Reflections on Munajat Sha'baniyyah
Mohammad Ali Shomali
This paper is based on a lecture delivered by the author in the Shrine of Lady Masumah (a) in Qum on 15th June 2013 and another in the Hawzah Ilmiyyah of England in London on 20th May 2016.
Sha’ban, the eighth month of the Islamic calendar, is considered the month of Allah’s mercy and pleasure. A prayer by Imam Ali attributed to this month, called Munajat Sha‘baniyyah, is a well-known and unique whispered prayer highly regarded by the Infallible Imams as well as mystics and philosophers. With careful attention to its meanings and advice, a person can achieve levels of perfection to reach a high status with Allah.
The following offers a glance into some of its passages along with an explanation of the states of a person who calls to Allah, the ways to address Him and ask for His help, the effects of detachment from this world, and a response to a frequently asked question regarding the attitude and condition of a supplicant.
The Month of Sha‘ban is the month of Allah’s mercy and pleasure. While addressing Allah, Imam Zayn al-Abidin said:
شعبان الّذي حففته منك بالرّحمة والرضوان
The prayer of Munajat Sha‘baniyyah, attributed to Imam Ali, is a highly regarded whispered prayer recited by all the Imams. It has been mentioned by several great scholars in their books: Sayyid ibn Tawus in his al-Iqbal, Allamah Majlisi in Bihar al-Anwar, Samahiji in Sahifat al-Alawiyyah and Shaykh Abbas Qummi in Mafatih al- Jinan.
Although the complete chain of narration of this prayer has not been noted in these works, due to its content and high regard that scholars have always had for this whispered prayer, it has not been questioned or objected to by anyone.
The late Imam Khomeini, in many places and on several occasions, had emphasised the significance of this prayer. In one of his sayings he mentions that whilst there are many important mystical poems and prayers that one can extract from the Qur’an and from the whispered prayers of the Imams, the Munajat Sha‘baniyyah is unique, and that though philosophers and mystics may be able to understand some aspects of these whispered prayers, those who truly understand them have actually achieved a high level of closeness to Allah, with a taste or experience of the prayer’s content.
Hence, a wayfarer or a traveller to Allah, who has reached at least some level of what is described in these prayers and has achieved closeness to Allah, can have some grasp of the ideas, although they certainly are not understandable by a beginner in philosophy and mysticism.
Imam Khomeini also says that Munajat Sha‘baniyyah is one of the special whispered prayers to which, if someone pays attention, performs reflection, and follows its advice, that person can reach a notable position and can achieve some levels of perfection. The late Mirza Agha Maliki Tabrizi, one of the teachers of Imam Khomeini, especially in the fields of ethics and spirituality, says that Munajat Sha‘baniyyah is a well-known whispered prayer, and that ‘It contains a wealth of knowledge.’1
The prayer contains the etiquettes and manners of beseeching Allah, and how one can pray and ask for forgiveness from Him. Tabrizi then refers to a scholar, without mentioning his name, who wrote a commentary on some parts of the prayer. Subsequently, the late Agha Buzurg Tehrani mentions a commentary on the passage:
اِلـهي هَبْ لي كَمالَ الانْقِطاعِ اِلَيْكَ
by the late Muhammad Kadhim Husayn Rashti. Furthermore, Imam Khomeini had asked some great scholars to comment on it, and two of his students – Ayatullah Mazahiri and Ayatullah Muhammadi Gilani – have indeed produced commentaries on this prayer.
Therefore, it is a very special gift from amongst the jewels and treasures of the Ahlul Bayt, and I wish now to reflect on some of its passages so that we may understand it, as well as other whispered prayers recited by the Prophet’s household.
The prayer commences with the invocation of salawat – or sending blessings – upon the Prophet and his pure and immaculate household.
اَللّـهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلى مُحَمَّد وَآلِ مُحَمَّد
In Islam, it is an established etiquette that supplications and prayers should begin and end with this invocation. This is because this invocation is always accepted by Allah. When our prayers begin and end with this, then from cover to cover we have achieved His acceptance, and therefore it is unlikely that what is in between these two, i.e. our desires and wishes, will not be accepted.
