Sha`ban is a month of good that introduces the great month of Ramadan. The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to fast voluntarily during this month more so than in any other month.
One of the motivations for that, as we will mention below, is that Sha`ban is the month during which the deeds performed by the servant ascend to God. What follows is a discussion around fasting during the month of Sha`ban.
Usamah ibn Zayd relates: “The Prophet used to fast so many days in succession that we said, ‘He will never break his fast.’ At other times he would go without fasting for so long until we said, ‘He will never again fast;’ except for two days, which he would fast even if they occurred during the times he was not fasting consecutive days. Furthermore, he would not fast in any month as many days as he fasted during Sha`ban.
I said: ‘O Messenger of God! Sometimes you fast so much it is as if you will never break your fast, at other times you leave fasting for such a long stint it is as if you will never again fast (voluntarily); except for two days that you always fast.’ He asked: ‘Which two days are those?’ I replied: ‘Monday and Thursday.’ The Prophet said: ‘Those are two days in which the deeds are presented to the Lord of the Worlds. I love that my deeds are presented while I am fasting.’ I said: ‘I do not see you fasting in any month like you fast during Sha`ban.’ The Prophet said: “That is a month occurring between Rajab and Ramadan that many people neglect. It is a month in which the deeds ascend to the Lord of the worlds, be He Mighty and Majesty, and I love for my deeds to ascend while I am fasting.” (Ahmad and An-Nasa’i)
The narrations conveying this meaning are numerous. Among the important points conveyed by the tradition narrated by Usamah (may God be pleased with him) is that the Prophet frequently fasted during Sha`ban, as is supported by a tradition mentioned by `A’ishah (may God be pleased with her). She said: “I did not see the Messenger of God fast any month in its entirety except Ramadan, and I did not see him fast as frequently in any other month as he did during Sha’ban.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Among the reasons for that, as mentioned in the initial tradition, is that Sha`ban is the month in which the deeds done throughout the year ascend to God. The Prophet, peace upon him, wished for his deeds to ascend while he was fasting. This should be sufficient motivation for all of us to fast some days of this month. Fasting purifies us of the physical dross that collects in our system and makes our spiritual faculties sharper. What could be a better state could we be in as our deeds are ascending to our Lord? However, there are other reasons to fast during this month, which we will present shortly.
Islam & Moderation
Another very important point that we can gain from these narrations is that the Prophet did not fast perpetually, even though it would not have weakened him to do so. In this is an important lesson for us. We should balance between the days that we fast and the days that we refrain from fasting. Ibn Rajab mentions many reasons for this. Among them are the following:
1- For many people, excessive fasting leads to languidness that in turn makes it difficult for them to supplicate or invoke God or to undertake intense study. All four of the Sunni Imams mention that studying sacred knowledge is better than supererogatory prayers, and that supererogatory prayers are better than voluntary fasting. Hence, pursuing sacred knowledge is naturally better than voluntary fasting.
2- Just as fasting may make some people languid and hence affect their worship, it may weaken them and thereby compromise their ability to provide for their families or jeopardize their ability to fully satisfy their wives. This latter meaning is implied in the saying of the Prophet: “Surely your wife has a right over you.”
3- Similarly, a person’s body has a right over him, as indicated by the Prophet’s saying: “Indeed your body has a right over you. Be sure to give everyone so deserving his right.”
4- Finally, a person’s life might be long, as indicated by the Prophet’s saying to `Abdullah ibn `Amr ibn Al-`Aas when the latter committed himself to fast every other day: “Perhaps you will live a long life”.
This means whoever commits to an overly strenuous regimen of worship during his youth might not be able to maintain that regimen during his old age. If he tries his utmost to do so he might exhaust his body.
On the other hand, if he abandons it he has left the best form of worship, that done most consistently. For this reason, the Prophet mentioned: “Undertake religious practices you can bear. I swear by God, God does not become bored with you, rather you bring boredom upon yourself”.
