothing wrong with ordering a pumpkin spiced latte from the local café that only serves this drink around Halloween. Likewise, leaving out some candy to prevent your neighbor’s children from becoming disappointed might be a wise move, depending on where you live, but Muslims should generally avoid observing Halloween as a day of celebration. Instead, they must develop alternatives to where children have fun, get treats, get to wear costumes, and carve out fruits. However, these alternatives need to be stripped of their pagan elements. The Muslim community will continue to wait in anticipation for those creative individuals to arrive who can introduce these alternatives. In the meantime, the corporations who profit from Halloween will continue to develop the holiday in whatever direction will gain them the most profit, without any concern for what symbols are promoted or what impact they have on people.

Muslims must remember that it is ok to be different. Halloween has evolved over time and theoretically has the potential to be stripped of its pagan symbols and made into a purely secular holiday. But until it is, we should discard the superstitious pagan symbols and replace them with something better.

[1] See http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween, last accessed 10-29-15; Also see Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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What is the day of ʿĀshūrā’?

ʿĀshūrā’ is the 10th day in the month of Muḥarram, which is the first month in the Muslim lunar calendar. When the Prophet migrated to Madīnah he noticed that the Jews living there used to fast on this day and celebrate. Upon asking them why, they responded that this was the day when Allah saved Prophet Mūsā [Moses] and his followers from Firʿawn [the Pharaoh] by splitting the Red Sea for them and drowning the oppressive Egyptian army. They also noted that Prophet Mūsā himself fasted on this day as a sign of thanks to Allah. Upon hearing this, the Prophet Muhammad responded, “We are closer to Mūsā than you are”, indicating that Muslims should also be fasting on this day. The Prophet then ordered his followers to fast on the day of ʿĀshūrā’ as well.[1]

When the Prophet Muhammad first prescribed it, fasting on the 10th of Muḥarram was mandatory because Muslims did not fast in Ramadan at that time. Then, when the month of Ramadan was prescribed for fasting, the obligation for the day of ʿĀshūrā’ was reduced to a recommendation. [2]

Some Companions chose not to fast on this day since the Prophet had given them the choice, but he himself continued to every year. In fact, ʿAbdullah ibn ʿAbbās related that he had never seen the Prophet so keen on fasting any other day than the day of ʿĀshūrā’.[3] The Messenger of Allah emphasized fasting on this day to such an extent that he once said, “I hope that Allah would forgive the sins of the previous year for the one who fasts on the day of ʿĀshūrā’.”[4]

Near the end of the Prophet’s life, he wanted Muslims to differentiate themselves from other religions so he stated, “Fast the day of ʿĀshūrā’ but differentiate yourself from the Jews by fasting the day before or after it.”[5] After a detailed analysis of all the teachings of the Prophet relating to fasting on the day of ʿĀshūrā’, Imām Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī [d. 852 A.H./1449 C.E.] concluded that there are three different ways to fast this day, in order of ascending virtue:

  • Fast only on the 10th day
  • Fast on both the 9th and 10th day
  • Fast on the 9th, 10th, and 11th

Whichever one of these a person chooses will have the reward for fasting on the day of ʿĀshūrā’. [6]

One of the misconceptions that has occurred in the minds of many Muslims is that the 10th of Muḥarram should be observed as a day of mourning because Husayn ibn ʿAlī, the righteous grandson of the Prophet, was killed on this day. It is true that the day he was killed was indeed sad and a great tragedy. However, many righteous people have been killed on other days, yet none of those dates have been taken as days of mourning. Ḥusayn’s own father, ʿAlī, was also killed unjustly in the month of Ramadan in the year 40 A.H. but no one has specified that day as a day of mourning to be observed by Muslims. Furthermore, the Messenger of Allah witnessed the slaying of many of his family members who were very dear to him such as his uncle Ḥamza, his adopted son Zayd ibn Ḥārithah, and his cousin Jaʿfar [ʿAlī’s brother], yet he never appointed a day of mourning for them. Therefore, although it may be beneficial to reflect on the martyrdom of Ḥusayn and the historical lessons that can be derived from such an incident, there is no basis for singling out his death as a day of mourning.

[1] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3:43, #2004

[2] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3:43, #2002

[3] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3:43, #2006

[4] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2:818, #1162; Muslim scholars have explained that this refers to minor sins only.

[5] Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 4:52, #2154; Ibn Ḥajar and other scholars deemed this narration to be weak because the narrator Ibn Abī Laylā did not have a very strong memory but Aḥmad Shākir declared it to be sufficient [ḥasan] because there are several reports from other narrators to this effect which give it some strength.

[6] Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-Bārī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 4:245

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