وَاسْمَعْ دُعائي اِذا دَعَوْتُكَ، وَاْسمَعْ نِدائي اِذا نادَيْتُكَ، وَاَقْبِلْ عَليَّ اِذا ناجَيْتُكَ
and attend to me when I whisper to You.
In my view, this portion of the prayer refers to three possible states of a person who calls to Allah, and each is accompanied by a suitable type of calling:
1. The caller is at a distance from Allah: the nature of calling is nida’ (a call from a distance).
2. The caller is near to Allah: the nature of calling is du’a (a call from relatively near).
3. The caller is very close, almost able to ‘touch’ Allah: the nature of calling is munajat (a whisper, from mouth to ear).
These three states are dependent on the condition of the caller to Allah, and not on Allah. Allah is constant, He is always as He is, but His servants and creation experience different levels of closeness, and this affects the way they address Him. Prophet Musa once asked Allah: “Are You close so that I whisper to You, or far so that I call You?” Allah replied: “I am sitting next to the one who remembers Me”.
From this we understand that as He is always close and sits next to those who remember Him, there is no need even to call Him, if people remember Him. Therefore, we have different ways to address Allah depending on our own condition. Nevertheless, in all three we want His attention, His answer, and His acceptance.
This passage implores Allah to listen to us when we call Him, and to allow us to restore our connection with Him if we have lost touch with Him, whether we call Him from afar or from close by. And once we do this, then we are desperate for Him to come to us, because one that comes to us has surely heard us.
فَقَدْ هَرَبْتُ اِلَيْكَ، وَوَقَفْتُ بَيْنَ يَدَيكَ
The one who recites this is telling Allah that he has escaped from everything other than Him, despite being faced with challenges and enemies. He has managed to detach himself from everything and approach Allah. This is like a person chased by thieves or murderers and escapes, and finds a good person and appeals to their help. The expression is one of desperation and need.
The good thing is that this person has at least recognised that Allah is the one he needs, and not anything else. At times, we can be tempted to run towards non-Godly things. But in this prayer we realise that other things are obstacles, and that refuge is only with Allah.
Now that we have reached Him, we ask for His help. When we go to a person who can offer refuge, then the important step is to reach that person. For an ill person it could be a hospital; for a hungry person it is to reach someone who has food.
We are beseeching Allah, saying ‘Now that I am here, You help me. I have done my part by coming to You, now it is Your turn to help me; it was my job to run away and find You, now it is Your turn to fulfil my requirements.’
Sometimes, when people stand before a helper, a guide, or an alim, they stand in a very relaxed manner, almost as if they do not really need him, and in a way that suggests they have only come to him as a matter of formality. They approach with the outer appearance of need without truly meaning it.
They approach a doctor, although internally believing themselves to be fine and healthy. But with Allah, when we go to Him and stand before Him, we must know and show we are absolutely desperate and in complete need. There should be no feeling of being relaxed.
In other words, I am completely needy towards You. A mustakin is a stronger term than miskin, which is a person whose need made him unable to move and completely desperate. However, a mustakin is needier than this.
We say: ‘O Allah, I have exhausted everything and somehow I have managed to reach here and cannot go anywhere else, not even a step further. I have exhausted everything I have, and I have run out of power and energy to go anywhere else.
مُتَضرِّعاً اِلَيْكَ، راجِياً لِما لَدَيْكَ ثَوابي
In other words, I humbly beseech you to help me and I know you have everything I need. I have not come to You by chance or accident. I know that I am in the right place and that You have whatever I need. I have utmost hope in Your reward.
وَتَعْلَمُ ما في نَفْسي
As I stand before You, I am aware that You know everything about me. You know my hidden and unhidden needs; You know how desperate I am and how I suffer, and nothing is hidden from You.
