News & Islam From the Imam’s desk... Virtues of the month of Sha‘ban By Shaykh Mohammed Mahmoud Just as Allah has favoured some plots of the earth over others, and decreed for us the right over the three most sacred plots on earth – Makkah, Madinah, and Al Aqsa – He has favoured certain times of year with multiplication of reward, expiation of sins, promotion of rank, and admittance into His Gardens. Ahead of us is such a time, the blessed month of Ramadan, in which the Qur’an was revealed, on its greatest night, Laylat al-Qadr, which is better than one thousand months. Just like every obligatory prayer has a voluntary prayer before it which we are encouraged to offer to prepare ourselves by entering into a state of mind befitting the obligatory prayer, so too does the fast of the month of Ramadan have a voluntary prequel fast. It aims to accustom the believer and prepare him for the obligatory fast, and allow them a taste of the sweetness of fasting so as to enter Ramadan with a stronger craving for fasting and worship. It is the month of Sha‘ban. The beloved companion of the Prophet ﷺ, Usamah bin Zaid, said: I said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I do not see you fasting any month as much as Sha‘ban.’ He said, ‘That is a month to which people do not pay much attention, between Rajab and Ramadan. It is a month in which the deeds are taken up to the Lord of the worlds, and I like that my deeds be taken up when I am fasting.’ [Sunan an-Nasa'i] The merit of a specific time or day is known either by the explicit mention of it in the Qur’an, or hadith of the Messenger ﷺ, or by his action. Our Mother ‘Aisha RA narrates: Allah’s Apostle used to fast till one would say that he would never stop fasting, and he would abandon fasting till one would say that he would never fast. I never saw Allah’s Apostle fasting for a whole month except the month of Ramadan, and did not see him fasting in any month more than in the month of Sha‘ban. [Sahih Bukhari] And so we know from his successive fasting that the Messenger ﷺ exalted the month of Sha‘ban for an inherent virtue it possessed, and this virtue is stated in the hadith of Anas, in which the Messenger ﷺ explained his reason for fasting most or all of the month when he said: That is a month to which people do not pay much attention, between Rajab and Ramadan. It is a month in which the deeds are taken up to the Lord of the worlds, and I like that my deeds be taken up when I am fasting. It is a time people are heedless of the Prophet ﷺ said. Ibn Rajab said that in performing righteous deeds during the times of heedlessness there are three benefits: First, they are unknown to people, who are busied with their livelihoods or play. Concealing voluntary worship is better, not least fasting, which is the most secret worship, which is why the scholars say it is safe from exhibitionism. Second, it is difficult for people to do good deeds, and the more difficult they are, the more rewarding they are. And that is because the individual emulates those who surround him. So when people are in a higher state of consciousness of their Lord and observe increased worship, it is easier to perform good deeds. But when people are heedless, the masses follow them in forgetting Allah, and so it is difficult for the god-conscious to perform good deeds due to the scarcity of those who they can emulate. The third benefit, is that the one who stands out from among the people of heedlessness, with worship, can be the reason for calamities being repelled and warded off, thus protects and saves them. May Allah make us of the conscious. The Prophet ﷺ said: It is a month in which the deeds are taken up to the Lord of the worlds. Our deeds are raised and presented to Allah by the angels, who are tasked with recording them. Of course, Allah is witness over what we do, but because He is the absolute in His justice, He does not judge us based on His testimony, but on the testimony of the angels. The disbeliever who disputes their testimony will have his mouth sealed, and his body parts will bear witness over what he had performed. And this is from Allah’s unparalleled mercy, although it is His absolute right to be witness, judge, and punisher. Glory be Him! We each have a bi-daily report, a weekly report and an annual report which is raised to Allah. These deeds are raised by the angels, who record in two shifts: between dawn and ‘Asr, which is the day; and between ‘Asr and dawn which, is the night. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: Angels come to you in succession by night and day, and all of them get together at the time of the Fajr and ‘Asr prayers. Those who have passed the night with you (or stayed with you) ascend (to the Heaven), and Allah asks them, though He knows everything about you well, ‘In what state did you leave My slaves?’ The angels reply, ‘When we left them they were praying, and when we reached them they were praying.’ [Sahih Bukhari] Then there is a weekly report presented to Allah. Abu Hurayrah said: I heard the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘The actions of the children of Adam are presented before Allah Almighty on Thursday evening, the night before Jumu‘ah. He does not accept the actions of someone who has severed ties of kinship.’ [Al-Adab Al-Mufrad] Then there is an annual report of deeds raised in the month of Sha‘ban. What we notice in each of the times when the deeds are raised, is the need to be in a state of worship. The deeds are raised for Allah to accept the good ones, and forgive the bad ones, before they are registered in the slave’s permanent record, as the scholars have said. For that to happen, Allah exhorts His servants to re-establish severed family ties and observe piety, because He has said: Allah accepts only from the God-fearing. [5:27] When a defendant’s case is about to be heard in court, he gathers as many character references as possible, to strengthen his position, and increase his chance of being exonerated. So too must the believer offer more good deeds before and during the presentation of their report before Allah, to increase the chances of them being accepted. And that is indeed what the Prophet ﷺ used to do. He would stand for the pre-dawn prayer (qiyam) to conclude the night with worship, and he would fast on Thursdays, and would fast during the month of Sha‘ban. Final preparation for Ramadan The person who has an important task ahead of them, the outcome of which has long-term consequences, plans and prepares. The preparations intensify right before the start of the task. The month of Sha‘ban serves as our last opportunity to make our final preparations for Ramadan. For Ramadan, we must prepare spiritually, physically, materially, and educationally. Spiritual preparation is characterised by tawbah – repentance. Our sins prevent us from doing righteous deeds. They are burdens of which we must rid ourselves. To be aided by Allah to fast, pray, recite and give during Ramadan, we must repent for our sins. The sins we enter Ramadan with will diminish our reward, or prevent it entirely. Our righteous predecessors used to sorrow over being unable to pray at night, and fast voluntary fasts. Today many of us don’t pray on time, or miss the prayer entirely. When spurred to do good deeds, the person replies, “Make dua for me that Allah guides me.” But what about your duty to strive for His guidance? Allah said: But those who struggle in Our cause, surely We shall guide them in Our ways. [29:69] Therefore, we are responsible for taking our first step, which no one will take for us. The weight of the sins will prevent us from taking those steps to Allah, so ask Him to absolve you of them, so that your pace to Allah becomes brisk. Spiritual preparation is also characterised by reconnecting with the Qur’an. Fasting and the Qur’an are inseparably connected, and intrinsically associated with each other. They both ask to intercede for the believer of the Day of Judgement. And so, for the early Muslims, alongside the fast, Ramadan was a Qur’anic marathon. When Ramadan came in, Imam Malik would leave the circles of hadith and the gatherings with scholars, and would turn to the Qur’an to read throughout the month. Imam al-Shafi’i would complete the whole Qur’an sixty times outside of his prayers, and Abu Hanifah used to achieve a number similar to that. So let us all reconnect with the Qur’an now, by setting aside time to recite and reflect over it. Physical preparation for Ramadan Physical preparation for Ramadan is achieved by fasting some of Sha‘ban, as we have already mentioned. It also includes seeing your doctor to check whether your health will permit you to fast on not. Many people live with chronic diseases, most of which are age-related, and some have illnesses for which they undertake a course of treatment. For them, fasting may either aggravate their illness or slow down their recovery. They must know from now whether fasting will be allowed for them or not. Material preparation for Ramadan Material preparation is characterised by knowing the state of your finances going into Ramadan. Calculating how much zakat you may owe. Which charities and projects will you support? How will you divide your money over the days of the month? What are your family’s needs for Ramadan and Eid? Buy what you need now, so as not to use the precious time of Ramadan in shopping trips on the high street or online. Educational preparation for Ramadan Educational preparation is learning or revising the rules of fasting. When do I open and close my fast? What invalidates my fast? Which circumstances allow me a licence not to fast? The believer mustn’t be oblivious to these matters. Do not fall into the two extremes Before concluding, let me warn us of two extremes. The first is thinking that fasting all of Sha‘ban is compulsory. It is not. Fasting in Sha‘ban is a Sunnah of the Messenger, and the majority of the narrations state that he fasted most of it. So do not impose on yourself or others something that Allah has not ordered us to observe by way of obligation. The second extreme is to completely abandon the fast throughout Sha‘ban. Some do so, saying, “It’s just Sunnah.” Whilst others say, “If I can’t fast it all, I won’t fast any of it!” We must do what we can. So if it means fasting one day a week, then that one day will distance you from the Fire a distance covered in 70 years of travel. So do not belittle the one day. And if you are observing plenty of fasts, don’t belittle what others are capable of, lest your deeds be rendered void due to a hidden pride. O Allah bless is in our Sha‘ban and allow us to reach Ramadan. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Sheikh Mohammed Mahmoud OBE is the Senior Imam at East London Mosque & London Muslim Centre. In addition to leading prayer and delivering Friday sermons, he provides religious guidance to congregants, runs Islamic classes and engages in various outreach and interfaith projects. His outstanding courage during the Finsbury Park terror attack of 2017 was recognised around the world.