Question: Is marking out the 15th night of Sha'ban (laylat al-nisf min sha'ban) with extra prayers and devotion sanctioned by Islam, or is doing so judged to be a reprehensible innovation (bid'ah)?
Answer: Each year, a fair amount of fussing and fighting takes place over this issue. Yet the truth of the matter is that scholars have long-held this issue to be one over which there is a valid difference of opinion. The first group considered the night to have no specific virtues over and above any other night of the year, and believed that singling the night out for extra acts of worship is unsanctioned. Another group begged to differ and held that the middle night of Sha'ban does possess special merits and should be earmarked for extra prayers and devotion.
What follows is a discussion about why such a difference has arisen and how each of the two stances has its legitimacy in the canons of classical Islamic jurisprudence. The discussion will also make a distinction between prayer in mid-Sha'ban and the prayerof mid-Sha'ban: the first, as will be shown, is textually grounded; the second, actually unfounded.
Although there is no explicit reference to the 15th of Sha'ban in the actual Qur'an, the hadith corpus does record the merits or fada'il of this night – of which the following hadiths are among the most significant and widely cited:
1. The hadith of Mu'adh b. Jabal that relates the Prophet saying: 'God looks at His creation during the middle night of Sha'ban and forgives all of them, except an idolator and one who harbours rancour.'1
2. The hadith of 'Abd Allāh b.'Amr where the Prophet said: 'God, majestic is He, looks at His creation on the middle night of Sha'ban and forgives all of His slaves, save an idolater and a murderer.'2
3. The hadith of the lady 'A'ishah: 'Allāh, exalted is He, descends to the nearest heaven in the middle night of Sha'ban and His forgiveness is greater than the number of hairs on the sheep [in the tribe] of Kalb.'3
At first blush, the bone of contention seems to be settled. For if the Prophet has spoken about the merits of mid-Sha'ban (as per the above hadiths), then who are we to object. That said, the fact of the matter is that the actual authenticities of the above hadiths have been greatly disputed. Hadith specialists differ over whether or not the above words can be reliably ascribed to the Prophet .
Typifying those in 'the night has no special distinction' camp is the acclaimed Maliki jurist, Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-'Arabi, who said: 'There is no authentic hadith which may be relied upon in respect to the middle night of Sha'ban; neither about its merits, nor the decree being written in it. So pay no attention to it.'4 Others in this camp include Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Tartushi and al-Hafiz al-'Iraqi.5
This group of eminent scholars take the view that, although there is a sizeable body of hadiths that speak about the merits of this night, none of these hadiths are free from having defects and flaws in their chains. Some contain narrators whose memory and precision have been called into question. Some contain missing links in their chains. While in other cases they contain narrators whose truthfulness or veracity have been seriously doubted and disparaged.
In contrast, there are those who advocate singling out mid-Sha'ban with optional acts of devotion. Their reasoning is straightforward enough. They take the view that since some of the hadiths about mid-Sha'ban are only mildly weak they may, according to certain established rules in the science of hadith, be used to strengthen one another to yield a final grading of sahih or hasan (“authentic” or “sound”). On this basis, Ibn al-ṣalāh, the notable Shafi'i jurists and hadith master, ruled: 'The middle night of Sha'ban does have merit. To spend its night in acts of worship is recommended (mustahabb); but on an individual basis, not collectively.'6
Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: 'Hadiths and salaf-reports about the virtues of the middle night [of Sha'ban] have been related. It is also reported about a group of the salaf that they would pray during the night. Thus the prayer of someone praying individually during the night has a precedent with some of the salaf, and therefore stands as a proof for it. So it cannot be objected to.'7
In another fatwa, he stated: 'If someone offers prayer in the middle-night of Sha'ban, whether individually or collectively, then this is excellent (fa huwa ahsan).'8
In closing his definitive account about the 15th of Sha'ban and the stance of the early scholars concerning it, Ibn Rajab states: 'Thus it befits a believer to devote himself in this night to God's remembrance (dhikr), exalted is He, and to asking Him to pardon one's sins, conceal one's faults and relieve his hardships. This should be preceded by offering sincere repentance. For God, exalted is He, relents towards those who turn to Him in repentance.'9
The above is a sample of the juristic difference surrounding mid-Sha'ban. And insofar as there is a legitimate difference on the subject, there need be no fussing over the 15th of Sha'ban; no dividing Muslims over it; no deploying it as a benchmark to distinguish 'pure' follower of the Sunnah from 'tainted' ones; and no whipping up a frenzy among the public by blowing things out of proportion. Wherever such schisms are occurring, they simply have to stop, and repentance be made.