وَتَخْبُرُ حاجَتي، وَتَعْرِفُ ضَميري
The Qur’an says:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اسْتَجِيبُوا لِلَّهِ وَلِلرَّسُولِ إِذَا دَعَاكُمْ لِمَا يُحْيِيكُمْ ۖ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَحُولُ بَيْنَ الْمَرْءِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَأَنَّهُ إِلَيْهِ تُحْشَرُونَ
Allah knows us extremely well. At times, it may take a person hours or even days to reflect and identify what is going on in his heart, but Allah already knows this:
وَلا يَخْفى عَلَيْكَ اَمْرُ مُنْقَلَبي وَمَثْوايَ
Such is the extent of Allah’s knowledge, that He knows even our futures, in this world and the Hereafter. We say to Him: ‘In this world of changes and transformation, You know everything, even death and the Hereafter, but I have no clue about these matters. I am unsure even about my next day or next moment.’
Allah is aware of our ultimate end, the difficult stations of the Hereafter that we must traverse, and our state before death, at death, before resurrection, at resurrection, and after resurrection. He knows everything, and so He knows our needs as well, more than we do.
وَما اُريدُ اَنْ اُبْدِئَ بِهِ مِنْ مَنْطِقي
In other words, ‘O Allah! You know what I am going to say, and what I am about to disclose and say to You.’
Even though He knows what we are about to say, we should not think therefore that there is no need for us to say it. It is a matter of etiquette and politeness to mention our requests and needs.
We should not think that because Allah knows everything there is no need to ask Him. Indeed, some people who have attained a very high station and have incredible trust in Him (tawakkul) may display this special position by not mentioning their requests – such as the great Prophet Ibrahim – but this is not applicable to the vast majority of people.
We must always ask and mention our needs verbally, and this is a matter of etiquette and showing that we are not lazy.
واَتَفَوَّهُ بِهِ مِنْ طَلِبَتي، وَاَرْجُوهُ لِعاقِبَتي
، وَقَدْ جَرَتْ مَقاديرُكَ عَليَّ يا سَيِّدي فيما يَكُونُ مِنّي اِلى آخِرِ عُمْري مِنْ سَريرَتي وَعَلانِيَتي،
This is a very important sentence, and must not be misunderstood. In this excerpt, we say to Allah: ‘I know Your measures have embraced me and will apply to me till the end of my life. Nothing about my hidden and public aspects of life are outside Your decisions, Your will, and Your decree, as everything is covered by Your decree.’
This does not mean Islam believes in predestination, and that things are fixed in a way that they cannot be changed. Rather, it is a confession: ‘I know that my entire life and all of my affairs are totally covered and embraced by Your plans. You are the Lord, on Whose will and decision every aspect of my life hangs.
In this way, I have not come to a stranger who is not in charge of my affairs; You know everything about me and You are in charge of everything to do with me. I have certainly come to the right place and I am addressing the right person. Everything that will happen to me until the end of my life is part of Your plan for me and for all human beings. Hence, I cannot ask anyone else to change my destiny other than You.’
Therefore, we utter this phrase not in a sense of predestination that allows no change, but with the full recognition that He has a plan that we want to fall into. Ultimately, the direction we follow is up to us.
وَبِيَدِكَ لا بِيَدِ غَيْرِكَ زِيادَتي وَنَقْصي وَنَفْعي وَضرّي
my benefit and my loss.
In other words, ‘Whilst I know that my destiny is not fixed and that it can be changed, I also know that the source of change is You, and it can only happen by Your hand. You can change me accordingly.’
Such a belief gives us great hope that it is never too late to change. He can bring interests and benefits for us, or He can let us suffer. He can add or take away his blessings.
اِلـهي اِنْ حَرَمْتَني فَمَنْ ذَا الَّذي يَرْزُقُني، وَاِنْ خَذَلْتَني فَمَنْ ذَا الَّذي يَنْصُرُني
and if you disregard me then who can help me?
O Allah if You deprive me and disregard me in any way, then who else can provide me with what I need?’ Sustenance from Allah can be of many types. It can be physical, spiritual, and psychological; it can be to do with health, progress, food, medicine, water, knowledge, and wisdom. In short, it is anything that contributes to our success. In this passage we recognise that only He is the giver of sustenance.
