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Ruwa: Beliefs and Practices on Laylah al-Barāʾah or Laylah al-Niṣf min Shaʿbān

Administrator March 3, 2020 105 5

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by Maulana Irshaad Sedick

Traditionally the night of the 15th of Shaʿbān or Layla al-Barāʾah is known as Ruwa and in Cape Town, South Africa. Every year on this night, Muslims gather in their local masjid to commemorate this night as one of die groot aande (the big nights). The ubiquitous practice throughout the Cape would then be to recite sūrah Yāsīn three times.

Each recitation would be followed by a special supplication (as seen below) and in the past, each recitation would be accompanied by 3 specific intentions, although this part is fairly uncommon these days. These intentions are; 1. to be blessed with a long life spent in the obedience of Allah; 2. to have calamities diverted; and 3. for the independence of having to ask people along with a good ending to one’s life. Thereafter the imām would address the gathering with a short talk about the significance of the night.

This paper seeks to explore the origins of these practices and the beliefs which espouse them. I will attempt to shed light on the Islamic legal ruling pertaining to the belief of the significance of this night, the practice of gathering therein, reciting surah Yāsīn thrice, with those intentions, and reading the special supplication after each recitation. In a previous paper titled, Sha’bān and Laylat al-Barā`ah – What you need to know, I have addressed the significance of the month of Sha’bān from various aspects, including the issue of fasting therein generally and on the 15th day especially, and thus I will not revisit those issues in this paper.

The Origins
As with many other religious and spiritual practices of the Cape, such as the Rātib al-Ḥaddād, the aforementioned practices of the 15th of Shaʿbān stem from the Tasawwuf practices of Tarim, Haḍramawt in Yemen.

After ʿAsr on the 14th of Shaʿbān the scholars in Tarīm lead the people on a visit of the Zanbal graveyard. At the grave of al-Faqih al-Muqaddam they read sūrah Yāsīn three times with the same three intentions as mentioned above. After each recitation, they read the special supplication (which is the exact supplication read in the Cape and many other parts of the world). Thus it may safely be concluded that the practice stems from the sūfi practice of the Bā ʿAlawi ṭarīqah (spiritual order) of Yemen.

Abu Tazkiyah article on Shabaan

Further Origins
The entire ritual i.e. Yāsīn X 3, with those intentions and the duʿāh appears to be based on the belief that the 15th of Shaʿbān is, in fact, the night in which decree is dispersed, books of deeds are sealed with new ones opened, and the affairs of the forthcoming year are entrusted to the Angels.

Where does this belief come from?

The answer to this question is a combination of a Quranic verse, the tafsīr of this verse and a number of aḥadīth of varying degrees of authenticity.
Firstly the verses in the Qurʾān – At the beginning of sūrah al-Dukhān, Allah makes mention of a night, a blessed night, a night in which He sent It (the Qurʾān) down and the night in which is decreed every ḥakīm (well measured, calculated and wise) matter:

(1. Ha Mim.) (2. By the manifest Book that makes things clear.) (3. We sent it down on a blessed night. Verily, We are ever warning.) (4. Therein (that night) is decreed every matter, Hakim.) (5. As a command from Us. Verily, We are ever sending,) (6. (As) a mercy from your Lord. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower.)

Which night is this? Exegetically speaking, how would one determine the exact nature of this night? These questions are important since the practices which have been elaborated on an earlier stem from the opinion that this night is the 15th night of the month of Shaʿbān. Thus the primary question arises; where does this opinion come from and is it the orthodox and majority view?
To answer this question we turn our attention to the science of Qurʾānic Exegesis or Tafsīr. The erudite scholars of Qurʾānic Exegesis (mufassirūn) unanimously express that the primary source of exegesis for the Qurʾān is the Qurʾān itself. This is expressed in the exegetical Arabic idiom, “al-Qurʾān yufassiru baʿḍuhu baʿḍan” (unambiguous sections of the Qurʿān elucidate the ambiguous sections thereof). The next undisputed source of Qurʾānic Exegesis (according to the scholars of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamāʿah) is the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). The third source of orthodox exegesis lies within the opinions of the students of the Prophet (S.A.W), namely the sahābah (companions)(S.A.W), followed by their students, the tābi’īn (successors) .