Upon investigation into both views, those qualified in the art of juristic evaluation and who see the validity of the night's virtue, honour it; those who do not, treat it like any other night. The rest of the Muslims are muqallids; in other words, they simply follow the scholar they trust or feel at ease with in the issue, leaving it at that. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote:
'Whoever adopts a view by being a muqallid to someone, cannot rebuke one who takes another view due to being a muqallid to someone else. But if one of them does have a conclusive shari'ah proof, it is required to comply with it when it becomes known. It is not allowed for anyone to to say that one view is preferable to another, without proof; nor be biased to one opinion over another – or one person over another – without a definitive proof. Instead, one who is a muqallid is obliged to follow a qualified scholar: he cannot evaluate, weigh-up, or say something is right or wrong … As for someone who only knows the opinion of one scholar and his proofs, but does not know the other scholar's opinion or proofs, he is from the generality of the muqallids. He is not of the scholars who are able to evaluate or weigh-up [proofs].'10
The above discussion tackled the subject of prayer in mid-Sha'ban. As for the prayer ofmid-Sha'ban, often called ṣalāh al-alfiyyah – “Prayer of One Thousand Quls” – many a scholarly objection has been levelled against it. Ibn Taymiyyah, as an example, having endorsed praying optional prayers during this night, cautioned: 'As for assembling in mosques so as to pray a fixed and defined prayer – such as congregating to offer one hundred rak'ahs of prayer that require reciting Say: “He Allāh, in One!” one thousand times during it – this is an innovation which none of the salaf ever recommended.'11
Mulla 'Ali al-Qari states about ṣalāh al-alfiyyah: 'How bizarre it is from those who have inhaled the fragrance of the knowledge of the Sunnah that they be taken in by such nonsense and pray it. This prayer was contrived in Islam after the fourth century and originated from Jerusalem.'12
In his documentation of various innovations and infringements against the Sunnah,al-Suyuti wrote: 'And this includes ṣalāh al-alfiyyah, which is prayed in the middle of Sha'ban. It is a lengthy and arduous prayer which is neither established by any [sound] hadith, nor any weak report from any of the salaf. The masses are put to trial with it, in their striving to perform it.'13
There is, I suggest, a peppering of confusion here. For some people mistakenly use the words of some jurists who have censured ṣalāh al-alfiyyah, and have taken this to mean that they object to any prayer or act of worship during the said night. In other words, they have confused between censuring a specific prayer of mid-Sha'ban and prayer in mid-Sha'ban. The first censure doesn't entail the second, as can be seen in the fatwas from Ibn Taymiyyah.
In winding up the discussion, let me gloss two more concerns related to mid-Sha'ban. The first concerns fasting the 15th day of Sha'ban, based on the hadith: 'When it is the middle night of Sha'ban, pray the night and fast the following day.'14 Al-'Iraqi is one of a number of hadith masters who have graded this hadith to be weak (da'if).15 Ibn Rajab concluded likewise,16 as did al-Mundhari.17 Majd b. Taymiyyah declared: 'The merits of the middle night of Sha'ban are related in the [hadith] narratives and salaf-reports, proving its virtue. There were those of the salaf who even singled it out with prayer. Also, fasting in Sha'ban is related in the sound reports: as for specifying the fifteenth day to fast, this has no [sound] basis to it. Rather, it is disliked to do so.'18
Other exhort fasting this day, based on the principle of fada'il al-a'mal – encouraging “virtuous deeds”. This is the rule which states that, provided a hadith is not a forgery or extremely weak, then it is permitted to put it into practice, if the deed it is encouraging already has a general basis in the shari'ah.19 In this case, they say to fast the “white [full moon] days” – the 13th, 14th and 15th of each lunar month – is encouraged in the sahih hadiths; so this forms a general basis for fasting mid-Sha'ban.