Furthermore, the prayer states that if Allah forsakes someone, then none else can help. No one would dare to interfere, and none has the power to enact any change. When a powerful ruler, for example, decrees that a person should not be helped under any circumstance, then others would not dare to come and help.
We recognise that there is no other that has independent power and can come and help once He has decided that a person cannot be helped. Therefore, the angels, prophets, imams, etc., cannot help us if Allah has decided not to help us.
اِلـهي اَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ غَضَبِكَ.
‘Now that I have realised and have stated that everything is reliant upon You, and that I am in such a desperate situation and completely dependent upon You, what worries me is if You become angry with me and not satisfied with me, what will I do?’
We need our helper and the one who provides us with our sustenance and refuge to be happy with us, but if He is angry then we will be in great trouble. We can incur His anger by insulting Him or those close to Him. And if Allah chooses to declare us as
His enemies then there is no way for us to receive help from elsewhere.
Therefore, in this part of the prayer, we seek refuge in Him from His anger, which is incurred through a person’s own immoral performance and behaviour, and is not incurred without reason.
Anger can come and go. But the term hulul refers to something that is well-established and settled. At times, through certain sins and sustained disobedience, Allah’s displeasure can become deep and cannot be resolved quickly. Hence, we seek refuge from His well- established anger.
اِلـهي اِنْ كُنْتُ غَيْرَ مُسْتأهِل لِرَحْمَتِكَ فَاَنْتَ اَهْلٌ اَنْ تَجُودَ عَليَّ بِفَضْلِ سَعَتِكَ
You are suited to be generous to me through the grace of Your plenty.
At times we are given instructions that if we are to do certain acts then we will receive certain rewards. Some people have managed to perform good, and in return Allah gives them His mercy. But I? I have done nothing to receive the mercy of Allah, as far as I am concerned.
Hence, we state, ‘O Allah, if you do not give me then I cannot blame You. If I had done something of worth then I could have called on it to appeal to Your mercy, but alas I do not have anything like this. I know I am not qualified, but I am still hopeful, because for me to receive Your mercy I am not only reliant upon my qualifications, but I know You also have qualifications. I have wasted mine, but what about You? One of these qualities of Yours is to give mercy to those who do not deserve it.
When Allah created us, had we done anything to deserve this? When He guides us, is it because we deserve it? Regarding all of the bounties that He bestows upon us, is it due to our deservedness? Nay, it is due to His qualities and not ours. Hence, even though I am not qualified, I still harbour hope due to Your qualities.
O Allah, You and Your qualities is why You should give me Your mercy. For You, it is natural and expected – compatible with Your nature. For people to demand and deserve mercy is not certain; some may deserve it and some may not. My situation is so bad that I know I do not deserve it, as I have not done enough to earn it; but I know you have such good qualities and characteristics that You give mercy to those that do not deserve it, and in this way You keep the channel open between You and Your creation.
Let us reflect on another passage of this prayer, beginning with:
اِلـهي هَبْ لي كَمالَ الانْقِطاعِ اِلَيْكَ
Our problem is that we, claiming to be believers (mu’mineen), who believe in Allah, are still attached to many things rendering us not truly monotheistic. We believe in Allah while at same time think people or material techniques we use are independent of Allah. Many of us think that our success comes either from Allah or from the various worldly means. There is a kind of polytheism (shirk) that unfortunately exists in the minds of many believers:
وَمَا يُؤْمِنُ أَكْثَرُهُمْ بِاللَّهِ إِلَّا وَهُمْ مُشْرِكُونَ
The majority of the believers are in a sense suffering from hidden polytheism and this is caused by giving independent positions to creatures of Allah, such as our own efforts, skills, and talents. We think our success will come through the efforts of our mother, father, tribe, party, community, government, doctor, boss, and so forth, and hence we have attachment to many things alongside Allah; we also have an attachment to Allah, but it is mostly in a polytheistic way.