The Qurʿān’s Exegesis:

The aforementioned āyāt of sūrah al-Dukhān bares a remarkable resemblance to another well-known passage in the Qurʾān, namely, sūrah al-Qadr. Observe the similarities between these two sets of āyāt (al-Dukhān and al-Qadr respectively):
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
حم (1) وَالْكِتَابِ الْمُبِينِ (2) إِنَّا أَنْزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةٍ مُبَارَكَةٍ إِنَّا كُنَّا مُنْذِرِينَ (3) فِيهَا يُفْرَقُ كُلُّ أَمْرٍ حَكِيمٍ (4) أَمْرًا مِنْ عِنْدِنَا إِنَّا كُنَّا مُرْسِلِينَ (5) رَحْمَةً مِنْ رَبِّكَ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ (6)
(1. Ha Mim.) (2. By the manifest Book that makes things clear.) (3. We sent it down on a blessed night. Verily, We are ever warning.) (4. Therein (that night) is decreed every matter, Hakim.) (5. As a command from Us. Verily, We are ever sending,) (6. (As) a mercy from your Lord. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
إِنَّا أَنْزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ (1) وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ (2) لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَلْفِ شَهْرٍ (3) تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِمْ مِنْ كُلِّ أَمْرٍ (4) سَلَامٌ هِيَ حَتَّى مَطْلَعِ الْفَجْرِ (5)

(1. Verily, We have sent it down in the Night of Al-Qadr.) (2. And what will make you know what the Night of Al-Qadr is) (3. The Night of Al-Qadr is better than a thousand months.) (4. Therein descend the angels and the Ruḥ (Gabriel) by their Lord’s permission with every matter.) (5. There is peace until the appearance of dawn.)
Both passages speak of the night in which IT (the Qurʾān) was revealed, except that the one is more detailed than the other. Whilst sūrah al-Dukhān calls it a blessed night, sūrah al-Qadr elaborates which blessed night that was i.e. the Night of Qadr (divine decree). Furthermore, sūrah al-Dukhān speaks of the phenomenon of the decree of “every well-measured/ḥakīm matter”, and sūrah al-Qadr addresses this same phenomenon, but with more detail i.e. therein descend the angels and the Rūḥ (the archangel Gabriel) by their Lord’s permission with every matter. It is thus quite clear that the āyah in sūrah al-Dukhān refers to Laylah al-Qadr and not Laylah al-Nisf min Shāʿbān.
Where, then, did the other opinion (that sūrah al-Dukhān refers to Laylah al-Nisf min Shāʿbān) come from? In the Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm by Ibn Kathīr, the author attributes this opinion to one of the successors, a student of the companion, ʿAbduLlāh ibn ʿAbbās , by the name of ʿIkrimah.
The following is an extract from the Tafsīr of Ibn Kathīr:
يقول تعالى مخبرا عن القرآن العظيم: إنه أنزله في ليلة مباركة، وهي ليلة القدر، كما قال تعالى: {إنا أنزلناه في ليلة القدر} [القدر: 1] وكان ذلك في شهر رمضان، كما قال: تعالى: {شهر رمضان الذي أنزل فيه القرآن} [البقرة: 185] وقد ذكرنا الأحاديث (1) الواردة في ذلك في “سورة البقرة” بما أغنى عن إعادته.
ومن قال: إنها ليلة النصف من شعبان -كما روي عن عكرمة-فقد أبعد النجعة فإن نص القرآن أنها في رمضان. والحديث الذي رواه عبد الله بن صالح، عن الليث، عن عقيل عن الزهري: أخبرني عثمان بن محمد بن المغيرة بن الأخنس أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: “تقطع الآجال من شعبان إلى شعبان، حتى إن الرجل لينكح ويولد له، وقد أخرج اسمه في الموتى” (2) فهو حديث مرسل، ومثله لا يعارض به النصوص…
وقوله: {فيها يفرق كل أمر حكيم} أي: في ليلة القدر يفصل من اللوح المحفوظ إلى الكتبة أمر السنة، وما يكون فيها من الآجال والأرزاق، وما يكون فيها إلى آخرها. وهكذا روي عن ابن عمر، وأبي مالك، ومجاهد، والضحاك، وغير واحد من السلف. وقوله: {حكيم} أي: محكم لا يبدل ولا يغير.
Allah tells us that He revealed the magnificent Qurʾān on a blessed night, Laylah al-Qadr (the Night of Decree), as He says elsewhere: (Verily, We have sent it down in the Night of Al-Qadr) (97:1). This was in the month of Ramaḍān, as Allah tells us: (The month of Ramaḍān in which was revealed the Qurʾān) (2:185). We have already quoted the relevant ḥadīths in (the tafsīr of) sūrah Al-Baqarah, and there is no need to repeat them here. Whosoever says that this refers to Laylah al-Niṣf min Shaʿbān (the night of the half of Shāʿbān), as reported from ʿIkrimah, then that opinion is far from the truth, since the unambiguous text of the Qurʾān proclaims that the revelation commenced in Ramaḍān. The mursal ḥadīth which is reported by ʿUthmān ibn Muḥammad ibn al-Mughīrah ibn al-Akhnas, that the Messenger of Allah  said, “decrees are set out from Shaʿbān to Shaʿbān to such an extent of who a person will marry, the children to be born and the names of those decreed to die”. This type of evidence (mursal ḥadīth) cannot override unambiguous and authentic evidence.

