I have very vivid memories of the things we did on the 15th of Sha’ban growing up – we threw down hard on Shabaan, with extra ibadat (worship), nafil (extra) prayers and of course fatiha (reciting prayers over some food as an offering of blessings, not to be confused with the Al-Fatiha – the first surah in the Quran). I never questioned where what we did fell in the realm of Islamic practices. My parents did these things on this date and as their kids, we followed along.
Shabaan is the eighth month of the Islamic calendar and falls right before Ramadan. It’s a month where Muslims are recommended to prepare for the fasts of Ramadan by doing extra fasting (but not during the last two weeks of the month), catching up on fasts missed during the last Ramadan (if they were not made up already) and figuring out what one wants to get out of Ramadan and how to do that.
The middle of Shabaan – the 15th– is considered by many Muslims to be an important day. Known as “Shab-e-Barat” in South Asian countries, it’s the “night of deliverance,” or the “night of records.” Various hadith (verified sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) state that on this night a person’s good and bad deeds for the previous year are accounted for, and it is a time when one must reflect upon his sins and repent and resolve not to commit them again.
Some Muslims, in addition to making extra ibadat on this date, will also remember family and loved ones who have passed on, making du’a for their maghfirat (forgiveness from Allah and protection from Him for any wrongdoing so that they are granted their place in heaven). This is where my family’s 15th Shabaan rituals came into play.
Like I said, my parents prescribers of doing fatiha for various occasions throughout the year, the 15th of Shabaan being one of the biggest times. Every day on this date, my mother will cook some sweet (often a kheer, or rice pudding) and ladle it into 30-40 bowls. Each bowl represents a family member or someone important to my parents who had passed away – going all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his companions to recent family members.
My father would recite prayers for each bowl of ladled dessert until he had prayed for each person on his list for their maghfirat. My brothers and I would eyeball the bowls, remembering which one had represented our paternal grandmother or paternal grandfather and stake our claim to that bowl so we could eat its content.
The whole thing would take about an hour. As a little kid, I sort of dreaded the whole process, because I would have to stand alongside my brothers and parents while my father recited all his prayers. Let’s face it — an hour is a long time for a little kid to stand patiently and not fidget or make noise.
But what they taught us about how our good and bad deeds are tallied on that day and how it was a very important night to pray for forgiveness stuck with me.
Now, I’m married and a mother to three, and how we practice our Islamic faith has been an evolution of growth. I’ve studied and read on my own, taken direction from what my husband does and does not do by way of “Islamic” rituals and practices and thought a lot about how much I want to worry about the debatable details about my faith versus making sure I adhere to the major requirements – fasting, five daily prayer, giving in charity, believing in the oneness of God and performing the Hajj once in my lifetime.
Religion can be very complicated, whether Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism or so on. And so many times I’m finding that religious practices we did without question with our families growing up are now subject to intense and intimate debate, especially with everyone acting as their own personal expert via the magic of Google. Every Islamic ritual/holy day (outside of the main accepted ones) is supported or torn down by different scholars, sheikhs, Imams, muftis and muftiyas based on hadiths that are considered strong or weak.
Basically, if you want to practice a ritual, you can find support for it. If you believe a certain ritual is bid’ah (an innovation), you can find support for that. And whereas the holy significance of the occasion of Isra wal Miraj is noted in the Quran, the occasion of the 15th of Shabaan is attributed to hadith – so you can imagine the debate.
And so I sat yesterday and thought about what I wanted to tell my kids, what I wanted to do with them and teach them by example. I called mom, and of course she was preparing a dessert for the fatiha she and my dad were going to do in the evening in honor of the 15th of Shabaan. They were also fasting.
I texted my sister-in-law, who growing up also partook in extra ibadat and prayer on this day with her family. She, basically in the same boat as me, told me she and her husband had decided to explain the significance of the day to their daughters but not attach any specific rituals to it.
My mother-in-law several times has lamented to me the downside of this decision, how in not wanting to teach our children to engage in rituals or practices that are not required in Islam, we are losing our grip on the history and depth of our faith. That in carefully avoiding to engage in extra worship specifically on a particular day because it might be bid’ah or unnecessary, we are stepping away from engaging in worship outside of our five daily prayers and the fasts of Ramadan.
I ponder these points every year, especially as my children grow older and more aware of who they are as Muslims and what they believe and practice as Muslims. Kids are so impressionable and every-changing. One day my daughter makes faces at me and asks me for the millionth time “Why?” when I tell her she is too old to wear sleeveless shirts and that I am trying to ease her into modest dressing, and the next day she asks me when she’s old enough to wear the hijab (headscarf).
They are a work in progress, and I pray that my husband and I are guiding them to be good humans and good Muslims, to be cognizant of all the riches of their faith. And I know Allah knows I’m trying my best.
So last night as I put our younger two kids to bed, I told them about the significance of Shab-e-Barat and told them they should think about all the good and bad things they’ve done and try to do more good than bad, and that Allah is all-forgiving and loving. I advised them that although they don’t have to, it’s good to make extra prayers for our loved ones who have passed on as well as for ourselves.
And I did the same. And I kind of missed being a child in my parents’ home, where they made the decisions for me.