Some people believe that the yearly decree is written down during the 15th night of Sha'ban; and this is the second and last loose end that will be discussed. The yearly decree is mentioned in the verse: We sent it down on a blessed night, for We are warning. In that night every affair is wisely decided. [44:2-3] Though it is related from 'Ikrimah, an eminent scholar among the Successors, that he held the night in which every affair is widely decided to be the middle-night of Sha'ban; a second opinion is related from him which says that the night refers to laylat al-qadr – “The Night of Power”.20 This latter view is also that of the vast majority of scholars.21
Hence, Ibn al-'Arabi asserted: 'The majority of scholars hold that it refers to laylat al-qadr. Some have stated that it refers to the night of mid-Sha'ban; however, this [latter] view is futile.'22
And God knows best.
1. Ibn Majah, no.1390; Ibn Hibban, no.1980. After evaluating eight different chains for this hadith, al-Albani concludes: 'The hadith, with its collective chains of transmission, is authentic (sahih) without doubt.' Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma'arif, 1979), 3:138.
2. Ahmad, Musnad, no.6642. Al-Albani stated: 'There is no harm in using this chain as support.' Refer to: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihahah, 3:136.
3. Ibn Majah, no.1389; al-Tirmidhi, no.736. Al-Mubarakpuri wrote: 'Collectively, such hadiths constitute a proof on those who allege that nothing is confirmed with respect to the merits of the middle night of Sha'ban.' Consult: Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi Sharh Jami' al-Tirmidhi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, 1990), 3:367.
4. Ahkam al-Qur'an (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-'Arabi, n.d.), 4:1690.
5. See: Kitab al-Mawdu'at (Riyadh: Adwa al-Salaf, 1997), 2:440-45; al-Mughni 'an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 1:157; al-Hawadith wa'l-Bida' (Riyadh: Dar al-Samay'i, 2000), 3:789, respectively.
6. Approvingly cited by al-Suyuti, al-Amr bi'l-Ittiba' wa'l-Nahy 'an'l-Ibtida' (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 2001), 170.
7. Majmu' Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar 'Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 23:132.
8. ibid., 23:131.
9. Lata'if al-Ma'arif (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm & Mu'assasah al-Rayyan, 1996), 154.
10. Majmu' Fatawa, 35:233.
11. ibid., 23:131.
12. Al-Asrar al-Marfu'ah fi'l-Akhbar al-Mawdu'ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), 439-40.
13. Al-Amr bi'l-Ittiba' wa'l-Nahy 'an'l-Ibtida', 176.
14. Ibn Majah, no.1388.
15. Al-Mughni 'an Haml al-Asfar, 1:157; no.634.
16. Lata'if al-Ma'arif, 151.
17. Al-Targhib wa'l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma'arif, 2003), no.1491.
18. Cited in al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma'rifah, n.d.), 2:317.
19. This principle is discussed in al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 36; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' Fatawa, 18:65-6; al-Sakhawi, citing Ibn Hajr al-'Asqalani,al-Qawl al-Badi' (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, 1987), 215.
20. See: Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 7:336-37, where the two conflicting views ascribed to 'Ikrimah are reported.
21. Consult: al-Tabari, Jami' an Ta'wil al-Qur'an (Cairo: Dar Hijr, 2001), 21:5-6; Qurtubi,al-Jami' li Ahkam al-Qur'an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutib al-'Ilmiyyah, 1996), 16:84-5; Ibn Kathir,Tafsir Qur'an al-'Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma'rifah, 1987), 4:148; Sawi, Hashiyah al-Sawi 'ala Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, 2000), 5:261; Ibn 'Ashur, al-Tahrir wa'l-Tanwir (Beirut: Mu'assasah Tarikh al-'Arabi, 2000), 25:308.
22. Ahkam al-Qur'an, 4:1690.