(Therein (that night) is decreed every matter, hakīm) means, on Laylah al-Qadr, the decrees are transferred from Al-Lawḥ Al-Maḥfūz (the divinely preserved tablet which contains the knowledge of everything)̣ to the (angelic) scribes who write down the decrees of the (coming) year including life spans, provisions, and what will happen until the end of that year. This was narrated from Ibn ʿUmar, Mujāhid, Abū Mālik, Ad-Ḍaḥḥāk and others among the pious predecessors of the first three generations of Muslims. The word “ḥakīm” refers to decided or confirmed matters which cannot be changed or altered.

This extract of exegesis by Ibn Kathīr proves that only one successor (tābiʿī) i.e. ʿIkrimah, the freed slave of ʿAbduLlāh ibn ʿAbbās, held the view that the opening verses of sūrah al-Dukhān refer to Laylah al-Niṣf min Shaʿbān. His view apparently contradicts the exegesis based on the primary sources of tafsīr, namely, the Qurʾān itself, the teachings of the Prophet (S.A.W) (in his elaboration of the events of Laylah al-Qadr ), the views of the companions (S.A.W) and the overwhelming majority of successors as well. In the sciences of Ḥadīth, such a view would be deemed anomalous/shādh (when a reliable narrator contradicts one or a group of more reliable narrators).
In light of this information, it seems as though the motivation for the recitation of sūrah Yāsīn thrice with those intentions do not really coincide with the significance of this particular night, but rather with the night of Laylah al-Qadr.

Furthermore, whilst reciting sūrah Yāsīn or any other sūrah/s of the Qurʾān, whether once, twice or three hundred times is completely permissible or even recommended, the following must be stated: the institutionalisation of specifically reciting this sūrah, three times on this specific night with these specific intentions, does not come from the teachings of the Prophet (S.A.W), nor his illustrious companions. This, by itself, does not render the traditional practice of reciting sūrah Yāsīn three times as problematic. But if this practice becomes ritualistic, such that people believe that it is a part of the legislated sunnah/ shariah and that it must be done in this particular way, on this particular night and for those specific intentions, then it would result in innovating into the religion that which is not part of it. In other words, despite the apparent misunderstanding of the significance of this night, the practice of reciting sūrah Yāsīn thrice is still acceptable, as long as the general public know that this traditional practice is not obligatory nor sunnah. If people believe that “it must be so” then it poses a problem.