At this point in this munajat we ask Allah to give us complete detachment from everything other than Him. This is not in the sense that we forget, neglect, or fail to properly use other things, or neglect them, or that we live in a cave, but in the sense that we do not put hope and trust in them, and that our hope and trust remains only in Allah.
So, we continue to act and behave as reasonable people act, and we do not ignore worldly means and the cause and effect system of the world, but neither do we place our hope and trust in them.
Muslims are to strive for excellence. They are to be the best they can in any field they are employed in, whether it be farming, constructing, business dealing, researching, or parenting. We must try to use all the techniques available to us, employ the best technology, methods, plans, while simultaneously doing this whilst knowing clearly that this will not guarantee our success; Our success rests only in Allah. We must not even have trust in our own works, prayer, fasting, or public service.
Indeed, we must not have trust in our own righteous deeds, if there are any, or in our good qualities, if there are any good qualities. We should even not have trust in the Ahl al-Bayt as independent from Allah. Our trust is in our Lord, Allah, and this is the true meaning of:
اِلـهي هَبْ لي كَمالَ الانْقِطاعِ اِلَيْكَ
Therefore, we must begin to detach ourselves from what is bad, and then from what is neutral, and then from what is good, and then from what is holy. This is a process of refinement, and anything other than Allah should be left aside. This is pure monotheism (tawhid), to have our hope only fixed on Allah.
Once this is achieved, we can proceed and ask for what is mentioned in the next line, because there is a connection between the first sentence and second sentence.
Once we are detached from everything, we will no longer be interested in other things. Hence, we first require a proper orientation. Whenever you want to see something, you will require a proper orientation to face the right direction to see that thing. For something physical, a physical orientation is required, and for something spiritual, a proper spiritual orientation is required, which is measured by the orientation of the heart.
Therefore we need to ask: what is filling our heart? What is giving it energy? What is making it busy and preoccupied? For what is the heart yearning? That will allow us to understand the orientation of the heart. Hence, we ask Allah to illuminate the eyes of our hearts:
وَاَنِرْ اَبْصارَ قُلُوبِنا بِضِياءِ نَظَرِها اِلَيْكَ
Our eyes are too little to enable us to look at Allah, but there are eyes of the heart that are capable of seeing Him, because this heart is the best thing we have, with unlimited capacity, given to us by Allah, in which He has called His spirit:
فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ
Therefore, this unlimited capacity of the heart renders it capable of looking at Allah. Of course, we cannot contain Him or claim to understand everything about Him, but at least we can have immediate and direct encounter with Him. Anything other than this would be through something else, but it is through the eyes of the heart that you can come to a direct encounter with Allah.
In a physical sense, we require sunlight, electric light, or a candle, etc, so as to look at one another. But to look at Allah, we do not require external light; the light is in Allah himself. We need to look at Him, and His light will help us to see Him.
وَاَنِرْ اَبْصارَ قُلُوبِنا بِضِياءِ نَظَرِها اِلَيْكَ
By looking at God, our eyes would have light to look at Him. Hence, it is wrong to think there is anything else able to help us in this process. Thinking this way is a sign of not having progressed from the stage of:
اِلـهي هَبْ لي كَمالَ الانْقِطاعِ اِلَيْكَ
But if we reach the stage of kamal al-inqita then the light of looking at Allah should come from Allah Himself and not from anything other than Him. Therefore, we say:
وَاَنِرْ اَبْصارَ قُلُوبِنا
And the way this is done is:
بِضِياءِ نَظَرِها اِلَيْكَ
Reflecting on this prayer and other prayers, a question may arise: why is it that most of the time the end results are asked from God, instead of asking Him to help us in our pursuit of those goals? For example, why do we ask God for complete detachment instead of asking Him to help us detach ourselves from anything other than Him? To answer this question we make few points:
First of all, we should remember that the supplications shared by the Ahlul Bayt are for hardworking people, and not for people who merely pray without putting the effort. Supplications are for those who dedicate their lives to pursuing perfection and nearness to Allah.