The important issue here is to understand that Islam does not demand that we torture our selves, and it places no virtue in doing so. When a desert Arab who had accepted Islam returned after a year’s absence to see the Prophet his entire appearance had changed to such an extent that the Prophet did not recognize him. When he finally realized who he was, the man said to him: “I have not eaten during the daytime since I entered Islam!” The Prophet asked him: “Who ordered you to torture yourself!?” (Abu Dawud)
Another point mentioned by many of the scholars in that regard is that by fasting sometimes and then going some days without fasting, we never reach a state where we totally lose our appetite for food and thereby lose the physical challenge of fasting. For this reason the Fast of David, where the worshipper fasts every other day, is considered more virtuous than the fast of the individual who fasts perpetually, as the latter eventually feels no longing to eat during the day of his fast—he might even become sick were he to eat.
Sha`ban & Good Deeds
The tradition of Usamah mentions that people’s deeds are presented to God on Mondays and Thursdays, and the Prophet loved to have his deeds presented while he was fasting. There are many narrations that affirm this reality.
Ibn Majah relates a tradition from the narrations of Abu Hurairah, where he mentions the Prophet saying: “God forgives every Muslim on Monday and Thursday, except those who have broken relations with each other. He says, ‘Leave them until they reconcile’.”
Imam Muslim mentions a similar narration from Abu Hurairah in which he mentions that the Prophet said: “The gates of Heaven are flung open on Monday and Thursday and every servant who has not ascribed partners to God is forgiven, except a man who harbors enmity against his brother. He (God) says, ’Leave these two until they makeup’”. A different version of this tradition mentions at the end of the narration: ”…and people who despise each other are left harboring their spite”.
These narrations emphasize the importance of maintaining good relations. There are other religiously significant actions where a reward is withheld from those who harbor enmity or have bad relations with their peers. Therefore, it is extremely important that we work to maintain good relations with each other, and avoid petty bickering. The opportunity to do much good for our souls is missed when we fail to maintain good relations with each other.
The presentation of people’s deeds mentioned in these narrations is a specific one that occurs on these particular days. It does not contradict the general presentation that occurs on a daily basis, as related in the following tradition: “By night and by day the angels follow each other in visiting you. They gather (before God) at the time of the morning and evening prayers. God asks those who spent the night among you, and He knows best the answer, ‘In what state did you leave my servants?’ They say, ‘We came to them while they were praying, and we departed from them while they were praying.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
There are other reasons we are encouraged to fast in Sha`ban, Ibn Rajab mentions a few. Among them, in summary:
1- People tend to neglect Sha`ban as it occurs between Rajab, one of the sacred months, and Ramadan, the great month of fasting and Qur’an. Therefore, we are encouraged to fast it by way of reviving it and not neglecting it.
2- Fasting during it is easier to hide. All observant Muslims are fasting in Ramadan, and many place great emphasis on fasting during Rajab. Therefore, those who fast Sha`ban are doing so against the expectations of most people and can therefore more easily hide the fact that they are fasting.
There is great virtue, under normal circumstances in hiding our voluntary acts. One anecdote in this regard mentions a man who fasted voluntarily for forty years without anyone knowing it, even his family. Every morning he would leave home with two loaves of bread in his hand. He would give them away in charity. His family thought that he was eating them, and the people in the marketplace where he worked thought that he was selling them.
3- A third reason is related to the previous one. Because many people are fasting during Ramadan and Rajab, it is easier to fast then as large groups engaging in a particular act of worship make it easier for an individual to undertake that act. Hence, the increased difficulty of fasting during Sha`ban led the Prophet to place great emphasis on it.
In conclusion, we encourage everyone able to do so to fast as much as possible during this month. By so doing we will revive the Sunnah of our Prophet and bring much good to our souls and to our communities.
May everyone be blessed to use these days as a preparation for the great month of Ramadan, and may our deeds ascend to God while we are in the very best spiritual state.