The Supplication (Du’āh)
اللهم يا ذا المن لا يمن عليه احد يا ذا الجلال والإكرام يا ذا الطول والانعام، لا إله إلا أنتَ ظهر اللاجئين وجار المستجيرين وامان الخائفين اللهم ان كنت كتبتني عندك في ام الكتاب شقيا أو محروما أو مطرودا أو مقترا عليّ من الرزق فامح اللهم بفضلك شقاوتي وحرماني وطردي واقتار رزقي وثبتني عندك في ام الكتاب سعيدا ومرزوقا للخيرات فانكَ قلت وقولك الحق في كتابك المنزل على لسان نبيك المرسل يمحوا الله ما يشاء ويثبت وعنده ام الكتاب. إلهي بالتجلي الأعظم في ليلة النصف من شهر شعبان المعظم المكرم التي يفرق فيها كل امر حكيم ويبرم ان تكشف عنا من البلاء ما نعلم وما لا نعلم وما أنتَ به اعلم إنكَ أنتَ الأعز الاكرم. وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه وسلم.

Allāhumma yā Dhā ’l-Manni lā yamannu `alayhi aħad,
yā Dhā ’l-Jalāli wa ’l-Ikrām yā Dhā ‘ţ-Ţūli wa ’l-An`ām.
Lā ilāha illa Anta.
Ļahara ’l-lāji’īn wa Jāru ’l-mustajirīn wa Amānu ’l-khā’ifīn.
Allāhumma in kunta katabtanī `indaka fī ummu ’l-Kitābi
shaqīyan aw maħrūman aw maţrūdan aw muqataran `alayya mina ’r-rizq
famħu-llāhumma bi-faļlika shaqāwatī wa ħurmāni wa ţurdī
wa iqtāra rizqī wa thabitnī `indaka fī ummi ’l-kitābi sa`īdan
wa marzūqan li ’l-khayrāti
fa-innaka qulta wa qawluku ’l-ħaqq
fī kitābik al-munzal
`ala lisāni nabīyyika ’l-mursal:
yamħullāhu mā yashā’u wa yuthbitu wa `indahu Ummu ’l-Kitāb.
Ilāhī bi ’t-tajallī al-ā`azhami fī lalayti ’n-nišfi
min shahri sha`bāni ’l-mu`azhami ’l-mukarrami
’llatī yufraqu fīhā kullu amrin ħakīmin wa yubram,
an takshifa `annā mina ’l-balā`i mā na`lamu
wa mā lā na`lamu wa mā Anta bihi ā`alamu
innaka Anta al-A`azzu ’l-Akram.
Wa šalla-Allāhu `alā sayyidinā Muħammadin wa `alā ālihi wa šāħbihi wa sallam.

O Allah, Tireless Owner of Bounty. O Owner of Sublimity, Honor, Power, and Blessings.
There is no Allah except You, the Support of refugees and Neighbor of those who seek nearness, Guardian of the fearful.
O Allah, if you have written in Your Book that I be abject, deprived, banished, and tight-fisted,
then erase O Allah, through Your bounty,
my misery, deprivation, banishment, and stinginess
and establish me with You as happy, provided with blessings,
for surely You have said—and Your Word is True—
in Your Revealed Book on the tongue of Your Messenger,
“Allah blots out or confirms what He pleases, and with Him is the Mother of Books.” (13:39)
My God, by the Great Manifestation of the Night of the middle of the Noble Month of Sha`bān
“in which every affair of wisdom is made distinct and authorized,“(44:4)
remove from us calamities—those we know and those we do not know,
and Thou knowest best—for surely You are the Most Mighty, the Most Generous.
May Allah bless Muhammad and his Family and Companions.