These are the prayers of a mujahid and a salik, someone who is struggling in his journey to Allah. It is established that whatever these people ask for is what they have dedicated their lives to.
It does not make sense for a person who is not accustomed to doing any kind of exercise and activity to say that he wants to win the world championship of a particular sport. However, if this is said by a person doing everything possible in the process of training and practicing it would make sense.
The supplicant knows he has to work hard, and in fact already has, but he is also aware that he should not rely on his own efforts. It could be that a person prepares all the ground work and all the prerequisites, but the end result still does not materialise. It could be that we go to the best doctor for the best medicine, but the healing (shifa) only comes from Allah. It is not sufficient in order to be healed that we merely go to the best doctor and take the best medicine.
A person may go to the best school and attend the best hawza and learn from the best teachers, he may study hard and be dedicated, but knowledge is ultimately a gift from Allah; it is not necessarily guaranteed by having the best processes. The end result comes from Him.
The second point is that we do not want to restrict Allah to giving us what we want. Rather, we are to try our hardest, knowing that it could be that Allah will grant us in another way. For example, you may work hard to obtain sustenance (rizq), and you cannot say that you will ask Allah without making any efforts.
Therefore, you start a business or become employed. But, it could be that Allah sends your sustenance through a gift, though it is not right that you wait for the gift and not do anything, and expect Allah to grant you sustenance directly. You cannot restrict Allah’s method of granting sustenance and insist that He only gives from your business or salary.2
In any case, we should not tell Allah to give us knowledge e.g. through attending classes, or to give us sustenance through a certain way, or to grant us nearness to Him through a particular action only; rather, we should request Him to grant us through any way that He sees fit.
The third point is that on the spiritual journey it seems that to some extent it is the individual servant who is initially moving with the help of Allah, and with His guidance and assistance. It is for this reason that we tend to use ism al-fa’il, for example, we say mukhlis (one who is trying to purify himself, or his actions, or his intentions), or for example we say mutaqarrib and mutatahhir.
But then there comes a stage after which it is only Allah who is the cause of our advancement. At that stage we have exhausted all our efforts and we are like a person who has travelled hard but has then lost his energy and falls down.
But then the beloved comes along and takes him to Himself. It is at this point that we use the term mukhlas – one who has been purified by Allah, but who has not started from scratch; rather, he has expended his effort and has exhausted himself. A muqarrab is different to a mutaqarrib as a mutahhar is different from a mutatahhir. For example, Allah says:
إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنْكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا
That is a very high stage. It is at this point that there is no longer a process to go through; as such a person has done everything they can, and all their energies and talents have been used. It is from that point that Allah takes us towards Himself.
Perhaps it is also a matter of being very much attracted to Allah that when a lover of Allah is talking to Him while knowing that everything is in His hands, he completely forgets himself and his efforts. He just asks Allah, because it would be impolite to think of yourself and your efforts. You should not say things like ‘I am also learning’ and ‘I am also doing something’ and ‘I am also doing ‘ibadat so just help me to reach the result’; no, you must become totally forgetful of yourself and only think of Allah and what He has.
Hence, there are different reasons as to why a person who does this kind of ‘ibadah and recites this kind of munajat would be more focused on the end result and on the being who has the end result.
- 1. فيه علوم جماً
- 2. There is an idea – and perhaps there is a degree of wisdom in this – that those people who have fixed salaries have somehow closed the gates of rizq for themselves, because Allah is not able to give them rizq as they have signed a contract for a fixed salary. Whereas those who have their own business, there is more chance for their rizq to come to them, because in a business, Allah can send more clients. But if a person is employed then somehow he has narrowed down the possibilities for his rizq. I am not saying that this is 100% accurate, because Allah can always send rizq in different ways, but there is a degree of truth in it. When you become employed you are saying, “This is what I am going to get.” But a tradesman, farmer, shopkeeper, etc., can always ask Allah for rizq because they know that nothing is guaranteed, though it be a little money. Hence, in trade and business there is a risk of having nothing, but then there is the scope of having more opportunities.