Analysis of the Du’ah:
The first observation about this supplication is that it is not a Quranic, nor Prophetic supplication and does not stem from the teachings of the companions or successors either. Again this is arguably not a problem as one is allowed to supplicate to Allah in any way which is appropriate, bearing in mind that the supplications of the Qurʿān and the Sunnah are always superior.
There are, however, two problems with this specific supplication. Firstly the supplication clearly addresses the night of the 15th of Shaʾbān as the night in which divine decree is dispersed. This has already been rectified above with the exegesis of the opening verses of sūrah al-Dukhān i.e. it takes place on Laylah al-Qadr and not on the 15th night of shaʿbān.
The bigger problem, however, is one involving ʿaqīdah or creed. In the supplication there is a plea to Allah to change divine decree which has been written in the Lawḥ al-Maḥfuẓ (the divinely preserved tablet which contains the knowledge of everything).

There are two types of decree (qada) according to classical traditional ʿaqīdah. One is called muʿallaq or suspended decree. This type of decree can change based on one’s supplications, good deeds, charities or because of some difficulty one might experience, etc. This is what the Prophet (S.A.W) meant when he said that nothing changes decree except duʿah. The second type of divine decree is absolute, unchangeable or mubram. This type, according to classical traditional Islamic creed cannot change and asking Allah to change it is tantamount to asking Allah for that which He has forbidden.
One could possibly debate these technicalities, but the question is why should someone debate them? This is not a supplication which was taught by the Prophet (S.A.W) or his companions, so why would one insist on defending and repeating it when there are hundreds if not thousands of authentic, sound and problem-free supplications from the Qurʿān and Sunnah which may be recited at any time? If there is no reason other than tradition and culture, then it is unacceptable to perpetuate a supplication that contains elements that challenge well established orthodox beliefs.

The Great Virtue of this night.
There is the great virtue of Laylah al-Niṣf min Shaʿbān which is clearly mentioned in the following pieces of evidence:
From Abdullah bin Amr, “ The Prophet (S.A.W) said, ‘Allah  inspects His creation on the night of the half of Sha’bān and forgives all of His slaves except for two, those who harbour ill feelings and the murderer”[Ahmad and others]
“Allah  inspects His creation on the night of the half of Sha’bān and forgives all of His slaves except for two, the polytheist and those who harbour ill feelings”.
Similar narrations are mentioned in other books as well, such as the Sunan of Ibn Mājah, the Sunan of Tirmidhī, the Muṣannaf of Ibn Abī Shaybah, the books of al-Bayhaqī, the Musnad of al- Bazzār and others.
Al-Mubarakpuri (Commentator of the Jami’ of Imām at-Tirmidhī) writes, after relating many aḥādīth about the importance of this night, “You should know that a sufficient number of ḥadīth has been narrated confirming the virtues of the 15th night of Sha’bān”… “The sum of all these aḥādīth presents strong evidence against the one who thinks there is no proof for the virtue of the 15th night of Sha’bān” and Allah knows best. [Tuḥfatul Aḥwadhī Volume 003: Page. 365-367]

What may be drawn from the ḥadīth regarding Laylah al-Barā’ah, besides the tremendous virtue of Allah’s  forgiveness on the night, are the lessons about who will not be forgiven and the warning to not be from amongst them.
The two types of people mentioned the most are the mushrik (polytheist) and the mushāḥin (the one who harbours ill feelings).
Shirk (polytheism) is of two kinds, the major and the minor. The major form of shirk is the heinous crime of actually associating partners with Allah’s divinity. The minor form is less conspicuous and much more difficult to detect, as it is a hidden quality within the spiritual heart. It is called riyā (doing some act of worship for the sake of being noticed by others or for some other achievement, besides earning Allah’s pleasure) and is a quality that may emanate at the time of performing any kind of ‘ibādah (act of worship). The Prophet Muḥammad (S.A.W) warned us to beware of the shirk al-aṣghar (the minor form of shirk) and when he was asked to elaborate he responded that it is riyā.
By Allah depriving the mushrik of His forgiveness, both the major and minor forms of shirk are included and the manner in which to ensure one’s safety from such deprivation is the rectification and reformation of the heart which is the factory of our intentions. When the machines of the factory (the heart) are working properly, then the products (the intentions) would have no flaws.

The mushāḥin (the one who harbours ill feelings such as enmity or grudges) is also deprived. It is, therefore, necessary to rid oneself of all such ‘destroyers of the soul’ before Laylat al-Barā’ah, least we be deprived of Allah’s forgiveness.
What is required in order to free oneself from shaḥnah (ill feelings), is to inspect your heart and to be very honest with oneself. ‘Do I have any such feelings against anyone, whether they wronged me or not? Is this worth missing out on Allah’s  forgiveness?’
One should also make sure that no one harbours such ill feelings against you, thereby saving them from being deprived of Allah’s Mercy and to save yourself from the punishment of harming others if you have done something that caused those feelings. One should not seek the forgiveness and good relations of those with whom terms are already of good nature, but rather with those who, between you and them there is no peace, friendship or Islamic love.
Among those who will also not be forgiven as mentioned in the various narrations (some of which are weak) are: Those who cut family ties, those males who drag their clothing (out of pride) beneath their ankles, those who habitually drink wine (addict) and the fornicator/adulterator (all these people will only be excluded from the general forgiveness of the night if they have not repented).

One cannot help but notice that Allah has made the condition of His forgiveness on this great night that one should not be from the aforementioned categories of people. It appears as though Allah  is preparing His slaves for the holy month of Ramaḍān in two ways. Firstly, by ridding them of evils (such as corrupted intentions, ill feelings, bad habits like drinking alcohol or taking drugs and fornication to mention a few) that would deprive them of Ramaḍān’s blessings in any case and secondly by then forgiving His slaves, so that they may enter the holy month of Ramaḍān with a clean slate, ready to derive maximum benefits from the glorious month.

The Gathering in the Masājid on This Night.
Ibn Rajab al-Hanbalī, in his Laṭāʾif al-Maʿārif, discusses that in the time of the successors, they started differing over whether they should gather in the mosques for collective worship on this night or whether they should remain in their homes and worship individually. This means that there is a precedent among the pious predecessors of the first three generations of Muslims for gathering on nights such as these, but this is only mentioned here for the benefit of those who feel that they need a precedent to gather in the mosques on a specific night. In reality, just as the issue of reciting sūrah Yāsīn, gathering in the mosques is generally always a good thing. The only time it becomes problematic is when people start believing that they must or are recommended to gather on a specific night such as the night under discussion when the Prophet (S.A.W) and his companions did not specifically recommend that. If it is well known that it’s not a Sunnah, but a good custom then it should not be a problem. When people start frowning upon those who do not join communal gatherings for occasions such as these, then caution should be taken as it may be a sign that custom has become an institutionalised act of worship.

The Reality
This is purely my own opinion and observation. It appears to me as though many people amongst the general public do believe that sūrah Yāsīn must be recited thrice, that the duʿāh must follow it and that one must go to the mosque on this night. If that is not the case, then all one has to do is say, “let’s not gather for Ruwa this year and instead let’s make ʿibādah (worship) at home with our families”, or perhaps at the masjid, say to the gathering, “this year we will not be reciting Yāsīn nor will we make the specific duʿāh which we usually do, but instead we will learn the tafsīr of sūrah Yāsīn or the verses of Ramaḍān which will help us in the coming days” etc. What would the community’s response be? If we can envisage that we could, with some wisdom make those suggestions or similar, without causing havoc and upsetting the majority, then I believe that there is no problem with the traditional practices. If we can’t fathom the idea of mentioning that, because of the reactions which we know we might receive, then we have to ask ourselves, “is it still just an acceptable and praiseworthy custom which brings the community together in the masjid or have we innovated into Allah’s religion that which He did not?”

There are no SPECIFIC OR PRESCRIBED acts of ‘Ibādah from the Qurān or authentic Sunnah that I am aware of, but any good deeds performed with the right intention on this night such as Ṣalāh, recitation of Qurān, Dhikr or ‘Itikāf may be performed, as long as it is known that it is voluntary and any person who does not wish to take part is not blameworthy of anything. Allah knows best,

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